Looking to help improve everyone’s 2020 the best way they can, pop-punk stalwarts State Champs are dropping a brand new acoustic EP this week titled Unplugged.
Featuring new and re-imagined songs from their previous LP Living Proof, the upcoming six-track release is sure to be that small dose of happiness you’ve been waiting for all year long.
Catching up with bassist/backing vocalist Ryan Scott Graham to discuss the writing process for the new record, the outgoing musician said, “I was really excited about the prospect of doing an acoustic record because I had just joined the band when they were working on The Acoustic Things back in 2014-2015. So I wasn’t a part of that, although I was in the band during the rollout of that record.”
“So the fact that I got to be a part of this one,” he added, “was really fun because I love to play acoustic guitar. I had a bunch of riffs kind of just ready to go and it was fun to just get in the studio and craft those together.”
To learn more about Unplugged, a new State Champs full-length album and so much more, be sure to read our in-depth Q&A with Graham below. Afterward, make sure to grab a copy of the band’s highly anticipated EP here.
So we don’t want to give away any secrets but you said you’re in the studio right now. What exactly are you working on?
Ryan Scott Graham: We’re recording our new [State Champs] record right now actually. We had planned to start working on it in March, I believe, March or April. And you know, with everything that’s going on, we decided it was best to push it back. And it just kind of kept getting pushed back and pushed back with these [stay at home orders] getting extended. So we just started tracking on Monday. So we’re working on the new record. I don’t think that’s really a secret at this point. I think everybody knows we’re kind of working on new music.
That must feel pretty good to do something positive and uplifting with everything going on in the world instead of just sitting at home.
Yeah, it’s nice to just even have any kind of sense of routine or like something to look forward to. I think that was kind of what I was missing so much from the past few months. We’re on the road most of the time anyway and then when that got totally chopped, I was just kind of looking for something, anything to do, anything to look forward to. So it’s been nice to wake up in the morning and kind of feel like a purpose has been restored, I guess.
It must have been tough going into 2020 having your whole year laid out ahead of you and then having it completely wiped out where everything had to be rescheduled essentially.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the main thing. You know, we got kind of lucky that we weren’t in the midst of a tour or like in the midst of making a record when COVID first started. I think that affected a lot of bands in a pretty negative way because the plans they were kind of already working on and actually being out on the road and then having to cancel the tour and had to go home. I felt for a lot of bands and a lot of the industry when that happened. So we got kind of lucky on that. But we’ve had to reschedule a lot of things and push back some of our plans. I’m still confident that they’ll happen eventually. But you know, it’s timing. It’s all timing and maybe it was supposed to be like this.
And obviously, one thing you guys have planned to come out is the new Unplugged record. Was that something you guys had prepared pre-quarantine?
Yeah, so we had some studio time just like about a week and a half, two weeks of studio time to make that record. And we did that earlier this year, I think January, February. So that was kind of already in the books. So we finished that up before quarantine started and we had some other plans to do an acoustic tour and do these other things surrounding the release of the record. So, obviously those got canned but the fact that we had music we were able to put out during this time to kind of hold people over, I guess until we make a new record, that was a really good feeling.
It’s interesting how you guys kind of got ahead of the curve with the acoustic stuff since that’s really all people can write and record at the moment during quarantine.
Yeah, we got lucky for sure. And it was cool, because, you know, we had new songs that we could actually perform acoustically on Zoom and whatnot. So it’s been fun kind of trying to navigate that.
Unplugged is State Champs’ first release since the departure of Tony Diaz. What was it like working just the four of you for this record?
I mean, honestly, it wasn’t very different. Tony has obviously always been a part of the band but was never a main writer. So for the last couple of releases, it has just been me and Tyler [Szalkowski] writing guitar and us collaborating on songs. So, not a slight [to him] obviously, but I think nothing has really changed except for just the vibe surrounding the band, you know. I think you can expect the same kind of State Champs from us.
Acoustic music is obviously up your wheelhouse with all the Speak Low If You Speak Love music you’ve done over the years. How would you compare that to writing for Unplugged?
Yeah, I mean, I was really excited about the prospect of doing an acoustic record because I had just joined the band when they were working on The Acoustic Things back in 2014-2015. So I wasn’t a part of that, although I was in the band during the rollout of that record. So the fact that I got to be a part of this one was really fun because I love to play acoustic guitar. I had a bunch of riffs kind of just ready to go and it was fun to just get in the studio and craft those together. You know, because with Speak Low, I’ve got the final say. I’ve got all the control and the power and I kind of make the song go where I want it to. So it was fun to have Derek [DiScanio, vocalist] craft a melody over a guitar part that I wrote because it just turned out totally different than something that I would have written on my own. He’s just got a really really terrific sense of melody. It really felt like a songwriting session rather than just like getting in a room with the idea of writing a full band pop-punk jam, you know. It was like, “this is supposed to be acoustic, let’s do what serves the song the best.” And yeah, it was super fun.
Were there any riffs you may have wanted to save in your back pocket for Speak Low? Or was it just like, “Here’s everything I got, use it all.”
I mean, I think for the most part when I’m writing a Speak Low song, I can kind of tell if it’s going to stay a Speak Low song or if it’s meant to be one. There’s just a kind of a different feeling to the song, I guess. And like, it’s not necessarily purposeful, but when I write the riff, I’m like, “I don’t know if this is necessarily going to translate to a State Champ song.” So I think we did kind of get some of the sadder, maybe more emotional or heartfelt type songs on this acoustic record because I was helping. There’s just like an innate emotional quality to the style of guitar that I play. So I think you can kind of see that coming through in some of these songs. But for the most part, I had State Champs in mind when I was writing these riffs so I kind of tried to keep most of them upbeat or at least stylistically similar to what we would do. Just keeping that in mind was really important.
So we alluded to this earlier with everything going on in the world. If anyone follows you on Twitter, they’ve seen you be rightfully very outspoken about all the stuff that’s going on. Is it a little bizarre to go from talking about historic current events to then switching gears to promoting this record?
More so than bizarre, it feels a little uncomfortable. It doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s the right time. You know, we had this variety show that we’re working on. We we’ve been working on that for months. When we announced Unplugged and we premiered those new songs, that was something we had a full discussion about like, “Hey, this doesn’t really feel like the right time. We shouldn’t be doing this right now.” And so we did push that back quite a bit because we wanted to open up the space for other voices to be heard and not necessarily step on those toes because what’s happening right now is undeniably more important than whatever we’ve got going on.
This is music, you know, this is entertainment. Like, yeah, it’s our livelihood and it’s what we love to do and it’s fun but there are so many injustices and so many things going on in the world right now that really needs that focus and really need that attention. It’s just really hard to kind of, I guess, balance needing to continue making a living and put out these songs we’ve been sitting on but also not adding to the noise or trying to keep them separate. I’ve been really trying to stay consistently up on what I’m reading and what I’m listening to and what I’m putting in my brain because I want that to come across as knowledgeable, educational and I want people to care. And yeah, I want them to care about my band, but at the end of the day, like, I want real, systemic change in all communities, especially the one that we’ve been fostering that we’ve been trying to build since we started a band. And I think, in that sphere of influence, it’s really, really important to speak out. And I know a lot of people are kind of maybe afraid to do that or don’t feel comfortable doing that but you know, you have that influence for a reason. And yeah, they might only care about your songs but there are going to be those handful of people that really take in what you have to say because they care about you as well.
Have you gotten any pushback from fans at all? Like, you know, “stick to writing music” and things like that?
You know, honestly, I think our fan base is very open and, I guess, malleable because we have a younger fan base. A lot of those people are malleable. They’re looking for that kind of influence or push. They’re hopeful. I think the younger generation is hopeful that there is going to be real change and that’s what they’re hoping for and that’s what they’re waiting for. And I think when they see somebody who is trying to be progressive or at least encouraging these conversations to happen and progression to happen, I think a lot of those people kind of cling to that and they’re proud of that or they’re encouraged by that, which is really cool to see. And I had some pushback for sure. I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree with me but I haven’t really had that like extreme hate or disdain. Like, I’ve noticed some unfollowing but I think those are people quietly leaving. I guess I’ve never been like that polarizing of a figure. So I don’t think a lot of people, even if they don’t agree with me, they’d rather just slink off into the night rather than making a big deal.
That’s probably better than just having a full-blown Twitter argument with random people.
I mean, yeah. I guess it’s not the best place to have a discussion or the best way to do it. But I do think there is some value in having those conversations. And I think that’s kind of what I’ve been learning through all this. It’s like, yeah, maybe I have had some of these opinions in the past but I really wasn’t necessarily the most outspoken person. I’ve actually been taking to Facebook a lot more because I think the people that really need to hear it are the older generation. A lot of the people in my family, aunts and uncles, or maybe those people who don’t have Instagram or don’t have Twitter and they’re only getting one source of news. I kind of had the thought like, “If I go back to Facebook and I’m saying the same things I’m saying on Twitter or Instagram, but in this realm where there is kind of a different audience, an audience that is more likely to be influenced by somebody that they personally know or that they have a relationship with rather than just being screamed at by the masses or people that they don’t know or people that they don’t already don’t agree with or like…” So I’ve been seeing a lot of value in having conversation, whether it’s social media or not, you know. It’s kind of the way that it’s happening right now because we’re not able to [meet] face-to-face. But Facebook has been kind of an instrumental tool for me to reach some family members that I know may not agree with me and have those conversations out of love, rather than just being like, “you are not right, you’re not thinking correctly. How can you be this way?” You know, so on so forth. I think that’s been a pretty good tool to actually have meaningful conversations that are built for that change.
Bless you for taking on Facebook. There’s certainly a lot of interesting things and people on there so shout out to you for taking on that challenge.
[laughs] Yeah, of course.
So just going back to Unplugged, which song on the EP are you most excited for people to hear?
I was really excited for people to hear the “Criminal” version that we did because that out of everything I think is the most far removed from maybe like the pop-punk stuff you’re used to from State Champs. I think kind of having that like bluegrass-y, Mumford & Sons feel on it was a really cool take. And I was really excited for people to hear that, I think they’ve taken to that well. You know, whether you like our band or not, I think that’s something that a casual listener could hear and be like, “Oh, I really actually enjoy this song” and then maybe check out our band. As far as the originals, I’m really excited for – not “10AM,” that’s already out – I’m really excited for “A Thousand Hearts.” It’s got like a Dan + Shay vibe, like a country-ish ballad, not country, but our take on pop country. It’s just a ballad, I think it’s got some really great lyrics, got some really great melodies and it’s got a feature from our buddy Saxl Rose. So it’s got some saxophone on it. It’s just kind of a cool song, so I’m excited for people to hear that.
It’s interesting you mention pop-country with so much of it starting to pop up in our scene whether it’s covers or Cody of Wage War and Matty of Memphis May Fire doing their new project or Korn covering “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Maybe people don’t hate country as much as they used to or they’re just starting to admit they like it more?
I think pop country is way more accessible than maybe like what most people think country was or what they had known of it before all of this. Country has undeniably changed over the past even five years. I think you see a lot of people who were in bands – most of Dan + Shay, those guys are pop-punk guys, those guys were members of My American Heart and I think one of the dudes from Cartel was in that band. You know, those are guys who grew up in the Warped Tour scene. I’m pretty sure they grew up in the Warped Tour scene, like they are familiar with it. And they just kind of found that avenue of songwriting that worked for them and I think that’s really cool because, for me, I love a great song. And the fact that, in pop country, they’re just pumping those out consistently, that’s a testament to why so many people are listening to it. It’s accessible for not only the person who likes country or the casual radio listener but it’s also for anybody who just really likes a good song and will listen to it whether it’s pop-punk or Warped Tour-esque or not. So I think that’s kind of why we’re drawn to it too as a band. We in State Champs love pop country and I think it started with Taylor Swift who has kind of evolved from there.
So were you a fan of the new Taylor Swift album then?
Yeah, my girlfriend and I listened to it when it came out. We just sat there and listened to the record. I think it’s really really great. It’s not over-produced. I think the songs are like pretty quintessentially Taylor Swift. I know a lot of people were saying like, “Oh you know, she was going for that like, ‘indie cred’ or whatever.” To me, when I listen to those songs, they sound like songs that Taylor Swift has always written but they’re just cooler. They’re just better, the songs are better. It’s a little more mature and I think it was a really key thing to kind of like keep it low key and keep it mostly acoustic and I think she nailed it. I think it’s a really good record.
Seems like it was more for her older audience in a sense. Much more mature than her fancy pop stuff.
Yeah, absolutely. Even some of that stuff is still gonna reach those people, you know. I’m sure a handful of those songs are still gonna be radio songs. She just has a really great way of navigating the music world in general.
So just wrapping up, ending on a positive note: For people reading this who want to make a difference like we touched on earlier, what are some recommendations you would give to them to make some change?
I mean, first and foremost, if you’re not registered to vote, I think it goes without saying. Registering to vote and actually voting is like the most massive thing I think you can do because we have more power than people really think they do. I think there’s a lot of apathy in young people, they don’t think they actually have potential for change and they don’t think their voices mean anything. And as you can see, with all the stuff that happened with Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd incident and all that stuff, I think people are starting to realize like, “Oh, our voices are actually making a difference.” You know, I live in LA now and when the protests were happening, people were like, “Oh, those protests are not going to do anything.” And almost immediately, you see some defunding from the police being redistributed to other things happening in the communities and like, that was a direct result of people using their voices and not being complacent, not letting the people in power make those decisions for them. And so, I think it starts with recognizing that you have a voice and not being complacent. I think signing petitions is a really great thing. I think, if you can afford it every couple of weeks or once a month, finding a cause to donate money to that you believe in I think is a really great thing you can do. Emailing and calling your city officials, especially when there’s something that they are trying to put forth or trying to do that you naturally don’t agree with. Just using your voice. Using your voice is so key and not just screaming it into the void that is the internet sometimes. I think being as physically active and showing up to those kind of things is super instrumental, super important.