The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret:
By Gerard Casau
Be it hits makers or underground actors, we assume that when a musician jumps on a stage he carries an ego to feed, is looking for applause or some kind of reaction to acknowledge his work. But what happens with those artists who have decided to lead a masked artistic life? There are plenty of those who prefer performing hidden behind a disguise, even erasing sometimes any trace that can link their production with the name on their ID card. The mystery surrounding them create room for speculation and urban legend, and we could even say that it has ended up creating a sort of enigmatic canon.
It all might have started with Robert Johnson. The blues icon is not exactly an anonymous character, but the times (beginnings of the 20th century) and the circumstances of his short life (he died at twenty-seven, supposedly poisoned by a husband who was jealous of his charisma) didn’t help to document his existence. We have been left with only a few brief biographical details, a couple of photographs and, of course, his recordings, which were compiled in their entirety in 1990 in a double CD. Anyone fascinated by his voice who wanted to know more about the character inevitably bumped into a wall of mist. And what is the human reflex before a lack of answers? Inventiveness, of course! Some took the research on Johnson to a more serious, disciplined and academic level, but what we’re dealing with now is widespread theories such as the one who turned the music into a declination of the Faust myth, whose genius was born from a deal with the Devil. So even though we know his name and have seen his face, Robert Johnson is, still today, legend material: a creature closer to fiction than reality.
Finally, it’s that esoteric quality what makes the “Johnson case” something infinitely more fascinating than projects such as Buckethead, Slipknot, DOOM or, obviously, Daft Punk (another story would be the Underground Resistance collective, who used electronic guerrilla -almost terrorist- ethics and aesthetics). Leaving aside their artistic merits (or the lack of them), what kind of aura do these characters have? Not much, or none at all. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo came up with the robotic concept a bit late, when Homework had already become the cornerstone of the French touch, so the most it can do now for them is let them be able to walk down the street without being asked for an autograph at every step. The greatest mystery their cybernetic appearance arises is knowing whether when they perform live (something that doesn’t happen very often anyway) it’s really them inside those helmets or two guys getting extra wages by taking part in this electro-funk farce. Their fiction is harmless and soothing, like the explanation “it was all a dream” at the end of a fantasy film, because it never tried to be anything more, at any given time, than a (flashy) work uniform. Still, it’s interesting to think what would happen if, all of a sudden, those musicians decided the joke was over and started performing unmasked (in fact, Damon Albarn already did so with Gorillaz, and I can’t be sure whether it was at that precise moment when certain critics started taking seriously the formerly proto-virtual band). How would the audience react? Would we see it as an example of sincerity or would it devalue our regard of their music? I remember feeling slightly disappointed when at a Death in June concert, Douglas Pearce took off his mask too soon, discarding the disturbing grimace of his white avatar to defend his ethically thorny folk with just an acoustic guitar and a visible moustache. No, without the theatrical atrezzo it’s not the same. I guess that’s one of the reasons (if not the only one) why Anna-Varney Cantodea rejects giving any concerts as Sopor Aeternus.
Despite the aforementioned, we shouldn’t be too pernickety with those only sporting the shallowest kind of disguise. Sometimes, this can produce interesting accidents, like when the alter ego becomes more popular than the real person: when he created Frank Sidebottom as a comic number to make TV programmes more bizarre, Chris Sievey couldn’t imagine that his fiberglass caricature would get the acknowledgement he never got under his own name; not even when, in the seventies, he voiced catchy power pop pearls in The Freshies, sometimes in collaboration with future Mancunian heroes such as Billy Duffy and Martin Jackson. This line up never included Johnny Marr, rejected for being excessively young. Years later, Frank Sidebottom would mock The Smiths, but it’s probable that, sweating under the mask, Suivey knew that the mockery was on him for having let escape the hand that basked the most valuable six lines of his generation. Conveniently fictionalised, the Frank Sidebottom case would give way to Lenny Abrahamson’s film Frank, in which Michael Fassbender played the character not in biopic mode but as a distillation of the “cult artist” expression.
Cultivating obscurity requires tenacity, and not everybody is ready to follow a long-time career without birth names, such as The Residents, the mystery band par excellence. From their debut, Meet the Residents, cover, in which they imitated the Beatles, until their subsequent incarnation as eye globes dressed in tuxedos, the US collective has published a huge amount of material and has performed live plenty of times without the identity of its members ever transcending the public light, not even betrayed by any of those who have occasionally worked with them. Their first steps were taken to distort the basics of pop culture (in particular with The Third Reich’n’Roll, a what-if of what rock could have been had the Nazis won the war); maybe that’s why some people thought that under those eye helmets hid big names in the music scene, from Paul McCartney to David Byrne. But in time, their imaginary evolved to acquire a hermetic shape, almost meaningless outside their own mythology, in which the human figure takes a purely residual place. In 2015, the Residents were the object of a documentary, Theory of Obscurity, which substituted the (logical) impossibility of reaching them directly with a good dose of archive images and interviews with famous fans -Matt Groening (who had been assumed was one of its members), Primus’ Les Claypool, etc.-, and their closest entourage. Even though the director Don Hardy doesn’t adopt an inquisitive point of view, choosing to respect the hole inhabiting the centre of his film, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the viewer to unite the dots and link the faces of some of their representatives in The Cryptic Corporation with the features of a young man who did all sorts of things on a stage before he ever decided to hide his own face. It’s all there, right before our eyes. The mystery of the Residents is, deep down, fragile, and if it has survived more than four decades it is due as much to the effort of its components as to the will of those who love them. Not knowing who the Residents are makes them immortal, turns them into an idea able to be regenerated when necessary. Probably some of the bodies that recorded their first notes have already left the boat, or might be even dead, but the concept remains. And I bet it will survive us all.
Deep down, no one wants to ruin a good (and open-ended) story, most of all when it can be played with. Some even try to contradict the authors when they say the show is over. This is what happened to Burial when, after a few years of total anonymity, he gave a step forward to reveal his real name and face. He said that hiding his identity was meant for the media and audience to focus solely on his music, but that this had turned against him when the rumours about his persona had started eating up those about his art (the Banksy syndrome, something other artists such as Zomby or John Talabot have also suffered from). But some thought too boring that behind the charismatic dubstep producer there was “simply” a guy called William Bevan, so they multiplied and twisted the speculations to prove that this revelation was a mere smoke screen and that Burial was in fact another of Kieran Hebden’s (of Four Tet) alias.
“Be as enigmatic as you want, but don’t sell us normality,” they seemed to tell poor Will. Because mystery and obscurity are also a way of becoming totally spectacular, as seem to think NǽnøĉÿbbŒrğ VbëřřĦōlökäävsŦ (pronounced “Nanocyborg Uberholocaust”), a duo made up of Wavanova and Dark Dude, and devoted to what they call “ambient cosmic extreme funeral post-drone metal,” a style that takes shape as records that might reach the seven hours in length. The most radical among the radical, a monster spawned from the feverish nightmare of a Wire editor or of an Unsound festival programmer; or, probably, just a big joke.
In the other extreme from the “mystery by accumulation” represented by the very conscious NǽnøĉÿbbŒrğ VbëřřĦōlökäävsŦ, we find the “accidental mystery” of Unknown Mystery 60s Group, a name (in lack of a better one) with which were christened the songs a collector found in some tapes acquired at a Philadelphia market, since they didn’t contain any more significant details than the titles of the tracks. Distortion Records edited the material in CD format and, afterwards, they tried to locate its authors. The only successful clue lead to discovering the drummer, who now lives (or used to live) in Spain and who gave all those interested some extra songs that were used to publish two more albums, but he never revealed the authorship of a kind of music that, in its pop-garage anonymity, encapsulates the sound of an era.
Funnily enough, the reasons a musician has to stay anonymous are usually far from transcendental: a lack of interest, an artistic position, comedy… But in some instances obscurity is crucial for the artists, as is the case with Les Rallizes Dénudés, agents of psych-rock chaos in sixties Japan and whose bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi participated with a communist group in the hijack of a commercial plane in 1970, which ended up with no casualties and with the authors seeking refuge in North Korea. Be it for the will to keep a low profile after this incident, or simply due to the elusive character of their leader, Takashi Mizutani, Les Rallizes Dénudés barely ever published their music officially, although they kept on performing live (their cult has been transmitted most of all thanks to bootlegs) until they disappeared from the map in 1997. Since then, there’s almost been no news about any of their members, turning their silence into a thunderous (and, as this article explains, uneasy) absence from the Japanese scene. More recently, we also have the example of Al-Namrood, a black metal band from Saudi Arabia that have operated in the darkness for nearly a decade, for the obvious reason that the music they make is persecuted by their country’s authorities. Named after Nimrod, the biblical figure representing a challenge to God, their name can be translated as the “non-believer,” what gives an idea of the position of the band before faith tenets. Should they commit the temerity of performing in public, they could face a life, or even death, sentence. Unless, of course, they’re no more than an elaborated scam with offices in, for instance, Canada (where their label is from)… It might seem frivolous or awkward to raise suspicions in such a context, but how to avoid them? How can we know for sure?
At the end of the day, the great beneficiaries of this kind of mysteries are not so much the artists themselves, but the listeners. Enigmas open a net of inconsistencies and instabilities for us to play around with, and give us the possibility of reading their story without having to believe any official version. Who knows? Maybe the death of Robert Johnson wasn’t more than a pantomime. He could still be alive, immortal and eternal thanks to his Mephistophelian deal, and maybe all these years have made him bitter and rude, turning him into Bob Log III. As far as we know, there’s no evidence to support the contrary.