BIG STIR & the art of stitching the Power Pop community together




BIG STIR RECORDS founders CHRISTINA BULBENKO and REX BROOME are on a mission. They are stitching the whole power pop community together.


There is the label, the magazine, the gigs, the bands … and they have only just begun.


Sweet Sweet Music talked to Christina, Rex, and the bands involved, about this mission. And more. Lots more…!


This is the Big Stir story so far.

Can you tell me a bit about the how and the why?


It really started out of gratitude for the other bands on the live scene, and respect for them and for ourselves.  LA is the very worst for live bookings: spaghetti-on-the-wall bills and pay-to-play. But we discovered a whole community of these amazing pop bands that mostly only played once a year at IPO (David Bash’s International Pop Overthrow Festival). They all wanted to be part of a scene and they all deserved better. We decided to do that on a live level (with no experience at all) in LA.


Somehow it resonated beyond geography. A watershed was when our friend Don Valentine (I Don’t Hear a Single blog and radio show), publicly spoke of wanting a “Big Stir” in the UK – that blew the door of global possibilities open. Our dear friends in Spygenius took up that mantle and we were suddenly worldwide. “Big Stir” as a name was a sly little nod that Christina came up with in tribute to power pop greats Big Star, but suddenly it was a trusted “brand”… it seemed silly not to roll with it.

How should ‘Big Stir’ look 5 years from now?


Bigger! Monthly shows all over the world that also serve as tour stops for everyone on the scene. DJ’s, bloggers, and journalists sharing the stuff that we release and support on sister labels like Futureman, Spyderpop, Kool Kat and so forth, so that there’s a place to go to find the “good stuff”, like in the old days. Employees! We’d like to make to be making enough money to be able to pay people to help us! But essentially – a solid framework for the community that already exists.


And a bit of a voice beyond that community to let the greater world know what they’re missing. Everyone loves The Beatles, The Byrds, The Who and The Kinks, but they’re settling for… well, let’s not names, but mainstream rock ain’t what it once was is it? Pop-rock on our level is as vital as ever and it belongs in movies and TV and anything that reaches the masses. It’s accessible, resonant, and timeless.  It’s “music that needs to be heard”, (Dave Boogieman Kaufman of Radio NewYork International), or “music that deserves to be heard” (Boris Boden of Secret Weapon).  Maybe our biggest goal is to, after bringing everyone who’s already in the know together, to bridge that gap to the public at large.


A record label in 2018. What’s that about in this DIY world?


It’s about moving from DIY to DIO – Do It OURSELVES, together. Having created a space for bands to play together live, we, of course, all started talking about the records we were all making and financing and promoting on our own (on little personal labels which only had one band on them). And those records were really excellent and deserved a wider audience.


“We’re stronger together,” said our dear friend Steven Wilson of Plasticsoul; “A strong tide lifts all boats”, said Matt Mincey of Suite 100 – we took that to heart.  Let’s pool our resources, cross-promote, and be labelmates. More of a collective than a corporation. Little did we know that brilliant folks like Keith Klingensmith of Futureman (and The Legal Matters) had already come up with the same idea, but no matter, we all support each other’s efforts now.

So what’s up for 2018?


The new Blake Jones & the Trike Shop record. Big Stir Magazine (under the auspices of our genius illustrator Joseph Champniss) becoming the go-to source for anything power pop and all associated genres, without losing any of the heart-and-soul whimsy along the way. Tours on both sides of the pond with The Trike Shop, Spygenius, The Armoires, The Fast Camels out of Scotland, and Hux & the Hitmen from Boston. New monthly concert series in a few other noteworthy towns in California to go along with LA and South London. Compilations and more records from more bands that we can’t announce but can’t wait to release.


And more… Radio shows hosted by, like, us. The second album from The Armoires!  Basically, anything we can do for the global community. We have a lot of crazy ideas that shouldn’t work, but that’s been Standard Operational Procedure with Big Stir from day one, and a surprising amount of our crazy ideas have worked so far, so why stop?







Do you feel part of a community, the power pop community?


If you’ve talked to Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko of the Armoires, and if the subject of the  Big-Stir-CoOp-Turned-Record-Label has come up, or if you’ve read the Big Stir ‘Zine, then you know that Community is a big deal to our band, and all the other bands involved in that sprawling adventure. We’ve pooled our limited knowledge, our limited resources, and our nearly unlimited enthusiasm, and together, I believe we’ve hit that point of critical mass, that excitement. We’ve found a communal home working with one another, a ‘scene’ if you will, and it’s very organic and very home-made. Home-made is always better than store-bought.


If you could tour the world with 2 other bands, who would you ask to join?


Anyone from the Big Stir roster….see above. (and we do this!)


Magic can happen when you are playing for a crowd. What was the first time it happened? And what did happen?


I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Last year I did a show at a local performance festival called “Art: Why Do We Bother?”….and rather than being a listing of the discouragements that may happen to an artist/performer (as the title, read one way, might suggest), it was rather a discovery (for me) of all the ways that music is, as John Lennon has been quoted as saying, “not peripheral to society, but absolutely necessary”. There is indeed magic: magic in the making, magic in the receiving, magic in the sharing. It’s all very important stuff…and I’d have to go on way too long. Ha!…There are a couple of songs on our new album that grew out of that show, and in some ways, the whole album grows out of this very idea.


If the budget was unlimited, how would you record the next record?


Very much like we did the current one, and the ones before it. Very home-made. It’s an old 8-track reel to reel and a very simple recording desk. At a certain point, one’s method of ‘making’ becomes a very important and integral part of what you ‘make’.


What’s up for 2018?


We’re deep into 2018, and deep into this ‘we’ve bitten off a lot and are chewing furiously’-type year. Whenever I even *hint* at complaining, my wife reminds me that I do it to myself and that this is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy—-the diving in, and the making….not the complaining. We have, of course, finished and put out a brand-new album that we’re very happy with. We are also very close to taking off on our fourth tour of Europe.

This trip takes us from Glasgow, then through England, and then a couple of shows in Germany….So we’re happily busy.






What was the biggest fun during the making of the last album?


Recording again in the studio with my former Blow-Up brothers Jody Worth and Robert Williams.

At what point, during writing, rehearsing, recording, did you knew you were on to something special?


In the middle of recording songs for what eventually became “Joie de Vivre,” I decided to focus on songs from my former band, Blow-Up, even though we had basic tracks done for several other tunes.  I couldn’t remember any act putting out a record as an homage to the leader’s previous outfit.  Kind of like if ELO just did an ep of mostly unreleased Move numbers.  Which, of course, I’d love to hear!


Do you feel part of a community, the power pop community?


Yes, the Big Stir contingent.  As for any Power Pop community, not as a whole per se; but with acts that bring a more powerful edge to their melodicism.

Magic can happen when you are playing for a crowd. What was the first time it happened? And what did happen?


Blow-Up opened two shows for Billy Idol at the Roxy, just when he was starting to climb.  The acts played off each other, increasing in energy.  The final sets from both bands were pretty explosive.

What’s up for 2018?


Placing songs on Big Stir compilations and perhaps releasing the Blow Up anthology “Boom” on CD.  Also, looking forward to writing new material, and co-writing with people I’ve wanted to work with.






At what point, during writing, rehearsing, recording, did you knew you were on to something special?


I knew the songs were good – I liked them at least. It was my first time mixing an album and it took a long time. I’m a pretty hard critic of myself but when I heard the final master of the album I knew it was something good. There aren’t many records like it these days. It sounds like music made by people instead of machines.

She tells you she will decide on a 5-song-mixtape if there is going to be a second date. Which 5 would you put on?


“Girl Go” by The Jazz Butcher – “Love Goes On” by The Go Betweens – “I’ve Been Waiting” by Matthew Sweet – “Millionaire’s Waltz” by Queen – “O Saathi Re” by Kishore Kumar


Yeah – seems a little heavy for a second date – but I move fast


The meaning of ‘success’ has changed over the years. When will the new record be a success?

It’s out in the world and people seem to love it – it’s already a success.

Do you feel part of a community, the power pop community?


Absolutely! Musicians tend to be very social, communal folks. Power pop people even more so. Our Big Stir community is like a big, happy (slightly dysfunctional) family

Which is the song you wish you had written it every time you hear it? And why?


“The Kiss” by Judee Sill – If I believed in angels I imagine this is what they would sound like when they sing. It is one of the most inspired pieces of music I have ever heard. There are times it can make me weep because I’m overwhelmed by its beauty. There are times it can make me weep because I’m so jealous that I’ve never created something so magical.




The meaning of ‘success’ has changed over the years. When will the new record be a success?


Our first album “Incidental Lightshow” was a success just by existing, as it took some minor miracles to get it there. It was released into a vacuum, though; all the work we’ve put into the community we’re now a part of happened afterwards, and there’s an audience now who knows us – which brings about the bizarre flipside of hoping we don’t disappoint them!  The heart and soul answer, though, is that when anyone engages us in a conversation that goes beyond “that’s a good record”, and gets into the specifics of the songs, be it what the lyrics mean to them, or what obscure band a specific song reminds them of – especially if they’re right! – that’s the best feeling in the world, knowing your work means something to someone else and is part of their life now. 

Do you feel part of a community, the power pop community?


We’re humbled to be where we are now, having been embraced by that community, and that’s why we’re compelled to give back to it. We probably talk about that too much, to be honest, but what else can you do when you feel that your life has literally been saved by the privilege of being part of something beautiful and bigger than yourselves?  So, in a word, yes.

Which is the song you wish you had written it every time you hear it? And why?


So many – many of them by our dear friends. Songwriting is about seeking the perfect expression of a unique or even bizarre impulse, and when someone else nails it, you stand in awe and regroup to try to rise to that level, and on you go. Blake Jones’ “Alchemy C’Mere” is the anthem we can’t dream to live up to (but we’ll try). Plasticsoul’s “New Town Different Day” thrills with details that make you want to start the tour all over again. But sometimes it’s just one line: our friend Josh Gordon of The Living Dolls sings “I can see the jacarandas floating in her eyes” and we think, hell, if we’d just written that one line, we’d be good.

Magic can happen when you are playing for a crowd. What was the first time it happened? And what did happen?


We think we’re lucky in that the core of our band is a duo of like-minded best friends so we can cross-check each other about when that magic stuff happens and make sure we aren’t just imagining it. It’s always when you feel connected to something bigger.  We did a lovely show on tour in Northampton shortly after the Manchester bombing last year; a national moment of silence was scheduled right in the middle of our set, and as Americans touring a country in mourning over an attack on a live music event, we felt very much a part of it. We stopped the song we were playing at the appropriate moment and the club went completely silent for a minute… then we picked right back up where we’d left off. It was extremely powerful and our tour band was at peak performance and the Northampton community had already been so kind to us… we won’t forget that, ever.

If the budget was unlimited, how would you record the next record?


We don’t have lofty ambitions to record with super expensive gear or in any kind of historic studio… either would be nice, but what we really long for, as a band who plays live a lot and has no lack of material, is simply the time for everybody to tuck in and play all the songs together in a room, all in one go, ideally somewhere that’s “not home”, so that the entire record could be the focus and we could sustain a “vibe”. Day jobs make that almost impossible… so the budget would be to compensate our wonderful bandmates for time off of work!







What was the biggest fun during the making of the last album?


Well, we had a lot of Mario Kart Marathons! But more seriously, it’s really great when we have a general but unfinished idea of what a song should be about musically, and then the collective band mind takes over and it goes off in unexpected directions and becomes greater than that sum of the parts – like on Back Door Son of Man, when we dreamed up an imaginary musical duel between Wilko Johnson and Patrick Moore – telecaster versus xylophone in a grand battle to establish once and for all who is the Astronomer Dominé… or on You And Me and Jiminy C, where we were kind of daring each other to make the arrangement more and more complex and weird as the song progressed… it was also great fun for the band to be able to work with Champniss on the look of the CD and all the associated artwork.


The music industry has changed a lot (or so they say). What did it bring you? And what not?


Back in the dark ages before Spygenius we’d all worry a great deal about the demands of the music industry and whether we had the right stuff to ‘make it’ – the music industry, on the other hand, was pretty much indifferent to us… then we just thought, ‘stuff that for a game of soldiers’ and set up Spygenius as a vehicle to allow us to write, record and perform original music, to as high a standard as we could muster, for as long as we could get away with it, with absolute indifference to everything going on around us. And when we did that, a whole universe of musical wonder opened up in front of us, glowing and pulsating invitingly like the entrance to Toontown at the end of Roger Rabbit… and then along the way we bumped into Big Stir Records and found they shared our vision – they laughed with us, not at us! So, we found ourselves a ‘music industry’ that fitted us, and what it brought us was friendship and beer… as well as a lot of opportunities to get our music heard, of course!

She tells you she will decide on a 5-song-mixtape if there is going to be a second date. Which 5 would you put on?


My Pal Foot Foot (the Shaggs); The Champion Dung Spreader (Adge Cutler and the Wurzels); Magic (Pilot); Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind (Marlene Dietrich); It’s a Small World (Disneyland – not the souvenir album version, the continuous loop from the ride) …but don’t you think it’s a bit weird that she wants to date an entire band? It’s not the go-go 1970s anymore, after all…


The meaning of ‘success’ has changed over the years. When will the new record be a success?


Well, like Dylan said, “a man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do”. But then again it’s also pretty cool when people actually lend an ear to what you’re doing… so, the Spygenius Codex TM defines musical success as the moment two things come together: (i) creative enterprise fashions an artistic opus which effectively realizes the artists’ inspiration and effort; (ii) someone, somewhere, hears it and really, really gets it, to the depths of their soul. In these terms Spygenius’ initial Moment of Success TM was some years ago when we were playing at a wedding reception and one of the guests, a guy we didn’t really know, just closed his eyes and drank in our harmonies – we think his name was Robyn Hitchcock – anyway, we had a bit of a jam with him afterwards. The Moment of Success TM for our latest record ‘Pacéphale was when Rex and Christina heard it and thought, hmm, maybe we should release this in the States on Big Stir…


Do you feel part of a community, the power pop community?


We certainly feel part of a musical and artistic community… and we know that people who like power pop, jangle pop and the poppier ends psychedelia tend to appreciate what we do in Spygenius… but the community that we’re part of is pretty broad and it has a very fuzzy boundary. It absolutely centres around Big Stir nowadays, but it extends rhizomatically in a multitude of overlapping forms – there’s the International Pop Overthrow crowd (thanks for everything, Mr. Bash!), like-minded musicians local to us in the South Eastern corner of England, and a world of bloggers, DJs, artists and artists, well-wishers, fellow-travellers, weird blokes in bars and occasional sympathetic pub proprietors… is that the ‘power pop community’? Well, it might be? Er… we dunno… what we do know is that through all these connections we constantly get to hear loads of great new music …




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s