Identity Crisis: The Secret World of Aliases

Every genre is haunted by ambiguous personalities, but in dance music it's become something of the norm. Even in the culture's mainstream, figureheads routinely keep their profiles low by donning disguises and secret pseudonyms. It's an ethos echoed in contemporary issues from state surveillance to identity theft, but the Information Age might prove too strong an adversary.

Unsurprisingly, reaching anonymous DJs and producers for comment isn't easy. Sebastian Kramer, however, is less protective of his decade-old Redshape persona than he once was, and his manager suggests we chat over cake and coffee. It sounds suspiciously civilised for a man rarely seen (or at least recognised) without his sinister red mask. When I somehow recognise him without it, I ask if interviewers usually anticipate meeting a complete freak.

“Did you?” he asks excitedly.

Only sort of. He comes across as humble and unpretentious in previous interviews, but a niggling apprehension proved hard for me to shake. The mask does scare people, I'm told. “Especially girls, to be honest.” We're not here to dwell on regrets though. I want to know whether the techno scene is relatively respectful of artist anonymity. He laughs – “Maybe for the first three years!” It's a view I suspect is widely shared.

Why hide?
Back in 2008, Untrue – the second album from ambient dubstep producer, Burial – was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The press ran into a slight problem though: nobody knew anything about him. The Sun's then showbiz editor, Gordon Smart, began a campaign to “out” him, claiming the mystery “threatened one of the biggest nights of the showbiz calender.” (Negligible, perhaps, compared with the threat to his column inches.) When Burial became the bookie's favourite to win, what else were the tabloid purveyors of anti-news to write about? The music?

"maintaining anonymity is the new fame"

The Will Bevan beans were eventually spilled, but Hyperdub (Burial's label) were quick to correct me when I got in touch. “Will wasn't really outed,” said label manager Marcus Scott, “he just doesn't want to be famous, that's all.” Indeed, The Independent had let his name slip earlier in the year while few were paying attention.

To headline an interview with SBTRKT, The Washington Post boldly stated in 2012 that “maintaining anonymity is the new fame,” later referring to it as an “implicit protest against our increasingly Facebookish society.” It's an interesting thought but somewhat simplistic. Among all of electronic music's hidden names and faces, the motivations for each are as varied as their fader-fondling fingerprints.

For example, Tatiana Alvarez' protest was against the condescension too often suffered by attractive women at the dancefloor's helm. Deeply uncomfortable with the DJ/model label, she adopted a male alter-ego – Musikillz (“real” name, Matt Muset) – in order to be taken seriously. Bookings came thick and fast in what revealed itself to be both a damning critique of EDM culture and a wily PR move. Warner Brothers recently purchased the story's movie rights, to be overseen by Black Swan producer Mike Medavoy (who once passed on Tootsie).

Then there's transgender techno enigma Rrose, who claims it's merely about “keep[ing] the project as self-contained as possible” and Guy Brewer – better known as Shifted – who told Resident Advisor that he wanted his techno project to be judged on its own merits, rather than on the preconceptions inherited from Commix – his drum & bass partnership with George Leavings. Fred P uses multiple aliases to facilitate releasing more music, while Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) told Pitchfork he does the same just “for a laugh.”

In techno's early days, camera-shy collectives such as Detroit's Underground Resistance and Scan 7 were driven more by political upheaval and a refusal to engage with the corporate world. I ask Kramer whether the birthplace of techno informed his persona as much as it did his sound. Just a bit, he tells me. “The biggest influence on my mask was Daft Punk though. Not Detroit.”

The overwhelming success of the first Redshape 12” quickly filled his gig calender. Clubs he'd recently played as Sebastian Kramer were now billing him as an exciting new prospect: “I thought, I can't step on stage as the same guy who was there two weeks ago and be that new guy instead!” Detroit's brand of secrecy was too political to inspire him, but Daft Punk combined the mystery with humour. And Kramer is funny, even if Redshape isn't. A more sobering influence was the mask Tom Cruise wore to hide his Phantom of the Opera-like disfigurement in Vanilla Sky: “He was taken out of society by it... I thought, OK, I have to hide. Why not?”

Even as an ex-coder though, Kramer denies that symbols of the digital era – from the Dark Web to Anonymous – have lent political weight to his work. The biggest draw to anonymity might actually be quite a conservative one for such a tech-driven scene: tradition.

Alternative normality
Dutch producer Danny Wolfers works predominantly under the Legowelt moniker but has used enough aliases to fill a 3-day festival line-up by himself. With no pretensions towards secrecy, he tells me via email that “it was completely normal in the 80s and 90s for a producer to have many different aliases, even sometimes a new one for each record. Sometimes they would even think up a new label name for each release.”

Between mouthfuls of cake, Kramer speaks nostalgically about the draw of the secret alias. Before the Internet, he says, “it's not like we were listening to our new records in our flat and saying, uh, can you imagine who this guy is? We didn't ask questions like that! I didn't know who Octave One was. It was Octave One! Then later on came the name Burden Brothers, and even then it's just a name.”

“it was completely normal in the 80s and 90s for a producer to have many different aliases"

It doesn't sound very romantic but dance music relegated the artist's name to a means of categorisation. It gave listeners something to gauge quality and taste by in an era when discovering new music was a significant investment (in more ways than one). There's a flip-side though. Hiding one identity necessitates creating a new one in its place, and with these new names unchained from their owners, the alias' aesthetic qualities could be pushed to the fore. Discussion was challenged by names such as Drexciya and μ-Ziq. Pseudonyms instead became a part of the track's personality. Done well, they could make the difference between a record being heard or ignored amid the obscurity of white-label culture. An entire way of life evolved around it.

Wolfers tells me that it's an approach driven as much by labels as the artists themselves. Bunker Records and Crème Organization are among those that have tasked him with providing music for aliases they created themselves. With social media ruling the roost, however, the ground may well be shifting. We're becoming relentlessly opinionated and impatient, Kramer says. Old fans often see themselves as the authority on new material. The attitude is “he or she used to produce that [style of] music, and now produces this, and whether I like it or not, I have to tell everybody.” It can be frustrating for DJs and producers who've spent years thinking about a project only to have it dismissed without a second thought. “That's why, at least at the beginning, they aren't saying, Hey! It's me again! I'm doing something different!”

Risky projects don't have to tarnish a reputation then, but artists' reputations don't weigh projects down either: “If you know where they're born, which school they went to, what they like to eat for breakfast, and then you listen to the same thing... It doesn't have the same power anymore. That's what I really liked about [anonymity]. But it's also part of our childhood so will always influence how we feel later on. That's how we got to know techno, but it's not that important anymore. It can't be.”

“it's not a Redshape show without the red shape”

Pulling it off
Kramer obligingly answers the question on everybody's lips and DJBroadcast can now exclusively reveal that yes, his face gets very sweaty. The mask's advantages, however, include an increase in focus. It limits “visual feedback” and he feels more sensitive to the task at hand.

But successfully keeping an identity secret demands more than just a tolerance for discomfort. It can mean extra work protecting your legal rights too. Elliot Chalmers – the idealistic attorney behind Independent Music Law Advice – tells me that artists operating anonymously should “set up a label or a company to register their works with” in order to protect their intellectual property. One artist on his books keeps their identity so tightly guarded that I'm not even allowed a stage name to go on. Chalmers is careful to avoid gender-specific pronouns too:

“I have drafted documents for the artist to give to everyone that he or she is working with,” he says, “forbidding them from revealing the artists’ identity to anyone.” If these documents themselves are leaked, “it would be easy to trace where it’s come from.”

Kramer has learnt not to take it too seriously anymore. I ask his manager, Heike Kopp, whether representing an anonymous artist presents its own unique challenges. At first she can't think of any, but the two of them are soon reminiscing about when the main struggle was keeping his real name off Discogs. As the Redshape project took off, challenges grew to include booking flights and visas: “Even promoters didn't know the name!”

Contending with the Internet's censorship hydra-effect, a scoop-hungry press, and the chore of extra paperwork, it's no wonder that few artists manage to sustain their anonymity. It will be fascinating to see whether fresher faces, such as Claptone and UZ, can fare longer under their own disguises.

It must also be said that masks and pseudonyms are no substitute for a thick skin. Like locked doors, they become objects of intrigue and certainly don't stop audiences from forming judgments of character. Less attentive fans still think Redshape's identity is a mystery, which Kramer is happy about (as much for their sake as his own) but – as with Burial – the wolves at the door have been satiated. Kramer admits it was incredibly frustrating having his persona dismissed as a marketing gimmick, but acknowledges that it became one regardless of his intentions. Suddenly he recalls a side to it that still makes him irate:

“I was a logo designer and I know a lot about typography. I really like well-made fliers and posters, but for most of the places where I've played they just put a photo of the mask and the name on it and that's it!” His fliers look the same from London to Paris to Tokyo, he tells me. “I don't want the mask used like that, but then that's totally naïve of me.”

Still, for Kramer “it's not a Redshape show without the red shape.” The mask remains an integral part of the performance, but it's no longer sacred. It's “still there but I couldn't say I'm the same person who invented it. Time changed... and changed me.”

So what makes the perfect performance persona? The techno veteran thinks about it for a moment.

“Not a mask,” he concludes.