We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the new Pokemon 3DS games that have zombified our once-expressive children is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, tips on how to name one's band.
Suraya Mohamed writes via intra-office email, about 20 feet away: "I'm in a band called Hey Arboré — a D.C.-based indie-rock group with girl-boy-girl harmonies, driving drums and sweet keys; we play bittersweet jangle pop for bipolar surfers. We have a new album coming out soon, but before we release it, we need to solve a big problem. We are all embarrassed whenever we have to say our band name out loud. We came up with it in a hurry and didn't really think it through, especially the part about including a letter with an accent mark, because no one can interpret the pronunciation when they see it in print. (Arboré is meant to be pronounced "ar-bor-AY.")
The band used to be called The Ardennes — a forest in France, and actually a good name — but after a couple of members left, we thought we had to change it. Can you help us find a new name? Every time we like a name, we Google it, and it appears to already be taken by another band. Seriously, every single one! We've been trying for more than a year. What is the etiquette here? Can we recycle a previously used name from a no-longer-active band? Or use band names from groups that have a limited web presence and don't play out much, or who are not famous at all, or who are far away from where we live?"
A few quick thoughts, right off the top:
1) Don't use a band name that's already been taken. You'd be amazed at the lawsuits, threatened lawsuits, Internet trash talk and colossal inconveniences that have resulted from disputes over band names — especially once a band has taken off enough to become a juicy target for legal action. The last thing you want is to have to change your name, and lose all the momentum attached to it, in order to spare yourselves a lawsuit. You're far better off accepting that lineup changes happen — no joke, more than 100 different musicians have been members of Blood, Sweat & Tears — and opting to stick with The Ardennes.
2) Hey Arboré isn't an inherently bad name — there's a good new band called Diarrhea Planet, so the bar needn't be set all that high — but it does make me think of both Hey Marseilles and Arborea. (Hey Arboré does, I mean. Diarrhea Planet makes me think of diarrhea.) I'd come up with a new name for that reason, if nothing else.
3) You may not have a name for your band, but Bittersweet Pop for Bipolar Surfers should totally be the name of your album.
Okay, with that out of the way, what the heck do you call your band? As a guy who's breezed past literally tens of thousands of band names in the past few decades — and who's been involved in naming a number of projects, including this column — I can reassure you that a great band name is less important than you think it is. Honestly, I'm suspicious of names that are too clever (Jesus Chrysler Supercar, etc.), because they feel to me as if someone out there thought, "That's so good, I have to start a band so I can call it that" — creatively speaking, a less promising process than making music you love and then slapping a name on it as an afterthought.
Seriously, think about the bands you love, and then think about how few of them have brilliant names. The Beatles? Just a dopey pun, really. The Band? Come on. You could just slap a "U.K." onto an existing name like The Charlatans U.K. did — one of my favorite band names of all time is Cher U.K., a joke I intend to steal for myself if I ever get Hoobastank U.K. off the ground — but I'd encourage you to find a strange series of words or an obscure pop-culture reference that just sounds right to you and your collaborators. Then you can be done with it already, stop feeling bogged down, and focus on making music strong enough to make any name stick.
(That said, readers: You know you've dreamed up a name you've always wanted to use in the event you start a band, so have at it in the comments.)