It’s the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, but Ryan Davis of State Champion is in a car with his mother, on the way out of town and on the phone with me. He’s driving him three hours away from his hometown, Louisville, to buy a van. It will be the first official State Champion touring wagon since Davis’ original Chevy van bit the dust several years back.
“My mom’s here in case the deal goes south,” he says, and I can’t quite tell if he’s kidding.
A decent touring van is a necessity for an up-and-coming band to promote a new record. This month State Champion release Fantasy Error, their first full-length since the 2011’s garage-punk Americana masterpiece Deep Shit. Fantasy Error tones the fury down a notch, substituting laidback vibes and a cranked-up country twang. Bookended by the songs “Sunbathing Pt. I & II”, Fantasy Error is a front porch, summertime, beer-drinking record in the best way.
The van deal goes well, and Davis calls me back, now with plenty of time to talk. He has a long drive back to Louisville, and he’s just figured out the new van’s radio is busted.
I first heard about State Champion when my friend Matt called me from Chicago after an Angel Olsen show, raving about the opening band. “They’re a country band with crazy song structures,” he told me, “and the lyrics are amazing.”
It’s true. In every State Champion song, verses become choruses become weird instrumental interludes between bridges. It’s awfully proggy stuff for country music.
When I tell Davis this, he laughs.
“I never really realized our song structures were that crazy until recently, when a band I liked came to town and I couldn’t get all the State Champion guys together for a show,” he says. “So I put together a sort of makeshift band to play with, a scab version of State Champion. I would get these great guitar players in town, people who I knew could just sit down and figure these songs out, a cast of great musicians who I admire. I got them all in a room and said, ‘It’s just D-A-G, it’s really simple, all the songs are kind of the same.’”
Thirty minutes of practice later the band just stood there staring at Davis blankly.
“They were like, ‘I don’t know how the fuck you play this shit. It doesn’t have any logic to it,’” Davis says, laughing. “It’s totally counterintuitive for a lot of people, but for me it’s the easiest thing. It’s just how I arrange things. To me, these songs are as simple as possible. They’re punk songs.”
It’s hard to imagine a pick-up band nailing State Champion’s rambling, violin-and-fuzz guitar country rampages with quite the same shambling grace as the regular band, comprised of Salvatore Cassato on drums, Mikie Poland on bass, and Sabrina Rush on violin. On record, State Champion is a powerhouse band, making the quick changes and bizarre structures of the songs feel downright natural. They also tend to go on for a good long while. Five of Fantasy Error’s eight songs stretch over the five-minute mark, and album highlight “No Pleasure” clocks in at over seven.
“I think I just have this unspoken fear of writing short songs for some reason,” says Davis. “I’ll write a song and I’ll think, damn this isn’t quite there yet. Maybe I should stretch it out some. And by the time the band gets here, they’re asking me, ‘Why is this a seven-and-a-half-minute rock song? Wasn’t this supposed to be the single?’ But then we go through it and try to cut things out and every part winds up being essential.”
But what holds these long, spiraling songs together are Davis’ remarkable lyrics.
In “Wake Me Up” Davis sings, “I got the grim reaper smokin’ cigarillos in my rearview mirror/ His turn signal is blinkin’ toward my brother’s exit as he’s checking his checklist/ But my brother’s in the back half dreamin’ of ass, half ashin’ in a cooler of beer/ I’ll wake him up when the coast is clear.”
Complex, twisting and turning and darkly hilarious, Davis’ lyrics read like drunk short stories, tales of no-goods and outlaws and mailmen gone berserk, all narrated by the smartest guy you know.
“It always starts with the lyrics for me,” says Davis. “I don’t sit down and write the whole song at once. I make little notes, write down parts throughout the day, and then finally sew it together as a big quilt. Flashes of ideas sewn together with real-life experiences to create some kind of a narrative.”
He cites David Berman and Bill Callahan as lyrical inspirations, as well as writers like Wallace Stevens, M. Sarki, James Tate, and Barry Hannah.
It’s this sort of scrappy, literary gumption that drives the best of Davis’ songs, finding the best moments in hidden between long stretches of the banal and daily. “In Hell there is a highlight reel that replays all the best of your worst,” he sings.
Best of your worst. There isn’t a better descriptor of Davis’ subject matter.
“Once I get the lyrics all figured out, I bring them to the band and we make rock and roll songs out of it,” says Davis. “But it always starts with the words.”
To record their new record, State Champion holed up in a farm in rural Kentucky. Promotional material for the album shows a bunch of shirtless dudes hanging out on couches with cables and microphones strewn about on hardwood floors, amps dangling precariously on foldout chairs, and—for whatever reason—a dog in an indoor bathtub.
“If it has a back porch vibe, it’s because we were literally sitting on a back porch recording. Or tracking violins in a field somewhere. It was a super laid back,” Davis says.
This is in sharp contrast to their last recording experience, in an attic apartment just south of downtown Chicago. Where they once had to combat freeway noise and the buzz of the city, State Champion found a different kind of struggle in the country.
“Jim (Marlowe, collaborator and engineer) spent so much time editing out bugs and frogs on this record,” says Davis. “On one song where my friend Doug is playing lap steel, any time that you hear crickets, you can tell that the lap steel is about to start. Because we didn’t isolate the amp, it was just outside sitting in dirt somewhere. We tried to mix the crickets out as much as possible, but it was almost like an infestation on this record. Bugs are everywhere.”
This is the reality of being a working-class band in 2015. You record where you can, when you can, on the weekends when everybody has off work. You start a label to put your record out, like Davis has with his own label Sophomore Lounge. In addition to the three official State Champion albums (alongside various cassettes and CD-Rs), Sophomore Lounge has released records for over forty bands, including Giving up, Animal City, and Spider Bags, from Louisville and beyond.
We tried to mix the crickets out as much as possible, but it was almost like an infestation on this record. Bugs are everywhere.
To finance the band and the label, Davis has worked a variety of odd jobs: a valet, babysitter, bar-back at a Mexican restaurant, Drag City mailroom shipper/receiver, dogsitter, gallery manager at an arts college, and now as a contract art handler for a local museum.
But is Fantasy Error the record to end the string of day jobs and finally break State Champion into something bigger? Davis doesn’t seem too worried about it.
“The band is not a job, it’s not like I could never work again and just sit at home and write songs and get cut checks for it,” says Davis. “But we’re doing it, we’re making somebody happy, somebody likes it. I’ve never really had that before, but it’s gotten to be the case more and more lately. And I hope even more so, now that we have this new record.”
Maybe one day they’ll even be able to afford a van with a working stereo.