Seth Bogart looked like he suspected something was amiss. Onstage at the Echoplex during his sold-out album release show in February, two beefy security guards flanked him on either side of the stage. They were silent and stoic for most of Bogart's set, while he romped around in a drawn-on pencil mustache and a shellacked head of hair that made him look something like half John Waters, half living Ken doll.
But suddenly, in the middle of "Lubed," a candy-hued electropop single, they ripped off their black T-shirts and side-snapped pants and started grinding on him with a "Magic Mike"-worthy verve.
"I don't think these security guards are real!" he shouted in mock distress. "They're starting to get a little out of control." He shooed them off stage, pleading with a couple of unamused female police officers to come to his rescue.
But they were no help either, because they also turned out to be strippers.
Over two decades and scores of projects — including tongue-in-cheek disco (Gravy Train!!!!), sleazed-up garage rock (Hunx and His Punx) and a vast archive of psychedelic video art and gallery installations — the 36-year-old Bogart has built a world that's won some high-profile fans beyond underground music circles. YSL designer Hedi Slimane, Miley Cyrus, fashion and media mogul Tavi Gevinson and Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna are among them.
But with his debut solo album, released on the beloved Fullerton imprint Burger Records in February, he might be primed for making a more serious — and even bigger — impression.
"Just because I have a sense of humor and use bright colors, people always say it's 'camp,'" Bogart said. "I'm just doing my thing. I think of it as art."
On a Wednesday afternoon after the show, Bogart was midway through the interior work on a new edition of his pop-up store in Echo Park, Wacky Wacko, devoted to the products of his many pursuits. These include: giant paper-mache props recalling his stage setup, his September gallery show at 356 Mission and his surrealist "Hollywood Nailz" Web series and rows of T-shirts featuring prints of his demented class-notebook doodles. (Slimane's readywear line, Saint Laurent, used them in a capsule collection; Cyrus has worn his shirt lamenting a case of "PMS — Putting Up With Men's ....") The shop is coated in a drippy sherbet interior color scheme that looks like a Barbie dream house after nuclear war.
Onstage, Bogart is an outrageous showman, but off it he's sweet and shy around strangers, tucking in behind a table as a couple of super-fans came in to buy merchandise before the store was even finished. After his Echoplex show, it was almost weirder to see him without his character's getup.
"As soon as the makeup comes on, I transform myself. I like being an entertainer and putting on a show," he said. "I've never been in a band where I didn't dress up. It just feels very me."
But after years in the DIY trenches, he might soon face bigger crowds. His eponymous album, produced with the Grammy-winning producer Cole M. Greif-Neill (Beck, Julia Holter), has already dramatically broadened his audience. Hanna's vocals on "Eating Makeup" cemented the record's radical punk credibility, while Gevinson's cameo proves Bogart's cool-teen-Tumblr idol status.
"He's a real auteur. His whole career is expanding, and the music is a vehicle to catalyze it all," Greif-Neill said. "He's struck this balance between the absurdity and malleability of his music, but there's also a melancholy side to him that's about wanting to change your identity, and that's something people can relate to."
Since its release, he's gone from playing scrappy DIY venues to headliner status at this coming weekend's Burger Records five-year anniversary festival (Bogart performs March 19 alongside Black Lips, Slowdive and dozens of other acts). The taste-making music website Pitchfork gave his album an 8.0 rave. But treating the record as a self-contained object misses the point.
Bogart's true appeal is the sheer scale and imagination of all his work. It's not just the antagonistically Auto-tuned pop songs or the mock infomercials for "Lather Daddy Body Wash" and "Mantyhose" that play between songs during his concerts. It's how these off-kilter, homemade touches are also in dialogue with fine art traditions, like the video-based meltdowns of Ryan Trecartin, Gary Panter's brightly colored work on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" or Claes Oldenburg, who also ran a famous store-as-art-concept in '60s New York.
"We both loved the idea of playing 'store' and experiencing retail as an art form," said Peggy Noland, a visual artist and frequent Bogart collaborator who co-owns Wacky Wacko. "I think Seth absolutely falls in the footsteps of those artists. We're really interested in the idea of opening up a mall together, like a DIY mall where all of our friends can have spaces."
Underground punk and art cultures aren't as self-serious as they were in the days of magazines like Maximum Rocknroll. But underneath Bogart's lurid vamping in his current guise, there's a generous and populist vision that may resonate even deeper.
"He's always doing something, and he totally immerses himself in it. It's playful, but it comes from a sincere place," said Lee Rickard, co-owner of Burger Records and a longtime fan of Bogart's many projects, ranging back to Bogart's high school punk zine Puberty Strike. "I wouldn't be who I am without Seth. He's kind of a David Bowie of our generation."
2016 is a good time for Bogart to try being a DIY David Bowie. It's a short hop from his teen-noir doodles to Jeremy Scott's costumes for Katy Perry or from his warped '80s tunes about eating makeup to the daffier sides of Lady Gaga. His songs about bed-hopping with guys might have once been confined to a gay-punk niche or alt-feminist circles. But it's telling that now, in his most outsized and synthetic character yet, mainstream crowds seem primed for his music's sweet-and-sour catchiness.
"I don't have any qualms about selling out," he said. "I've been doing my thing and punk for 20 years. I just got sick of being in a punk band."
Despite his fascination with retail and mass culture, Bogart believes in the potent little universe he's dreamed up. And true to his musical roots, he'll fight for it. "It's shocking to me how so many gross men still have 'power' in creative worlds. I cannot wait until gays and girls fully take over," he recently wrote on his saucy Twitter account in the wake of Kesha's claims against Dr. Luke. "Women publicly speaking out about creepy abusive men in the music industry. So rad. I hope all of those men gets what's coming to them."
As the afternoon grew hotter, Bogart plotted out the ceiling installation in Wacky Wacko, a mess of streamers that was going to take hours to pin up. But in a way he was feathering his nest. The man-eating makeup compacts, muscle-bear body wash, the omnipresent scrims of hot-pink — all of it finally had a place to live that feels like home.
"Finally, people have stopped asking me about what it's like being gay in a band," Bogart said. "And people are asking about the art."