There was a time, not so long ago, when I did what I wanted whenever I wanted to. University. A maelstrom of assessments and parties, grades and illness. Studying for a degree and everything it entails means that you have to learn to be independent, it’s your prerogative, and you figure a lot out about yourself during those three rare years of freedom. I unearthed my love for music and went against the grain academically by centering my journalism dissertation on musicians who wear masks.
Until now I haven’t really had the platform to put my work up anywhere worthwhile but after Swanson invited me to write for Bite the Belt (big up) I thought I would publish it here. You never know somebody might find it useful or insightful or something!
So here’s a 3,000 word chunk of my dissertation about anonymous artists written in the style of a feature article. Sorry it’s a bit outdated but, when I wrote it in May, Random Access Memories was just about to be released.
For electronic music fans, the imminent return of groove merchants Daft Punk after their eight year breather rivals David Bowie as the most anticipated comeback of the year.
Some say the secret to the cybermen’s success lies in the power of disguise.
Ryan Shoesmith talks to a producer who believes that when it comes to anonymity, creativity can be found…
Down the Rabbit Hole.
Three definitions of the noun ‘conflict’ are given in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first one reads: a disagreement or argument.
Standing on the dancefloor in Dogma, Nottingham, it is easy to see why Bruises called his favourite tune Spit/Silk.
On one side of the room a group of blokes prop up the bar in a huddle. Every once in a while they turn around in unison and scowl at the DJ.
On the other, two boys stand rooted in amazement. A girl positioned in front of them records Bruises’ set on her iPhone. One of the boys is looking over her shoulder and is watching things unfold in video form. Perhaps he cannot believe his own eyes.
Not everyone enjoys the fluffy white rabbit mask that the producer dons when he plays and although no argument has broken out, these people will not be finding common ground over Bruises.
The second definition describes conflict as a state of mind in which a person experiences a clash of opposing feelings.
Only some listeners appreciate Bruises’ music which makes you go all warm inside and haunts you at the same time through a mixture of field recordings, chopped and screwed vocals and ambient progressions laced with spacey, sparkly sounds and garage beats.
The final meaning of the word is explained as a serious incompatibility between two or more interests or principles.
Spit and silk are as incompatible as can be and the track was named so to leave it open to interpretation.
The producer from Coventry now has Dogma in a state of total conflict but, love or hate his music, he invites you to judge it.
“I wanted to get a mysterious persona around the whole Bruises thing, people should make up their own minds about my material and that’s part of what the mask is about, it’s like my alter-ego, it allows me to be judged solely on my tunes.”
Bruises, whose full name cannot be disclosed, is decisive for a 21-year-old but if you choose to forfeit your identity at the age of 18 you have to be.
He said: “The first time I saw David Bowie I thought he was from Mars.
“As I grew up I realised he’s not an alien, he pays bills and washes his clothes and shit like that. I appreciated his look and that inspired me at an early age to do something different with my own image.”
Bruises remembers what his gigs were like before he adopted his disguise.
“People would just mull around and didn’t listen when I wasn’t wearing the mask and one night at The Bodega in Nottingham I saw it in my bag when I went to get my CDs.
“I was bored so I put it on and people started to pay attention.”
After that gig in 2010, Bruises decided to become permanently anonymous and gave himself over to his character.
He said: “There’s no special meaning behind my mask, I found it on eBay for a tenner and thought it looked cool so bought it.
“Rabbit’s are the symbol of fertility so people seem to think it means I’m at it like a rabbit, I like that it looks dirty but it’s not about what it represents, it’s about what it allows me to do.”
These days anonymity has become popular among electronic musicians and Bruises believes that being unknown allows artists to pursue music more directly.
He said: “The mask gives me a sense of experimental freedom so I can switch between genres.
“The quality of my music has definitely improved since I turned anonymous.”
As well as bettering his production wearing the mask has changed the way Bruises performs.
“My friends and family are supportive. My dad was doing a similar thing when he was my age and he’s always said my mixing is better when I have my mask on because I zone out and let the rabbit take over.
“I hope the mystery surrounding me comes across in the way my music sounds as well as the way I look.”
For Bruises, music is in his blood. His father, Giles, wore a mask when his band played at Glastonbury Festival in 1993.
The Who Boys had a similar motive too. According to Giles the angel and devil masks they used were a metaphor for their music.
He said: “We were predominantly a mash-up group and wanted to show people that two things which often shouldn’t go together sometimes work well.
“I always encouraged Bruises to hear things with an open mind and like all dads I hope I have inspired my son.”
Giles, who now works in marketing, said he was not surprised to find out that his son had started to wear a mask.
“The rabbit was just a natural progression for him.
“Lots of artists dream up silly ways to make themselves more eye-catching but they’re missing the point.
“The rabbit is more than just a mask, it’s a distancing thing, and his anonymity allows him to produce without fear.
“That liberates him and some very real, raw emotions are expressed in his music. I’m proud that his true colours can be heard.”
Richard Whitelaw, head of programmes at Sound and Music, agrees that originality is crucial when it comes to production but said critics would argue that artists wear masks to distract people from their low quality material.
“People say that anonymous musicians will never be taken seriously because of how they look, but I’m not sure they want to be taken seriously.”
Richard has witnessed the electronic music industry take a giant leap forward over the past two years.
“Not long ago there was this wave of generic laptop music from producers making tunes at home and people got bored of it. You can’t really rock out with a computer.
“The relationship between performer and audience got too formulaic. People would buy a ticket to a gig, go and sit there for a while, watch the show then leave.
“It was like going to the cinema.
“Now people do more interesting performances and watching a masked musician can almost be meditative.”
Things have changed a lot since the 60s, according to Richard, when punk bands earning money from concerts would adopt false identities so they could stay on the dole and avoid prosecution for benefit fraud.
He said: “That was the only reason for masks back then. With bands like Pink Floyd playing regularly at the UFO Club in London, everyone was taking acid and imagining weird stuff for themselves.
“Nowadays technology is used so people can experience music in a totally different way beyond the traditional concert environment.”
Richard said that it is important to support artists like Bruises.
“There’s a cultural imperative in the music industry to protect the most innovative artists.
“People have been wearing masks since we grew heads but there’s something about them that’s a bit threatening. They’re really interesting.”
Self-employed designer, Stephen Jon, confirmed that masks are objects of fear but he believes they are used to conceal anxieties, as well as to threaten.
“A lot of people say masks give them the confidence to break away from their normal conditioning and expose aspects of themselves which may often be suppressed.
“Somebody who is naturally introverted might put on a mask and be surprised to discover a very flamboyant person inside.”
Disguises are part of Stephen’s everyday reality. Based in Nottingham, he has been making bespoke masks professionally for his company, Prospon Theatre, for more than 20 years.
Despite having never been commissioned to create a rabbit mask, he knows a bit about them.
“They’re the symbol of fertility. The connection between rabbits and having lots of babies is ancient.
“In music terms they probably suggest a wealth of ideas. Artists often refer to their songs as their babies so it suggests to me that somebody is creative.”
In Bruises’ case, you could say that.
No matter what mask an artist wears, Stephen explains that traditionally in music, masks have been used to break the monotony of reality.
“They make everything more extraordinary. Their connection with surrealism in music is quite strong but it would be dangerous to be completely detached from your real self because then you start reaching psychological problems.”
Not everybody reacts well to masks either, Steven said, you either love them or hate them.
“80 per cent of the time they help the audience to connect with the performer through a child-like sense of wonderment.
“In the other 20 per cent of cases fans take no notice but the only people who ignore them are those who don’t know how to cope with them so they close down and pretend nothing is happening.”
Not all musicians have come to terms with the fact that visual elements are an inherent part of performance either.
“There are artists who would deny the connection between music and visuals and their idea of a captivating show probably involves them sitting in a field and playing a guitar.
“To me they just seem introverted. Maybe they should buy a mask.”
This is not necessarily the best way to get noticed though in the opinion of Alex Kirkland who owns Dollop.
Also known as DJ D’Lex, Alex’s night is the flagship event at Nottingham’s Stealth, which partygoers this year voted the 66th best venue in the world in a global DJMag poll.
Having worked with mask wearing artists such as Route 94, Jaguar Skills and SBTRKT, who wears a wooden tribal mask, Alex never judges artists on their attire.
He said: “We book people on the strength of their mixing.
“I had no idea what SBTRKT looked like when we first hired him but music enthusiasts wouldn’t treat an artist differently for wearing a mask.”
Despite this Alex knows that part-time music fans might find an anonymous artist more memorable.
“It’s an intrinsic part of our character to be intrigued by the things that we are not allowed to know. We probably buy into the mystery surrounding certain musicians because we were brought up with Spiderman, Batman and a whole heap of wrestlers who shielded their identity.”
Alex blames the internet for the explosion of artists who now want to remain unknown.
He said: “With the help of a computer you can find out everything about someone in a few minutes so that makes the idea of anonymity more attractive for artists and from an industry perspective I would say some events look for acts who are especially marketable.
“If you wear a mask, you tick a box.”
Controversy has surrounded some anonymous artists in the past, like American rapper MF Doom who is known to regularly send imposters to perform at his gigs, but this does not worry Alex.
“I heard he was getting sued for that because somebody noticed the earlobes of the impersonator didn’t match his own. Someone has too much time on their hands.
“From Dollop’s point of view music and atmosphere are the most important things at our events. Mask or no mask, we only book artists whose main priority is to perform in an attempt to make people dance.”
Although the priority of Alex primarily lies in securing DJs who entertain, Dr Tim Shephard, an expert in music and visual arts from the University of Sheffield, believes that those who shape their identity by wearing a mask are especially attractive.
He said: “Music is always visual, you can’t deny that. The way in which our brains process music is wired into the way our brains process images so one influences the other inescapably.
“Masked musicians play in a very self-conscious way when they get on stage, they assume a persona which they take to be constant with what their audience wants them to be, making them very appealing.
“What’s ambiguous is where the performance stops.”
Back in 2008 when formerly unknown London producer Burial was starting to get a reputation as one of the best new electronic artists on the scene, his nomination for a Mercury Prize triggered intense media speculation about who he was, which led to William Bevan waiving his anonymity.
Tim said this is down to celebrities being increasingly mediatised.
“The visuality of music is now unremitting. It’s becoming harder to put aside your chosen visual identity as a musician in order to engage with your public as a normal human being.
“You have to live the persona for the whole of your life.”
Despite this Tim disagrees that wearing a mask could make a musician introverted.
“You don’t make a fuss about the fact that you don’t want anyone to know who you are if you don’t want anyone to pay attention to your material. Masks are a way of drawing attention.
“Just because producers are making music from home that doesn’t mean they are shy. People have always made music from home, what’s different now is that you can make music from your bedroom and internationally at the same time and in many ways technology has encouraged artists to take control of visual aspects of their identity.”
This has given musicians greater freedom to work in an unconventional way according to Tim.
“I don’t know whether wearing a mask directly makes their music better but if that’s what makes them feel comfortable about producing what they consider to be better music then great.”
Dan Styles, owner of Purp & Soul Records, has a different outlook though.
He finds it hard to believe that wearing a mask can change someone’s sound.
“Daft Punk have had a huge impact on dance music since they started and they would have had the same impact if they weren’t anonymous because their music is unchanged.”
Dan thinks the admittedly shy pair’s robot costumes help to ensure that their popularity does not intervene with their private life.
He said: “They were able to watch their own advert for their new album, Random Access Memories, from the crowd at Coachella Festival last year without anybody knowing they were the producers responsible for the most hyped piece of music in recent history.
Due for release on May 21, the helmet-clad duo’s look has been used as a central part of their marketing strategy for their album, according to Dan.
“People make instant decisions about whether they like an artist purely from their artwork, branding and visual identity and the air of mystery surrounding Daft Punk definitely helped in a promotional way.”
Even though fans are enticed by the way things look, Dan said the professionals try to see past appearance.
“As cliché as it might sound, it is all about the music.
“At Purp & Soul we would never sign somebody because of what they wear. We judge people on their tunes.
“In fact if you use a mask we would have to think harder about signing you for practicality reasons because you might not be able to see the decks. Masks should enhance what you do not inhibit.”
Dan said there are no shortcuts to success.
“Just because you wear a mask that doesn’t mean you’ll be catapulted to stardom.
“To be distinctive, don’t think ‘what character can I create,’ think about learning about music production, practicing, perfecting your craft and then making music that’s unique. If you can do that you won’t need a mask to get your reward.”
Bruises agrees that music is his number one priority.
“I’ve not had labels approach me asking if I could do something more with the mask, it’s just been about the tunes, but if you can include a visual aspect to your material then all the better.”
Wearing a disguise does have its drawbacks though.
“It gets hot as hell in there. I’ve had to cut the mouth open a bit more because it was unbearable.
“Do you want to try it on? It’s clean at the moment.”
As I pull it over my head Bruises laughs.
“I’ve sweated in that so much. It’s weird rubber.”
The feeling is a bit like when you go on your summer holidays and that moment when the warm air hits you as you step off the plane.
You are uncomfortable and irritable but you can’t take your jeans off just yet.
“It made it harder to DJ at first because I couldn’t see what I was doing.
“Would you be able to wear that for two hours in a club at full capacity?”
I would struggle.
Bruises said: “Most DJs wear normal clothes and a snapback but that’s not special. If you’ve got a mask on then you’re already communicating with the crowd.
“People ask me to try it on all the time. I have to explain that I’m anonymous and if I wasn’t they would be having a worse time because my music would be sub-standard. Sometimes they assume I’m twisted.”
What people think of Bruises is the least of his worries though.
“I’m making an effort with my image, most other producers couldn’t give a fuck.
“Lots of them use computer programmes like Serato and Traktor to mix with but if you’re staring at a laptop it looks awful.”
Bruises confesses that he almost put a stop to his rabbit theme last year, which he said would have been his biggest regret to date.
“I was considering giving it up because I left the mask in my friend’s basement for ages after I played at his party, but I’ve realised it has a big effect on my music, now I’m sure it’s for life.
“I’m thinking about buying a new one in black and making darker, creepier music.”