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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor