The Wonder Years: Thanks For The Ride

The Wonder Years: Thanks For The Ride

By Maryam Hassan

Dec 18, 2015 16:00

Talking to Dan Campbell was an interesting experience. The Wonder Years are one of those bands that have defined my late twenties and helped me get through some of the biggest personal challenges with my mental health. I got into The Wonder Years during a time when my anxiety hit rock bottom. I’d got to point where going to shows made me have panic attacks, I was reluctant to leave my house a lot of the time and I thought I was falling apart. When I first heard ‘The Upsides’ I was getting help, but I wasn’t okay. The opening line of ‘My Last Semester’ (‘I’m not sad anymore, I’m just tired of this place’) hit something inside of me and ever since then the band have been essential in my recovery.

Campbell has a way of writing songs that is so personal and passionate but resonates on a whole level with so many people, that the thought of talking to him about his music was daunting. How was I going to explain how much lines like, “It’s not about forcing happiness it’s about not letting sadness win,” meant to me without sounding weird to him? I needn’t have worried.

“It would be weird if I wasn’t such a music fan,” he responded to my concerns. “I think that there is this assumed separation between bands and listeners. There is one camp that does one thing and another that does another but I do the same things you do, I resonate with songs. I listen to music the same way. It’s not weird because I’ll listen to an Owen song or a Get Up Kids song and feel the same way that you feel about our songs. There isn’t a difference. It’s not strange because I know exactly how you feel.”

There’s something weirdly comforting in hearing someone you respect so much musically understand that geeking out about songs is something that just happens naturally to any music fan. His music is cathartic. I saw the band for the first time in 2011 at KCLSU in London and it was a spiritual experience for me. Campbell doesn’t just talk about struggling with his mental health, he shows progression and acceptance that they will always be a part of him. His passion and emotion in his songs is what makes The Wonder Years a pop punk institution, one of the most defining pop punk bands of the last 10 years. ‘The Upsides’, ‘Suburbia I’ve Given You My All and Now I’m Nothing’ and ‘The Greatest Generation’ broke genre conventions, talked about mental health issues and gave hope to a whole generation of kids. ‘No Closer To Heaven’ had a lot to live up to.

“The way I look at it we’re still writing songs the same way we always write songs which is about things that happen to us and are important to us. But we are allowing those things to be in dialogue with greater social issues that impacts them.” Campbell says. “When you have such a legacy to live up to it’s only natural you start to feel the pressure of writing a follow up. We didn’t set out to write a politically charged record because that’s what needs to happen right now.. It’s all personal issues though, it’s not like the Ceremony record. Instead we’re not talking about things that impacted us but that impact large swathes of people that we think need attention. We’re trying to raise questions.”

The legacy they have is a great one, and it’s something that put great pressure on Campbell as he started to work on the new record.

“We knew we wanted to do something different but we weren’t sure what that was,” Campbell explains. “There was this weight of people expecting it to be a certain thing or a certain way and that starts piling up and you start getting nervous.” There are two defining facts in Campbell’s struggle to write this fourth record. Firstly, he’s such a big music fan, talking to him about bands is a joy because you can tell he appreciates music on so many levels. “Because we are music fans, to get a record and be genuinely let down,” he says. “I have genuinely listened to a record and been so disappointed, feeling like the band was just pandering to me or it’s not what I wanted it to be. It’s important for us to make a record that we genuinely believe in and think it is good. We want to make our best record and if we don’t feel like it’s our best record then it’s not a success at all. We will get back to writing until it is.”

The second struggle is The Wonder Years is no longer a pipe dream. The Wonder Years is their career and their livelihood. “Once it becomes your job it’s like, “If I write this and it sucks I don’t have a job anymore, and I have to pay my rent and my health insurance,” and it’s not just me but my best friends who have the same job and would lose their jobs if I suck. I know how easy it can be for a music fan. It’s a commodity of songs, you like them or you don’t. For us it’s our lives and our career. I just got engaged, we have families and dogs and apartments and there’s a pressure there.”

Hearing Campbell talk about The Wonder Years as his job makes you realise how many times in life we’ve criticised a band for selling out. They get too popular, they lose their way or we claim they are now just in it for the money. But really when you look at the big picture they are just people trying to pay rent, bills and stay afloat. There is an amount of pressure we put on punk bands to be an ideal, to live up to this dream of freedom, life on the road and not being constrained by the everyday job ties we have. We need to believe there’s that escape out of life.

“We don’t get a lot of selling out criticism,” Campbell says, “but we heard one person say that we’d sold out and got too poppy and we were so confused. What did they mean? This is the opposite of pop songs there’s like really weird things happening structurally, they’re slower and less marketable for a mass consumer. Then the dude was just like “yeah you’re right.” He didn’t have an argument for us selling out. I guess they just didn’t like us, but selling out? Shit!”

The Wonder Years are not just a pop punk band, they are so much more than that one confining genre. The Wonder Years are cathartic and that’s what makes them brilliant. “The pop-punk genre is stigmatised,” Campbell explains. “Pop-punk is juvenile, pop-punk is about girls and skateboarding and that is all that it can be and we’re working very hard to try to write songs that operate in a different sphere than that. I don’t have an interest in shaking the genre tag or keeping one. You can call us whatever you want to call us, but if you’re going to give us the time day and listen, I’d like to help impact your understanding of what the genre can be.”

‘No Closer to Heaven’ had a lot to live up to this year when it was released. I wanted another album from The Wonder Years that made me feel every emotion I could; that spoke to me. The first single ‘Cardinals’ was on loop for weeks after its release, I spun it over 200 times in the first weekend until I knew every word. “We’re not interested in making our second best record,” Campbell states. This isn’t a record I can put against previous releases, it’s born of struggle, pressure and desire to tell stories in new ways, which makes it lyrically some of Campbell’s best work to date.

I went into this interview nervous about talking to someone who has written lyrics that have helped me cope with depression, anxiety and learning to deal with my personal issues. Much of my acceptance of my anxiety as part of me, and learning to understand it I’ve gained from bands like The Wonder Years. When we’d finished talking I knew I’d talked to a person who understands just how important music is, who is still passionate about bands to this day and who puts their all into everything they write. The Wonder Years are continuing to break pop punk boundaries, and I’m forever glad of this.

‘No Closer To Heaven’ tops our Best of 2015: The Album List. Check it out here to see who else made the cut.