"I don’t want any regrets about what I didn’t do,” Loken says. “It seems like an awful way to go.” What if our biggest regret could be realizing we had wasted precious time not enjoying the wonders of the sound world around us when there is an easy, elegant solution to hearing loss: Eargo 5."
Music and sound have been a lifelong theme for John. Early on, he was a performer. Then, he moved to the business side. Motivated by his lifelong love of music, he worked helping people such as Madonna, Prince, and Stevie Wonder bring their art to the world.
But life is not all big arenas and huge crowds. He also enjoys a quiet night, sitting down at the piano to play for his own enjoyment, having found this simple pleasure of his youth continues to restore him. “We spend a lot of our lives looking for strength and sanctuary outside of ourselves,” he says. “As we get older, we have to find those reservoirs within. Playing and listening to music helps me get there.” The healing power of the soft, subtle tones of a jazz piano, as heard with the help of the Eargo 5s, is a pleasure John now won’t do without.
When did you become aware of having some hearing loss?
I first noticed in my 20s, when I would leave a show — either a set my band had played, or maybe seeing some artist in a club — that my ears would ring for a while. Then there was just this deadness to my hearing, as the ‘silence’ returned after an hour or two when I could tell I’d flattened some of those tiny hairs in my cochlea.
What prevented you from getting some help to improve your hearing?
There’s a stigma to wearing a bulky hearing aid, especially for younger people, so I ignored the problem for a long time. This is completely shallow, of course, and, in hindsight, I regret letting vanity stop me from getting help sooner.
How did you do on the Eargo online hearing screening? Any surprises there?
The hearing screening validated my intuition — that my loss is mild to moderate, and it’s in both ears — but what surprised me was the range of frequencies that were gone. I’d assumed what I was missing was mostly on the high end — that sibilant range which, in music, is occupied by high hat and percussion — but it turns out there was some mid and lower mid-range loss as well.
Music has been a part of your life for a long time. When did you start playing and what did you enjoy about it?
My mother basically forced me to start piano lessons when I was around 6, and I rebelled for several years. She would always say, “Someday you’ll be glad you did this” and I now know she was 100% correct. I love to have a skill where I can sit down and play whenever I find an instrument in the wild. The turning point for me was in sixth grade when I joined a band to play a gig on the playground during recess. The last song we did was “Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John and, as the girls gathered around the piano to shout along to the last few choruses, I kind of knew my life calling.
What were your rock band’s days like? What sort of rock were you playing?
In high school and even college it was mostly cover bands — we’d get paid a few hundred bucks each for playing a sorority party or wedding reception — but around this time the focus was very much about writing original songs. We had a band called the Esoterics and we sounded like a hybrid of music from the ‘70s and ‘80s — mixing the funk rock of Power Station with some jazz a la Steely Dan. I was really into oddball performers like Danny Elfman and David Byrne at the time, so as the frontman I kind of resembled a less cool Peter Gabriel.
It can be pretty loud on stage. Did your ears ever ring after a show?
Oh yes, my ears would often ring after shows. Standing directly in front of the drum kit and the amplifiers of both the guitarist and bass player it was pretty cacophonous out there.
What were the first sounds you noticed when you started using the Eargo 5s?
Believe it or not, the first epiphany was hearing my own voice. For years I’ve been told I speak very loudly, and the reason is I could not quite hear myself. So as soon as I put them in and started talking I found I could actually whisper again.
You also have spent a lot of time on the business end of the music, as a manager, promoter, and organizer. What are some of your favorite memories from helping other musicians?
I have so many fond memories of my time in the music business. Touring Europe with Stevie Wonder — we became pretty close for a few months. Breaking new artists like Morcheeba and Sugarcult, and gaining lifelong friendships along the way. There’s something extremely gratifying about discovering a musician or a band that the world doesn’t yet know about and being completely confident they’re going to be huge. By helping them realize their dreams you’re also kind of satisfying yours. It brings me great joy to help others.
Top 3 shows you have ever seen?
Seeing Radiohead play all of “OK Computer” at Glastonbury, the weekend after the album came out and entered the UK charts at #1, was a transcendent experience. And every time I watched Stevie Wonder play it was like going to church, but none so much as when he brought down the house at the Apollo Theater.
What type of music do you listen to now?
At our apartment in New York, my beloved and I mostly listen to classical and traditional jazz. Then when she leaves, sometimes I’ll crank up a Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull record. One of the best streaming stations I still enjoy, from my years living in Los Angeles, is KCRW’s Eclectic 24. There’s no better soundtrack to get your Sunday morning going: cooking breakfast, reading the paper, getting the bike ready for a ride.
How has having Eargo 5s changed your hearing experience?
One of the biggest upsides is being able to watch television and not crank up the volume. The speakers on most large screen TVs are pretty lousy, they overly compress all frequency ranges, so you find yourself constantly adjusting the volume up and down between explosions or whatever and quieter scenes of dialogue. And we can have the window open with all the ambient street noise coming in from outside and I don’t have to dial the sound up to 70 and irritate my neighbors.
You have recently moved to a busy part of Manhattan, but very near the park. Those are two very different sonic environments. What stands out to you as you go from the streets to the center of the park?
Yes, the soundscape in the park is dramatically different. There are parts of the Ramble or large stretches to the north end of the park — just about anything above the reservoir — where I can now actually hear the birds chirp.
You are an avid cyclist. How does hearing impact how you ride, and how do you communicate with your fellow riders?
Hearing is a crucial aspect of cycling, especially in a city where you need to be aware of cars or buses coming up behind you (that you can’t yet see). And one of the more frustrating parts of hearing loss is trying to have a conversation with a fellow cyclist as the wind rushes past you. So you’re constantly saying, “Pardon me?” and “What was that?”
You have been working with Sapiens author Yuval Harari, on an exhibition around his best-selling book. What is it like to work with someone like that?
Well, speaking of silence, Yuval does a two-month silent retreat — it’s called Vipassana — every year. He uses the space to see the world more objectively and to contemplate the true meaning of reality without projecting self or ego into the process. One of the reasons his books have been so successful is he’s able to filter what is happening at a macro scale and distill it into something digestible by the masses. His superpower is providing clarity to the narratives that surround us, whether it’s politics or religion, or science.
The exhibition sounds incredible. How will you be incorporating sound into it?
Sound will be a critical component of the experience, whether it’s the chirps and buzzing of an ancient forest or the horrific thunder of an atomic bomb being detonated. The exhibition is multi-sensorial so we’ll be using temperature, humidity, haptics, LED screens, and a wide range of tricks to immerse participants. We’re thinking about what city soundscapes will be like when combustion motors are gone, for example.
What would you say to someone who has hearing loss, but is perhaps hesitant to see out a solution?
With wonderful in-ear innovations like Eargo, there’s no reason to put it off. Take the online hearing screening — it’s as accurate as anything I’ve done in an iso booth at a hearing specialist — and try them out to see if they work for you.
What are the 3 non-negotiables in your life now?
Eight hours of sleep, experiencing as much art and culture as possible and spending whatever precious moments I have left with the love of my life.