Gabe Lehner. Photo by Kristy Walker, www.studioveritephotography.com.
It's a story that's as old as music itself. Boy gets his heart broken. Boy channels his torn and frayed feelings into song. Some have done it better than others (see: Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Beck's Sea Change); some come across as self-indulgent and out of their element (Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).
In the case of Gabe Lehner, he's had to do it twice—once with his bandmate and best friend and, more recently, with a girl. A musician and producer, he's a student of the forlorn pop song and has an unhealthy obsession with The Beatles, so much so that he was known as “the crazy Beatles guy” in high school. Now 29, he's played in multiple bands during the past decade and doesn't seem to mind that no one knows who he is.
“I've been working for a long time,” Lehner says, “but it's just who I am. I'm a songwriter. Over anything else I do, over being any other thing, I call myself a songwriter—from the moment I started learning guitar when all I could do is play the E string.”
And he's created a whole lot since mastering the E, but it's more recently that he's hit a stride. In the past, he focused all his attention on one band, but he now works on four separate projects. Each is different in sound and approach, representative of both his restlessness and talent. But what's more important is that they're all pretty damn good.
“I can never just only do that,” Lehner says. “I've got to do a lot. My creative output level and my love of different genres requires me to do this.”
Things started innocently enough. In middle school in Encinitas, Lehner found his musical soulmate in Kevin Martin, and together they formed Jack the Original. Along with two other friends, they dabbled together for years, playing what they described as “piano-driven dork pop.” With artists like Ben Folds and OK GO popular at the time, Lehner says he knew they were destined for great things.
“We went from a bunch of guys trying to learn how to play guitar and playing a bunch of crappy venues to a rather legit band in San Diego, playing Casbah and Belly Up regularly. And then it all fell apart when Kevin joined Get Back Loretta and just pretty much got over our band. That was my universe; that was my world. That's what I thought my life was going to be—always thinking, ‘Oh we're gonna make it,' for, like, 10 years.”
Lehner was alone. But rather than feel sorry for himself, get a job, open a 401K and suffer all the domestic pitfalls that come with life after music, he says his creative spirit only got stronger.
“It was rough, but I knew I couldn't give up on music,” Lehner says. “People were always saying, ‘Oh well, you could go back to school if it doesn't work out.' I can't do that. I knew I had to do something.”
First came Mechanical Cats in 2007. Started when Jack the Original was still together and representing Lehner's first foray into complete creative control, it was an atmospheric mix of electro and acoustic music with his friend, Ashley Marie Mazanec, on vocals.
But it didn't stop there. Lehner also formed a folk duo called Metrofique. Singing alongside Get Back Loretta's Steven Bradford, the two recently released a debut album (Swing for Fences) of harmony-based, Beatles-inspired songs. To satisfy his more hip-hop and electronic tendencies, he also self-produced and released (for free) an entire album of Beatles remixes under the name Mr. Mustard while also teaming up with DJ OpenOptics in the group Inspired Flight. Kind of like if DJ Shadow were to team up with The Album Leaf, the latter project incorporates turntablism and sampling with live instrumentation and vocals.
But Lehner sees the many different projects not as indecisiveness and dithering but, rather, an extension of who he is now as a person and musician.
“I have put all my eggs in one basket before, and it didn't work out,” Lehner says. “I feel really, really good having my eggs in a lot of baskets right now. I miss being in a band, but the more egos or people you have to rely on and deal with, it's so crazy. I like collaborating. That works.”
He's working on a proper solo album, tentatively titled, The Slow Death of Something Beautiful. If the morose title isn't a dead giveaway, the album is the direct result of his recent breakup with a woman he'd been with for eight years. But even with a heavy heart, Lehner says life's tribulations will only continue to feed his creative energy.
“I still have so much to learn,” Lehner says. “I have so much farther I want to go. I hope every album I ever make, that I feel like the last album before it wasn't as good. I can constantly do better.” Metrofique plays with Drew Andrews, Boomsnake and Writer on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at The Casbah. Inspired Flight plays with Illuminauts and MYTH on Friday, Jan. 22, at Tin Can Ale House. www.metrofique.com, www.inspiredflightmusic.com.
Correction: The original post of this story mistakenly credited 'Kate' Walker for the photo of Gabe Lehner.