Inside the rise and fall of Burger Records

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Bands and fans assemble for Burger Records' Burger-A-Go-Go at the Observatory venue in Santa Ana, August 2, 2014. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

Burger Records was a garage rock record label in Orange County that built its brand on bringing rock and roll to teens and putting the spotlight on underground bands. In July, it became the first label to completely fold after allegations of sexual misconduct were made public on social media. Those accusations involved members of more than a dozen bands on the label. Emily Fox from member station KEXP reports on the rise and fall of the label and what comes next. 

This story was supported by KCRW's Independent Producer Project.

**Warning, the content in this story covers sex and minors.**

FULL SCRIPT: 

EMILY: If you didn’t catch it, the lyrics are, “What makes all the boppers drool, what makes the ladies think you’re cool.” This is Burger Records theme song for its TV show. Burger Records wasn’t just a label, it was a record store, it put on concerts and festivals. It had a TV and radio show. It was everywhere. Burger Records had a slogan that said it was a “borderline cultish propaganda spreading group of suburban perma-teen mutants.” In other words, there weren’t any real adults in charge.


Kennedy Wright and Victoria Wilson at Burgerama in 2015. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Wright.  

KENNEDY WRIGHT: There were no rules. We could do whatever we wanted

EMILY: That’s Kennedy Wright. She told us she was 16 when she first started going to Burger Records shows.

KENNEDY: Me and my teenage friends had the all access pass. We wanted to be around. We were like the ultimate accessory, the ultimate prop.

EMILY: They were part of the so-called borderline cultish following: teenage girls who fawned over Burger Records bands.

KENNEDY: We were wearing the American Apparel tennis skirts with, like, baseball tees and like knee high socks and Vans. We were like the teenage Burger girl.

EMILY: Fans wore pins that said “I’m a Burger Girl” and trucker hats that said “I’m a Burger babe.” One cassette Burger sold declared, “You’ll never be as cute as a teenage girl.” 

Burger Records built a scene that catered to high schoolers who were more edgy and alternative, who didn’t fit in with the preppy crowd. The problem was, some of the bands these teens were fan-girling over were made up of guys in their 20s and 30s who never really grew up. 

Here’s one Burger Records band, The Growlers, who sang about enjoying little girls while you can.

One of the verses goes: “Little girls don't last forever, enjoy them while you can. They're made for little boys, and soon you'll be a man.”

Burger Records held all ages concerts a few nights a week out of the record store in Fullerton, California and hosted festivals at The Observatory in Santa Ana. It was one of the only outlets in Orange County where teens could see live music. All ages meant those under 21 years old were welcome. And at Burger shows, drugs and alcohol were also present, according to multiple women I spoke with on and off the record.

Here’s Kennedy again: 

KENNEDY: I had been battling with addiction for a long time and like being a part of this Burger scene where everyone else seemed to be an alcoholic and struggling with mental health issues made it feel like a sense of community.

EMILY: She says the scene at Burger Records made her feel welcomed, like she wouldn’t be judged for partying underage.

KENNEDY: No one was shy to offer drugs and alcohol to me and my teenage best friend.

CASEY REDD: You would see teenagers just talking to these guys in bands right outside their vans, right outside the venue, sometimes being taken into the vans.

KENNEDY: I remember being 16 years old on ecstasy outside of this, like, abandoned gym warehouse in Santa Ana that they were playing a show in.

JENNIFER CALVIN: The goal was to get backstage because that's where all the, like, all your friends were and that's where the alcohol and the drugs were.

KENNEDY: There was always someone to buy us alcohol. There was always a different older guy for us to hook up with. It just felt like not a matter of if, but where and when.

EMILY: This was garage rock in the Orange County suburbs. 

Here’s Jennifer Calvin of the Burger affiliated band, Bleached.

JEN: I feel like everyone was trying to relive these like famous, rock and roll scenes out of these classic movies that none of us actually were alive for. And so, like, what we picked up from those, like, scenes, at least for me personally, was like the partying and the drinking and the sex and like what ended up happening is a lot of, like, a lot of men took advantage of that and just started using women as they're like, their accessory,  the way you would see it in these classic rock and roll movies. There's always like the scene with the groupies and like female groupies are a big part of these classic rock and roll movies.

EMILY: That rock and roll nostalgia meant some women and teenage girls paid the price of entry.


The former space previously owned by Burger Records, has now been replaced by White Rabbit Records store. Photo by Laura Kondourajian.

Sean Bohrman and Lee Richard were best friends and bandmates. They co-founded Burger Records in 2007 when Sean was 25 and Lee was just 23 years old. Their band Thee Makeout Party that we’re hearing now was the first release on the label. 

Sean said he put everything he had into Burger Records. He worked 16 hour days, never had any money and lived in the back of the record store.

SEAN: There was no shower. I would shower once a week whenever I can. I would wash my hair, there was a faucet in the alley in the back that you’d have to put your head down and wash your hair in there.

EMILY: Over the course of 13 years, Burger Records worked with 1,200 bands. That’s a lot. That’s an average of nearly two new bands every single week for over a decade. That’s pretty much unheard of. Burger Records released vinyl and CDs but mostly cassette tapes of existing albums. The cassettes are what made Burger Records so prolific. Their artists ranged from the band who made music in their bedroom, to making a cassette version of a side project by Ryan Adams — who, if you remember, was accused of sexting a minor, as well as emotional abuse by multiple women in the music industry in a New York Times investigation last year. He apologized this summer for any suffering he caused. 

When it came to working with bands, Sean said he had two qualifications.

SEAN: My criteria for choosing bands is you're either really good or you're really weird.

EMILY Bands never got signed to Burger Records. There were no contracts. No rules for what you could or couldn’t do. You could take your record and run if you’d like. Sean didn’t like the hassle of lawyers. 

Kennedy Wright, the teen fan who we heard from earlier, who’s now 23 years old, eventually started playing Burger Records shows and festivals with her band, Cowboy Social. 

KENNEDY: I definitely feel like Burger in terms of getting DIY artists started, were revolutionaries. I mean, they did for these bands what no one else was willing to do. I mean, bands that just got started in their garage and recorded on their laptops in GarageBand were like going on, you know, tours throughout the nation, which was incredible. And it made everyone feel like they could do it. And so everyone did do it.

EMILY You could become a rock star with Burger Records. But Kennedy says the label’s come one come all mentality also meant some bad players were invited in.

KENNEDY: When you're including everyone, you're giving a lot of room for all behaviors to be allowed in. So that’s something you have to be careful about and I don’t think Burger was.

EMILY: Kennedy says she had sexual contact, sometimes as a minor, with multiple men associated with Burger Records and Southern California’s indie-music scene. But there’s one man in particular who dragged her along for five years and broke her heart. It was Zoe Lambert, the frontman of the band, No Parents. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

Kennedy said she met Zoe at a No Parents show when she was 16. 

KENNEDY: He was like so immediately, obviously overtly attracted to me and then proceeded to pursue me via Instagram.

EMILY: He’d comment on her attractiveness in photos she posted of herself.

KENNEDY: They were on photos of me when I was like, a senior in high school. And he was like a twenty three year old playing in this band with this platform and all these cool, like sophisticated artists.

EMILY: They kept in touch and when Kennedy was 17, Zoe put her on the guest list for the sold out 2015 Burgerama Music Festival in Santa Ana. By this time, Burger Records wasn’t just an underground scene putting on shows at its record store in a strip mall. It had a massive following. The New York Times had just done a feature story on the label calling it “a round-the-clock freak lab” Weezer headlined Burgerama that year. Eighty five bands played the festival, most of which were affiliated with Burger. No Parents kicked off Burgerama on the main stage.

A video from that performance shows Zoe on stage, sporting greasy, grown out dyed blond hair and the only thing he is wearing are shoes and grey, saggy boxer briefs. He dances around on stage, exposing his soft white belly, occasionally dipping his hand underneath his underwear to grab himself.

Zoe met up with Kennedy after his set to watch the band that opened up for the headliner that night. And she said they made out multiple times that day when she was a minor. 

KENNEDY: I was with my friend, who was also 17, and we just felt like we were getting the ultimate treatment. And like, we felt like they thought we were so cool and we were like, in the crowd, and then he just, like, grabbed me and started making out with me and I was like, OK, this is happening. And then it happened intermittently throughout the entire day in front of all of these people in the Burger scene who knew about me, who knew how old I was, who knew I was driving up in my friend's car, who had just gotten a driver's license. I'm pretty sure I still had, like, my learner's permit or something. And it's just like, it went on for so long. This was just the beginning of it.

EMILY: I spoke with two of Kennedy’s longtime friends: One friend was there that day and saw Kennedy making out with Zoe backstage, another friend, who was in the Burger Records scene, said she had conversations with Kennedy about this at the time and knew Zoe was pursuing Kennedy on social media when she was a minor. 

Then when Kennedy was 19, she says they had sex. After that, they had a secret online relationship over Snapchat that lasted years, and I saw graphic sexual texts and photos between them. She’d share her daydreams of their futures but also console him when he was going through a breakup or a rough patch in a relationship. She knew he was seeing other people. But their relationship was never official and when Kennedy would see Zoe at a show, he would ignore her.

KENNEDY: Seeing Zoe there and acting like nothing happened and just being gaslighted so heavily that I thought I was making the entire thing up in my head for almost five years

EMILY: She eventually wrote a song about it with her band, Cowboy Social called “Don’t Text Me.” A song she’s played on stage at a Burger Records show while on the same bill as No Parents.

KENNEDY: There was like years worth of, like sexual Snapchatting and like unsolicited dick pics and like, him telling me that he loved me when he was in a relationship with Jen.

EMILY: She’s talking about Jennifer Calvin who you heard from earlier, talking about Burger Record’s rock and roll nostalgia. Her band, Bleached, played about a dozen Burger Records festivals and shows. 

Bleached took No Parents under their wing in 2016 and took them on tour. Jen said she dated Zoe for about a year after that tour. She’s actually seven years older than Zoe, but when they were together, she’d get these feelings like he was cheating on her. Then one day:

JEN: When I finally like, this wasn't my proudest moment, logged onto his Instagram because I felt like there was something going on and saw a lot of messages to his fans. Like, I didn't question their age. Like, it wasn't until now, like, I'm seeing how young these girls were.

EMILY: She said when she opened his Instagram, she saw messages of him asking girls to fly to L.A. to be with him. According to the women I spoke with, Kennedy wasn’t the only one Zoe started messaging when she was a teen. She was just part of a pattern of predatory behavior.

KENNEDY: When I came out about my experience with Zoe, women came to me with their experiences.

EMILY: Back in July, Kennedy and Jen shared their stories about Zoe on their Instagram pages. When they did, multiple women responded in their direct messages, telling them they had been used and manipulated by Zoe. Many said they were teens when Zoe started pursuing them. Kennedy and Jen came forward on social media after they saw a wave of accusations against men across Southern California’s indie-rock scene. A lot of the accused men had ties to Burger Records.  

The popular band, Cherry Glazerr, which eventually worked with Burger records, created a tipping point for the online movement. On July 15, lead singer Clementine Creevy posted similar allegations in a since deleted post on Instagram about a former band member. The story got out; music websites like Brooklyn Vegan and Consequence of Sound reported the news. 

And once that happened, the accusations against Burger affiliated bands mounted. So much so that one woman started compiling them all in one place — on an Instagram account.

It’s called Lured By Burger Records. 

CASEY REDD: I was on the page 18 hours a day for about a week. I couldn't stop because the messages were coming in. I felt a great sense of responsibility.

EMILY: Casey Redd grew up going to Burger Records shows. At first it gave her a sense of belonging.

CASEY: The community that was established was enticing. Most of the time, I was alone in my room, extremely depressed. I had a really hard time in high school. So knowing that I could get dropped off during a weekend and go to a show and I would usually go by myself to these shows.

EMILY: But she said it wasn’t long before she was taken advantage of. On her own Instagram and on the Lured By Burger Records account, she describes having sex as a minor seven years ago with a Burger band member. 

CASEY: He was 29. I was 17. He knew that.

EMILY: She says it happened in the back of Casey’s car after she picked him up in the corner of the Burger Record Store parking lot.

CASEY: It was the first time I had ever driven on a freeway by myself. I’d just started driving. I was in high school.

EMILY: Casey showed me a text thread from July where he apologized for what happened. 

Once the Lured By Burger Records account was up and running, other stories of sexual misconduct started flooding into Casey’s direct messages. In my months of reporting, I spoke to one of Casey’s friends who saw these messages and another woman who made sexual misconduct allegations publicly on the Instagram account.  

Like the Zoe situation, it wasn’t just one story against one member of a band. There were similar allegations made toward the same men, alleging predatory behavior for years. These accusations involved more than a dozen bands on the label. Roughly 40 women posted their stories on social media publicly and anonymously, and about a third of those accusations alleged men in their 20s and 30s pursuing minors.

Women also called out Lee Rickard, the co-owner who opened Burger Records with Sean, who you heard from earlier.  

This culture was discussed in plain sight. In a 2013 Vice interview, a reporter asks Lee, “Hey, Lee, how old was that girl you had sex with in my basement?” According to the piece, Lee takes an “extremely long pause” and says, “I don’t know.” The reporter responds, “good answer,” and then Lee says “she was legal. She had a mohawk.” 

Lee did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Sean said he became aware of the allegations against Lee online and eventually Burger Records released a public statement addressing them. But he still stands behind his best friend and former business partner.

SEAN: Maybe Lee is inappropriate. He says the wrong things sometimes. And he's not perfect. Nobody's perfect. Everybody has done stupid shit. But I know him as a person. And I know that he, he's a kind and gentle soul.

EMILY: Sean denies being responsible or an enabler of bad behavior. He says it’s unrealistic to keep track of the personal lives of the label’s 1,200 bands.

SEAN: When bands go on tour and do terrible stuff, I don’t know how I’m supposed to police that.

EMILY: He also says he was so busy keeping up on the business side of the label that he never saw abuse first hand.

SEAN: When I find a band I really like, do I have to ask, you know, have you raped anybody or have you done this or that? And then have to follow up on that and get the full story? That sounds like a nightmare. And that's not why I got into music.

EMILY: Even if Sean didn’t know about this alleged behavior, Kennedy says there were things said and done on stage that looking back were questionable for a teen audience.

KENNEDY: Zoe was naked all the time, even at underage shows. It was part of his gimmick.


Kennedy Wright and No Parents’ frontman Zoe Lambert at Burgerama in 2015. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Wright. 

Then there were No Parents’ lyrics.

KENNEDY: The music was very vulgar. No Parents was one of my favorite bands, which made Zoe so appealing. Their lyrics to their first breakout hit, “Chicks in L.A.” discuss fucking in an In-N-Out bathroom: no condom, animal style.

KENNEDY: Like just really gross shit that me and my 16, 17, 18 year old best friend were singing at the top of our lungs, like, what? That's really weird. He also went on to write a song called “Runaway” where the lyrics were, ‘17 that’s way too young, she's got braces on her tongue.’ And I remember hearing this song like, is this about me?

EMILY: Those types of lyrics made Jen uncomfortable when she was dating Zoe.

JEN: But there was something underneath that like, bothered me about those lyrics. So that's why we would have like, talks and like, you know, Zoe would say like, oh, it's just a character I'm playing.

SEAN: Red Hot Chili Peppers played with socks on their dicks in front of tons, millions of people, right? That's sex, drugs and rock and roll. You know, when I'm listening to GG Allin... 

EMILY: That’s an 80s punk rocker who played naked on stage who’s act also involved fecal matter and blood. Thanks to Reddit, you can find a video of this online. 

SEAN: And he says ‘I'm infected with AIDS, I fuck every day, I kill everything I fuck.’ I don't think that he's actually going out there and doing that. And that's not even close to anything that any of our bands were saying. Rock 'n' roll is gross sometimes and stupid. And if that's too much, then, you don't know the history of rock and roll. 


Bands and fans assemble for Burger Records' Burger-A-Go-Go at the Observatory venue in Santa Ana, August 2, 2014. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

EMILY: Sean said he did try to save the label after the stories of abuse and misconduct came out on social media and on sites like Consequence of Sound. He said he dropped what he estimated to be about 20 bands from the label. And then co-owner Lee stepped down because Burger Records had a zero tolerance policy, which means if you were accused, you are out. No questions asked. Sean then hired a woman named Jessa Zapor-Gray to revamp the label, to turn it into a label that promoted female empowerment. They also wanted to start an all-female arm of the label and call it BRGRRRL, like the feminist punk riot grrrl movement in the 90s. The label also pledged to pay for counseling for those who suffered, to provide a dedicated safe space at future Burger shows. As Sean says,

SEAN: It may not be perfect, but it's something we can start with.

EMILY: But by this point there was so much damage that had been done. Casey of the Lured By Burger Records Instagram page was actually on the phone with Sean and the new interim president, Jessa when they were trying to come up with what the label could do next, which was not easy. 

CASEY: I was on the phone for two hours. I had a PTSD attack. I was shaking, crying.

EMILY: She said there was too much history and lack of trust. 

CASEY: I was basically berating him asking, like, how could you have not known, like, you were living in the shop.

EMILY: In the end, Casey couldn’t get on board with the plan. Plus, Sean said Jessa and Burger Records were getting attacked online. So Sean shut the label down for good on July 21.

SEAN: For me, closing the label down was like, OK, I don't want to deal with these people anymore because they're insane and they're online and they're there's nothing you can say to quell their thirst for blood.

EMILY: Casey said it wasn’t her intention to take down the label. She believes the accused should be held accountable.

CASEY: I don't want people to be canceled into oblivion. A lot of the times what happens in these scenes is somebody it's called out and then everybody berates them and then they move to another city. I have seen that happen so many times. And then it's done. I mean, but if there's people in their community who are willing to work with them in rehabilitation of these tendencies and they can go to therapy and rewire their brains to not harm. I think anyone can change for the most part.

EMILY: Shawna Potter is the frontwoman of the band War on Women and author of a book called “Making Spaces Safer.” She advocates for transformative justice, for holding abusers accountable.

SHAWNA: The country’s too big, you could easily find a town where nobody knows you and keep engaging in that bad behavior. And so sometimes as friends and bandmates, we actually have to hold the people we're embarrassed about now, hold them close. And the best thing you can do as their friend is get them the help they need so that bad behavior stops and you prevent any future victims. 

EMILY: Shawna holds safe-space trainings at music venues and festivals across the country. She helps them draft clear codes of conduct and trains staff to spot harassment, to have a plan in place and communicate and act if misconduct happens. It isn't just blocking off an area for women like what Burger Records had in mind when they thought of safe spaces, which Sean said would take the fun out of rock and roll.  

SEAN: You have a big festival and you have a spot sectioned off as a space safe space for people. It's like, that's going to be the least fun part of the entire festival, I guarantee you. 

SHAWNA: Who gets to have fun when someone's being called the N-word, when someone's being groped, when someone's being roofied, when someone's being followed, when someone's being intimidated? Who's having fun?

EMILY: Shawna says the music industry is at an impasse, where if misconduct or abuse happen, women are either silenced or men are cancelled. There needs to be room for growth and change.

SHAWNA: There's no in-between. There's no, ‘hey, let's sit down and talk about some stuff that you've done lately that is making us uncomfortable. Let's get you into therapy. How do we get you to respect people's boundaries? How do we get you to change so that no more harm is caused?’ There are no conversations like that going on. And so all you have is either it's an open secret, no one does anything about it, everyone stays quiet or everything is canceled.

EMILY: But Jen, of Bleached, says there is value in the callout culture that’s been happening online, or else:

JEN: No one gets called out because there’s no HR, so it’s like you can’t report what happened to you and then that person can’t get fired.

EMILY: There are so many players in the music industry from the label, to management, to fans, to promoters, to band members to venues. All those players aren’t working together and as Jen points out, there’s not one person to go to when something goes wrong.

Before cancel culture, Jen says female musicians used to have a whisper network with each other and would let women know in the music scene if someone was accused of being a creep or a rapist. Those bands or artists would end up silently being taken off bills or shows.

JEN: Finally I'm seeing these women take their stories to social media. That's the HR, is Instagram. And they're posting and saying, this is what happened to me. And I think it's awesome.

Bands and fans assemble for Burger Records' Burger-A-Go-Go at the Observatory venue in Santa Ana, August 2, 2014. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

EMILY: Kennedy, who said she was pursued by Zoe of No Parents when she was a minor, tried a few  times to hold Zoe accountable. The first time was in 2017 when she was 20 years old. She tried calling him out the old fashioned way: in person.

KENNEDY: I was literally driving him and at a red light. I was in the driver's seat and I looked over at him and I was like, ‘you know, you've never said sorry.’ Like, I was begging for him to apologize.

EMILY: She said he didn’t apologize in 2017. Then in May, before all the accusations around Burger Records blew up, Kennedy said she wrote Zoe a letter, looking for closure.

KENNEDY: His girlfriend found it and he like, ripped it up and threw it away and didn't provide me like, any response, like there was no conversation.

EMILY: But it wasn’t until July when men associated with Burger Records started getting called out in droves that Kennedy said Zoe finally responded.

KENNEDY: I was sitting down to eat my dinner and I received his text and I completely lost my appetite. And I was like, I am sick of him having this control over me. I'm done.

EMILY: I saw the text: In it, Zoe admits to being attracted to Kennedy when she was 17 and he was 23 and said he used his status as someone who was in a band to pursue a relationship with her. 

Once Kennedy saw the text she decided to tell her story about Zoe on social media, Jen followed, prompting more people to contact the two of them directly and say, me too.

KENNEDY: And it's just really heartbreaking to hear all of these similar stories from girls that I like made eye contact with in the pit of these places that we felt so safe and like so cool and accepted and, like, could be our full selves. We were all abused by the same men.

EMILY: The curtain eventually closed on the so-called character Zoe played in his music and in his life. The day after Burger Records folded in July, No Parents announced they would disband. They also apologized to Kennedy publicly and wrote in a since deleted post that said, “We were and  are a part of a culture that enables abusive behaviour.” 

EMILY: And Zoe acted on his personal apology to Kennedy.

KENNEDY: Right after I came out about him, he offered to pay for my therapy and did. He paid for like a month of my therapy. 

EMILY: I saw that she texted him the receipt for the therapy. 

KENNEDY: He is not denying any of this happened.

EMILY: Kennedy says it wasn’t until she was in her 20s did she realize the power dynamic between a young fan, and an older man in a band.

KENNEDY: When I was 17, 18, even 19. I was so emotionally unintelligent and such a mess that I was in a position to be completely puppeteered by a man of 23, 24, 25. I was way too young... and they had a platform up on that stage and women and girls my age all looked up to them and it's just disgusting.

Bands and fans assemble for Burger Records' Burger-A-Go-Go at the Observatory venue in Santa Ana, August 2, 2014. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

EMILY: Since the folding of Burger records, both Jen and Kennedy have decided to make a conscious effort to work mostly with women in the industry. Kennedy says her band will soon be all-female.

KENNEDY: My entire experience of the music scene has just been me being a prey, and that is not who I am, and it's not who any of these other women are. Like these women that are coming out about their experiences of abuse are the most fucking kick ass people on the planet. And I want us to take over the scene. And I feel like I have a clear vision of that being a possibility.  

EMILY: Fixing the issue of abuse and sexual misconduct in the music industry won’t happen overnight. It’s been happening for decades. But Burger Records has become the first label to completely fold because of accusations on social media of sexual misconduct and abuse. At the end of the day it took Burger records 13 years to build and about four days to take down.

For KCRW’s Independent Producer Project, I’m Emily Fox. Thanks to Kristen Lepore for editing this story. 

Reporter/Producer: Emily Fox
Editor: Kristen Lepore

Credits

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Caleigh Wells, Angie Perrin