Words by Chal Ravens
“When I got the hearing test, the graph looked like a rollercoaster drop,” says Gobby, thinking back to the day he finally saw proof of what his ears had been doing for years. Hearing loss: it’s every musician’s worst nightmare, and an occupational hazard that’s four times more likely to affect them than the general population.
For New York City-based artist Gobby, whose restless and deranged techno collages have appeared on labels like UNO NYC and DFA, the rollercoaster began with an incessant ringing in the ears. It’s an experience that’s familiar to all too many of us. Tinnitus is increasingly common, not only among professional musicians but among casual listeners as well – everyday folk living in noisy cities, perhaps using headphones to drown out the sound of passing cars and subway trains.
Gobby has been dealing with tinnitus for 10 years now. After moving to New York City from Boston he spent a lot of time in loud venues – either DJing or playing live shows accompanied by his sampler and drums – and at home he’d spend hours working on his music through headphones. For a long time he simply worked around it: “I couldn’t really accept that I didn’t want to be in loud places anymore. It felt like this path that I’d been on, and I didn't want to stray from it.” Eventually, though, the tinnitus just couldn’t be ignored. “It got worse and worse. I started getting this sort of animosity towards music,” he says. “It was a glaring issue that I wasn’t accepting. I still like loud music, but I have to be careful.”
Once a prolific producer, releasing multiple albums’ worth of music between 2012 and 2016, Gobby has been relatively quiet lately. But his latest record, Secret Airways, marks the beginning of a new and different chapter as he adjusts to his hearing aids and explores a different musical mode. Under a fresh alias, Ancient Moods, Gobby is swapping the zany hyperactivity of his club persona for a more scenic approach, one which he compares to painting a still life. Ancient Moods launched at the end of May with three tracks of prog-classical experimentation inspired by video game music and “dungeon synth”, the nerdy subgenre where metal meets medieval.
In the studio, Gobby’s ears – now bionically enhanced with hearing aids – guide his creative process within stricter limits. “Tinnitus is like a dead signal,” he explains. “I don’t have my high frequencies, so that’s changed things.” That means hi-hats are out, and high-pitched sounds often don’t sound right at all. “Sometimes I’ll hear techno and it’ll sound inverted, like the snare drum is leading.” For those who haven’t experienced hearing loss, it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like to miss out on certain frequencies. Effectively, any sounds that fall outside Gobby’s range simply don’t register with his brain – and even with hearing aids, he can’t always be sure he’s experiencing music as it sounds to others. When you’re composing on the computer, you can at least rely on the screen to show you what’s happening – but there’s plenty of guesswork involved too, so Gobby entrusts his friends with checking over the mix. “They’ll be like, that part is way too loud,” he laughs. “I always put up the mids and highs in music because I want to really hear it like everybody else. I usually like to make music without hearing aids, and then only when I'm done and want to listen back to it do l put the hearing aids on. It’s almost like a new, clearer way of hearing it.”
It’s far from a perfect solution, though. As we talk on the phone, he explains that even with the hearing aids in he has to concentrate in order to not be distracted by ambient sounds like the hum of air conditioning. “You have to strain to focus on someone. You can’t half-listen,” he says. “And at a show, with people yelling, it’s definitely hard to carry a conversation.” Over time he had got used to watching people’s lips in order to follow what they’re saying, but with so many people now wearing masks to protect from coronavirus, even face-to-face communication can be a challenge.
A major turning point came when Gobby debuted his own orchestral classical compositions while soundtracking a Gauntlett Cheng fashion show at St. Mark’s Church. A year later, he teamed up with producer, director and singer Lucia della Paolera to perform the new works – this time blended with music by Johann Sebastian Bach – at Brooklyn's Lafayette Presbyterian Church. Hearing his music resonating inside the church walls led to the realisation that he wants to design music for places – not loud dancefloors or sweaty venues, but specific spaces and scenes, either real or imagined. “I was trying to calm down, musically,” he explains.
Ancient Moods isn’t exactly calming – well, perhaps when compared to the information avalanche of early material like 2014’s Beats By Gobby – but it is inspired by the kind of “simple storytelling music” that he once encountered in video games like Heroes of Might and Magic 3. Inspired by myths of knights and holy grails, the 1999 strategy game featured an extravagantly melodic soundtrack using harp, bassoon, harpsichord and symphonic strings. Digging around for similar inspiration, he encountered dungeon synth, the niche electronic subgenre inspired by the fantasy worlds of Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. “At its core it’s really nerdy,” he laughs. “I had been going to this one YouTube channel over and over and the themes are all over the place. There was one album about a mouse’s journey – I was like, ‘Great, this is exactly what I want to hear!’ It has more to do with short stories, storytime stuff.”
I’m considering my decisions in music a lot more. Before, I would be in denial of the hearing loss, ignoring it and putting off dealing with it. That made the music I was making more scattershot and not as considered. Hearing loss forced me to grow out of that.
He began to think of composing music as if he were painting a canvas or soundtracking a scene in a game, using a combination of organic and synthetic sounds to create evocative and uncanny atmospheres: French horn, viola, violin and “really minimal opera vocals,” all treated with various effects. “I would write something on the computer in MIDI and then write parts, or sometimes we’d write a part for someone to play, so we’re mixing the real and the fake,” he says. The first result is Secret Airways, a disorienting three-part release riffing on classical chamber music, prog-rock and the winking weirdery of contemporary electronic artists like John T. Gast and James Ferraro. Scratched-out guitar tones bleed into a cinematic string crescendo as brass tones and pounding drums paint a strange medieval mood, as if dragons and goblins lurk around the corner.
As well as having more Ancient Moods releases in the pipeline, Gobby has also made the logical move into video game sound design. Right now he’s writing music for a first-person shooter based on trap and hip-hop instrumentals, where the music acts like an “engine” rather than a straightforward soundtrack. “Rather than something you play,” he explains, “it’s something that functions musically based on what someone else is doing. The music is a by-product of what you’re trying to do [in the game].” And, coronavirus allowing, he’s looking forward to returning to the stage with another church performance.
Adjusting to hearing loss has been a long, slow process – one which he would no doubt have rather avoided, but which has steered him down creative avenues he could never have encountered otherwise. “I'm definitely more considered now,” he says, pondering the upsides of his journey. “I’m considering my decisions in music a lot more. Before, I would be in denial of the hearing loss, ignoring it and putting off dealing with it. That made the music I was making more scattershot and not as considered. Hearing loss forced me to grow out of that.”
For info and advice on hearing loss head here: www.hearformusicians.org.uk/