State Champion's new album, Fantasy Error, is the best country LP I've heard so far in 2015 that was made outside of Nashville (in terms of Music Row, Another Country alumni Chris Stapleton is walking away with the year's honors handedly). Maybe State Champion doesn't do country exactly—more like country-ish, or rural rock, or as Wooden Wand's James Jackson Toth describes the four-piece's sound so spot-on in a zine that accompanies their album: "punked-up country gunk."
Fantasy Error, State Champion's third album, comes out June 9th via Sophomore Lounge, the label that frontman Ryan Davis started in 2007 and which has since grown to put out some 80 releases. Though the band spends most of its time bouncing between Louisville and Chicago, they came together to record last year in Paul Oldham's farmhouse studio in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Violins were tracked under stars, vocals laid down in fields. It's a complex record with lyrics you've gotta unpack, dense stories that are kind of sad and surely true. Take the standout track "There Is a Highlight Reel," which we're debuting here today: Four strong winds whipping down the skin of the railroad/ Four new traffic lights in town and don't a one of them work… You left a note that said our love, it would prevail/ I left a prank call on the county coroner's machine. It's like a "Merry Go 'Round" for the ramshackle and more hopeless, for spending the next week getting sun-burned and stoned.
The bad news is that State Champion just wrapped up their East Coast tour. The good news is Fantasy Error comes out next week. Here, Ryan Davis has emailed his way through a substantial, illuminating interview about the best Louisville/Chicago bands, how the place affected the record, and a playlist of country songs for y'all to memorize ASAP.
As someone who lives far from both Louisville and Chicago, I think of those cities and being distant from each other and unrelated. What’s the overlap? There's actually more of a storied connection between the two than an outsider might think. Dating back to when Louisville bands like Slint were working with Touch and Go and the Palace projects were recording for Drag City—and then, stemming from Will and Britt and Pajo and those guys, that evolved into this whole glacier of artists with roots in both places. People like David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr Del Sol), Cathy Irwin and Janet Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day) on Thrill Jockey, Rachel's and Shipping News on the Quarterstick label, etc. I'm sure I'm flubbing up the chronology/context of it in some way, but ultimately, that migratory path is not a foreign one to people in this part of the country. It's just a straight shot up I-65 and you're there in 5 hours.
As it relates to State Champion, I am the only person who is actually "from" Louisville, although we're all there a lot. I was born and raised in that area and reside there now, but the four of us met when we were living in Chicago and going to college around the mid ’00s, which is where the band began and existed for a short amount of time. I moved back to Louisville in ’09 and have been there since, but Chicago will always be a second home to the band. Sal still lives there, Mikie lives there on occasion, and it's the place that made the band possible and supported it before anyone elsewhere did. Our community there was very conducive to what we were doing at an important time, developmentally speaking.
To continue my own personal history of Chicago, my little (and only) sister just moved there. She's actually subletting Sal's room while we're on tour, so, you know, it's always evolving in and out of my life.
The teaser video (embedded above) and the zine that accompanies the album really situate it geographically, and definitely more on the Kentucky side. How was the record impacted by the place it's coming from? The images in the trailer and the zine were all taken from various cameras laying around the house while recording the record, including the cover of the album, which is a photo Sabrina took of my car while we were out there. We actually knew that it was what we wanted as the cover photo before we even took it, but she got the right angle on it.
Anyway, every record is a product of its environment in some way, I think, at least when you're talking about music that is primarily of the "live" and "emotive" nature. Our first record was made in a nice temperature-controlled basement in the east end of Louisville. The second record was made in a tiny attic apartment in Chicago. For this one, we had an entire house in the middle of the country and the property surrounding it on which to work. We really took advantage of that.
If you're unfamiliar, Rove (the name of Paul Oldham's studio which he operated out of the house for a decade) exists within a beautiful old farm home on some family land in Shelbyville, KY, a little less than an hour outside of Louisville. Paul made a lot of really great recordings in the space throughout the years—everyone from Richard Bishop to Jason Molina to Clare Rojas to their own Bonnie "Prince" projects like Ease Down the Road and Superwolf (two of my personal favorites from their body of work). Paul worked out of that studio pretty actively from around ’98 to ’08 and eventually moved out west, where he currently lives and records bands in the Los Angeles area. But for a handful of years, the house remained idle. Some people rented it out and rehearsed there on occasion, but for the most part, it was entirely uninhabited. The thing is, they never really moved out. The gear was still out there, the posters were still on the wall. You were walking into a place with so much history and character, especially as a fan of that music.
During college, I always wanted to make a record with Paul out at Rove, and had emailed back and forth about it a bit, but for whatever reason—mainly, me living in Chicago at the time—we never got our schedules to line up. So fast forward to 2014. I had all these new songs written, and I showed them to the gang via GarageBand demos (this was done over email since each of us live in different states, of course). The plan was to arrange them in Louisville for a week, hit the road and play them every night of a three or four week tour to tighten them up, and then make a record as soon as we got home. My good friend (and bandmate in my other band, Tropical Trash) Jim Marlow expressed that he wanted to make the record for us, at which point we then recruited our other good buddy Doug Ryan (from the great Chicago band Animal City—also engineer of our previous LP, Deep Shit) to bring down some gear and help lend an ear. So everything was set… except for the fact that we had nowhere to make the record. There were a few initial options that ended up getting tossed out the window for one reason or another, and I had the idea of asking Paul what was up with the Rove space. He didn't necessarily say no but was basically like, "Trust me, you don't want it. It's fucked." So the brainstorm wheel kept on churning. Dead end after dead end. We reached a point where we were literally on the road playing shows and still didn't have a plan for how to get this record made upon returning.
To make a long story short, Jim re-opened the dialogue with Paul while we were out of town, expressing to him that we thought it was our best and only option at that point. Paul was momentarily living in Louisville at the time, and was like, "Let's go look at the space and you can see what you think." He took Jim out there, showed him around, told him all the quirks, and Jim called me later that day saying "This is where we have to make this record." So Jim and his wife went out there, cleaned it all up, swept out the rat shit, bat shit, cobwebs, whatever other elements had collected over the years of neglect, and got it ready for us to plug in as soon as we got home.
I can't even express to you how much of a true recording "experience" it was to make this record, more so than any other in my life. Inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, every room, every mic, whatever stoned idea anyone brought to the table. Calling friends to come out with an instrument and watch the sun set. Writing songs that would end up on the record while sitting in a rocking chair outside during set-up. If we made it anywhere else, it would have been a completely different record. Hands down. For better or worse. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. We owe Paul a lot for that, for his complete generosity. It truly was a gift.
What is unrealized project would you undertake of you had the time and budget? That's a good question. I have a number of a things like that, but my main one would be an undertaking that I already started with my lifelong buddy James Ardery in New York (also from Louisville, originally). It's a DIY arts and music organization called Cropped Out. We've held an annual festival every year for the past five straight at this little working-class country club on the banks of the Ohio River, with extremely intimate performances from artists like Jandek, Lil B, Mayo Thompson, Endless Boogie, The Endtables, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Neil Hamburger, and countless others. I wish I had the money to make it really flourish into what we always imagined it would be (beyond what it already has), as far as getting the word out and allowing it to exist without totally breaking the bank every year—while still keeping it's aesthetic and integrity in tact. Inevitably, it will continue to grow over time. I'm really proud of what we've been able to do with such limited resources and I think the possibilities are endless. I'm just trying to focus on playing my own music and touring in 2015 without the endless stresses of practically bringing the circus to town every fall. I think I owe that to myself.
You don't make outright country music but it's clearly a big influence. Do the people in the band listen to country, and is there a certain variety of it that you feel most affected by? Yes, we all enjoy country music. I would say that Sabrina and I probably listen to it the most. She lives in Nashville, so it's hard to avoid it down there, but this band as a whole has been heavily influenced by country music for the better part of a decade now, since Chicago, since before we even met. This is actually a conversation we were having at a party in Boston just last night with our friend Carl (Shane, of Kal Marks), what decades/eras of country music and production we preferred, that sort of thing. I like it all, honestly. In fact, I would love nothing more than to talk to you about country records for hours on end!
But just off the top of my head, some of my favorites are George Jones "The Grand Tour" (essential), Loretta Lynn "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," the first two John Prine records, Townes Van Zandt "Seven Come Eleven" demos (later released as the less good sounding "Nashville Sessions" after some sort of scuffle with Jack Clement), Gene Clark "White Light," Jerry Jeff Walker "Ridin' High" and "Bein' Free," Johnny Paycheck "The Lovin' Machine" (check the track "I've Got Someone To Kill" for one of my all-time favorite murder ballads), Terry Allen "Lubbock (On Everything)," anything by the late great Gary Stewart, especially "Out of Hand" or "Cactus and a Rose." There's a really excellent Canadian country/folk record that I've loved for years called Fraser & DeBolt with Ian Guenther. Totally twisted, cryptic lyrics channeled through these really loose and light yet heartbreaking, wind-swept harmonies. One album that this band specifically grew to love together on an earlier tour was the Jim Pepper record "Pepper's Pow Wow." He's a Native American saxophonist with a great voice for folky country rock style stuff, but he was homeys with all these brilliant jazz guys like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, so the compositions are working that angle as well. It's pretty perfect. That record was a lot of fun for us when Sal first joined the band.