Who Is Lee Chaos?

What’s in a name? That has become a more complicated question as time has gone on for me. It used to be a little easier, back in the 90s (as everything seems to be in retrospect). My first proper band, The Chaos Engine, started up after I left university, and I was faced with the prospect of choosing a stage name for myself.

Since there were a couple of other Lees in the music scene I was in, I abbreviated my surname to H as I was never that fond of it. Briefly I added -O’Chaos to the nom de plume before friends decided to do the abbreviation for me and I was known as Lee Chaos amongst pretty much everyone I knew outside of work, which I tended to keep diplomatically separate from my musical endeavours in a Spiderman / Peter Parker or Jekyll and Hyde manner.

When I first started the band, it was the at around the same time as the beginning of the domestication of the Internet, and everyone was allowed to choose their own “screen names”, so it made perfect sense to use the Lee Chaos persona, since I was always talking about music online and never the day job which, in the main, had very little to do with my musical aspirations. It was really easy to keep the two things separate since online interactions invariably involved a large beige box of a computer and connection to a phone line – yes, I’m old enough to fondly remember the sound of dial-up modems and worrying about phone bills.

This was in the days before convergent technology – each gadget did one thing, and often that gadget was big enough to mean it only did that one thing in one place. You went to work and did your job. You got home and read your mail. You recorded songs at a recording studio. You played gigs at music venues. And it’s extremely likely that these places and spaces shaped the activities and experiences and art that happened there – David Byrne picked up on this for his excellent TED talk.

But one of the other things they did was allow you to keep these separate aspects of your life clearly defined and apart from each other unless you chose otherwise. Your boss had no idea what you did for fun unless you decided to disclose it. It wasn’t about keeping secrets so much as boundaries being more clearly defined because they weren’t connected together. Work was work, play was play.

Then the Internet escaped from its beige boxes and shed the tether of the phone line. Before that, mobile phones and text messages had made the first cracks in the division between the day job and the other, but smartphones and portable devices knocked it down altogether. Initially, this wasn’t too bad – searching for Lee Chaos would bring up all my musical endeavours, and using my given surname would show another human with the same face attempting to do normal human activities in order to pay the rent. The duality was holding for now and everything was still mostly in its neat boxes.

The first hint that things weren’t going to stay separate came when I decided to run for local government. Our arts centre – a hotbed for creativity and all the social deviance that goes along with it – had been shut down by the council who owned the building in mysterious circumstances. Out of desperation, I decided to form a protest party to get it re-opened – I had no aspirations to begin a career in politics; this was the equivalent of a Twitter campaign that got out of hand before such things happened online. However, it turns out that if you create your own political party in a marginal seat during a General Election, the press take an interest – who knew?! However, one thing the press also take an interest in is your real name, and a dislike to anyone using other names, and as a result, the day job me collided with the politically active musical me, luckily with only minor repercussions for a job I left shortly after anyway.

The emergence and ubiquity of social media took this several steps forward in a seemingly short amount of time. I was a late adopter to Facebook – I remember signing up after a music festival and seeing the way friends could share and tag photos of each other & get to know other people in the same music scene as me – a good way to continue short pub conversations in a longer format, and for me, a brilliant way to organise DJ gigs. It made sense for me to use the Lee Chaos name as everyone I was speaking to online still knew me through music one way or another – it’s just who I was to anyone and everyone who knew me out of work.

This was about a decade ago, when I’d wrapped up my record label, and was teaching full time alongside running my own events and guest DJing at other people’s nights. Students are always curious to try and get the upper hand on their tutors, so having all of my musical activities under a different name to my teaching persona was an accidental but brilliant bit of self preservation.

And then Facebook decided otherwise.

Although I understand the commercial reasons for Facebook’s insistence on people using their “real” names, for me it was a disaster. It took a hammer to the separation between my work life and my private life. Overnight, students and staff could find and read things about me and my art than were nothing to do with my day job. This inability to keep the two separate had a profound negative effect on my mental health and fouled the relationship I had with my employers at the time irrevocably.

I’m not going to pretend I suffered the worst from this – I know of people for whom this ‘outing’ caused life changing and in some instances life threatening problems. Who people are online wasn’t the same as who people were in ‘real life’, until, one day, Facebook decided that, for the benefit of their advertisers, this duality was unacceptable, or at least was not as profitable.

Over the last few years, I’ve sought to forge a career out of all of the disparate threads of my life experience so far, and I’m delighted that I currently work in an area that values the breadth of experience I have in the music industry, doubly so for knowing that many people aren’t so fortunate and still have to keep huge chunks of their lives hidden from their employers. From being an important alter-ego, Lee Chaos is now just a nickname, and most people just know me by my first name , but I haven’t forgotten how important having that duality was to me before I found out who I actually wanted to be, some time in my fourth decade.

However, I do worry about the chilling effect that living in an ‘always-on’ and constantly surveilled world can have on people. We now know that the post-millennial Generation Z live healthier, more risk-averse lives, but it concerns that they do so at the loss of adventure, curiosity, creativity and risk-taking that characterised my generation’s post-punk adolescence. I’ve personally noticed that young people are more reluctant to put themselves in situations where they may be open to mockery or criticism from their peers – and that often includes artistic endeavours, performances, and in particular the simple act of singing aloud.

Those who trot out the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ mantra, in my experience, have little understanding of the creative process, let alone much in the way of imagination, and have often forgotten what it’s like to live in fear of having their passions exposed to others or derided. A life lived in fear may be life half lived, but we need to create spaces where people are not afraid to explore their artistic endeavours, and having control over your personal identity, what your share, and what name you choose to go by are all crucial elements of that.

We all wear masks, some more bright than others.