Alex Mcdonell

A Not-So-Sad State Champs Summer

Catching up with Tyler Szalkowski, State Champs’ guitarist, means unpacking new music and discussing new memories (and the memories to come, thanks to events like our local Sad Summer Fest date and the impending Vegas phenomenon, When We Were Young Fest).

The July heat pressed down on our skin, but we’ve learned to ignore it as the Pier 17 Rooftop probably has the most breathtaking view in all of Manhattan with the city skyline to the left of the stage and the Brooklyn Bridge acting as a backdrop behind the acts. Busy cars drive by almost unaware of the performance happening just outside their windows. An artsy Brooklyn stands down below and to the right, separated by the water.

In the middle of summer, though, the beauty can arguably outweighed by the scorching sun. Nevertheless, every pop punk fan dreams of being in attendance at Sad Summer Fest… and we were there basking in the heat, but also the ambiance of being among our people. This year, we all are in agreement that State Champs stole the show.

If you’ve ever seen State Champs live, you know that they have a way of making each of their shows feel like it exists within a bubble. Within this safe space, the community of pop punk that links us all together is notoriously strong.

At Sad Summer Fest, this feeling of togetherness is particularly important. This festival is a place for like-minded music fans to come as they are. State Champs encourages this authenticity tenfold by never jeopardizing their trademark style and sound.

That’s not to say that Champs hasn’t grown. With their most recent album, Kings Of The New Age, came a new era for the band, one they were ready to show-off on stage.

“Thanks to COVID, we got to work on KOTNA for a year and a half,” Tyler Szalkowski tell us. “We had the time to see every detail through to the end but also the time to look at it in a broad sense.”

The new sound was one that resonated instantly with the crowd. Songs like “Fake It,” “Outta My Head,” and “Act Like That” were met with the same amount of energy by the crowd as any other ‘old’ song on the setlist. Truthfully, that’s sort of a challenge for the pop punk community, which tends to hyper-focus on old songs and sounds that artists naturally out grow over time.

Having seen Champs in the smallest and dingiest venues to now seeing them take over the Pier 17 stage, it’s heartwarming, and it has been easy to watch their transformation. To continue growing as a band without rejecting an old sound, one fans cling to or otherwise, comes with difficulties. However, as this Albany-grown group puts out new music, they prove to build off of their last release rather than totally scrap the music of their past.

Tyler describes that signature Champs sound, even after a decade of evolving, as, “Windows down, anthemic, classic pop punk.” We’d have to agree.

It doesn’t matter what size stage they are playing either, because State Champs will fill it. The Sad Summer stage is probably the best one to be on right now as the tour has subtly replaced the old Warped Tour emo niche. It’s also not the first time they’ve played this festival.

Photos by Ali Fitzgerald

During the first Sad Summer Fest, every fan was curious to see how some of the biggest names in pop punk would handle a tour like this. It was a fresh and new idea, smaller than Warped, and more centric to the genre. It was something that the community wanted, but they weren’t sure if it would live up to expectations. Things are different now. “We were the guinea pigs with Mayday and The Maine in 2019,” says Tyler. “There’s just more of an established feel this go around.” He admits that everything went well for the first tour, but that is one definitely had something smoother and sweeter going for it.

Truly a stand out performance, “Everybody But You” brought a wonderful party atmosphere to the rooftop. State Champs brought out Ben Barlow of Neck Deep who features on the track, as well. Shockingly, the guitarist adds they actually felt bad asking him to do it. After all, Neck Deep is also on the Sad Summer Fest bill every night, so pulling double duty isn’t easy. Nonetheless, State Champs is thankful for his participation

“[It] feels dope, though, because we came up together,” he says. ‘It’s really, really nice to be here with Neck Deep. Very full circle.”

In many ways, this whole tour felt full circle… for State Champs and the fans. The first Sad Summer Fest in 2019 was, of course, before the pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak. It felt like a taste of a wonderful tour and community concept that was then stripped away when the world went into lockdown. Without shows, the pop punk community felt incredibly different – that core and unifying force was no longer there. New York City fans dreamed of the day they’d be back on that hot rooftop face-to-face with their favorite rock artists again. Last year’s lineup was great, too, but it didn’t include State Champs – already a SSF staple.

This year, there was something about seeing them on that stage again that was indescribable. Thankfully, it looks like we’ll be getting more of these memories soon with Tyler teasing something new in our conversation. State Champs has totally been teasing as a whole, too, with a new tour for this fall on their mind, so stay tuned.