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Who is that masked band? Pussy Riot, balaclavas and pop music's other fearless faceless

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Three members of the Russian band Pussy Riot are now in jail for their church-crashing protest against the country's re-installed president, Vladimir Putin.

Pussy Riot, however, is a sprawling performance art collective with nearly a dozen members. British newspapers this week reported that Russian police are hunting for some of those other members who may have been involved in the group's February "punk prayer" demonstration at Moscow's national cathedral.

But while the identity is now publicly known of the three members convicted of "hooliganism" (as all good rock bands should be, mind you), the others remain a mystery.

That's because Pussy Riot performs wearing balaclavas (ski masks) in an effort to remain anonymous -- a wise logistical choice (see: Russian police are hunting them, above) but also, for many musicians, a carefully considered political or artistic statement.

The result, in addition to worldwide outcry, has been that as Pussy Piot's story percolated into the mainstream media we've been talking not about the usual musician celebrity trifles -- we've not even really talked about their music -- we've instead been talking about their actual message.

Here are eight other artists who've taken to concealing their identity in order to focus attention on their music and/or message ...

Comprised of five pseudonymed members -- Tobacco, the Seven Fields of Aphelion, Power Pill Fist, Iffernaut and Father Hummingbird -- this psychedelic indie-pop band from Pittsburgh has tried to keep its identities enigmatic, using occasional masks onstage and obscuring faces in promotional photos. Why? "When you know everything about a person, then it's like watching someone you know up there, and it becomes something else completely," Tobacco told Chicago's Alarm magazine in 2010 ("Invisible: Overlooked Albums and Unseen Artists"). "The more you know, the less you care about knowing."

Allegedly a couple of Shreveport, La., transplants to San Francisco, the Residents -- performing in Chicago as recently as last year -- have managed to successfully conceal their identity for four decades and nearly 40 albums of deconstructivist pop. Hardy W. Fox, the band's manager and head of its Cryptic Corporation, is the only member of the Residents' mysterious circle who ever grants interviews. In addition to their trademark tuxedos and giant eyeball masks, members have appeared in a variety of guises, including Elvis impersonations.

These San Diego punks started out appearing as their natural selves but began wearing hooded bodysuits on stage during the late '90s. Part gimmick, the obfuscation was more a reaction to the dialogue around them. "We were just wearing our street clothes," singer Justin Pearson told Alarm. "We were poor punk kids. Somehow that became the topic of conversation instead of our music."

This Australian group also used false monikers (such as Ron Hitler-Barassi, Humphrey B. Flaubert, Jock Cheese and Les Miserables) for its members. Formed early in the '80s and active until 2004, TISM wore wild costumes (space suits, KKK outfits, giant paintings on their heads) or basic balaclavas when they performed their dance-rock songs -- many of which were satires of pop culture and politics. As Flaubert explained in a 2005 interview, "We desired to circumvent the cult of personality that is inherent in rock music by choosing to remain anonymous."

Anonymity didn't hold for this Canadian collective (a recent headliner at July's Pitchfork Music Festival), but my how they tried. A Dutch journalist described their motives in 2001: "No posed group photos, preferably no interviews, but in the event of one, absolutely no personal questions are permitted. And including last names is an offense punishable by death. All intended to minimize the distance between listener and music." It mostly worked. While the band members' full names are now out there, few fans care who they are when pounded with their hard-hitting walls of sound -- as happened last month at Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival.

Houston's Jandek has released at least 45 albums of howling, atonal folk-blues since 1978, and still no one knows who he really is. Theories abound that his real name is Sterling Smith, but in person the figure known as Jandek only identifies himself as "a representative of Corwood Industries," the name of his independent record label. Reporters, documentary filmmakers and obsessed fans have all tried to solve the mystery to no avail.

Some deeply funky DJ tracks surfaced online in 2006, attributed to someone named Clutchy Hopkins. An outlandish "official" bio described a son of a Motown recording engineer who traveled the world before returning to the States as an anonymous session musician. Whoever he is -- speculation has included DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and each Beastie Boy -- Hopkins has released five albums in as many years of fresh, organic psychedelic instrumentals.

This Australian electro-pop band doesn't bother with masks or costumes to conceal themselves -- they perform concerts in total darkness. The lack of stage lighting helps the audience focus only on the music being made, which works for the musicians, too. "We also like the idea that we can barely see each other play," one member told Alarm. "Our only link is the music."

Other masked men

Many musicians have played at anonymity.

The Traveling Wilburys was a side project for some of the most famous rockers in the world (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison), but in press materials and liner notes they pretended to be a fresh, unknown band of wandering minstrels.

Groups such as Scotland's Belle & Sebastian and Japan's Beat Crusaders started life with cagey promo photos, donning surgical masks and covering their faces with dot-matrix "portraits," respectively.

Gorillaz were a supergroup of sorts, formed by Damon Albarn (Blur) and Jamie Hewlett and featuring cartoon characters. Early on, the band even played behind a screen showing only the animated members.

Various rockers (Andrew W.K., Buckethead) and dance musicians (Deadmau5, RJD2, Daft Punk) have worn masks and helmets as part of an image, without completely hiding their real identities.

Then there are the legions of horrorcore, "shock" rockers -- your Slipknot, Lordi, Insane Clown Posse, etc., all the way back to GWAR. Real names of these band members are readily available, though each utilizes pseudonyms, gory masks and costumes for effect, on stage and off.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on August 22, 2012 3:00 PM.

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