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The Wonder Years: How to Evolve Your Band the Right Way – Aquarian Weekly

Right on the cusp of their new album, we sat down with a band who we’ve been following for some 10 years – and have had the immense joy of chatting with more than once.
The Wonder Years have always been a step ahead of their peers in the scene. When pop punk bands were talking about getting drunk on the weekends, The Wonder Years were talking about life changes and dealing with depression. When other bands were discussing unrequited love, The Wonder Years were discussing how to handle the death of a loved one.
This is a band that has always taken their music and actually said something with it. Every album is a progression of their sound, sonically, but also of the band as people, personally. They return today with their first new album in four years: The Hum Goes On Forever. As a music journalist, I’m happy to say that this isn’t even my favorite album from the band. This is one of my favorite records written in the last decade. The Wonder Years have crafted a profound journey with this album as they tackle parenthood in a way never before heard in the world of rock music. It is the kind of album that reminds the listener as to why they fell in love with music in the first place. It is beautiful, gut-wrenching, lively, and fierce all at the same time. Every member wears their heart on their sleeve and gives their absolute most for performance on every track. Everyone is at their best. This is a record that will have you speechless. I consider myself a bit of an optimistic music listener, and even though I like most music I hear, I’ve never heard anything like this.  
The timing is right, too, as you can catch them on tour with Fireworks this fall. They’re stopping at Irving Plaza in New York City on October 13 and Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey on October 16. You can also catch the band at a festival, such as When We Were Young Fest in Las Vegas, this year. With so many things happening, it’s a very exciting time to be a fan of TWY.
I had the incredible opportunity to catch up with Dan Campbell, the vocalist of The Wonder Years, for the following Aquarian interview. We discussed the new record, album roll out, and so much more – big fans, prepare yourself.
Your new record, The Hum Goes on Forever, is out September 23. How are you feeling?
Impatient. I’m feeling impatient because we started making the record in June of 2021 – like started recording it. It’s just been a really long process because final timelines are so far out right now that we had to keep pushing it back and pushing it back because… we’re kind of a rare band in that I think our fans care more about vinyl than they do about digital or streaming. It had to be done in time, which just meant this incredibly long lead up. I want people to hear it and about it because I’m so excited. I’m feeling impatient, but excited.
I think that’s almost credit to The Wonder Years. You guys write album music – you don’t just write a bunch of singles on a record. Fans want to hear this thing start to finish.
Yeah and it always gets in my head a little bit when we’re releasing “singles” because it’s not 1997 and we’re not selling a single at the wall. That’s a reference that’s going to go over a lot of people’s heads [age wise]. Also, it’s not getting pitched to radio – it’s pre-released tracks. As excited as I am about them, I think all the songs are better in context because there is a lot of time spent on developing context and making records that feel like records. It’s a thing we put a lot of time into and it’s a thing that almost gives me anxiety, because when people are only hearing one song, I’m like, “Oh, that song would even be better if you heard it in the context of the record, as it was intended.”
Absolutely. You can definitely hear that with “Wyatt’s Song (Your Name).” It’s an amazing track, but when you hear the build up from “Doors I Painted Shut” into that, it’s so much more incredible.
Yeah! And that right there, those two songs back to back – that dichotomy, that stark dichotomy – was purposefully drawn to show the two sides of feeling about this whole one topic. It’s hard because I want to talk more about it. You’ve obviously heard the record, but you can’t give away too much because the record’s not out yet. 
Of course! Yeah, I imagine that waiting period you talked about just has to be frustrating because this really is your best record to date and you just want these fans to get it. 
First of all, that’s really kind of you to say, and it’s also how I feel about it. To hear it from other people, that they think it’s our best record… it means a lot. There is so much that went into it, into making it; so much adversity, so many things that made it challenging to make versus other records, and to come out the other side of that with a product that people are saying, “This is the best thing you’ve ever done,” means so much more when you put that much in on the front end.
I think it’s just so crazy to even think about – that’s the way it should be as a band. You should want every record to be your very best. That means you’re progressing forward.
That’s always the goal. Listen, when a record is out for a while, you have the benefit of hindsight when looking back on it. I’m always super self critical of my old records.  That’s what I think a good artist should do: listen to, look at, and commune with your old work, think about where you felt it succeeded and then with the benefit of hindsight, and what could have been better about it. Then you take those lessons forward so that every record we put out is our best record, I feel. But then you listen to it a year later and you go, “Ok, well this is what I would have changed.” One of the kind of interesting things about this really long lead-up is that we’re over a year from the time we recorded the first songs for this record and I still wouldn’t change anything. That’s pretty cool. That is pretty exciting. 
It definitely is!
Also, I should add, I’ve listened to it a lot. My three-year-old tells me to put it on everytime we get in the car. It’s not like I’ve only listened to it a couple of times since we’ve finished it. I listen to it pretty much everyday. I still love it.
That is so great to hear! You’re right, if it has that replay-ability, that’s all that matters. I want to ask your opinion on Aaron West and your new solo album Other People’s Lives. How did that have an influence on this new record?
I think the biggest influence it has is the consistent reps of songwriting. Just like anything else, the more you do it, the better at it you’re going to get. We haven’t put out a Wonder Years record since 2018, but I have released two full lengths in that time period and have written 20 other songs you haven’t heard. I think staying active and staying engaged in your writing will improve your writing. It’s not letting those muscles atrophy between albums. 
Yes! I even listen to other podcasts from other bands and they all say that creativity is like a muscle, and if you don’t work out with it, it will go away – as you said. 
Even right now, I don’t want to write a song right now. That’s not a thing I’m interested in at this particular moment. I am probably going to start working on an Aaron West record a few months from now, but right now I’m not particularly interested in writing a song. [However], I am working on a manuscript for a graphic novel. Maybe no one will ever hear about it or ever see it be released, but I’m just trying to stay creative and stay engaged in that. 
You’ve earned some time off. As you said, you’ve been writing/perfecting this album cycle for a year now and we’re almost as everyone having it.
Almost there. I want it out now. 
With this album rollout, you guys are doing custom Jordans if you pre-order the album. How did that come to play? 
I was sitting outside a donut shop with my manager. We were kind of spitballing different merch ideas, and in the last year, I kind of got more interested in shoes. Our buddy is a big shoe guy and the way he talked about it with the passion he talked about it with… I’m like, “Damn! Maybe there’s something cool here,” so I’m casually interested. A dude walks by in a very cool pair of Jordans. I say, “Man, wouldn’t that be a cool idea.” We already talked about a work shirt – like a Dickies work shirt. Obviously we’re going to do T shirts and sweatshirts, but what outside the box can we do?  We’re going to do a work shirt, we’re going to do a watch, we’re going to do a collab with Oxford Pennant for a wall flag, and I was like, “It’d be cool if we could do sneakers.” Then I remembered that someone had messaged me and said, “Yo, I do custom shoes.” That person reached out to me and I thought they just painted shoes. They were like “No, no, no. I, from the ground up, order the leather, pattern it, cut it, sew it, the whole thing. Custom shoes.” We talked about it and it would be a really cool item to sell, but the amount of labor that goes into it from this guy? He puts 50 hours into each pair! Well, we were not going to negotiate the price – they’re putting in so much time and the price they’re charging us was just too much to offer them for sale. It just doesn’t make any sense or fit with what we do. But, we [thought] we could probably give a pair away as a contest. So we hit up the label and said, “We want to do this thing, custom Hum Goes On Forever Air Jordan 1s.” The label has always been interested in our ideas, especially when they’re different. They’re like “Yeah, you guys have been right before,” so we got them made. Whoever wins the contest will tell us their size and they’re going to get a custom build and only one or two of that will exist. 
That is incredible. I’ve seen the pictures and they look amazing, I know all of our readers should definitely check it out. Another question I want to dive right into is the choice to do “Cardinals II” on this record. What was it like? This is the first song you guys have made a sequel to. Was there a lot of pressure/anticipation?
It was more like serendipity. A thing I talk about with writing a lot is, like, sometimes it feels as if your subconscious has an idea before you are conscious of that idea, iif that makes any sense. Sometimes things come to you fully formed. We had the verses of that song since we were writing Sister Cities, but we never found a chorus for it. It just wasn’t there. One day, I was listening to the demo again, and the chorus struck me. “This is what the chorus should be!” So I’m writing the lyrics for the song and it feels like I’m – and I basically am – writing this sequel to “Cardinals.” Then it dawns on us, “Oh my God, it’s in the same key and the same time signature. We can actually make a sequel, take a piece of ‘Cardinals,’ put it in the middle of this song, reframe it, and make it that much more special.” I don’t know if it was serendipitous that it worked out that way or if it was my subconscious understanding, when I hear that key, that temp, and that time signature – maybe that tells my brain that this is “Cardinals.” It just kind of made sense to come together in that way. 
Of course! That makes perfect sense. As you’re writing, you’re putting these pieces together. Another question I wanted to get your opinion on is the influence of New Jersey/Philly – this scene that you guys are known for. You make a lot of references to it in the new album and previous albums. It’s become such a staple of the geography. When I’m in this area I’m like “Ahh, this is Wonder Years territory.
I love that! First, I want to say, it’s Meek’s city, we’re just living in it. That’s is Meek Mill’s town. Part of it is just that you’re going to write what you know. What we know is where we’re from, so that’s going to be part of it naturally, always. But I do think there is culture around the city. I’ll be in Portland, Oregon and talking to someone, and just be like, “Yo, are you from Philly?” You just kind of know. There is a way that people from here are and carry themselves. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about it. That’s why “Paris of Nowhere” is such an interesting song because it’s never really named in the song. It never says, “Philadelphia is like this and the people are like this.” It’s more telling you about the city and what we love about it through microcosmic episodes that are charged with that emotion. You’re seeing these little scenes/clips of Philadelphia. When you hear about a city that during a heat wave, people rented dumpsters and made them into pools on their block, that’s Philadelphia. When you hear about a city that had a junkyard fire and people decided just to fucking throw a dance party out in front of it, that’s very Philadelphia. These are the things that make the city what they are; this kind of scrappiness. I can’t tell you what it is. You have to understand it through seeing it.
I’m originally from Rhode Island. While I love Rhode Island, the music scene down here, going to shows at Starland Ballroom, Theater of the Living Arts, all of these incredible venues… it’s got a magic to it. It really does. I know you mentioned this on “Paris of Nowhere” and it’s all throughout this record and your previous records. As a lyricist you’re really good at painting incredible imagery. There are a lot of metaphors and emotional lyrics, but also a lot of striking images when I’m listening to this album and I know a lot of people will feel the same way. Is that a conscious choice when you’re writing or is that just how your songwriting flows? 
I think it’s a bit of a conscious choice. This is one of the things I think I sharpened throughout the years of continuing to work on [my] craft and getting better at it. It’s one of the things Aaron West helped me with. I like the songs to feel almost cinematic. When I’m describing a place to you, I want you to feel like you’re standing in it. I think that way of storytelling comes from a lot of the stuff over the years that inspired me lyrically. Like from my teenage years of Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, and Cursive up and through my twenties of being obsessed with The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats – that kind of lyricsm has always been magnetic to me. There are a lot of different ways that people think about music. Like Chiemena [Ukazim] who plays saxophone and guitar with me in Aaron West is like virtuosic and an unbelievable player. When he hears a band playing, he’s like, “Oh, isn’t it cool how they did this thing where every time they go through this riff they drop a beat and a riff becomes shorter?” I’m like, “No, what I thought was cool was this really interesting  lyrical choice.” Music means different things to different people. To me, what music is, is one of the best ways to tell a story. That’s in the long tradition of Troubadours and lyric poets. It was a way to pass down stories and tell tales. That’s what’s so alluring to me about the art form; finding a way to tell a story and having that story be even more emotionally charged because the music behind it is propelling it in a special way that could not happen if it were a poem, novel, blog post, or anything else.
That is incredible. I really feel every word you’re saying here. Off your last record, “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me,” had a lot of beautiful lyrics on it. When I picture myself wading in the water with them in mind, it adds a level of depth. There is that imagery there. 
I remember the first time we got to the bridge of the song, playing it in Matt’s basement as we were writing it. I had that lyric. I knew it was the keystone lyric of the song was, “When I was in shambles, when I got too weak, the ocean grew hands to hold me.” I knew that was the lyric that mattered most in the song. The fact that was the time in the song where everyone goes all in behind it? Wow. It takes the lyric to, “Oh, this is a great lyric” to “Oh, this is a special moment.” That is what I think is so cool about songwriting. 
Another question I had, this was a very special moment in time, the Sun Drenched Pavement Society. It was super cool. I know it didn’t get renewed for the next year [2020] but tell me a little bit about how it was seeing these niche and cool Wonder Years items like Lunchboxes and really cool posters kind of being rolled out that way.
Really, from our end of things, it was just a stressful thing. It was so fucking stressful. It was so much work. We weren’t just printing shirts, which is pretty easy. (Not easy, but we do it all the time, so we know how to do it.) I was really determined to do something special month over month. You’re trying to do shit you don’t know how to do. I didn’t know how to make lunchboxes. I had to figure out how to source those. We didn’t know how to make… what else did we do?
The Bobblehead? 
The Bobblehead was one of the big ones. Dude, it’s not easy to get all that stuff made. “It’s gotta be done by this month! People already signed up for it and already paid for it!” The expectation is high, consistent, and the pressure was always on. It really sucked when you did something you thought was really cool and people were like, “Eh, I don’t really like it this month.” It felt like constant pressure on us to deliver, which it was and it should be. People bought into it with the understanding that this is a band that delivers, so they should feel confident buying into this subscription service that means getting 12 very cool things, but it was really hard and the timelines were really tight. There are so many little things. We didn’t want shipping to cost too much which meant we had to stay under a certain weight. We would get an item in and it’s an ounce too heavy and we have to redo the whole thing. It’s just really hard. It was a really cool thing – I’m glad we did it – but it was, by itself, a full-time job. I was working on it every single day of the month and I was stressing out about it every day of every month. 
Wow. It was really cool for the fans but even just hearing the backend of it sounds exhausting. 
On top of it, I had a newborn and we were still touring intermittently… less than a normal year, which is why we did it to begin with. It was a way to stay connected and stay involved. That didn’t mean we weren’t still playing some shows, though. I’m trying to be a parent for the first time, flying all over the place for these festival dates, and also trying to make this happen. 
I can only imagine. Dan, I’ve been a fan of The Wonder Years for more than a decade of my life, we’re going to take it all the way back to The Upsides (2010_ now if that’s okay?
Take it! Take it where you gotta take it.
What is Spiro’s Major? I, and many fans of the band, have been dying to know this for a long time now. What exactly was Spiro’s major?
I’m so sorry that it’s such a dull answer. Do you ever have a friend that’s always trying to get over?
Yeah!
He was always trying to find a loophole through shit. Not in a bad way, but in a way I’ve always respected. A lot of the systems he was trying to get over on, I always felt the rules were very arbitrary. Anyway, Chris had gotten accepted to a university – we’re not going to say which one – out of high school. But then he decided, “No, I’m going to go to community college and stay around here for a little bit.” He didn’t do so great, and then was like, “What am I going to do now?” Then he was like, “You know what, I just won’t tell this university that I went to community college and just be like, ‘Hey! You accepted me last year, I took a year off, and now I want to come.” He just never gave them a transcript! It might have been two years later. He started college and a lot of people don’t declare their major first year, but he was already a couple of years older than everyone else. Now he is in his second year of school there and everyone else his age were seniors. They kept asking what his major was, but I guess he was embarrassed to be like “I’m undeclared, because I’m actually just a sophomore,” so he would just tell people whatever. “Poli-sci or whatever.” The funny part of the story is lying to the college for admission and not giving them your transcript from community college, pretending it doesn’t exist, but then ending up not finishing there. He has a totally different great career now. The story is not all that interesting, but people really latch onto that line… kind of disappointing.
Not disappointing at all! Honestly, I think that’s a cool story and fans of The Wonder Years are going to love that.
Yeah, I guess the answer in a very simple way, he didn’t have one which is why he lied about it.
FOR INFORMATION ON ALL THINGS WONDER YEARS, GO TO THEIR WEBSITE! GET TICKETS TO THEIR TOUR, WHICH INCLUDES A STOP AT STARLAND BALLROM, HERE!

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