By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Opening a record store full of vinyl and cassettes? In this economy? Who are these meatheads?
The perfume girl didn’t stand a chance.
Wandering into the future location of the Burger Records retail store in Fullerton on a recent afternoon, she was making her rounds, trying to hawk her knock-off scents to anyone willing to endure her sales pitch. Sean Bohrman, Lee “Noise” Rickard and Brian Flores—music geeks more concerned with Big Star than Drakkar Noir—weren’t about to listen.
“Can I ask you guys a quick question?” Perfume Girl’s bubbly voice and skintight jeans demanded attention. “What kind of cologne do you guys wear?”
A smile crept across Bohrman’s freckled face. “Um, we don’t wear cologne.”
Really, she should have figured that out before asking. If not from the fact that Bohrman isn’t wearing shoes, then definitely from the pit stains on Rickard’s orange T-shirt. But Flores quickly removes any lingering doubt after Perfume Girl informs the trio that her products offer a savings of 85 percent off “everything that you could be buying at the mall.”
“I haven’t been to a mall in, like, 10 to 15 years,” he answers succinctly. “We’re the wrong people.”
Cologne covers up something natural and replaces it with something fake, and that’s not what the Burger Records guys are all about. They do things their own way, even if it means operating a boutique record label that deals almost exclusively with vinyl and cassettes. It means putting out a debut full-length album as Thee Makeout Party—an Anaheim garage-pop four-piece that Bohrman and Rickard co-founded a decade ago—for which most of the songs were recorded in one take.
Now, it means starting a business in the midst of economic hell. But not just any old business: a record store, something that was struggling to survive years before our nation’s current financial woes—the Tower Records sign still visible on Newport and 17th Street in Costa Mesa, out of business since 2006, is standing proof.
It’s an improbable undertaking that will take hard work and, as evidenced by the stains on Rickard’s shirt, a lot of sweat. Perfume Girl’s visit comes a little more than two weeks before the store’s scheduled opening on Oct. 3, and the space isn’t even air-conditioned yet. Bohrman is dutifully painting the walls of what will soon be the Burger Records shop, a physical realization of the label he started with Rickard and Flores in 2007. It’ll be full of the kind of music that has inspired them as a band and now as business owners.
And like the label, it’ll stock cassette tapes and vinyl records, formats that pretty much no one other than hardcore audiophiles, fans of bizarre ephemera or unfortunate souls with cars more than a decade old are equipped to listen to these days. But no CDs.
“No CDs at all,” Flores says. “Anything but CDs. We just don’t want that in our store. CDs don’t mean anything anymore.”
Bohrman’s paint roller mashes down on pesky wood crevices behind a record display case he’s painting. Every glance at the Anaheim native’s powder-blue ELO T-shirt reveals more tiny splotches of bright neon green, perfectly matching the ’60s and ’70s bubblegum and power pop of the bands that inspired the Burger Records crew.
The past couple of nights have turned Bohrman, 27, into more of a painter than a business owner. But neither occupation seems like work to him.
All this hard work is leaving Rickard and Flores hungry for, appropriately enough, burgers.
“Come on, Sean, my burger belly’s empty, man,” Rickard says to Bohrman. “I’m worthless when I’m starving.” Rickard’s gangly build—his appearance is somewhere between a 1960s hippie and a 1950s nerd—is highlighted in a tight pair of denim jeans as he pushes away dirty-blond bangs. He holds his stomach, rubbing it as if he were expecting a newborn.
* * *
Lots of people like hamburgers, but Rickard really likes them. Really, really likes them.
“It’s the epitome of Americana,” he says. “Everything you could want in one little hand-held perfect package of great flavor. Just everything is there. It’s filling; it’s perfect. I love it.”
Most people can’t pinpoint the exact moment when something became their favorite, but Rickard’s burger memories are vivid. “The first time I traveled across the U.S. in a van to go to a wedding in ’93 with my family, everywhere I ate, I ate hamburgers,” he says. Following the family’s visit to nearby burger joint the Grill, “I realized, ‘I guess I really like hamburgers. I think I love them.’”
Burger Records isn’t just a catchy, quirky name. It’s a way of life, matching the unpretentious nature of the label and the individuals involved—though Rickard invokes some pretty lofty company. “The Beatles had Apple, the Beach Boys had Brother, the Turtles had Blimp, and Thee Makeout Party have Burger.”
But it wasn’t Thee Makeout Party that inspired Bohrman and Rickard to start the label. It was Audacity, a rowdy, lo-fi punk band from Fullerton whose members were still in high school when they met the guys.
“We heard Audacity and played with them a couple of times, and I really loved their songs,” Bohrman says. Thee Makeout Party recorded a split 7-inch with Audacity in early 2008, and the success of that release snowballed into Burger Records becoming what it is today, releasing vinyl and tapes by buzzworthy artists from across the country. “Music has been our life. I started a record label so I could be around it all the time, and I wanted to show music how awesome it can be.”
The label has developed a reputation in discriminating music circles for its growing catalog of sugary, eccentric power pop and audacious garage rock, extolling a carefree message of love, music and DIY attitude. Eschewing CDs, a format increasingly obsolete with each passing iTunes purchase, Burger does the music industry one better by focusing on a medium even more quaintly anachronistic: cassette tapes, produced in limited runs and hand-lettered by Rickard. It’s a decision that not only reflects their endearingly off-kilter aesthetic, but it has also allowed them to work with high-profile artists whose digital and CD releases are handled by bigger, more traditional labels, since, quite simply, record labels don’t care about cassette tapes.
“Suddenly, every cool band could be on their label because no one else is making cassettes,” says Brian Hermosillo of the Bay Area’s the Fevers, who released a 12-inch with Burger, The Lonely Sailor Sessions, under the moniker Fever B.
Genre-fusing, LA-based singer/songwriter Devon Williams released his solo album, Carefree, through conventional means on noted Brooklyn label Ba Da Bing (home to international indie stars Beirut, Sons & Daughters, and Hawksley Workman) but worked with Burger to put it out on cassette. “If I didn’t have someone to put out my records, Sean would do it, and that makes me feel totally safe,” Williams says. “Sean seems like he was just born to put out records.”
Williams credits his association with Burger for boosting his profile, even if it was pretty lofty to begin with—he has played with acclaimed folk-pop quartet Lavender Diamond and fronted punk band Osker from 1998 to 2002. “I know that there’s kids in Anaheim or even in LA that wouldn’t normally listen to my music, but have because I have a tape on Burger.”
Putting out cassettes isn’t just a goofy gimmick for Burger. The trio are legitimately convinced of the format’s strengths, something that’s rare given how little respect tapes have gotten over the years. Plenty of hipsters extol the virtues of vinyl, but what have cassettes really added to music history?
“They’re cheap, the quality is good, and they last for a long time,” Rickard says. Burger’s tapes are also colorful, much like those bright-green walls. “You can toss them around, and they hang out,” he adds, speaking of their durability. “And they’re fun and pocket-sized. Anything you can put in your pocket is pretty neat.”
Burger doesn’t limit itself solely to cassettes—though it has released tapes from esoteric acts such as Ty Segall, King Tuff and Nobunny. It also works with LPs and 7-inches and has, on rare occasions, released (gasp!) CDs, including Audacity’s Power Drowning and That Evil Drone by the Resonars. “We took the vinyl and put it on a compact disc,” as Burger’s MySpace puts it.
“Sean will probably do this until he dies, if he can,” says Cameron Crowe, bassist for Audacity. “He’s not going to want to do anything else.”
Like Williams, Audacity have benefited from the exposure gained from their work with Burger. They recently signed with LA label PPM, whose roster includes scene mainstays Mika Miko, No Age and Abe Vigoda.
Burger is now at a place where bands actively seek it out, sending demos. Some of them are even good. One such discovery is Milwaukee band Jail, whom Burger is currently working with on a release.
“They sent us their demo, and I was like, ‘Damn.’ I had a dream about it,” Bohrman says. “I listened to it, then I went to sleep and had a dream that I met them and told them how much I liked their music. So I was like, ‘I should put this out.’”
* * *
It’s now the weekend, and painting has been replaced by partying—the Burger family’s natural element. Rickard is celebrating his 26th birthday at a friend’s house in Anaheim, along with a few dozen buddies spread inside and out. Even though Rickard is in his mid-20s, the night feels like an old-fashioned high-school party, with a mostly younger crowd and bands playing loudly in the house. Among cardboard cut-outs of C-3P0 and Chewbacca, there’s a sign posted: “We believe in the two party system: one party a week is not enough!”
The caliber of the bands, though, is considerably better than your average high-school party: Thee Makeout Party and Audacity. Both bands play a lot of house parties, especially Audacity, who have a hard time finding ideal venues in Orange County given their youthful fan base and lack of all-ages venues.
Thee Makeout Party are always a treat live, with bassist Rickard adding intentionally corny jokes between tunes and the band delivering high-energy versions of breezy, ’60s-inspired power pop such as “Run Kitty Run” and “2 Ez to Luv 2,” both of which are on their first full-length, 2008’s Play Pretend. Appropriately enough, tonight’s set starts with “My Birthday Suit.” Bohrman plays rhythm guitar; the lineup’s completed by lead singer/guitarist Dan Bush and drummer Alex Nowicki.
The songs fit with the rest of the band’s aesthetic: playful (lyrics include, “I want to show a present to the girl that loves me so/how do you like me in my birthday suit?”), but with enough substance not to be written off as a novelty. Like Audacity, Thee Makeout Party started as a high-school band.
Kyle Kapow, owner of then-Orange County-based label Kapow Records, recalls when he first heard the group. “I saw early Thee Makeout Party play at Koo’s Cafe,” Kapow says, referring to the long-gone Santa Ana venue owned by Dennis Lluy, who now operates the Yost Theater. “I just remember Dan destroying his drum set and Lee bouncing around. It was just a total mess. It was a total fucking mess.”
Despite this inauspicious introduction, Kapow ended up putting out a 7-inch of Thee Makeout Party’s catchy, raucous “Wreckless Epic” in 2005.
“Thee Makeout Party in their previous incarnation was a punk band, essentially,” Kapow says. “But Lee couldn’t stop talking about the Raspberries, and they wanted to go in a power-pop direction. They wanted to do something different from all the other bands around the area. I didn’t really need to hear their music to want to do it.”
Musically, Devon Williams sees Thee Makeout Party as the kind of kindred spirits he has been looking for all of his life. “I’ve never really felt like I had friends that I shared music tastes with,” he says. “I could talk about music with them forever.”
Despite the attention Bohrman and Rickard have given to the label and now the store, Thee Makeout Party have remained active. Just this year, they opened for bona-fide indie-rock superstars the Black Keys at the Glass House in Pomona and blog-adored Norwegian pop sensation Ida Maria at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa. Rickard says that the band are working on their first “waltz” and recently released a cassette (naturally) with seven new songs.
“We’ve been doing this band for about 10 years or whatever, so we meet a lot of people,” Rickard says. “A lot of good records are coming out right now, so it definitely makes it easy for us to spread the gospel.”
* * *
Bohrman is the business brain of the Burger guys, though that’s not saying much.
“He’s got a computer and a cell phone; I don’t,” Rickard says, a revelation that makes sense coming from him, a guy who seems to exist gleefully out of time—he works part-time at Anaheim boarding stable/equestrian center Rancho Del Rio, for instance. “I’m afraid of commitment, responsibility.”
Bohrman took a business class to prepare for the record store, though he didn’t learn much. “It was kind of just ‘no duh’ stuff, like, ‘Be honest and don’t rip people off,’” he says.
Instead, he’s taking cues from friends who’ve succeeded in similar situations, powered only by inspiration. “There’s a guy in Yorktown, Pennsylvania, named Rob Burrito, and he’s our friend,” Bohrman says. “He sold burritos out of his house. Cops would come by on the weekends and buy them, and everyone would come by and buy these burritos. And he started a store, and he came out here and sampled all of the salsas and how it’s done.
“He’s the most go-for-it, can-do person I’ve ever met. He’s doing it all himself. He was like, ‘I’m not gonna work for anyone anymore,’ and now he owns two stores.”
Bohrman recently quit his day job as an assistant art director after he was denied time off to tour with Thee Makeout Party. This, he figured, was as good a time as any to pursue his record-store dream. Still, neither he nor Rickard had experience running a retail operation—but their friend Brian Flores did, leading to him come aboard as a store co-owner.
“I’ve been working in record stores since I was 17,” says Flores, who owned the now-shuttered Costa Mesa store Third Eye Records, a smaller shop than Burger’s space. “I’m 37 now.” Flores met Bohrman and Rickard through the store, which he describes as a place where “I pretty much just sold what I liked.”
The Burger Records store isn’t in a typically desirable location—an industrial area on the Fullerton-Anaheim border, with an unoccupied space as a neighbor and a massage parlor a couple of doors down—but it still wasn’t an easy find. Bohrman says it took him two solid months of scouring to find an appropriate space.
As the Burger store comes to life, the vital element is, of course, stocking the shelves. But that’s actually the easy part. These guys are major collectors, with tens of thousands of records in storage between Borhman and Flores.
“I have some records that I haven’t even listened to that I bought, like, five years ago,” Flores says. Bohrman, who spent most of his life traveling around with boxes of vinyl and tapes, swallowed his pride and cut his personal stash down to seven boxes. He’s committed to putting the rest on the shelves.
They’ll also sell Burger releases, which typically run $5 to $6 for cassettes and $14 for vinyl. The store will buy, sell and trade records, as well as shirts and record players.
But vinyl—used and new—will be the primary product. Bohrman and Rickard had long discussed the idea of having an “inspiration box” at Thee Makeout Party shows, selling copies of records that helped shape the band’s sound. The Burger Records store is essentially that idea, escalated.
* * *
Bohrman, Rickard and Flores have all been told it’s insane to open a record store right now, especially one with such niche appeal. Even the AT&T workers installing their phone lines gave them a hard time.
“People are saying, ‘Oh, you’re brave for opening a store in this economy,’” Bohrman says.
“Whenever I see strip malls and I see ‘Fashions for Less’ and blah blah blah, I think, ‘How can these places stay open? Who goes to them? Why can’t I have a record store?’ At least it does something for society,” Flores says.
Still, these guys aren’t dumb. They realize that switching from an underground label to a retail operation is a major shift, and unleashing their unusual product to the masses is a risk. So what does it take to make something like this work? Ultimately, they’re banking on positive thinking and a somewhat-infamous self-help book.
“You guys are familiar with The Secret?” Rickard asks. “At first, I thought it was a joke. I was like, ‘This is fucking real?’ It’s hokey, but as far as positive thinking, I believe it.”