Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hip guitarist switches to plan B after losing hearing in right ear

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Many times, the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie has sung the line, "Let's just see what the morning brings," and guitarist Paul Langlois, standing a few feet away, never guessed how prophetic the words would be.

One morning about two years ago, as the Hip were recording the band's most recent album, Now for Plan A, Langlois suddenly lost all hearing in his right ear.

"I just woke up that way," he says, over the phone from Kingston, Ont., the Hip's home base. He was diagnosed with sudden hearing loss, a rare condition with mysterious causes -- a career in loud music not among them. The condition affects only 4,000 people annually in the United States.

"I knew right away, this is gone, because there's no cure for it and it doesn't come back," Langlois says.

He was afraid for his career in music, or at least deeply anxious. "I've got a ringing in my ear/ and a pounding in my brain/ I've got a bucket full of fears/ that I won't be back again," he sings in Table's Been Set, one of 10 songs on his new solo album Not Guilty, released earlier this month.

"It affected me a lot," he says over the phone. "I was bummed about it. I play music as my living -- it's my life. And I thought, potentially, am I going to lose the ability to know whether I'm singing in key, and all this stuff?"

A small blessing was the Hip was recording and not out on the road, which allowed Langlois more time to get used to "the new normal."

He's also thankful his right ear is the problem, and not his left.

"In the Hip situation, I'm on stage right, so the band is to my left, which is my good ear, so I didn't have to switch up the way we line up onstage, which I was very happy about because I didn't want this to be affecting anybody but me," Langlois says.

"It took a few months for me to adjust musically and socially, but now... I don't even notice it. Table's Been Set was written when I was pissed off about it, to be honest."

He sounds relaxed about it now and launched a Canadian tour this week. Hip bandmate Rob Baker takes a key position on stage: "I can't hear anything on my right, so I'm putting Robbie over there because I trust what he's going to play."

Joining Langlois in his touring band are Jeff Montgomery on bass and Mauro Sepe on drums -- the same lineup on Not Guilty.

His first solo album, 2010's Fix This Head, featured just Langlois playing all the instruments and handling vocal duties. When he went into the studio for that album he was "just more or less experimenting," he says, and didn't realize he was making a record. Baker encouraged him to do so.

Fix This Head was a solid, roadworthy rock album. Like Not Guilty, the music is more straightforward than that Langlois has helped make with the Hip. He sings with restraint, which creates an intimacy, as if he's sitting at a bar table and telling a story.

Lyrically, Langlois's solo music is more literal, with straight lines about love, melancholy, joy and regret, stripped of the metaphor that characterizes the lyrics of the Hip's frontman, Downie.

"I've very happy to have been in the Hip, and to have been one of the five creative contributors," Langlois says, when asked why he makes solo albums. "It's just something else to do, to fulfil other artistic impulses."

Or, to quote another Downie line, he's looking for a place to happen, and making stops along the way.

 

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 D3

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