Band Name Bureau and the 15-Year Effort to Catalog Terrible Band NamesFormer A.V. Club editor Kyle Ryan revives his Year In Band Names column as a newsletter
There have been maybe a couple of dozen band names that are actually good in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Every one of the millions of other names that people have come up with for their musical groups lies somewhere on a spectrum between “dumb” and “offensive.” That includes nearly every mediocre local band to ever play a Tuesday night college town dive bar, but also almost all of the greats: The Stooges? The Rolling Stones? Led Zeppelin? If you look at any of them—or literally almost any band name—for more than a couple of seconds, you’ll start to wonder why anyone would think it was remotely cool.
Since the early MySpace days, writer and former A.V. Club editor Kyle Ryan has been collecting notably awful examples of the form and sharing them with the world, first through a long-running year-end roundup for The A.V. Club, and more recently as a Substack newsletter called Band Name Bureau. It’s safe to say that few people on the planet have ever spent as much time thinking about bad band names. We hit him up on Skype to find out what it’s taught him.
Tell me the origin story of Band Name Bureau.
Years and years ago when I started at The A.V. Club, I was the Chicago city editor. So, I was doing all the show listings that were in the newspaper and I would just write down goofy band names. And that turned into this annual recap that became one of The A.V. Club’s big features at the end of every year, called The Year In Band Names. It was always fun to do, but it was a crazy amount of work to assemble every year. It would just destroy weeks of my life, but the feedback was always good. People really loved it. Then when I left The A.V. Club in 2018 I ended up doing one more for that year, even after I left. But then The A.V. Club wasn’t asking for me to do it again, and I wasn’t necessarily… Doing it every year was this big project that was a lot. But it was still something I liked doing.
At the end of every year people would hit me up on Twitter asking me if it was going to happen. People would even offer to pay. Like, “I’ll send you 50 bucks.” So I was thinking about how newsletters have had this resurgence in the past year or two, and I was like, this could actually work in this format, where every month I’ve got a few bands and I’ll send it out and it’s a much more doable way of doing something that I really do enjoy: writing about band names.
The best ones are these anonymous bands that play like shitball bars in the suburbs and have some ludicrous name that’s super funny and has a lot of personality, and I really love writing about them. So I decided to make it a newsletter. And I also did the thing where it’s free and then you can also pay a few bucks a month and you get an extra newsletter. It’s weird, though. The platform I use, the minimum I can charge is five bucks a month, and I’m like, that’s stupid. No one should pay five dollars for this.
In your mind, are there different categories of bad band names? Are band names bad in specific ways like that?
Yeah! In the Year In Band Names, I’d always break it up by category. The categories would change every year, but there were some that were always there. One of them was just “No.” It was just cheesy or melodramatic or florid band names. Most bands took being featured on the list well, and sort of in the spirit of what it was. But usually the people that didn’t like it were the ones who appeared in that category. Understandably, because I was telling them they have a stupid band name. The bonus edition I’m actually writing right now is about death metal bands. Death metal and grindcore bands, they will often just—so ridiculous—they’re often trying to sound super evil and blasphemous but it comes across as comical a lot of the time. That’s death metal bands. Grindcore bands, they’re often going for extreme sort of scatological humor, and a lot of them are trying to be funny. Or at least outrageous and stupid. Those are fun.
The thing with a lot of those bands is, they’re also the ones that tend to have issues with women. [Laughs] They tend to be a little misogynist. I’ve gotten more careful about how I write about those kinds of bands. I don’t want it to seem like I’m celebrating that part of what they do. That’s not cool. But it can be very funny. I think you can write about them being funny while also calling them on their bullshit.
I’m sure that’s an issue you run into a lot—things that are so bad that it’s offensive.
Yeah, there have been things I won’t write about. Particularly when it comes to metal bands, again. Like, EXTREME metal bands. Because when you get into even the fringes of extreme music, that’s when you start getting like, “Oh, you’re the white power guys,” and stuff like that. There have been things I’ve come across before in the past where I’m like, “I can’t tell where these guys are, so I’m just not gonna write about it.” At some point, there has to be some fun to be had with it. There are a lot of bands that are just trying to be super evil and blasphemous and it’s like, okay. It’s an affectation just like being a super polished pop star is. You’re trying so hard to be so evil and it’s like, alright dude, chill out.
This one band that I’ve written about a bunch of times, they’re from the Bay Area and they’re called Dismembered Carnage. I wrote about them for the first time for the 2014 Year In Band Names. They had this like nine minute interview video on YouTube that was straight up “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Like, fucking hilarious, but not intentionally so. So I’ve kept an eye on them and I was looking at their new record and the first four songs on their new record are all about basically dismembering Jesus. Just every song. The first song is called “As Jesus Burns.” The second one is “Denial of Christ.” The third one is “Your Lord Dismembered.” And the fourth one is “The Unholy Crucifixion.” It’s like, dude, come on. Can you write about something else? For someone you hate so much, you sure spend a lot of time writing about Jesus.
You’ve been following them for I guess six years now. How often do you run across a band or a name that catches your attention so much that you’ll follow them after?
Not too often. And their name, Dismembered Carnage, is kind of like, eh. But the personality of the people involved was so funny to me. But I’d say out of every year—and I’ve been doing it pretty much every year since 2006—there are a few that I still remember, and that I’ll still check out now and then. There’s this band from Minneapolis called Gay Witch Abortion—
—I played at least one show with them.
That’s a great name. But some of the most memorable ones are bands that like, weren’t really anything, or they played a couple shows at the Mutiny and never really had a digital presence but had some ludicrous name like this one that used to play the Mutiny called Georgia O’Queef. You can Google that name and I don’t think you’ll find anything, but they existed for this brief moment and I still think about them.
Sometimes the band name is a lot better than the band.
Oh yeah. I do keep a sub-list as I’ve been assembling this when I come across bands that are actually good and want to check out when I’m done. Every year there are a handful of bands that I’ve discovered this way. Most of the time it’s just mediocre.
Well, it’s my opinion that all band names are essentially bad. My list of actually good band names is Suicide and the Cars. Like, the Beatles is a terrible name for about 40 different reasons. Led Zeppelin? Please.
I do think there are good names. But it is a fundamentally kind of silly, but also just a super difficult, thing to do. That’s the thing. As much as it seems like I’m making fun of these bands, I really consider Band Name Bureau to be a celebration of people’s creativity in that regard. It’s super hard to come up with a band name that you stick with that you don’t regret after two shows. I am empathetic to that. Especially bands that don’t go anywhere. These are just local bands you’d never have heard of otherwise. Those are my favorite bands on this list. They’re just people. Most of the time they’re not trying to put on airs. Even the ones that are trying super hard to be evil, no matter what, their real personality seeps out. And that stuff cracks me up. There’s a band I found yesterday that’s called Aborticide and they list their influences as “Gore, hate, weed, and beer.” That kind of shit I just love.
There’s also people trying really hard to be cool with their band names. Those can also be terrible. Like the witch house era, where everyone was trying to have a band name you couldn’t Google. That’s a special kind of bad.
Pretentiousness is the worst crime of all of these. If you have the pyramid of crimes that you can commit as a band, obviously people who have genuine hate, they’re the worst. But right underneath that are these people who are super affected and pretentious, and I just cannot stand that shit. Those are the people I have no problem putting on blast. There have been so many of those over the years, bands that are so, so serious. They think they’re being genuine but it still feels like artifice, you know? I have zero tolerance for that shit.
Like that phase where all emo bands had like an entire sentence for their name.
Agh. There was one I was talking about recently, A Winged Victory for the Sullen was the name. Like, come on. The World Is A Beautiful Place And I’m No Longer Afraid To Die, like that era of emo where it’s just like… come on. You can’t possibly be like that in real life.
What do you think the appeal of Band Name Bureau is? Why do people love bad band names so much?
I think the comic element is always what draws people. But I don’t know. Here’s the thing, even people who aren’t musicians or whatever, I see this all the time in the comments, they’ll have their own list of band names that they would be in, that they and their friends joke about. Long before I did this I totally had a list of my different bands. “Here’s my pop punk band name.” Which was gonna be Number Two Pencil.
If you’re a music fan, there’s just an appeal there of, like, the process of these identities that artists give themselves. Led Zeppelin and the Beatles are great examples of this. You don’t even necessarily notice that they’re bad band names anymore, because they’re such a part of the culture. The whole process of musicians naming themselves is a cultural phenomenon that’s the highest of highs, with the Beatles, and then the lowest band playing some shitball bar in the suburbs of Omaha—they still have to come up with a name. It’s like this experience that’s shared. And I’ve come across so many things in the 15 years of doing this where I’m like, I’m a writer, I’m a creative person, and I would not have thought of this. Like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to call ourselves Happy Mothers Day I Can’t Read.” I just love the authenticity of it. People are just naturally funny.