Masked Intruders—An Interview With Zoo Owl

By Marko Cindric

Who are you? It is a fundamental question of any social environment and often the first thing on a person’s mind when meeting someone new. When it comes to understanding a new subject, identification and definition are the primary steps in the process — what are you? We spend our entire lives refining our own identities and trying to identify with those that surround us. Identity is a way of communicating with the rest of the world, and it helps us bring our own unique ideas and opinions to the table. But what happens when your own persona doesn’t match up with the idea you want to communicate? Don’t panic. You can just create a new one.

From KISS’s face paint to Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress, heavy use of costuming is widely used in the music industry. For decades, artists and bands have been crafting new identities for themselves by mutating their own, shrouding themselves in a veil of masks, wigs, and outfits. The phenomenon is becoming even more popular thanks to social media and viral videos, and the mystery and intrigue it generates is invaluable as a promotional tool. It also makes for some pretty incredible press photos. But at this point, it becomes important to make a differentiation: anybody can throw on a robot helmet and pretend every day is Halloween, but many musicians do this differently. Many musicians make the decision to become the robot.

Perhaps the most globally successful act in the mask-wearing business, Daft Punk has been doing this for two decades, and few groups have reached the same tier of mastery. Not only do French house virtuosos Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter rarely grant interviews, they are notoriously good at keeping themselves hidden behind the robot helmets — and the robot personas — while in the public eye. Ridiculous? Perhaps to some, but the game-changing factor is that de Homem-Christo and Bangalter took their costumes seriously, and through this gesture they led us to do the same. The helmets weren’t just randomly designed; the futuristic nature of the music had to be consolidated with an equally futuristic image, and that image manifested itself as a pair of suave robot humanoids. The personas that de Homem-Christo and Bangalter invented for themselves quickly became iconic, and not just within the EDM community but in the music industry as a whole.

But the question remains: why bother? Why not just be yourself?

Toronto-based electronic musician Zoo Owl is the up-and-coming alter ego of Avem Ondo, who transitions into the character during live performances with the help of goggles covered in clustered white LEDs. The result is a fascinating — albeit unsettling — live experience, with Zoo Owl often perching on various onstage items — an amplifier, for example — and seemingly gazing into each audience member’s soul with his glowing, wide-eyed stare. “The lenses were a later addition, although from day one I hoped to have an otherworldly presence while performing,” Ondo said. “Using my birth name to promote the project would be inconsistent due to the traits I’ve developed channeling Zoo Owl.”

DSC_0112

Known for his role in the electronic outfit Saturns and through solo-work as OPOPO, Ondo is a seasoned performer in the local music scene but chose to take a different approach with the Zoo Owl project, creating an entirely new image with its own characteristics and personality. However, he assured me, Zoo Owl is still very much an extension of his being: “I merged all my adventurous qualities into this persona, and I identify with its expressive traits. A transformation definitely takes place when I activate the lenses, but my personality is meant to dominate. It is for these reasons I don’t exclusively perform with the lenses on, so that the audience can share in the transition.

“Plenty is uncovered through the separation [between myself and the Zoo Owl persona]. A constructed character will have its own psychological makeup and set of behaviours, so there is much to explore.” Ondo went on to explain that the goggles and the persona they represent ultimately strive to give audience members a different concert-going experience than what they’re used to. In addition, the persona extends beyond the performances, with cryptic, poetic statements making up most of Zoo Owl’s Facebook and Twitter feed. “It all comes down to presence. What can people experience live? Who is being marketed? A vision can be executed easily through character-driven art, but it is no shortcut. Cheap gimmicks often fall short in the shadow of fully realized identities.”

The current state of the music industry is turbulent at best, with most artists rarely breaking through to reach classical notions of fame and many struggling just to make ends meet. Terms like “saturated markets” and the “recycling age” pollute the air. With this in mind, I asked Ondo if creating a unique persona for new musical projects had, at some point, stopped being optional, especially in terms of attracting new fans and generating interest in new projects. I was met with refreshing optimism: “Musical content will always cut through as a deciding factor for intent listeners,” Ondo said. “Marketability is a focus for some, but definitely not the majority of passionate musicians.”

“There are many who will continue to play even when they abandon social media. Industry will typically ignore artists without strong numbers online. Still, there are endless channels for growth and getting ‘noticed’ by industry reps has become much less important.”

Ultimately, it seems there is a lot going on in human psychology when an artist chooses to develop a new persona through masks and costuming: fear of the unknown collides with insatiable intrigue; concerts become puzzles; music becomes multimedia performance art. Not only is this beneficial to an artist’s marketing, but it creates an added depth to the listening experience that will inevitably attract eager show-goers.

Whether an artist is wearing a giant mouse head, a robot helmet, LED goggles, face paint, or whatever else they might come up with, they are effectively altering their image, and the extent to which they do this is where alternate personas truly begin to manifest themselves. For instance, EDM producer deadmau5 noticeably retains his personality as Joel Zimmerman while wearing his various mouse helmets, a stark contrast to what Avem Ondo describes as Daft Punk’s total abandonment of their human selves for the sake of the robot image.

Some artists even create multiple personas, one for each performance: “Björk is a gift,” said Ondo, citing the Icelandic songstress as a source of inspiration in the development of the Zoo Owl character. “She is so unpredictable and becomes all these different characters while preserving her essence at the core. It’s a great lesson to delight in your own ingenuity the way she does, like a proud kid showing off their monster costume.”

So are there any disadvantages to being masked? Ondo’s response was short and direct, with a powerful degree of certainty to it. “Only to become unrecognizable.”

This article was the cover story of Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.

Marko Cindric is a second-year Cinema Studies major from University College, as well as an aspiring musician and music producer. He can often be found sitting on various benches around campus threatening to transfer to art school. Marko has a deep appreciation for Toronto, the likes of which could only stem from growing up in that harrowing void of arts and culture we refer to as small-town Ontario. You’ll probably run into him in a record store at some point, unless he’s too busy pretending to work on assignments at Starbucks.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: