The Wonder Years – WPTS Interviews
Interview and photography by Bethany Brubeck
On their thirteenth year of touring, The Wonder Years have come out swinging from the depths of Philadelphia basements, and have grown to be one of the biggest names in pop-punk, having now played in thirty countries across five continents. The band is a staple in the pop-punk scene and is known for their gritty emotional lyrics and unapologetic uniqueness. The Wonder Years’ latest release, “Sister Cities,” is their sixth album together and is certainly one for the books. The album intentionally challenges and breaks the mold of a typical pop-punk record, and it’s exactly what the scene needed. As the band prepares for a few shows on their way to playing Riot Fest in Chicago, front man Dan Campbell took a few minutes to speak with us about what the album and the tours mean to him.
Bethany: Hi. So, we have a couple questions for you about your upcoming shows and your recent album, so I guess we’ll just get right into it. You have a quick little four show run coming up, can you tell us a little bit about that? What inspired you to do that?
The Wonder Years: Yeah, so what inspired us to do this is a show called Riot Fest. It’s part of the run, but it’s not with all the bands and it’s not on the poster. But we’re playing Riot Fest this Sunday at 7 PM in Chicago. We figured that if we’re going to get together and get in the van and drive to Chicago, we might as well do some shows on the way.
Bethany: Is it your first time playing Riot Fest?
The Wonder Years: It’s our third time playing Riot Fest.
Bethany: And you’ve played Warped Tour a few times too, right?
The Wonder Years: Yeah.
Bethany: Speaking of touring, what’s your favorite band that you’ve ever toured with?
The Wonder Years: Fireworks.
Bethany: Switching gears a little bit to talk about your most recent album, Sister Cities. What would you say is your favorite song on that album?
The Wonder Years: “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me.”
The Wonder Years: I just think it’s the best song the band’s ever written. A lot of it is us pushing ourselves to try new things, go in some new directions, and to forcibly remove ourselves from patterns and tropes we’d developed over thirteen years of writing songs together. We made a conscientious effort to work against the grain a little bit and try to find something new and exciting . It’s a song that I still find very moving and I think it’s a perfect ending to that record.
Bethany: The whole record is kind of in a bit of a different direction. Is that your intention with it?
The Wonder Years: Yeah, that’s our intention every time we write a record.
Bethany: One question that I’ve seen a lot of people wondering about is the album artwork. Where did that image come from? What does it mean?
The Wonder Years: It’s a couple of images overlaid over one another. We took a drawing of a stray dog in Chile and layered it on top of this photograph of a field in Michigan, outside of Detroit. The juxtaposition is, obviously, somewhat representative of the global nature of the record; these places that are so far from one another and understood to be so different and the way that they’re connected.
Bethany: I know the first song on the album is “Raining in Kyoto,” so that’s fitting with the global theme.
The Wonder Years: Yeah, the whole record falls into that theme.
Bethany: There’s also the journal entries in the “Sister Cities” book. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
The Wonder Years: I don’t know what else there would be to tell other than that they are journal entries from tour. Obviously, there are more journal entries than appear in the book. The entries in the book are in there specifically because there’s an easy line to be drawn. If you read the journal entry, you can see how it informs the song.
Bethany: Is there any entry that didn’t make the final version of the book that you think is still important or relevant to the album?
The Wonder Years: Yeah, I think that there are definitely journal entries that have value that aren’t in there. Some of them aren’t in there because, you know, my handwriting is bad, and this leads to the journal entries being difficult to read. But some of them are so difficult to read that you would never have been able to get through it. I had trouble deciphering what I wrote in some of them, especially if we were in a moving vehicle or an airplane or I was really trying to get my thoughts down right before we went somewhere. So, there’s a bunch more. Obviously, there’s limitations in regards to space. There’s a lot of content we wanted to get into the 200 pages of that book, and I think it came out unbelievable. I love it. But, yeah, there’s definitely things that ended up on the cutting room floor: photos, journal entries, things like that that just didn’t make it.
Bethany: So is the journal a finished work now? Or is it still an ongoing project with the shows you’re playing for the album?
The Wonder Years: I was journaling specifically for that record, so I have not been journaling since.
Bethany: Now, talking about the shows that you’re playing for the album, I saw on your Twitter that you wanted to play some deep cuts for this four-show run around Riot Fest. You don’t have to tell us what you plan on playing, but I want to know what your favorite song is that you don’t get to play a lot or that doesn’t get as much recognition as you would have hoped?
The Wonder Years: Actually, I was speaking about it yesterday as we were going through the setlist. The answer to that is, I think “I Wanted So Badly to Be Brave,” which is an album cut from “No Closer To Heaven.” It was never a single or a focus track; it never got its own roll-out or release, but I really love the song. And we try to do this every tour. There are some songs that are kind of unavailable and others that we just can’t take off the setlist. Like, if you come to a show you’re expecting to hear it and we need to deliver. Then there’s always the album cycle you’re on and you want to throw in some songs from that album, and we try to make it a point to go back and just try to pick a few songs from every album in recent history that don’t always get played and try to mix that in, too. So, if you’re coming to the show you kind of know you’re going to hear the top tracks, but you’re also going to hear some stuff that you maybe didn’t hear last time or maybe have never heard, depending on when you’ve seen us.
Bethany: So, what’s your favorite song that you play live, either one in your repertoire or one that is a live rarity?
The Wonder Years: Recently it’s been “Pyramids of Salt.” We opened with it on our spring tour and it’s such a moment when we get to the first chorus; it starts out so mellow and just erupts when the first chorus kicks in and the crowd takes the lyrics. Really, it’s a special moment in the set.
Bethany: Are there any other songs that illicit that same reaction?
The Wonder Years: Yeah, I mean, the only thing is that when you’re playing something new it’s going to illicit that reaction from the jump because, it’s like, “Wow, it’s the first couple times we’re playing it.” It’s exciting to see a reaction to it and see what that reaction is, and then eventually you kind of get used to it and it becomes that song that you play every night, and everyone reacts to it in a similar way night after night. But every once in a while, you play one that you’ve been playing for years, and it feels exciting again in a new way. So, I would say every song has its own story in that way.
Bethany: So, like most Pitt students, you’re from near Philadelphia. Is that your favorite place to play shows or do you have other cities that you really like to play?
The Wonder Years: That’s number one, for sure. Home is number one. But there’s others. Pittsburgh was unbelievable on the last tour. Chicago – very, very, very cool place to play. New York, Boston, I mean, everywhere has its merits. Greensboro, North Carolina blew me away last tour. Not a city that comes off as a big market for this kind of stuff, but a really unbelievable show.
Bethany: It’s kind of about the crowd, I guess, more than the city in some places.
The Wonder Years: Yeah, I mean if you’re asking our favorite place to play it would be about what the city itself offers or the country itself offers. But the crowd makes it.
Bethany: Is there another country that you’ve really enjoyed playing shows in?
The Wonder Years: Yeah, the shows in England have become comparable to the U.S. When you play London it’s similar to playing Philly; it’s a very similar feeling. And then there are some places that are just unbelievable to visit. You go to Japan and it’s just so cool. Australia is amazing. Costa Rica was a really cool show and a really cool place. Brazil as well.
Bethany: Do you notice a lot of differences in the vibe of shows in different places like that, or is it always a similar experience?
The Wonder Years: Well, the vibe is going to be so drastically different because we just did two sold out nights in Philly at twenty-five hundred people each, but our sold-out show in Costa Rica was just 200 people. So, it’s a very different experience, from big venues with super high-end sound systems to divey little spaces with no barricade and just a totally different experience. And then there are different ways people react to things culturally. In Japan, they don’t applaud very long; it’s a very short burst of applause after a song and then everyone gets silent to show some respect to the banter. They really want to hear what you have to say, and, obviously, for a lot of people there English is not a first language so they’re trying to parse what I’m trying to get across to them as well. So, you get some differences in that way, too. Especially when you’re in football-heavy countries, like when you’re in England or you’re in Spain, they do a lot of football chants which is a lot of fun.
Bethany: You talked about the differences in the venues in different places. I know locally, even in Philly, there are huge places versus basement-type venue. So, what kind of venue or, I guess maybe even what size crowd, is your favorite type of show to do?
The Wonder Years: I don’t think I have a favorite because there’s value and such disparity in everything. There’s going to be ups and downs. Like, if we play The Fillmore the sound and lights are both unbelievable; we’re gonna have the space to perform for you in our most ideal scenario. So, you’re seeing what I think is the best performance we can give. But, you’re further away, you’re not as connected to it. So, when we play a really small show, it maybe won’t sound as good, it maybe won’t look as good, maybe we can’t do as much on stage, but there’s something different happening in the crowd. It’s churning in a different way. And there’s value to both.
Bethany: Is there any singular show in all your years of touring that really sticks out for you?
The Wonder Years: There used to be singular shows, and now there’s kind of too many lodged in memory that I’ll never forget, so there’s not a singular one.
The Wonder Years will be playing Riot Fest this Sunday at 7:00 PM. They’ll also be on tour this fall with Have Mercy, Oso Oso, and Shortly; then will be touring this winter with Mayday Parade.