It's a strange experience arriving in a Brighton bar to interview South Central, the electro-punk act whom the DJ Eddy Temple-Morris dubbed "the British Justice". The reason being that I have no idea what they look like. Even when I identify them and sit down at their table, I realise I don't know their real names. It's not down to a lack of research. The press blurb for their latest single is deliberately vague, referring to "the enigma that is South Central". The band members section of their MySpace page eschews the conventional listing of names in favour of a simple, mysterious "yes", while the nearest the site comes to a band photo is a shot of two men holding bright lights in front of their faces.WAIT... THERE'S MORE STUFF
Nor will anyone watching their live shows be any the wiser. "You don't ever see South Central going on stage without hoodies or smoke," explains one half of the core duo behind the act, who I learn is called Karl. "The smoke is what binds us together on stage."
"If we don't have any smoke, we can't play," agrees his co-founder, who introduces himself as Rob. "Although we do get complaints like, 'We couldn't see anything.' "
Though wilful obscurity in the arts is not a new thing, there's a rash of it in pop at the moment. The mysterious dubstep artist Burial, for example, maintains that only five people know his real identity. Boys Noize, the Berlin techno producer who has remixed everyone from Feist to Marilyn Manson, obscures his face in all press shots. Similarly, one of the two most prominent photographs of the much-hyped electronic duo Crystal Castles sees them hanging their heads; on the other, their faces are blocked out. We know that last year's acclaimed A1-D1 album is by Gescom, but no one knows who's behind the moniker, even if it's an open secret that they're somehow associated with the Warp label's noisenik experimentalists Autechre. And Bo Pepper, an indie act featured on Channel 4's Road to V, have enjoyed national press and radio attention despite being ostensibly fronted by a puppet.
What's driving this quest for anonymity? It could be read as simple rejection of our ever-growing obsession with celebrity. Ironically, though, the effect can be to actually increase interest, and at least one act will admit to opting for anonymity for motives of pure self-promotion.
"Some artists might go anonymously for artistic merit," says Ali Fletcher, who sings in the pop act Skyline but is also, we now know, responsible for the anonymous scenester-satirising internet sensation LDN Is a Victim, named most controversial track of 2007 by the NME. "But we did it as a stunt. We knew being anonymous would add to the story we were selling. When we took on someone to do our press, she was inundated with calls every day, asking who was behind it. On a little sly one, we deliberately leaked other peoples' names as well. So there were people who genuinely thought it was Charlie Brooker or Just Jack."
That's not to say the trend towards anonymity is always a shameless marketing ploy. Various, a music act-cum-production company, admit their name is borderline ridiculous, pointing out that there's a joke in the Channel 4 comedy programme Peep Show about a band calling themselves Various Artists "to fuck over people with iPods". Yet they say such a vague moniker, along with their refusal to be photographed and the fact that their names don't appear anywhere on their records, was essential for a band with a constantly changing lineup and a sound that veers from avant pop to dubstep. "Various doesn't mean anything," says co-founder Ian, "and that gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. If you saw us with a particular number of singers or whatever, it might give you a particular idea. We just wanted to put music and art out there, not really attached to specific people, so you never got a mental image of who was behind it."
South Central say the secrecy had a practical side at first, since they originally made their name putting out bootlegs. Then, apparently, it blossomed into a full-blown ideology, a uniquely esoteric slant on the wearing of hoodies. "South Central is an egregore," states Rob, using the occult term for a collective being. "It's made of people but it's one body, one entity. It's one thing - it's not five people playing. There are no egos, we're just working towards one goal together. We do believe in that."
Of course, not all take the philosophy, or even the commitment to secrecy, anything like as seriously. Fletcher admits to Googling himself on a daily basis after the release of LDN Is a Victim in order to be able to come down fast on potential identity leaks. At the other end of the scale, however, neither Crystal Castles nor Boys Noize attempt to hide their real names, the latter admitting that the hand-over-face shtick is "just about press photos. I don't go too crazy on it: I wouldn't wear a mask or anything when I DJ."
Adam, co-founder of Various, insists that they, too, "never intended to be ultra-mysterious", yet their refusal to be photographed has created difficulties, particularly when promoting their album, The World Is Gone. "Initially we said we would create a different image for each publication," he recalls. "We thought it was a great idea, but they didn't really understand. We were offering these amazing illustrations and they were saying, 'No, we really want a picture of you two standing around with keyboards.' I don't get it." Karl says South Central experienced similar problems promoting their last single, Golden Dawn. "When we told the press people that we didn't want anyone to be mentioned, they thought we were mad. Our manager had a really hard time trying to explain."
So publicists don't like working with people who want to stay anonymous. But that's nothing compared to the disregard for the concept shown recently by another profession. The week of our interview, two members of South Central were stopped on their way back from rehearsal because police thought their hoodies were suspicious. Did they inform the officer that the hoods were simply the sartorial manifestation of being an egregore? "We didn't take it that far," laughs Karl, "but we told them, 'This is what we do. Go to our MySpace and you'll see. We always wear hoodies, even on stage.' They looked perplexed - but they let us go."
· Various's album The World Is Gone is out now on XL. South Central's single Golden Dawn is out now on Holiphonic. Skyline's single Local Girl is out now. Bugged Out! Presents Suck My Deck: Mixed By Boys Noize is out now.
Watch Out! Hot Footie Chicks in Alex Gaudino Video Game Twist
DJ AK1200 is the man behind the beats
Fatboy Slim denies identity change
Fatboy Slim is no more
Portishead's Album THIRD Debuts at #7 on Billboard
Beck/Danger Mouse album set for summer release
Hot Chip 'free downloads hurt small bands'
DJs To Descend On Washington For Million DJ March