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Stirring the Musical Pot: Rex and Christina from Big Stir Records

21 January 2024

Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko run the label, Big Stir Records. They are also members of the lively group, The Armoires, featuring Christina’s daughter Larysa on viola along with bassist Clifford Ulrich and drummer John Borack. Thanks to Rex and Christina for agreeing to answer my questions, and to Jack Rabid for publishing this originally as a short take.

EK: How did you both get started in music? Did you have influential family members or friends? How about other musicians in the family?

Rex: My dad was the frontman for a local folk revival band that played mostly along the West Virginia/Maryland border. By the time I was born in 1971, they were tilting toward country covers, and by the time I graduated high school, immersed in post-punk and college rock, I was also playing in the band. They ran from 1963 through the late 80s, and inevitably, whatever my other musical interests were, that stuff seeped in, and I was onstage or doing behind-the-scenes work in one capacity or another for most of my early life. Dad ran a super low key “indie label”, Minco Records, for the band, so there was even a little bit of schooling on the business side of things and groundwork for my later life as part of Big Stir Records.

Christina: I was gifted many years of music and dance lessons by my parents. My brothers were in a cover rock band when I was very young and used to practice in the basement of our house. One of my fondest memories is dancing in the kitchen above their heads to “Johnny B. Good” and “Hang on Sloopy”. My sister would have been a concert pianist if she hadn’t seriously injured her hand. She and I both have a musical theatre background as well. In my late teens, I was in a new wave/punk band that broke up just before a booked gig at CBGB and I ended up pursuing an acting career until much later in life.

EK: From the diverse selection of artists on your label, your tastes must also be wide- ranging. What musical groups had the most impact on you?

Rex: I’m a total college rock kid – I grew up very isolated and nerdy in the literal woods, no neighbors or older siblings guiding my tastes. Without ever having heard mainstream radio I sort of stumbled into the underground stuff via hearing Talking Heads and R.E.M and that sort of thing, and with nobody to talk to about it, I just started reading everything I could find. So it was a quick immersion into punk and post-punk, ’60s psych, and all the great diverse stuff happening then and there in the mid ’80s. I still think of that as Peak Rock and Roll. I was kind of an accidental hipster – that guy who acts like he was into the Velvets without ever going through an REO Speedwagon phase, except it was true of me – but it wasn’t because I was cool, it’s just how things happened. I’ve got keystone artists from many eras and genres whose impact you might or might not hear in our music… John Cale, The Go-Betweens, and The New Pornographers might be the ones that triangulate into what we do, but of course there are so, so many.

Christina: Growing up in Detroit, an extremely diverse music mecca, my experience is diametrically opposed to Rex’s. I was exposed to every genre imaginable from my older brothers and sister, high school friends, going to clubs and concerts with friends or through discovering bands and recordings on my own. There were iconic music venues like The Soup Kitchen Saloon downtown for blues, Lili’s 21 or Harpo’s for the Detroit punk scene, St. Andrew’s Hall, the Michigan or Fox Theatre, Cobo Hall, Olympia Stadium or Joe Lewis Arena for all of the bigger name bands. I look back and can’t believe my young luck as I got to experience the likes of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Missing Persons, Pat Benatar, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, The Violent Femmes, The Romantics, and so many other bands before I left Detroit in my early twenties.

EK: Is this your first dance in terms of a label, or were there others preceding this?

Rex: There were probably signs in both of our past activities that we were sort of suited for this – we met each other as music teachers – but we really had no inkling of being business people at all. I had that odd background assisting my dad’s “label” in the ’80s, doing what I would now recognize as “asset management,” although at the time it was just duping cassettes and 8-track tapes! – and Christina just has mad organizational skills and a gift for connecting people. But for sure, everything we do operationally for Big Stir is stuff we’ve learned since starting it. We’d just been a band with friends in bands before BSR, and it all happened by accident, as is probably the norm.

Christina: Definitely our first dance, learning the steps mostly through trial by fire. We set out to do our best to fill a void in the underground indie live-music community and ended up where we are now.

EK: How did Big Stir (I typed Big Star by accident at first) get off the ground? Do you have friendly investors who helped finance things, or was it out of your own savings?

Rex: (Quick note, I’ve developed the opposite problem where it’s hard for me to type “Big Star” or even “Big Sur” correctly on the first try!) Mostly, and I think this is the case for a lot of indie labels, whether they go on to leave a mark or not, it was a complete accident. We’d been hosting a live concert series in LA and positioning ourselves as community advocates for the local pop rock scene, and getting increasing notice elsewhere from bands who wanted to play our shows as part of their tours and from blogs all over the place. Most of the bands were putting out their own records on their own “vanity” labels, and there came to be a consensus that it would be to everyone’s advantage if they were all consolidated under an “umbrella” name, so it would look, well, bigger than it was. So the initial idea was, since we had a respected and even beloved “brand” already for the Big Stir concert series, we’d all just use the name “Big Stir Records” and co-promote. We did clever, funny little things that brought more and more attention our way, and Christina and I started learning how to get the word out on radio and social media, and before we knew it we had to kind of decide if this was really a label or just something that kind of “looked like” a label (there are a lot of those out there). Being the kind of people we are, we decided to commit to it, and also being the kind of people we are, we weren’t going to do anything less than the best we could. And so the massive learning curve began!

Christina: What Rex describes is basically what took place during the first year. The label “launched” on a shoestring budget, multi-band tour of the UK in 2017, where we made so many of our British connections. In 2018, we filed all of the legal paperwork for the LLC, acquired a business license, bought the trademark, and opened up a business account with only $500.00 in it and struggled our way through, subsidizing the business with our teaching income. It wasn’t until we partnered with the wonderful people at Spyderpop Records in 2021 that we were able to surge full steam ahead and tackle next-level stuff. 2021 is also the year we were invited by The Orchard for digital and physical distribution, which was absolutely game-changing. We’ve collaborated on some wonderful releases with Spyderpop, and have more exciting projects on deck for the future, too! We’ve found ourselves facing the need for further expansion more than ever now, though, and will be doing our best to master business proposal skills and seek more investors.

EK: Does the label have a mission statement, like so many businesses do?

Rex: We’re supposed to, right? I mean, I think that in terms of what we actually do, we wish to be the most benign version of what an old-school label was supposed to do–to genuinely support the artists in every way we can, because it’s all about us succeeding together. There’s definitely a community aspect folded into that too, where none of the artists (nor the label) exist in a vacuum, and we’re all out there supporting each other. The funny thing is, that no matter how many horror stories you hear about labels throughout the years, they’re actually on the artist’s side of the ledger these days. Indie artists face so much bewildering predation from people hitting them up to pay for Spotify playlisting, getting reviewed, and old fashioned radio payola… we and most of the other labels we know function more as advocates than ever, and we also help listeners find the best stuff in an overcrowded field of indie releases these days. It can feel like a sort of holy mission, on the ethical and artistic fronts alike.

Christina: Our first attempt turned into one very long, run-on sentence, haha! It pretty much says it all, though: “Our mission at Big Stir Records is to build, foster and expand the global pop rock musical community through working with artists who have established identities, providing a platform/playground for them to explore, expanding their reach through promotional efforts and world-wide distribution while also becoming valued as trusted taste-makers ourselves to become the go-to indie label for DJs, music journalists, editors, bloggers, podcasters and music fans alike.”

EK: How do you hook up with the artists you represent? Do they ever approach you?

Rex: It varies and it’s changed over time; we always say we were very fortunate to start with a handful of bands we knew from the live scene and believed in completely: Plasticsoul, The Condors, Blake Jones & The Trike Shop, Spygenius, plus our own band The Armoires – and automatically had a solid foundation of quality. We’ve grown quickly, so it was sort of a shocker when we started getting unsolicited submissions, which are now unrelenting, but we’ve almost never signed anyone that way. We’re not the kind of people who go nuts for a demo or a single track, because we’re more enthralled by a full artistic identity. That means the people we sign are usually artists we’re already following and admiring, either from seeing them live or based on their past work.

Christina: What Rex said basically sums it up. Unfortunately, from time to time, we do have to turn away artists we would actually love to work with. We’re ahead more than a year on scheduling our monthly releases and sometimes they just can’t wait that long! A year goes by really quickly for us, though! I’m sure it feels like forever to the artists. That lead time is so very important for proper promotion and distribution on our end. The love is in the details, and the process can’t be rushed or they’ll be missed.

EK: How did you connect with Graham Parker?

Christina: Oh, the hypocrisy, haha! I need to contradict what I just said in my previous answer! When Graham approached us it was only March, and he was looking forward to a September release. We listened to the album, and knew from the very first listen that we had a classic on our hands. The album is fantastic, and may even be his best yet as GP is at the top of his game! We never ever bump our artists, but this was the legendary Graham Parker coming to us with an album to die for! Our dear friend and Chicago indie-rocker Dolph Chaney’s album Mug was slotted as the September release, so we presented the situation to him, hoping it would all work out. Dolph graciously agreed to an October release. I think he said something like: “I get to be labelmates with THE Graham Parker?! AND have my release come out right after his?! Hell, yes!” The story gets even cooler, though. Dolph was able to get tickets to see Graham’s show in Chicago while was on tour in US. GP gave him a shoutout from the stage and Dolph even got a photo with him in the green room afterwards. He was and is a true gentleman, and it truly made Dolph’s night.

Rex: It’s still pretty wild to think about this, because as of this writing, it’s less than six months since Graham reached out to us on (what used to be) Twitter, essentially because he liked the label’s vibe, and just about an hour ago we took delivery of the vinyl LPs of his new album, Last Chance To Learn The Twist with the label’s logo right on it. He’s been great to work with, too!

EK: I am fond of your band The Armoires. How did that get started? Do either of you play in other bands?

Rex: Thank you! The Armoires predate the label, but not by a whole lot. There’s a complicated history behind how we started, but it mostly came out of the two of us teaching music together and hitting on a harmony blend by singing together at karaoke, of all things. At the start we were drawing on songs that had been written over the years, rearranging them for the dual vocal sound and the viola/12-string/keys textures of the live band. But it’s funny that you should ask about playing in other bands, because while we have, I can’t see ever doing so again. At this point, we know what this particular and peculiar band can do, and as a writer I’m not interested in doing anything other than exploring that idiom. Especially working on our next record right now, everything is written for the sort of ambiguously androgynous entity that our two voices together add up to, and I just love both the sound and the psychology of it. Like, as soon as we start singing together, there’s no mistaking it for the perspective you expect from a dude or a woman alone; you’re instantly located somewhere else and there’s an intrinsic mystery to it that I find endlessly compelling. To me, there’s an infinite wellspring of rarely-tapped possibilities there, and I’m happy exploring just that and nothing else. The band is kind of our life’s work; it’s bigger than us and it deserves everything we can give it.

Christina: Everything that Rex said is spot on as to where we are as a band now and how excited we are to be nearing completion of our upcoming album. It really is a special breed of animal! It’s bold, unique, challenging, and compelling (but it’s also got a real overlay of almost childlike exuberance). And working with our producer and very talented artist himself, Michael Simmons of sparkle*jets u.k., has been inspiring and invigorating. He’s a true gem. The performances and support of our fabulous rhythm section, (Cliff Ulrich on bass and John Borack on drums), have exceeded our hopes in making this album everything we wanted it to be.

The complicated history Rex mentions though, involves the death of my son Ian who was our drummer, recording engineer and mixer for part of our first album (2016’s Indidental Lightshow) before he died tragically. It was less than two days after our first gig together as The Armoires that we lost him. Ian had a heart of gold, was incredibly brilliant, talented and loved by all. He was only 19. But Ian’s sister/my daughter Larysa is still our amazing violist even though she’s an Environmental Scientist doing field work now! And Rex’s wonderful kid Miranda can be heard playing bass and possibly some guitar on the new record, too!

EK: What do you think of current music industry trends, and how decimated parts of the market are/were? COVID certainly did not help. Vinyl made a huge comeback, and I wonder if CDs will too? I still buy CDs and digital downloads.

Rex: These are the problems we wrestle with constantly. And it’s tough to talk about them sometimes; people get very defensive about their listening habits, especially where streaming services are concerned. And I think that’s largely because they don’t really want to feel guilty about getting music for free, or think about the damage that does to the viability of a career as an independent artist. It’s tough keeping silent about that, but people don’t want to hear it and there’s really no turning back, so what can you do other than try to figure out how to work with it, and preserve what’s being lost about the way audiences relate to music?

The “vinyl renaissance” is certainly overstated in that it’s dominated by big reissues and megastars, and indie artists are sort of feeling obliged to do it, and ending up overpressing albums that probably should have been CDs. At the same time, there’s just not enough heft to a digital-only release for it to break through. So, we really do hope CDs will rebound a bit, and we see signs of that. But we’re sensitive to the reality that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to interact with art, we just hope to find a way to make a living doing something we love in a business climate that’s pretty hostile, or at least toxically indifferent, to that idea.

On the COVID note, we’re an outlier there because our label was in the odd position to blossom during the pandemic, in a sense. We were just getting started, and our time was almost equally divided between booking the Big Stir Live shows and the label side, and we were suddenly able to devote all that energy to the label. And with so many artists at loose ends and listeners trying to navigate heretofore unknown emotional and cultural terrain, we felt both obliged and fortunate to be able to do something to fill that space. I’d say that Big Stir Records as we know it was forged by the pandemic, and having tackled those kinds of “terra incognita” challenges early on sharpened our ability to take on a lot of the other changes we’ve faced since, and will face going forward.

Christina: We talk about these issues frequently, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution for us other than to somehow figure out how to reach all of those CD/Record collecting fans all over the world who are into all of the lovingly manicured, great new physical records. They’re out there, but we don’t have the major label advertising budget it would take to reach them. We’re still a pretty grass-roots operation, expanding our reach with every new release, doing our damnedest to get the airplay, press, blog, podcast and social media exposure our brilliant artists deserve. It takes a village, and it’s a major, time-consuming effort, but we’re not willing to do any less. When people dive into our catalog for the first time, they become instant fans of the label. We have some regular customers that buy every BSR release without even listening to it beforehand because they trust us. That’s exactly what we strive for across the global pop rock community.

EK What plans does the label have looking forward (insert standard interview question of where do you see yourself in five years lol)?

Rex: It’s so hard to predict or plan, given that where we are today couldn’t have been foreseen six scant years ago! But we always strive to get better at what we do, and remain open and sensitive to all the changes happening in every aspect of the music world, and of course seeking the way forward that’s best for us and the artists together, which means we definitely have to find a way to stay in business, and that’s a challenge in itself. But I think that for us, it’s a big deal to create a roster and a catalog that stands on its own and has its own identity beyond genre walls. Not something so eclectic as to be puzzling, but we never wish to be “one of” the best labels doing power pop, jangle, indie rock, or whatever. We gravitate towards artists who keep pushing the boundaries of the rock and roll form, and our real goal is to present a sound of our own, defined by the sum of all our artists and the sound of them challenging themselves, knowing we’re there to support that kind of exploration. The dream is to be like one of those brilliant indie labels from the past, with a recognizable but indefinable sound, where you loved everything they put out and the label name was almost a “genre” in itself. If our version of that legacy is that of all kinds of artists doing new and exciting things with the sturdy building blocks of everything rock and roll has ever been, we will feel like we’ve really achieved something.

Christina: I’ve often dreamed of opening up an underground music venue like any of the iconic punk venues back in the day, but with the label HQ on the premises. Bands need to play live and feel a sense of community rather than the pay-to-play model that is so prevalent in L.A. and feel a connection with the other bands on the bill. That’s a very pie-in-the-sky notion, though, because running an indie label takes up all of our time, and the money that comes in just goes right back into the business. That’s the indie label reality for so many.

There are exceptions, but that does seem to be the norm. So many people have said to us: “just keep doing what you’re doing because it’s working!” and we’ve never wavered in terms of our work ethic, instinct, or heart-and-soul dive into a risk that we believe in. It’s gotten us this far, but if more people keep discovering new music, buying CDs, LPs and downloads, in five years time, we’ll be able to “keep doing what we’re doing” and that is our passion, unapologetically.

Catch up with Rex and Christina over on Facebook and on their label’s web site.