About three-quarters of the way into Pop Obscure’s downtown L.A. record store is a section where even the hippest of hipsters, nerdiest of music nerds and indier-than-thou are rendered clueless and confused. Here you'll find albums by Melbourne, Australia's badass experimental noise makers Dandelion Rectum alongside new releases from Detroit’s legendary house mavens Temporary Diva, Oakland rap duo Mumble Core and D.C. hardcore legends Inflict the Misery.
Heard of ’em? They all sound familiar, right? Too-cool types might insist they knew about these artists before anyone else; maybe they saw ’em play a dive bar 10 years ago, or they caught the original lineup at “South By.” Surely they have their self-released 12-inch or mixtape in a crate at home somewhere. Except they definitely did not and do not, because none of these bands actually exist. They are the brainchild of a graphic artist and all-around brilliant lunatic by the name of Rohitash Rao.
Rohit Records, “a record store for bands that don’t exist” will befuddle and delight music shoppers at Pop Obscure for the next eight weeks, until mid-July. Rao’s installation features an astonishing 150 album covers, concert posters and T-shirts for make-believe bands he’s conjured up. Each album is a hand-made and one-of-a-kind conceptualized work of art, with song listings, record company info and, yes, even a “borrowed” UPC code that may actually belong to garden shears or a can of soup for all he knows.
Should you seek some enjoyable people-watching, stand in the rear of the store and watch the Pitchfork-damaged kiddies lie and argue among themselves over which of these “acts” they heard first. Are they in on the joke? Maybe, maybe not. The sight is not unlike Jimmy Kimmel Live's interviews at Coachella, wherein his roving reporter asks spaced-out babes in bikinis if they saw [insert fake band] that day, to which the reply is always, “Yes! They were amazing!”
Either way, one cannot help but engage in conversation with others while flipping through Rohit's records, elaborating and imagining what these fake bands sound like, based upon the graphic representations. Surely Punkass sound like L7, while Pre-Existing Condition are obviously Radiohead. Then there’s There’s No Pleasing Susan, which must be an obscure side project by someone in Sonic Youth.
The installation elicits both loud belly laughs and furrowed brows. My personal favorites include Impetuous Larry, Temporary Diva, Dandelion Rectum and Electric Hand Job; I'd swear the latter were an Athens band I saw in the ’80s. There’s even memorabilia, a guitar signed by Rainbows Are Bullshit guitarist Rain Summers.
“When I was growing up there were some amazing band names, like Oingo Boingo, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Violent Femmes, Poi Dog Pondering, Camper Van Beethoven, Judas Priest — I could go on forever,” explains Rao of his inspirations. “I used to keep a running list of bands that I thought could work just as well.”
The full scope of Rao’s vision for the evolving project is yet to be fulfilled. Plans are in motion to have real bands create original music for the fake bands, in essence creating real art out of fake art. Or is that fake art out of real art? Who knows anymore?
Rao’s genius lies in his ability to conceptualize, obviously a skill derived from creating ad campaigns. His variances in design and style are numerous and noteworthy. There are bands that look like major-label acts, and bands that look decidedly indie. There's your high-end New York design firm product, and then there’s your trippin’ balls Austin punk ethic. Collectively, bands and their packaging range from amusing and bewildering to nostalgic and realistic, some in glossy full color and some crude black-and-white pen and ink.
A vinyl record has already been pressed, “Rohit Records Greatest Hits Volume 1,” with hits by the likes of Wolfdick, Thugs of a Feather, Sack Street Boyz and Mondo Jermo. And there are videos: Wolfdick’s “Coastal Elites” is up on YouTube and Ümlaüt Overkill is in the hopper, about to be released. Additional popup “record stores” at music festivals and live concerts are being organized. Rao also is in the process of creating an app that will play a song as you scan the album covers, meaning yes, there are 150 songs by 150 artists in the works.
Rao also credits his inspiration to teen years spent in record stores (the Music Plus in Rancho Cucamonga, along with Rhino and Tower) where the graphics adorning the records, posters and T-shirts enthralled him as much as the music itself. In essence, he came to see the record store as an art gallery.
A few decades later, Rao would take that teen inspiration and do the responsible thing by leaving a cushy and successful career as an art director in the advertising world to delve into the financially insecure world of the fine arts. He's directed commercials and music videos, written and illustrated children’s books, and created animated shorts for Comedy Central as well as a TV pilot produced by Lorne Michaels.
And if you’re a fan of viral video, you’ve probably come across his “Battle of the Album Covers,” clip on YouTube, which animates and connects classic rock covers into a wild death narrative. “I had this idea since I was 16,” Rao says enthusiastically at RoHit's opening event. “My buddy and I formed a directing duo called Ugly Pictures around 2005. We made the 'Battle' clip in 2007 and it’s what got me into directing music videos.”
The video, like his fake record store concept, highlights something snobs and casual music fans alike can appreciate: that music-driven ideas and imagery can be both absurd and amazing. Albums are underappreciated these days, and as Rao points out, no one seems to notice the art on the covers anymore.
“I want to bring back the art of music,” he proclaims. “Not only in the actual artwork of album covers and posters but also letting musicians make something truly original. I want to create Rohit Records as both a record store and an indie record label where you can discover new and fun bands. Art imitating life reflected in the funhouse mirror of pop culture. This whole thing is a comedy. A great big joke that everyone’s in on.”
Rohit Records' albums and art can be viewed for the next eight weeks during store hours at Pop Obscure Records, 735 S. Los Angeles St., downtown; (213) 628-3898.