Rohitash Rao’s fake album art pop-up feels so real that actual music is being created around it

By Christina Campodonico

Rao’s album covers invented for imaginary bands are beginning to take on a life of their own

Do you remember the viral anthems of Rainbow Vulture? The head-banging concerts of Incendiary Android? The introspective ballads of Misunderstood Clementine?

To be fair, those are trick questions. None of these bands actually exist — except in the world of Rohit Records, the brainchild of Santa Monica artist, illustrator, art director and commercial director Rohitash Rao.

Born out of an art show and concert hosted by Google’s Venice campus about a year ago (with some inspiration from an animated short Rao created years ago called “Battle of the Album Covers”), Rohit Records has evolved from a collection of over 150 album covers made for “bands that don’t exist” into a faux record store and music label that’s set up shop at conferences, festivals, galleries and even
a real L.A. record store. The “label” has even grown into producing songs, music videos, T-shirts and its own vinyl record filled with singles by a few of its made-up one-hit wonders.

Some of these imagined acts (and some real ones too) will play free shows this week at Santa Monica’s FAB Gallery, which is hosting Rao’s traveling album art display through Sunday’s Main Street Summer Soulstice. Rao, who plays accordion, will perform with a few of his “fake” bands on Thursday and Friday nights, and on Sunday Rohit Records bands will play outside the gallery and roam throughout the festival.

“This idea just kind of keeps weirdly growing. It’s like the never-ending art project,” says Rao. “Like, this show, I’ve got 14 bands playing. … It’s become a parallel universe, as if these bands and this record store existed … like a cross-dimension that we all can step into for a night.”

With marvelously odd names that verge on the ridiculous — Birdfinger, Alone in Your Ménage à Trois, A Million Years of Self-Loathing — embellished on equally eccentric album art, Rao’s bands look and sound just artsy enough to pass for obscure pop or indie outfits, and that’s kind of the genius of Rohit Records.

“I’ve actually had people come in and ask if I had the first album of a band, as if they knew that band,” says Rao. “And they would completely make up stories about how they saw some of my fake bands in concert.”

To create the feel of classic vinyl, Rao repurposes old album jackets for his own painting and photography, sands down the edges to make them look vintage, and often slides them into plastic sleeves and applies barcodes on the back to make them look even more authentic. Like a real record store, the wares are for sale — usually $125 to $150.

“The great thing about album covers,” Rao continues, “is there’s often no rhyme or reason to what names fit with what art. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like throwing darts. I’ll throw a dart at a name and I’ll throw a dart at a piece of art and I’m like, OK, that’s going to go together now. And then I just make that. Weirdly, it works.”

Rao’s album art titles range from dry and irreverent —“You Have Three New Likes and Zero New Friends” over an Instagram-worthy Venice sunset — to pun-y and provocative. An album by Edible Forests is decorated by a single yellow mushroom, lonesome and brooding, with fungi-themed tracks listed on the back (“Cremini make my day,” “Common Button Mushrooms are Best Avoided” and “Shiitake are the sh*t”).

As if to comment on music industry patriarchy or the juvenile leanings of many rock bands built in the garage, there are plenty of album covers embedded with subtle and not-so-subtle dick jokes — band names or titles like Phalic Motel (accompanied by a picture of a drooping plant), Electric Hand Job and the fiercely hard-rock Wolfdick. Some are more intentionally ironic and highbrow with names like Ümlaüt Ovërkill (with additional umlauts over the “O” and “k” mind you) or Temporary Diva.

Rao says his cover art creations are inspired by “the absurdity of my favorite album names and bands and the art that comes from it,” but Rohit Records is also a way to recreate his childhood bedroom walls plastered with band parapernalia and trips to old-school music stores like Tower Records — his “first art gallery.”

“It was just eye candy,” says Rao, who grew up in 1980s Rancho Cucamonga listening to the likes of Van Halen (“Van Halen was a gateway drug”), Black Flag, Oingo Boingo, Suicidal Tendencies and many more eccentrically dubbed bands. “Some of my favorite bands were Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Poi Dog Pondering, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. And I’m like, these are not only great bands names, but they almost tell a story just in their name and often in the way the art direction for that album was created.”

Indeed, many of the bands Rao has thought up have elaborate backstories, which he hopes to compile into a book one day. He’d love to turn an old Tower Records, especially the one on Sunset Boulevard, into a massive pop-up, too. But for now, Rao enjoys the elaborate ruse of his record store and wants to see how far he can take the charade.

“I’ve stopped putting up the tag line of a ‘record store for bands that don’t exist’ … because I don’t want to tell people that before they figure it out. I like them trying to figure it out — trying to learn that this is performance art in a way.

“Somebody compared it to method acting,” he adds later on. “It only works because it feels real.”

Rohit Records pops up at FAB Gallery (2001 Main St., Santa Monica) from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 20, and from 1 to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (June 21, 22 & 23). Live music starts at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, with additional pop-up performances happening outside the gallery Sunday afternoon. Visit facebook.com/FABstudiogallery or follow @fab.studio.gallery on Instagram for updates.

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