Discover: Burger Records

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 05.23.13 in Collections

Hear the sound of Burger Records while you read: Download our free 20-track sampler here, featuring tracks from White Fang, The Go, Jaill and more.

Before you even got inside the sprawling, ramshackle Austin venue known as Hotel Vegas on Saturday, March 16 — the final day of South by Southwest 2013 — it was possible to suffer a crippling case of sensory overload. Taped to the front of the building, which is part bar, part flophouse, part weather-beaten barn, was a billboard-sized piece of paper crammed, end-to-end, with the names of hundreds of bands, all of them written in the same bold, 16-point font and all lined up in tidy, symmetric columns. From two in the afternoon until two in the morning, the club was home to Burger Mania, a celebration of both bands signed to the California label Burger Records as well as bands that orbit loosely within its peculiar universe. If there were 200 bands performing over the course of the afternoon, it’s only because there wasn’t enough time for 400.

This is the world of Burger Records, the California label that’s spent the last six years breathlessly building a dense, comic-book catalog of albums that cross hundreds of genre byways, but are unified in their rickety production, wide-eyed worldview, serrated edges and sugary, sugary centers. That the poster outside the Hotel Vegas resembled nothing so much as an oversized shopping list was appropriate. Skip over any one entry, and you risked omitting a crucial ingredient.

Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard founded the label in 2007 as a way to satiate their own insatiable musical hunger. Though they’d both been in bands before — most notably, the mucus-covered-Raspberries sugar-punk outfit Thee Makeout Party, they quickly realized their energies were better spent shepherding other bands to stardom rather than pursuing their own. They gained a gaggle of early disciples by manufacturing and selling $6 cassette releases of albums by Ty Segall, King Tuff and others, but the label’s own roster quickly eclipsed those they were distributing. And while there isn’t specifically a “Burger Sound,” all of the bands owe something to both punk and pop, but all of them refract those influences in different ways, some of them veering off into unsettling psych, some into radiant power pop, still others into glittering keyboard pop.

Above all, Burger has managed to generate and sustain something that few other labels manage — the incredible compulsion to purchase. Seeing a table full of Burger releases laid out side by side, with their matching Burger logos, their similar look and feel and their stunningly affordable price tag (at the Hotel Vegas showcase, all of the vinyl LPs were $10), it’s almost impossible to not to reach for your wallet. You want to collect them in the same way a kid wants to blow his allowance on every different kind of candy at the deli. The sensation is the same: You don’t know what exactly you’re going to get when you open the wrapper, but you know it’s going to be sweet and satisfying. And as soon as you’ve gotten through them, you basically want more almost immediately.

Because Burger feels not so much like a record label but some enormous cartoon universe, and all of the bands are its inhabitants, it makes sense that there would need to be some kind of physical manifestation of Burger — which became a reality when Rickard and Bohrman opened the Burger Records store in Fullerton, California in 2009. And while selling records in 2013 can be a grim business, what comes through more than anything else when talking to the duo is their breathless enthusiasm: They cut each other off, finish each other’s sentences, talk over each other and try to outdo each other with superlatives about each Burger artist (or “Burger Star” as Rickard calls them). It becomes apparent that the Burger roster is so brain-breakingly big because Richard and Bohrman couldn’t bear the thought of leaving anyone behind.

eMusic’s editor-in-chief J. Edward Keyes caught up with the duo by phone to talk about ’60s bubblegum, Dick Clark and the merits of The Secret.

On how they met:

Sean Bohrman: I made fun of Lee for having long hair.

Lee Rickard: It was October of ’98, I believe Sean was in costume.

Bohrman: We met and immediately hit it off and started hanging out and smoking weed and going to movies and going to Wendy’s. And all of our friends were in shitty bands, so we were like, “Fuck it, why can’t we be in a shitty band?” So we started The NOiSE!.

Rickard: From the very beginning, Sean and I had a vision. We wanted our logo to have a lowercase “I” and an exclamation point — little subtleties. Just little things. Like repetition — we were like, “If we just put our sticker up [at all these different places], people are gonna know that we’re a band.” So we put stickers everywhere, People were talking about how we put stickers on their silverware and shit.

Bohrman: Well, we didn’t do it, but somebody did. I mean, you make enough stickers, they just get out of your control.

Rickard: Sean went to school in 2000 and I still had two more years of high school, so when he left, I started [the band] Thee Makeout Party. When Sean came home, after he graduated college, he joined. We started Burger to put out our own record, but once the band ended, both of us went crazy and put all of our energy into [growing] Burger. So for the last four years, we’ve just been hustling Burger non-stop.

On how ’50s and ’60s bubblegum pop informed their aesthetic:

Rickard: We love bubblegum music. My thing is cartoon bands — bands that didn’t really exist. I’m all about that. I love the idea of it. Half of them are uncredited, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s ["Yummy Yummy Yummy" singer] Joey Levine!” you just hear his voice and you know it’s Joey. You start deciphering who’s who. We love pop music and bubblegum music. It’s fun — that’s the part we take to heart: the playfulness, the childlike sense of a good time. Even though we’re stressed out and pulling our hair out trying to work out all the logistics of running multiple businesses, deep down that’s what we’re doing with Burger. We’re trying to create an alternate reality for us to exist in, and bringing in all our favorite records. That’s why we reach out to our idols and see what we can get away with and who we can work with and how much fun we can have. And as far as marketing and branding? [It's all inspired by] bubblegum music. We don’t have any shame in our game. You wanna make a pillowcase? Candy? A record? It doesn’t have to be a record or a tape — it can be anything, as long as it makes you excited. That’s what pop music’s all about.

On their commitment to putting out cassettes:

Rickard: I don’t wanna be pigeonholed into being a cassette label, but because we’ve put out so many cassettes, it overshadows the LPs. We’ve done over 400 cassette tapes. Cassettes are affordable and they’re analog and they sound good. It’s just, “These are cheap enough that we can each put in $100, generate a couple hundred tapes, give the band a box of tapes, and let them go on the road and spread them out like calling cards.” I mean, tapes rule. They’re hand-held, it’s tangible — you can touch and feel and read and get as much artistic enjoyment from your favorite Burger star as you possibly can at that moment. You can listen to the tape and have some art to read. All the first pressings are hand-numbered. I still have to assemble all these tapes in the middle of everything else we’re doing. So actual effort goes into putting the tapes out. We touch and sweat and bleed and Lord knows what else is oozing out of us at any given time.

Bohrman: Seriously! I feel really attached to every release. Just by looking at them, I can tell you who numbered them — things no one else cares about. This is our little world, and we take pride in it.

On the fact that people buy Burger records just because they’re on Burger Records:

Rickard: We’re building a brand you can trust and identify with. “It’s on Burger, so it’s gotta be pretty fucking good.” Or weird. Especially the LPs I feel are top-shelf. You can stand them up next to any other record, and there’s a reason why it’s a Burger record. The cassettes we can be a bit more lax with putting out demos, or things that are a little rough around the edges or long-lost live tapes from bands that don’t exist anymore. I take pride in the tapes, too, in that sense. We’re documenting the teen scene. And they’re gonna cringe in 20 years, but at least right now they have a tape out and they can generate gas money or hamburger money after the show just because they sold a handful of tapes. It gives them a sense of worth and community. I really want it to be a family thing — the Burger family.

On using group tours to build that family:

Bohrman: Dick Clark is a big inspiration. If you want me to talk about Dick Clark for an hour, I will. What I learned from Dick Clark was that he could get all these crazy artists on the same bill, put them on a bus and tour around. Like, the Zombies, the Ronnettes and the Crystals on the same tour. It’s unbelievable — you do some research and you’re like, “How did they get these tours together?”

Rickard: So we were like, “Alright, we’re gonna book a tour and call it Caravan of Stars and take out a bunch of bands that have never been on the road before.” Because another thing we love doing is booking shows. Because you’re making history. You’re predicting the future, and you’re putting time and energy into manifesting your fate. It’s cosmic, but it’s also really practical. You look into the future, you pick a date, you say something’s gonna happen and then you follow through on it. That’s rewarding.

Bohrman: And we put all the Burger money back into the label. That’s how we’ve put out over 50 records and 400 cassettes in less than six years’ time. We’re probably one of the fastest-growing independent labels of all time. If everyone put [all the money they made] back into what they do, who knows what would happen?

Rickard: I wanna be, like, the most artist-friendly label of all time as far as creative control and compensation. I want everyone to be able to eat. I want to eat. And that’s not too far off. We’re gonna be doing it right.

On where Burger will be in 2023:

Rickard: We just opened Burger Outer Space.

Bohrman: We want to be the first person to sell a record on the moon. If there’s an alien that has a band, we want to put that out.

Rickard: Or a time traveler. Either one.

On the true, cosmic inspiration for Burger:

Borhman: Lee’s mom gave him the video of The Secret. Lee watched half of the video, and then he came and explained the half of the video that he watched to me. And then for the next three years, we ran [the business] on an explanation of half of the video of The Secret.

Rickard: The stars are aligned. This is our time and place to make shit happen. Just being aware of our power — I wish I was as spiritual as I am now when I was a teen. I was horny and weird and goofy. But if I had a little more of this cosmic insight, who knows where we’d be right now.

Borhman and Rickard’s Burger Picks

Bohrman: This album is the reason we started getting bands and expanding past bands we knew or were in. We did a couple of tapes and then we did this album. It was like "We're here!"

Rickard: Audacity are just an amazing band. They were teenagers who had just graduated high school and they had so many amazing songs, so we told them, "Let's do an album." So we went in the studio and recorded it with them, and that became our first LP. This album is all first takes, 17 songs recorded in a day.

Bohrman: They've talked shit about it, but you know what? For a teen punk record, it's a fucking classic. Ty Segall will tell you the same thing.

Bohrman: We were turned on to Fletcher by King Tuff. He grew up with Fletcher they were in a band together at one point, and he'd been recording these same songs over and over — he had multiple recordings of these songs. Finally he had it all done and he gave it to us, and we fell in love with it.

Rickard: We were like, "You gave this [record] to Sub Pop and they didn't want to do anything with it? OK, we'll take it."

Bohrman: It's a masterpiece, it really is.

Rickard: He just moved here. He left New York and now he's living next to me — we're both living in our vans. He's one of us. He'll probably go home, eventually. He just hooked up our stereo for us. We've been rearranging [the store], getting our feng shui funky and straight.

Bohrman: They're great. Cameron from Audacity turned us on to them. They jumped on to one of the Burger shows that we had — it was New Year's '09. So we started working with them and did some tapes, and this album is their second full-length.

Rickard: [Principle member] Allie [Hanlon] is also in White Wires. We met her at SXSW one year, and she was really awesome. I followed her around all weekend. She and her sister, they just rule.

Bohrman: [JEFF the Brotherhood's label] Infinity Cat put out her first LP and we really liked that one, so we put it out on cassette. When the second one was done, she asked if we wanted to do it, and we were totally down. It's definitely on the poppier side, but it's all lo-fi, DIY-recorded. It's very playful.

Rickard: Gabe from gap Dream just moved out here. He lives in our storage space and just recorded his new album which is even better than the first one. That's a Burger success story if ever there was one. We met at the first [Burger] Caravan of Stars in 2010, and he wasn't even really aware of the Burger thing. I was like, "You gotta watch this band" — it was Conspiracy of Owls. That blew him away, changed his life, so he started writing songs and he became a big Burger fan. And we just fell in love with the songs, so we turned those songs into a tape, and the tape eventually turned into an album. And then he moved here and lives here and is making his next record here. So, there you go: just meeting a kid on the street and asking him where the weed's at, next thing you know I'm smoking weed with a kid in front of the club, he's inspired, turns his weird energy into a song — that all unfolds because of a chance meeting. From "Hey, how's it going?" to "Dude, I live with you now." It's crazy, but amazing.

Bohrman: From the moment we posted the first Gap Dream song, it took off like nothing else we put out before. I got hit up buy a guy who works at 4AD asking me to buy a record.

Rickard: People were trying to sign him and he was like, "Nope. I'm a Burger Boy for life."

Bohrman: He even got his Burger catalog number tattooed on his arm.

Bohrman: Kyle from Audacity showed us the video for their song "Higher," but then they took it offline so you couldn't watch it anymore. On Easter two years ago, Uncle Funkle [from Gnar Tapes] posted a Christian song [they wrote] and that was really, really good. And not jokey in any way. The whole time you're expecting him to say something funny or make a joke, but from the beginning to the end, it's just a solid Christian rock song. I just fell in love with it, and I was like, "Guys, you have to make a whole album like this and create the persona of a Christian band." Then I was like, "You know I also want to see that 'Higher' video again." So they sent me a private link so that I could watch it, and then started sending more [Memories] songs, and then immediately we fell in love. What's good about them is there's no filler — they just get straight to the catchiness of the song. There's no boring solo you're sitting through. It's just pure pop and pure hooks and pure fun and love and…

Rickard: …and weed. They're a big inspiration. They run Gnar Tapes and they're really prolific. Before I was even aware of their music my friend Christian from Mean Jeans was telling me, "You're really gonna like my friend Eric who runs Gnar Tapes." When we finally did meet, we were like, "Oh, yeah, you guys put out music just because you love it."

Bohrman: When our two crews met, we just immediately hit it off.

Bohrman: We were on tour driving from Chicago to Milwaukee with our friend Addie and we're talking about power pop, and she's like, "Have you heard the Resonars?" and we were like, "No." It was like three in the morning, we got to her house and she puts on Lunar Kick and I was just like, "Oh my god, this is an amazing record." The day I got home, I bought everything I could by the Resonars. It's just one guy doing everything. He records in his mom's garage. He bounces two cassette four-tracks off each other. Crummy Desert Sound is his sixth record. He's been in bands since the '80s. His old band, the Knockout Pills, Estrus put out a record by them. He's one of the most kind, friendly people — he's like, angelic. He's a rock god.

Bohrman: [Burnt Ones] passed out a ton of free copies of their last record at SXSW a few years ago. I don't know how they got all these free copies, but everyone I know had one. So we brought it home and we listened to it, and it ruled.

Rickard: It looked cool — William Keihn, who does the art for Thee Oh Sees records, did the art. It was super trashy — kind of T. Rex, glitter rock & roll. And then we met them and they were really sweet and rad. Sean went on tour with them.

Bohrman: The van was infested with ants. I was sitting in the back seat covered with them.

Rickard: Cherry Glazerr is my favorite teenage band at the moment. Steele O'Neal, who now does Burger TV, was just this weird kid who'd come and dig through bargain 45s and buy, like, one Michael Jackson record or something. So he comes in one day and is like, "You should check out Clementine Creevy." So we checked her out, and it was awesome. We started digging deeper and tracked her down.

Bohrman: I sent her an email and was like, "I really like your music." We just fell in love with her songs. They're songs for teenage girls, by teenage girls, about teenage girls' life, captured so perfectly. I've never been a teenage girl, but after listening to Cherry Glazerr, I can kind of start to get what it's like. They're sophomores in high school, they're all 15 years old. Right now, they're the youngest band on the label. She's so good at writing pop songs already, at 15. Who knows what the future is gonna hold. When she first told me, "My band is called Cherry Glazerr", we assumed that she did that because she's saving her own name for when she gets really big.

Rickard: This is actually The Go. For some reason they couldn't use their real name. We've been Go fans since before the label — superfans, the guys who were first to get on line and buy [new albums] immediately and listen to them 10 times as soon as we get them. We became friends with them and they hit us up in 2010 and were like, "We've got this new project and we want to do it with you guys." We didn't even hear it, but we were like, "Yeah, of course."

Bohrman: The first pressing had spray-painted cover, it had different artwork. Then there was a version that was just black, there was one that was glow-in-the dark. There was one that was gold. There was a red one, there was a white one…

Rickard: I actually discovered them. It was a Sunday, Sean was out dealing records. I was in the shop cleaning up, and there was a demo by the boombox. And I was like, "I can't believe this band sent us this" — because it had, like, a screenprinted cover, and it was nicer than anything we'd done before. So I was like, "Why are they sending us their shit? They've got it all figured out!" Then I listened to it, and listened to it again, listened to it like three times, and when Sean came in my jaw was on the ground. I was like, "Listen to this!"

Bohrman: Four-part harmonies, guitar, flute, bass, organ, drums, a million other instruments. We were listening to it for hours and I remember one night at like one or two in the morning we were like, "We should call them right now and tell them how much we like this." It was like four in the morning where they were. But we called them anyway, woke them up, and were like, "Hey! We're listening to your tape!"

Rickard: I remember talking to Sean and saying, "If they dig our wacky cold-call stuff, if they can handle this weirdness —" And they loved it. They came out here and lived with us for about a week or so, and we took them on a West Coast tour in our van, and they lived here without showers — they're good sports, they're down for whatever. I love 'em.

Bohrman: This came out after [Nobunny's breakthrough debut] Love Visions, but a lot of the stuff was recorded before Love Visions. It's demos and live recordings — it's a hodgepodge of stuff.

Rickard: We became friends in 2007. We were in New York [with Thee Makeout Party], we were both playing fringe shows of this power pop festival. He was by himself in a big-ass van that he sold his entire life to buy just so he could go on tour. It ended up catching fire in NYC.

Bohrman: Love Visions was blowing up, and he dropped this tape on everybody. And no one was releasing tapes back then, so everybody was like, "A tape?! What is this?! You're releasing your new album on tape?!" And people bought it because that was the only way you could get it. He really helped start the tape movement that's happening right now.

Rickard: That was our first real hit. We did 500 tapes in a week and a half. And [Nobunny] really wanted some money to go back to the kids, and that's when Sean found Katenge.

Bohrman: We adopted a kid from Children International named Katenge Mduduzi, from Zambia. We charged an extra dollar for the first 500 Raw Romance cassettes and we were able to increase his family's income by 50 percent for two years after just a week and a half of selling that one cassette. We continue to support him and his family — he's a part of the Burger fam now.

Rickard: [Nobunny] is just so wide-eyed and kind and sweet and loving and really genuinely cares. He's one of my favorite people. He's Burger family. He really is far out. He likes to hang out behind dumpsters when he's on tour just to get away from it all.

Rickard: I was on tour with The Cuts in 2004, and they were constantly talking about The Go being the best band in America and all that shit. And I was like, "Really?" I just remember reading about them in, like, magazines previewing their first album on Sub Pop. I was barely aware of them. The Touch were my favorite band at the time. So we're on tour, we're in Detroit, and we wind up sleeping at [Go frontman] Bobby Harlow's place, and he was playing us demos for what became the next Go album, and the shit was just amazing. I was like, "Whoa, this crazy little guy's playing these pop songs?" When we left, he gave everyone stickers, and he gave us all a CD EP, the Capricorn EP, and so I came home and played them for our friends. They're just this weird off-again on-again band, but they're our favorite modern rock band.

Bohrman: They were gonna quit music altogether. Bobby was like, "I'm gonna push carts for grocery stores and Zen out. I'm not interested in making music anymore. I'm done with it." And me and Lee just grabbed him and were like, "There is no possible way that's gonna happen. You're gonna continue making music, and you're gonna make awesome music." And he was like "Yeah! I am gonna do that." And that perked him up.

Rickard: Another awesome Detroit band that Bobby Harlow turned us on to. It's one of the greatest records of our modern rock 'n' roll era. It's catchy, it's pop — Bobby produced it, and he's a great producer.

Bohrman: If you listen to the demos and then the stuff that's on the record, he definitely put is stamp on that band.

Rickard: They're a good band, he turned it into a classic record. This is an early Burger, too — it's in the 30s. It's like, Burger 35 or 36.

Rickard: This is Andrew [Bassett] from Mean Jeans. It's really fucking awesome, he's been working on it for years.

Bohrman: This is a collection of songs he's been working on for years and years. At the beginning of the year we started working with Gnar Tapes, co-releasing a bunch of stuff. We listen to this all the time — we're addicted to it. It's so catchy and weird and good and all over the place.

Rickard: He's a fun guy. We took the Mean Jeans on their first West Coast tour. They're East Coats dudes, so they're all wound up. Then they come out to the West Coast where there are all these laid-back vibes and they're, like, drinking Jager bombs.