It’s about 2014, Wolf Alice have just released their second EP Creature Songs. Wolfmother have been touring their jangly guitar music for almost 10 years. Wolf Parade are three years into what turned out to be a five-year hiatus. In the emptying virtual corridors of Blogspot, alphabetised lists of all the bands and musicians with names containing the word “Wolf” echo into the abyss. (This is the best, from 2011, with 1,000 bands. Shout out to Graham.)
With so many bands out there it’s no surprise that every once in a while you get name trends. There was the exclamation mark phase of the early to mid 00s, the geometric symbols in the witch house, bloggy era, the "Lil" Soundcloud rappers who've followed Kim, Wayne and (just about) Bow Wow. Why does this happen, though? When I Wendy Fonarow, a professor of music anthropology and former A&R rep, she doesn't have a firm theory but backs me up in thinking it's a good question to ask. “I’ve thought about zeitgeist," she says, and about "the influence of one artist on another, signifying something in a shared element (like the use of K or X in dance music)”.
Not so long ago it seemed like the wolf reigned supreme in the animal-themed band name game but that’s over. Enter: the rat. You may have noticed it too. Mallrat, Ratboy, Ratboys, Ratking, Rat Child. One band kept it simple and went just for Rats. Most are relatively new names, making great, fun music that sticks to you like a half-chewed sweet. But it’s hard to pick a band name. You’ve got to make sure everyone is happy with it. For legal reasons, you’ve also got to come up with one that hasn’t already been taken. It’s like coming up with a strong-enough password for yet another site.
So look, I know this sounds ridiculous but I’ve taken it upon myself to investigate this particular name trend. To slide deep into the bowels of the earth and confront the music ratking directly, mostly yelling ‘why have you infiltrated this industry?’ We could be content to say it’s all cyclical, just coincidence, and wait for the next inevitable trend… but that won't do. So here we go.
For all the attempts to rehabilitate the rodent, (see Ratatouille), rats are almost universally loathed. Well, except for the people who keep them as pet. Rats are obviously clever rodents, ‘they’re cute!!’ etc etc – save it for your cluster of friends huddled round the pub corner booth while Draco, your grey pet, winds its tail around your arms. Compared to the mouse, which has enjoyed decades if not centuries of great PR, mostly in the form of cartoons (Mickey Mouse, Rastamouse, Jerry), the rat is for the most part still associated with plague, death, poverty and general filth. Fonarow says that animals that are thought of as dirty are taboo animals that “threaten the symbolic order,” and threats are supposed to be wiped out.
Of course, that makes rats the perfect anti-hero mascot for musicians. If the mouse is the cuter, clean-cut, presentable one, the rat is the scruffy bad boy. There’s an “evil glamour” in so-called taboo animals that makes artists in genres like punk and metal, which revel in the aesthetic of dirt, lean towards creatures like rats and pigs. They might just identify with the image of the rat and the dregs of society, and hunger and the city and make rat music for rat people.
I email Julia Steiner of Chicago indie rock band Ratboys for some goddamn answers. She shares an anecdote about how the rat’s image, once-gross, can now feel empowering. “I was feeling kind of uneasy before a show,” she says, “and went to sit in the car by myself for a minute to decompress. I remember it was super cold and I could see my breath while I sat in the car in the alley. To my right, I noticed a rat on top of a dumpster and then another rat, which darted out from the darkness, climbed up the side of the dumpster on a loose chain and began attacking the other rat with vicious ferocity. Basically, I sat in silence and witnessed a bloody rat turf war over a dumpster. It was mesmerising and it made me feel better for some reason. I took it as a powerful omen and went inside to rip the gig. That was the first time I remember purposefully channeling the power of the rat in our music.” You know what, that's almost romantic when you put it in those terms.
For all the wild stories about how bands got their names, Fonarow says that some artists do try to pick a name evocative of the music. “Rats are given a bad rap in part because they are associated with disease but there are other aspects of them – that they’re group living animals, their secrecy – that tie into other values that you find in music”. One of those values is authenticity. Since the rat is a symbol of duplicity, says Fonarow, to name yourself after one “plays with issues around authenticity. It’s saying I’m untruthful and at the same time I’m truthful about being untruthful.”
That wink and nudge is why the Rat Pack’s name worked. The story goes that when actress Lauren Bacall walked in on her husband Humphrey Bogart and a group of their friends, including Sinatra, half cut, she told them, “You look like a goddamn rat pack!”. The name stuck and become synonymous with a group of singers and actors as infamous for their philandering and drinking as they were famous for being the ultimate gentlemen.
When I ask Julia for Ratboys’ name origin story, she says it “wasn’t made intentionally to honour rats or make any sort of statement about them”. I mean, fair. Instead it was a high school nickname that stuck. “I was at lunch with some friends, and we were bored, trying to entertain ourselves. We came up with a game to go around the table and give each other gross, ridiculous nicknames. When it came to me, my friend Liz narrowed her eyes and said, ‘You’re just a little ratboy.’ Everyone laughed, and I was super into it. My friends continued to call me Ratboy throughout high school and still do.” Even though Julia says choosing a name with the word “rat” in it wasn’t intentional, the rat has become an emblem for the band, featuring on their posters and shirts. “We’ve even had people bring their pet rats to shows, which is usually very dope, they’re cute pets!”
Sometimes music can feel like the book publishing industry, where one good idea creates an avalanche of similar ones. But, really, naming your band lends itself to a more personal story too. Sure, you might find yourself influenced by another artist name when picking your own, but you've also got to be able to formulate some sort of story about how you got there – especially when your first interviews start trickling in, and everyone asks "how did you meet" and "why are you called that." It's good prep, if nothing else. Beyond that, once a band or artist gets big enough, the animal they're named after doesn’t really conjure anything other than the artists themselves. As Fonarow puts it: “You don’t picture a frightened rabbit, you just think of the band”. The wolves and rabbits will have to fight for that supreme spot, then.