Originally published in The Irish Times, July 4th 2011
ANONYMITY CAN be a precious commodity. In today’s information-overloaded world, where we can find out practically anything about anyone we know, or even delve into a complete stranger’s life thanks to social networks, it seems the need for privacy grows by the day.
Some musicians are starting to feel this way, too. Twitter can be a curse as well a blessing when it comes to bands; some appear to think their thousands of followers are genuinely interested in the most inane aspects of their lives. Yet there remain musicians who believe their music should be left to do the talking.
That thought was at the forefront of dubstep producer Aaron Jerome’s mind when he adapted the pseudonym SBTRKT. His eponymous debut has been critically acclaimed, but the fact that the secretive Londoner dons a distinctive African tribal mask when he plays live has also been grabbing the attention.
Like his anonymous dubstep contemporary Burial, Jerome claims his decision to mask his identity was a noble one. “I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself,” he told Clash magazine last month. “The name SBTRKT is me taking myself away from that whole process. I’m not the most social person, so having to talk to DJs to make them play a record is not something I want to do. It’s more about giving them a record as an anonymous person and seeing whether they like it or not. If they play it, they play it.”
But the “masked man” tactic can backfire, too. When we requested a word with SBTRKT for this article, we were told, politely but firmly, by his label that he was “very busy”, the implication being that he had already exhaustively answered questions on the topic of his disguise. It would seem that creating an anonymous persona for yourself can be more trouble than it’s worth.
Manchester band WU LYF learned that lesson the hard way. Formed in 2009, the quartet began generating a buzz earlier this year when their refusal to co-operate with the media – no interviews, no magazine photoshoots – gave them a thrillingly enigmatic air.
Initially, the band, and their lead singer Ellery Roberts, were seen as renegades – a young unsigned band who were releasing their debut album without the help of “The Man”. Last month, however, they caved, with Roberts admitting that their rejection of a conventional marketing campaign had started to become a “cliched gimmick”.
“We were ‘the mysterious WU LYF’, and it was this persistent piece of press hype that followed us around,” he says. “None of us are interested in hype, and none of us are trying to hide. We’re not trying to make up some fantastic myth and hide behind it.”
Yet at times – mostly when preserved with a lack of po-faced posturing and a sense of humour – anonymity can work. Take Daft Punk, for example.
The French duo are widely regarded as one of music’s most adept electronic acts, but Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo haven’t shown their faces publicly since the very early stages of their career. Their robotic incarnations are now synonymous with their sound, and their amazing live set-up gives their music a striking visual appeal, too.
But it’s not just international acts with big budgets who can afford to have a little fun. If you’ve ever seen inventive Irish rock band Adebisi Shank perform, you can’t help but notice that their bassist, Vinny McCreith’s, entire head is covered by a bright red face mask, fashioned out of an old hoodie and inspired by the ancient Greek theatrical masks.
“It gets hot, it gets sweaty, and I can’t see what the hell’s going on half the time, but it’s all part of the fun,” says McCreith. “If I ever lost the mask, the band would be over. I probably don’t wash it as often as I should, though.”
There’s no question that identity concealment appeals to the most inquisitive side of human nature. But it also means these musicians are missing out on what some of us mere mortals view as the most appealing part of fame. How are you supposed to drop the line “Don’t you know who I am?” with self-righteous indignation if nobody could possibly know who you are?
The musicians behind the masks
One of the first modern acts to create alter-egos, unmasked photos of the French dance/electronica maestros are few and far-between. The pair claim that the idea of fame – or of taking themselves seriously – never appealed to them.
“You don’t always have to compromise yourself to be successful,” Thomas Bangalter once said. “The playing with masks is just to make it funnier. Pictures can be boring. We don’t want all the rock’n’roll poses and attitudes – they are completely stupid and ridiculous today.”
Aaron Jerome had his African tribal mask made by London-based prop- and mask-maker Oliver Hipwell. His SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”) persona certainly makes for amazing photographs, and his recently-released album, an excursion into offbeat 2-step and dubstep, is being hailed as one of the year’s most inventive.
It would take a cynic to suggest that his anonymity is just another clever marketing ploy . . . wouldn’t it?
The Manchester foursome don’t hide when they play live, although early promo photos released to the press depicted a large group of young adults covering their faces with bandanas.
To their credit, their “anti-promo” promo campaign worked by generating the sort of publicity that money can’t buy; after all, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, right?
For years, many people believed that Burial was the alter-ego of some high profile DJ or producer, but in 2008 the London Independent revealed that the creator of two acclaimed albums (2006’s Burial and 2007’s Untrue) was Will Bevan, from south London, who creates his albums on his home computer. Bevan later took to his MySpace page to confirm his identity, but when Untrue was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2008, he failed to show. In fact, he has never played live.