Amy Abts wants to know where all the female rock guitarists and songwriters have gone. “In the 90s there was a huge explosion of people like Liz Phair and other women with electric guitars,” she says, “and you just don’t see that anymore.” Abts is doing her part to fill the void with her band the State Champs, for which she writes the songs, sings, and yes, plays electric guitar.
Abts didn’t always rock quite so hard. The Rochester native started learning acoustic guitar and playing Indigo Girls songs in her dorm room after days spent studying theater at the Arts High School in the Twin Cities. Theater still took up most of her time when she moved to Duluth for college, but she kept playing guitar and wrote her own songs. Scott “Starfire” Lunt, a local music promoter and, at the time, pirate radio operator, heard her singing an original tune called “I Could Kick Jewel’s Ass” (destined to become a crowd favorite at shows) in the background while on the phone with a mutual friend. He invited her to play on his radio station. “I went down there and played on Random Radio,” said Abts, “and all of a sudden I was opening for Low. It was pretty crazy.”
After receiving a theater degree from UMD, Abts was burned out on the art form and switched her focus to music. “With theater I studied so long and so much that I know a lot of technique,” says Abts, “but then when you learn that, you kind of get away from the play aspect of the improvisational thing. With music I’ve struggled to keep it just really basic because that is the most satisfying for me, to write a song and just not think too hard about it.”
After years of being “stuck in coffee shops and acoustic-women-singing jams,” as she puts it on her band’s web site, Abts formed the State Champs. The current lineup, together three years, includes three Duluth music scene veterans: guitarist Greg “Cougar” Conley (Both, Puddle Wonderful), drummer Zac Bentz (Dirty Knobs, the Surfactants), and bassist Eric Anderson (the Surfactants). The band has just released its first, self-titled, album, a straightforward rock record with plenty of pop crunch and Abts’ girlish-but-tough vocals. The disc cribs several tunes from Abts’ mellower 2003 solo album “Approach and Attack,” because, says Abts, “originally I had wanted them to be more rock sounding,” and the State Champs were able to realize that vision.
A series of obstacles held up the CD’s release. The band actually had to re-record the album after the first version was lost to a computer crash. Abts’ recurring problem with cysts in her hands required that her guitar parts be recorded before a scheduled surgery. Once the album was done, Abts approached Al Sparhawk of Low about releasing it on his label, Chairkickers. (“I like independent labels,” says Abts, “and it’s pretty much the only label in Duluth that can get distribution outside of Duluth.”) Signing to Chairkickers meant increased visibility for the album, but it also meant more delays. “Once you work with distribution companies you really have a lot of time just waiting for them to get everything in place,” says Conley, “[It’s] like playing a gig--you get there and then you just wait around for a long time and then you finally play.” Close to a year after the record was actually finished, it was released on January 23.
Band members seem unfazed by any difficulties and hopeful about the exposure being on a label will give them. Says Conley, “It’s a good opportunity to [tour] when our name is going be put out there.” The delay also gave Abts plenty of time to write new songs; “We’re looking forward to our new set,” she says. Audiences will get to hear the new set, along with songs from the album, soon. The State Champs plan a CD release show at Pizza Luce in Duluth at the end of February as well as a show at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis in February or March.
Look for information on these upcoming dates, as always, on mnartists.org! You can sample the music here: see the mp3s on this page.