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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Name that band!
The stories behind Madison's strangest pop monikers

Before settling on the explosive name Ka-Boom!Box, members of the Madison dubtronica-pop collective were on a band retreat near Black River Falls when a Wal-Mart built on an old landfill blew up - the result of a careless employee taking a cigarette break out back.

"Our campsite was suddenly showered with NASCAR and Packers crap," says bassist Robin Davies. "Right in the dead center of our fire pit landed a Sony boombox that autoplayed Digital Underground's 'Humpty Dance.' Boom! The band was named."

Can this guy be serious? "I swear on the honor of President G.W. Bush that the story is the truth," Davies replies.

Even if it's not exactly the whole truth, the story nevertheless illustrates how Madison-area musicians allow their imaginations to run wild when searching for a band name.

Droids Attack, for example, was inspired by the "Mars Attacks!" trading card series created by Topps in the 1960s. "I used the word 'droids' instead of 'robots' because it rolled off the tongue better," says vocalist/guitarist Brad Van.

8889 takes its name from an internal address for dead-letter mail at the U.S. Postal Service station where former drummer Jamison Stockdyk worked.

"Choosing a name can be one of the most contentious issues a new band goes through," says Johnny Thunder, drummer for loud rockers BLAMM-O!, named after a toy company in The Ren & Stimpy Show. "BLAMM-O! was formed in 2001, and I remember spending the better part of that year debating the name."

Other local band names have taken inspiration from pop-culture, too. Killdozer and Swamp Thing are movie titles, and Cement Pond was the Beverly Hillbillies' swimming pool.

"It always seems that when you form a band and start writing music, pretty soon you get offered a show," says Paul Schluter, guitarist for international cult favorites Last Crack (named after one of the band's songs) and Muzzy Luctin (the first word means "muddled"; the second is "just a word we made up"). "Usually, you still have no idea at that point what the band should be called. It's hard to find something that is original-sounding and hasn't been taken already."

You don't need to tell that to Tom Hamer, who used to play drums in the Romulans - which became the Real Romulans when the band realized there were more Romulans out there. Hamer says nearly every band he's been in for the past decade has counterparts in other cities, including Fuzzy Logic and Zonk.

No doubt one band without that problem was Rectal Drip, the short-lived punk trio that Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker formed as a precursor to Garbage.

Some band names have outright backfired. "Swim Team was one of those least-bad-of-a-bad-bunch brainstorming-session names," says vocalist/guitarist Ben Reiser. "I came to regret the name, if only because it led to many suggestions of publicity photo shoots with us in bathing suits, and my body in a bathing suit is not something I want in a rock-band publicity photo."

Not much strategy went into the naming of Apparently Nothing, admits vocalist/guitarist Aaron Shekey, who says the name came from a song the band wrote under the even worse moniker Ambithium. "We didn't consider any of the consequences, like being referred to as 'Nothing' on flyers," Shekey says. "The biggest drawback, though, is the blank stares when we tell someone our name is Apparently Nothing. We make sure to never say, 'We're Apparently Nothing.' Instead, we say, 'We're called Apparently Nothing. That's our name.'"

New bands pop up and disappear all the time, and we may never know why someone thought the Dripping Secret, Fred Pepper, Electro Love Kit or Fez Petting Zoo would work. On the other hand, names like Dissent and Revolt, Spitoon and Brickshithouse require no explanation.

We wondered about the stories behind names like the Tar Babies and Brainpan Litterbox, Yid Vicious and Vicious Halitosis, Seventeen Rhinos and 20 Reasons Taken. So we asked. Members of many Madison-area bands, past and present, responded to our request to share their tales - some divulging way more details than we expected.

Considering what it says about a band and its music - as well as the make-or-break impact it can have on a career - a band's name should be more than an afterthought. Just ask Karl Christenson, vocalist/guitarist for the twang-pop band Cribshitter. "I think certain people are drawn to a name that is so juvenile," he says. "But others are not impressed."

The Wisconsin State Journal has refused to print the band's name in its event listings, and a WORT DJ once called them "Cribpooper" on the air.

"I wrote a bunch of songs about these kids that went to my middle school," Christenson says, citing titles like "Jared's Different Around Girls" and "Derek Threw a Fucking Eraser at Me." "These songs are meant to capture the angst and stupidity of that age. I used to shit my pants a lot when I was little, so I bumped it back a few years and came up with Cribshitter. I know that's not much of a story."

Indeed, naming a band is not as divinely inspired an exercise as it may seem. Spooner took its name from the linguist William Archibald Spooner, who invented "Spoonerisms" - words or phrases in which letters or syllables get swapped, as in a slip of the tongue.

"I liked the way the word looked in print," says Dave Benton, the Spooner guitarist who now operates Madcity Music Exchange. "I had not been in Wisconsin long at that time, and was not aware of the town or the street name."

All it took to come up with a name for the Mighty Short Bus was a trip to a local McDonald's, where band members noticed - what else? - a short bus parked in the lot. I'm With Cupid was a flippant spin on the phrase "I'm with stupid," as well as a reference to the now-defunct band's psychedelic love vibe. Whore du Jour was inspired by nothing more than a line from the Imperial Teen song "Copafeelia."

A little more effort went into naming Vicious Halitosis. "We all put 10 words in a hat and pulled them out, two at a time, and Vicious Halitosis was the one we liked most," says bassist Steve Slotty. Rejects included Hot Puke and Wood Turnip.

The members of 20 Reasons Taken also compiled a list of potential names. But when they printed them, a computer formatting glitch put the words "20," "Reasons" and "Taken" next to each other. "Someone read them out loud, and we all stopped what we were doing," says vocalist Mison Bones. "It doesn't have a literal meaning; it was just three arbitrary words."

Vocalist/guitarist Jeff Jagielo called his '80s band Ivory Library in part because it slotted into the "I" section of record bins, "a fairly sparse no-man's land back then." He also had his reasons for naming his current band Squarewave. "We didn't want to sound too arty," Jagielo explains. "It represents the simple waveform that is distortion, fits our mix of guitar/electronica psych music and remains a simple name."

The one-man multimedia performance artist Donald J. Oblongata drew from his own musical philosophy when he settled on Brainpan Litterbox. "I work a slim demographic," Oblongata admits. "Whatever I pull from my head is for my own amusement. For that, the name Brainpan Litterbox has proven quite successful."

For erstwhile biomechanical-studies student Pam Barrett, inspiration came from a biological motor-control term used to describe the building blocks of movement. "A band is made up of one-of-a-kind musicians," says the vocalist/guitarist for the Motor Primitives. "The band's sound can't be fully realized until all the musicians come together and play. Each musician is a building block of the band, a motor primitive."

Knuckel Drager and Okham's Razor also play with language. "We figured that if some other band wanted to use the name 'Knuckle Dragger,' which is snowboarder slang, they would never spell it like us - kind of like Def Leppard, I guess," says Knuckel Drager guitarist Kurt "Major Rager" Johnson, adding that clubs, promoters and newspapers rarely get the spelling correct. "I've always liked the name and messed-up spelling. It has just the right amount of weirdness."

Okham's Razor is a play on "Occam's Razor," the principle that says "the simplest solution tends to be the best solution" - an apt term to describe the duo's acoustic music.

"There were a lot of hits on the Web for 'Occam's Razor' or 'Ockham's Razor,'" says founding member Roy Schroedl. "We found ourselves the unique spelling, so we used it. The name does have a downside, though. Some venues pass on us because they feel the name has a heavy-metal sound. They don't give us a listen to find that we're acoustic and the name is philosophical."

One of the local scene's most mysterious monikers was Seventeen Rhinos. The four-piece flirted with national success in the '90s before becoming extinct.

"We named the band after reading there were only 17 white rhinos left in existence," says drummer Tony Cerniglia, who recently formed a new band now in search of an equally compelling name. "We all sat down after a night of writing music and drinking rum and brainstormed until we had 250 names. Some of the choices were the Monkey Slappers, 25 Pirates, and Grumpy Grandpa & the Spankers. During the weeks following that session as I was editing and mixing, I would send off tapes with different band names written on the cassette cases. One week, I put 'Seventeen Rhinos' on a cassette case and got calls from all the boys letting me know that was the one."

A few Madison band names have courted controversy. Among the most volatile was the Tar Babies, a term commonly associated with racism. Original member Bucky Pope says the connotation wasn't intentional.

"That was the last association you'd think liberal white teenagers would want to have with their punk band," says Pope, noting that the term was also used in the Br'er Rabbit children's stories to refer to an increasingly sticky situation. "But since I had never heard 'Tar Baby' used as a racial epithet and I was tired of thinking about band names, I went forward."

"I was seriously opposed," remembers Ka-Boom!Box's Davies, also a Tar Baby. "I was cautious for years telling people what the name of my band was. We did have a gig once in Atlanta that the opening band declined to play on the grounds of our name."

Pope and Davies eventually morphed the Tar Babies into the Bar Tabbies - "the result of being unable to come up with a cooler name and an attempt to exploit our past success with the Tar Babies," Pope says.

Another risky name is Yid Vicious, the klezmer band's takeoff on Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. Founder Bob Jacobson was drawn to the name despite the fact that "Yid" can be an anti-Semitic epithet for "Jew." "One of the reasons I liked the name was that I initially envisioned a band that would be less traditional than what Yid Vicious has ended up being," Jacobson says. "I thought we'd evolve a little more in the rock direction. But really, I was always just a sucker for a good pun."

"The name does elicit grumbling on occasion from listeners whose musical tastes predate the Sex Pistols by a few decades," adds horn player Kia Karlen, who cites Jewbacca and Klezbian Wedding Band as other cleverly named klezmer groups from Madison's past. "When we perform for older audiences, we at some point have to interject our lengthy explanation of the name."

With bands that enjoy at least moderate success, there comes a point when clarification is no longer necessary.

"I remember when Last Crack was in Los Angeles in 1990 recording with producer Dave Jerden," says Schluter. "Dave played me 'Man in the Box' from Alice in Chains. I liked the music, but I thought the band name was the stupidest I had ever heard. But eventually it grew on me. After awhile, you don't even think about the name anymore. You could really name your band anything, and eventually it will just stick. You kind of become your name over time."

And don't forget
Awesome Car Funmaker
Baghdad Scuba Review
Dwarves of Yore
Electro Love Kit
Elf Lettuce
Ex-Action Figures
Flame Shark
Goat Radio
Helena Handbasket
Knife Party
Letter 8
Oceans of Bile
Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons
Sensuous Enemy
Sunshine for the Blind

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