According to Burger Records founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, the reason they chose Burger to be the moniker for their indie rock and roll record label and eponymous record shop, is simple: “We love burgers! They’re simplified handheld goodness, which is basically what records and tapes are.”
Since starting up in 2007, the Fullerton, California-based Burger has become one of the most exciting regional labels around, putting out records, tapes, and (on special occasions) CDs by some of the coolest names in punk. Burger’s played a crucial role in the revival of the cassette tape, as well as in the promotion of the thriving Orange County garage scene. Burger even has their very own “magical clubhouse,” as Lee calls it: a record store on an industrial edge of Fullerton, near to where the pair attended high school. While the label’s rise to prominence may seem improbably rapid, the truth is that Burger existed in their minds long before they ever pressed their first cassette.
Sean and Lee have been friends for over 10 years. Lee’s something of a romantic. He doesn’t own a computer or cell phone, and he peppers his speech with words like dreams, love, energy, and vibes. Sean is the one who went to college and files the taxes and seems incapable of not working. During the interview he fiddles with the artwork for the Quick’s upcoming 7” on Burger. He shows me his lengthy to-do list, handwritten in the neatest print I’ve ever seen from a guy. Sean says that if he makes a mistake when writing the list, he has to tear it up and start from scratch.
The two always collaborated well, first on zines and newsletters in high school, and then by playing in bands. At some point Lee began adding the Burger logo, which he’d drawn while goofing off at work, to flyers they’d make for local shows. “I knew whenever the time was right it would be Burger: whatever,” says Lee. “Before the label, I’d still put ‘Burger Productions’ on artwork. Anything Burger, I just knew.”
For emphasis he points to an old poster pinned up in the back room of Burger Records store that bears the recognizable logo along the bottom. The store came about after the label, when Sean quit his job and was at a loss for what to do next. “I thought, ‘I should just start the record store just because.’,” he says. He teamed up with Brian Flores, a record store veteran who had co-released a single by Thee Make-Out Party, Sean and Lee’s garage pop band. “It’s been a dream come true and tons and tons of work, but it’s been totally worth it,” says Sean happily. “We’re our own boss; nobody tells us what to do.”
The back room at Burger is set up like a living room, with a sofa and television and shelves full of VHS tapes they’re collecting for the shop (no obscure format is safe from Burger, it seems). When I arrive, they’re watching Kingpin and putting together labels for upcoming releases. For Burger, working and hanging out is pretty much the same activity. The walls are covered in all kinds of artwork illustrating markers in Burger history: hand-drawn flyers for in-store performances, a retro looking poster for Burger’s 2010 “Caravan of Stars” tour (inspired by Dick Clark), the sleeve from the label’s first release. In the corner are a pile of cassettes of Diarrhea Planet’s Loose Jewels, a Burger tape of an album originally released by Nashville label Infinity Cat.
Burger is best-known for being one of those of-the-moment “cassette labels” that everyone from Thurston Moore to Beck are talking about, but cassettes are hardly the extent of what Burger does. From their HQ in Fullerton they organize tours, counsel bands on the verge of break-up, put together shows, host weekly movie nights, dig out obscure records and re-release them, and ship stock to every continent on earth (except Antarctica). And then there’s the stuff they want to do: get better distribution, start a recording studio, press more vinyl, found their own strip mall (truly, they are from Orange County). In short, Burger is less a label than a bunch of ideas, jokes, and dreams that Lee and Sean have been tossing around for years, making them come true one at a time “on the street level, on the internet level, and the cosmic level,” as Lee puts it.
The label came about out of necessity. “Nobody was making tapes for all these awesome things, so we did it,” says Sean. They discovered they could make tapes while on tour with Thee Make-Out Party, after getting ahold of a cassette released by Orange County band AM. Sitting in a bar in Kansas City, they began coming up with a list of bands for whom they wanted to release tapes. “Our friends just put out great records right then. It was a time. We’re living in a time,” says Lee. Even now they still do all the packaging, taping, and mailing themselves. “Each package is hand-written and hand-packaged. We get the tape and we tape it ourselves,” says Sean.
Cheap to make and quick to sell, cassettes allow Burger to put out albums by local bands they love as well as hook up with bigger labels for a mutually beneficial exchange, like their recent deal with Infinity Cat. “[Other labels] aren’t interested in pressing cassettes of an album we really love, but we are. Through our hyping it, they’ll sell more LPs. It’s just like buying advertising except you’re not paying anything. They’re like little business cards,” says Sean.
Even so, Burger’s not banking their future on cassettes. Despite their love for the format, they know it’s not tapes that cause the cultural needle to jump, as it were. “If we had the money, we could put out some shit,” says Lee “I want to be able to crank out vinyl as much as we do tapes. But the tape thing? I don’t think people even realize that that’s keeping us afloat. Who knows for how long, but hopefully by the time it fades, if it does, we’ll already be on the next level.”
They may already be there. When asked to name their favorite tape releases, the answer is a laundry list of the current garage pop/punk hit parade: King Tuff, Conspiracy of Owls, The Go, Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees (Sean), Traditional Fools, Audacity, Pangea, Feeding People, Thee Make-Out Party (Lee). “I do feel like we kind of have a pulse and that’s why all the big dogs, like Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop and Hardly Art, are ordering from us. We’re sending packages to Matador,” says Lee. “They know. They’re listening to what’s going on.”
“Burger blowing up!”, says Sean.
Burger is indeed blowing up. Now with the term “Burger-Pop” entering the rock crit lexicon, Burger has become something more than a label: they’ve become their own genre. Still, increased attention means more submissions and, for two guys as passionate about music as Lee and Sean, it’s tough to turn bands down. “We’ve lost friendships, I’m sure of it,” says Lee. “It’s a touchy subject. I don’t want to be that way, but I want our music to stand up and have integrity in 20 years. If you look at our catalog, they’re our favorites records from right now; and I’m really proud.” So they’ve come up with a solution to their problem: a subsidiary called Wiener Records.
The reason for Wiener is two-fold. The first is to catch the overflow from Burger, who, Sean says, don’t have the resources to put out everything they want, just the stuff they truly love. Wiener allows any band willing to pony up a few hundred dollars to have their tape mastered, pressed, packaged, and promoted for them through Burger, albeit without the Burger label. The second reason, says Lee, is that all great labels eventually produce subsidiaries, specifying Chocolate City Records and 5 Rue Christine as examples. As for the name, they’ve already got some jokey slogans prepared. “Well, if it ain’t a Burger, it’s a dog,” says Lee. “But everyone’s a Wiener.” He begins to explain Wiener as a type of pay-to-play operation before Sean cuts in.
“Pay to play has a bad connotation. You can make money off of this deal,” he says. “With the tapes that we make and hype for you, if you sell all of them, you can make a couple hundred dollars profit, and be on Wiener.” In order to make it more appealing, the pair have put their high school band’s recording on Wiener. “We want to build up the roster so people aren’t scared of being a Wiener. It’s okay to be a Wiener. And we’ve been hit up!”
“It’ll let Burger be more gourmet,” says Lee. “Gourmet Burger.”
Something that pops up again and again in Burger interviews is their love for The Secret, an alternative take on positive thinking championed by Oprah. Lee goes to great lengths to explain how it works for them. He tells a story about showing up to see British power-pop band Squeeze play a reunion concert without any tickets. Through luck (or positive thinking), Sean and Lee ended up being ushered into the show by Glenn Tilbrook himself. “Squeeze rule. They’re going to be on Burger soon! Sending the love and the vibes out there, if you’re listening. Squeeze: holler, we love you! See that’s how you do it,” Lee says. “I already see a live Squeeze tape, some tape that’s been lying around and no one’s doing anything with, and we’re like, ‘Hey man!’”
But the same goes for any group they love, no matter if their last record came out thirty years ago or last week. Sean: “If we hear something and we love it, whether it’s from 1962 or whether it’s from yesterday, we’ll find the people and say, ‘This is amazing, we need to put it out.’ There’s no ceiling where we’re like, no we can’t do that; it’s always like, yeah we can do Lady Gaga! We can find her and we’re going to put it out.”
Love seems to be Burger’s core value: love of music, love of friendship, love of home. Their conception of rock and roll is one of inclusivity and generosity. They pour any money they make from the label right back into it. “That’s what rock and roll philanthropy is,” says Lee. “We’re putting all our money that we make into our friends’ rock and roll because we love rock and roll. We live in our own little bubble, and that’s the only thing that makes life worth living and ticking sometimes.”
At the end of the interview, Sean and Lee open up a few demos that have arrived in the mail. Since they now receive so many, aesthetics play a big part in what gets listened to first and what gets pushed to the bottom of the pile. One group has sent their demo on a CD printed to look like a vinyl 7-inch, a touch that Lee likes. But they’ve heard this band before.
“Those guys again? They’re going on Wiener.”