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Meet Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko of Big Stir Records in Burbank

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Rex and Christina. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
We never had any ambitions to found a record label, or book concert series on two continents, or turn into the kind of international musical community boosters we are today. We were just a band, and not even much of one at that – more like friends who met teaching music and found out our voices sounded good together. We were already well past the age where rock superstardom is even a vaguely plausible hope, but we’re also that stubborn strain of adult that won’t let go of creative ambitions – it’s just in our wiring.

So we started working on original songs together… not fashionable stuff, but power pop, jangle rock, quirky, literate indie music or whatever it might be called: the kind of melodic rock music that’s had heydays in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s but is more or less underground today. Nobody really got what we were doing; there was no context, and we didn’t know anyone in our field, and we reckoned that at most we’d be a coffeehouse duo as a hobby. We did, however, catch the ear of Christina’s son Ian, who was a talented musician and recording engineer who offered to produce us as a band, serving as our live drummer.

Christina’s daughter Larysa came on board as our violist, and The Armoires were born as a kind of postpunk Partridge Family. Our goals were modest and probably would have stayed that way. The unavoidable tragic fact is that, at that time, we lost Ian. He died in a car accident right after our first gig as a band. And from that point forward, not just grief but gratitude defined our mission in music: gratitude for the gifts he had given to us, and a need to give those kinds of gifts to the other artists working in the same kind of vacuum we’d come to know as middle-aged pop rockers.

A magic thing grew out of that ambition: late in life, we stumbled into a music scene full of people who did get where we were coming from and shared the same influences and aesthetics — much of it centered around the long-running International Pop Overthrow Festival whose David Bash gave us our first real break. Amazing bands, great songwriters and performers, vibrant and passionate people who for some reason liked what we were doing, too. We were unspeakably humbled and grateful to be viewed as peers by these people.

To us it looked like the artistic community of our dreams, but what we kept hearing was that there should be more of a “scene”, a place and time for these bands to play together – at the time, this was just LA, before our scope became more international, and there’s nowhere that’s harder to keep a band alive and gigging than here. So, there was a need, and we were naive enough and grateful enough, to try and find that space where this community could come together amidst all the pay-to-play and spaghetti-on-the-wall booking practices of this town.

And maybe even find a way to get the bands paid. And from then to now, it’s hard to account for how we’ve grown so much so quickly. We’ve just been unrelentingly supportive of the artists we’ve met everywhere, on tour in the US and UK, the bands we’ve discovered on social media and through mutual friends, the DJs and journalists, and bloggers who support this scene.

Maybe we’ve cut an intriguing figure with our “paisley twins” appearance and our wide-eyed enthusiasm in talking up how we as artists are stronger together, just shouting “it’s all about community” and proving we’re willing to work hard to nurture this scene, but really it’s been the fact that we’ve attracted brilliant people who feel the same way and were desperately seeking what we wanted to build. Our amazing friend Steven Wilson from the band Plasticsoul who insisted that we spin the live series into a record label; our dear friends Peter and Ruth of the band Spygenius in Canterbury England who took on the creation of a sister concert series across the pond.

Blake Jones in Fresno who knows more about forging artistic community than anyone alive; the ridiculously talented illustrator Champniss of London who brings an absurdist visual identity to so much of what we do, including Big Stir Magazine, and so many more. And we’ve been fortunate to work with more amazing, talented and hardworking bands than most people would believe even exist these days. There’s an absolute embarrassment of riches in the melodic rock game, and it’s our mission to get their work out to the people who are always saying “there’s no good music being made anymore.”

There is – you just have to look for it, and we want to make it much, much easier to find. It’s mind-boggling that in such a short time we’ve gone from complete unknowns to people in whom these musicians place their trust, but that just makes us more determined to earn that trust and do more and better for the bands on the label, on the live scene, and all over the world. It also helps that we bring an artist’s perspective to everything we do because we were a band first: we strive to treat everyone we work with as we always wanted to be treated. And it feels at least as good to be able to pay musicians as it does to be paid!

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It’s been a constant bringing-on-board of whole new skill sets which neither of us possessed to begin with. We’ve had to consider naivete a virtue because if we’d known what was going to be involved, we might not ever have gotten started.

From booking to promotion to graphic design to distribution, the nuts and bolts of audio engineering, web design and e-commerce, the hoops we’ve had to jump through to set ourselves up as a legitimate business, and a lot more… we’ve had to learn all of that as went along. We’re basically barely able to recognize ourselves as the people we were four years ago, other than as fans who are passionate about music, and musicians who still love playing together onstage (and even that has changed as we now get to play for people who get what we’re all about).

But it feels good to grow, even when we make mistakes along the way. There’s always an element of “why the hell not” in the DNA of Big Stir… a very rock and roll tendency to say “let’s see if that works” that isn’t that common in people of our age. Start publishing a zine as a community journal? Sure. Throw together a 14-date UK tour completely on our own based on knowing a lot of bands in a lot of cities and Christina’s amazing organizational skills? Let’s do it!

Launch a weekly series of Digital Singles to spotlight artists between albums or from the fringes of the scene? Yeah, we can do that. We even managed to host a weekly radio show for most of 2018, which was a learning experience of its own, especially when it evolved into fully produced audio adventures – label and booking responsibilities (as well as focusing on recording our own album) meant we couldn’t continue that, but it was truly valuable to see things from the broadcast perspective while we did!

Maybe the most difficult part has been patience. Waiting for people to catch on to what we were doing, staying afloat long enough to prove that we really meant it. Musicians are used to being scammed. We had to act from the heart and soul for long enough that anyone who’d been through it all would be able to look at us and say, hey, that’s something different… maybe it’s genuine. And then, of course, we have to live up to that!

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Big Stir Records story. Tell us more about the business.
As far as we know, there’s no other entity that does quite exactly what Big Stir does. On the face of it, we’re an independent record label with artists in the US, the UK, Sweden, and Germany. But our roots are in the live scene, and we still produce monthly concerts in Burbank and Croydon, South London in the UK, with more locations in the works.

We view our mission as one of stitching together the global community that creates and loves this kind of music – power pop, jangle rock, quirky melodic beat music that’s difficult to label beyond “we all know it when we hear it.” We also publish a quarterly magazine that’s anything but a promotional concern – rather it’s meant as a whimsical journal by and about the artists and participants in the pop scene.

And we, Christina and Rex, still record and perform in The Armoires, although much to our surprise our forthcoming second album will be the 15th release on the record label we ourselves founded! We work by instinct and what we do evolves organically and often in defiance of conventional wisdom. Everybody knows the music industry has gone to hell, and in large part, it deserves that fate because it has put everything else before the artists.

The only thing to do is reinvent the wheel, and that means doing some crazy things sometimes: putting the thrill of discovery, or of performance, or of a shared experience first and trusting that that experience will be as meaningful to our audience as it is to us. People need this stuff. It brings joy like nothing else can.

We’re honored to be able to be a part of that – it never gets old being the first people to hear a great new record before it’s released, or hosting a live band debuting a new song, or hearing a tune you had a hand in releasing on the radio for the first time!

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
As in any collaboration (and ours is creative as well as business), we’re fundamentally lucky to have met each other, and we’re lucky there are two of us so we can support each other when challenges arise. And most of our good luck has also taken the form of finding the right people to help us out. Our artists and collaborators feel like lifelong friends, and it somehow seems inevitable that we would have found each other, but in truth, we’ve just been in the right place at the right time to make those connections. Each relationship builds and changes our identity, and we’re always grateful for those changes.

There’s another thing that may or may not be luck; we’re never quite sure. And that’s the quality of the musicians we work with. Here in LA and all over the world, there seems to be an unending supply of bands and songwriters who are truly world-class working in this idiom. Maybe it’s the fact that a lot of us have been honing our trade for a fair few decades, or the high standard set by key influences like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys, or Big Star (to whom the Big Stir name is a loving tribute). All we know is that when we sing the promotional praises of the likes of The Bobbleheads, Sitcom Neighbor, Lannie Flowers, In Deed or Michael Simmons, it’s easy because we mean every word of it.

Bad luck? There’s been plenty of that, and we just try to view it as a series of problems to solve. Problems with venues or unforeseen technical issues, the complications of going “international,” and finding the time to do it all. Each time we solve one of those problems, we learn how to tackle it the next time. People tell us they don’t know how we do it, and neither do we. We just keep trying to move forward. There are always more challenges ahead!

Pricing:

  • Quarterly magazine $5
  • CDs, LPs, and Digital Music: from $1 – $20 according to release and format
  • Monthly live shows at Joe’s Great American (Burbank) and The Oval Tavern (Croydon, South London UK): always free!

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Janet Churchey

    March 13, 2019 at 17:06

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s nice to know you never gave up on a dream. Don’t stop now, move on and up.

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