9 August 2016

The story of cult label Burger Records' visual identity, crazy work ethic and perma-teen vibes


9 August 2016


Since emerging in primary colour-clad punk rock ideals and a cloud of marijuana smoke back in 2007, Burger Records is just about the hippest, goofiest, punkest and most democratic record label around. In true DIY stylings, the label was founded by two guys who just love rock ‘n’ roll and all its accoutrements – the people, the zines, the sleeves, the sofa-surfing buddy-dom – and to this day they do pretty much everything themselves.

From flyer design to signing bands and even sorting out finances, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard do it all. The pair met way back in the 90s in their hometown of Anaheim in California, and went on to play in the band Thee Makeout Party together. Burger Records as a label was founded in 2007, with the Burger Records store opening in 2009. Since then, things have blown up into multifarious offshoots – Weiner Records, BRGRTV, BRGR Radio and more – but each still bears the beautifully DIY, all-inclusive vibe of Burger’s beginnings. That consistently charming identity is in no small part thanks to Burger Records’ graphic look and feel, characterised by punk, cut ‘n’ paste, chaotic clashing colours and fun.

While the designs are mostly created in-house, with Sean either creating original imagery or adapting existing band artwork, Burger works with a range of creative collaborators including Avi Spivak, M Wartella, Sean Soloman and filmmakers Jack Sample (who made the adorable Between Two Buns label documentary while he was still in high school) and Steele O’Neill.

We spoke to Sean about Burger Records’ visual identity, how making zines got him expelled from school and the crazy hours he keeps.

Hi Sean! It’s about 2am for you – do you always work such mad hours? How do you keep the momentum up?

I always do 11am ‘til 4am – I’m a workaholic so that’s what I love to do. I fulfil any promise I make, and we say yes a lot so there’s a lot to do. But yeah part of our thing is following through on stupid ideas, so we’ll get stoned and come up with stupid ideas and make them a reality – that’s kind of how Burger started and how all of our offshoots started too. Even at the end of the day I haven’t finished everything. I haven’t experienced boredom in a very long time. 

Aren’t there things you can delegate? I’m sure there are so many people who’d love to work with you.

I’m a control freak so it’s hard for me to let go – it’s slowly happening but it’s taking a while. I’m finally getting an accountant but for seven years we were doing all that stuff ourselves. We’re not numbers people so it’s really difficult.

So you design everything yourselves too? How did the Burger logo come about?

Lee drew the logo while he was working a day job at the tax shop – he lived above a tax shop on a horse ranch in Anaheim – and he just doodled it one day. Then I took it onto Photoshop, at the time it had two eyes and a nose and he made a face, but I deleted that and on the first maybe ten releases it was the original logo, then we went in and cleaned it up but the G is more defined compared to the old one. It’s great that when we have something to do like make a flyer or artwork we don’t have to wait for somebody to do it, we can just do it ourselves.

Is your background in design?

I have a minor in graphic design and a degree in journalism. When I was in junior high and the early part of high school I made comic books under Trash Can Comics. I only made maybe four or five comic books; I just drew them out and I didn’t really make copies. There was Fly Man and Maggot Boy and Paper Bag Boy and Karate Kick the Chicken… they were my characters for Trash Can Comics.

Then after that I started doing Newsletter, which was a zine I did in high school. I didn’t know zines were a thing, it was just like my newsletter I made and friends started helping out on it.

I heard you got in some trouble with that.

Yeah I got kicked out of school and there was big drama… They kicked me out for terrorist threats. It was right when Columbine happened in 1999 and they called the cops, it was pretty wild. [The zine] was all obviously a joke, but they had tried to kick me out a year before that for the exact same thing. They accused me of smoking marijuana and doing drugs but at the time I didn’t do any of that, so I took a drug test and it came back clean. But there was a bunch of stuff where they were not following the rules that they should have, and one of the principals ended up getting transferred to another school because of that whole situation.

It was pretty crazy but it helped me become who I am. Newsletter helped me learn about design and what looked good where.

How did that time inform Burger Records and what you do now?

I did Newsletter for about ten years and after that I joined the band Thee Make Out Party. I was in that band for five or six years before Burger started and that as a label started about nine years ago, and the store started seven years ago. At first I had a day job as an art director for a boating and fishing magazine so I did layout and design, posters and flyers for boats and fish and things I wasn’t really interested in, but it paid the bills.

Throughout all your output there’s a very identifiable Burger Records visual identity – can you tell me a bit more about that?

It’s the Cooper font, that’s what ties everything together. All of our work is made by me pretty much, as far as the flyers go, so they all have a standardised look. Once you’ve made 2000 flyers for shows people look at it and it doesn’t even need to say burger on it – they know it’s a Burger show just from looking at it.

It’s definitely simple and that’s why we’ve been successful. If you look at our website or our designs you think, “oh I think I could probably do something like that,” and so it’s inspired a lot of people and bands to start their own labels. It’s like the Ramones, where they would go on tour and kids would see them play and they’d think, “woah I think I could probably start a band like that.” You get the punk movement coming out from that. I made our website not knowing anything about websites. I just… it’s a mess. It’s a miracle it’s still standing. 

"The people who remember tapes as nostalgia look at tapes and go 'why would you ever make another tape? The people who are excited about tapes are the kids who were born in the 90s and the 00s."

Sean Bohrman

What about the videos? They all have a wonderful DIY, lo-fi aesthetic.

BGRTV is made with crap cameras probably found in parents’ attics. They’re made by Jack Sample and Steele O’Neill and a bunch of other people. But yeah it’s anything and everything with Burger shows, and sometimes you just cross your fingers and hope for the best. We did a big thing for SXSW where the sound didn’t work at all or something happened and we lost everything. You never know.

What’s the appeal of cassette tapes? Do you think it’s a nostalgia thing?

I don’t think nostalgia plays too big a part into what we do. The people who remember tapes as nostalgia look at tapes and go “why would you ever make another tape?” They’re not excited about tapes coming back. The people who are excited about tapes are the kids who were born in the 90s and the 00s and this is their first introduction to the cassette.

How did Weiner Records come about? It seems like a very democratic thing, very true to those punk rock ideals.

We get sent tonnes of demos all the time and we can’t possibly put out everything, so Wiener Records is kind of a training ground for Burger Records. A bunch of bands have made the jump and people pay for their own tapes so anyone can be a Wiener Records band. It’s been really successful, internationally especially. Bands who don’t have a lot of ways to get exposure in the US can pay for a tape and have their album distributed in America and hyped on American channels.

We run a record store so I don’t want to judge people on what they buy or what they like. I have what I really like but with Weiner Records it’s kind of anything and everything. It’s a free-for-all so there’s all kinds of weird stuff on there, kids making bands for the first time, and it’s a way to get on our radar for sure. We help set up shows for them sometimes – we do Weiner Mania at SXSW. I did the logo for Weiner Records.

So do you design the tape sleeves for the Weiner Records bands?

There’s an option that we can make the tapes, but as with all the Burger stuff usually they have a CD or LP that’s already done and have artwork in mind, and they’ll send that to me and I’ll adapt it to a cassette. I’ve adapted or made almost 1000 different cassettes so I’m like a master at it now and can get it done really quickly.

Why Burgers?

It started just because we love burgers, and it was like our Apple Records for Thee Makeout Party. But thinking about it, it’s a very Americana thing, so it’s easily recognisable all over the world. When you go to American style restaurants in Japan or Spain the thing they serve is hamburgers, so everybody knows what a hamburger is in any kind of culture. It goes a long way to us being a recognisable brand and helping us be on the radar in a bunch of places, coz not everything is going to translate through every culture, but burgers do. 

How do you go about finding new bands?

We get a tonne of demos from bands but if they write a really good email and they catch my attention right at the beginning with some interesting words or descriptions about their music I’ll listen to it and maybe get turned on. We’ve discovered a lot of bands that way, or friends that are already on Burger telling us about new bands they heard on tour, there’s endless ways of discovering new bands and reissues. You know Thor? He’s like a rock and roll dude from the 1970s, like a buff guy. He released an album called Keep the Dogs Away in 1977 I think. I’d seen the record and always judged it by its cover where it just looked like a shitty heavy metal record. He’s dressed like a Norse god and he’s holding some doberman pinchers but it sounds like The Sweet! He’s really inspired by them so I was really blown away by it. In like 20 hours I found out who reissued it, sent them an email and was doing a tape of that record for Cassette Store Day.

On Instagram you describe yourselves as “perma teens.” What exactly do you mean by that?

It’s someone who’s like permanently a teenager. I mean, I’m 34 now and when you think about what a 34 year old is I definitely don’t feel that way. I listen to music and watch movies all day. You know, it’s “a” life, but I also work constantly and I’m constantly putting out fires made by bands and other people… so it’s, uh, I’m a really hardworking perma teen I guess.

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About the Author

Emily Gosling

Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.

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