“To Hell and Back in a Ladies’ Clubwear Shop”
Discovering Peter Silberman’s Impermanence
words by joanie wolkoff
photography by justin hollar
The first time I listened to Peter Silberman’s slow-burn album Impermanence – released on February 24th via Transgressive – I had my headphones on blast in an infamously affordable ladies’ club wear store lit with blinding fluorescent lights. His tormented opus shimmered through my eardrums and into my psyche as I wandered amongst headless mannequins swaddled in chintzy day-glow mini dresses. That decontextualized foray into Silberman’s underworld upset and dazzled me in equal parts until, three quarters through the last (especially perturbing) song, I was tapped on the shoulder by a nice sales lady who told me that it was closing time. I stepped out into the freezing night and wandered home like a stunned goat. What had I just lived through? I was about to find out. As soon as I’d reset my buttons over a cup of tea, I dialled the artist himself and put him on speaker.
Silberman has spent this winter secluded in upstate New York, where his hat now indefinitely hangs. He laughs when I tell him about my virgin voyage through his EP in the poom-poom pant aisle at Rainbow retailers. He counters with the confession that he’s taken to playing the songs of 1930’s swing chanteuse Helen Forrest in an unlikely setting as well. “I find myself driving around and listening to a lot of her recordings, feeling kind of like I’m in the beginning of The Shining. It’s creepy and beautiful [upstate], with a lot of eerie woods and abandoned buildings.”
When asked about middle-of-nowhere wintertime survival tactics, he explains that one thing he doesn’t miss is New York City snow. “It just turns a grey color and doesn’t go anywhere,” he shudders. Following an intensive bout of soul searching last year, Silberman bid Brooklyn adieu and set out for the more forgiving pastures of rural life.
“There are fewer distractions now but I have to hold myself accountable on a daily basis, and that kind of ebbs and flows,” he notes. “I’ve set up some pretty strict boundaries for myself as far as how much I tune into what’s going on [via social media]. It’s hard to do that, though. Generally there’s so much incredible potential in technology for people who are disenfranchised or whose expression is restricted. But I’m also suspicious of how addictive it all is. The internet’s not even escapist anymore. It’s become our primary means of learning what’s going on in the world. It’s punishing- we turn to these devices for a distraction but there’s so much to unpack in there. We’re all being studied by the companies that are marketing to us. I remember life before the internet. TV was on all the time, but you could turn it off. That’s harder with social media. All of my friends’ kids have had a digital footprint from the time they were born. They can’t opt out.”
Silberman’s six song emotional odyssey Impermanence, trailed him from its inception in NYC all the way to his isolated new digs. “Once I moved out here and everything in my daily routine changed, I felt the urgency to wrap this project up. If your environment is always changing, you have to become the constant or you feel displaced. After moving up here, the things I had been working through started to feel like a past chapter, so I tied [the album] up. How fitting that the impermanence that was central to my thinking passed by.”
Impermanence opens on an uneasy, ambling track titled “Karuna” that wends its way through a minimal soundscape of agonized vocals and austere instrumentation. Lyrics like “plug my ear and bash my fist” conjure the cathartic tenor of this real-time musical journey. “The idea with the first track was to take a moment of panic, uncertainty and disorientation and view it through a microscope,” Silberman explains. “It’s less psychological than it is psychospiritual. It’s zooming in and seeing the space between all the atoms of an exclamation of fuck what happened?”
Silberman’s singing is not always a comfortable experience. It quivers and perambulates tenuously. He cites Desmond Dekker, Paul Simon and Niko among his greatest vocal inspirations. “My (singing) voice articulates my mind in a way that my speaking voice can’t,” he reflects.
Standout track “New York,” features Kelly Pratt on flute and a smattering of lush, uplifting French horns that evoke a dark, pared down nod to late 70’s progressive pop numbers like Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Silberman recalls of his production process: “We recorded everything super hifi, then systematically sent most of the tracks on the record to a reel-to-reel four track recorder and finally back into the system, which gives it warmth and age. When you’re capturing sound in high definition you have a lot of information, a vivid picture. It’s interesting to then see what the tape keeps, what it uncovers and what it discards. [The engineers] brought a lot of different tape elements out, and the record started to disintegrate as that happened.”
Silberman’s fingers slip audibly from fret to fret on a 60’s Brazilian classical guitar in “Maya,” a song comparing the cycle of life to the setting sun which carries on existing once it has passed the horizon in spite of its absence from our sightline.
However, the instrumental outtro for which his album was named counters such moments of beatific introspection with an almost filmically disquieting tone that touches on life’s finite nature in the void. Layered with piano, pump organ and farfisa, the concluding instrumental pièce de resistance on Impermanence resonates with thinly veiled unease (and was playing when I almost jumped out of my skin from being gently asked to leave the club wear store I first heard it in).
Silberman doesn’t apologize for the trauma. “The tracks leading up to ‘Impermanence’ lull you into a false sense of peace, and then you’re taken back to square one,” he confirms. “Then you return to the first song on the album and start over again. The overriding point is that we are changing organisms that don’t go on indefinitely.”
“At this point in the game, death has probably touched everybody’s lives,” he continues. “It’s in everybody’s interest not to contribute to the harmful, or make everything more hellacious than it already is. I’ve definitely got violence in me, but you can’t eliminate that from yourself completely. If you’re determined to minimize the harm you do, that’s the work of a lifetime. A lot of it comes down to getting to know you’re own mind, and all the stuff in there that’s not so peaceful. I can be patient with it without trying to force it into a box.”
“Impermanence” is released on February 24th, via Transgressive
You can pre-order it here