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In a little less than six years, Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman of Burger Records have built an accidental empire. What began as a way to release records for their band Thee Makeout Party and their friends’ bands (Audacity, for instance) quickly morphed into one of the more prolific purveyors of cassettes tapes during a reawakening of cassette culture. It was not just that they were releasing tapes, it was the sheer volume of tapes they released. And quality was never spared for quantity; Rickard’s and Bohrman’s impeccably curated catalogue quickly earned them a reputation as taste-makers and made Burger a bellwether in terms of what bands to watch, particularly in punk, lo-fi DIY recordings, garage rock, and slightly left-of-center pop performers. There are plenty of acts on Burger’s roster who can’t be so easily classified, but there’s an overarching aesthetic here, infused with a carefree, West Coast, sometimes vintage vibe.
A few weeks ago, Rickard set out with a stable of Burger’s most buzzed-about acts (including Cosmonauts, The Growlers, Habibi, Colleen Green and Gap Dream) for Burger’s second “Caravan of Stars” tour. While Rickard is away, Bohrman is running the record store in Fullerton, California – also mailorder headquarters – with a very diminished staff. When we first called for an interview there was a pressing matter in the warehouse he had to attend to, insisting that he “take care of it himself”. Though Bohrman was slightly more relaxed when we called back, he never stopped working, even during our interview – he went right on buying someone’s collection of Japanese hardcore records.
It’s that kind of work ethic that’s often glossed over when the label is discussed; the pair are oft represented as stoned goof-offs who like poop jokes and bubblegum pop and started Burger to bring the two together. “It’s really easy to make fun of what we do,” says Bohrman. He cited a recent write-up about Cassette Store Day in which Billboard referred to Burger as “scabby truants” while using sun-dappled in the same sentence to describe Moon Glyph. “People have been hating on Burger since the beginning. That’s been part of the process of growing as a label and learning. The more people who know about your label, the more times you’re gonna get people fuckin’ making fun of you or just like, dismissing your whole operation in a sentence.”
Describing Burger as an “operation” is perhaps more accurate a term than “record label”; it’s a label first and foremost, sure. But there’s also the record store, which has changed the landscape of Fullerton’s music culture. Fullerton shaped Burger’s sound, says Bohrman, “because we’re so influenced by where we are, and Disneyland and the suburbs and [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][having] nothing to do. We have a lot more cool shows coming through town now, and a lot more people coming out.” Burger has turned Fullerton into something of a Mecca for fans and bands interested in what the label is doing. Just last December, Gabe Fulvimar (who records and plays music as Gap Dream) moved to Fullerton to record his second LP under the support of Rickard and Bohrman – he actually lives in a storage space in the store. Almost like a cult or the Mafia, Burger welcomes bands into the fold and they automatically become family.
“Any kind of way you can think of a band getting on a label, we’ve probably done it,” Bohrman reflects. “We put out so many different bands. We’ve had them come to us, we’ve gone to them, we get demos, we’ve had labels coming to us wanting to put out the bands. But for the most part, we seek out stuff.”
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Bohrman and Rickard’s uncanny knack for identifying unusual talent is, by and large, the biggest factor in establishing the label’s momentum. They’ve been instrumental in introducing and supporting acts like King Tuff, Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, Black Lips and Thee Oh Sees, now stalwarts of the scene. Bohrman shrugs this off. “Ty and all them were already on their way up.” But Burger’s rise to recognition goes hand-in-hand with the bands it is so often associated with; their trajectories actually compliment one another.
“I remember we were at Kirby’s Beer Store in Kansas City on tour with Makeout Party and Audacity and I was sitting in the driver’s seat and I was like we should put out tapes of all these records ‘cause none of the records coming out at the time has cassette releases with them.” Bohrman recalls. “So I just immediately emailed Ty who was in The Traditional Fools at the time and I emailed The Go and I emailed Apache. And those were our three first cassettes that we did outside of Makeout Party or Audacity or anybody. Then we got ahold of a bunch more people, then people started getting ahold of us, and it just started growing and growing and growing.”
Burger’s stars also aligned with the resurgence of cassette tape collecting, and in many ways, contributed directly to it. “I think actually we kind of helped create the craze that’s around cassettes right now, as far as just releasing so many things in the face of people telling us that cassettes are stupid and no one buys cassettes and why are you making cassettes?“ Now, there’s a whole new generation interested in the medium. “A lot of older people will complain that it’s just nostalgia, it’s just a fad, people will get over it. But for eighty percent of the people who are buying our cassettes there’s no nostalgia involved. It’s a whole new thing to them. They’re getting cars passed down from their parents that have cassette tape players in them and people want to listen to music and if you offer them a way to listen to good music, they’ll take it. That’s what we found out.”
And so they kept putting out tapes, sometimes five a week, amounting to, at current count, over 500 cassette releases (not to mention fifty-some vinyl releases). Bohrman and Rickard exhibit a level of enthusiasm for promoting each and every release that’s unparallelled. And they’re clever at branding too, placing the Burger logo not just on cassette spines, but also on tees and buttons that bands proudly sport in music videos. “We’ve just always been hype men, I guess. Once we quit our jobs and started the record store and started working 100% full-time on Burger that’s when it started getting really big.” says Bohrman. “This year, we got proper PR, we got proper distribution… that’s why you’ve been seeing us in a bunch of the bigger magazines and things. It’s cause our PR people rule. They’re really really good. And we’re really good ourselves just doin’ the grassroots thing.”
Their latest grassroots promotional project is their effervescent YouTube channel, known as BRGRTV. The theme song is performed by Free Weed and is as catchy as anything else in the Burger catalogue, begging the questions “What makes the ladies think you’re cool?” and “What’s your favorite TV show?” before responding with a dreamy “Must be BRGRTV” and launching into fuzzy clips of in-store performances or outtakes from music videos. BRGRTV’s off-the-cuff feel bares the mark of genius, but like most Burger endeavors, BRGRTV seems to have happened organically. “We met this kid Steele O’Neal” Bohrman explains. “He turned us on to Cherry Glazer and some other bands, and we really liked his name and he was interested in filming stuff. And then we had Jack Sample, who also has a really good name, who had done the Between Two Buns documentary for a high school project.” O’Neal and Sample had just graduated high school when they were asked to film BRGRTV episodes full time. “It just came from me and Lee getting stoned together and talking about random stuff and within a week and a half we had the first episode with the theme song. It all came together really really quickly. Since that episode we haven’t missed a week.”
That’s truly an accomplishment, considering the tours and showcases they’ve been immersed in executing. They virtually took over SXSW last spring with what seemed like an endless stream of raucous parties. Buoyed by the positive response, they began plotting their current tour. “We did a Caravan of Stars tour back in 2010. It was good, but it was hellish on the road. People knew what Burger was but it wasn’t like this big thing yet, and it was The Cosmonauts first tour. So it was a rough ride but everybody had fun.”
The road should be less bumpy this time around, because at this point, Burger seems like an unstoppable machine. The tours and the TV show, the acclaimed releases, the thriving record store and the enthusiastic new audiences all seem to highlight an incredible amount of dedication, hard work, and forward thinking. But Bohrman remains nonchalant. “We really haven’t planned anything that’s happened. Everything has just happened, with no we’re gonna put out this many tapes or we’re gonna do this tour or we’re gonna release all these things and we’re gonna be the biggest! It just kind of fell into our laps, and just started happening. It’s crazy.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plans for Burger’s future. “We definitely have plans for world domination.” Bohrman jokes. “New York, Tokyo… we want to go all over the world. It’ll happen. As long as we keep it in our heads it’ll happen eventually.” He adds, “We don’t have a lot of time to sit back and like, look at what we’ve done. We’re moving so quickly and there’s so many things happening all the time.”
Bohrman’s dream project is a bit unexpected. When asked what he’d been listening to, he mentioned Burger favorites The Memories, Cornershop, White Fang, John Krautner, Curtis Harding and Gap Dream. And then, without any hint of irony, gushed “And I listen to a lot of Weird Al. He’s not a Burger band yet, but I listened to him today. I’ve met him a couple of times. I’m a super huge Weird Al fan.” Is a Weird Al and Burger Records collaboration in the works? It might be closer to happening than you’d think. “He actually knows about us, cause we were trying to get him to play one of our festivals, and he wanted a lot of money but I kept telling people ‘Get Weird Al, get Weird Al!’ and like out of nowhere I would just send a text and be like ‘I reeeeeally want Weird Al for this’ and his people wrote back “Why do you want Weird Al so bad for this show?” It was for Burgerama and so I wrote them a really long email about how much of a fan I am and why we wanted him but I never heard anything back. He’s had a lot of original songs too that he could put to tape. I’ve dreamed about putting out an original Weird Al record with no parodies.”
Weird Al aside, the key to understanding Burger Records is that first and foremost, Bohrman and Rickard are consummate music fans. At the heart of everything is a passion for music and the effect it can have on the listener. Even if some media outlets refer to Burger’s sound or ethos dismissively, Bohrman and Rickard and surely everyone they’ve brought in to help out as the label expands are earnestly attempting to share with the world music in which they hear something special. There are destined to be those that don’t understand it, but perhaps more importantly, there are easily as many folks who absolutely comprehend the label’s vision, and to them, Burger is beloved.
“We didn’t see that when we first started making cassettes… but as time went on we could see that something was happening and it was growing and there was a real movement happening for what we were doing. Which has just been the best, most blessed thing ever,” Bohrman reflects. “I mean, that’s what we want to do – turn people on to music and create a legacy for Burger and for us and actually make a difference in music in general. ‘Cause music is so important. It can change feelings and it’s just a really magical thing and to be a part of it – to be like, a bigger part of it than I ever thought I would have been – it’s just the greatest thing ever. It means a lot to us that people are listening and getting something out of it; it’s more than we could have ever asked for.”