Five years ago, Albany’s State Champs were putting out their first record ‘The Finer Things’, which for the most part was the culmination of several years of playing hometown shows and skipping out school. Fast forward to now and they’re on album number three, and much like its title, they’re living proof that busting your ass day in and day out pays off.
“’The Finer Things’ was our fun thing, it was us introducing ourselves,” muses frontman Derek DiScanio. “Then ‘Around The World & Back’ comes along, and it’s like, woah, how many bands even get a chance to do a second album? And out of those bands, how many of them actually outdo their first album, and take it to a whole new level? Not many, but we did.”
Derek’s currently flitting between dressing rooms, bathrooms, and corridors at Zurich’s Dynamo club, moments away from headlining State Champ’s first ‘Living Proof’-era show.
The band’s spirited brand of pop-punk has taken them from their state-capital hometown of New York’s Albany to sharing arenas with the likes of Fall Out Boy and 5 Seconds Of Summer, to gearing up for their first trip to South America – and they’ve paid their dues to make it to album number three.
“Now we get to do a third record, and that’s more pressure because we have to outdo both of those albums,” Derek continues. “To do that we had to step back and realise what we wanted to do and whether it’s worth it with where we are in our lives personally, and as a band, because we exhausted ourselves from that whole cycle.”
Touring 2015’s ‘Around The World & Back’ for just over two and half years saw the band use up every single inch of their souls, leaving their power banks empty and their motivations questionable. Jet-lagged and jaded, the Champs had a new record to write while the world was still upside down.
“All of a sudden we found ourselves in all these cool spots, working with all these producers, and we’re partying and meeting all these new people, and we’ve all got relationships going on. Then we come home, and it’s like, what the hell is going on? It was a lot to take in all at once, and we had to stop and reflect.
“At the end of the last cycle, I had a relationship that ended. It was a long-term and a long-distance relationship, and it was the first time where something like that really got to me, and it was the first time I felt a kind of way about it and had something to say.
“The idea of ‘living proof’ is that we made it out alive. That’s why I think it’ll connect with the fans, because everyone has ups and down, everybody goes through bad times and rough parts, but it’s up to yourself to realise how you can get through that and find the light. Everyone faces adversity in life, but you’ve got to find your own path, and you have to stand back and embrace your independence, to be the living proof in your own way.”
‘Living Proof’, thematically, is State Champ’s most personal record, a cut-deep tell-all that documents the struggle between the personal and professional realms of being a global superstar. Much of the album questions whether the band are really where they’re at, and why. On revolutionary songs like the softer ‘Future Hearts’-era All Time Low-vibes of ‘Our Time To Go’, the realisation of being where you’re meant to be is something co-founder Tyler Szalkowski echoes.
“It’s the reminder that we’re where we’re supposed to be,” he says. “We all need that. Whether you’re in a band or not, we can all agree it’s fucking hard to be alive sometimes, so songs like that help me realise we worked our asses off to get here, and yeah, we’re here by some lucky chance, but we’re truly here for a reason.”
Having navigated an avalanche of obstacles in their personal lives and the perils of self-doubt, the band sat down with a myriad of household names in pop-punk and alt-rock to put the pieces of the ‘Living Proof’ puzzle together.
Not only is the album a much deeper line of work lyrically, but it is a far more dynamic record sonically than they’ve ever done before, exploring the extremes of pop-punk, pushing its traditions to its limits in a remarkable modernisation that’ll split opinions more than a Donald Trump speech.
One of the key players in this polarising shift in sound is co-writer and producer John Feldmann, renowned for helming make-or-break records for the likes of All Time Low, Blink-182, and 5 Seconds Of Summer.
“We were curious to see how it was going to go, because a lot of our friends had worked with him, and we heard he could be good or bad,” admits Tyler, expressing a sense of insecurity towards sharing a room with a man who pushes bands to think outside of their boxes.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Derek continues. “Like, for all we knew, this guy was going to come in and make us write pop songs.
“There are certain things you hear, like – he can not necessarily ruin bands, but you never know what’s going to happen. Even now, as the singles are coming out, we’re getting comments like, ‘You’ve been Feldmannised’. What does that even mean?”
“He’s good at getting honest feelings out of you,” Tyler adds. “He wants to talk to you about your life and what’s going on in it, and he wants to take your feelings and turn it into art.”
Working with old friend Alex Gaskarth from All Time Low, and ‘Around The World & Back’’s masterminds, Mike Green and Kyle Black, the band allowed themselves to evolve their straight-up pop-punk into a maturer sound. They were uncompromising in what they wrote and how they wrote it, ensuring it always had the State Champs seal of approval.
“A lot of people doing co-writes wind up getting a song that sounds nothing like their band,” states Tyler, “because whether they’re shy or not, they don’t want to upset the person they’re writing with. We’re not shy in that regard. If we don’t like something, we’re just going to tell you because we’re not going to waste our time with something that doesn’t feel like us.”
“We’re never going to make songs that we didn’t want to make,” Derek picks up. “We don’t have anyone telling us what to write or what to play or what’s going to be a single or what’s going to go on our record. That’s why we love what we do; we’re never going to do anything that we don’t want to do. There’s no sell out term in our vocabulary.”
It doesn’t matter how far the State Champ sound stretches as the records pile up, they’ll always maintain the same ethos they’ve always had – that just they’re five guys making music, playing shows, and living life.
Co-writing songs, working with John Feldmann, taking on bigger budgets – it’s enough evidence to convict the band of trading up. ‘Living Proof’ juggles and juxtaposes the changing faces of State Champs, running the gamut from piano-led alt-rock ballads to straight-up Warped Tour pop-punk ripped right from the pages of ‘The Finer Things’.
“A lot of people have their doubts,” reflects Derek. “They think we’ll be sell outs and write all these pop songs cause we work with all these producers, but a song like ‘Criminal’ being the first song [on the album], which goes straight to the punk beat, like a fast Warped Tour circle pit vibe – it’ll catch a lot of people off guard. It’s Champs, it’s a pop-punk song for sure, but it’s polished, too.
“After doing all these writing sessions with all of these people, and starting to think outside of the box, we had all these demos of songs that made us think, are these really Champ songs? Ae we going somewhere we don’t want to go? We definitely did, but that’s okay. It’s okay to explore and try new things. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Exploring unknown territories, thematically and sonically, was all-important to the continuation of State Champs and their evolution as musicians, who ultimately found themselves lost in the sound of their own band, bored before they had even really began, meaning a new palette of sounds was just what the doctor ordered: “It breaks up the monotony of it all. It doesn’t matter how much you love it, we’ve played ‘Elevated’ like a thousand times, so it becomes second nature. It’s not like it’s boring; it’s like driving a car, – it can be fun, but most of the time it’s just ‘whatever’.”
When making music and playing shows become more of a chore than a career you enjoy, things have to change, because who truly wants to stick to their guns and sleep in a safety blanket? Not State Champs.
“That kid’s boring, man,” Derek laughs. “Who wants to hear the same record three times? You can go and listen to ‘The Finer Things’ if you want to hear a raw-ass pop-punk record, and when you want to hear some more epic-sounding pop-punk, you can listen to ‘Around The World & Back’. If you want something next level and change the game, but still be State Champs, ‘Living Proof’ is for you.”
Perhaps now, more than ever, because of their need to create music that was once again enjoyable for themselves to listen to and play out on the road, they sound more like what they want State Champs to be than ever before, whether the fans like it or not.
“Look back to our first record,” Tyler starts. “We’re all six years older and so much shit has happened in our lives. We have more mature mindsets and with that comes a more mature style of music.
“We didn’t feel any pressure to be anyone but ourselves this time, and that’s the difference maker. What you hear is what we wanted to have on the record, there was no forced things; there was no ‘Put the song you don’t want on’. We just got to be ourselves.”
They put away the pressures that came with recording their second album and focused on writing the songs they wanted to make, ignoring the expectations they’ve always slaved to live up to, Tyler explains.
“We’ve always had in the back of our minds the expectation of our fans going, ‘This is a pop-punk record, if it isn’t strictly pop punk I’ll be fucking mad’. This time we just didn’t feel that pressure, and I think we’re on the good side of that. It’s not our crazy stoner record; it’s not a fucking bunch of delay pedals and a bunch of bullshit. It’s still the same band; it’s just a little bit more us.”
They’ve bitten the bullet and accepted that ‘Living Proof’ won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s not a bad thing at all, even if it is eating away at the back of Derek’s mind.
“I’ve been psyching myself out in my head like, maybe it’s just one of those things that’ll take people a few listens to really get into it? Then I’m like, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I want people to love it off the first listen, but it’s not that easy, especially when you’re trying to show a new side to your band and evolve yourself because you’ll always have those fans who want the old Champs.”
Two of their co-writes, Alex Gaskarth and Mark Hoppus, have been through the same motions State Champs are going through, having both taken their bands from straight-up pop-punk to sounds as different as alt-rock and synth-pop, and the two ultimately influenced ‘Living Proof’’s stylistic change. The latter of the writers being the one they never saw coming, a pinch-me moment if there ever was one.
“If you’d have told me that five years ago I’d tell you that’s fucking impossible,” laughs Tyler.
“He just shows up one day, and he didn’t even know about our band, but he asked if he could hang,” says Derek, sounding like a kid on Christmas morning. “Thirty minutes go by, and it’s just Mark and me taking a hike outside John Feldmann’s house, and he wants to know about my life, and he’s asking me about what stories I want to tell.
“We start writing lyrics right away, thirty minutes into meeting him and I’m freaking the hell out in my mind, but I’ve got to play it cool because it’s Mark Hoppus. That was something so totally different that I wasn’t expecting, but because of the situation, I learnt a lot.”
Mark not only made dreams come true for the inner Blink-182 fans they were, but he also co-wrote lead-single ‘Dead & Gone’ and the record’s most polarising piece, ‘Time Machine’; an anti-ballad built around piano and bass that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern-day ATL outing.
“Mark had a bass in his van, and he plugged it in and started mapping out the structure of this real dark song. It was the day after the big mass shooting in Las Vegas, and we were sat around thinking, we should write a dark song to match the mood. Like, let’s write a song about losing someone and not being there to save them. So we start writing lyrics, we get the idea of the time machine, and we start adding piano, and we’re like, this isn’t a pop-punk song, is this even a Champs song at all? No, no it isn’t.”
“It was very organic and natural, but something very different and outside the box. We weren’t even sure it was going to stay on the record, but we’ve got Feldmann calling us up afterwards when we’re picking songs for the record, and he’s like, ‘If you don’t put ‘Time Machine’ on the record, you’re tripping. It’s seriously special’. So we rolled with it because we were confident in it, it’s unique.”
Unique is the word that’s always kept State Champs at the forefront of what they do, always two steps ahead of their peers commercially and critically, flying the flag for the current wave of pop-punk. However, it’s something the band simply can’t comprehend.
“Someone tried to say we’re top of the genre and people look up to us, and I was like, what the fuck, since when?’” Tyler muses. “That’s not shit we even realise now. We don’t carry the flag going, we’re the leaders of the fucking scene.
“It feels strange, and it’s very flattering, but it blows our mind. We started this band to play shows in our hometown; we named it State Champs for a reason. I mean, I’m doing this interview from Switzerland, man. We never thought that’d happen… world champs, baby!”
State Champs were never meant to leave their state; it was just five guys hanging out and playing music that sounded like bands they liked, and now they’ve got bands doing that over them.
“There’s a band from Albany where we’re from called Perfect Score, and bands are naming themselves off of our songs. I thought that’s a thing you only do because you’d name your band Man Overboard after a Blink-182 song, or a Green Day song. Why would you do it after a State Champs song?” exclaims Derek, shocked at the sheer surrealism of it all.
“We never set out to be anything’s fucking compass,” adds Tyler, “or anyone’s purpose. We’re just a bunch of guys who make a shit load of mistakes and find ourselves in the same situations as everyone else, but that’s the beauty of music, being able to share your experience and having grown from it.”
Growth. Life. Maturity. Three words that bound together ‘Living Proof’ and the world State Champs currently inhabit. They may be resting on cloud nine, but they know more than anyone else that it could all be gone in a matter of minutes. They’re not letting the hype, praise, and scene-leading phase them.
“You don’t get anywhere by thinking everything you do is fucking awesome,” says Tyler. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself. We can do better next time. It’s not to say what we’re doing isn’t good, there’s just more room to go.”
They know there’s room for improvement, and they’re always striving for the best. The juxtaposition of the two forever sticks out in their mind, often splitting the band between two sides of whether what they’re doing is truly what they want to do. It’s all about the bigger picture, even when it’s pouring with rain.
“Whether it’s a little thing, like a bad show, or something we’re unprepared for, any little mishaps – anything like that can trigger those little thoughts of self-doubt,” Derek explains, “but we do certain things to block them out. We get our shit together and realise that what we get to do is play music with our best friends every night, and making money, and sharing these experiences with my friends that I can take home and never forget and that I can tell my kids when I’m older. You’ve got to psych yourself out, remind yourself of the place you’re in, and realise how grateful you should be.”
The process of creating ‘Living Proof’ – from sharing writing rooms with idols and friends to battling personal demons – has led State Champs to discover new things, to always have in the back of their mind their end goals and whether, ultimately, they can be the living proof that a band of nobodies can become a league of somebodies.
The future is never set in stone, as Derek reflects.
“My favourite part of being in a band is making records and being in the studio, so I’m going to start thinking of that stuff more as time goes on. In no way is that me saying anything is happening to Champs anytime soon, we are definitely going strong for the foreseeable future, there’s no danger zone as such – but we have to think about what we want to do with the rest of our lives.
“We want to make music, obviously, but how possible is that? How realistic is that? We’re going to keep our head on a swivel while enjoying the ride.”
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett / Upset
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Order a copy here. State Champs’ album ‘Living Proof’ is out 15th June.