State Champs story isn't unlike one you've heard before. A group of pop-punk-lovin' guys got together in a sleepy suburb, practiced their butts off, and formed a band. They released a few EPs, the last of which, 2014's The Acoustic Things, charted at #112. Their debut album, The Finer Things, was released the year prior, and charted at #131. Impressive stuff for a band still in their infancy, but not one undeserved.
These New York boys are responsible for ushering in a new wave of pop-punk, one that is as clever as it is inventive. It feels familiar but not derivative. In short, they have personality. We sat down with lead guitarist Tyler Szalkowski to talk about their upcoming sophomore release, Around the World and Back, and to see how success is sitting with the group.
“Secrets” is the first single.
I’m glad everyone has been digging it, it seems like people are into it. It was the first song we wanted to put out. It’s a grudge song, if you can’t tell, in the lyrics. There are a lot of bad people out there and this is our "f*ck you" to somebody who will remain nameless because they don’t deserve any more promo.
Definitely very, very harsh words. It’s a grudge song about someone who did us pretty dirty. We’re stoked on it. We thought it was the best contender for the first single, given its place. It’s not too different from The Finer Things. It could’ve been on that album.
Does it reflect the rest of the new album, Around the World and Back?
It’s not that it doesn’t reflect it. I like to think the new record is comprised primarily of a normal State Champs sound. There’s like eight or nine tracks that sound like “Secrets,” more or less. Then there are a couple we pushed in different directions. We have this one track that very much has this Anberlin, Acceptance kind of feel. It’s much more alternative. We’ve been calling it our "video game menu music" song. Then there are a couple more poppy songs that draw influence from bands we grew up listening to like The Maine in 2008. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop era. We like most music and we wanted to be multi-dimensional. We don’t want to give you the same record, eleven songs of the same pop-punk song. We just wanted to switch it up and see what people think.
The new record feels familiar—you can hear those influences—but you can't really assign any particular band to the sound. It’s cool, that it’s inventive in that regard.
We worry sometimes that our influences shine through too much, but I guess most people can’t hear it.
You’re part of this new wave of pop-punk, but that genre term can be limiting. Some people see “pop-punk” as this derivative thing.
I definitely feel it. I wouldn’t say I’m concerned with being called a pop-punk band. There’s definitely some people who are like “Oooo Pop-punk! Pizza! Friends!” and that’s whatever. “Defend pop-punk!” I think we’ve done a good job of taking tours and expanding our fan base more than your typical finger-pointers. We’ve done tours with We Are The In Crowd and All Time Low. We’ve done tours with Chunk! No, Captain Chunk and Counterparts. We’ve done our pop-punk tours, we’ve done our more hardcore [leaning] tours. We’ve done our more pop-rock tours. We are the band that kind of seems to dance the line. I personally hate genres. I think they’re pointless. It’s just labeling stuff. Who cares? As long you don’t read too much into the label. If you see a band that’s called a pop-punk band, and you’re like “I don’t like it already because it’s pop-punk because I didn’t like this other band and they’re pop-punk," you can definitely get pigeonholed. It’s nice to not get pigeonholed, to take different tours and join mixed bills. I’m not concerned about it but I certainly don’t like it.
“Just because your band’s doing well doesn’t mean you’re doing well...Although it is the coolest job in the world, you’re not immune to bad feelings.”
The only way to really get pigeonholed is to allow yourself to be pigeonholed. What does the title of your new album, Around the World and Back signify?
Around the World and Back represents our last two years. This record is the culmination of the last two years of our lives since we put out The Finer Things. Before The Finer Things we had only done light touring. We definitely did six to eight months of touring but then the album came out and we were the busiest we’ve ever been. We went to, like, fifteen new countries in one year. We went to three or four different continents. It’s a whirlwind of emotion. It’s really cool to get to travel and do all this stuff but at the same time just because your band is great doesn’t mean you’re great. Just because your band’s doing well doesn’t mean you’re doing well. There’s definitely some songs on there that are pretty sad…but there are some uplifting songs. Around the World and Back, we went with that record title because we actually wrote most of that record on tour. I remember writing the song “All or Nothing” on this rooftop greenroom in Japan. I remember where we wrote all this stuff. For us, it made sense in the very literal aspect that we went around the world and back while we made this record...but also the emotional long haul that is traveling around the world and back is this record.
How do you write songs with that experience but make them universal, relatable to the people who are listening to the record?
Obviously not everyone gets to do what we do or see as much as we do, but the feelings of exhaustion and depression and feeling like you’re burning at both ends—some things you left at home are slipping away from you—being in this band has cost me multiple relationships, some friendships. Although it is the coolest job in the world, you’re not immune to bad feelings. Being out on tour, especially overseas, you’re twelve hours ahead of your friends at home and there’s no one to talk to but your bandmates, and they’re all drained, too…I think we make the songs relatable because we don’t write too specifically. If you write too specifically, no one is really going to relate to it. It’s too much about you. I think everybody can relate to burning at both ends and just feeling warn out.
That comes across—your songs are vulnerable but vague enough to become personal for the listener.
Definitely. For the listener, listing to “Secrets”—if you haven’t lost a good friend, if you haven’t had a friendship break up, then honestly I’m happy for you but it’ll probably happen eventually. I think most people have gone through jealous and bitter friends and stuff like that. I feel like it’s such a wide concept. Our songs are mostly relatable because a lot of people feel bad, but not everyone shows it or talks about it.
How did writing this album differ from the first?
The first record was written very quickly. Although it received much praise, there’s like a million things we would change on it. Even playing those songs live, we think differently. We did it in about three and a half weeks. It was mildly rushed. With this record we were given two months to write it. We would just hang out and jam, think of cool riffs. Then we had six weeks to actually record it, get weird with production and different tones and vibes. I guess the main difference is time. We had a lot more time to experiment and make the record we wanted to make.
Working on this record with [producer] Kyle Black, Kyle demands perfection. At the end of the day, I’m very thankful he was hard on us. I tracked one of the songs on the record for eight hours because it just wasn’t good enough yet. That sucked in the moment and I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but listening back to it, it’s like “Thank you for being a hardass. Thank you for pushing us.” He really pulled good performances out of us.
“Losing Myself” is your latest jam. Is that going to be the next single?
It’s the latest to be released, but I don’t know if I’d use the word single. We’ll be releasing a couple more songs before the record actually comes out. I’m very stoked on it. It’s, I don’t want to say it’s different, it’s a little more growth from us. From “Secrets” to this song, this song is a bit more dynamic. It definitely hits home a little bit harder for us. It’s so cool, releasing new music, it’s so rewarding and fun to see what everyone else thinks.
Everyone else gets to have something you’ve been living with for so long.
We’ve had it for three months now. When we got the record I listened to it nonstop every single day. I’m definitely at the point where I’ll put it on twice a week just to remind myself that these are the songs we have, you know, to keep them fresh in my mind. They’re definitely not old yet!