Straight Outta Albany: How State Champs went from basements to arenas in two years

State Champs
photo: Sandra Markovic

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and Tyler Szalkowski is just waking up from a night’s sleep. He clears his throat before speaking into the phone. “It’s a culmination of the last two years of our lives,” Szalkowski begins. The 23-year-old guitarist is referring to his band State Champs about to release their second full-length Around The World And Back in just a few weeks.

The Albany, New York, pop-punk quintet released their debut album The Finer Things in 2013, which debuted at No. 131 on the Billboard 200. After that, the band’s touring schedule became heavier and the support became larger. The continued support led the band to release an acoustic EP The Acoustic Things in 2014, which included five remakes of songs from The Finer Things and two new songs and allowed fans to hear another side to lead vocalist Derek DiScanio’s talented lyrical skills.

For many people in their early 20s, like Szalkowski, life isn’t always full of answered questions. More so, it’s a matter of taking it one day at a time.

“Life in your early 20s isn’t exactly the easiest,” Szalkowski continues, shaking loose the cobwebs from the previous night. “You’re still finding out who you are. There are times where you’ll be the happiest you’ve ever been, and times where you’ve been the saddest you’ve ever been. There are a lot of tracks [on Around The World And Back] that deal with the emotional roller coaster [of] being away from home so much.”

The conversation dives into the guitarist explaining how Around The World And Back deals with transitioning into adulthood and the post-college experience. He makes the connection between the time in his life where his friends were returning home from college and trying to readjust to living at home to how State Champs’ new album is about finding yourself and your own happiness.

“We’re maturing, [our] music is maturing—I know every band always [says] that, but it’s just true,” Szalkowski says. “If you look at our first record compared to this one, you can see the growth.”

While much success followed after the release of The Finer Things, Szalkowski said pressure going into the writing for Around The World And Back wasn’t a factor for the band. There wasn’t a set schedule of where to meet and at exactly what time to sit down and try to write material. It was a matter of feeling comfortable and not worrying about needing to write a song just because other people would be there waiting to hear it. It was about finding the right time and place to create something they believed in.

The band found time to write new songs during downtime while constantly touring, including a specific occasion during a few days off during a tour and sitting in a room and hammering out a handful of songs. “It was very random pieces of time where we were like, ‘Let’s write a song right now. I have, like, two hours right now. I’ll totally just riff,’” the guitarist recalls.

While the band knew there would be pressure going into their second album, they didn’t let the stress get to them. If anything, it motivated the band: After receiving positive praise with The Finer Things, State Champs had more time in the studio for their second album and were better prepared.

“We were kind of like, ‘Okay, this is totally different now,’” Szalkowski recalls. “‘We have to set a standard now and we have to not only meet that standard of how The Finer Things was, we have to defeat it and we have to do better than The Finer Things.’”

More time was spent in the studio for Around The World And Back then for any previous State Champs release. The band was able to work on more chorus melodies, lyrical content and had a longer amount of time for overall production, where The Finer Things was completed in a few short weeks. “It let us dive in even deeper than we thought we could,” Szalkowski says.

After finishing the album earlier this year, State Champs embarked on their two biggest tours to date, first supporting All Time Low in America and then being selected to open for 5 Seconds Of Summer’s Australian arena tour. After performing to such huge crowds, it only caused Szalkowski and his band to appreciate the kind of music State Champs plays even more.

“We got to chat with the 5 Seconds boys about a lot of stuff, like how they got to where they’re at,” Szalkowski says. “Who doesn’t want to play sold-out arenas everyday? I personally love our brand of music. We’re not too edgy, but we could turn around and do a Counterparts tour or something, which is something I really like about our band. [Talking to 5SOS] definitely influenced the way I know about the ins and outs on that level. It’s the experience that helps me understand different levels of the industry on the business side.”

The guitarist continues speaking about trying to figure out who you are in your early 20s. He says each member in the band came from their local hardcore scene while growing up, and playing music was a source they needed to connect through to get rid of their bad vibes the had. If the music State Champs creates can help in any way to make people feel a sense of belonging, that’s all Szalkowski needs to know to feel content.

Playing guitar at this very moment in his life for State Champs is exactly where the musician finds his inner self and where he belongs. At 23, the only thing that matters is what you believe in, and for Szalkowski, State Champs is exactly it. He says Around The World And Back is something he is excited about and the feelings the record contains regarding life, in general, is something hopefully many people can relate to.

“There are definitely those moments where it’s like everyone second-guesses themselves everyday,” Szalkowski reasons. “I believe right now I should be playing guitar in this band. We just play songs, and people find comfort in them and a sense of belonging. It’s really cool how we can bring people together. Stuff like that really helps you remember why you do it.” S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #48.