Why’d You Name Your Band That?: Grand Lake’s Oakland connection is as plain as a 50-foot, 2,800-bulb sign towering over the freeway

Grand Lake likes indie rock and moody lighting. (via Facebook)

You need only take a look at the banner on this blog to see why featuring Grand Lake with a “Why’d You Name Your Band That?” entry has been a goal of mine since I dreamed up this little feature. (Well, you need only take a look and be able to read backwards.)

I live in Oakland’s Grand Lake district, and so did Caleb Nichols in 2008 when he was trying to come up with a name for his new art-rock band. He has since relocated to Los Osos, about halfway between here and Los Angeles, but those Oakland ties are still there.

Founded with his longtime friend Jameson Swanagon, the band’s one constant has been Nichols’ songwriting, which is heavily influenced by what he called “the cannon of indie rock.” (That would include everything from Radiohead to Bright Eyes.) With contributions from a varying group of collaborators, Grand Lake’s sound has shifted with each release. The band’s new EP, Leaves Ellipse, is a more acoustic, relaxed and pastoral than the muscular pop that defined much of last year’s full-length debut, Blood Sea Dream.

Like Port O’Brien—the folky group Nichols played in before this—Grand Lake has managed to capture the attention of several indie tastemakers, and not just local publications like The Bay Bridged and the Guardian but influential blogs with national audiences, such as My Old Kentucky Blog and Largehearted Boy. But only one blog had the motivation to call Nichols up and ask him more questions about Grand Lake’s name than he’s ever had to deal with in one session.

All The City Lights: It says right on your website that the band was “named after a theater that named itself after a lake, that named itself after a man.” That’s obviously the Grand Lake movie theater here in Oakland. How did you settle on that name?

The cinema named after a lake named after a man that inspired a band.


Caleb Nichols: I’d been in other bands where the name evokes a strong feeling or strong imagery. I was in a band called The Bloody Heads. It really made people think we would be a metal band or punk band.

When I was in Port O’Brien, it was the same thing. The band name was fine, but it seemed to pigeonhole us. … Everything had to be about fishing or Alaska. It worked really well for what we were doing, but it occurred to me, how do you move beyond that?…. When I tell people my band is called Grand Lake, it kind of makes sense to them. It’s just a simple name.

The reason we picked that specific name out of any other is that’s where I was living, in the Grand Lake neighborhood, when the band started. My real introduction to the Bay Area in general was in that neighborhood in 2004 or ’05. That’s where Port O’Brien was based out of. It fit with my musical lineage, and I think the theater is quite impressive and awesome.

ATCL: It is. You know, I hadn’t seen a show in the main auditorium until a few weeks ago when I saw Super 8—

CN: Did you get to go on a Saturday?

ATCL: Yeah, so I got to see the guy playing the organ.

CN: That’s the best part! I’ve definitely seen a lot of movies there.

I’m really into place names generally. … That’s part of it. There is a bit of a Google problem sometimes. There are some seven or eight towns or areas called Grand Lake in the U.S. The biggest is Grand Lake, Colorado. I get Google alerts about real estate in Grand Lake, Colorado, every week, but that’s the price you pay.

ATCL: Does everyone in Oakland know what it refers to? Does anyone outside Oakland?

CN: I would imagine everyone in Oakland knows what that refers to. I don’t know what you would think if you weren’t from there. I’ve had reviewers and critics say things like, “Grand Lake: the metaphorical lake of acquiescing self.” …

It just felt like a good name, and I’m happy with it.

ATCL: I’ll be honest. I think the way I first came across you guys is I was trying to come up with a name for my own band, and I walked by the (theater’s) sign and said: “Hmmm, Grand Lake. That’s a good name.” Then I got home and Googled “Grand Lake band” and, lo and behold, there was in fact a band named after the theater.

CN: I remember driving when I first moved back to Oakland in 2008 … on the 580, and I drove by the theater sign … and I said, “That’s some really good advertising,” because it’s such a dramatic, amazing-looking sign. It’s just beautiful, beautiful art just sitting there.

I’m sorry I took your band name.

ATCL: That’s all right. You got it fair and square.

CN: You can use it, but I’m going to sue the shit out of you.

ATCL: Were there any alternate names you considered?

CN: For this project, before Grand Lake it was going to be the John Wilkes Booth Explosion. I was really into that for a while. I thought it was great. That’s kind of like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plus John Wilkes Booth. And I’m kind of a Lincoln-phile. But there’s another band called John Wilkes Kissing Booth, and that’s probably more funny. Plus something called “Explosion” makes you expect something different.

I contemplated just calling this project my own name, but I think there’s a power to band names and to give it a name that’s not your own. And the first year or two of the band, it was definitely a collaborative effort. It’s kind of gotten a little less collaborative. …

ATCL: The name is two pretty basic words, but has anyone ever gotten it wrong? I don’t know, do they get it backwards or something: Lake Grand?

CN: I don’t think that’s really happened yet. Sometimes people put the words together and call it Grandlake, one word, and that hasn’t really happened much. It’s not like people are calling us The Suburbs when our name is actually Arcade Fire.

ATCL: All right, and finally, any advice for new bands out there searching for names?

CN: I’d say get a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, open it up to the first page you come to, and then just pick the most beautiful combination of words. That’s my advice. I’ve actually done that in pursuit of a band name. It’s the best resource.

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