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From Carebears to The Electric Witch: Duluth groups weigh in on their band name origins

Illustration by Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com1 / 7
The Murder of Crows has special meaning for Gaelynn Lea, though bandmate Alan Sparhawk came up with it. Photo courtesy of Lea. 2 / 7
The Electric Witch is a 100 percent electro band that includes robotic vocals by Mary Bue. Photo courtesy of Zac Bentz. 3 / 7
Carebears, Carebears, Yeah performed under a lot of different names, including Denim on Denim. Photo courtesy of Amy Roper. 4 / 7
Photo by Brittany Sanford5 / 7
Photo by Joe Olivieri Wherehouse Productions6 / 7
Kitschy Gloomy's name is regionally influenced. Photo by Ryan Tischer, courtesy of Steve Karels. 7 / 7

One thing to consider when selecting a band name: Has it already been trademarked by a rock band with royal-meets-couture lineage?

This was the lesson for local pop-funk band known now, suddenly, as Alamode. Before they were Alamode they were Playdate, and a recent cease and desist letter from a Los Angeles-based lawyer told them they were infringing on a trademark.

The official Playdate is listed on the online trademark database as belonging to Tatiana Von Furstenberg, daughter of the designer Diane Von Furstenberg and Prince Egon Von Furstenberg. According to a New York Times feature about a recent art show she curated at a gallery in the Lower East Side, Tatiana Von Furstenberg is the rock band's lead singer.

The Duluth band formerly known as Playdate acted fast and didn't fight it. They unpublished their Playdate Facebook page and switched their Twitter identity to indicate they were not Playdate, according to guitar player Peter Knutson. Now they're Alamode — a band name taken from the title of a song they never completed, he said.

It's a name with similar properties to the old one.

"It's catchy," Knutson said. "And it's kind of funny. Served with ice cream, what's in fashion. It's a funny play on words."

According to recent unofficial survey of local bands, names can be drawn from — among other places — medical hyperbole, geographic puns and ancestral links. Catchy is crucial, according to band namers. They should also be memorable. And if a singer-songwriter connects to the name on a higher level, that's nice, too.

Gaelynn Lea didn't name The Murder of Crows, the violin-guitar duo with Alan Sparhawk. But Lea had long considered the crow to be a spirit animal before he suggested it.

"It's my favorite bird, and it has been for a really long time," she said. "I feel a strong connection to them. I thought it was neat (Sparhawk) thought of it."

Lea, winner of NPR's 2016 Tiny Desk Contest for her solo work, describes her appreciation for crows as being based on "weird, new-agey reasons." She's read a lot about their symbolism, she said, and seeing them in nature makes her feel grateful.

"I notice them a lot," she said. "I'll have cool instances where I'm sitting by myself and a crow will come along and we'll be in each other's space."

Lea said that just before meeting Sparhawk and forming the band, she was getting reiki from a woman who claimed to see a crow during every session with her.

"That's why The Murder of Crows was so intense," Lea said. "I don't know if I've actually told (Sparhawk) that."

Emma Rustan also has a personal connection to her stage name. She performs electro-folk music as Ingeborg von Agassiz, a name with layers of meaning. It's born of two powerful and influential women of high medieval Europe, she said: Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Rustan was named after her great grandmother, who went by Emma but was named Ingeborg.

In German, von is "of" or "from."

"Agassiz refers to the region of Minnesota where I was born and raised," Rustan said in an email. "An ancient colossal glacial lake once covered that entire northwest part of the state, going well into Canada. Glacial Lake Agassiz was far bigger than all the Great Lakes combined, but evaporated about 10,000 years ago."

Zac Bentz's synth-noir, dark romance band featuring a shimmering, silver Mary Bue on robotic vocals, took its name from fan-fiction about a home on his dog-walking route that is always dark, day or night.

"The windows are all tightly curtained, and there's no ornamentation aside from a black silhouette of a cat in the corner of a large picture window," he said in an email. "It's always dark except for one small window high up at the back corner. That one always has a dim blue light shining out."

He and his wife-bandmate Stephanie Bentz began speculating about what was going on inside and developed a story.

"I figured that's where she slept," he said of the blue room. "Upright and inside a circle of arcane symbols, spinning like an engine, powering up and casting off that electric blue light. Hence, she was The Electric Witch."

Which (Witch?) is what he named his next, 100 percent electronic project.

Carebears, Carebears, Yeah is a band of five friends who write satirical songs about Duluth. "Co-Op" is about working at the co-op, said guitar-kazoo player Amy Roper. "Red Box" is about how the company closed down the video stores. There's another about gluten.

Amanda Ayres, Amber Johnson, Mary Hermanson and Lydia Komatsu used to just perform for friends and always under a new name, like Nautical Nightmares or Denim on Denim.

One night, gearing up for a show at The Encounter, they introduced themselves as Carebears, Carebears, Yeah.

"Then, we played an actual show at an actual venue and that was the name they used," Roper said. So it stuck.

"It's funny how much just the name itself made us a little following more so than our music," Roper added.

Bass player Steve Karels' favorite local band and local band name is Silk Sheiks, the soul-lounge group fronted by Dan Anderson.

"Just the imagery that it conveys," Karels said. "It kind of has this '60s-ish, nicotine-stained groove-funk vibe to it. And it's like silk sheets, which has a sexual tone, but it's sheiks, these powerful ambassadors of whatever, funk I guess."

The brainstorming session for the blues rock-funk band that would become Kitschy Gloomy yielded about 130 different potential names including Transparents, Buddha Pesto, Mosquito Incognito and Steve MyQueen.

"Then a whole slew of other ones that didn't make the grade," Karels said.

Kitschy Gloomy plays on the Ojibwe word for Lake Superior, gichigami, and the Kitchi Gammi Club on East Superior Street. Karels is also in Songs of Shipwreck, which out-of-town venues routinely mess up and Fearless Moral Inventory, which they found in Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book.

"Reflecting on yourself and seeing all the horrible choices you've made and trying to be sober and reconcile — which has nothing to do with our band," he said. "There's some awkwardness or confusion with people who are in AA or have been in AA before, and they think we're an AA band. We're a garage band that likes to drink beer."

Most of the time, they just go by FMI or Fearless.

"It's just too long of a band (name)," he said.

FMI isn't the only band misrepresenting itself. While all three members of The Farsights wear glasses, just one is technically farsighted.

"We later realized our name reflects the societal allegories we tend to write about," said Brynn Sias, bass player, via Twitter. "Let's just say it was subconsciously intentional."

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