The big review: State Champs – Kings Of The New Age
Pop-punk favourites State Champs establish themselves as scene leaders on excellent fourth LP, Kings Of The New Age.
Love him or loathe him, Machine Gun Kelly certainly played a part in bringing pop-punk back to the charts. After he temporarily ditched rap, painted his nails and picked up a guitar, his second rock album – Mainstream Sellout – went to Number One in the U.S. last month.
And State Champs might have had something to do with it.
Rewind to October 2018. It’s the first day of Fall Out Boy’s MANIA tour, and the upstate New Yorkers are in Boise, Idaho, hanging out with MGK on his tourbus, watching UFC. As Conor McGregor pummels someone in the background, the artists are reminiscing about the Warped Tour days, with MGK noting that he wished they’d been on it at the same time, but it’s cool they’re touring together now because “I dig what you guys are doing”.
“He was nowhere near doing the rock thing yet and he was still in full rap mode,” explains frontman Derek DiScanio today. “He would start to watch us every night, and we’d come offstage and he’d be like, ‘That’s so dope, tell me more about the pop-punk stuff…’”
Their next meeting was a year later – in the dressing room of State Champs’ Christmas show in Cleveland, Ohio – and by that point, the rapper had already started dipping his toe in the rock pool.
“I was like, ‘Hey… a pop-punk record, huh?’ and he gave me a little smirk. He was like, ‘Yeah, bro!’ So I like to subtly hint that the reason Machine Gun Kelly went rock or pop-punk is because of State Champs,” says Derek with a smile. “Just saying (laughs).”
Of course, pop-punk's 2022 renaissance transcends MGK – Avril Lavigne made her comeback at the end of 2021, Paramore headed into the studio in January after a five-year hiatus, WILLOW is collaborating with anyone and everyone, and that's before we get to the new gen of Meet Me @ The Altar, Pinkshift, KennyHoopla and more – but you have to wonder how other bands feel, seeing a former rapper-turned-rocker-turned-rapper-again get all the glory, when they’ve been making genuinely good pop-punk music for years. Do they ever get bummed out?
“I mean, yeah we do,” admits Derek. “But it’s not that easy – some people get things handed to them. And we’re not gonna make decisions that aren't true to us to get there. Like, will I ever be onstage in a pink sparkly disco ball outfit? No (laughs). But if people like it, they like it. I’m not in any position to be dogging on that when someone like MGK’s way richer than I am.
“I just think people are excited about guitars and drums on the radio again,” he adds, always ready to spin something into a positive. “And I’m happy with it. It creates a cool buzz and it opens us up to receiving an influx of new fans that we may never have had. If people are going to listen to MGK then find related artists on Spotify, and it somehow leads to All Time Low or A Day To Remember, and then that leads to State Champs or Neck Deep, then it’s a pretty cool cycle and we need to use it to our advantage.”
And that's where Kings Of The New Age comes in, State Champs’ fourth record in 12 years as a band. The title was born from a lyric on album opener, Here To Stay, and between them they send and emphatic message.
“We’ve been doing this for so long, and we like to think we’ve been the kings of our age, in the Warped Tour scene,” explains Derek. “But now there’s this new era, and new brand of pop-punk happening, and we just wanna put ourselves to the forefront of it and say, ‘Here we are, whether you like it or not! Check us out, and get on board.'”
It’s not the first time the pop-punk scene has gone through something of an evolution, with Derek acknowledging it’s gone through a “whole lot of ups and downs."
“When we first started, pop-punk was this underground, cool outcast-y thing,” he remembers, “then it had a huge revival in the early 2010s, and us, Neck Deep, Real Friends and Knuckle Puck got our starts – the Tumblr era of pop-punk, if you will. Then we all got to the point where we were headlining festivals like Warped Tour and Slam Dunk, and at a level where it was like, ‘Okay, this is really sustainable and we feel proud of what we’ve achieved.’ And now we’re in this mainstream rock revival era… It’s a wild time. We’re about to find out where we fit into all of this. Do people remember us? Or are they going to be finding out about us for the first time?”
While Derek says he’s “curious and nervous all at the same time” to see how things will pan out, he’s not worried. And he shouldn’t be. Kings Of The New Age is State Champs through and through. And, as the vocalist points out, many of the tracks would be at home on any of the group’s previous efforts, including their 5/5-rated debut The Finer Things, which turns 10 next year. But, at the same time, it brings out a new modern-rock side to them. One that firmly embraces the times.
“I just wanna make sure that if people hear us for the first time, that they’re getting the best out of us,” says Derek. “And with Kings Of The New Age, they definitely will be.”
The only time Derek gets stressed is when he’s sleeping. He has nightmares about losing in-ear monitors and running around trying to find them before a show, knowing which song is playing but not being able to remember the words, and trying to sing and nothing but duck noises coming out.
It was on tour around July 2019 when Derek's nightmares became a reality and his voice started failing onstage, cracking and squeaking to the point where fans were noticing and his band began airing their concerns.
Hating being told what to do and how he should take care of himself, the vocalist instructed his bandmates to mind their business, and continued with the “it’s chill, everything’s fine, it’ll sort itself out” mentality that had got him through life thus far. But it wasn’t fine. No voice meant no band, no career and no future.
“I was embarrassed and scared of being this vulnerable person that people knew was having problems,” he says, admitting he held himself to “superhero” level standards as a singer, frontman and person with a social media presence. “I had this image I needed to uphold with everyone – myself included – so when I didn’t have that anymore, and thought I might lose it forever, I felt like a total failure.”
He was forced to be vulnerable for the first time in his life, seeking help from professionals to fix the issue and those close to him for emotional support. And the pandemic became a blessing, allowing the necessary time off to find a vocal coach, eat better, work out and stop partying, all of which thankfully got his voice back and better than ever.
Derek explored this newfound vulnerability for a second time on album track Eventually. “I’ve never dove into that side of me and gotten that emotional before, so that’s the song I’m most proud of,” he explains. “The lyric, ‘It’s harder to sleep when you keep me up inside my head’ was me literally not being able to sleep because I was worrying if I was gonna have a career or not. Then the chorus, ‘I’m taking back the one thing that felt permanent’, was the gradual process of me figuring out my shit, taking grasp of that, and never letting go.”
That song, and much of the album, is a lesson in not taking anything for granted, and living in the moment.
"It’s me saying that to myself and my bandmates,” he adds. “Because we’re very easily rattled by the little things, like if one thing goes wrong it can trigger a domino effect and ruin everybody’s vibe. But you have to look at the bigger picture and just think, ‘Is this really that shitty? Am I really that unhappy? Am I that pissed off at the world?’ And then flip the switch and ask yourself, ‘What am I actually grateful for?’ A lot of this album is reminding yourself of what makes you happy.”
One thing that makes Derek happy is having healthy relationships in his life (something he’s much way better at now he’s open to being vulnerable). In fact, love is in the air for all of State Champs currently – the band is completed by guitarist Tyler Szalkowski, bassist Ryan Scott Graham and drummer Evan Ambrosio – which explains lovey-dovey tracks like Outta My Head, Half Empty and Sundress.
“Now we’re all in relationships we’re like, ‘How are we gonna get the "fuck you" break-up songs?’” Derek laughs. “But we’ve all been through enough where we can go back and touch on those things – we just have to relay to our significant others that it’s just a story and we’re reflecting on the past, so we don’t get in trouble (laughs).”
After all, it wouldn’t be a State Champs album without a little relationship angst…
“That's what people turn to in those times,” he adds. “Pop-punk and alternative music. So you gotta make sure everything isn’t just like, ‘Lah-dee-dah! I love you!’ People would be like, ‘Where’s the good stuff, man? Where's the Secrets and All You Are Is History? I miss the old Champs!’ And that’s never gonna go anywhere.”
One of the stand-out break-up bangers is Everybody But You, featuring Ben Barlow from Neck Deep, just one of several guests to lend their vocals to the record (Against The Current’s Chrissy Costanza, Four Year Strong and U.S. country-pop singer Mitchell Tenpenny also feature).
“We've always wanted to do an album with a shit-ton of guests,” explains Derek. “You know how rappers and pop artists do it? They have features on every song and I think that’s so cool. Before it was Kings Of The New Age, we joked about calling it Mixtape, almost like a rap album, and having a feature on every song. But not every song called for it on this album, so we didn’t wanna force it. We reached out to the right friends and it worked out really well.”
It doesn’t get more pop-punk than State Champs bringing Neck Deep on for a guest track. Although if you ask Derek what he and Ben chat about when they hang out, he’ll insist it’s not the scene.
“I like to think we don’t really talk about pop-punk that much with our other pop-punk friends. We have other priorities, like me and Ben go skateboarding or we go get pizza. Oh shit…” he pauses, laughing at the irony. “I’m shooting myself in the foot here, aren’t I?!”
If the P-P phrase is getting spoken about on tour, it’s usually the basis of friendly rivalry, with the bands joking about who’s gonna get bigger, sell more tickets, or be top billing on a line-up. “We’ve always done that with Real Friends, Knuckle Puck, and Waterparks,” says the singer. “It’s fun to have that friendly competition in the scene, because it only motivates us and makes us wanna be better.
“And that’s another thing with this album,” he continues. “It’s us having that ego, and not being the humble, grateful, thankful, young band anymore. We know we’re good at this shit. We know we’ve been here this long for a reason and we wanna showcase that. If it makes people pissed off and wanna talk shit about us on the internet, then good! Because you’re talking about us, you know (laughs)?”
Derek will turn 30 in October, and he’s holding on to his 20s as tightly as he can. “I’m still the youngest in the band, so I’ll always have that,” he grins.
He says that they are all “grown-ups” now – Evan is also married and Tyler has two kids – who make a proper living off of State Champs, so they’ve started approaching it as an actual business, having serious financial meetings, and looking for ways to save the cents.
Luckily, they are a band of many talents and passions, so there were plenty of ways to “cut the fat” on Kings Of The New Age, making it their most DIY album yet. Derek has always been in charge of merch design, so he continued with that. Ryan has taken up photography on the side, even shooting Kerrang!’s recent Regrettes and Drug Church cover stories, so he was given the task of styling the band for their music videos (as well as writing the scripts). While Tyler took up a side hustle of coding websites, so he was in charge of creating pre-order pages and mailing lists.
"It makes us more stoked on the product,” says Derek of the change in how the group operates. “There's no middle man for us to have to send notes to, it’s like, ‘We set it up this way, so we’re gonna be happy with it.’ We’re just having fun doing the things we love, which can contribute to State Champs. It’s like we’re working for ourselves!”
While other things have changed – including the quartet needing to stretch a little more before shows. Shout out, 30s! – much has stayed the same in the band. Including the fact they won’t release something they’re not proud of and wouldn’t listen to themselves. The test of a good State Champs album, Derek says, is how long he wants to keep listening to it for.
“The album has been done for a year and a half, and I’m still listening to it and I’m still stoked on it,” he says, assuring us he does still listen to other music because he’s “not that much of a freak”. But when he’s in the car, it’s Kings Of The New Age at full blast, with the windows down so “people can catch a little glimpse and be like, ‘Ohhh, what’s that?’”
Feedback from friends and family is that it’s the best State Champs album yet, and the band agree. So where to next? Bucket list goals include headlining London’s O2 Academy Brixton, and Reading & Leeds, plus touring with some ‘different’ musicians.
"One of our favourite artists forever has been blackbear,” says Derek, “and now he’s making a rock album too, and we’re starting to play shows together. We wanna write songs and have a cool relationship with him. Really, we just wanna continue to do what we’ve been doing for as long as possible.”
How long are we talking? Will you be taking State Champs up to retirement age?
“I don’t think I wanna be in a pop-punk band at 60,” chuckles Derek. “But I also don’t wanna put an age limit on pop-punk either, and say, ‘You can’t do this in your 30s or 40s!’ Because blink-182, Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory beg to differ. I look at those bands and what they’ve been able to do and that makes me inspired and motivated to do more as well.”
Whatever happens, Derek says he’ll be making music for the rest of his life. Pop-punk, pop, R&B, singer-songwriter material, acoustic or piano, he’d be happy with any of it.
“I'm not saying State Champs is gonna change their sound into any of that,” he hastens to add. “I just think there are no limits and boundaries – genres are bending and merging more than ever before, to the point where I'd just call ourselves a band now. There's no such thing as genres anymore, and we are definitely gonna use that to our advantage.”
Some might argue that wanting to monopolise on the shift in genres, and pop-punk's current mainstream popularity, to attract more fans makes Derek sound a little jaded and cynical. But he doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think it makes us cynical,” he says self-assuredly. “I think it makes us excited. We’ve always had that mindset that we wanna be the biggest band in the world, and if the biggest artist in the world is someone who is making guitar and drums music that we can then steal fans from, I think that’s fine (laughs). Is that a cynical statement? I guess, but I don’t really care.”
State Champs' new album Kings Of The New Age is released May 13 via Pure Noise
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