By Kyle Kucharski
Brooklyn-based prog-rock duo Bangladeafy has a unique sound, and it might have to do with the fact that the act’s bassist and frontman has a very limited hearing capacity.
Jon Ehlers was born with Sensorineural hearing loss, or SNHL, rendering him almost deaf without his hearing aids in. “Because of my hearing disability, I don’t hear things the same way as my peer musicians do,” Ehlers says. “Not that I necessarily hear it ‘less’ in terms of volume, but just the way it’s passing through my brain.”
A working rock musician who also has sensorineural hearing loss might be considered an oxymoron. But this different way of mentally processing rhythm actually gives the band a distinctive sound.
On Ribboncutter, the duo’s second full-length album since 2011’s This Is Your Brain on Bugs, the tracks move at a strange and frantic pace. Alien time signatures abound, and complex sequences melt into one another to create a singular, dazzling array of sound. The new album utilizes synths in a more integrated way, bringing a new dimension to the sound that reveals itself in layers, like gazing into a fractal.
I met up with Ehlers in his neighborhood – leafy Midwood, Brooklyn – to talk about Bangladeafy, his nine-to-five job as an exterminator and the obstacles he faces in his work.
Behind the rock musician exterior, he’s eloquently spoken and easy to talk to. He sports a playfully sarcastic sense of humor and sharp wit, wrapped up in a Long Island accent. He has his hearing aids in, but speaks with no indication of any sort of impairment.
The band’s previous Narcopaloma EP was released in 2016 and earned the duo some media attention for its distinct sound. Now, after two years of writing and experimenting, Ehlers and his bandmate Atif Haq released Ribboncutter on August 31st.
“I’ve never been this confident in how dense and crisp my tracks sounded before this,” he says about the new material. “The new sound is moving forward in a more polished, synth-heavy direction.”
Drawing inspiration from London synth/drum duo Gum Takes Tooth, Ehlers says he was fascinated with how the duo pulled off their sound live. In turn, seeing what he himself can do live seems to be both a challenge and thrill for Ehlers, who faces his own set of obstacles during a show.
Even with the hearing aids, he sometimes has to rely on visual cues to find his way in a song. “One of the most useful things I’ve done is learn all the exact drum rudiments Atif is doing, so if I slip, I mentally attach myself to what he’s playing and gracefully lock back in.”
Hearing impaired artists have been in the public spotlight recently, with the Broadway play revival of the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God,” featuring deaf actress Lauren Ridloff and multiple deaf characters. Despite lagging ticket sales and critiques that the performance didn’t connect, the play had “supertitles,” or visual cues for hearing impaired audience members to aid in narrating the plot.
In addition, the release of the 2018 film “A Quiet Place” last spring featured 14-year-old deaf actress Millicent Simmonds. The film received praise for its casting of the actress, with TeenVogue even publishing her own thoughts on the experience.
“Great story aside,” Ehlers says, “this is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve ever seen a discourse about closed captioning being a standard for movie theaters. To see it actually being discussed on a large scale among hearing abled people is a day I never thought I’d see.”
On top of school and the band, he also works part-time as an exterminator to help pay the bills. “I have tons of crazy stories about this job,” he laughs. “But I’m trying to get out of it.”
Having been in the business for the entire length of time he’s been in Bangladeafy, there is something to be said about the nature of the job and its influence on the band’s aesthetic.
Track titles like “Termites,” “Fruit Flies” and the aforementioned first EP’s title are obvious allusions, while elements of the band’s skittering, creepy-crawly sound are possibly more subtle references. However, with the band’s new material, these elements are past tense.
“I should make it clear that I am trying my best to put all the bug references way behind me,” he said. “Bangladeafy was once a band that could be associated with bug imagery, but we’ve since tapped into things a little more colorful.”
Ehlers says the band’s image going forward would reflect a more leveled up polish as well. “As we prepped up for the last round of press kit photos for Narcopaloma, I made it a point to leave my hearing aids in, regardless of how distracting it would be to the serious and brooding look we were trying to present,” he says.
“If people laughed at how serious I was trying to present myself with these devices in my ears, oh well. Good luck living in the stone age. I’ve been mechanically modified and that’s way cooler than you think.”
Ribboncutter is now available digitally and in a limited CD run through Nefarious Industries, with the 12” vinyl cut at 45rpm arriving in October. Place CD orders and LP preorders at the Nefarious webshopand Bandcamp where the entire album is streaming .
10/28/2018 Paradise:Lost – New Brunswick, NJ w/ Invalids
12/03/2018 Saint Vitus Bar – Brooklyn, NY *vinyl release show w/ Lazer/Wulf