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Basement champion: How Ryan Davis manages a band, a record label and a DIY music festival

Originally published in the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO) Weekly Magazine, Sep. 24, 2013.

“Bad business is an expensive hobby.”

So reads the company logo of Sophomore Lounge, an independent record label based out of one exceptionally cluttered basement in Jeffersonville, Ind. But for label head Ryan Davis, making money was never really the goal.

“I started releasing music out of necessity, really,” says Davis. “No one else was going to put out the garbage I was creating. I knew some guys who were doing some stuff I thought was cool, so we all started doing stuff together, helping each other out, spreading the word. Eventually, the garbage got good, and it was something I could really stand behind.”

In addition to manning the label, Davis is the primary songwriting force behind the “geographically challenged” band State Champion, whose members maintain a tight bond despite being spread out across the Midwest and South. Davis writes exactly the kinds of songs you might expect from a scuzzy skateboarder-turned-cowboy-songwriter obsessive. His vocal twang and hollered lyrics decisively set the stage, but the overall sound of his loose accompanying band has more in common with ‘90s indie-rock acts like Dinosaur Jr. or Silver Jews than, say, Townes Van Zandt or George Jones.

Touring heavily with State Champion gave Davis the opportunity to connect with like-minded local and regional bands, and he began booking concerts in Louisville after moving back from Chicago in 2009. Partnering with his childhood friend James Ardery, Davis founded the oddball music festival Cropped Out in 2010. The festival, now entering its fourth year, has featured such varied acts as David Yow’s abrasive post-punk band Scratch Acid, atonal folk enigma Jandek, faux-sleazy comedian Neil Hamburger, and even the #BasedGod himself, Lil B.

All of this is going on while Davis does his best to maintain some semblance of a real life — you know, working a job, spending time with his girlfriend, going to the grocery store. And all of this bad business — frankly, it’s thankless and exhausting work. But that’s not the point. As Davis would say: It’s more personal than that.

Swimming through the sewage and the silver

State Champion began with a set of demos called Light Blues, written and recorded by Davis while studying abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2005. “Eventually I made some good friends over there,” he says, “but the first couple months were spent drinking a borderline-insane amount of alcohol, playing lots of guitar, taking trains and buses around the countryside and going weeks on end without even really speaking to another human being. It was a short but particularly formative period in my life.”

Aside from country-western and folk heroes like Gene Clark, John Prine and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Davis says his main source of inspiration comes from the same musicians whose records he releases through Sophomore Lounge. “To this day,” he says, “my friends make a lot of my favorite records. I guess it all goes back to the feeling you get from hearing a really fucking good country song. There are only a small handful of people out there who still know how to write them.”

Indeed, Davis himself clearly knows a few things about composing good country songs. His greatest strengths as a songwriter lie in his lyrical skill and his ability to tie the rises and falls of his vivid narratives to their musical accompaniments. If you have the patience, it’s well worth your time to transcribe a few tunes from State Champion’s two LPs, Deep Shit and Stale Champagne, because so many clever turns of phrase fly past while the records are spinning, it’s tough to keep up.

Though Davis is responsible for the bulk of the band’s material, he insists State Champion couldn’t exist without his three close friends and band mates: Mikie Poland (bass), Sal Cassato (drums) and Sabrina Rush (violin). Because the band is spread out between Louisville, Chicago, Nashville and wherever Poland happens to be crashing at the time, they rarely perform unless they’re out touring — and life on the road has solidified the special relationship the four members have together.

“It takes its toll on you, the older you get — living like a 19-year-old savage, leaving it all on stage every night and treating your body like an amusement park, as Estelle Costanza would say — but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Davis. “Touring is such a genuinely incredible life experience for State Champion. I used to think it was for every band in general, but I think I’ve realized more recently how lucky we are to have as much fun as we do every single time we go out.”

He continues, “Even when it is completely shitty and you’re homesick and broke and sore and your phone stops working and you leave your debit card two states back just as you’re noticing your first patch of poison ivy and someone is blasting Aerosmith in the van — me — and all you want is for your clothes to not be covered in PBR that you didn’t even get to drink because it somehow got poured all over you, and, as it turns out, those two free PBRs were your only payment for the night because the promoter got ‘sick’ shortly before having to settle up with the bands ... and the Cards lost. Even then, it really is still the best thing in the world.”

I’d do anything for money

Sophomore Lounge came to fruition in 2007 while Davis was working at Drag City in Chicago. Indeed, the taste-making indie label, responsible for releases by artists like Pavement, Royal Trux and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, had a big influence on Davis’ business plan. “They were the first label I really felt kind of ‘had it all.’ And I still do feel that way, even after having worked there for a couple years. The bands, the artwork, the history, the decision-making — the whole vibe of it was so on point. I really admired it in a way that made me want to run my own record label some day.

“Of course, they learned everything they knew from labels like Touch & Go, who probably learned it all from SST, so it’s a lineage of understanding how things are done in a way that is financially sustainable, while retaining the utmost level of integrity. It’s a never-ending struggle, I know for a fact.”

For Davis, inspiration in the realm of DIY business ventures doesn’t just come from obvious sources, like well-established indie-rock record labels. He also looks to creative entrepreneurs like Houston’s DJ Screw, who found runaway success with his slowed-down, syrupy rap mix tapes in the ‘90s.

“Screwed-Up (Records & Tapes, DJ Screw’s shop) was the example of removing the middleman,” he details. “No major-label distributor? Sure. Anyone with a couple hundred bucks, a duplicator and library access can start a tape label. But try having no cell phone, no Internet, no promotional funding, no nothing. He sold tapes out of his car by the trunk load. He opened the shop just to keep people from lining up outside his door. That’s the shit that stokes me out.”

Davis adds, “I tried selling SL stuff out of the back of my van a couple times and really enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t flying off the shelves, but I’d like to try it again sometime.”

Though Davis now resides in an apartment in Louisville, the label is officially based out of his parents’ basement across the river in Jeffersonville, which, with its stacks of boxes stuffed full of records and miscellaneous music detritus, could be mistaken for the packrat hole of an especially hip hoarder.

“I can’t even imagine what that place would look like if I ever cleaned it up and moved into an actual office space,” he says. “I randomly saw a lizard walking around down there once.

“The amount of bullshit that my parents have had to put up with since I first started having house shows in 10th grade is worthy of a sitcom,” Davis continues. “I’m up all night packing orders, throwing boxes around, cutting paper everywhere, leaving shipments on the porch, letting my scumbag band friends sleep over night after night, tour after tour. I couldn’t begin to count the amount of musicians they’ve let stay at the house. A hundred? Two hundred? More?”

There’s lots of love implied when Davis describes his friends as “scumbags.” Apart from any concerns of financial sustainability, Sophomore Lounge was created as a way to catalog the creative output of Davis and his nearest and dearest scumbag friends. They may not always be lucrative releases, but he says putting out records by friends like Animal City, Giving Up and Meah! brings him a great deal of joy that makes the money a secondary concern.

“It’s always been more of a support system for friends and a way to document our lives together. It will always remain a labor of love. Even if I ever miraculously get to a point where I can make a living by selling records, I’m still going to work harder than I have to for the people who inspire me with what they do. I wouldn’t have been doing it this long if I felt any other way.”

To date, Sophomore Lounge’s biggest success is the 10-inch collaboration between Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Phantom Family Halo called The Mindeater, released in late 2011. The label pressed 1,000 copies, which sold out almost immediately.

“I just couldn’t keep up with the orders,” Davis says. “I remember the night I put it up for sale, getting like 75 orders or something — which, for a Sophomore Lounge release, was insane. The whole next day I spent feverishly packing them all myself, got a decent chunk done, and left to go to work for a few hours. When I came back home to relax for the night, I found 200 more orders in my inbox. That was a pretty gnarly couple weeks, but exciting nonetheless. It’s not often people have Google alerts set up for something you put out on your label.”

Of course, time and money are the label’s biggest limiting factors.

“Between working whatever ‘real’ job I have at any given time, doing the band — writing, recording, planning and promoting tours — booking shows, drawing fliers and record covers for people, spending time with my girlfriend and family, not to mention just having to go to the grocery store, or the post office, or reading a book or watching a movie every now and then so as not to totally lose my mind, it’s really pushing it just to do one record a month.

“I also tend to bite off more than I can chew in a way that isn’t always productive. You just have to find a balance that works with everything else in your life.”

We weren’t winning, but we sure could pretend to be

As with most great ideas, the Cropped Out Festival began as a barstool daydream between Davis and his close friend James Ardery. In the beginning, says Davis, the biggest challenge was finding a place for himself in Louisville’s music scene after returning from Chicago in 2009, where he had been based for the previous five years.

“Coming from Chicago, where I was working at a record label and all my friends were in bands and we had already started touring the country and committing ourselves to our art and music, it was just really frustrating at first, being back here,” Davis says. “I went from truly being a part of something special in Chicago, playing packed house shows and seeing mind-melting touring acts every other night of the week, to coming back home and starting over. And it was by my own choice. I was ready for that change, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a challenge every step of the way.

“Eventually I was just, like, ‘You know what? Let’s do our own thing.’ I was naive and headstrong and full of ideas and energy, as was James. We couldn’t have had even the slightest idea of how much work would lay ahead of us. But I had confidence in the relationships that James had made booking shows in NYC and that I had made in all my travels, and felt that they were certainly worth exploring.”

Davis describes his partnership with Ardery, who has been based in Brooklyn since before the founding of the festival in 2010, as “an entirely crucial yin-and-yang type situation, for sure.” Together, they devised the festival as a way to bring interesting and unique bands to Louisville while shining a spotlight on local acts they believed deserved broader attention.

“I wanted nothing more than for people here to hear those bands. And I wanted those bands to see what Louisville was like — to see there were some great things going on here. At that crossroads in my life, it was incredibly important to me for that dialogue to exist, as forced as it may have been at first. It’s always a work in progress.”

Looking through the lineups of past years reveals the festival is perhaps even more eclectic than the Sophomore Lounge catalog, with acts ranging from freeform art-rock to experimental electronic music, no-frills punk and tear-in-your-beer alt-country. The overarching theme, much like the label, is to facilitate a nurturing space for do-it-yourself culture and outsider art to flourish.

But let’s not get too caught up in stuffy artistic ambitions. Cropped Out has also seen more than its fair share of outrageous spectacles.

“I’ve seen heads get sliced open,” Davis says, “legs of encased meat get tossed around a room, penises flopping freely on stage, dildos strapped to women at 4 in the afternoon, people letting spiders suck blood from an open wound, David Liebe Hart — just as a person, in general — and countless other acts of insanity.”

According to Davis, the one performance topping them all was last year’s headlining act, the inimitable underground rapper Lil B. “It was like Jesus stepping on stage. People seriously lost it. And the fact that (former and current Louisville Cardinal basketball players) Russ Smith, Chane Behanan and Kevin Ware were there for his set just solidifies it in my mind as an all-time high.”

For the uninitiated, Lil B’s freeform “based” style can be difficult to make sense of — it’s purposefully goofy but also deadly serious, and there’s an undercurrent of pep-talk positivity running through it all. And though Lil B may stand out musically among the mostly rock-centric acts featured at the festival, the success he’s found through his staunch DIY ethos is exactly what Cropped Out celebrates.

“We’re extremely proud of every lineup,” says Davis, “and looking back on it, I truly cannot believe some of the experiences we’ve had with booking this thing — but 2013 will be one for the history books.”

This year, Davis is thrilled to have snagged Mayo Thompson, former frontman of the far-out psychedelic rock band Red Krayola, as a headliner. Thompson will be performing the entirety of his self-released 1970 record Corky’s Debt to His Father. With its loose folk-rock sound and obtuse but endlessly quotable lyrics, it’s easy to see why the album ranks among Davis’ all-time favorites.

“It’s a masterpiece,” he declares. “It’s something I would travel great lengths to witness, so the fact that it’s happening in my own hometown is pretty tough to wrap my head around.”

In addition to musical heroes, Davis and Ardery have booked the one and only Tony Clifton to serve as master of ceremonies for the weekend. Originally an elaborate Andy Kaufman character, the crass lounge singer has nonetheless continued to perform long after that comedian’s death in 1984. It’s believed the character was taken over by Kaufman’s friend Bob Zmuda, but there are those who maintain Kaufman faked his own death and now sporadically appears in public as Clifton. The thought of such a figure hosting the festival is downright surreal — what Davis and Ardery were aiming for.

Of course, Cropped Out wouldn’t be complete without local representation. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney have been invited to perform their album Superwolf in full — for the first time ever, no less — and local first-wave punk legends The Endtables are reuniting for a retrospective performance. (Full disclosure: This writer’s band, Mote, was asked to perform after this article was written.)

The American Turners Club will once again serve as the venue for Cropped Out’s 2013 installment. On choosing the riverfront country club to host, Davis says the decision was obvious as soon as they scoped the place out years ago.

“We went into Turners one afternoon and our hearts never left. The vibes just seemed to perfectly fit with the whole aesthetic of our festival: a lot of charm, a lot of character, a complete lack of pretension.”

The same could be said of Davis himself. If you go looking, you’ll probably see him in the crowd at Turners sooner or later, eyes glazed over and jaw hanging open from lack of sleep. If you’re close enough to pat him on the back, you should thank him and reassure him that sleep will come, eventually. In the meantime, he’ll be plucking premature gray hairs out of his head and daydreaming about what else he and his associates can contribute to Louisville’s music scene.

“The amount of slack that is picked up by others in the process of promoting ‘progressive’ music in this town, month after month, without reward, is pretty astounding,” Davis says. “It’s a thankless job, but everyone seems to be working well together right now in an effort to keep things moving forward. I’m excited to see where it takes us.”