Exploring the mystical art of band naming with Twin Cities musicians

Hilary James (second from left) of We are the Willows (pictured) and Fiji-13 has been lucky with band names.

Hilary James (second from left) of We are the Willows (pictured) and Fiji-13 has been lucky with band names. Provided

Fueled by equal parts pamplemousse La Croix and generous hits of Pineapple Express, my bandmates and I enter the second hour of a band-name black hole, the depths of which appear infinite.

“Seriously, guys,” Dexter Wolfe implores, “I think we should be considering ‘Arm,’” gesturing with his left appendage for effect.

Lazily sprawled across the living room, the three of us have long diverged from any semblance of serious brainstorming, and my abs ache from belly laughs.

“I keep coming back to ‘Fork,’” Pat Keen muses.

Earlier in the day, I became convinced that “Narwalnia” was the answer, only to find that my level of enthusiasm for combining Arctic sea creatures with C.S. Lewis’ fantastical land wasn’t shared.

“Pale Nimbus!” Pat shouts.


TABAH Provided

We continue on in this manner for quite some time.

Over the two years we’ve performed as Undlin & Wolfe, we’ve grown tired of introducing ourselves by a moniker that even the best-intentioned folks struggle to pronounce, or worse, remember.

A change is needed, but band names are fickle things, at times enigmatic, ironic, effortless, clunky, or seemingly predestined. They can be as irreverent as the Butthole Surfers or as non-negotiable as Led Zeppelin. Last names, stage names, animals, numbers, foreign languages — the horizon is endless, and that’s the trouble: It’s easy to overthink a band name. Then again, it would be foolish to not think carefully about a band name, probably the most important tool in your music-branding arsenal.

So, armed with curiosity and a self-serving interest in cracking the elusive code, I set out to ask members of the local music community: What makes a good band name?

“I feel like a lot of my friends, or musicians I know, are constantly thinking about band names,” says Hilary James of We Are the Willows and Fiji-13.

James explains the coincidental origin of Fiji-13, her feminist surf-punk trio: “I had written a really stupid song and was like, ‘Man, this would be perfect for that band we’re never gonna start.’ My sister was like, ‘Let’s call [the band] ‘PG-13’ and our friend John was like, ‘Did you say PG-13 or Fiji-13?’ It was a done deal.”

James whips out a napkin, where she has scribbled out band name categories: person and people names, funny/joke names, names you can never remember how to spell, etc. Focusing in on a column of animal-themed monikers, she explains, “Animal names seemed really popular in the mid-2000s. I get them all confused, too — like Deer Hunter and Deer Tick. I really like one of them and I don’t like the other, but I can never remember which one.”

She counts off other examples of this band-name trope on her fingertips: Grizzly Bear, Phox, Foxes in Fiction, Red Fox Grey Fox.

“It’s like this mass movement of forest creatures,” she says, “which is pretty dope.”

While some band names are stumbled upon, others congeal around a tribal sense of belonging. Bands like Animal Collective or Cloud Cult evoke feelings of a shared experience that can become as much a defining aspect of the group as the music itself. TABAH, a local band with a mystically groovy sound, combined phonemes (originally two separate nicknames) into a word that they felt embodied the “blank and meaningless canvas” of their project.

As their music gained traction, they learned from listeners that in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, TABAH means destruction or ruined, while in Malay, a popular Southeast Asian language, TABAH means perseverance. The band members adopted those definitions as a sort of mantra.

“We observe the destruction and perseverance in our day-to-day lives,” TABAH’s Cecilia Erholtz explains. “It seems there is always another mountain to climb, one after another.”

In reflecting on band names in general, she asserts that “every band name creates a certain aesthetic and should be a strong representation of how the group represents itself before and after the music is heard.”

“Adjective plus plural noun equals a lot of band names,” surmises Matt Bedrosian, the driving force behind Minneapolis freak-funk group P • PL. “I tried not to get stuck in that worn-out formula; there are some great bands that use it, though.”

Trial and error led Bedrosian to P • PL.

“A good band name is vague enough to allow people their own interpretation but familiar enough to associate with,” he says. “I was toying with the name ‘Girly Mag,’ but I asked a few women if it was offensive and they almost unanimously said that it was. I didn’t want to alienate anyone — that might have been part of why [the name] went in the direction of P • PL.”

Transitioning to the more head-banging, sword-wielding corners of our fair city, the Ass Bastards of Mordor carry the torch of orc-rock and are self-recognized as the No. 2 Lord of the Rings-themed band in Minneapolis. Last year, the group won a City Pages poll asking for the best/worst local band name, topping the likes of Gay Witch Abortion, the Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins, and the unfortunate RapeDoor.

A.B.O.M’s spokesman, Alec “Bearporn” Austin, explains that, “A fair number of people have told us over and over at shows that they came out because they saw the name and it was goofy, err, I mean badass enough to get them to come see what the hell warrants such a title.” Admitting that one member once pushed for the band to drop “Of Mordor” out of concern that people wouldn’t take the group seriously, Austin points out the flaw in this thinking.

“In truth nobody should take us seriously, and we are nerds,” he says, adding that, “The only other [band name] candidate was something like Phantom Zombies, which is rad, but not bathed in enough runes of orcish blood to really function properly for us.”

Krista Vilinskis is the founder of Tinderbox Music, a Twin Cities-based promotion/distribution company. She’s worked with bands to change their names, a process she acknowledges is no easy task.

“It is much easier to promote a band with a good band name,” Vilinskis explains, “a name that rolls off the tongue, sounds pleasing to the ear, is memorable, and most importantly does not offend anyone in the process.”

Recognizing that some communities might embrace certain band names for their shock value, she asks an important question of any truly ambitious musician: “Why make it harder on your band to be heard?”

Whether you’re engaged in Middle Earth battles of rock ’n’ roll or lulling your audience into a trance via forest-crittered folk songs, word of mouth is a powerful force that can change a band’s career, particularly for emerging artists. In what becomes an elaborate game of telephone between musicians, promoters, writers, and music lovers — one that spans zip codes, social media posts, blogs, and show posters — the ineffable equation of making music that resonates under a name people will remember seems to win out.

The members of Undlin & Wolfe are open to suggestions.