“There’s definitely a theme [to the record] and the theme is the title,” explains Peter Silberman over tea at Physical Graffitea in the East Village. “It revolves around this idea of everything being temporary and applying that to almost everything and seeing if that’s a workable worldview.” While Silberman gained recognition over the past 11 years as frontman of indie-rock outfit The Antlers, this time around, he’s continued his emotional songwriting journey on his own.
Today the 30-year-old singer-songwriter releases his debut solo album Impermanence — a collection of songs that philosophically explore how situations can be temporary, but painful all the same. In Silberman’s case, he developed a hearing impairment — tinnitus — that created a temporary total hearing loss in one ear a few years back; he thought it would be the end of the musical career he’d worked so hard to build.
About a year ago, he retreated to upstate New York from Brooklyn to find space, and most importantly, quiet. His tinnitus began to subside. As a result, he began to reintroduce sound into his world, but in a different way, gravitating towards more experimental, ambient music. It was that kind of simplicity that brought him back to making music, now, in a different way. Impermanence follows Silberman’s path of healing, focusing on his moments of pain and his moments of peace. Just as the title suggests, they were both temporary. Silberman’s loss of hearing made him see the world in another way, and Impermanence is a glimpse inside his mind.
Silberman talked to The Village Voice about his first solo LP, what losing his hearing was like and why space is so important to him.
Village Voice: What made you want to write a solo record?
It’s kind of hard to say. I don’t think when the ideas first started happening that I was necessarily thinking to myself: ‘this is a solo record.’ At the really early stages of writing, ideas are happening, and I’m just capturing them somehow and just storing them. With the band, I wouldn’t go too far into those ideas before bringing them to the group and us playing over them, looping them, jamming them out and working through them. For these songs, I felt a strong urge to keep them in and not share them with anybody. It turned into a project that I just found myself working on by myself. Over time they became so developed that they didn’t feel appropriate in the band context.
You started to have hearing issues. How did that impact your music and you personally?
With my music, I think I was a bit resistant to accept that my relationship to sound had changed. It was completely undeniable, but there was not a lot I could do about it. I went out on a year and a half of The Antlers touring after this hearing incident. Over the course of that, I realized I was aggravating the condition. As the tour ended, I decided I needed to take better care of my hearing and not be assaulted on a nightly basis. The music I started listening to is a lot less chaotic and a lot less abrasive. I basically accepted that volume didn’t necessarily equal intensity. When I accepted that, I think a lot changed. I realized that really quiet, spacious music can be more intense than a barrage of noise.
Do you have to use a hearing aid?
No. My hearing returned. I can hear well at this point — almost too well. It’s kind of like a sensitivity to sound. What happened early on with my situation and is true to some extent is that if I heard a fire truck it would make me physically recoil without thinking about it. It has something to do with the way the brain responds to things it perceives as threatening, harmful or painful.
It’s made me somewhat of a different musician. I think I was headed in that direction anyway, and this kind of pushed me further. Then it became a creative challenge of parameters, and I always really liked parameters for projects. I used to think that I wanted absolute, open freedom to make anything and everything, and I find when I find I give myself parameters, it really helps the process. In this case, this record is just guitar and vocals. It was like, what can you do with very few tools?
What was the most emotionally-challenging song for you to write on the record?
They were all emotionally challenging, but it had less to do with overcoming feelings than it was solving a puzzle: figuring out how it was I actually felt about something. In that way, they were all very difficult because the whole thing is a puzzle. If I’m starting out with the idea that everything is temporary, then I have to dissect every line I’m working with and say, ‘does that support this?’ and why, or is there an exception to impermanence. I adopted this as my own personal philosophy or way of looking at the world. It’s a bit of a trap. I think impermanence is really tied to attachment, and if you get too attached to an idea, you’re neglecting to realize that ideas are impermanent too. Nothing is that fixed. It’s been an interesting process having been some time since the record has been finished where I ask myself, ‘is this still how I think?’ Is the impermanence impermanent too?
Are you working on new Antlers music?
It’s on hold. Right now [my record] is my primary focus. I have other projects I’m working on, but none of them are an Antlers record yet. Right now, the way they exist are loose collaborations with friends: friends I get together with and play music. We hang out and make things. For a lot of us, we have our main endeavors that thoroughly exhaust us. What’s great is these are projects for fun, if we put them out into the world, they change. I love doing the work that I do, but it’s certainly not always fun, and it’s my ego battle in public. It’s creatively satisfying, but it’s a big mess in my head too.