In Discussion With The Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell

American alt rockers The Wonder Years are in the midst of their biggest European tour to date in support of last year’s acclaimed and powerful Sister Cities. The album sees Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell and co. dissect life and tug at the heartstrings of the listener. Maui Vindevogel sat down with Campbell to find out more.

Hi Dan, how are you?
I’m good! Well, I’m not good, it’s a bad day because Tim from Transit passed away today. But I am happy to be here with you. The answer when someone asks you how you are is always “I’m good” and I was like, “‘Good’? Wait a minute, no I’m not.” I feel awful. He passed away last night.

I’m so sorry to hear about that.
Yeah, me too. But go ahead.

So you’re on the second day of this tour. How has it been so far?
It was really good. I like Dynamo [Eindhoven] a lot, it’s a great place to play. I felt like the crowd really had a lot of energy. It’s a really small stage and we’re used to do a lot of different kind of stages. When we’re in America, the rooms are much, much bigger. There we play to 5000 people in Philadelphia, but then to 200 people in Eindhoven; it’s a big jump. The way we put on our show has to change entirely. All of a sudden I don’t have any room to do a lot of the things I do and so I have to adjust the way that I move my body and whether I interact with the songs, the crowd and the rest of the band. It’s kind of a fun challenge too. You get to a point where you’re playing the same size rooms for six weeks in a row and every night I know that “during this part of this song, I will do this thing” and now I’m like, “oh, I can’t do that thing, I don’t have room for it and I have to think of something new”. It’s challenging and fun.

(c) Liza van de Ven
(c) Liza van de Ven

Do you prefer playing one or the other?
I think that it’s nice to do both. When we play on a big stage, I know that we can run our whole production, we can do our light show, we can time things and it can be a spectacle in that way. But sometimes I like to come here and be sweaty and loud and play a fast punk rock show. It’s fun in both ways.

Sister Cities was released almost a year ago. How has the response been?
It’s been good. I still think that, a year later, it’s the best thing we’ve ever written. I’m really, really proud of the songs. I know that they maybe challenging for some people, but I guess it depends on what kind of person you are and the kind of music lover you are. Some people are looking for consistency and they’re like, “I like this band because they do these things, please do those things again”. I’m the kind of person who wants a band to make a record and then challenge me the next time they make a record. Write a record that still contains the core tendency of who they are, but pushes the boundaries in different ways; that’s what we try to do. I think that we succeeded. I still listen to some of the songs and I’m so happy with the way they turned out. It’s who we are at this time, it’s who we were when we were writing Sister Cities in 2018, and it’s the most authentic you can be. I think if we were like, “ok let’s make a record which sounds like the record we made when we were 22″, then that isn’t who you are right now. That’s the authenticity lacking, so we’re always trying to be authentic.

Was the creative process on Sister Cities different?
No, I just think that we had a little more time. We weren’t rushed. With every other record it was like, “if we don’t finish it by this day, then we can’t release it by this day, which means we can’t go on this tour that we need to go on”. But this time we didn’t plan anything, we just made the record. When the record is done, we’ll plan the tour. It took a lot of pressure off us and let us make the good parts better. We could challenge what we wrote. We were like, “Ok, that part is great but we have some time, can we beat it?”.

Diving a little bit deeper into the meaning behind the album, where did the main themes come from?
This record is about distance, the ways in which we are connected and the ways that we believe ourselves not to be. We did this world tour on No Closer to Heaven (2015) and went to over 20 countries all over the world. We did Australia, South America, Asia, Europe and North America, met a lot of people and had a lot of experiences. We found the ways those people were connected to us and to the rest of the world, and I think that right now it feels like there’s a lot of angry people who don’t believe in community, and who don’t believe in caring for everyone. They want to separate people into “us versus them”. What we learnt is that there is no ‘us’ and there is no ‘them’, it’s ‘all of us’. It’s easy to think about the people you meet as very different. “That person doesn’t speak my language, doesn’t look like me, doesn’t dress like me, doesn’t listen to the same music or eat the same kinds of food as me, so they must be a fucking alien”. They must be so different from me that they are my adversary. What we are saying is that they’re not all that different. If you get past the superficial level of it, they’re actually much more alike and you’re much more connected to them than you know. If you meet them, you’ll start to understand that they’re not your adversary.

Being a band for quite some time now and having brought out multiple albums over the years, do you feel like it’s getting easier to write new songs?
It’s harder. It’s a new challenge. Someone once said, “You get your entire life to write your debut, and then you get 18 months to write the next one”. All of a sudden a record is expected of us, and we have to write one. It has to be better, there’s a certain pressure. People know what to expect from it and you have to defy and surpass those expectations. It’s difficult. There’s a reason a lot of bands don’t make a sixth record. There’s a reason why a lot of bands only make one or two. Every record is harder than the one before. Exponentially so, it can bounce.

You’ve also toured a lot in that time. Are there any bands who you’ve enjoyed touring with the most?
I think we really enjoy everyone we tour with. We pick them because they’re good people, have good music, and because we think our fans will like them. Or we think that our fans already do like them or would appreciate them if they heard them. We have The Winter Passing and Free Throw on this run, and we’re about to go out with Mayday Parade, Movements and Pronoun. Everyone is genuinely lovely.

What about a band who you’d still love to tour with?
If I could tour with any band in the world, I would bring Fireworks back and tour with them. We started around the same time as them and we played together everywhere for years. I have their lyrics tattooed on my leg, they were all at my wedding, I love them. They’re our best friends, so if I could tour with anybody  I would make them be a band again.

Imagine you’d have to give a complete stranger a mixtape with three songs which describe you, what songs would they be?
X’s On Trees by Fireworks, This Year by The Mountain Goats and A Better Son or Daughter by Rilo Kiley. Rilo Kiley broke up as well, but their singer also does solo stuff. I think you’d really like the record More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley; it’s very big, orchestral and pretty. It’s very vibey, and she’s an amazing singer. As for The Mountain Goats, I would recommend listening to The Sunset Three.

(c) Liza van de Ven
(c) Liza van de Ven

What are you most proud of as a part of The Wonder Years?
I think the connection that we’ve been able to forge with people. We hear from a lot of people that our songs are important to them, and that they listen to them at moments where they need something to hold on to. I think that’s the most important thing you can do as an artist; create a tool that is useful for someone else in a time where they need a tool. So, we’ve been able to create those, something for which we feel very lucky.

What’s the most important thing that being in The Wonder Years has taught you?
Problem solving, specifically creative problem solving. Everything goes wrong, and it’s because there’s never a lot of money when you’re doing something on a low budget. Especially now, when record sales don’t matter as far as income goes. Touring is really the only way you can make money, so you try to reduce the expenditures to make sure you can pay your bills. We would do all these tours where the cheapest possible vehicle broke down and that the best flights got cancelled or we missed them. Constant problems that need constant solving, and you’re always in some place where you aren’t from. You’re hundreds or thousands of miles away from home, and nobody is going to help if something goes wrong. Figure it out, solve the problem. Your van broke down in the desert, solve the problem. You missed your flight in Germany, solve the problem. It’s taught me how to do that.

Do you still get nervous before going on stage?
No, I’m nervous pretty much every moment of every day just existing. Everything scares me; I am anxious about everything except for going on stage. I don’t know why, but it has never scared me. Give me a microphone, put me in front of 10,000 people and I’ll be fine. But ask me to sit in a room with 20 strangers and I’ll melt down. I don’t know what it is. Even as a kid, playing sports and playing music, having to give a presentation in front of the class room. Everyone hated that, not me, I’m fine, let me do it. But if I’m performing for you, no nerves. If I have to have a conversation with you, super anxious. My brain is chaos.

So what does 2019 have in store for The Wonder Years?
Not a whole lot. I have a baby coming next month, so I’ll get home from this tour and then I’ll have about five weeks before the due date. From then on I’m going to take a step back from touring so I can be home and be a dad. It’s my first baby so I’m really excited. I’m also putting out another Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties record, probably in May. I’m excited about that as well, and I’m getting the mixes right now. I’ll probably do a little bit of touring for that. The Wonder Years normally do 100 shows but this year, from the baby onwards, we’ll only do around 20. It’s way less, but I’m just allowing myself the opportunity to be home with my wife, my soon-to-be son and our dog. Then we’ll head out in again in 2020. Sister Cities is out now.