The Big Appetites Behind Orange County’s Burger Records
Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard work the counter at Burger Records (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
When I stop by the Burger Records store in Fullerton, founders Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman are days from jetting off to France for Paris Fashion Week -- guests of a well-known designer and Burger super fan.
“Constantly, doors are being opened and we’re walking through them,” says Rickard, sinking into an old couch in Burger’s cramped but cozy back office. “Because people are into the bands we’re working with.”
A pricy tailored suit, a gift from that fashion designer, hangs at the foot of a makeshift bunk bed, even though everyday life is more Anaheim thrift store than Beverly Hills clothier.
“We live here, so you’re in my room right now. This is my bed right here,” says Bohrman. “Lee lives in the front of the store here, on the couch, so we’re here all the time.”
Bohrman, a self-described workaholic, says he typically works until about 3 or 4 in the morning, sleeps a few hours and then gets back to work.
“So that’s why we’ve been able to do so many releases and grow so quickly,” says Bohrman. “And that’s why we still live at the shop and don’t shower much.”
Virtually every waking moment, every penny earned, goes right back into growing the Burger empire, which now includes the record store and label, concert promotion and merchandise.
The Burger machine never sleeps.
“Oh yeah, we’re burned out,” confesses Rickard, while Bohrman fields another incoming phone call. “But we kind of thrive on insanity and delirium. We don’t really dwell on what we’re missing out on because we’re grateful that this is our life. We’re tastemakers or whatever, and we get to produce cool content.”
Rickard and Bohrman, now in their early 30s, launched Burger eight years ago when they couldn’t find a label to put out a single by their own band, Thee Makeout Party.
They began doing the same for other Orange County bands like Audacity.
Kyle Gibson, one of Audacity’s two guitarists, says the band was pretty much the first to get a record out on Burger back when the band was still in high school.
In the eight years since, Burger has released around 900 records, CDs and cassette tapes.
“With them it’s more handshake kind of stuff. They hate contracts and money and stuff,” Gibson says.
Audacity now has a more formal deal with another indie label, he says. But the close relationship with Burger continues.
“Well, they don’t hate money, but I’ve heard Sean say lots of times like, 'Money sucks, that’s when everything starts to get weird,' ” laughs Bohrman.
Burger’s bread and butter is the one-off deal; cheaply priced limited edition cassettes or 7-inch singles for scores of bands and even rival labels.
That includes heavy hitters like Weezer and Dave Grohl, Sub Pop records and Universal Music. Clients like it because Burger works fast, works cheap and answers the phone.
It’s become a one-stop distributor, manufacturer and promoter for acts that fit into the Burger aesthetic, which lean toward messy but urgent lo-fi garage rock with a bubble-gum heart.
“We like to keep it raw and real and teenage and fun and colorful,” says Rickard. “A lot of our stuff might not be perfectly manicured. But the sounds are top shelf.”
And you don’t even have to be affiliated with the label to be part of the Burger world.
This weekend’s Burger Bugaloo festival in Oakland is chock full of bands that simply reflect or have been inspired by Burger’s cheeky DIY swagger.
None so more than Bay Area garage punk legends The Mummies -- playing a rare reunion show after disbanding nearly 25 years ago.
“I’ll be honest with you. We thought we were playing some kind of thing for an actual burger chain,” says Mummies singer and organist Trent Ruane. “There is a little bit of disappointment there, but we’ve entered into a contract so we’ll go through with it, this time."
Or at least he says it’s Ruane. It’s hard to know because he’s speaking on the phone from the Bay Area. The band member’s true identities have always been purposely obscured.
Since forming in the suburbs south of San Francisco in the late 1980s, the Mummies have swaddled themselves from head to toe in bandages when appearing in public.
Think the Munsters meet the Beatles.
“Yeah, I always thought of it more as 'Night of the Living Dead' meets the Monkees,” Ruane drawls. “We were really looking for something that could be one of the dumbest things you can do.”
In a sense, the Mummies were too punk for punk.
Recordings were deliberately raw and sloppy. LPs and singles were pressed in small quantities. When they sold out, they stayed sold out.
Then the band vanished.
“We wanted to be the Mummies, and that was like our idol band in high school that we looked up to,” gushes Burger Bohrman.
“Just the attitude and the confidence, standing up tall and just like who cares if I got a snotty nose,” adds Rickard.
And like the Mummies, says Rickard, Burger kind of began as a joke with a crudely drawn hamburger scrawled on a piece of paper.
“And now 10 years later, I mean we’re not laughing to the bank yet but we’re finally looking at houses to rent,” says Rickard. “And hopefully we can get something, because I really want a kitchen.”
A kitchen does make sense, because the Burger is getting bigger.
On top of a torrent of new releases and a new music shop in L.A., there's talk of opening a Burger bar and grill -- with a stage, of course.