Interview: Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years

In the last year and a half, The Wonder Years have ridden their early 2010 release The Upsides to levels of attention they had never experienced before. That record helped them jump from the up-and-coming No Sleep Records to indie powerhouse Hopeless Records, exposed the group to new fans and got them credibility all over the globe. After roughly an entire year of touring, the six-piece Philadelphia pop-punkers took a month to record a follow-up full-length in Los Angeles with the legendary Steve Evetts. Announced earlier today, Suburbia I’ve Give You All And Now I’m Nothing will be released June 14 via Hopeless Records. Now we’ve got for you an exclusive interview with frontman Dan “Soupy” Campbell, where Soupy and I discuss the band’s current state, a big-picture look into the new record, the first song we’re exclusively streaming, and the band’s mindset going into the release of Suburbia. Much thanks to Soupy for taking the time to answer these questions, to Hopeless for letting us bring you this great exclusive, and to The Wonder Years and their entire team for being awesome people to work with.

First off…how are you? How are all of you guys? How have the first days of the Manscout Tour been going?

I’m great, man. The Manscout Tour has already been the most fun and most work we’ve had to do on a tour. We’re trying to go the extra mile for this record, which means doing a lot of work on tour that we usually wouldn’t do. So, we started the tour with a 12-hour drive to Detroit to get new photos done for the press release and shit. Then, drove a few more hours and played an amazing show in Lansing, only to leave right after and drive to Toledo. We crashed in a hotel from 3 am to 7 am and then headed to the Jamboree for an 8 am load in. The fest was awesome. We had a great time hanging out with Reign Supreme, Fireworks and Citizen. At the end of the night, a car had us and Evergreen Terrace parked in so eight of us lifted and moved it. As I type this, I’m sitting in The Mad Hatter in Covington, KY, before doors. We just spent the day recording acoustic tracks for b-sides for the record, bringing the grand b-side total to six. 

You guys are going to be pretty busy as far as the eye can see with this tour, the album release, and Warped. Can you give a quick run-down of all future plans that you can tell us about?

This tour runs to May 7th. We’re doing some cool stuff on this tour to hype up the record. I don’t want to give it away, but let’s just say that we may get arrested getting something together for the release of one of the tracks before the record comes out. After this, we have a week off before we fly to Australia for the Parkway Drive tour, which is going to be hectic and awesome. When we get back we have a bunch of other surprise things going on for the release of the record and then we head out on Warped all summer. 

Now, getting into the new record. Let’s start kind of looking at the bigger picture at first. The Upsides is obviously something huge to follow up…I remember interviewing you in early February in Tallahassee, like six days after that record was released, and we were already talking about how that record might impact the writing of the next full-length. What was the mindset going into writing the new record, not just you with the lyrics, but with the whole band’s sound?

There were two things we really thought about before we got into writing this record. We’re fans of this genre first and foremost and so we know what we loved and hated when our favorite bands made follow-ups to records we loved. I feel like a lot of our fanbase comes from the fact that our lyrics were honest and relatable. We were singing songs about our lives. There was nothing hidden. It was straight-forward and it turned out that a lot of other people were living similar lives and dealing with similar issues and were able to relate. But, we’ve been living a totally different life since Upsides came out so, if we want to be honest, and we do, we couldn’t write about the same relatable things again. Recognizing this, we faced the challenge of finding what about our lives was still relatable. Musically we faced a challenge as well. I remember how shitty it was when your favorite pop punk band went from putting out a record you loved to putting out a weird jazz fusion record. I also remember how shitty it was when your favorite pop punk band released the same record twice in a row. We knew we didn’t want to do either of those things so we set out to make a record that stayed grounded in pop punk but stretched itself in new directions.

The title is Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing. That’s some pretty heavy shit right there already. It’s taken from the first line of Allan Ginsberg’s America. What’s the title by itself mean to you?

Ginsberg’s America has always had a special place in my heart. It was written on my birthday exactly 30 years before I was born and throughout school, it was one of my favorite poems to read. I hadn’t thought about it in years. Josh’s girlfriend was having her senior show at the art school she went to and we went up to check out her studio space. On the wall of the studio next to hers, someone had written “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” I immediately fell back in love with the poem. This was at the time that I was honing in on the concept of the album and I came to realize that the record and the poem shared a lot of the same themes. The more I read it, the more apparent it became and it was almost like I stumbled into a gateway into the lyrics for our new record. Everything was immediately given context. I read America as being Ginsberg’s lament in regards to America as his home. He discusses his discontent but also makes his love apparent and I felt that same dichotomy in my relationship with the Philadelphia suburbs and so, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing just seemed to fit. 

So far, you’ve mentioned in other interviews two things about the new album that have been recurring in my mind. One is that the record is about not having a real home or sense of permanence, and that feeling of sort of realizing the place you grew up might not be home anymore. What can you tell us about that large-scale concept of this album?

This record functions in a timeline. It begins November 2009 and ends November/December 2010. During this time, I was given, albeit forcibly, a choice. The question was raised: Is this place still my home? The songs are all stories of particular events or discussions of particular issues that would lead me to believe one way or the other. I had a great conversation with Eric from Hopeless about the idea of leaving in general. We talked about how every kid in every town I’ve ever been to has said “This place sucks. I can’t wait to leave.” The thing is, if every one of those kids is right, then EVERY place sucks and there’s no sense in leaving because you’ll just hate the next place too. It feels like everyone is a part of this purposeless migration. Everyone wants out. No one knows why. It’s like every kid in high school can’t wait to get to college and every kid in college can’t wait to get a job and everyone with a job can’t wait for a better job and so on and so forth. No one ever gets to where they want to be because no one seems to know where that is. There’s a line in one of the songs that says “No one knows where they’re going. They just know they want out of here badly. They’re like cigarettes dropped on a highway. They smash and scatter and burn out somewhere else.” That about sums up how I feel about it. This is a record about taking the time to decide if I do want to leave and if I do, why I want to go and where the fuck I’m going. 

That question sort of leads right into the first single, “Local Man Ruins Everything.” How does that general picture from the last question tie into this first song? AND On the new track, you sing, “I’m not a self-help book / I’m just a fucked up kid / I had to take my own advice and I did.” That seems to sort of be your reaction to how people reacted to The Upsides, right? Can you take us through where you were at emotionally when you wrote the song?

”Local Man Ruins Everything” is towards the beginning of the record and represents a really tumultuous time for me. I had recently lost my reason for calling Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs home and, as a result of that, lost the place that I was living. That’s really where the question of “is this home” began. I was without any sort of permanence. I felt like I belonged to any random place as much as I did the next. This, ironically, was just when The Upsides had come out. Upsides, of course being a positive record, brought with it a lot of press and fans that would come up and be like “so since you’re the happiest dude in the world…” It was a weird time because the world expected me to be this bastion of positivity but internally, I felt lost. This was when I started actually realizing what The Upsides was about. I’ve said it before, but, it turned out that “I’m not sad anymore” wasn’t as much a victory speech as it was a battle cry. If you deal with internal issues– depression, anxiety, etc, you’re going to deal with them your entire life. The war will never be over. No matter how good things are, there will always be solitary nights you spend in your bedroom or car or in a party full of your closest friends when it feels like the walls are caving in. The idea behind The Upsides wasn’t winning the war, it was about the idea that you should never stop fighting and I didn’t know that when I wrote the record. I learned that last winter and Local Man Ruins Everything is a song about just that. 

Going back to earlier, the other thing that stuck with me reading earlier interviews was how you said you guys let other influences (Envy, American Football, The Anniversary, etc.) creep into the new record. On Suburbia as a whole, how prevalent are those new influences?

I guess it’s up to the listener to decide. I don’t think they’re overbearing but I do think they add a new edge to what we’ve been putting out. I’m really excited about how they worked into the songs. I’d say that it’s not like a pop punk song with an Envy part thrown in as much as it’s a pop punk song with parts that feel like what Envy might write if they had to write a pop punk song. It’s not forced to me. It’s way more organic. 

I think we can see a little of that new sound on “Local Man Ruins Everything.” The track still has a similar feel to The Upsides but there’s clearly a progression. About halfway through there’s that slower part with the clean guitars…is that more or less what you meant when you said, “If American Football wrote a pop punk part, this is what it would sound like?”

That is one of the parts that made me say that, yes. But again, it’s up to you to decide. That’s just how it feels to me, but obviously that’s also how it hit you on first listen and Mara from Mixtapes said the same thing to me today when she heard it the first time so I guess it’s not just me.

Let’s zoom back out again to the record as a whole. We mentioned earlier the impact of Ginsberg’s poetry on the record. Can you talk about what the poem means to you…how it influenced the lyricism and anything else in the writing process?

I talked about it a lot earlier but I’ll say that throughout the lyrics on the record, if you’re familiar with the poem, you’ll see lines from it re-contextualized to represent my life and how those lines interact with that. Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and called it art. We’re putting Ginsberg into songs and calling it pop punk. [Ed.’s note: I could read this sentence over and over again and not get tired of it.]

You talked about a board that you made with the lyrics written in different colors according to what story they were telling and whether they were references to The Upsides. Just how many Upsides references are we getting on the new album? And can you talk about those recurring themes and linked songs?

I don’t feel like we could have made an honest record without harkening back to Upsides. This band represents our lives and those lives have continued, so the stories we told onUpsides have new chapters and those are brought up on this record. Get Stoked on Itaside, I look at The Wonder Years as one body of work. It’s almost like a series of paintings or photographs. They’re all unique but they’re all part of a collective whole. Lyrics from Upsides come up again on Suburbia because they are part of the same whole and they are telling two parts of the same story. It just happens to be that that story is about our lives. There are other themes lyrically on the record, but I’ll let you discover them as you go along. I don’t want to ruin that moment when you realize something is intertwined that you didn’t get on the first few listens.

The last album also had a lot of personal and pop culture references. You referenced your own friends, you referenced stuff like the Blue Man Group and Lucky Charms and whatnot, and that’s part of what made those lyrics so instantly relatable to people. Should we be looking for more of the same on the new album?

Absolutely. I am still me and I will still write like me. That lyricism remains in my style and so you’ll see that kind of stuff always with The Wonder Years. We’re constantly being beaten over the head with culture. It impacts our lives every second of every day and so there is no sense, to me, to keeping it out of our art. 

What came first, music or lyrics?

I read an interview with The Hold Steady where they talked about how the lyrics were written before the music and how it functioned almost like someone writing a soundtrack for a movie. You know when you’re watching a movie and feel like the music is perfect for this moment? That’s because the moment existed first. Someone created the music to be perfect for the moment. So, I wrote at least the concepts for all the songs first. That allowed us to write the music to those ideas. That way, the music feels like it was tailored to the moment that the lyrics create. We feel like the music either perfectly fits the feel of the lyrics or is ironically the exact opposite feel. 

With the album release only a couple of months away, how do you feel about this upcoming date compared to how you felt when the release of The Upsides was looming?

I want to say that pressure’s off but that wouldn’t really be fair. It’s a new kind of pressure. We had a lot to prove with Upsides. Outside of No Sleep, no label had given us the time of day. No agent took a risk and put us on a tour because our numbers weren’t coming from “legit venues.” Playing basements and churches and legions had accidently taken a toll on our growth. Upsides was our chance to say, “fuck you, we’re going to do this with or without you.” Now, we have the best team of people behind us that I could ever ask for. However, now the pressure is on to go above and beyond. We want to do things that bands aren’t thinking to do. We want to give kids new, fresh things. I don’t want you to find about our record in a magazine ad, I want the record to walk up to you and slap you in the face. I want to pull stunts. I want to shake shit up and I’m hoping it all comes to fruition.

Tell me about the pigeons. The cover art of the single and for the album is a person wearing a big ass pigeon costume…what does it represent for you guys?

I think I covered it a bit in the last question but we’ve always identified with pigeons. The pigeon is an animal that no one wants around. Most people would be much happier if the pigeon was eradicated, but the pigeon doesn’t give a fuck. Not only does it live where it’s not wanted, but it flourishes. A year or year and a half ago, we felt like the pigeon of this scene. Nobody wanted to give us a break but instead of being stomped out, we decided we were going to take over in that climate and we won’t stop until we have.

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