Music by Adam Steiglitz
Some people drunkenly coin band names based on inside jokes and obscure references, but never form an actual group. Or they do put some energy into creating a group, but it never grows past their circle of friends. That’s usually how it goes. Only a very few bands have the distinction of forming and then incurring the wrath of the largest organization on the planet.
We sat down with Geoff Rickly and Jonah Bayer of supergroup United Nations to discuss going against “the man,” receiving your first cease and desist, “selling out,” and what it means to be “punk as fuck” in 2013.
FRANK151: Can you give me the back story on band and the name?
Geoff Rickly: I think it started over tequila with Daryl [Palumbo] from Glassjaw. We thought United Nations would be a dope name because it’s already in your head. For me the best punk bands always took something really familiar and re-casted it as something else.
Jonah Bayer: I moved to New York six years ago. Geoff called me and was like, “We should work on this thing I’m doing with Daryl and some other people.” We’d go out to the studio in Jersey, where they did some Thursday records, to write. We’d have an engineer hanging out so when we were ready he could record.
GR: When Ben from Converge joined on drums it took on a whole different life because he’s such an animal. We’ve had a whole bunch of different line ups. Being kind of anonymous has made it a lot easier. We’re able to change whenever we want and keep things different. And nobody knows the difference. People will come up to the members at shows and talk to us as if we were other people.
JB: Some guy came up to me after our Philly show and was like, “You’re such a huge inspiration for me.” I was like, “Wow, this guy must really get what I do. That’s so cool.” Then he’s like, “I love the lyrics you write for Glassjaw.” “Oh…this guy thinks I’m someone totally different. I’m gonna go with it; I don’t wanna bum him out.” And then he was like, “Daryl, can I get a picture with you?” So I finally said, “I have to tell you, I’m not who you think I am,” ’cause I felt like he was gonna be so bummed! He was gonna post it on Instagram and everybody’s gonna be like, “You got chumped!” [Laughs]
F151: What was the original purpose of keeping anonymous?
GR: On the first record we had four different record labels we were signed to. Every single one of them had first right of refusal on each of us. We were like, “If we do this, it’s gonna take us like two years to even get people to say, ‘No, we don’t want it. It doesn’t sound anything like your other band.” So we said, “If we don’t copyright the songs and we don’t say who we are and we don’t keep any paper trail whatsoever, then we’ll never have to deal with the record label.”
We got in touch with this amazing radical artist named James Kadi from the UK. He used to be in that band KLF and What Time is Love? He’s also this crazy anarchist artist. All his prints would be stamps on envelopes, sent through the mail in the UK. It would be like the Queen with a gas mask, so he got arrested for that. They were gonna put him in jail but instead they commissioned him to do all the stamps for the actual UK postal service for like four years—for free he had to do it. Then he ended up winning this giant grant for a million pounds! So things keep bouncing back and fourth for him. He was so mad at the government that he burned it on the steps of Parliament—the whole million pounds. He’s a crazy dude.
He did the cover artwork. We were like, “We know it’s gonna get banned because it’s Abbey Road with the Beatles on fire, but we should put it out and just have a back-up cover ready. And since our names aren’t in it, they’re not gonna even know who to sue. Well just clean our hands of it and put out the second cover.”
What we didn’t think was that we’d get sued by the United Nations. After we knew we had to get rid of the Beatles cover, we were like, “We’re clear now,” and then we started getting these cease and desist letters. The first one went to MySpace, which was still a thing back then. And then to Facebook…
JB: We had a friend who worked at MySpace and he’d put us on the front page, so we had–
GR: Eleven million plays. It was actually the biggest launch they’d ever had and it was the same week as Snoop Dogg, so they were like, “This is so weird.” And how much hate mail did we get?
JB: Dude, so much. But yeah, if you went to Myspace.com it was us in Reagan masks in front of the UN.
GR: The mail was like, “You guys are assholes! I love the Beatles. Why did you put them on fire?!” Crazy stuff. And then actual letters from maybe refugees asking for help, which was like, “Wait, is somebody messing with us, or is this really sad and we should direct them to the real UN?”
JB: It was weird. But then all the sites started disappearing. I’d call my friend like, “Dude, our MySpace page is gone. Where is it?” He’s like, “Let me check…. Yeah, we got a letter from the United Nations. We’re taking it down. We’re not gonna go to bat for you guys, ’cause we’re a huge corporation, they’re the government, and you’re four guys making weird music.”
GR: Even our publicist was like, “Uhh…I can’t cover you guys anymore.” We said, “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re a publicist. This is like your dream.” He was like, “But I smoke pot and I’m afraid that the United Nations is gonna come take it.” We couldn’t even get somebody to put our story out there.
JB: At the time it felt like a missed opportunity
GR: The nail in the coffin was, they wanted Facebook.com/UnitedNations, and we had it. It was this giant initiative they were launching to give every kid in every country that needed food and water their own Facebook page. But they couldn’t get it ’cause we already had it! I think that’s what really pissed them off [laughs].
Wait a second. Ideally, they’re getting food and water to kids, but obviously they’re spending some of their resources writing cease and desist letters to four guys that play hardcore music.
JB: That was the craziest part, the actual cease and desists. Like they had sorta found peoples names.
GR: But like fifteen people. They weren’t sure who, so they just put everybody they had ever heard associated with it.
JB: I think they went on Wikipedia, which is also super complicated—some stuff’s true, some stuff isn’t—so they were gleaning from that. And then they had links to our merch store…
GR: And our website, which is UnitedFuckingNations.com. To see it all on official UN letterhead is so crazy.
JB: Someone definitely put work into, “Who are these guys? How can we stop them?” They were mad that we used their logo, also.
GR: They even made some illegal requests. Like, “You’re not allowed to mention United Nations in your lyrics.” And it’s like, “Well that’s not true.” We took it to our lawyer and he was like, “They have a supermark. There’s nothing you can do. It’s not a copyright, it’s not a trademark, it’s a supermark.
F151: So what happens? You can’t use their name in songs?
GR: Yeah. We’re not allowed to mention them, we’re not allowed to use the logo—which wasn’t the actual United Nations logo. I spent time getting a designer to redesign it.
They had all these demands. We said, “We can change the name of the band, but that’s the antithesis of why we started the band. If we started the band to be a punk band, why would we change the name and do something easy?” So instead we laid low and decided we were gonna keep doing it, because anybody with money and influence can really shut down anybody without it, so maybe we should keep on being the small guy that takes our opportunities and runs with them.
We put out a seven-inch a few years later on Deathwish. That has another great trademark-busting cover that Ben Frost, the Australian artist, did. It’s got every mascot of every product in the world having sex on the back cover, and then the front is the Sex Pistols cover, only it’s, Never Mind the Bombings Here’s Your Six Figures. We figured out that if we stay under the radar and keep on taking little pot shots, they don’t really care, and it seems way better than changing the name of the band. At first we were like, “Maybe we can change the name of the band to FBI” and just keep cycling through names where we keep getting shut down, like every few releases we have a new ridiculous name.