Earlier this year, State Champs returned with their fourth studio album, Kings of the New Age, another terrific distillation of their pop and punk influences. The album includes singles such as “Eventually,” “Everybody but You” (ft. Ben Barlow), “Outta My Head” and “Just Sound” alongside tracks featuring guest vocalists Chrissy Costanza, Mitchell Tenpenny and Four Year Strong.
You’ve put together some “badass” stage production for the tour. Talk about that.
Szalkowski: The production is cool. It’s our first time doing something like it. We’ve been doing this for 12 years now, so it’s rare we get to do something for the first time. We’re lucky enough now that we can push the envelope and do things we’ve always wanted to do as a band. Ambrosio: Since we’ve been headlining a lot lately and doing it for a while, we want to make sure that our set list and production is elevated. Our fans who are coming back have seen us play a ton of songs, so we want to play some older stuff or maybe we do a different take on certain things. It’ll be more of an experience going to this tour than any tour we’ve done in the past. Szalkowski: We’ve been taking some notes from pop stars. We go to our fair share of concerts and borrow ideas from everywhere. We think, “Shit, why can’t we do that?” And now, we’ve realized that we can.
You spent more time working on your new album than your previous albums. When did the songs start to come together?
Ambrosio: Even a little bit before the pandemic, we learned how to record ourselves and send ideas to each other. If I have an idea or Tyler has an idea, we send them to each other. We always do that now. On this last record, we started to do that maybe a year before we were going to record. When the pandemic hit, we had nothing but time to start writing and coming up with a plan to start writing. The pandemic helped us with taking more time than we would have. I think it worked out for the better. Szalkowski: We had to adapt during the pandemic and do things remotely. It was nice to take it at our own pace and not pump stuff off. In people’s minds, they think artists spend all this time. In reality, time is money and studios cost money, so you have to be cognizant of the time and money you spend as well as the product you’re creating. We can’t do a retreat in Jackson Hole, WY or whatever. It was good to have more time to prepare. In the past, it was always tour and then write the record and then tour. It was go-go-go. This time, there was no go-go-go.
What was it like working with producer Drew Fulk (Lil Wayne, A Day to Remember, Ice Nine Kills)?
Szalkowski: It was great. He has done something from every genre. He is just that talented. That speaks volumes. Working with him was special. We did a producer shootout situation. We spent two weeks working with about seven different people on our short list. After working with him, we thought he fucking rocked. The big thing for us was that he focused on emotion. It sounds hippy dippy, but it’s so important and oftentimes glossed over by producers who are concerned with things other than how the song makes you feel. People get too in the weeds with everything instead of stepping back to see how the piece of art makes you feel. I have songs that I don’t feel connected to at all because they didn’t mean anything to me. With this one, it meant so much more because we were in the room writing together. It was just the four of us. We were kicking ass and taking names, and we were stoked on everything. Ambrosio: The first thing we did with Drew was a listening party. It wouldn’t even be a full song, but he would tell us when a riff made him feel something. We had the track listing done on the first day because he has this ear for what makes him feel a certain way. We had the same thoughts when something had has this certain energy. Since he’s never done a pop-punk record, I enjoyed that. He has time to be selective with the artists. It meant a lot that he wanted to help us make our best record.
How’d you hone your pop sensibilities?
Szalkowski: I would say that they are attributed to the fact that we do not have guilty pleasures. We like everything from pop-country to metal. We like One Direction. We don’t think you think it’s weird or lame or embarrassing. We just pull influence from all over. [Singer] Derek [DiScanio] is the king of New Music Friday. He almost studies it. He makes mental notes about things he would like to try. Ambrosio: We mostly listen to pop music. When there is a riff or something that comes up, the stuff that comes off the top of his head is super impressive. He can come up with a melody quickly. He’s studying pop and has this great sense of hooks and melodies.
“Everybody But You” is one of my favorite tracks. Talk about working with Ben Barlow on the song.
Szalkowski: That one is awesome. It was the first time we felt we had another hit. When we had done “Secrets,” we knew it would be a big hit. We didn’t have that on [2020's] Living Proof. We liked it, but we didn’t know if we had a home run hit. When we did “Everybody But You,” we were riding high. It was born from one chord progression. Drew had hear something and said it was awesome and we could build something brand new around it. It all came together in six working hours. Sometimes less is more. You tend to heavily scrutinize, but less is more. As we get older, we learn that. Sometimes, addition by subtraction is the answer. We sent Ben the song, and he sent something back and we just told him to add a few more words. He just smashed it out. We’ve known him for ten years now. It was just special. We’re grateful he lent his voice to it and his writing talents as well. Ambrosio: Having Ben on there helped elevate the song. It’s probably my favorite song we’ve ever written. It’s this silly content. It’s about having a party and inviting everyone but you. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“Act Like That” is another infectious tune that's pretty poppy even for a pop-punk band. What’s the story behind it?
Szalkowski: With that one, we got to work with Courtney Ballard. We worked with Courtney on our second album. Between then and now, he’s fully dove into the neon pop vibe. For that song, we reconnected with an old friend. We made a sick pop song. We don’t give a shit. We wanted to make a pop song, and we did. Ambrosio: For each record, we try to do something a little more out there. People thought we might go pop on this record, and this was something we wanted to explore. We couldn’t have picked a better person.
Can you reflect on the journey the band’s taken since forming in 2010 in Albany ? It must’ve been tough to break out of Albany.
Szalkowski: It’s hard to break out in general. Being from Albany doesn’t sound sexy or cool, but it’s close to lots of places. We would go play Boston and Philadelphia and then come home and go to work or school. The journey was long and paved with many, many frustrations. For us, we were in a really good place at a really good time. We used the internet to change the game for us. We made our first EP and put it up on this “leak” site. We used to pass out burned CDs at local shows. Getting out of Albany was hard and even going back to Albany is tough because we will do a third of the tickets there than we would do three hours to the south. I didn’t super enjoy it in the moment, but I realize how it taught me to believe in a music scene. It was very hardcore and metal. When we came out, it wasn’t cool to go to a State Champs show. We made a pocket of fans out of our own friends and family. We played anywhere we could and gave all our stuff away for free. People tell you not to do that, but we were just happy that it worked. It doesn’t always work. It’s been a crazy-ass journey. We’re stoked to keep doing it and keep writing songs with people we always wanted to write songs with. Ambrosio: Exactly what Tyler said. The Northeast is such a special place to be a band. Pop-punk wasn’t the cool thing. I’m a late addition to the band. I joined ten years ago, and they had already done the groundwork of making fans in the Boston area and throughout the Northeast. I came from a band that tried to do that, but it didn’t work out. When I joined on is when we really started touring. We took every tour we could, and, luckily, it led us to this crazy career. The fact that we’re still a band this long after we started is mind-blowing. We’re incredibly lucky. Bands fizzle out pretty quickly and continuing to be part of the music scene is incredible.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]