The Antlers' Peter Silberman on Losing His Hearing, Finding Inner Peace, and Brooklyn Indie in the 2010s

The Antlers' Peter Silberman on Losing His Hearing, Finding Inner Peace, and Brooklyn Indie in the 2010s
The Antlers by Shervin Lainez

Nothing is really underrated these days because so few things are even “rated” to begin with, but I’m regardlessly and always saying that people aren’t talking about the Antlers enough. The New York group led by Peter Silberman has made some of the most ambitiously textured and atmospheric music in the last decade-plus of indie, diving deeper into the details with every successive release. Green to Gold is their first record in seven years, and like the others before it, it’s excellent and continues to push their tendency for lush arrangements and melodies that carefully reveal themselves. I was happy that Peter was down to hop on the phone and talk about what’s happened in his life since Familiars in 2014, his previous solo album Impermanence, as well as a bunch of other stuff.

Tell me about what took place in your life between Familiars and this new album.

It was a pretty significant time for me personally. Right before we started touring Familiars, I had this crazy incident with my hearing where I woke up one day and completely lost hearing in my left ear. I had this insanely loud and roaring tinnitus, and this hypersensitivity to sound. Everything I was hearing was distorted. My partner and I just watched The Lighthouse the other night, and in the end when Robert Pattinson is staring at the light and screaming—the sound was kind of like that.

We were supposed to leave on tour a month later, but I couldn’t listen to or play music. I couldn’t even talk on the phone. It was very painful, and a scary reckoning of how my life has revolved around music for so long. Not knowing it was temporary, I was forced to re-evaluate what I would do if my hearing didn’t recover. I saw a lot of doctors, and things like tinnitus are largely pretty mysterious to them. There aren’t any common treatments for it. There’s changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to treat it, and I experimented with a lot of different approaches.

By the time we went on tour, it was at a manageable place, so I wore earplugs and tried to take on healthier habits on tour, which can be hard. I muscled through it for what ended up being a year and a half. It was definitely a lot less fun, and I was just drained the whole time, dealing with this condition that would flare up and die down depending on how loud the show had been that night, how much sleep I’d gotten the night before, what I’d been able to eat.

By the end of the tour, in the fall of 2015, I just really felt like I needed to take a step back and rest. At the beginning of this experience, I was inspired to make an album that I needed a solid block of time to make, and that coincided with life circumstances that had me leave the city. So I left and made Impermanence with a friend who’d set up a studio upstate, and I made this really quiet record. I stepped away from the Antlers and made something that was largely just me. I wanted to make something that was on a smaller scale than my main gig, and that’s where I was for a little while—in a more solitary space.

You did an acoustic tour for the 10th anniversary of Hospice in 2019.

By that time, I’d made a pretty significant lifestyle shift—not attending loud shows, not playing loud shows, becoming much more of a homebody, listening to different kinds of music. I’d also had issues on my vocal chords that I ended up needing laser surgery to fix. When we were going into the Hospice anniversary shows, I was realizing that those songs are pretty hard for me to sing, because they weren’t recorded as quiet songs.

I realized I needed to protect my voice and approach them differently, and acoustic shows was what we came up with instead of trying to re-create the record—which we’d never successfully done in the heyday of touring that album. Traveling with such a simple, minimal setup was really nice, and it made those songs sound up to date for me, too.

When you discovered that you were having hearing issues, what was going through in your head?

When it first happened, my thoughts were, “I’m fucked.” My whole life revolves around music. It’s my mode of expression. I really wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. It threw everything into question, and then I was in denial for a while, which is what touring behind Familiars was like for me. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I had issues with my vocal chords, where I was like, “I really need to have a backup plan here.” I couldn’t count on these faculties of mine to hold up over time, and if I was going to, I had to treat them better.

So I spent some time writing. I worked on a long story that never came to be—it became too complicated and got away from me. But it was a really good exercise, and it resulted in this new record being much more direct and straightforward because I was working on something else that was so much more complicated.

To me, it sounds like your sound has been pared back further with every album leading up to this new one.

Part of it is my taste changing. Maybe it’s due to some internal change in me, too. There’s less drama and histrionics. That change really took place in earnest with Familiars because I’d started meditating at that point, which changed my disposition and where my energy was at. It was less about these extreme highs and lows and more about finding steadiness in terms of how I interact with the world. That was new to me, and with Impermanence I swung into an extreme of quiet, because it was a record about using silence as an instrument.

How have you changed as a person over the last decade?

I’ve gotten more in my life that isn’t music or my career—I’ve developed different hobbies and life practices. I have a steady relationship and a home life, which was hard to establish when I was touring so much. It becomes harder to have a life of substance at home when you’re leaving it all the time, so I took efforts to develop that.

At the height of Antler-mania, if you want to call it that—when things were at their craziest—it was difficult for me to have a sense of who I was. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at knowing myself and making choices that feel most natural to me, instead of trying to emulate people that I see around me and attain some sort of public persona. It’s become much more important to be true to myself and be comfortable with who I am, which is a lifelong work in progress.

Hospice came out around a time in which there was increased attention around Brooklyn bands in general, but you guys have always seemed pretty out-of-step regarding what’s gone on in any of the scenes that existed during that time.

I’d love to look back and say, “Yeah, we just didn’t give a fuck.” Socially, I never felt like I was inside that world, and I never felt embraced by any particular scene. When I first moved to the city, freak-folk was the draw, and all of those musicians were living in Brooklyn. I arrived while making folk music, but it wasn’t cool enough for that world—but it also wasn’t traditional singer-songwriter stuff, so it didn’t have a home to fit into. As time went on and we became a band, we still weren’t really assimilating the trends that were happening.

When Hospice came out, making emotional, vulnerable, atmospheric rock music wasn’t really a New York City thing. It was a much more detached quality in music—and there was great music from that time, but it was more emotionally guarded and “cool,” not really concerned with a message. In that way, we felt like outliers, and sometimes it felt embarrassing to be that forthcoming with your emotions in New York City. The music that sounded effortless and cool—I guess you’d call it the lo-fi garage stuff, and “chillwave”—we had friends in all those scenes, but we were a grandiose band that didn’t fit so well. It wasn’t the sound of Brooklyn, but it was what we were naturally making. Things move so fast and I work so slow that even if I were to try to catch up with a trend, it’d be gone by the time I finished making something.

Hospice was, by my measure, one of the last times I witnessed an indie band get a ton of buzz just off of a record itself. How have you seen things change in the industry since then?

It felt like there were dominant movements back then—blog rock, lo-fi garage stuff, chillwave, witch house, synth-pop when it was a novel thing. “Can you believe that these indie bands have drum machines?” Now, it’s everything all at once. Regardless of what you’re making, there’s a place for it. Maybe it’s different as far as critical reception goes, but any style can find an audience now, and you can do it on your own much more easily.

Circa Hospice, there was a path—band appears on MP3 blogs, saturates that enough to get the attention of Pitchfork or NPR, and there’s your career. Some aspect of that is still part of the equation now, but it’s more possible now to have a career without any of those things supporting you. And, those things supporting you doesn’t necessarily guarantee an audience anymore. There weren’t that many options for opportunity ten years ago. There was that path, but that was the only path. There’s more potential to be excited about things now—although, at my age, I’m still like, “I wish things were more straightforward.” [Laughs]

What gives you peace these days, and what stands in the way of that?

I love to say I’ve achieved peace, but I really haven’t. It’s an ongoing effort and practice. My mind is still a pretty stormy place, but I’ve got better tools to work through it these days. Familiars and Impermanence have this terror in them, and it’s been a conscious choice on my part not to feed that as much. That doesn’t mean I won’t, but I’m not staring into the void as much or smoking a joint, walking into the woods in the middle of the night, and seeing how spooked I get. I’m not feeding that darkness right now.

I meditate, I exercise, and I find hobbies outside of music where I don’t have to have high expectations of myself. Gardening is a great one for me. I’ve started woodworking over the last few years. Things that require me to pay attention and focus are helpful. I was very scatterbrained for a long time, distracted by a lot of the things that were happening around me and to me. Living in a quieter place with less distraction helps me tap into what seems to be healthier for me. I’m so thankful for a day where nothing happens. I’m so grateful for it.

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Jamie Larson