Brent Harris, Cut off Your Hands drummer, hearing loss

Q&A | Brent Harris on losing your hearing when music’s your job

Brent Harris is the founding drummer of New Zealand band Cut Off Your Hands. He’s also had sensorineural hearing loss since his late teens, which means his hearing is slowly but steadily deteriorating and may one day go entirely. Doctors have never been able to give Brent a solid reason for his hearing’s degeneration, or tell him how long he’ll have it for. This rather heavy unknown has had a big impact on his career as a musician, including leading him to question whether he should continue to play music at all – particularly difficult as it’s the thing he loves to do most. Not knowing for sure if his hearing loss would be worsened by drumming, Brent chose to stick with it, and enjoyed many good times with COYH as a result. Now 29, Brent’s hearing is continuing to decline, but he’s still got it. Sarah found out more.

Can you talk a bit about your musical background?
Like most people who have music in their bones, I was fascinated by music from a really young age. I always really liked the drums, I remember getting pots and pans out and all that kind of stuff, but I never had a drum kit until I was about 12. I had a friend who had a kit, so I would go around to his place and play it. But it was normal for him and he wanted to do other things, like ride the bike, and I just wanted to play the drums so bad. I eventually ended up borrowing $100 off my sister, and saving up $100, and my parents gave me $100, and I bought a drum kit. From then that was just what I did. I liked to play the drums. I was never a child protégé or anything, but it was always the thing I was probably best at.

How did Cut Off Your Hands come about?
Cut Off Your Hands, in its initial line-up, was me, Mikey, Nick and Phil. I went to school with Mikey and we’d played in Rockquest bands, some really bad ones. Nick’s older brother went to school with my sister, and we were kind of just friends and knew of each other. We had a band that we started, in 2004 it might have been, called Nova Echo. A progressive indie band sort of thing. Post punk band. We did that for a while, and then COYH formed out of that band. We were all likeminded in that music was our priority, for everyone. Some of us were studying and working and that, but I think at the end of the day we all knew that the band would take priority if we could drum up a few opportunities for ourselves. Which we were able to do. We were fortunate with COYH that we all worked really hard for that band.

What happened with the band getting signed?
We did a lot of touring, we toured New Zealand heaps. In 2007 we did 70 shows or something. I don’t even know how you do that in New Zealand. That was our roots. Then we ended up meeting this guy David Benge, who’s a New Zealand promoter, he still does a lot of work around here now. He at the time was running a small record label in Australia, called Speak n Spell. We ended up going over to Australia, to play a couple of shows. I would’ve been 18 or 19 at the time. First time overseas playing music. It was just a really exciting time, you know? And they were good for us – Dave Benge, and he had two other business partners. They were just young guys, in their mid to late 20s. We started working with them, and then their role morphed into more of a management thing. I think they realised it’s hard to make money being a record label. If you manage a really successful band you can make money. Unfortunately we were never really that successful for them.

Anyway, they helped organise us a bit of a trip, we did SXSW and CMJ, and toured through the States. We were able to drum up a bit of attention, and we ended up signing with an American label called French Kiss Records, an independent label based in New York. We signed with them for the States, and we ended up signing with another label called 679, which at the time was an independent label, but it became a subsidiary to Warners. That afforded us to live there and to record and tour, and the opportunity to keep going on that front. That’s how it happened. But we felt like it was based off a lot of hard groundwork, because we did lots of shows. Some people get brought up into the label thing really quick, and the label is involved in helping form something, and then it gets presented to market, etcetera etcetera. We had toured really hard for two or three years before anything really happened on that front. In saying that, you’re still confronted with A&R dudes who are like: it needs to sound like this. We still had that dynamic going on, that we were having to compete with a little bit. But we were fortunate in that it was more of a grassroots thing.

Are there any cool moments that stand out from that time?
The thing I love most about music, other than the music itself – but, playing in a band, it’s just the most fulfilling feeling working with friends. Especially when things are working, relationally and stuff. I just loved it. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’ve come from a family of four siblings. Maybe I’m a bit softhearted, I like hanging out with people who are getting on. I’m not a lone wolf, I suppose. As much as I’d like to be a lone wolf. I remember one time in England, my grandma had passed away. She was the first person to pass away in my family. Looking back, there are much more horrific things that can happen than your grandma pass away. It was sad, obviously, but she’d lived a beautiful, full life. Anyway, I remember being pretty gutted about it, and wanting to go back to New Zealand, but we had a tour happening, and it was sort of like – if I went back I’d jeopardise, potentially, where the band was at. But we did this tour and one evening we went out and had dinner, and we were talking about my grandma – I don’t know, at times like that it just felt really cool, because you felt like you were in a team together. That was quite a standout moment for me. That was really cool. I remember looking back at photos of that and thinking how rad that was. Even though I was kind of annoyed at the institution of Cut Off Your Hands not allowing me to go home.

Playing live shows was always fun. Especially good ones. There were quite a few pretty shitty gigs, in towns in the middle of America I can’t even remember. It’s this weird, vague memory in my mind of playing in some weird town. I don’t know where I was, what the name of the town was. I love recording as well. We had lots of really cool recording experiences, working with rad producers. I remember being pretty like, holy shit this is amazing. I have arrived, sort of thing. We never officially disbanded, but we’re very much on ice. Very fucking frozen. It was never an official, we’re not going to keep doing this anymore, but a few years back we all just got into other things.

How did this timeline with your hearing loss?
My hearing was fine until I was 16. It was my last year of high school, maybe it was more like 17 or 18. I was talking to my cousin on the phone one morning. I was talking to her on one side and she sounded fine and then I put her onto my left ear and it sounded a bit like a chipmunk. I went and got a hearing test, and they were like, oh you’ve lost some hearing on your left side, it’s probably just a one-off – can you remember a firecracker going off in your ear or something? But it wasn’t too much of a problem. They just said, make sure you protect your ears, blah blah blah. From then, both my ears started losing a lot of hearing, quite quickly. The specialists at that time didn’t know really what was causing it, they thought that loud music wasn’t helping. But anyone could put two and two together. They basically said, at this rate you’ll be stone-cold deaf by the time you’re 30. I was in love with playing music, and it was just like, fuck that.

So that was when I decided, I’m going to play music to my heart’s content. Because I didn’t know if not playing music was going to do anything. I could’ve stopped playing music and gone deaf, or kept playing music and gone deaf, so I was just like, I’ll just play music while I can. I was also pretty naiive, in the sense that – I grew up in a religious family, with the idea that the talents that we have are a gift from god sort of thing. I wouldn’t say I disbelieve that now, but I was quite naiive in that I thought, oh well I’m sure this will work out. It felt like I had a bit of false hope embedded in that. And wasn’t willing to come to terms with what was going on. My hearing started to slow down in terms of its degeneration, but it has slowly been getting worse, just not as fast as it was at the start, which is great.

You’re 30 by now yeah?
I’m 29, I’m 30 this year. I normally wear hearing aids but I left them at work. So the fact that we’re having this conversation now – if I had known that when I was 18 I would’ve been like, fucking phew. I would’ve been really happy to know that. Even today the doctors don’t know what caused it, or what’s causing it – they put it down to a genetic predisposition, but there’s no hearing loss in my family. It just made sense, I was playing drums all the time. I think maybe I’ve just got sensitive ears to loud noise, and that helped get it started.

How would you describe your hearing now, without the aids?
I get by ok like this, and when I’m wearing hearing aids I’m 85% good. Your hearing is measured on a spectrum from your bass right up to the high treble. The bass in my hearing is still quite good, a lot of speech falls in those bass areas. Then it drops away to almost 80% gone, and some of the mid-frequencies. The really high stuff I’ve got as well. So, I’ve lost a lot of that mid-frequency. They call it a ski-slope hearing loss, because if you look at the graph it kinda looks like one. It sounds like heaps of fun, but –

Probably not heaps of fun.
Yeah. At the moment I get by, because I’ve still got a lot of those bass frequencies. But the scary thing is, every time I go into a hearing test it’s slowly tapering off. It could just stop and then stay nice, but I’m not crossing my fingers. I think eventually it probably will taper off. But I’m kinda fingers-crossed that technology will keep getting better.

How has it affected your musicianship overall? You don’t just play drums.
Well I love playing guitar and that, and I’d write music – and I did do some guitar work for COYH as well, on our second record. But I’ve always been predominantly drums. So I think, yeah, it kind of stopped me from pursuing guitar. I don’t think I would’ve been able to really play guitar. I mean I could play it, but in a live setting you need to be really tuned into sounds when you’re playing live, which I just couldn’t really do, because my hearing’s so shit.

I imagine it’s like a blur of noise?
Yeah, it’s a blur of noise – it’s hard to explain but it kind of sounds like music underwater or something.

But I guess with rhythm, drumming – a lot of that is feel, right?
Yeah, for sure. Yeah it is. I’ve always been relatively melodic – I love playing guitar, and I love singing. I wasn’t always just about, the thumping of drums. But certainly, playing the drums made it easier, because you’re providing the undercurrent for the song, you know? And that you can do with, I suppose less perception of everything that’s happening sonically.

Do you think the hearing loss helped you in some ways?
I don’t think so, I don’t think it’s really changed my style all that much. Other than I remember feeling angry about it and I’d hit the drums harder!

Was it pretty frustrating?
Yeah, certainly. At some points really frustrating. But actually it was far less frustrating with music than it was just frustrating in everyday life. Music – while I miss stuff, sonically you still get the message. But in everyday life you don’t get the message if you don’t hear what someone said. And hearing loss is such a hidden disability – no one knows that you have hearing loss. If you say ‘what?’ a thousand times they still probably don’t know you’ve got hearing loss. Maybe they do, or maybe they just think you’re an idiot – I don’t know. That’s always been a big frustration for me. It’s been good for me, in the sense that it’s required me to have more emotional self-control, just to be a little bit tougher I suppose. Not follow my feelings too much; just because I’m frustrated by this, I shouldn’t let it ruin my day sort of thing. It’s been good for that.

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I guess too, not having a definite timeframe or endpoint means there’s this constant question mark. Which must be really tiresome.
Yeah totally. With music, it was hard piecing together whether or not I was doing the right thing. When I look back on it, my hearing loss kind of made it easier for me to – I don’t know, like I stopped playing in the band in 2010 because I was really worried that I was actually just making my hearing worse. That was certainly a really huge factor in why I had to stop playing for a bit. But sometimes I look back on it, and I’m like, man did I kind of just use that as an excuse?

What do you mean? Should you have pushed through?
Yeah, it’s like – there’s lots of hard things about playing in a band. I take my hat off to all the friends that I have who pursue it – they’re in it for life, you know? In the ups and downs. Even people that see a lot of success, they see a lot of downs as well. I really take my hat off to people like that. And sometimes I feel like, how much did I use my hearing as an excuse to not be a real sticker like that?

I don’t think anyone would begrudge you that. Giver-upper is not your vibe, although I can understand that being a doubt. On the flipside, plenty of people would be like, dude maybe you should have stopped ages ago. The fact that you did stick with it as long as you did is pretty great.
Nah, I do think that. I just sometimes feel like I convinced myself – man, this is not good. The hearing thing, which it totally wasn’t, but I think that I kind of swept a few other things that I wasn’t enjoying about playing music under that same banner. And not confronted it really in itself, I guess.

Maybe that’s ok.
Yeah, maybe it is. I suppose we’re not supposed to be completely self-aware and know how to partition everything that’s going on in our crazy emotions.

Did choosing to study law come out of giving up the band?
Yeah. I did real bad in high school. I never really thought of myself as very academic. When I came home from playing in the band – actually first I went sailing for six months. That was really, really cool. Just as a breather I suppose, to think, man what am I going to do next? So I did that and I came home, and I started working in my old man’s business. Which was fine, but it just wasn’t me. But, having seen a bit of success in music, I was too proud to really start again, at the time. I thought I was too cool, pretty much. All your friends have gone through uni and are in good jobs and making money and all that kind of stuff. I was too proud to be like, I’m going back to university. Once I got over myself, and realised that I had to actually pursue something that was meaningful for my life, and not be reactionary to my circumstances, that was when I seriously started considering law.

There were a few things that led me to it. I really enjoyed the legal side of working in the band, that was always quite a fun thing for me. Talking with lawyers, and working out what they even did. And just knowing even within our relationships, with the guys, how to get certain things down on paper, and being like – cool, that’s where we see our relationship being. That stuck with me from music for sure. The other thing I had to grapple with was the creative aspect. I was like, man is law just straight up way too boring? But I kind of got over that, because I’ve probably got a warped sense of creativity. I was quite drawn to the purity of law, in that it’s embedded in society, it’s been around forever. And I quite like the purity of form of law, that interested me in music too. So while it isn’t creative like music is creative I still find it brings out that same kind of grounded purity that I really enjoy in creative outlets and creative expression. In saying that, when you’re sitting reading a contract or something you’re like, how is this creative? This is not creative. I suppose now I’m at that point I’m working out how to manage that. Because if I deny myself music I just get depressed, or just don’t feel that good.

But that’s how I got to law. Also the hearing thing was a big one, that pushed me down that way as well. The legal profession is – you work in pretty controlled spaces. I kind of felt like, if I did lose all my hearing, and I had to get a cochlear implant or something, I could probably still – well I definitely would still be able to work in law. Whereas in other professions maybe not so much. I also like the idea of, if I were to lose all my hearing, being good with words. Being able to read and write well. Not being reliant on my hearing to be good at something. It’s scary though – law is pretty fascinating, but it’s pretty full on too. But from what I’ve experienced of it it’s kind of felt right, you know? When you do something and you’re like, I’m not quite sure how I got here but this does feel like I’m doing the right thing.

Brent Harris is a musician, currently studying towards an LLB(Hons) at the University of Auckland. Follow his band, Cut Off Your Hands.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.