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October 19, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 31

Home Team

State Champs win big with their not-to-scale brand of arena rock

by Randall Brown

It's usually a little awkward the first time you meet a local band in order to write about them. As a writer, you hope they'll be at least as interesting as their music (or in some cases, more). As a band, they don't trust for one minute that you know anything about music, especially theirs.

But I was able to bond with the State Champs recently when our conversation almost immediately digressed into celebrity name-dropping. While pondering one fan's suggestion that their sound was like 'Butthole Surfers meets Vanilla Fudge,' I mention to them that I once saw ex-Fudge drummer Carmine Appice at IHOP. They are duly challenged.

"The only famous person I ever met was Bert Convy," says bassist/vocalist Sweet Bobby, a.k.a. Rob Matthews. "I was at Epcot Center and they were filming 'Win, Lose or Draw.'"

"I met the whole 'Facts of Life' team," says guitarist/vocalist Johnny Turbo (nee Seth Severance), playing something of a trump card. "But when I was younger, my family saw 'Hollywood Squares' being taped. I met Eric Estrada and John Candy. And ALF. But, ALF, you know... "

"I met Jerry Springer just recently," offers drummer g (known to his mother as Chris) leather (his real name, I swear).

"I met Alex Haley up at the Museum of Appalachia," says guitarist Freebird McQueen, a.k.a. Kelly Sprouse.

"I saw him at IHOP, too," I mention.

"This is where we obviously go wrong," laughs Turbo. "We've got to start hanging out at IHOP."

Celebrity hobnobbing notwithstanding, the State Champs are one of the more down-to-earth ensembles on the local scene, and are remarkably unself-conscious for early twenty-somethings. Their lack of inhibition comes out in the tongue-in-cheek array of image gimmicks they employ, from matching shirts to their religious adherence to stage names.

"It's all about the overall entertainment value," explains Turbo, hitting on the State Champs' basic manifesto.

I experienced the band's entertainment value some weeks ago at a small sort-of-club on Broadway. They wailed through the gig with what could be called actual rock 'n' roll abandon, stumbling and bouncing around the stage in matching "Favorite Mart" T-shirts, trying to out-cheese each other with rock star poses. The crowd was sparse, but the band put on a real show, giving their all to the far-less-than-full house, even awarding their obligatory State Champs "Best Fan of the Night" prize, an autographed chair, to yours truly in an admitted display of ass-kissing. It was refreshing, a mixture of selfless humor and energy rarely seen since the demise of Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes. And then an anonymous fan confided that "they seemed kind of tired tonight."

They are taken aback when I mention that they were originally described to me as a "low-fi" ensemble.

"Does that mean we suck?" asks Sweet Bobby.

"I think we're actually arena rockers in the bodies of a small club band," counters Turbo.

The ambiguity of "low-fi" aside, they do have a raw rock sound— guitars cranked to distortion, straightforward, no-frills drum pounding, untrained vocals projected with gutsy confidence. But I won't insult them with suggestions that they are "heavy alternative." They fall, locally, somewhere between the garage passion of the Tuffskins and the controlled madness of Stinkfoot USA.

Lyrically, the State Champs' songs run a thematic gamut. They have the usual "lost love" songs, like "Jenny, a Woody and Me" and "Too Proud to Beg," but they also tell some interesting tall tales. A late night at a convenient store becomes a party in "Hot Fries and Beer." College exams are revealed as the metaphor for lifelong angst that they are in "Dear Mr. Overachiever." Most significantly, the gentrification of the American South is discussed in "Railroad Tracks: Cause for Cultural Segregation or Merely the Foundation of Mass Transportation in America?"

"Somebody from the Beacon ," says g leather, "wrote that 'If John Candy were wrestling Roger Rabbit in the Louvre ...'"

"... 'the State Champs would be the running commentary,'" adds Turbo. "That's pretty descriptive."

"We were like, 'Is that a compliment?'" says McQueen. "What are they trying to say?"

"We don't mind being related to John Candy," says Turbo. "But we kind of want to get away from cartoon characters. Maybe John Candy and Eric Estrada. That'd be a good fight."

Though confident enough in their music to display such a sense of humor intact, the State Champs are not a joke band. Amidst playing with their "image," fan giveaways and pop culture worship, they want to do something as a band, to become "known."

"I really feel like we've got something to offer that a lot of people don't," says Turbo, "and that there are going to be some people out there who are going to find worth in it."

"We'll be a footnote in Knoxville music history," predicts Sweet Bobby, "and I will make it into a Jack Neely article."

***State Champs' legal names are published against their most vehement wishes.

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