Guitar Romantics

Remembering the Exploding Hearts With Dirtnap Records' Ken Cheppaikode.

I WAS PLANNING to interview Ken Cheppaikode, head of Dirtnap Records, on Monday, July 21. Dirtnap is home to some of the best punk and new-wave bands in the NorthwestDirt Bike Annie, the Cripples, the Briefs, the Triggersand I had planned to write a label profile. Then Cheppaikode left me a message on Sunday night. "There was a van accident," he said. "The Exploding Hearts . . . are dead. I'll have to postpone the interview until later this week." I didn't understand the message at first. I thought he meant that the Exploding Hearts had broken up. Then I checked the message board at dirtnaprecs.com.

An Associated Press article posted on the message board reported that the van carrying the Exploding Hearts from San Francisco to their hometown of Portland had hit gravel and flipped, killing three of the five people on board. The accident occurred just north of Eugene on I-5 shortly before 6 a.m. on Sunday, July 20. Witnesses told police that the van veered onto the gravel shoulder toward the median, then went back onto the highway, where it rolled. Three of the members of the band were thrown from the vehicle. Jeremy Gage, 21, and Adam Cox, 23, were pronounced dead at the scene. Matthew Fitzgerald, 20, was taken to a hospital in Eugene, where he died shortly thereafter. The survivors were Terry Six, 21, also a member of the Exploding Hearts, and Rachelle Ramos, 35, who was the band's manager.

The loss of the Exploding Hearts is hard to overstate. They were a young band with a promising future. The pages of sad goodbyes and reminiscences on Dirtnap's Web site attests to how many were affected by the band's music and its members' personalities. The Exploding Hearts were like a cross between pop-punk band the Buzzcocks and the power pop of Cheap Trick. Their debut album, Guitar Romantic, was one of the most acclaimed underground rock releases of the past few years. Despite the turmoil, Cheppaikode still wanted to give an interview. We met on Wednesday, July 23, at a coffee shop on University Way. Ironically, the song "Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades" by the Exploding Hearts was playing on the cafe's sound system.

Seattle Weekly: When did Dirtnap get started and why?

Ken Cheppaikode: In '98, I was doing an Internet radio show called Antennaradio, where I would play all kinds of obscure punk rock from all over; then I'd write about it on the Web pages, do reviews. After about a year, I'd been getting a lot of people e-mailing from all over the world asking where they could find the stuff I'd been playing on my show, because I'd been playing a lot of obscure local stuff. So then I decided to start selling records over the Internet as Dirtnap mail order. I was buying other people's records in quantity and making the stuff I played on my show available. I did that for about a year, and it never really took off, and in the meantime, I'd always wanted to start putting out my own records, but financially it was hard. Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet and just do it, so I started looking around for a band to work with. There were a lot of good local bands at the time, but I wound up going with a band from Sweden for my first release, a band called the Don't Cares. I released the 7-inch in January 2000.

It's amazing how popular your label has become in just a short amount of time. I think the kind of music you're putting out has struck a chord with a lot of people.

I totally agree. I think that one of the reasons the label is doing good is [that] I came into this at the right time. The city was really exploding with local bands of a certain genrewhich happens to be the genre I'm into. I felt like I filled a hole. Somebody had to be documenting this stuff. Dirtnap came of age at the same time a lot of good local bands were starting up; I was in the fortunate position to be able to jump on those bands pretty early.

I wanted to ask you if you have any personal memories that you wanted to share about the Exploding Hearts.

Working with those guys was really good. They really had a lot of enthusiasm, and they were really serious about their band and great guys to work with. I'm really going to miss them, and I'm totally devastated. I'm heading down to the memorial in a couple hours in Portland.

Did you have any message you wanted to give to the friends and the family of the Exploding Hearts?

I'd like to thank them. On the Dirtnap message board, there's been hundreds of posts from people all over the world, posting memories of the Exploding Hearts and [messages] to the surviving members and Rachel, their manager. We really love to have [the postings] and appreciate it, and it really has helped me get through the last couple days, seeing that kind of support. Because it's been a rough past couple of days, obviously.

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