Interview: Ken Cheppaikode (Dirtnap Records)
Entering year 14 as a business, Dirtnap Records has fashioned a sound and identity that reaches well beyond their Northwest base. Founded in Seattle, WA in 1999 and later relocated in Portland, OR, the label continues to release punk rock with a poppy, garage edge, including records by The Spits, The Ergs!, The Marked Men, and many many more. Owner Ken Cheppaikode has worked in the industry for a long time and now runs Green Noise record store in Portland in addition to the label.
Scene Point Blank sat down at the PC to email with owner Cheppaikode (pictured below) about the label and his plans for 2013 (and beyond).
Scene Point Blank: You were in a hardcore band, then ran Dirtnap Radio, which lead to the label and now Green Noise too. When did you get into music and decide that it was how you want to live your life?
Ken Cheppaikode: I’ve been obsessed with music for literally as long as I can remember. Was buying AC/DC records when I was like 6. Like a lot of folks, though, I didn’t really fall into full-on-obsession mode with music ‘til I got into punk rock. I started buying punk records in probably like late 1982, and went to my first show in summer of 1984. For better or worse, that was and continues to be the main interest and influence in my life.
Scene Point Blank: How did you determine that being in a band wasn't for you? Do you think playing in a band prepped you for running the label?
Ken Cheppaikode: Well, I don’t even really count my experience as really being in a band. I was in a band for 6 months and I have been doing the label for 13 years—it’s hardly worth a comparison. It was probably less being in a band and more the fact that I had been hanging around the punk scene for a good 15-16 years before I started the label. But, yeah, I’ve always been fascinated with behind the scenes stuff, and the machinations of the world of music. To me the stories of the various legendary independent labels were always almost as fascinating as that of the bands themselves.
Scene Point Blank: While Dirtnap started with a local focus, it's expanded to cover bands from New Jersey, Texas, Canada, and all over. How do you find your bands?
Ken Cheppaikode: It really varies. I do still keep up with a lot of new music, even at my advanced age, and try to be pretty pro-active about going after bands I like. Sometimes bands that are already on the label recommend. Other bands to me, other times bands approach me but, the ones I’ve picked up, I almost always know who they are. It’s quite rare that a random band that I’m not already at least vaguely familiar with winds up on Dirtnap as a result of [somebody] approaching me, but it does happen occasionally.
Scene Point Blank: If I got the number correct, you've done 13 releases with Mark Ryan's involvement. Where would the label be without him?
Ken Cheppaikode: I don’t even want to think about where we would be without Mark and the rest of the Denton folks!
But yeah, when the Marked Men when on their last little period of hiatus, I approached Mark and told him that I would automatically put out any music he recorded, I didn’t even need to hear it first. That’s when he said, “Funny you mention it, I am putting a new band together,” which wound up being The Mind Spiders. I agreed to put out their records before I ever heard them (and before they had a name), put out their first 7” before they played a show, and flew to Texas for their first show. (Well, also to see The Marked Men and The Novice’s first show at Chaos In Tejas.)
It’s really hard to overstate the importance of Mark and the rest of the Denton folks to Dirtnap. I feel like the label had a pretty good beginning (from like 2000-2003) with bands like The Briefs, Epoxies, Spits, and Exploding Hearts. Then things died down for a bit but, once we picked up the Marked Men, it really re-defined and re-invigorated the label for me, and seemed to usher in a whole new era. I am real lucky in that many indie labels don’t even have a successful first act, where Dirtnap has had two, thanks in part to successfully re-defining ourselves—with The Marked Men being the biggest symbol of that to me.
Scene Point Blank: Legendary Wings were an exception in how you find new bands (demo). Do you normally try to have a previous relationship before you release somebody's record?
Ken Cheppaikode: Yes, I normally am at least vaguely familiar with bands we pick up prior to them coming on board. The Legendary Wings were a major exception to that, in that they just sent in a CD-R, I listened to it a few times, and then said, “Screw it, I’ll put that out.” Sometimes you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. Happens very rarely, but it does happen.
Dirtnap Records owner Ken Cheppaikode
Scene Point Blank: In another interview you've stated that you like to work about a year, 10 or so releases, in advance. How did you come to working on this schedule? Was it trial and error of what works for you?
Ken Cheppaikode: Yes, we definitely plan stuff far, far in advance these days. At any given time, I generally know what our next 10-12 releases are going to be. We’re also real lucky in that we have a stable, productive roster of bands right now. No one is breaking up or signing to other labels (this has not always been the case in the past). So a lot of the scheduling in advance thing is as much to accommodate band’s schedules as anything. Of course, there are downsides to working this way, too, in that packing the schedule so tight so far in advance imposes a certain inflexibility and a lack of spontaneity. Like, the best demo in the world could cross my desk tomorrow, but it would be very, very hard to commit to putting in out when one is scheduled a year out. That’s one reason we recently stopped accepting demos…
Scene Point Blank: Do you view your releases in terms of years or quarters, or is it more accurately based on recording and pressing schedules? Do you view music in terms of years, or is that a new (media) invention?
Ken Cheppaikode: I think I kind of answered this already but, yes, I definitely view the label in units of time. I’d say at any given time I have an extremely clear vision of what the next 6 months are going to look like, and a somewhat clear vision of a year as well. I also definitely look back on the label, and music in general, in terms of years like, for example, 2002 is remembered quite differently than, say, 2005.
Scene Point Blank: Is there any specific record you're excited to release in 2013. All of them, obviously, but does one of them have a big backstory or challenges in getting to this point that makes it more exciting or even relieving for you?
Ken Cheppaikode: All of them! Next question! No, just kidding.
It’s been a long time (years, in fact) since we’ve done a single by an up-and-coming young local band, so I am quite excited to be releasing the next Youthbitch 7”. The new Steve Adamyk Band LP is hands down the best thing they’ve ever done, which is saying a lot. I’ve been talking with the legendary King Louie of New Orleans’ Missing Monuments for many years about him releasing something on my label, so I am real happy we were able to hook something up. Plus he’s already talking about recording another album this year. Of course I am real excited to be putting out another Mind Spiders LP. I’ll release anything Mark tells me to and, knowing him, I am sure there’s more where this came from.
Also, looking at Dirtnap’s back catalog, there are some titles that have been out of print for awhile that really should be available on vinyl, so in 2013 I am planning to go back and make some of this stuff available again. I’m going to start with the 2nd High Tension Wires LP, plus there’s talk of reissuing The Ergs’ Upstairs/Downstairs, as well.
Extra special mention needs to be made of the upcoming Bad Sports LP, though. It hasn’t even been mastered yet, but every time I listen to it I freak out at how good it is. It almost sounds like a different band than the one who released Kings of the Weekend, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Every record-label-person instinct in my body is telling me that this record is really going to turn some heads. In fact, if it doesn’t, I am going to quit the label and go get a job as the assistant manager of a McDonalds! You can hold me to that.
Scene Point Blank: I reviewed the last Sugar Stems record on Dusty Medical. How did you get involved with that band? Do you still have a lot of Midwestern ties?
Ken Cheppaikode: How did you know we are putting out the new Sugar Stems? Haven’t even announced it yet! Damn, you are on top of things. Been a big Sugar Stems fan for awhile now, and we’ve loosely talked about them doing something on Dirtnap over the years but, due to the earlier-mentioned scheduling practices, I’ve never been able to commit to making it happen. Actually, I’m happy that I held out for awhile as I think that their new LP is much, much better than anything they’ve done before. Hoping to do some more stuff with them in the future.
I am from the Midwest originally, but unfortunately do not have as many ties as I would like. I really need to make it back home more often. The label has done a bunch of stuff with Midwest bands over the years, though. Sugar Stems, Legendary Wings, Goodnight Loving, Busy Signals, The Returnables, Modern Machines, and I am sure there are more which I’m forgetting.
"To me the stories of the various legendary independent labels were always almost as fascinating as that of the bands themselves."
- Ken Cheppaikode
Scene Point Blank: The Something Fierce/Occult Detective split last year was your first split. Why does the label shy away from those? Is it something you’re looking to do more of?
Ken Cheppaikode: That wasn’t our first split, we’ve done a bunch of ‘em! In fact, just last month we did a Mean Jeans/Big Eyes split. But yeah, to be honest it’s not really my favorite format. In the case of the Something Fierce/Occult Detective Club split, though, it made sense. The two bands were doing a big tour together, and we wanted to get some new Something Fierce material out, plus I have been a big Occult Detective Club fan since the start of the band, so I jumped at the chance to work with them on somethin’.
Editor’s note: I swear I read that it was the first split somewhere. Oh well.
Scene Point Blank: Is there anything else about the upcoming year in music that you’d like to mention? Are you already planning for 2014?
Ken Cheppaikode: I know I say it every pretty much every year, so you might want to take this with a grain of salt, but I think this is going to be the best year ever for Dirtnap. I’m truly stoked about the stuff we’ve got coming up. We’re going into the 14th year doing this and I’m not the slightest bit tired or burned out or jaded or bitter. Honestly, I am probably more psyched to be doing the label now than ever; today’s music scene definitely does not leave me short of inspiration. It kind of blows my mind that anyone cares enough to ask me these questions or to read my answers to them, so if you are reading these words, thank you!