Whether a mask is used to emphasize a point of view, to enhance the spectacle of the stage show, or purely for the sake of fun, it’s clear that in today’s contemporary music scene, the reasons behind using masks and costumes are as varied as the artists that wear them.
“It adds an element,” says Justin Pearson, bassist /vocalist for San Diego sci-fi grind-punk four-piece The Locust, a band that dons hooded, skintight, full-body uniforms. “It’s hard to say how you feel when you do it; you’re walking on stage with three other people with absurd outfits. We’re part of the show, and part of the live performance is the energy, negative or positive. It adds a level of intensity.”
“It’s all about using your imagination,” says Tom Fec, who performs under the name Tobacco as a solo artist and as a member of dreamy psych-hop outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow. He employs masks as tools to obscure his persona, rather than The Locust’s edgy, over-the-top approach. “I think that’s a really important piece to making an impact,” he says. “When you know everything about a person, then it’s like watching someone you know up there, and it becomes something else completely. The more you know, the less you care about knowing.”
RJ Krohn, better known as soulful hip-hop artist RJD2, is a performer who has experimented with masks and costumes on stage as much for his own amusement as for the audiences at his concert. “I have always felt that theatrics,” he says, “or at least dressing up, was an obvious way to say, ‘At least I’m trying here, folks,’ to a crowd. Just walking on stage in a T-shirt and jeans is cool if you are a genius. I, however, have questionable talent, which needs to be deep fried, slathered in a tasty barbecue sauce, and dressed up like real talent.”
Krohn’s first experiment with costumes was as an alter ego that he named “Mo’ Buttons,” in a costume decked out with tons of buttons with a sampler strapped to his chest, in order to highlight that on stage, he plays the device like a keyboard or drum machine rather than simply pressing “play.” The sampler proved to be too heavy to wear comfortably every night, but when Krohn discovered that he could incorporate a MIDI controller to run the equipment rather than the entire unit, he took the premise and his sense of comedy to the next level, introducing crowds to his latest persona.
“When I had [the equipment techniques] down, I realized that it needed a way to differentiate itself from the rest of the show,” he says. “A guy just putting on and taking off a wireless spinning MIDI controller is just dumb. So the alter ego became ‘Commissioner Crotchbuttons,’because I had built the thing into a belt that spins (à la ZZ Top), and when you have a musical instrument planted on your crotch, the jokes just write themselves.”
“When you know everything about a person, then it’s like watching someone you know up there, and it becomes something else completely. The more you know, the less you care about knowing.”
Like Krohn, The Locust’s uniforms are rooted in a sense of humor but also an equally strong sense of rebellion. Formed in 1994, The Locust began wearing costumes by the late ’90s as a reaction to what it felt was unusual backlash from the underground press, which focused more on the band’s clothes than its music. “We were just wearing our street clothes,” Pearson says. “We were poor punk kids. Somehow that became the topic of the conversation instead of our music. It was sort of a pointless round-table discussion, and people seemed really agitated with us. We weren’t a racist band. We weren’t fighting people. We were playing music, and for whatever reason, they criticized us beyond the music.”
Its first costumes, fuzzy vests and goggles, were created to be tongue in cheek. Surprisingly, as The Locust developed as a band, the costume concept stuck. “We never really thought about it,” Pearson says. “We wrote music and we played music — jagged, funny, quirky parts. We started figuring out things to do musically that coincided with us doing a visual element. It happened by chance, and then it evolved. We look ridiculous, but we’re totally serious. Maybe it’s hard for a band to achieve that? It became very honest. We’re not fucking around or being influenced by this other thing. It wasn’t self-conscious.”
In turn, the uniform concept has affected The Locust’s performance style, which Pearson says also plays off the rambunctious stage antics and overt masculinity of many of its peers in the hardcore scene. “We found ourselves with this borderline homoerotic, nerdy, sci-fi thing,” he says. “We look like robots; we move jaggedly. We don’t have breakdown parts. We’re stationary, and you can’t run or jump. It was very technical and confined to a spot. We decided, ‘Let’s do the complete opposite [of many tour mates] and stand there and not move. And we’ll stop and be completely still.’ There is a physical edginess to it beyond the fact that we looked like these science-fiction creatures.”
Though The Locust has grown an overall aesthetic from both its musical and visual components, and Krohn is happy to poke fun at himself for the sake of the show, the reality for many musicians is that a costume or mask is a form of armor, granting them space from the watchful eye of the crowd. Take San Antonio DJ Ernest Gonzales. Under his own name, Gonzales creates music that is chilled and collected, often combining elements of indie rock, pop, and hip hop.
“I’m an introverted kind of person. A mask enables you to be whatever you want to be on stage…like getting drunk without having to drink.”
– Mexicans with Guns
When he began toying with a more bass-heavy dance sound, he opted to present it under a different name. He created an alter ego that he called Mexicans with Guns, topping off the character with a Mexican wrestling mask. “It’s branding, in a sense,” Gonzales says. “If I’ve been doing a different sound, then coming out of left field with a different sound could be positive, or it could be negative. For me, it felt like two separate projects and sounds. The sounds are so different; I realized [that] I’d be playing to different venues and crowds.”
Having an alter ego enabled Gonzales to overcome his apprehensions about testing new musical waters, and specifically, wearing a mask allowed the introverted Gonzales to bring out a different side of his personality. “When I’m on stage and I have the mask, I’m able to be more loose,” he says. “I’m an introverted kind of person. A mask enables you to be whatever you want to be on stage…like getting drunk without having to drink.”
“With the mask, it could be anybody up there,” he adds. “Also, the idea of the mask is very important to Mexican culture. El Santo (Mexican wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta) has been in 80-plus films. The wrestlers come out and they never reveal their face. It’s very political too; I wanted to bring out the mask and build up [the character] as a hero.”
Like Gonzales, others create cultural discourse by tying themselves to an era. For LA DJ Alfred Darlington, who plays under the name Daedelus and dons full Victorian suits on stage, the decision to perform in costume had its origins in the philosophy of his music. “I have a big interest in invention,” he says. “I felt that the Victorian period was a period of great invention. Now I’m pretty committed to it, and it feels more appropriate to me than wearing my street clothes.”
In Darlington’s meticulously constructed electronic music, every sound is deliberate; there are no improvisations and no room for extraneous noise. Sonically, it could be seen as an answer to Dandyism, a philosophy that Darlington finds particularly inspiring. “Beau Brummell was the prototypical dandy,” he says. “He was the first person to adopt attire as a full-time religion. Performance art didn’t exist at the time, so this was revolutionary. I liked the idea that that everything he did was deliberate. It took him four hours a day to get ready because every gesture he made was artistic. Philosophically, I related in the sense that in my music, every sound is planned. Dressing up like that helps me get into the mindset.”
Darlington describes the dedication to his costumes as “masochistic” in some ways. “I’m committed to my music and my art, and it does feel like I’ve taken on the burdens of the role,” he says. “I sweat through my clothes, but the idea of stripping it down seems ludicrous.” The Locust’s Pearson echoes his thoughts, saying,“There have been times when you’re like, ‘This is so stupid.’ Sometimes it’s been pretty brutal — mainly your face, because some of the masks haven’t had a mouth opening and were attached to our shirts. You could drink through it, but you couldn’t spit. One time I was sick on tour and threw up in the mask and had to swallow it. [Our drummer] Gabe [Serbian] has flipped his mask up, and he’d throw up if he’d overexerted himself. Sometimes with singing, I’ll get vertigo or tunnel vision if I hold the note until the end of the measure.”
Darlington doesn’t wear an actual mask, but wearing the 19th Century attire accomplishes the same goal for him. The same can be said for hip-hop artist Javocca Davis, a.k.a. Vockah Redu, a prominent figure in New Orleans’ bounce community. Davis incorporates face paint, theatrical costumes, and lavish sets into a subgenre of hip hop that is notorious for its energy, overtly sexual dancers, “triggerman” beats, and party-like atmosphere.
“I have a big imagination, and I bring that to the stage,” he says. “I don’t just want to be a rapper on stage with a chain. This is the theater part of me. I love to paint my face; it goes with my music. Why wear a T-shirt when I can demand the stage?”
Davis studied theater and performance arts at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, but until the past year or so, he kept his two passions separate. “I wasn’t being open minded,” he says. “I thought a rapper was supposed to look this way or that way. It was limiting. Now I’m more mature. I’m representing me as a person.”
As Vockah Redu, Davis follows a tradition of artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna — as well as contemporaries like Saul Williams — who have toyed with sexuality and larger-than-life stage personas. Others like Tom Fec, however, are content to let their legends grow from speculation.
This includes atmospheric electro-pop trio Castratii, an Australian act that only performs in a mask of complete darkness to become anonymous or even invisible. Convention often dictates that having the right look to accompany one’s music is a key factor in launching a successful career in the entertainment business. Ironically for Fec and Castratii, not having an image has resulted in more attention from the press and music lovers.
“People are definitely more interested in not knowing right now, in particular as everything is so easily found online,” Castratii’s Jonathan Wilson says. “We like to make our own judgment on artists or musicians. We don’t need them to be real. We prefer the myth of the artist.”
“The usual stuff that comes along with being in music seems irrelevant to me,” says Fec, who gives few interviews and fewer (and often obscured) photo shoots, and who uses effects on his vocal recordings. “If I was a guy with a guitar singing about my life, it might make sense, but I have this fucked-up world that I want people to interpret for themselves. It really shouldn’t be about me.”
“I don’t just want to be a rapper on stage with a chain. This is the theater part of me. I love to paint my face; it goes with my music. Why wear a T-shirt when I can demand the stage?”
– Vockah Redu
Recently, Fec has invited a mask-wearing friend to join him on stage, and due to this lack of a visual public persona, audience members often walk away thinking that the masked figure is Fec. “I’ve always liked confusing people,” Fec says. “It makes everything more fun when you’re not sure what’s going on. If they mistake him for me, then I’ve done my job.” At first glance, Fec’s approach may appear as if he is having fun at the expense of his audience, but he maintains that his anonymity has given his listeners more room to interpret the music.
The members of Castratii, meanwhile, have found creative satisfaction in complete darkness — despite their visual- arts backgrounds in sculpture and installation. “Darkness is so much better for many things,” Wilson says. “It can be creepy and frightening or soft and sensual. It encompasses so many different good and evil connotations.
We also like the idea that we can barely see each other while we play. Our only link is the music.” Without the ability to actually “watch” the band, Castratii’s audience leaves its shows with a unique experience.
“We find that the sound can consume a person in a completely new way if the performer is left in the dark,” Wilson says. “It becomes about the sonic and not how it is made. When seeing a rock show or even a classical performance, most people walk away with an idea [that] they were closer to that performer as a person. They may also have an insight as to how those particular sounds are made. This is something we want to keep to ourselves — our sounds and our persons. This way it can retain a little mystery.”
Darlington, who believes that costumes and masks also can be protective forces, adds, “We live in an era where people regurgitate media. You are under this possible gaze, and it goes up on Flickr; it goes up on You- Tube. Everybody has a part and takes a role in forming your media presence. You always have to be prepared to be scrutinized.”
Although music as an art form is first and foremost for the ears, the fact that so many artists take on the additional task of elaborate visual schemes, whether masked, costumed, or otherwise disguised, is telling of its multi-sensory qualities. Perhaps thinking of music and art as separate forms is erroneous. “It tells a story,” Davis says. “Every show tells a story.”