Musician Dan Pash is almost deaf but he’s playing on regardless

"I haven't talked about this much before, because there was a kind of horror at the idea that this would be the thing that would be singled out." The roar of an aeroplane crescendoes overhead and I lose the rest of Dan Pash's sentence. We're sitting in my backyard in Sydney's inner west on a humid night. Mosquitoes play chicken with the flames of three citronella candles. Witch-like, I've also crushed a plant called lad's love that I've been told repels mosquitoes, and rubbed it into the outdoor table. In defiance of my spells, they continue to attack.

Dan Pash.Credit:James Brickwood

If Pash is irritated, he conceals it well. His eyes blink slowly behind tortoiseshell glasses. His hands rest on the table in a meditative clasp. For the five years I've known him – working in bookshops, or in the social circles that spin around Sydney's independent music scene – he's never lost his cool. Pash is 38, and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, majoring in philosophy. These days, his hair is cropped short at the back and sides, and sculpted into an immaculate quiff – more of a trim look than his long-haired days in Adelaide band Leader Cheetah. But he is still bird-thin. He is also still "one of the finest guitarists the country has produced", according to friend and collaborator Nick Kennedy. And Kennedy knows his guitarists, having worked at Sydney's Red Eye Records for more than 20 years, and served his time in countless indie bands for 30, including Knievel, The Cops and Big Heavy Stuff.

Prior to hitting the books, Pash toured the country with Leader Cheetah, an indie rock band with an alt-country twang, '70s rock punch and soaring melodies. Its debut album, The Sunspot Letters, became a Triple J album of the week before it was even released. The 2009 recording earned superlative reviews in papers around the country, with Pash's guitar work described as reminiscent of Neil Young's. There was something "so powerful, so fresh, so right" about this band from Adelaide that it was picked up by the festival circuit and invited to support international acts such as Interpol and Dinosaur Jr on their Australian tours.

In 2011, Rolling Stone Australia claimed the band would become the country's "next big export". Things were looking up for Pash's music career. That is, until his ears forced him to call it quits.

The plane passes. "Can you say that again?" I shout. "This would be the thing that what?"

Pash looks at me, trying to read my facial expression, so he knows how to react, or what to say. He is quite good at this, but every now and then he laughs, thinking that's the response called for, when in fact I've asked him a question. I make sure he can see my lips, and raise my voice: "Say that again, this would be the thing that what?" He's patient with me. Repetition is now a familiar pattern riddling most of his conversations.

He's here because he wants to talk about his new band, Reality Instructors, and its debut album, Ritual Ignorant, due to be released on May 24. He also wants to discuss how, because of a genetic degenerative condition, his hearing is vanishing faster than the process of making an album allows. Faced with the knowledge he would lose his hearing at a rapid rate, he retreated from playing music almost completely, despite it being "the one thing that ever gave him a voice". But he doesn't want his profound hearing loss to be the defining feature of the band, or pity to be the primary emotion experienced by those reading this article or listening to his music. Pash gathers himself: "The problem with speaking about deafness would be the usual reservations that people with some sort of un-obvious impairment face, which is the moment that it comes up, you are treated differently. It would take attention away from the whole reason this band exists, which is the same reason that every band exists: to try to say something interesting."

But Ritual Ignorant is interesting because it is, in part, about the traces deafness leaves in a life. The threat of imminent deafness pulled this band together; deafness has defined the sound that will be the last Pash ever records. And he will only hear a tiny part of the results.

Dan Pash was born in Adelaide in 1981, the only child of Richard, a lawyer, and Peta, a dental therapist. By then, punk had gone post, Bob Dylan had become a Christian and Neil Young was on the cusp of making electronic music. It was a confusing time, but Pash says he was "pretty much just a bubbly, blond cherub". His parents split when he was five, and continued to support any and every endeavour he was interested in. His dad remembers the "enormous pleasure" it gave him to see his son reading Annie Proulx's The Shipping News aged 10, but it's music which colours one of Pash's earliest memories. He remembers lying in bed when he was supposed to be asleep, listening to his dad play the clarinet in the kitchen.

By the age of eight, Pash had developed what he calls a "weird cyclical vomiting thing": "I would wake up inexplicably nauseous and not be able to stop vomiting, and I'd end up on a drip. It was diagnosed by a specialist in Adelaide as 'abdominal migraine' but … in retrospect it was so obviously psychological. It would happen at certain points in time, over and over again. It was always at the first day of holidays: my body releasing unconscious tension." By his early 20s, he'd worked out that music solved the problem: "If I got up and put on this one video of Neil Young and Crazy Horse … it made me feel nurtured and safe." Thanks to Neil Young, the vomiting stopped.

Pash, aged 17, at home in Adelaide. Credit:Courtesy of Dan Pash

At about the time the nausea episodes began, Pash took up clarinet. When he started to ace his music exams, his parents realised their son had musical talent. A few years and one successful audition later, he was admitted to Brighton High, an Adelaide school which offered classes in music theory and sound technology. But it was when he heard Green Day's Longview for the first time as a tween that he discovered punk rock, a genre that "already sounded familiar" to him on some level. "I dunno," he says, "maybe I was a snotty-nosed Californian kid in a previous life." His parents gave him a cheap Japanese guitar, and by the time he was 15 he was playing in his first band, Spiny Norman, supporting Melbourne punk band Ricaine at a club on Adelaide's Rundle Street. Pash's high school friend and bandmate, Aidan Moyse, remembers how formative that gig was.

"Ricaine were on a completely different level to what we were," recalls Moyse, "because we were just kids, and they were focused on Chicago-style punk rock." If clarinet was a comfort, and Neil Young a salve, punk became Pash's obsession. Even so, he says, "The whole question of the role of music in my life only achieved any immediate poignancy once it started to leave. Because then I realised, 'This is the one thing that I was meant to do.' It was the one thing that always made sense."

In 1996, the same year Spiny Norman took to the stage for the first time, Pash's sound technology teacher played his class a "gizmo" which sounded a tone that ascended from about 16 to 16,000 hertz, the typical range humans can hear. After the tone stopped playing, Pash sat, wondering why the class remained so quiet. He looked around. Why was everyone still listening? Pash started to worry.

A test shortly afterwards revealed that his hearing at 15 was the same someone might experience after decades of working in a car factory: that is, his range was about half that of most people his age. Doctors told him he had genetic sensorineural hearing loss, which he hadn't noticed because it had been sneaking up on him since birth.

At that time, Pash says he didn't feel the verdict "was all that dramatic"; he was prescribed specially made earplugs to minimise noise damage while playing in the school orchestra and told to "keep an eye on it". There wasn't much more they could say. He continued playing music, moving from school to the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide, where he studied the clarinet, and threw himself into gigs with increasing abandon. "In the next band that we had, a band called Bad Girls of the Bible, we played a gig at a pub in Adelaide called the Exeter Hotel, and no one turned up, no one was there," recalls Moyse. "We got a bit ratty and Dan just kinda fired it up. That might have been the first time Dan took his T-shirt off and got all Iggy Pop on us. And from then on, I remember a series of shows that got pretty loose … the T-shirt would be off, he'd be jumping all over the place, finding things to climb up on.

"We played a show at a venue called the Jade Monkey and Dan had this ridiculously long guitar lead. The stage wasn't that far from the door to the street … and I remember very clearly: he took his guitar off the stage, and out the door, and was out on the street, in a little lane, standing on a car, rocking out. It was actually the owner's car. He was really shitty."

Dan Pash at a Leader Cheetah gig in 2008. Credit:Elleni Toumpas

Despite their closeness, Moyse had no idea that Pash was going deaf. He only found out after a more sobering test, at 23, when Pash could only hear the bottom third of a piano keyboard. Pash was told that solutions such as hearing aids would be complicated by two factors: his hyperacusis, or an increased sensitivity to sound, and extreme tinnitus. In other words, such aids would only exacerbate the painful ringing he was hearing at multiple frequencies. Although it seemed counter-intuitive to someone who was facing profound hearing loss, he would have to wear earplugs almost all the time to protect his inner ear from too much noise.

Moyse's voice falters. "It seemed to be a total deal breaker for what he wanted to do. I found it quite emotional because … he was always so passionate about the quality of sound. We would talk about how one band's guitar sound is different to another's. And why they're innovative or awesome. And to then be struck with realising the ramifications of what he was saying about his hearing loss – I was just gutted." He asked Pash if playing rock music had contributed to it. "I remember him saying, 'Well no, not really, it's more a congenital condition and perhaps the rock music exacerbated it, but it was going to happen anyway.' It just seemed so ridiculously cruel."

In 2008, when he toured with his feted indie band Leader Cheetah while already facing trials with his hearing.Credit:Elleni Toumpas

Specialists began to impress the scale of the loss upon Pash. "Even though they didn't really know what was going on, that's when they started counselling me to stop playing loud music," he recalls. "There were never any guarantees, it was always just: '[Loud music] is potentially a factor, so you should consider mitigating that factor.' My response was like any 20-something's: 'Well, this is something I need to do!'" He made half-hearted attempts at protecting his ears – as well as wearing earplugs, he wouldn't say yes to playing in two bands at once, for instance – but considering the one band he was in rehearsed almost every night, these safeguards were gestures at best.

Moyse and drummer Jared Schmidt built a soundproofed control booth for Pash in their rehearsal studio. Moyse laughs at the memory. "It wasn't very good," he says. "We tried. We had to put some speakers on the other side of the glass so that he could hear things, and we blew them up trying to make it work." By then, Pash would have to end rehearsals early, his head clanging with severe tinnitus. Conversations at dinner parties had become "extraordinarily mentally taxing", as he tried to tune out the background noise and tune in to someone's voice from across the table.

By his late 20s, he was both touring the country as the lead guitarist in Leader Cheetah, and a candidate for a double cochlear implantation. It was at that point, Pash says, that he "started dropping below a functional level, socially, professionally. That's when it started to get difficult. That's when I started having to apologise for it, and include it as part of my introductory spiel, especially in the context of music."

At this time, Pash started dating film lawyer Eve Foreman. They'd been circling each other in the night haunts of Adelaide for a while – she'd seen him play in Bad Girls of the Bible, and remembered him jumping off stacks and tables. At turns she thought he was arrogant, enthralling, emotionally insecure, smart, and sharp. Foreman was obsessed with underground post-punk and new wave. Pash's taste in music seemed "more dorky" to her, but she came around. If she first found him arrogant and insecure, she soon found herself stuck in deep conversations and arguments: she jokes that he was brainwashing her into liking him. Foreman always knew about Pash's medical issue, but he seemed to function fine in a social setting. On an early date, she remembers him explaining to her as a warning: "In about 10 years' time, I'll be pretty deaf." Eleven years on, she's sitting next to Pash in my backyard, covered in mosquito welts.

When a string of personal dramas caused Leader Cheetah to break up in 2013, Pash effectively quit music. "I didn't go to any gigs or play except at home, alone, quietly." He wanted to play live, but he'd never been good at starting projects on his own, and he didn't know any other musicians he'd want to trouble with the limits his hearing would impose on their playing. A drummer might have to play with brushes, a bass amp's volume might have to be dialled right back, a rehearsal might have to end early or be cancelled if his ears had been causing him particular discomfort that day. Foreman had moved to Sydney in 2009 to pursue her career, and Pash followed in 2011, shortly after recording Leader Cheetah's second (and final) album. They now share a flat in Ashfield, a car and a record collection. She works as a film lawyer in Kings Cross, while he splits his time between the last stages of his PhD, tutoring philosophy at Sydney University, and working in a bookshop.

But rather than experiencing the silence deafness implies, white noise is almost all he can hear, night and day. Now, for Pash, the clamour inside a restaurant sounds like a semi-trailer roaring past his head "with added sheet metal being torn asunder". A party sounds like "a brass quintet put through a Marshall stack blaring over his head". Music "sounds like everything was recorded in a letterbox at the bottom of a lake". The couple don't really go out any more. "In a way it makes the relationship more intimate, but of course it is limiting socially," says Foreman. She's taller than Dan, with the elegant slouch of a 1930s film star. Her eyes are lined with kohl; her long fingers pinch the stem of a wineglass. "It's mainly been this last year that's gone downhill fast, and [hearing loss is] now affecting how we communicate as a couple at home. He is reading lips really, so needs to see my face. It's easier to have a conversation about topics he knows about so he can fill in the gaps, and it's easier for him to do more of the talking than listening."

Foreman is open about the effects on not just Pash, but herself. "Every day is exhausting for him. The tinnitus keeps him up at night. A lot of the time, I think he comes home not wanting to try to listen [to anything] any more. I sometimes find this isolating, sometimes I find it controlling, as the way – and when – we communicate about certain things necessarily needs to be on his terms at times, but mostly I feel incredibly emotional and sad about it. I sometimes wonder if my role should be to encourage him to stop making music and get cochlear implants to make other elements in his life easier, but I know music is the main thing he cares about, and this feels like a mentally healthy thing to be doing with what little hearing he has left."

Music 'sounds like everything was recorded in a letterbox at the bottom of a lake.'

Cochlear implants will enable Pash to understand speech again, bypassing the damaged part of his ears and directly triggering the auditory nerve with tiny electrical signals. "I fully expect that when I make the decision to get the implants, I will be able to get back to having a rewarding social and professional life," Pash says. So why wait? Because while implants are serviceable when emulating speech-like sounds, perfectly translating pitch and timbre is simply too complex for the device in its current incarnation. The technology has come a long way since it was invented in 1957, but it has far to go. Even with what little natural hearing he has left, Pash will have a better chance at detecting nuance in music without implants. "Once I got into my 30s the doctors, after looking at my charts, were much more confident in putting a timeline on how quickly the rest of my hearing would deteriorate," Pash says. "At my last ENT consultation, the guy looked at my current levels plus my history and said, 'If you have any other musical goals, you need to get them done in the next year.' And he was basically right."

In a way, Foreman has been Pash's punk enabler: his new band Reality Instructors only began because she took up bass guitar. "Eve kind of threw herself under the bus so that this band could exist," he says. Now Pash writes songs between study during the week, and on Sundays, when he works at the bookshop, Foreman writes her own material for the band. She laughs about how the process began. "He would come home and I would stand up and present what I'd made. And it was always at that level where nothing was ever completely finished. I'd always stop and say, 'No, wait that's not right, I've got it wrong.' And maybe some songs stuck, and others were politely disregarded."

The couple have developed an elastic songwriting routine, where they share lyrics and ideas. They both sing lead vocals, and tinker on each other's songs. Drummer and friend Nick Kennedy soon joined the bedroom sessions, armed with a snare drum and brushes, and something just "felt right". These were people Pash loved, and felt supported by. They understood the logistical acrobatics that a hearing impairment requires of a loud punk band. Pash's band problem was solved: Reality Instructors was born. In early 2017, the band hit a rehearsal studio where they could turn up the volume. "It felt like this was the way it was going to go," says Pash. "And then we just had to play a show, and just had to play another show." The live shows began in February last year at the Petersham Bowling Club in Sydney's inner west, and have since seen the couple return to The Exeter in Adelaide. Pash concedes that the 15 shows (and counting) have fast-tracked his hearing loss. His lyrics for the song Reality Instructor from Ritual Ignorant best answer the question of why he continues:

They say give away whatever you've been doing

that made you blue, and did not improve your health

Oh hey but they don't know what we've been through.

'Cause if all that's left to do right now is take your place on the shelf

Recall that other place and time when you were somebody else

And if you ignore that glimpse of grace and how it felt I'll know you're making a mistake.

Pash might have less than 3 per cent of his hearing left, but he also has the album he spent his life wanting to make.

His new band, Reality Instructors (from left) Pash, Eve Foreman and Nick Kennedy.Credit:Miška Mandić

Reality Instructors is speedily recording a follow-up EP to Ritual Ignorant, but as they play on, well past the point last drinks were called by Pash’s specialists, things have had to change. While recording vocals for these latest tracks Pash sometimes over- or undershoots a note by a semitone. According to the EP’s producer, Liam Judson, “He has to deliberately sing flat or sharp on some notes, train himself to do that, just to hit them properly. That didn’t happen on the album. It’s much more of a challenge for him.” His songwriting methods have had to shift, too.

As Pash explains, “Sometimes an idea comes about because you’re sitting and playing and you do something unexpected, and you like it, so you do it again, and you keep repeating it until it turns into something. That mode of writing is now closed to me, because I can’t hear what I’m playing well enough to know if I like it enough to play it again.” He can still use the guitar as a tool to test ideas, but only in a very rudimentary way. He can “sort of” hear the bottom two strings – enough to work out progressions.

Luckily for Pash, a new way of writing has made itself available to him. While he used to think Paul McCartney’s tales about waking up with a song in his head were “horseshit,” one of the songs on Ritual Ignorant, Coloured Blue, did come to Pash in a dream.

Now he wishes he'd been more open to his own dreaming – or, at least, imaginatively instigated songwriting. Judson hopes it will be possible for Pash to keep writing, playing and recording after he's lost all his hearing. "I think he could do it," Judson says. "The guitar's super-resonant, particularly solid body electric [guitars] … Obviously it might be a little collaborative, with people like Eve going, "Yeah that's great," or "That's a bit strange," but I do think it is possible."

For Pash, the day he undergoes a double cochlear implantation will mark the end of his musical career. He will be able to understand speech, but only after learning how to interpret the digital blips that are the implant's approximation of words. He knows that the majority of people who switch to implants have not regretted their choice. What they usually regret is having taken so long to finally make the leap.

But he has chosen – "more like a realisation, in hindsight" – to cling to his natural hearing until the bitter end. Every day he wakes up and makes the decision again. It's how he makes all his choices. "Like, you wake up at 38 and say: I guess I didn't really want a career, because I don't have one." But the more he realises the decision has been made, accidentally or otherwise, the more Pash is resolved: for as long as he can possibly play, he'll put the surgery off. "I'll give up socialising, my job, being able to talk to people, if I can have one more month of trying to make music. It will only take not being able to play; plugging in and not being able to hear a thing."

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