Sasha Geffen

Peter Silberman Is Digging For Silence

How The Antlers frontman reinvented his music after a devastating hearing loss

One morning in 2014, Peter Silberman woke to a roaring in his left ear. Sounds, even the soft ones, suddenly hurt; he could barely stand to hear his own voice. Such a sudden shift in sensory experience would be troubling for anyone, but Silberman found himself facing an especially steep challenge. He had just released a new album with his band The Antlers, and was scheduled to go on tour, give interviews, and run through the usual promotional circuit as the group's lead singer.

“I was like, ‘Oh shit, we have a six-week tour coming up and two weeks of rehearsals. I'm not sure I'm ever going to be able to sing again or play music again,’” he tells me at the bar of a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a few blocks from the apartment where he'll be performing later. “And then at the slightest decrease of [the pain], I was like, ‘OK, I guess I gotta get back in the saddle and see if it's possible and inch my way toward it. If I stretch this threshold a little bit every day, maybe by the time we leave I'll be in OK shape to do it.’”

So, against the recommendations of doctors, he white-knuckled his way through his new condition and went ahead with the tour. "I probably shouldn't have done that,” he says. “I probably should have been like, ‘Album canceled! Tour is canceled!’”

By the time The Antlers released Familiars, Silberman had been fronting a rock band for five years, ever since the group signed to Frenchkiss Records with their breakout album Hospice in 2009. He’d gotten used to the routines of touring, the ins and outs of surviving as a career musician playing viscerally emotional songs to crowds of strangers. And then his hearing went.

"I was at the fork in the road where I was like, I'm either going to have to learn how to do this again or I'm going to have to learn to do something else with my life,” he says.

Slowly, he taught himself how to play nylon-stringed guitar, how to sing quietly enough that it didn’t hurt, how to step up and over the pain a little more every day. In the process, he ended up writing songs that would become his first solo album, Impermanence, released on Anti- Records in February. There’s a clear thread connecting the new album to Silberman’s body of work with The Antlers; it follows the inwardly searching impulse of Familiars, and Silberman’s voice, which he often stretches to a clear falsetto, is as centered as it always was in The Antlers’ music. But there is more silence on Impermanence, so much of it that the pauses and blank spaces become gestures in their own right. Listening to it requires a kind of patience that The Antlers never asked for.

Living in Brooklyn with his hearing impairment, Silberman discovered how rare silence really is. Construction crews filled the air with clatter on the street where he lived; meeting friends at restaurants or bars became impossible. All the noise that tends to fade into the background in cities became glaringly, abundantly present for him. Rather than live in a minefield of pain, he eventually and reluctantly chose to leave New York City and move upstate.

“It was tough saying goodbye to the city, but I also felt like I had done everything that I had wanted to do there,” Silberman says. "There's no stones unturned at this point.” While he worried that there wouldn’t be enough to do in a more rural setting, he found that keeping a studio at home in a quiet place encouraged him to work more, to piece together the music he wanted to make and not just the music he was used to making.

While Hospice and 2011’s Burst Apart had concrete (if allegorical) narratives about the “nitty-gritty of relationships,” as Silberman puts it, Impermanence relies less on story. It stems from Silberman’s hearing loss, his displacement, and his eventual healing, but it opens into broader thoughts on transition: from ability to disability, life into death, silence into noise and back again. The album is designed to be heard on loop, a meditation to be repeated as many times as the listener wants.

By loosening his grip on authorial control, Silberman found the freedom to clear away clutter and focus on the essentials of shared human experience. “So much of the record revolves around breath — [it's] the rhythm that sets the tempo for the beginning and end of the record and links the end back to the beginning. That felt crucial,” he says. “It gets into the conceptual side of the record too, talking about connecting the first breath of life to the last breath of your life. So much of this record was about trying to get down to that basic element of being alive.”

While making Impermanence, Silberman also found himself thinking of the album less as a final product and more as a step in an evolving process. Shortly after releasing the LP, he set out on the road with guitarist and vocalist Tim Mislock, who used to play with The Antlers’ live lineup. Their tour wove through living rooms, galleries, and other atypical venues, creating experiences far removed from the club and concert-hall gigs Silberman had grown used to playing with his band. Without a stage, there’s no barrier between performer and audience, no obvious way to negotiate with the space. "There's no pedestal,” Silberman says. "If you're not present and engaged with it, then it's really weird. So it forces me to connect a little bit more than I maybe would have a couple years ago.”

In Chicago, Silberman and Mislock play to a third-floor living room crammed with people. The singers’ voices take on a richness that’s not quite captured on the album, and the slow ebb and flow of their guitars thickens the air. They play songs from Impermanence, but also older songs stripped to their cores: “Bear” and “Zelda” and “Shiva.” Slowed down and without percussion, the Antlers songs sound more delicate, like their bones are suddenly hollow.

There’s no chatter among the audience. Elevated trains pass outside the window every few minutes, groaning and casting sparks that fly when their wheels scrape the tracks. The performers can’t see them flickering, but it's like they brought it with them. Between songs, Silberman banters; the music is so heavy at times that he has to break the spell by joking with us. “There’s no good time to tell you that I have merch for sale,” he says, but he does have merch, and you can buy all these sad songs on vinyl or cassette if you want, just find him after the show.

In addition to touring, Silberman has also been rolling out a live visual album, directed by Derrick Belcham and recorded in one session at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. In the segments that have been released, Silberman plays songs from Impermanence live on guitar, but the camera rarely lingers on him. Two dancers roam the space, conversing through their movements, and the camera follows them as their story unfolds. He's the soundtrack, not the focus, as Belcham’s eye follows the dancers’ activity around in single, unbroken takes.

"I was surprised, watching it start to finish once we were done, just how much of a narrative came out of it,” Silberman says of the film. "I have my own idea of what the story is, but for someone else to express a narrative and bring that out is really cool to see. It makes me feel like there's an openness to the whole project. Hopefully it carries over to someone else listening to it.”

When we talk, Silberman is three days away from turning 31 on the last day of March, his golden birthday. I note that he’s just completed his Saturn return — an astrological phenomenon when Saturn returns to the spot in the sky that it occupied at the time of your birth. It’s said to mark a major threshold in life, and its effects generally begin to be felt around the time you turn 27. You wrap up your twenties and, if you’re lucky, you roll into the next decade having survived some shit.

“I don't think I had any idea that late twenties into thirties was going to be such a weird trip,” he says. “You get tested in some weird ways. If you're not ready to be resilient with it and take some sort of command with your life, it will fuck you up. You will come out the other side of it dead or different. Hopefully different. I feel like in my twenties I was trying on a lot of different outfits. It feels better to be on this side of that."

There’s a song on The Antlers’ 2007 home-recorded release In the Attic of the Universe called “The Universe Is Going to Catch You.” I listened to it a lot during a quarter-life crisis of my own; it became a mantra at a time when I was grasping for anything that resembled a mantra. Silberman sounds frantic on the recording too, like he’s free-falling, flailing in all directions. The music explodes behind him, full of mid-aughts detritus — synths, guitar solos, glockenspiel. He’s 21, full of energy, stuck in a bottomless pit, and screaming his way through it.

That quality hasn’t left him, exactly. Impermanence is still a record of searching — for meaning, comfort, relief — but 10 years later, Silberman has found calm. The panic of his early music has subsided. Instead of forcing all the pieces into place, he just lets them float.