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Building a bigger Burger Records at the Burgerama festival

The Burgerama festival is just one way Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard look to expand the Fullerton-based garage punk label they built by selling $6 cassette tapes.

March 22, 2013|By August Brown
  • Fidlar performs during the 2012 CBGB Festival at Webster Hall on July 5, 2012, in New York City.
Fidlar performs during the 2012 CBGB Festival at Webster Hall on July 5,… (Theo Wargo, Getty Images…)

At around 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sean Bohrman of Burger Records picked up the phone in his label's office and pleaded for mercy. “Can you call me back in a couple hours?” he asked a reporter. “We just drove 20 hours straight from Texas after South by Southwest. We got home like an hour ago and haven't eaten anything, and honestly we're kind of delirious.”

Clemency granted. At the annual Texas record industry bacchanal this month, the Fullerton-based garage punk label threw two days of official showcases and nine days of satellite parties before heading back to California in time for this weekend's Burgerama. It's the second annual installment of the label's hometown festival that hosts A-list musical outsiders and Burger alums including Ariel Pink, the Black Lips, Nick Waterhouse and Fidlar.

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For an indie label that made its reputation selling $6 limited-run cassette tapes of bands such as Diarrhea Planet and the Vomettes, selling out two consecutive nights and well more than 1,000 tickets at the Orange County rock club the Observatory might be considered a capstone to a successful year. For Bohrman and Lee Rickard though, the festival is just one part of an expanding teen-punk empire rebutting today's conventional wisdom of a digital, decentralized music-biz.

After founding the label in 2007, Bohrman and Rickard rode to prominence on the contrarian idea of labels releasing music on cassette tapes (though they press vinyl and CDs as well).

Focusing on trashy punk with a bubble gum streak, Burger's business model was to sign tons of bands, keep costs to almost nothing and build an audience that wants to live in your universe. They took '90s DIY culture and gave it a '60s teen-pop makeover.

“We love the Beatles, we love the Monkees,” Rickard said. “We love anybody who makes their own world in pop culture.”

They built a monument to that world in Burger Records' retail outlet, an artfully curated scruff emporium near Cal State Fullerton that's kind of a post-apocalyptic Apple Store: on-point in its branding message and a hoarder's paradise of music-fan ephemera.

But after a few of their artists turned into respectable indie hits (Black Lips, King Tuff, Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin among them), Bohrman and Rickard knew it had something better — a world view about music that really did recall the sweet antics of the Beatles' “A Hard Day's Night” or the Ramones' “Rock & Roll High School.” People wanted in.

With Burgerama, they've given that rock 'n' roll high school aesthetic a senior prom. With dozens of bands spread over two nights, Burgerama's bill reflects their aptitude in finding and selling punky pop acts; yet also how their ambition and goofball charm wins over established artists (last year, Bohrman and Rickard found an injured stray cat and got Ryan Adams to contribute an unreleased song to a benefit tape for her vet bills).

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, this year's headliner, started as the kind of noise-sodden outsider artist that Burger thrives on finding but became genuine indie rock stars after signing to the esteemed 4AD imprint. The proto-punks in Black Lips were the toast of the super-luxe S.S. Coachella cruise, but they were also recently chased out of India by police for tour rowdiness.

Alongside them are a sprawling roster of allies and Burger-universe acts such as Fidlar, Nick Waterhouse, Pangea and Bleached — many of whom are being watched or actively courted by larger labels, song-placement firms and megawatt booking agents.

But Burger's growth (it just inked a deal with major indie distributor Red Eye, which shepherds influential labels Warp, Barsuk and Innovative Leisure to stores) is lateral as much as vertical.

Victory-lap showcases such as Burgerama boost the label's profile and its fan base, but it's just the beginning of its expanding universe. BRGRTV is an online video series of charming nonsensical teen-noir, and a $75 coffee-table book of career-spanning work from comics artist and animator M. Wartella recently sold out through pre-orders. This month, in a daunting exercise in brand-expansion, simultaneous Burger-themed shows were held in Paris, Stockholm, Milan, Melbourne and Tel Aviv.

The entire terrestrial world may well be in Burger Records' grasp, but who says it has to stop there?

“If we could do something with Burger Records in space? Heck, yeah!” Rickard said. “Burger Records at the bottom of the sea. We'll go anywhere.”

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Burgerama

Where: The Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana

When: Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.

Cost: $20, all ages

Info: http://www.observatoryoc.com

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