Putting The Work In: The Wonder Years Interviewed

“We do things our own way, we exist in our own place...”

The Wonder Years are like the rock band equivalent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Both share a hometown, sure. Both have maintained their tight-knit creative teams since day one. More than that, though, both share an unpretentious and iconoclastic approach to their respective art forms. This approach may have precluded them from reaching the ubiquity of, say, The Office or Jimmy Eat World, but it has secured their longevity—not to mention endearing them to fans whose devotion intensifies with each new album or TV season. 

“Our label is always confused. They’re like, ‘Why aren’t your socials bigger? Why isn’t your streaming bigger? Because we come to the shows and we see thousands and thousands of kids singing along.’” The Wonder Years frontman, Dan Campbell, is midway through restringing a busted-up acoustic guitar. “We do things our own way, we exist in our own place” is his response to these questions. “I don’t give a shit about making new fans. If more people wanna come, everyone is welcome—we try to be hyper-inclusive and super thoughtful, and everyone is welcome here—but I’m not going to change what I do and the way that I do it to try to grow the band.”

This detachment from what’s in vogue means The Wonder Years are focused inwards, earnestly self-revising and moving forwards. Few bands that reach album number seven can claim—as The Wonder Years can—to have never jumped the shark. “The things that you thought were correct ten years ago, five years ago, last year, last month”—he cuts himself off. “We are constant works in progress and we should be trying to be better than we were yesterday, every day.” He’s talking about personal growth, but the same is true of his band. Indeed, ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’ may be their best album yet, an impactful, deeply personal collection of punk-infused rock music—more Death Cab for Cutie than New Found Glory; more The Hold Steady than Blink-182 (though Mark Hoppus has a co-writing credit on ‘Wyatt’s Song’).

Like their sitcom counterpart, The Wonder Years pack the new material with call-backs to their abundant back catalogue—from recurring characters and lyrics to melodic motifs. ‘Cardinals II’ is a thunderous sequel to the ‘No Closer to Heaven’ track. The character Madelyn is reprised on ‘Oldest Daughter’, the lyrics of which were splashed in orange paint across Hello Donuts + Coffee, in Philadelphia, as part of the album’s early promotional teases. There’s also the infectious refrain of “Your name’s the only one I like” from ‘Wyatt’s Song’. That hook is a triumphant reconciliation of Campbell’s concern that “Every kids’ name I’ve ever liked is tied to tragedy” from 2013’s ‘Passing Through a Screen Door’. 

As the 36-year-old explains, “A lot of The Wonder Years’ lyrics are these kind of hyper-literal, incredibly specific songs that are very much about my life. And so if I’m writing a song at 26 [years old] that’s like looking around and seeing people at different stages of their lives and [I’m] questioning, ‘Do I belong there? Will I ever belong there?’—when I reach that stage, it feels like it would be a missed opportunity to not reference it.” Rather than merely winking to fans, these moments thread multiple albums together, building a conceptual arc centred on mental health and self-exploration. “It’s a little bit like doing therapy, where you’re talking yourself through these problems and trying to find out where to go with them… With every record, I want to make sure I find my way toward some level of personal growth.” 

The title, ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’, refers to the chronic malaise that Campbell has spent the past six albums trying to shake off or at least understand. “The conceit of [‘The Upsides’, the band’s de facto debut] was, if I continue to look at everything through a morose worldview, I will continue to perpetuate that cycle, and so I need to attempt to break that through this, like, chanted mantra [“I’m not sad anymore”].” ‘Sister Cities’, their previous record, sought refuge in the idea that “humanity can be such a beautiful, united thing… and the idea of leaning on other people and being okay with asking for help, and trusting that other people can carry you from time to time,” Campbell says. 

With ‘Hum’, it’s about sharing a space with that sadness, if not for yourself then for your kids. That thesis is distilled, affectingly, in the closing track, ‘You’re the Reason I Don’t Want the World to End’. It features some of the most emotive lyrics the frontman has ever penned: “I’m finding hope in the pocket of my winter coat/With your gloves, a reminder that I’m not alone/And you’re brave, so I’m brave/Or I’m trying anyway/Put the work in, plant a garden, try to stay afloat.”

“I had my first child and my brain responded to that in a way that I did not expect,” Campbell shares. “I ended up more anxious and more depressed than I have ever been. Because there’s this sheer joy that comes with being a parent and watching your kid learn and grow and experience things and love you—but also, you brought them into this incredibly dangerous, actively deteriorating world, so there are like a million anxieties.” That vacillation between joy and despair is mirrored in the album’s dynamics, with moments of reposed contentment such as ‘Summer Clothes’ juxtaposed by, well, songs about death (see ‘Songs About Death’). The band always pays close attention to sequencing and narrative, but more than just sonic and lyrical ebbs and flows, Campbell explains that “One of the most important things in narrative is setting. You have to know where you are—where and when. I always want the songs to feel really cinematic. I want you to be able to feel like you are in the space.” 

The band’s identity is tethered to the city of Philadelphia, and their lyrics pockmarked with namedrops to local haunts. This means fans can pilgrimage to the hallowed Melrose Diner (for now, at least) and Logan Circle, as this writer has. But where those early records were centred on the city and its suburbs—and where ‘Sister Cities’ was a tour across the globe—“With ‘Hum’,” Campbell says, “what you are getting is largely a record written in a pandemic. The setting is very insular. The whole world shrunk, and so you no longer get that very global sense of ‘Sister Cities’. You’re getting this hyper-localised sense because my whole life went from being in 30 different countries over the course of a year to being within five blocks of my home… When I think about the places I was [writing songs], a lot of it’s like my backyard, my basement, the room I’m sitting in now.”

Campbell once sang, on the aptly titled ‘It’s Never Sunny in South Philadelphia’, “I can tell you that the world looks bleak/From where I’m sitting at the bottom of the city.” From where he’s sitting now, though, the afterglow makes the skyline seem more generous. “We have the shit that we want, and I don’t wanna change that for anyone. This was the dream—to play rooms like this to passionate, devoted fans, and to make art that we feel is valuable to us and to them. That’s what we wanted to do. And we get that opportunity and it’s like, ‘Fuck it. I don’t need anything else.’”

‘THE HUM GOES ON FOREVER’ will be released on September 23rd.

Words: Hayden Merrick
Photo Credit: Christopher Kitchen

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