March 2 2011 10:30 AM

Art Fag Recordings is growing, but Mario Orduno is keeping the label tight-knit

Mario Orduno
Photo by Alex Kacha
If you follow music trends, chances are you’ve heard of Art Fag Recordings, the record label that Mario Orduno runs out of his two-bedroom house in North Park. During the past two years, Orduno’s built a reputation for picking up hot bands well before they get big. Dum Dum Girls, Crocodiles, Best Coast—they were all on Art Fag before they became indie-rock sensations.

“He’s always pushing the boundaries,” Jeff Anderson, a Los Angeles-based publicist who works with Art Fag, says about Orduno. “Even if I don’t really understand something on the first listen, I’ll usually come around. He always seems to be six months ahead over everyone else.”

But there’s no secret to what Orduno’s doing. He’s friends with Art Fag bands and he puts out their 7-inch records and cassettes because he likes the music. It’s that simple.

“I just know what I like,” he says in an interview at Ranchos Cocina in North Park. “I know what my friends like.”

Art Fag is like a tight-knit little family, with Orduno the proverbial poppa. He DJs at the shows he books and goes to the after-parties. His label has evolved into a full-time gig—he’s grown enough to begin releasing full-length LPs (until now he’s released only 7-inches, cassettes and occasional 12-inches); this year, a friend in the U.K. will help him launch a European arm of the label. But he plans to expand Art Fag organically.

“My goal is just to keep putting out records that I like, that do well enough to support the bands that release them and that sound good in five years, in 10 years,” he says. “I don’t have any size expansion goals or anything like that. That doesn’t even come into my thoughts.”

Orduno, 36, loves a wide range of pop music: ’60s girl groups, ’80s twee bands on 53rd & 3rd Records, shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, The Smiths. An avid record collector since he was 14, he guesses he owns about 5,000 pieces of vinyl, a disappointingly low number, in his opinion. He manages to eke out a modest living on Art Fag’s proceeds—he only recently retired his trademark Army-surplus coat, a ratty old thing he bought in 2001, because it fell apart. He doesn’t bask in the attention Art Fag’s been getting. “I like being behind the scenes,” he says.

In San Diego, Art Fag bands often play at each other’s shows—sometimes, it seems, only each other’s shows. The label’s perceived exclusivity has incited lively debate. Crocodiles singer Brandon Welchez freely acknowledges that Orduno is a “polarizing figure.”

“I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people talk shit about him—that he is an ‘elitist’ or a ‘snob,’” Welchez says in an e-mail. “The fact of the matter is that for over a decade, Mario has been putting on some of the only good club nights in San Diego, running one of the only good record labels in town, bringing amazing national and international bands to town long before some of the bigger promoters are ever aware of them and encouraging the local bands he finds promise in. People can hate on him all they want, but it’s because he is not an ass kisser and doesn’t give fake respect to things he has no respect for.”

Orduno, who grew up in North Park, says he started Art Fag sometime around 2005 (he doesn’t remember exactly when) to release music by friends’ bands like The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, an arty post-punk band that featured Welchez and Charles Rowell, a good friend of Orduno’s who also plays in Crocodiles.

The label didn’t get much attention outside San Diego until 2009, when it delivered a crop of releases that proved surprisingly prescient, including Best Coast’s first three-song 7- inch. Orduno met Best Coast mastermind Bethany Cosentino when she dropped by his house while on a first date with Nathan Williams, the frontman of Wavves. When he heard her music, he immediately wanted to release something.

“The melodies were perfect,” Orduno says. “They were just, like, melodies you would want to sing to yourself while you’re hearing it—melodies that got stuck in your head.”

Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls and Crocodiles eventually signed to bigger indie labels. This year, Art Fag plans to release material by a new crop of bands, among them Plateaus, headed by Jon Greene, a sound engineer who regularly works with Art Fag; Psychic Dancehall, an experimental pop duo with a member based in the U.K.; and local psych-pop outfit Heavy Hawaii, who’re going on tour this month with Dom, a well-known pop-rock band.

At Tower Bar one recent Sunday, Art Fag welcomed a new act into the family: Colleen Green, a young woman based in L.A. whose catchy lo-fi rock sounds like a stoned take on The Ramones. Normally, she performs solo with a drum machine, but that night, she was joined on drums by Kristin Gundred, Orduno’s friend, Welchez’s wife and the frontwoman of Dum Dum Girls. The pairing looked like an official gesture, as if to say, You’re one of us now.

The family may be expanding, but Orduno says he doesn’t feel any pressure.

“It’s just fun. It’s nothing but fun,” he says. “There’s no headaches. There’s no stress. There’s no heartache. It’s just totally fun.”

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