Dirtnap Records has been home to an admirable roster of bands since it launched in 2000 in Portland, Oregon, from the austere punk of The Estranged to the eerie urgency of Nervosas to the gorgeous pop of Milwaukee’s Sugar Stems.
The label has more Wisconsin and Midwestern connections than you’d expect from a West Coast concern. Founder Ken Cheppaikode grew up on the east side of Madison and attended Shabazz High School, and the label’s roster also includes Milwaukee band Phylums and a new solo outing from Jim Blaha of the great Minneapolis band The Blind Shake. Phylums and Sugar Stems have recorded releases in Madison with local musician/engineer Kyle “Motor” Urban (of Rocket Bureau, The Motorz, and The Midwest Beat), and Milwaukee’s Justin Perkins of Mystery Room Mastering has mastered several of the label’s records.
Cheppaikode recently sold his Portland record store and decided to move back to Madison after 20 years away. He’s marked the occasion by signing Milwaukee punk outfit Fox Face, who plan to release their debut full-length album on Dirtnap this fall.
“It was kind of a combination of personal and business things,” Cheppaikode says of his move. “Even before all this came up, I had been getting pretty nostalgic for Wisconsin for the past couple of years.”
He’s still getting settled in, but he plans to devote himself to running the label full-time. Dirtnap is successful enough that it has outside distribution, so Cheppaikode didn’t have to lug a lot of records cross-country. He plans to devote himself to the label more or less full-time. “I think it’s kind of an opportunity for me to focus more on things like relationships with the bands…and I hate to say it, but maybe figuring out the social media thing a little bit more,” he says.
Fox Face’s handful of singles and EPs so far, especially last year’s “Teen Wiccan” 7-inch, have stood out for their balance of lean aggression and goth-rock (in, say, a Birthday Party sense) atmosphere. Cheppaikode says what drew him to the band was the its variety, “from relatively straightforward raging punk to slower, creepier, more more nuanced stuff,” but also the substance of the songs. “I like how unapologetically political and feminist the lyrics are. I think that’s important in these dark times we’re living in,” Cheppaikode says.
The Fox Face album does not have a title yet but it’s otherwise finished, consisting of 10 tracks recorded in Urban’s studio, drummer Chris Cappelle says.
Cheppaikode has been keeping Dirtnap’s release schedule light this year because of the move, but the label also just put out an album of bittersweet jangle-pop from Lost Balloons.
He’s also looking forward to building stronger connections with musicians in Wisconsin.
“I’ve always kept a eye on, from a long distance, Midwest and Wisconsin bands in general, and it seems like there’s been a really great music scene here, and from what I can tell there still is,” Cheppaikode says.