Revealed: why the hottest new bands are hiding their faces
Monarchy are the latest act to conceal their identities in a bid for success. Rob Sharp tracks them down, and removes some other musical masks
Friday 14 May 2010
In Hackney, east London, a girl dressed all in black opens the door to a warehouse and gestures inside.
An isolated chair sits before a table, upon which perches a laptop, a can of exotic Japanese coffee, some wasabi peas and a bottle of mineral water. A list of "10 commandments" describing the life and work of a new pop group, Monarchy, are listed on a piece of A4 paper.
The "commandments" include the false names of the group's members (Ra Black, 29, and Andrew Armstrong, 30), the pair's influences (Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk), and how they were introduced to each other (through a mutual friend several years ago). There's another rule. The members of Monarchy keep their identities hidden. "Monarchy don't show their faces," reads the commandment sheet. "They feel artists have become bland and sanitised by the constant broadcast of their personal lives. This allows people to focus on the music. Monarchy don't appear in their videos, their MySpace has no friends." The laptop's screen flickers to life. The neon outline of two figures appear, their voices booming out of the speaker.
"We got an incredible amount of interest simply because we didn't have a biography on our MySpace page," says Armstrong's luminous silhouette. "It's an indication not so much of what we're about as what everyone else is about. On Facebook all your friends are promoting a night or an art gallery. It's a competition about who can shout the loudest. But as soon as you step outside of that, it attracts attention. It is hilarious but also interesting, especially because it was something that we didn't intend".
How successful Monarchy's music – a mix of original, catchy pop and remixes of the likes of Fyfe Dangerfield and Lady Gaga – will be remains to be seen, but their image raises some interesting questions. They are editing their appearance, whether or not it's what they originally intended, and they aren't the only ones. The Ultravox-inspired Hurts, who appeared on many of this year's "hotly-tipped" lists, began their publicity blitzkrieg by listing just one single, "Wonderful Life" on their MySpace page. Fans keen to find out more were invited to click through to their official site, which simply contained a picture of the group and a link back to the MySpace. The punchline was that the official site's URL was Informationhurts. com. The rise of the synth-pop duo Silver Columns, who are releasing their debut album later this month, was largely anonymous. Summer Camp, more bright young things, claim they are British on their MySpace page but other reports claim they are American or Swedish. Who knows? In an age where an incurious consumer can scroll through tracks on Hype Machine while largely oblivious to artists' identities – even when their home-pages are a couple of clicks away – it is easier than ever to conceal who you are.
Musicians hiding their identities is nothing new. In 1993 it was largely unknown that Paul McCartney was one of the brains behind the electronica duo The Fireman when they released their debut album Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest. The 1970s pop group The Thompson Twins released various techno records in the 1990s under the moniker Feedback Max to hide their identities from club DJs. From Ziggy Stardust to MF Doom, Daft Punk to Gorillaz, the worlds of pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music have all seen their fair share of artists flirting with altered stage presences.
Sometimes this can be for purely artistic reasons. Monarchy say their image – employing self-styled space and extraterrestrial themes on their website, videos and cover art – matches the detached nature of their lyrics. "We do feel like astronauts or aliens," continues Armstrong. "We have this image of being not quite human because we struggle with human emotions and feelings. Sometimes it's like we're writing about emotions from an observational point of view, as if we are replicants from Blade Runner trying to emulate human emotion".
The 1980s synth-pop group Art of Noise felt their music was so sufficiently different from anything else around at the time that a faceless image was the only means of doing it justice. "None of us wanted to be rock-pop superstars," says the group's co-founder Gary Langan. "The three of us were the most eclectic bunch of people. You weren't looking at Peter, Paul and Mary. We all had day jobs. I was producing, Anne Dudley was arranging and JJ [Jeczalik] was programming and working with other musicians. The fact we were anonymous and could make videos that we didn't have to be in put a whole different slant on it".
The process of breaking, marketing and hyping an anonymous artist can also be understood in terms of the narrative of conventional storytelling. Patrick Neate, an expert on hip-hop and world music, tackled this subject in his 2009 novel Jerusalem. The book has a character who is a hip-hop artist called Nobody, a faceless illegal immigrant marketed via mystique. While Nobody is partly used to address questions surrounding national identity, it was also about the music business using anonymity to create hype.
"Often the most successful marketing relies on creating something that is open to interpretation," Neate says. "It allows people to project their own ideas. I thought there was real potential in someone who was completely anonymous. If you think of Elvis, he was larger than life on stage and that was completely different from him as a human being. To a certain extent that disconnect is true of all celebrity culture. I always thought hip-hop was the logical conclusion to that – it's about the creation of a hyper-real character, from the adoption of different names to the use of cartoon characters by the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg."
Search engines and message boards make it harder for artists to retain anonymity. "I'm from an era when my brothers and sisters and I would get our pop-music narrative from Top of the Pops or the Radio 1 charts," continues Neate. "When I was growing up hip-hop required me to go out and find things out and investigate, find new stories. That's just not true any more. The capacity to consume music and create narrative is much more diffuse. The nature of the internet makes that creation of cool much harder to achieve. It used to be that one person would have a record which another person hadn't got.That makes it coveted. It's less true now".
Despite their best efforts, Monarchy have fallen foul of this. In January, months before the release of their debut album, the members were "outed" by website Popjustice as Andrew "Friendly" Kornweibel and Ra Khahn, who used to perform (as themselves) under the moniker Milke. Popjustice's editor Peter Robinson thinks their reinvention might be for more prosaic reasons than Art-of-Noise-esque artistic sensibilities, though it's probably down to a combination of factors.
"What Monarchy probably realised was that they didn't have it quite right as Milke and they knew that the best course of action in an industry where you're yesterday's news before today's even over would be to rebrand and try again," he says. "Some people see it as rather dishonest but I wish more artists would notice when things weren't working then actually do something about it. Likewise I don't think fans should feel that they've been taken for a ride when acts do things like this – Monarchy and Hurts are both better than previous incarnations Milke and Daggers, for example. If you think of early versions as dress rehearsals, or first drafts, it's quite easy to get your head around. You'd be hard pushed to find an artist who wasn't playing some sort of role as soon as they went on stage, opened their mouth in an interview or put pen to paper in a songwriting session. Hiding behind a persona, even if it's just a very subtly altered version of yourself, is one of the only ways many artists stay sane."
So whether it is artistic detachment, serendipity, marketing strategy, or a mixture of all of them, Monarchy are heading in the right direction. "Creatively as much as anything you need to let stuff go," says Armstrong just before the laptop powers down and his luminous avatar vanishes. "It was a weight off our shoulders inventing Monarchy, a way for us to draw a line in the sand and move forward".
Monarchy's single "The Phoenix Alive" is out now. Their debut album, 'Monarchy', is set for release on 26 July
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