Label Profile: Dirtnap Records

Evan Minsker

By Evan Minsker

on 04.04.12 in Spotlights

File under: Garage punk, melodic rock ‘n’ roll, glam, throwback power pop
Flagship acts: Exploding Hearts, The Marked Men, Bad Sports, The Goodnight Loving, Epoxies, The Briefs, Mind Spiders, The White Wires, Mean Jeans
Based in: Portland and Seattle

In the late ’90s, Ken Cheppaikode started what he called “one of the earlier internet punk radio shows” — Dirtnap Radio. After listeners wrote in repeatedly, asking where they could buy some of the stuff he was playing, he decided to become the music middle man, starting Dirtnap Mail Order. When bands started sending him demos and asking where they could get their stuff released, he took the next logical step, starting Dirtnap Records. And when he wanted to find a job that could run alongside his label, he moved from Seattle — where he’d been living for 10 years — and bought the Green Noise record store in Portland. Going from DJing to mail order to heading a label to owning a record store seems like a natural occupational progression, but somewhere in the middle of Cheppaikode’s life changes, Dirtnap has shifted its geographic focus three times. “For a while, I was very consciously trying to keep the label to as much local stuff as possible,” Cheppaikode says, “but then after a few years of that, it started to feel artificially constraining. It’s like I was setting up these rules for no particular reason other than to have the rules, and it kind of got to the point where I was turning down a lot of my favorite bands, including the first Marked Men record.” Accordingly, the label’s focus expanded, and now includes bands as close as Cheppaidoke’s hometown of Seattle and as far away as Sweden.

eMusic’s Evan Minsker spoke with Cheppaikode about the label’s origins, the many projects of Mark Ryan, and the tragic story of the Exploding Hearts.

On the choice to buy a record store:

A couple years before I moved out here, from 2003-04, the label actually started doing better financially, and I had been more or less been doing it as a full time job since the end of 2002, which was when I got laid off by my last day job. So I had enough money in the label to very narrowly sweep by. I picked up some odd jobs on the side – I think at one point, I worked at a record store for 10 hours a week. But Dirtnap was the main thing I was doing. Money was always real tight, so I was casting around for a year or two some ideas on thing I could do to make a living that didn’t involve going out and getting a job. I wanted to start a business, preferably one that I could run alongside the label. I kind of had a feeling that it wouldn’t last forever. Like sooner or later, I’d just have to go get a job or find something else to do for money.

So at the very end of 2004, I saw on the internet that Green Noise Records, which was my favorite record store in Portland, was for sale. I had spent a lot of time down in Portland and I was familiar with a lot of Portland bands. I was kind of acquaintances with the people at the time. It all happened really fast. I just kind of e-mailed them more out of curiosity than anything, going, “So, what do you maybe want for Green Noise? What does a record store entail?” I had no idea. So from the time we started on that to the time I actually moved down here and bought Green Noise and moved down to Portland to run it, it all happened within a few weeks. One day I was wandering around Seattle, having no idea that I’d drop everything and move down to Portland a couple weeks later. I broke up with the woman I was seeing there, I drove away from my apartment, and I pretty much dropped everything.

On finding new Dirtnap bands through other Dirtnap bands:

That’s almost exclusively how we’re getting bands these days. In 2012, we have quite an active release schedule, and there’s only one band on the release schedule that’s not somehow or another related to another band on the label or from the label’s past. It’s this band out of Portland called Guantanamo Baywatch. I saw them at shows in Portland. They’re touring with the Mean Jeans in March. But they’re the first band we’ve had in a long time that has no relation to the label’s past.

A few words on some Dirtnap bands…

Exploding Hearts
Well, that’s not my favorite thing to talk about. It’s still emotional for me after all these years. [Ed. note: Adam Cox, Jeremy Gage and Matthew Fitzgerald of the Exploding Hearts were killed in a car accident in 2003.] I was spending a lot of time in Portland, and people would tell me about this band the Exploding Hearts. They were pretty proactive about sending me stuff. Every time they’d record something, they’d send something up to Seattle. They seemed pretty determined to get on the label. And at first, I was kind of unsure – I told them I’d put them on this comp I was working on, but I didn’t know if I wanted to put out a full-length. But as soon as I heard the LP, I pretty much called them immediately and offered them a spot on Dirtnap. So they sent me a lot of stuff, like works in progress and tapes and songs here and there, but I never actually heard the record front to back, but once I did, I changed my mind completely.

The Marked Men
They sent me demos which later became their first album, and I remember liking it a lot, but I turned it down because I had so many things coming out and I was trying to be more focused on Northwest stuff. And I remember as soon as that first record actually came out, I got a copy right when it came out, and I pretty much opened the shrink wrap, stuck the needle down on the record, and within 30 seconds, I was like, “Whoops!” I was kind of kicking myself, wondering what I was thinking passing on that band. And then for the next year or so, I regretted not making that record, but then I was fortunate enough that when they started recording On the Outside, which is their second album, they sent me demos. In an essence, they gave me another chance, and I remember as soon as I got the demos for the second album, I was on board immediately.

The Briefs
They’re, to this day, one of the most important ones as far as it goes. That was the first full-length we put out. At the time, we basically had no budget, no distribution, no advertising, no nothing. They toured for years and years and years. It really put us on the map for a lot of people. Despite the fact that I was literally selling copies of that record by going around to local record stores, we sold 10,000 copies of that record. For an indie release in the 2000s, that’s pretty good.

I was at their first club show – I loved them. We immediately were talking about doing a record. They kind of pushed me in a lot of ways. I wasn’t sure if I wanted Dirtnap to be a real label or something where I would just put out a 7″ every once in a while by a local band, you know what I mean? That band in particular really pushed me to step up and they said if I stepped up and made it more of a real label, they would do their LP with me even though they were getting other offers at the time. Another really big thing that happened with that, too, is that my friend Dave [Eck], he was helping me out in the early days, and he really pushed me to do The Briefs record. That Briefs record forced me to take things a little more seriously.

I remember I was going to go to Portland one time, and I was on a Greyhound bus to see The Briefs or The Spits, and I remember I missed the bus. So I was in South Seattle on a Friday night wondering what I was going to do, so I went down to the local punk rock dive bar where I was four days a week anyway, and yeah, they just happened to be playing. It was their first or second show. But yeah, they were playing, I stuck around afterwards and asked if they wanted to do a record, and they said yes.

Mind Spiders
I was just saying to somebody that the Mind Spiders record we have coming out is actually our 11th record with Mark Ryan on it. And the Mind Spiders have already recorded their [follow-up] EP. When the Marked Men went on their extended hiatus in 2009, I told all those guys that their next bands had a home at Dirtnap automatically. I’d take them all. Mark was the first one to take me up on it, and we have stuff coming out by the other guys’ bands. But with the Mind Spiders, it’s really different from their first album in that it went from being a solo project for Mark to full band recordings that are much closer to what they do live. The first record was Mark playing almost all the instruments. There was a guest drummer on a couple tracks, but [Meltdown] is the opposite. It’s got a full live band including two drummers — Mike from the Marked Men and Greg from High Tension Wires.

Bad Sports
Two summers ago, I booked them a show here at a bar called Flat Top. They played and were really great, and I remember they said that when they got back to Denton, they were going to send me the record they just recorded with Mark for consideration to put out on Dirtnap, and I kind of remembered thinking at the time, “Well they’re a really great band, but I’ve got so much stuff coming out that I’ll probably turn it down.” But then once they actually sent it to me, I knew I pretty much had to do it.

Mean Jeans
We’re real psyched about that one. They moved out here as a band from Washington, DC. I saw them pretty early on. I think they’d only played back in DC once or twice before they moved here. And I really loved them – they’re a great band. But they expanded to a three-piece — they’ve got a bass player. Pretty much the first time I saw them with a bass player, I knew I wanted to put out their records. I asked them to stop by the store and talk about doing a record if they were interested.

The Goodnight Loving
I was psyched I got to do an LP by them. I helped distribute their old label Dusty Medical Records. I would play their stuff at the store, and I was a real big fan. I had them do an in-store while they were on tour — I never do in-stores, so that’s how much I liked them — and I remember only four people showed up. I was real bummed. But as a result of that, we kept in touch. I wanted to do a 7″, and that led to the LP, and unfortunately, they broke up the day before the LP was released. We kind of kept it quiet for a little bit, but they broke up in the middle of a 40-day tour. I’m obviously bummed that it ended the way it did, but I’m real honored, too, that my label was associated with them in the first place.