How A Portland Label Became Denton Punk Rock's Biggest Advocate

From the outside, Green Noise Records, nestled behind a brick facade along a row of similar storefronts in a tiny little neighborhood off the beaten path in Portland, Oregon, hardly looks like a punk rock mecca.

Owned by Ken Cheppaikode since he moved here from Seattle in January 2005, Green Noise, despite its outward face, has earned a reputation as one of America's great punk rock record shops. Against all odds, despite its narrowly focused business model, Green Noise not only has managed to survive in recent years, but thrive. Because of the store's reputation, Green Noise's online sales have picked up in recent years, especially among international consumers who've come to respect and trust the catalog Green Noise maintains.

And thank goodness for that online presence. On a cool weekend afternoon in late October, few of the folks ambling about Green Noise's Clinton Street neighborhood even seemed to notice Cheppaikode's shop, let alone enter it. Their loss. Behind its door lies Green Noise's true treasure trove: a meticulously curated collection of punk rock albums and rare releases, all placed right out in the open for sifting and, Cheppaikode hopes from behind his perch at the tiny store's checkout counter, for purchase.

There's plenty to peruse—enough to the point that the eye might miss a particularly interesting shrine of sort set up right by the shop's front door. There, above a particularly small rack of releases, Cheppaikode has covered his wall with a very particular collection of punk rock LPs—albums from artists one would hardly expect to find in the Pacific Northwest. Yet here they are, the entire collection of LP covers from North Texas punk rock heroes The Marked Men, along with a few album covers from acts affiliated with that outfit, like the Potential Johns, High Tension Wires and Mind Spiders. There's reason for Cheppaikode's allegiance.

Each of these discs, turns out, has a special tie to the other establishment based out of Green Noise's 2615 SE Clinton St. address—or, more appropriately, out of that address' back closet, where Cheppaikode's music label, Dirtnap Records, is based. Since 2000, Cheppaikode, from his old post in Seattle and more recently from his perch in Portland, has run his Dirtnap label with the same discerning ear with which he runs his shop. Its catalog is fairly small—the most notable name being The Exploding Hearts, the exciting early-'00s Portland-based punk outfit that tragically lost three-fourths of its members in a car accident in 2003—but impressive nonetheless.

"When I think of what I want Dirtnap to be, I think of upbeat, catchy stuff," Cheppaikode explains. "Poppy punk that isn't pop punk, [it's] stuff that nods at the '70s without mimicking that time period, and music that's simple, but not stupid."

Here's the thing about that sound: Aside from The Exploding Hearts and current Dirtnap roster affiliate Mean Jeans, very few Portland bands fit that mold; meanwhile, it's an apt description for pretty much every punk outfit that has sprung out of the Denton punk scene in the past 15 or so years.

"We used to be very focused on the Northwest," Cheppaikode says. "At this point, though, we're going more for a certain sound and aesthetic. And, as far as that sound goes, the Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth area is at the very top."

Need proof? Then check Dirtnap's release this week of the self-titled LP by Mind Spiders. The fervent, impossibly catchy album from Mark Ryan of the Marked Men may already be the best album of 2011, and it comes on the heels of Mind Spiders' nearly sold-out debut EP from this past summer.

In total, Dirtnap counts 10 DFW-area releases within its catalog, and there are more on the way, Cheppaikode promises. Later this year, Dirtnap will release the sophomore full-length from area punk favorites Bad Sports, as well as the debut release from Marked Men co-frontman Jeff Burke's based-out-of-Japan project, The Novist. And even that may just be the tip of the iceberg. In recent weeks, Cheppaikode says he's discussed potential upcoming Dirtnap releases from other area affiliated acts VIDEO, The Wax Museums, Occult Detective Club and even Ghostknife, the Austin-based project of Denton ex-pat Mike Wiebe, frontman for the Riverboat Gamblers, another act he hopes to sign down the line.

"I'm a big fan of a lot of the music coming out of that whole scene," Cheppaikode says. "I'm always trying to keep tabs on it."

Clearly. Only the Ottawa, Canada, punk scene, from which the remaining bulk of Dirtnap releases is pulled these days, currently comes close to Denton's Dirtnap output, Cheppaikode says. Funny thing, though: Before becoming perhaps Denton punk rock's biggest out-of-town supporter, he didn't think much of it. In fact, he passed on the opportunity to release the very first Marked Men LP, 2003's self-titled affair, which eventually earned its release on Rip Off Records. The band had sent him some demos, but Cheppaikode was unimpressed—until, that is, he heard the final version Rip Off put out.

"The minute the needle hit the turntable," he says, "I was like, 'Whoops.' For the next year, I went around telling anyone who'd listen that not signing the Marked Men was my biggest regret."

It wasn't a regret he wanted to live through again. Before the release of the Marked Men's second LP, 2004's On The Outside, Cheppaikode flew to North Texas, visiting the region for the very first time, to convince Ryan to allow him to release the band's future material. The band agreed. And though they left Dirtnap for 2006's Fix My Brain (which was released on Swami Records), they returned for 2009's swan song, Ghosts. Cheppaikode, meanwhile, returned the favor: With the release of Ghosts, Cheppaikode backtracked and acquired publishing rights for all four Marked Men full-lengths, all of which have most recently been re-issued under his own label's name.

Obviously, he's a fan of that band—maybe its biggest.

"I've always felt that the Marked Men and Dirtnap were a great fit," he says.

And why shouldn't he speak of them with reverence? The Marked Men were his entry into a North Texas scene that's proven quite the fertile ground for his label. Cheppaikode talks with an especially chipper tone when discussing the new Mind Spiders album. It's rather uncharted territory for his label, actually—to call it a punk record would do it a disservice, as it scores high marks with pretty much every lo-fi direction it takes (and there are many). And there's some real, tangible interest in the disc, too. More anticipatory blog fodder than the Marked Men ever received. More than Dirtnap usually earns too.

"I had to get to the store at 6 a.m. yesterday, just to handle all the requests I've been getting on that album," Cheppaikode admitted over the phone earlier this week, acknowledging that he normally rolls into the office at noon or so. "And I'm not even done."

But he's not complaining. Mostly, he says, he's proud—of Dirtnap, of his work with The Marked Men and all its offshoots, and, also, of a little college town some 2,000-plus miles from his home base.

"If you want to get signed to Dirtnap these days," Cheppaikode admits with a laugh, "you pretty much have to be from Denton."

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman