On Losing Your Hearing When Music's Your Job

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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 the band as a result. Now 29, Brent's hearing is continuing to decline, but he's still got it. I found out more for Impolitikal.com.

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.

What happened with Cut Off Your Hands getting signed?
We did a lot of touring, that was our roots. We were able to drum up a bit of attention, and we ended up signing with 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. 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.

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.