Call it an example of the American Punk Rock Dream: A decade ago, Ken Cheppaikode was living in an apartment below a vet clinic in Seattle, cleaning cat shit out of litter boxes in exchange for free rent and nurturing a vague idea of starting his own record label. Today, he is entering his 10th year as the head of Portland's Dirtnap Records. For an imprint of its modest size, it is about as respected as one can get. Its catalog is filled with underground classics. A licensing deal is getting its bands' music into video games, snowboard videos and at least one Sunkist commercial. Cheppaikode has three interns. He ain't rich, but for a guy who grew up on welfare, didn't go to college and isn't entirely sure he graduated from high school (long story), it's not bad.
"One cool thing about the DIY scene," the 38-year-old says from behind the counter of Green Noise Records, the long-standing Portland-via-Eugene record store he purchased in 2004, "is the ability to take your weaknesses and make them into strengths."
Growing up in Madison, Wis., Cheppaikode wanted to be part of the punk community ever since attending his first show in 1984, but from behind the scenes more than from the front of the stage. He spent his 20s working in distribution warehouses and record stores and talking—vainly—about getting his label going. By 1999, he had settled in Seattle, playing obscure international punk bands on an early Internet radio station. When a group from Sweden called the Don't Cares heard his show and contacted him—asking if he could help spread their name in America—Cheppaikode spotted an opportunity.
The Don't Cares' 7-inch became Dirtnap's first release. It didn't sell, but Cheppaikode finally had his label. And it wasn't long after that he stumbled across a hit—with, appropriately enough, the album Hit After Hit by Seattle throwback punks the Briefs.
"At the time, we had no distribution whatsoever, no advertising budget whatsoever, and we could barely afford to press the records, much less promote them at all. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing," he says. "And we still sold 10,000 of them."
With the success of the Briefs and other regional acts such as the Spits, Dirtnap's reputation expanded among Pacific Northwest garage-rock upstarts. "It was obvious to us that it was the label to be on, even before we were fully a band," says Jesse Sutherland, keyboardist for Portland New Wavers the Epoxies. Their self-titled 2003 debut full-length for Dirtnap sold 15,000 copies.
But the label's marquee band is also its greatest question mark. The Exploding Hearts had wanted to work with Dirtnap from its inception, but Cheppaikode was resistant. It wasn't until he heard the Portland-based power-punk quartet's Pitchfork-approved Guitar Romantic that he realized he'd made a mistake. He reissued the album to widespread acclaim. The buzz surrounding the band was getting feverish when, on July 20, 2003, three of its four members died in a van accident. The tragedy brought the label more attention than ever, but for all the wrong reasons. "When I used to sit around as a teenager and dream about getting interviewed by Rolling Stone, this isn't exactly what I had in mind," Chappaikode says.
At the end of the all-too-brief Exploding Hearts era, Cheppaikode says the enforced regionalism that helped establish Dirtnap Records began to feel restrictive. And while he now puts out records by bands from outside the Northwest, he continues to work with local groups, such as Portland transplants the Mean Jeans.
"I remember sitting in the van and saying, 'I know of one radical label out of Portland. That's Dirtnap. We should get on that,'" says singer-guitarist Billy Jeans.
Cheppaikode and his wife plan to sell Green Noise and move to Austin in 10 more years. But Cheppaikode doubts he'll ever separate himself from Dirtnap.
"I think I'll always be doing the label in some capacity, even if it winds up just going back to me sitting on my bed folding up copies of 7-inches after I get off work at night," he says. "I think it's in my blood at this point."
The Mean Jeans release their new album Thursday, Nov. 12, at Ground Kontrol, with White Fang and DJ Ken Dirtnap. 9 pm. Free. 21+.