Bangladeafy's Jon Ehlers Is Doomed to Play Rock Music, Hearing Disability be Damned
Stream the NYC proggy drum'n'bass duo's bewildering new EP and read an interview with Ehlers on disability representation, jazz, and hearing aids.
Photo by Nick Spadafora
Musically, Bangladeafy is an odd proposition. The NYC duo’s ultra-complex blurts of drum and bass insanity pebble-dash the inside of your skull like Satan’s own toilet bowel, and Narcopaloma, their new EP, comes off like Lightning Bolt and the Melvins eating big, greedy spoonfuls of each other’s candy-colored vomit. Narcopaloma closes a three-year gap following The Briefcase EP, and will be available come August 26 via Nefarious Industries (catch their album release show on August 25, too).
Sad as it is to say, though, the band’s genetic make-up renders them an even rarer proposition than their music. Drummer Atif Haq’s Bangladeshi roots and bass/synth player Jon Ehlers’ sensorineural hearing loss mean the band are a veritable twofer in terms of underrepresentation. While race has been an ongoing (though shamefully unresolved) topic in rock circles for many moons, disability remains a topic that’s all too rarely discussed, which makes a band like Bangladeafy all the more crucial.
With that in mind, I called up Ehlers to talk more about Bangladeafy’s music, his musical background, and what it’s like learning to play—and rocking the fuck out—with a hearing disability. Turn up our stream of Narcopaloma, and read on.
Noisey: So, what was the original plan with Bangladeafy?
Jon Ehlers: Atif and I have been writing music together for about ten years. We had another band that was sorta video game-influenced, and when everyone else left we decided to do our own thing. It started off as a joke, because, y’know, the name was silly and we didn’t think we’d be able to accomplish a lot as a duo. The idea was to go out, play shows and accumulate interest from people who might want to join us. Eventually, it started working and people responded to it, so we figured we’d continue.
There’s a hell of a lot going on with Narcopaloma despite it only being 15 minutes long – it’s short, but really intense and really involved.
You’ll hear that every song weaves into the next one, and that’s really important to me. That was inspired by those dance or EDM mixes where it’s an hour-long flow of music – I love that. Each song stands alone, but if you’re invested – sonically invested – you’ll get a deeper experience and kinda see the forest for the trees. I really hope people pick up on that, because I probably put as much effort into the songs as I did into the spaces between them. That’s just me being neurotic, I guess.
Talking of neuroses, the music definitely has a frantic, jittery quality. Does that reflect you as people?
Oh, absolutely. We’re both, to some degree, uh, uptight, and when it comes to our music we’re very particular about the details. I’ve been told that as a result of my hearing disability I’m competitive by nature, because I’m basically up against the odds.
Could you tell us a bit more about your sensorineural hearing loss?
There’s a lot of misunderstanding – some people think I’m completely deaf until I put my hearing aids in. The way I break it down is that on a chart where zero is completely deaf, I’m maybe a two on a scale of ten. I can’t hear too much without my hearing aids, but when you’re in a setting with loud music going on I can hear that.
I was diagnosed when I was three or four years old. My father was a musician as well, and he couldn’t wait to give all his instruments to his son. But once he found out that I was hearing disabled, he got rid of 95 percent of them because he didn’t think I’d be pursuing music in any capacity.
Did he encourage you when he realized that you could play?
He drove me to practice and that’s about it. He didn’t pat me on the back and say, “Go get ‘em, tiger!” but we’ve had discussions about music and, yeah, he’s supportive.
Was there a moment that really turned you onto weirder music?
I was home sick when Woodstock ’94 was on MTV. I was into music, but I’d never seen anything like Nine Inch Nails and I couldn’t believe the sounds they were making. Naturally I was like, “Let me see if my parents can get me a synthesizer, even though I’ve no idea what they are.” They said, “Hell no, but your grandma wants to get rid of her piano,” so…
Yeah, we weren’t well-off and I wasn’t the only one that was hearing disabled, which can be financially draining. Me asking for a synthesizer? I was never gonna get one.
How did your hearing disability impact learning to play?
Well, all you’ve got to do is turn it up, so that’s what I did. I think being told, “You can’t do things the way real musicians can” got under my skin. I knew that people had low expectations of me and I wanted to exceed them – that’s really what I’ve continued to try to do.
And is it still challenging?
I’ve been in situations where we’re playing a show and I can barely hear the drums, so I’ve learned what Atif is doing visually for each song, pinpointing his motions for each individual beat. It’s basically like matching your tempo to a flashing light, if that makes sense. Like some sort of metronome, but you can’t hear the click – you have to follow the pulse with your eyes. I grew up being a lip-reader, so maybe that helped.
It makes sense that you’d pick up on different types of cues.
Exactly. The interesting byproduct is that if I can’t hear Atif we’ll end up staring at each other pretty intensely – people have translated this as us challenging each other, like we’re in some anime cartoon or something.
Obviously Atif, not having the same condition, is coming to the table with a different set of reference points. Does that ever cause difficulties?
He’s very patient, and I try to surround myself with patient people. I can see how it can be frustrating, like when he’s working on something very light or subtle. It might make sense to him but not to me, so I need to take the time to understand exactly what he’s doing and the best way to translate it. Ultimately he’s more patient than I am though – he’ll watch me flip out and start screaming at myself while I’m trying to figure something out!
Have you encountered any stupidity or prejudice as a result of your disability?
When I was 16 years old I wanted to try out for the high school marching band. The teacher took one look at my hearing aids and basically laughed me away. That was pretty fucked up.
And I think I’ve not gotten gigs because of my hearing disability. You put me in a jazz setting where there’s a lot of subtlety involved and I might be able to pull it off, but people’d rather go with someone who has the ‘right’ ears for it. I guess the prejudices are, “Oh, that’s the guy who can’t hear well so he plays loudly and over the top.” I think I’m doomed to play rock music.
That’s not such a bad doom!
No, it’s not a bad thing – this is something I’ve only started to accept in recent years. I’ve been critiqued before for overplaying or playing too excitedly, but it works for me, works for Bangladeafy and works for the people who like the band so I don’t feel as bad about it as I used to. I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve been before.
In heavy music circles we talk a lot about inclusivity: about race, gender and sexuality. Disability, though, isn’t often discussed…
No, and there’s not a lot of representation at all.
There are a couple of people who spring to mind – the late, great Vic Chesnutt or Wes Eisold from Cold Cave, say – but it’s still a rarity.
Cold Cave, he opened up for fuckin’ Nine Inch Nails – I want to open for Nine Inch Nails! If Trent Reznor’s on that kind of kick then he needs to give me a call! Seriously, though, the fact that the Cold Cave guy has gotten so far speaks volumes, but I really don’t know of too many others.
People are talking about things like gender or sexual identity and that’s great and totally appropriate. Maybe there’ll be a similar revolution for hearing disabled people – or people with any disability – but at the same time I can think of ten different stores on my block that don’t even have a wheelchair ramp…