As the band gear up to release a special vinyl boxset, we dive back into the whirlwind that was the release of The Wonder Years' breakout records, courtesy of the man who was at the middle of it all.
For The Wonder Years, the start of the last decade will always be a special period in their career.
The band kicked it off by releasing their second album 'The Upsides' on January 26, 2010, via No Sleep Records, propelling them from part-time pop-punkers to critical acclaim. The months that followed were littered with tour after tour of ever-increasing crowds as well as a signing to Hopeless Records who then reissued the record and pushed the band for a follow-up. That very follow-up was 'Suburbia, I've Given You All And Now I'm Nothing', released on June 14, 2011.
Both albums, despite being slightly different in tone, are now seminal cornerstones of the modern pop-punk scene, telling the continuing story of a group of friends just trying to make their way in a world that wants to stand in their way at every opportunity. Raw, real and brimming with huge slabs of scream-along relatability, they hold a poignant and defining place in so many people's hearts and minds all these years later.
SO, as they prepare to release a special vinyl boxset featuring both records alongside a plethora of b-sides, rare demos and song snippets, we chatted to vocalist Dan Campbell all about what life was like in the band around this period and how they set about creating both records, musically, lyrically and emotionally...
So let’s go back to that period around the writing of ‘The Upsides’? What were the first inklings of what you were going through personally at that time turning into something that you could bring to the band?
“The first thing to think about is that when we were writing ‘The Upsides’ we were at a point where the band wasn’t our job or anything. It was our life in the sense that we loved doing it but we had other obligations. That meant we weren’t writing a record as we do now, where we have to concentrate because it’s our job. It was more a case of, ‘Write a song when you can write a song’. A lot of it came from just jotting down ideas here and there and them not always funnelling towards something. It was just collecting them.
“Most of the ‘Upsides’ writing happened whilst I was living in South Philly and I was going to school pretty far up in North Philly. I was broke as well. I was taking a shit ton of extra credit in school so that I could actually finish and we could go on tour. I was also teaching at an afterschool programme every day, which was really cool and fulfilling for me. So I would wake up at the crack of dawn in the sometimes freezing cold and layer all the way up. I would do bike tights, then long johns, then pants, then a shirt, a thermal and a shell jacket, to pairs of gloves, bandana over my face. I would then trek six miles up to school throughout whatever was there and try to get through a day of classes. Then I would immediately ride out west to do the teaching programme then ride back up to campus to do night classes and then all the way back down Broad Street and get home in time to microwave something and do some homework. That’s what everyone’s life seems to be in that time period. You’re working hard but you’re just grinding. It was taking a huge toll on me. It felt like every day was so grey and dark and cold and I was so broke. Every now and then I would go and buy this vegan chicken cheesesteak at a vendor and then save half of it so I could get it to last over a couple of days. It’s the stuff that everybody goes through but I think that’s what makes it work. I wasn’t going through these special and undeniably massive hardships. They were the hardships that everybody has to suffer through, and that’s what makes the songs that we ended up writing do what they have done over the years. This is a system that has punished our generation mentally and emotionally and physically.
"So it was the Winter of 2009 leading into Spring of 2010 that this all took place, and you can hear it on the record and hear exactly when a song like ‘Logan Circle’ was written. That’s when a light clicked on. I think it’s that classic seasonal disorder that we are all affected by at points like this. When you wake up before the sun comes up and you ride through snow and ice to get to a bunch of stuff you don’t give a shit about but know you have to do to go further to do the things that you do love. It can be really tough and then when you feel like you’re constantly on the brink of one thing going wrong can be a financial disaster. There’s no safety net. There would be days where I would get a flat tire and I would just weep because I didn’t know where I would get the money to replace it.”
Though it’s those experiences that then were able to inspire you to make something that will always be a physical reminder of what you went through no matter what. And without those experiences, that thing would be very different…
“It was the creating of something that was both useful to me and to others. One of the things that I feel so tied to my happiness is when I’m able to make something that helps people and do something that I feel matters. So there’s creating a song that matters to me but it was pretty instantaneous when we started releasing them that it mattered to other people as well. Just knowing that by creating this thing we lifted someone’s burden, even by just 1%, and did something that was worth doing gave us a feeling of tremendous joy.
“It’s interesting because with a lot of people who were pitching it to before it came out thought that the specific nature of it would hurt the connection. Like, ‘This is too much that’s directly about your life. There’s no ambiguity. People won’t be able to put themselves in this situation’. We actually found the direct opposite was true. The specificity allowed people to say, ‘I’ve very much had a situation like that, but even if I haven’t I can feel the emotion so heavily that I know how that emotion resonates in me’. So maybe your van didn’t break down on New Years outside of Chicago, but you may know what it’s like to be stranded somewhere and think, ‘I don’t think we can afford to fix this and I don’t know what’s next’. That uncertainty. Then there’s the way to flip that around where you’re with the people in your life that you trust most to do this with you and together you’re going to figure something out. Those things put together had the ability to strike a chord.”
So what was it like when you played these songs live?
“I remember when we came over to the UK to play Slam Dunk in May of 2010 and it was just shock and awe. Before that run, I had self-booked or co-booked all of our UK shows with friends. We had done three tours before that. Then we got the Slam Dunk offer and there were no other shows attached to it, so I booked a string of DIY shows. They were really tiny. So we met the person who would end up being our booking agent over here for the next 7/8 years afterwards at that Slam Dunk. We didn’t have anyone before that. We were put on as a favour really and I was just excited to be there. A lot of our friends were playing; a lot of bands I looked up to were playing. So we were waiting to go on stage and somebody from the festival came back and said, ‘ Just so you know, the line is out the door and we are doing it one in, one out. Nobody else came come in, it’s that full’. We all said, ‘Are they waiting for the next band?’”
Was there a point around this when you realised that the band was something you may be able to do full time from there?
“We were really at a precipice in our lives at that moment. We were finishing college and we were about to make this decision where we are going to try this. We knew that had just spent the last four years chasing these degrees and all logic says to go and get a job because you’re in debt. I always say these things to the band and they always get mad at me because it’s such a stupid thing to say, but when we were writing the record I kept on saying, ‘This has to be better than anything else’. If we write a song and we don’t think it’s better than the last EP then we have to throw it out. It just had to be the best thing we had ever done. There was no room mediocrity. So no matter how you feel about the record ten years later, at the time these were the best 12 songs that we could put forward. It was all of our energy, not just on the record but every night that we got on stage and played these songs. Every time you see us play, you’re going to see all of me. I’m going to give you everything I had because we had nothing else. There was nothing else for us and there was nowhere else to go. It’s this or nothing.”
What songs in particular from the record do you get that same rush of energy you had back then from when you play them now?
“The big one is ‘Washington Square Park’. There have been a couple of times across our career where we play those songs, stop everything and the crowd sings, ‘I’m looking for the upsides’, I feel physically blown backwards. There’s a video of us playing it in Boston back in 2012 on what may have been our first real headliners. We were playing at a venue, which wasn’t used to shows such as ours and only had a bicycle rack as a barrier. When we started that song, the bicycle rack smashed against the stage and all the security had to jump out of the pit. When the crowd hit that line I almost fell over, it was that loud.
The end of ‘All My Friends Are In Bar Bands’ is always special as well. The last time we did it was at the last Bled Fest, where we had the honour of closing it. So when we finished with it all of these different people who were playing as well, like Spanish Love Songs and Koji, flooded on stage. What’s really incredible to me is that the song has almost transcended the generations of the genre. It can be Joe [Taylor] from Knuckle Puck or Corey [Castro] from Free Throw can come up and do it, and the first time they both did they said to me, ‘Dude I used to imagine doing this’. They were in High School when this record came out, so it’s like a really cool torch pass.”
So how did all of this excitement and change lead to the start of ‘Suburbia…’? You really didn’t seem to have a break…
“This might be a really abstract way to describe it, but this is how I see that period. It’s like watercolour. You put the paint on the page and it just fades into one another. There was never a transition or a moment that it stopped. The thing was that even as we were just releasing ‘The Upsides’ with No Sleep we were talking with Hopeless about them buying the right, acquiring the rights, doing a reissue and getting us right back in the studio to do a follow-up. They had this entire team but they couldn’t work on a record that was already out. That’s not how it works.
“So after putting the record out we jumped on tour and didn’t fucking stop. We toured an obscured amount. ‘The Upsides’ came out in January 2010 and then we were on the road straight through to November. The days off were incredibly slim. Yet even then we were still broke. My wife met me halfway through the cycle of ‘The Upsides’ and she will tell me this now that I looked sick. She was like, ‘I could count all of your ribs. You were so tired and so worn down’. Every night was a night drive. We were shoplifting food. We were hitting these streaks of bad luck all to our own detriment. We were just stupid kids who didn’t know anything about mechanics or anything. We were taking an absolute fucking beating, but it felt like it was building to something. It all just kept on going and then we gradually started to think that we needed to get some ideas for the next record. So the minute we were back home in November we had five or six weeks to put everything together. Then we went to California to record it and then flew to the UK to tour with Good Charlotte. Then once that was done we flew back to California, picked up our van and drove it 3000 miles back to start another tour.”
Those experiences seemed to have a really prominent effect on what the record was about as well though. Red-eye flights and months of being on the road whilst craving the weird comfort of home…
“Yeah, that was the whole thing with ‘Suburbia…’. We were back home. When we put out ‘The Upsides’ and decided that we were all in on this, which also meant that we were too broke for rent. Everything went in storage and then the idea was to be on tour every day that you can because that’s a place to stay. If we can’t be on tour we will sleep on couches and do what we have to do. Sometimes I was sleeping at my buddy Richie’s house, sometimes I was sleeping at my dad’s or my mom’s, and sometimes it was a different friend who had a mattress in the basement. What was weird about it was that we were flip-flopping between two things. We had spent four years away from this place in the city and now we’re all back and everything looks a little different. Then you’re going on tour and it becomes a crazy juxtaposition of what life looks like on the road next to what life looks like alone in this town you grew up in. The way that filters your vision of that place is a lot of where that record came from.”
How did the process of putting the lyrical side of ‘Suburbia…’ together compare to that of ‘The Upsides’?
“‘Suburbia…’ was much more of a treaty on exhaustion. When we were doing ‘The Upsides’, although what I was doing day to day was unfulfilling and tiring, I had this glimmer of hope of doing this other thing. When we were writing ‘Suburbia…’, life was incredibly fulfilling because we were doing the thing that we wanted to do, but we were scraping by and everything was a fight. It was a fight to get through every aspect of it. At that time in the genre, there weren’t a lot of bands like us. It almost felt like the path had closed. We, along with another few bands, had to recut things and make a new way through this to make this a viable reality again. It was a never-ending labour of love. I think that what you see on ‘Suburbia…’ is us working so hard on this thing we love doing but also looking for a place where we can put down all of this weight we had been carrying.”
This album was also a moment where it felt like you had carved out what you wanted the band to sound like initially, but also had a bit more bravery in experimenting with the other styles of music you were passionate about…
“There was this steady goal of not just writing the same record again. We knew we had to create something that was going to push all of this into another space that expands on everything that we have done but without abandoning what we have done as well. It’s a difficult and fine line to walk where you don’t want to stop being who you are but you don’t just want to create the same thing that you’ve been in the past. The other is that I was just such a fan of this sort of music that I knew how easy it as to put out a record that people loved and then put out a record that people fucking hated and be done. I was so determined to not be done, but the sophomore slump is a real fucking thing. Credit to everybody in the band because they are all so amazing, but one of the key differences with ‘Suburbia…’ was that Nick [Steinborn] was in the band and playing the guitar, which was not true of ‘The Upsides’. There was this new voice in the room who hadn’t written songs with us in this way who was bringing in a different perspective.”
Much like with ‘The Upsides’, what are the songs that stick out the most for you now almost a decade on from writing them?
“‘Came Out Swinging’ is the obvious one. The ending is one thing but the beginning is something for me as well. The tension build, which has just served us so well over the years and then the ending of it, is such a moment of catharsis no matter where we play and no matter how many times we do it. There’s something about the three movements that make up the title track ‘Suburbia’, ‘I’ve Given You All’ and ‘And Now I’m Nothing’, as well, which was for me was inspired by bands like The Weakerthans who were dropping breadcrumbs throughout an album. We wanted to have these three songs that were all in the same key and time signature with a similar melody that could exist on their own throughout but also tell you where you are. You can picture the town and picture the people and that was the goal. Then having ‘…And now I’m nothing’ as this standalone closer is something I am most proud of. It’s what makes it a proper record and not just a collection of songs. It was all about taking the risk and knowing that there is no real reward without that.”
Ultimately, how does it feel looking back on these albums as the person you are today?
“I think that as someone who has a little bit of imposter syndrome, I was sure that nobody was going to care about these things in a year. I spent every day of our whole career sure that we were going to put a show on sale tomorrow and nobody was going to buy a ticket and what would be it. I spent that whole around these albums sure that it was going to end any minute and because of that I always thought of us as an underdog. We’re not supposed to be here and this isn’t for us. The way that people are talking about these albums now, where it influenced all of these other bands in the genre and these being seminal records and we are a keystone in the genre now, that never hit us. It never felt like we graduated to that. It always felt like we were trying to hold on or the next thing and hoping that people were going to like it. So this year has really forced us to take a breath. It allows you to take stock and really realise that you made something that people truly care about. It lasted a whole decade and people still want to hear it. It’s still so disconnected from how I’ve looked at the world for so long. It’s just really gratifying and makes you feel that you put yourself into something that had value. That’s what brings me the greatest joy.”
You can pre-order the boxset for yourself from right HERE