Here’s what we do know: electronic producer Claptone is in Berlin, and ready to talk. He answers on Skype – just the microphone, no video, an option that won’t surprise anyone familiar with the perpetually masked deep house artist. Even the photo icon next to his Skype name – “NO NAME AT ALL” – is shrouded in darkness. I can’t even see his face when I zoom in and squint.
So, what we don’t know is then partially obvious: what the venerable German producer looks like, and more crucially, who he is. He is among the small group of artists (including Banksy and to a lesser extent Daft Punk) whose real names, origins, favorite breakfast cereals and other identifying details have not become public knowledge. The voice on the other end of the line – perfect English with a heavy German accent – is quick to tell me that none of this information is relevant to really knowing Claptone.
“Everybody wears a mask in terms of everybody having their image,” he says. “Everybody’s displaying something they might or might not be, but they are giving you a show. Everything you see on social media is not real life; it’s the show we put on. Why would I not put on a show like everybody else does?”
Secret Identity, Public Persona
It’s philosophy dressed up in 124 BPM, but a half-decade’s worth of smart, moody and achingly transportive house and techno is a key identifying factor, and the one the man on the end of this internet connection is most eager to discuss. Released in June to overwhelmingly positive reviews, his sophomore album Fantast is an easy candidate for electronic album of the year. Featuring a sprawling collection of guest vocalists including Matt Simons and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the 13 tracks on Fantast expand the borders of the Claptone universe.
Indeed, a major advantage of creating a character is the chance to also build the world in which that character resides. For Claptone, this world has a dark allure and the sumptuousness of a Rembrandt painting. Images of Claptone are shrouded in light and shadow, with liquid lines and flowing fabrics set against surrealist backdrops. The high art visual aesthetic functions as an invitation into Clapton’s commensurately intoxicating sonic world, where dreamy beats and vocals beckon listeners to the dancefloor. At the very least, it’s music to make you tap your feet. Tracks from Fantast and Claptone’s 2015 debut LP Charmer are, in his mixes, expanded into sonic journeys through clubland. The uninitiated can get a sense of the ride via Claptone’s enduring 2015 Essential Mix.
The way the man on the other line sees it, in intentionally cultivating his alter-ego and the world this character – masked and in a top hat and white gloves – resides is a more honest method of having a public persona than is typically witnessed in the image obsessed music industry and culture at large. If each one of us is creating a forward facing persona with each photo we post of our vacations, accomplishments and shining, filtered faces, Claptone is simply being more forthright in his cultivation of image.
“With Claptone people do reflect on ‘Why does he wear a mask? How close am I really to this guy, and how far am I away to this guy?’ They should do the same with Tiësto. They should do the same with Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. All these people have an image and it’s all you see, and it’s not really who they are. It’s all theatrical play, basically. There is no such thing as a genius that fell from heaven and makes music for you and does everything else perfectly as well. You shouldn’t put somebody on a pedestal and pray to them.”
With an online culture where an artist’s social media persona can get them farther than the quality of their music, forcing audiences to question the images presented to them is part of the genius of Claptone. He’s not selling a jet-setting, champagne popping superstar DJ lifestyle, but offering a purer, more artful experience less attached to mainstream marketing, ego and blunt force capitalism.
“I guess it must be even harder if you don’t wear a mask and you confuse your persona with your real ego,” he says. “If you created an image and people worship you, then you have to live that image.”
“I know they want to believe [artists] make amazing music and at the same time do DJ mixes, play everywhere in the world, have a YouTube channel, do nonstop Instagram stories, run their own social media and are in charge of their bookings,” he continues. “What I show them is not to believe everything. You’ve gotta question this. My pure existence is, I think, making people ask those questions.”
And there is of course freedom inherent to wearing a mask. By putting on a costume, the person who is Claptone – or perhaps people; it’s widely rumored that the Claptone project is two producers – is able to live a life free of the pressure to sacrifice personal details to relentlessly hungry social media followings.
“I’m mysterious and I’m private,” Claptone says. “I wouldn’t let you into my private life; I’m not somebody who displays their father and mother, their wife, or girlfriend, or boyfriend, or their dog.”
Freedom In Disguise
This freedom also speaks to the genre in which Claptone exists. The worldwide nightclubs he (or they) plays are famously escapist, with the origins of the house scene coming from gay black men in Chicago who found liberation from social prejudice at underground nightclubs where they could dance and be themselves without fear of persecution. Now as then, dark dancefloors are places where one dress exactly as they want to and dance the way that feels best without judgment.
The particular mask Claptone wears is gleaming gold with a long bird nose and resembling the 17th century plague doctor masks that for centuries been long popular at the famous Carnivale of Venice. Here, masks were historically worn to obscure identities and social status, making it possible for people who wouldn’t normally congregate to freely engage outside the bounds of everyday convention. Dance music, and underground dance music in particular, exist largely to achieve this same goal, making the Claptone mask a symbol of dance world liberation.
“That’s one of the beautiful aspects of dance music, says Claptone. “It blurs your social background, your sexual orientation. You can dance with everybody and not talk about politics or how much money is in your bank account. That’s a very positive form of communication, uniting people that usually wouldn’t unite.”
Moving Audiences, Literally and Figuratively
Fans have certainly taken to the Claptone world. Audience members often show up to his shows wearing versions of his mask, and Claptone’s ongoing Masquerade party series encourages attendees to fully embrace their inner alter ego by showing up in costume. Claptone closes out 2018 with a packed run of shows, including Masquerade sets in the United States, Austria and The Netherlands. He’ll ring in 2019 with a set in the United Arab Emirates, before jetting 3,500 miles for a New Year’s Day party in Manchester.
This shows will mark the end of a banner year for Claptone. Since the release of Fantast, he’s come in second on DJ Mag’s list of the year’s top 100 alternative DJs. “THANK YOU SO MUCH” he wrote in response to this ranking, in an Instagram post nestled among photos of him performing at clubs around the world. Other ‘grams include fans sporting the Claptone mask, an image of Michael Jackson, who Claptone calls as an idol, the name Claptone name tattooed on a fan’s arm, and a politically charged illustration proclaiming “NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL,” an of the moment message fitting comfortably within the famously tolerant dance music world. Ultimately however, Claptone’s most potent form of self-expression is the music itself.
“I want to communicate with people through music, in my productions and my DJ sets. I want to really touch them, give them a good time or even arouse melancholic feelings, or make them feel sad or reminiscent. If I’m succeeding in that, my music is successful to me.”
Really moving listeners, making them feel, is the goal of everything it takes to be Claptone. There are the emails, the endless traveling, the decision-making, the phone calls, the nosy journalists trying to piece together details of a life not up for public consumption. But it all serves the purpose of creating those peak moments on the dancefloor, when the figurative masks come off and everyone in the crowd is united in just being themselves.
When we end the call, there’s still a lot I don’t know about the man with whom I just spoke. I will, however, be compelled to keep Fantast on heavy rotation for weeks to come. For the man behind the mask, this might be the only fact that matters.