How Peter Silberman Lost His Hearing, Then Rediscovered Sound

Music Features Peter Silberman
How Peter Silberman Lost His Hearing, Then Rediscovered Sound

Peter Silberman didn’t always have to worry about his hearing. He’d been making music as The Antlers since his first self-released record in 2006, Uprooted. Over the years, his career with the Brooklyn indie-folk outfit blossomed as he added members (drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci), recorded four more albums and toured the globe. But one day in 2014, shortly after releasing his band’s most recent work, Familiars, he woke up to ear pain and extreme sound sensitivity. He couldn’t even stand to hear his own voice.

After seeking medical advice, the 30-year-old frontman was ultimately diagnosed with tinnitus (ringing in the ear), Hyperacusis (an increased sensitivity to certain frequency and volume ranges of sound) and Cochlear Hydrops (an atypical form of Meniere’s Disease). He was distraught. What does a career musician do when told that his or her hearing suddenly, without warning, has become permanently impaired? Even worse, what do they do when their own singing voice causes pain?

He had a choice: give up, or teach himself a new way to sing and play that wouldn’t aggravate his illness. Silberman chose the latter. He left Brooklyn in 2015 and retreated to a peaceful cabin in upstate New York, where he wrote his debut solo album, Impermanence, out today via Anti- Records. The title both straightforwardly deals with the idea of transition: adjusting to the new normal within his own person. “I was reading a lot of things about impermanence and trying to apply it to this situation,” he tells Paste over the phone from his new studio in Rosendale. “I was thinking about how it could be a reassuring thought that this really challenging period was going to pass. But it’s also in reference to the period before this happened, which was a period of relative stability. You can always count on change and if you ever get too comfortable.”

To that end, Impermanence features six spare, whisper-soft ballads accompanied by feathery nylon-string acoustic guitar strums. Each shows Silberman in various stages healing and acceptance, like the single “Karuna,” which has him contending with bodily breakdown: “I’m disassembling piece by piece… deteriorating, decayed, decreased…”

We called up Silberman to learn more about his solo debut. In our conversation, he brings us up to speed on the healing process, experimenting with the absence of sound on Impermanence and where he’ll take The Antlers from here.

Paste: How’s your week going?
Peter Silberman: It’s going pretty well. I’m in the studio right now and I’m getting back into some daily routines after just getting moved in. But yeah, it’s nice. It’s really cold and grey, which is good motivation to be inside and work.

Paste: I know you moved upstate, whereabouts are you?
Silberman: At the moment I’m outside of a town called Rosendale, which is about two hours from the city. I just moved into this place a couple weeks ago. Before that I was just kind of floating around, staying with friends and family and doing some sublets and stuff like that.

Paste: A lot of this album is about your dealing with hearing loss and tinnitus. When did you first realize that this was going to be a problem?
Silberman: Pretty immediately when it was all going down, which was two, no three, years ago, in 2014. Not too long after it started to go down I was like “Oh, what about music?”

Paste: Did you wake up one morning? Did it show up from out of the blue, or was it something that developed over time?
Silberman: It definitely came out of the blue, so it was a pretty sudden shift. My first considerations were “What do I do?” in the kind of general sense of asking, y’know, “How serious is this?” “Do I need to go to the doctor? Do I need to go to the hospital? What’s going on?” and then eventually, as I got a sense of what I was dealing with, came the questions of “Well, can this co-exist with music, which is such a dominant force in my life at this point?”

I think it’s probably a more widespread problem among musicians than is often talked about. I’m seeing more musicians talk about it, like y’know in this case they’ve been together for a really long time, and I think tinnitus is pretty common among those of us who have spent months on end in loud clubs and standing in front of crash cymbals and amplifiers.

Paste: When you would perform or go to shows, or just be in venues more often than not, did it ever occur to you to wear headphones, or earplugs, or something more protective?
Silberman: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the fact that [The Antlers] didn’t come off as an exceptionally loud band from an audience perspective is testament to us having really talented sound engineers working with us, and that’s a very important thing for a band, especially in our case. We were actually really loud on stage, our stage volume was very loud, and I recognized that early on and I did wear hearing protection for a little while, mostly in the ear that was facing the rest of the band. In our early days we were in sort of a triangle formation, so the left side of me was always facing Michael [Lerner] and Darby [Cicci], so for a while I did protect that ear, which is the same ear that ultimately gave me this issue. For a while after that I didn’t, and then when we went on tour for Familiars when I was in the midst of all this. I had pretty high-grade earplugs that I was wearing for every show. But it took a real incident to force me to be as diligent about this sort of stuff as I should be.

Paste: Yeah, I mean, it’s not like I ever remember to wear earplugs, even though I know that I should. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that I take my hearing for granted.
Silberman: I mean, I definitely understand not wearing earplugs. As much as I would like to encourage everyone to wear them, I have a hard enough time keeping myself accountable for it. I now have a real tangible reason to do it. The thing about earplugs is that they can be very disconnecting. Those of us who go to shows want to have an immersive experience and it’s hard to want to put on earplugs when they sort of put you at a distance from what you’re seeing, or what you’re hearing. I felt that way on stage, too. I didn’t want to wear them because I felt it disconnected me from the band and it disconnected me from the crowd and you’re just a little more trapped in your head that way.

Paste: As a child, I had to wear wax earplugs whenever I went swimming because I was so prone to Swimmer’s Ear. But the plugs would always fall out or still let tiny water droplets in, making me super-uncomfortable. So I’d take them out and ultimately get stuck with a terrible infection.
Silberman: I can definitely relate. That feeling of being separate and not really being able to understand your surroundings because you’re trying to protect your ears or your hearing is not the best feeling. I think when you’re young you just don’t want to do it, and then when you’re older you’ve got all these real reasons like, “I don’t want to be isolated from my surroundings, I want to be present” Even so, I think so much of my 20s could just be characterized with like “I know this isn’t good for me but I want to do it, so I’m going to anyway!” [Laughs.]

Paste: So at what point did you realize that you had to change the way you recorded music?
Silberman: It came out of the period of time that this condition was at its worst, where after a few silent weeks I was just thinking how to begin playing music again and the approach I took was to playing nylon-string guitar and singing and playing really quiet. More than the tinnitus, the sensitivity to sound was the real problem. That was what made it so difficult to play. If it was just tinnitus — tinnitus is rough, it’s debilitating, but you can still play music with really terrible tinnitus. But if sound causes you physical and psychological pain, then it’s really challenging to find a way to play music, and in my case as a singer, the sound of my own singing voice was painful, my talking voice as well. It was a matter of “How do I dip my toes in this again?” and playing as quietly as possible became the challenge, like right on the verge of completely silent.

As I started doing that, I was like, “Oh! This is kind of an interesting sound, kind of an interesting style. I wonder where I could go with this.” And I was writing about what was happening at the time, just what was happening in my mind, just keeping a regular journal of the experience. I knew that in the best-case scenario where it cleared up and I recovered from it I was going to want to have this record of what that experience was like, and what my mind was doing while that was happening. So a lot of the subject matter for the record came out of that time. Some it had to do with the incident specifically, and then some of it had to do more with the nature of perception and the nature of reality and what happens when that changes and what happens when that shifts and your perceptions begin to recalibrate.

Paste: For how long did you actually lose your hearing?
Silberman: The tinnitus died down to a manageable level. “Hyperacusis” is the name for the sensitivity aspect of it, and that also died down to a manageable level for the most part. I can’t really sustain the same environments that I used to, not without earplugs. It’s a form of Meniere’s Syndrome called “cochlear hydrops” which can develop into full-blown Meniere’s.

Paste: So, no more living in New York City, naturally.
Silberman: It’s definitely not the best place to be under those conditions. But that’s where I was when it was happening, so, y’know, I wore my earplugs and went outside and had that experience that we were talking about where you feel disconnected and you can’t quite understand other people except it’s just like on the street or in a restaurant, or whatever. Then eventually some other circumstances came together that gave me an opportunity to get out. I had wanted to get out for a few different reasons, it just seemed like it was time. But I’m still there every so often, and the choice to be upstate is partially so that I can retain my relationship with the city.

Paste: Did any performers influence the quiet style of Impermanence?
Silberman: Yeah, I’d say so. I’ve been listening to a lot of those artists for a long time. A band like Low, for example. I’ve loved them for a really long time, and I think as I’ve been making this transition they’ve been an example of an artist where I see like, “Oh, it can be done!”

I don’t know if it was pressure from outside or if it was pressure that I was applying on myself internally, but you get this idea that being in a band or being a musician. It’s stupid stuff that you constantly have to remind yourself of, but there’s this feeling that it needs to be loud, it needs to be upbeat, it needs to be any number of factors that don’t really have anything to do with whether or not something is successful. And I mean successful in the creative sense, not necessarily the commercial sense. Y’know, if something works, and if it works it works and it doesn’t matter if it’s fast, slow, happy, sad, whatever.

Paste: Yeah, I mean, volume is not a barometer of musical success. Look at ambient and minimal composers like Philip Glass and John Cage.
Silberman: Yeah definitely, and I was trying to inject some of that into this and let space and let silence be its own voice and its own kind of arrangement. It’s a fun exercise. It definitely requires like suppressing instincts towards using up all the space, filling everything in.

Paste: Was there any conscious decision there to have Impermanence comprise six tracks?
Silberman: Well, initially the record was going to be a lot longer. It was going to be probably three times as long and I ended up cutting it way down. Partly because I was feeling like because of the pace and because of the space and the ideas in it, I really didn’t want to pack so much in there. I thought that even as it was with the six tracks there was plenty to work with and that I was hungry for a shorter album as well, just based on how my listening experiences have been lately. I’m either listening to a three-hour long playlist or something and not listening to it fully engaged from start to finish but kind of have it on as wallpaper, or if it is something I’m listening to intensely it’s pretty short, somewhere around the 30-minute to 40-minute range. Because there was this idea to have this record by cyclical and circular, I felt like it needed to end before it felt like it was totally over.

Paste: Right. It doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome.
Silberman: That’s good because that’s like the last thing you want. Then if there are valuable ideas in there, they get lost because you lose the will to follow it.

Paste: Exactly. Given your still-ongoing situation, where do you see taking The Antlers from here?
Silberman: As it relates to The Antlers, it’s really hard to say at this moment. We’re just in a big period of flux right now with everybody following individual paths and resettling. On the other side of that, I think it will be easier to make judgments about that once I’m on the other side of this record, too, I think it’ll be easier to have a sense of where that will go. Right now it’s feeling good to be trying new things. Instead of funneling all of my writing through one project, [I’m] applying it in different arenas.

This is a record I feel like I needed to make and had wanted to make for quite a while, even though I didn’t know what it was going to sound like when I first had ideas about it. It just felt necessary for me. From here [my solo work] is going to be much more collaborative, musically speaking. I’ll probably follow through on a lot of collaborations that I haven’t been able to give the time they deserve. I see myself going there next, into projects where I’m not so central to it.

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