“Who’s Handicapped Now, Mother****ers!?” – Meet Shawn Vriezen, Deaf Metalhead
Meet Shawn Vriezen, a lover of heavy metal with severe hearing loss. Shawn is a fixture in the Minneapolis metal scene, a dependable superfan with a beard almost as charming as his galactic bear hugs.
Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions, Shawn! Let me begin by saying you’re a handsome man with a handsomer smile, and it warms my heart every time I get to chat with you at a show.
Deafness is a spectrum, and if you’re comfortable discussing it, I’m curious where you personally fall within the extremes of having absolutely NO hearing to having typical hearing (well, as typical as any metalhead’s tinnitus-riddled hearing is).
My deafness is genetic. I am at least the third generation in my family to acquire the genetic trait. Although I was born Deaf most likely, I was originally thought to have normal hearing growing up since I spoke normally without an accent and seemed to pick up on anything like any normal child. Back then, screening for hearing among infants wasn’t required so my deafness went undetected until I was five years old and had my first hearing test conducted at the age of five.
Back then I had a mild to moderate hearing loss but my speech recognition was unusually high for someone with the hearing levels display on my audiogram so even my audiologist didn’t believe it was correct and referred me to a specialist who couldn’t prove otherwise. I was then sent back to class and given until the next year with in first grade before conducting another hearing test only to have the same result. By then they had figured it wasn’t something that was going to go away on its own and slapped on a pair of hearing aids and sent me back to class.
As I get older, my hearing naturally decreases and is currently considered to be at the level of “severe hearing loss”. A normal degree of hearing loss would be around the 0-25 decibel range whereas mine is around 80 decibels on my right ear and 90 decibels on my left. For perspective, a metal show typically is around the 115 dB range.
How do you think you experience music differently than someone with typical hearing, either when recorded or at a live performance? At shows I usually see you with your head right next to the PA with no earplugs in, bathing in the vibrations in a way that I can’t without fear of hurting myself.
For the most part I’d like to think that I experience recorded music mostly the same as anyone else. The biggest difference is that it would have to be much louder for me to enjoy. I find loudness itself to be subjective. Its not uncommon for someone to tell me to turn something down because its too loud. But for me it would either usually be low. This is why its a nice gift for me when there are no roommates home, at least roommates with normal hearing, so I can crank it up without complaint. Otherwise headphones and an amplifier are how I enjoy most of my music.
Live shows as I mentioned earlier are right in my range. Registering in at 115 decibels and not having to worry about people to tell me to turn it down is something I can enjoy. Not just listening, but also the vibrations of loud music. I am also able to remove my hearing aids which allows me to enjoy music in its natural state. While everyone else at a show is putting earplugs in, I am removing my hearing aids. If I ever have a preference between listening to music with or without hearing aids, the optimal choice is going to be without hearing aids and music at those levels would have to be at an extremely loud volume. At the very least 90 decibels would be a normal range for me without hearing aids.
What draws you to metal in particular, among all types of music?
In the beginning it turned out to be a happy accident. I was nine years old and with a ten dollar bill in hand I pedaled my bike to the store looking to purchase an INXS album. When I got there I found out that I didn’t have enough money but didn’t want to walk out empty handed. I ended up coming home with a cassette tape of Kill ‘em All by Metallica. It was even more fortunate that it contained Metallica’s cover of King Diamond’s Am I Evil which had me hooked from the first time I listened.
There are many reasons why I indulge in metal. The genre stems from something that is so real, and instead of looking away, it unblinkingly stares into it. Metal at its best is a complex cacophony of organized chaos that immerses itself in the darkness that other genres fear to tread.
Ahh, yes, you speak of The Void. We’re big fans around here. I often see you signing with your friends during shows, having full conversations with your hands amidst complete aural chaos, and I suddenly feel incredibly foolish for relying on my ears to communicate quickly with others. Where else do signing skills come in particularly handy?
I have to admit that I enjoy being able to speak freely during a show in such a way that I don’t interrupt what I’m listening to. If someone were to talk with me with their voice during a show I would be annoyed that they were trying to talk over the music. Using sign language to communicate allows me to take in everything at the same time; I am able to talk about the music or the band without taking away from the show.
A similar experience I had using sign would be when I took a scuba diving class with another Deaf friend of mine. Before we had even entered the water, the rest of class I can imagine probably viewed us as monkeys communicating with each other in mime along with our interpreters. Once we had gone underwater though, they were limited to a vocabulary of “up, down, buddy, okay” and a handful of other words. Meanwhile, my Deaf classmate and I were floating underwater, sometimes upside down and in opposite directions while having full conversations and at times laughing to ourselves while signing “Who’s handicapped now, motherfuckers!?”
Other than that, signing is great at distances, with loud background noise, concerts, clubs, through windows, underwater, and I’d like to think in that cold vacuum of space while free floating without a helmet and with only enough time to expel your last words, which would probably be a lot easier with sign language.
Yeah, sign language is definitely more practical than English for uttering final words in the frigid wastes of outer space. Our readers will probably be interested to know that you and I first met at a show headlined by ToH-approved power metal superstars Noble Beast. What are your favorite bands to see play?
I usually try and see Gojira whenever they are in town. Other than that nothing beats seeing local bands. There is a level of intimacy that is unparalleled that is difficult to replicate with big names. My favorites would have to be as mentioned, Noble Beast, Maeth, Lungs, False, In Defence and Invidiosus. The local shows bring in great touring bands like Rottenness and The Body that can’t be neglected either.
Before meeting you and your crew of “Deaf metal” friends, it never occurred to me that a Deaf person might be an active fan of metal. Any other misconceptions about Deaf folks you’d care to dispel for us?
There are quite a few of them. Residual hearing or not, there are a substantial amount of Deaf people who enjoy music. More often than you would think, we will get asked whether we can read braille, which most of us cannot with the exception of the DeafBlind. While I could spend a lengthy amount of time going through each misconception (of which there are plenty) I will end it with the fact that not all of us Deaf males are hung like a walrus. Most of us, but not all of us.
Duly noted. Thanks for your time, friend. Any final words of wisdom? Or words of foolishness?
My mom, who is also Deaf, is quite sensitive to vibrations. Growing up I had this little boombox in my bedroom upstairs where I would listen to music. She would always come up and tell me to turn it down and I usually responded telling her that was just the bass and it wasn’t really that loud when in fact it was. My mom would always tell me to value the hearing I had by keeping any noise within “optimally normal” volumes. Instead of heeding her words, I listen to all the music I can at the loudest volumes possible. My philosophy is that if I’m going to lose what residual hearing I have anyways, I might as well enjoy it while I still have it. And regardless of whether or not I have any hearing left, I will still be going to shows and signing with my friends. When the ambient noise is as loud as it is, the inability to communicate aurally renders us all “deaf” anyhow.
Thank you, Shawn. Stay metal; stay Void; stay Deaf. \m/
In addition to being an avid metalhead and showgoer, Shawn is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and a professional cameraman. You can see his work on the upcoming season of documentary series Travel With Dawn at H3world.tv, an ASL news site.