Published in Tasmania’s Warp Magazine in two parts, this piece examines two aspects of the use of Alter Egos in Music.
PART II: The Mask Becomes a Cage
Last time, I wrote an appraisal of how musicians like Kool Kieth and Die Antwoord use Alter Egos to extend the reach of their music and save themselves. The freedom of hiding behind an unaccountable character gives their music a mythological depth that protects their egos from over exposure. Nothing is pure or easy to hold on to, so there is always a fall, so this month I look into the minds of some musicians who’ve lost control of their Alter Egos.
Tasmanian Comedian/Musician (aka Spaz Hipster Genius) Justin Heazlewood on the other hand is a world away as a man fighting his Alter Ego’s right to a very existence. The persona of The Bedroom Philosopher was born accidentally when Morning Radio DJs at Triple J gave the dumbly young kid with a few ironic songs a compliment about his “bedroom philosophy” sound. Ten years have passed and in speaking with Heazelwood, there’s a weight hanging as to how this decision serves him at this point in his career as opposed to then,
“I liked the idea of being someone with a stage name, like Bright Eyes or Eels. It was rare in comedy to do that”
Heazlewood used the power of the Alter Ego to gain safe distance from the sentimental, reasoned or simply moral ties that our society needs. By using an exaggerated version of his mind, he has injected his ego with enough protective bravado and confidence so that it does the hard work while deftly masking most of his insecurities and vices. This is the signature benefit of an Alter Ego. You mask your ego in a kind of armour while the shallow character becomes a puppet that can be as boisterous or antagonistic as the puppeteer likes, yet they themselves never need admit to the action, or even its root desire. Out of any myriad of inhibitions, or because they are simply ridiculous, the Alter Ego in this form is a puffed up kernel of truth surrounded by fatty air.
After a decade of work, he’s haunted by the idea that Comedy feeds on relatability. In severing the link to reality, and more burningly, vulnerability, he’s taken on a challenge that he hasn’t satisfactorily lived up to, “Perhaps I’ve limited my audience by seeming a bit aloof and pretentious.”
In a conversation with Heazlewood for a July 2011 Warp interview, he expressed concern over the selfishness of any persona since the performer, ultimately, has to acknowledge their audience,
“Life’s confusing enough as it is. [People] just want to know what they’re gonna get.”
Rarely doing comedy on its own, people in the industry and the general public, seem to demand that his songs be “funny”,
“I’m trying to be a musician in my own right, and despite crafting albums that are equal part funny and pathos, there’s a still a bit of a ‘gags or else’ attitude. I’m pretty close to a point where I will drop the name”
Admitting that it’s very common for artists to start under stage names, to then come out under their own names, and vice versa (Smog, Crayon Fields, New Buffalo), Heazlewood is nonetheless trapped. His true persona is just as equally wrapped up in comedy, and unlike Kool Keith or Die Antwoord, his Alter Ego has not saved him; it’s enslaved him.
The subtler side of an Alter Ego is the Stage Name, which can be with or without a recognised and separate persona. This would be the difference between Ziggy Stardust and Eminem or Prince, but not between ZS and Slim Shady or Camile. None of which however, deal with the alter ego within the context of a band such as Die Antwoord. Those two are consciously attacking pre-conceived notions and mocking expectation at the same time as they give audiences what they want, knowing that it is ridiculous, yet valid as entertainment.
Not all of the musicians using an Alter Ego will be accepting of its consequences. Some will start their careers enjoying the costume, and feeling protected by it. Yet slowly it will become filthy and rigid; choking them, or simply becoming tiresome to look at, and full of putrid smells. The punk/blues band The Snowdroppers use stage names and always perform in clothing which is technically a costume. The name ‘Snowdropper’ is from ‘20s slang (for cocaine) and they always perform in clothes from that era, while playing heavily on the themes and imagery of that world, but when I first met them for an interview at the 2011 East Coast Bluesfest they were dressed in their stage gear four hours before their set. When I opened the interview by casually using the word “costume”, I must have fingered an emotional scab,
“Costumes!” (All four laugh) “Yeah, I guess we’re a manufactured pop band really. We just do what our manager tells us, whatever they dress us up in and wheel us out for press y’know. Dance puppy dance dance, make the money”
That was their frontman Jeremy Davidson, aka Johnny Wishbone, and his sarcasm in that moment had a lot of fatigue in it. It even had some regret and conflict. As a live act, they’ve taken care to define their attitude and refine its presentation. This can translate cheaply as being theatrical little shits who don’t care about the poetry of music. To understand them, and what they do, you need to envision someone crawling on top of both pre-war jazz and rockabilly, then in a beautiful ménage, thrusting and spitting some punk energy into them. Or really, you could just look into Wishbone’s eyes while they jitter and bulge, nearly exploding during any given song, if you want to know what you’re dealing with.
I spoke with him again for this article, to clarify some things, to see where they stand on their characters, and how far removed they are from the mythology of it all,
“The Snowdroppers just started how all great bands started, we met at Uni, and we started the band with another mate as manager and he suggested nicknames. The first gigs we did were for a burlesque show which unsurprisingly had a 20s/30s theme, and hence the clothes. From there while we were just kids playing rock music seriously for the first time, we quickly found that these quasi alter egos helped us perform. For me, it let me “act” a part, which helped me get over my nerves. That’s not a factor any more, but I also don’t feel so removed from my onstage persona. I don’t really need “Johnny” anymore – it’s just something that’s stuck.”
Dispelling any notion that there was a careful plan to everything, Davidson revealed that they also suffer from the rash decision to take on pseudonyms and create some theatricality. While at first it’s clear they felt freed by the Alter Ego, that sensation has a fairly definite half-life.
The contrast of these examples has been more than simply background or genre. While all of them have a strong need, whether admitted to or not, to become something other than themselves, each has realised in a sober moment, the power of using Alter Egos to step beyond the pain or limitations of reality. In order to make their music not just better, but more truly complete, it could have saved their lives. Whether it’s in Science Fiction, Hip Hop, Graphic Novels, Burlesque or comedy, the Alter Ego is a means for the artist to set their ego alight with a fire that can either be controlled at will or engulf them completely. I still kinda wish I was someone else though.