The door to Lolipop Records' Echo Park studio is always open. "For me, it's a way of saying everyone is a part of this," says Wyatt Blair, 23, Lolipop's shaggy-haired founder and drummer for one of the label's flagship bands, psych rockers Mr. Elevator & the Brain Hotel.
Anyone can walk into Lolipop and record their music — and if there's room on the wooden cassette rack in the shop next door, they can sell it there, too. The whole space resembles a collage of Echo Park's garage and psych-rock scenes. Gig flyers and smiley-face buttons cover the walls. Next to the tape rack is a doodled sketch of a hippie with a thought bubble that reads, "Fuck Lolipop."
This is Blair's brightly colored, egalitarian playhouse: a communal space for kids seeking asylum from the tract housing of Orange County and a music industry that no longer appeals to them.
A year after starting Lolipop in his South Orange County garage, Blair moved to Echo Park's Bonnie Brae Street in 2011 and began releasing handmade tapes from his kitchen — each one individually spray-painted, like a tiny piece of street art. A garage-surf tape by Adult Books was his first "professionally done" release.
"I remember Wyatt calling me and saying, 'Dude, huge deal: People are buying your tape in Japan!'?" says Daniel Quintanilla, the bassist for Adult Books and one of Lolipop's four 20-something proprietors.
Not everyone got what Lolipop was doing. A few local record stores laughed at first at the notion of carrying Blair's rainbow-colored cassette tapes. But others immediately appreciated the label's DIY approach and knack for discovering new bands.
"I'm kind of in awe of them," says Paul Beahan, founder of local record label Manimal Vinyl, which spearheaded the indie revival of the late 2000s with releases by bands such as Warpaint and Hecuba.
By 2012, Lolipop had relocated to its current home, a space underneath the grimy Sunset Boulevard Bridge on Glendale Boulevard, near a grandiose Dick Clark mural. At first, the label occupied a rehearsal space shared by Mr. Elevator and psych-rocking party animals Mystic Braves. Eventually Blair and his partners converted that space into a recording studio and, when the shop next door became vacant, expanded into their current multiuse, beer-and-weed–friendly abode.
During a recent performance in the tiny store, a ragged velvet couch is shoved aside to make room for Blair's closest friends, the "Lolipoppers": girls wearing gypsy-inspired garb, guys who look like members of the 1970s Zephyr skate team. Everyone greets one another with either a kiss or a smoke. Billy Changer plays the party's soundtrack, a moody blend of gothic surf rock and British-inspired new wave.
Blair presides over the scene. On his left arm, a tattoo of the heart-shaped Lolipop logo demonstrates his commitment as well as his marketing savvy. "Wyatt's the brain," says Tomas Dolas, singer/keyboardist of Mr. Elevator and another of Lolipop's young co-founders.
Blair, for his part, is savvy enough to deny his importance: "I'm just the guy answering the emails."
For such a DIY operation, the label is astonishingly prolific. Last year Lolipop released more than 100 tapes, including one by Changer's band, Corners. They aren't officially signed to Lolipop, but then again, nobody is.
"We don't know how to do that yet," Quintanilla says. The label doesn't have exclusive deals with its bands, working off verbal agreements and demonstrations of loyalty, such as hugs and matching tattoos.
Lolipop's hometown audience is well established: Last June, Lolipoppers purchased nearly 1,000 tickets for the first Lolipalooza music festival at the Echo. But the label's influence now is extending beyond Echo Park. Last year, it booked 40 nationwide shows on its "Lolipop Adventure Tour," touring in a van dubbed "Boogie Mama." Lolipop also has released tapes by Japanese dream-pop band Boys Age and Mexican psychedelic-folk rockers Santoros, part of a global expansion Blair says is just getting started.
Occasionally, band commitments interfere with label deadlines. At the moment, Blair has a solo project as well as drumming for Mr. Elevator. Quintanilla plays with both Adult Books and Mr. Elevator, while a fourth partner, Ignacio "Iggy" Gonzalez, pulls double duty as a member of Mystic Braves and psychedelic space rockers Jeffertitti's Nile.
A small army of musicians, visual artists, recording engineers and fresh-faced interns helps pick up the slack. If you want to work with Lolipop, all you have to do is walk through the doors and pitch in.
"You get what you put in," explains Blair, who relies on a communal dynamic inspired by both Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records (Elvis' and Johnny Cash's first label) and Burger Records, the Fullerton-based label that in many ways provided the blueprint for Lolipop. "They're like our big bros," Blair says of Burger.
These days, the two labels are co-releasing tapes at a dizzying rate. Kim House, a local garage rocker who fronts a band called Kim & the Created, is a case study of their incestuous relationship. "My next release will be on Lolipop Records and Burger Records," she wrote on her Facebook page in November. In the accompanying photo, she wore a Lolipop T-shirt and held two Burger buttons over her eyes.
Burger founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard embrace the close relationship. "We're glad to be mentor figures to them," Rickard says. "It's all about collaborating and putting out great tapes."
If there's a key difference between the two labels, it's Echo Park, a neighborhood the Lolipop guys have turned into their playground, finding mentors in local influencers such as Echo/Echoplex talent buyer Liz Garo and Lot 1 Café owner Eileen Leslie. Their most loyal bands — Adult Books, Froth and psych-pop band Drinking Flowers — all live in neighboring houses on Bonnie Brae Street.
"I think Lolipop has given the scene a center," says Garo, who is helping book a second Lolipalooza, scheduled for June. Lolipop also is partnering with the Echo to release a Live at the Echo compilation series and launching a podcast, "The Lolipop Global Connection," as another way to promote local bands.
Blair is looking forward to beginning 2015 with pre-orders for Supreme Blue Dream, the first full-length from the band Winter, who add some dream-pop and shoegaze colors to Lolipop's ever-expanding palette. There's also a new 7-inch from Death Valley Girls, the next Adult Books album and the first new music in decades from pioneering '60s garage rockers The Sloths. And probably another hundred-odd releases as well.
For all its expansion, Lolipop remains at its core a "huge fucked-up family," as Blair puts it. For him, that heart-shaped logo is more than just an arbitrary symbol: It's a reflection of Lolipop's we're-in-this-together philosophy.
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"Fuck the 'I'm better than your band' mentality," Blair says. "Let's just make everyone friends."