Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reasons to be Good - A Short Conversation with Ryan Davis, State Champion of Kick Ass New Bands

I first stumbled upon Louisville, KY newcomers State Champion while bumming around music geek message boards one night and didn't think much of them.There was a buzz about the band, but something about their crunchy, guitar driven alt country just didn't sit right. The songs seemed confused and sloppy, the country punk seemed romanticized at best and contrived at worst. A few days later I gave hem another chance and I don't know, maybe it was the right combination of a few Pabst Blue Ribbons and the early evening light of a long and frustrating day, but it just hit me, the music clicked in my brain and I 'got it'. Since then I've listened to their first full length, Stale Champagne, about a thousand times, played it for every friend I have, found myself humming the tunes while doing the dishes, and relished the fact that I've reserved a spot for myself on this bands bandwagon before they get 'big', which is bound to happen any day now.

The band is the brainchild of Ryan Davis, a Kentucky bred art student turned songwriter who spent the better part of the past decade writing songs in a flat in Scotland and ploughing the fertile fields of the Louisville underground to piece his band together. Unlike most bands, which develop naturally through a core of bud's and beers, State Champion went through countless changes in lineup and arrangement, from Davis performing solo, to a two piece, to Davis solo again, etc.

"I struggled for a long time with what it meant to perform solo," he says. "If it was the kind of music I was intending to make or if it was only reflecting my laziness and lack of resources. I eventually hit a wall performing alone and began collaborating with anyone I knew with an instrument. Whether he or she was worth a damn or not was entirely secondary."

"Some were better than others," he continues. "Some were more interested than others. Almost all of them were friends, roommates, borrowed musicians of more established bands. I eventually arrived at a group of folks with whom I clicked enough to consider keepers. They were committed enough to tour and understood the songs well enough to make up for my shortcomings."

Exactly what those shortcomings are is a mystery. On record the band is nearly flawless. Unabashedly blending endearing lo-fi sensibility and polite farm boy twang with 90s-ish guitar heroics, Champagne is a major power surge for a scene which has been thirsting for authenticity since everyone starting pretending Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a masterpiece. The songs that make up the record have a natural and honest feel to them, and they're possessed with a 'love 'em or hate 'em so what, we're not trying to impress anyone', attitude that's undeniably, well, impressive. More than being a genre record, it's a record of the Midwest, a record of experience, from influence to execution. Davis cites songwriters like Will Oldham, Conner Oberst and Jason Molina as major influences, but it's more than that.

"You grow up in Kentucky with this warped view of the world, wishing you were from New York City or somewhere in California," Davis says. "You listen to Nirvana and Jesus Lizard growing up, anything to avoid what came long before you, historically. I remember buying a Misfits shirt in 5th grade before I'd ever even heard them because I knew it was good. Then I went to the mall and bought Collection II and was like "What the fuck? This sounds like Elvis!" Took me a minute to wrap my head around it."

"When I was in Glasgow, alone in that flat with an acoustic guitar that I barely knew how to play I was coming from a year in American art school," Davis says. "I was having new bands shoved down my throat. Le Tigre, Animal Collective, all this wacky shit. But when I sat down to write that first batch of songs, it came out kind of sounding like country music. I didn't understand it, but I guess there is something inherently Southern that was just sort of boiling over the years, soaking in it for so long.

"Now that this record has been getting a little press, people talk about how we are paying homage to the greats of alt-country. Bands like Uncle Tupelo and Drive By Truckers and I have never heard a single one of these bands! Just makes me wonder if dudes like Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams started writing songs like that for the same reason I did. Because they loved both The Byrds and Black Flag, and that's just how their brain chose to deal with it."

Check out State Champion at their MySpace:
Buy Stale Champagne here: