Q&A: Ryan Davis, the alt-country wunderkind lyricist behind State Champion
Ryan Davis has been compared to several iconic artists since the release of his band State Champion’s 2018 album Send Flowers. The FADER’s Duncan Cooper says Davis’ bold, enigmatic prose is reminiscent of neo-conceptualist Jenny Holzer. David Berman of the Silver Jews mentioned Neil Young and Bob Dylan — and then called Davis the “best lyricist who’s not a rapper going.” The praise sounds awfully grand until you listen to the record, which is packed with sublime alt-country licks and thoughtful, poetic slackerdom. Davis was at home in Louisville when I called him last month, enjoying a rare day kicking back with some friends before the band’s current tour alongside Boston indie rockers Pile. They’ll be in Kansas City at the Rino this Wednesday, June 19.
I’d read in The FADER that you intentionally made Send Flowers a bit quieter so listeners could focus in on the lyrics. I’m guessing you’re happy to be playing on a more formal tour with nicer sound systems coming up here.
Yeah, we totally are. It’s kind of a new thing for us. We’ve never really been asked to go open for a band and play to their crowd every night, which I think will be a pretty fun and unique challenge for us, having been a band as long as we have. We usually just kind of set up our own stuff and do it pretty DIY-style, playing some bars some nights, then art spaces and basements and that kind of thing, so this will be the first time ever playing clubs every night. We’ll actually get sound checks and monitors and that sort of thing, which we never really cared about growing up together, but increasingly, with this record especially, I think it’s just really important to be able to deliver the vocals and have the music sound an appropriate level so we can connect things a little better instead of just banging on shit and belting it out.
Do you think you’ll end up preferring this set-up and seek it out more in the future?
I think we’ll end up preferring playing to several hundred people a night, instead of however many we usually play to [laughs]. Yeah. We’ve done the DIY thing for so long … and I think if we expect to grow as a band, seeing ourselves playing in these rooms is kind of the logical next step forward.
Does it feel strange that this is happening almost a decade after the band started?
It does and it doesn’t. It seems like we’ve had a pretty natural trajectory, but there’s days where it’s really frustrating. You make records and you’re proud of ‘em and you think they’re good and they get recognition within certain groups of friends and other people, and you’re still out there playing undesirable places at times. But you also don’t wanna ever feel like you deserve more than that, in a way. I mean, it’s OK to feel that, but nobody thinks you’re better than something. You’re playing music because it’s something you love, and if it gets to the point where you can play to more people, that’s great, and if not, don’t do it, but don’t complain about it.
I know you’re not purposely trying to mess with people, but some of your lyrics reference things like trap houses, data systems, Miami bass. Do you take any pride in stuff like that?
Sure. I wouldn’t say that’s the goal of it, but I feel like — especially in whatever you’d call our band, alt-country or stuff that’s folk-influenced — there’s maybe a conceptual blueprint in some way for what songs should be about and I think it’s fun to use some of that same architecture to explore some sort of stranger characters and stories that haven’t been told a million times over and just be able to use my imagination and things that I pull from books I’ve read, or rap records, or violent movies, or whatever. Things that you’re maybe not supposed to sing about in beautiful love songs or country songs or whatever. I think that’s part of the fun in it for me, to be able to tell whatever story I wanna tell and if people connect with it, that’s fine, and if people are confused by it, that’s fine. It’s not a black-and-white thing. I think it’s up for the person listening to it to decide.
There’s that really amazing quote David Berman gave, calling you the “best lyricist who’s not a rapper going.” What hip-hop do you listen to? Do you know what hip-hop David Berman listens to?
I don’t know what hip-hop Berman listens to. But I grew up listening to rap my whole life. I feel like rap and hip-hop has taught me a lot about the way that I write songs and the way there’s kind of an “A” part to a verse and a “B” part to the verse, and you always kinda land the heavier punches on the tail end of it. I’ve probably been listening to rap longer than any other kind of music. I’ve never felt like it influences me that much, but sometimes I stop and think about the longwinded-ness of the lyrics and how it’s all kind of put together in a sense.
But I listen to everything. Mainly growing up I listened to a lot of East Coast rap. I was kind of an elitist about Wu-Tang Clan and Nas and EPMD and Mobb Deep and all that kind of stuff, then eventually I started getting into the southern stuff like Cash Money, Master P, Rap-A-Lot, Houston, New Orleans stuff. I listen to a lot of Atlanta rap now, like Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, Metro Boomin’, and all that kind of stuff. It’s something I’ve always kept close to heart and never really gotten past it. I think it’s actually still a pretty exciting time for people making that kind of music and as long as it stays inventive I’ll probably stay listening to it forever.
I heard a funny story you told about your friends borrowing your car and basically wrecking it without telling you. Driving is a big part of Midwestern culture and pops up in your lyrics sometimes. Do you have any kind of fascination with it?
Yeah, maybe, that’s an interesting observation that I’ve never really thought about. Maybe a kind of consistent thematic element of my songs. Yeah, Louisville is a place where everybody drives everywhere. I ride my bike in the summer, but growing up — I grew up across the river in southern Indiana, which is close, but it still takes 15 minutes to get over to Louisville where I went to school and eventually got jobs and stuff — you’re always in the car. I always just kind of liked driving. I was always the kid that gave everybody rides everywhere, and now I’m touring all the time in cars and vans, and I deliver food as a part-time job, so I’m always in my truck, listening to music. Especially when I’m on drives alone, that’s when a lot of my lyrics come to me, so it makes sense. When I’m on a five-hour drive from Chicago to Louisville by myself, that’s the time I have to be alone and think and a lot of highway imagery and road imagery always seems to seep in.
All of the Louisville music I’ve heard definitely has a bit of an off-kilter vibe to it, too.
I think part of the driving thing, too, that makes sense now that I think about it, is you’re driving, especially long distances, passing through all these different scenes, and in some ways that’s how my lyrics flow, passing from situation to situation, moving through stories and characters. And yeah, back to the Louisville thing, the off-kilterness I think is the identity of the city. It’s not the South, it’s not the Midwest, it’s kind of an in-between zone where people have always been on a parallel, but slightly different path from things that are going on in Chicago or Nashville, but it’s very much not like either of those places.
I appreciate the kind of genreless approach you’ve taken to booking Cropped Out and releasing Sophomore Lounge material. Do you have any dream acts to book or release one day?
The biggest one for me was The Fall, which was why it was so tough when they had to cancel [their appearance at Cropped Out]. It would’ve been probably their last show ever, then [bandleader Mark E. Smith] got sick and it ended it up just not happening. … We’re not doing Cropped Out this year, so it’s kinda in this period where I don’t have to think about it.
In terms of putting out records, I’ve always just kind of done what feels right. Sometimes I hear a record I really like, but I just don’t feel like it fits the vibe of the catalog, which is funny because it seems probably random to some people because I do such different things. But to me there’s just some sort of abstract quality I can find in bands that I think would be at home with Sophomore Lounge.
I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the works now that’s coming out this year. I’m doing a double-LP from this New Zealand songwriter Bill Direen which’ll be kind of a career retrospective. He’s one of my favorite dudes, so I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time — excited to get that out there. I actually might eventually be [releasing] something along the footwork line, too.
That’d be really cool. I always appreciate, in an archivist sense, seeing physical releases of hip-hop and electronic and other music that’s more popular online due to the fact that it could easily just be delete. And also since there are some people that would never hear it unless they got a physical copy.
Yeah, I’ve actually been on this big kick of buying a lot of techno records in the last six months or so, and I always kinda liked that look of the black jacket with the center hole cut out, a glued-on white strip with some kind of art. I always thought it’d be cool to put out something like that with a DIY punk feel to it, but with electronic music or techno or something in the rap world. The guy I’m talking about is this guy DJ Hank, and I’ve been talking to him. It’s like what you said, it’s all great, but it’s all just [on SoundCloud]. I hit him up and said, “Dude, we should do a record,” and he was psyched on it. He sent me, like, 50 tracks, and I’m in the process of going through and trying to curate a release from ones that make sense together.
I grew up listening to Drag City records, and now [I’m] putting out stuff with Feeding Tube [Records], and it is totally an archivist thing, especially Feeding Tube. They just release so much stuff, and it’s everything from beautiful folk music to total sound collage. It’s always funny when someone’s like, “It’s so random what you put out,” and it’s like, Who wants to just listen to one kind of music? That’s so boring. I don’t wanna just put out garage rock records for 10 years or whatever.
State Champion plays with Pile and Employer at The Rino (314 N. Armour Rd. North Kansas City, Missouri) on Wednesday, June 19. Tickets and additional details are available here.