DAN ‘SOUPY’ CAMPBELL WAS LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION. AND THEN IT HIT HIM. MOVE FORWARDS AT ALL COSTS. WITH THEIR NEW ALBUM, THE WONDER YEARS ARE SET TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, FOR THE BETTER.
WORDS: ALI SHUTLER.
“I’m no closer to heaven but I’m going to keep walking.”
Sitting on the front step of his house, shaking slightly in the November chill despite a winter coat, Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell was writing in a notebook trying to figure out his next record. “I just couldn’t sit inside any more,” he reflects. “[I was] just sitting there and writing. Not even writing lyrics, just ruminating on the concepts. There were three pages filled with what in the world was frustrating me and then trying to hone in on why that was happening and how I could fix it. All of a sudden it just popped out. I ended up writing this line, ‘I’m no closer to heaven, but I’m going to keep walking’. Shit, I get it now,” Dan remembers. That moment of clarity spearheading the emotional and progressive charge that is the fifth The Wonder Years album, ‘No Closer To Heaven’. “It’s about the idea that we should be striving for progress at every turn and that we shouldn’t be resting on our understanding. It’s almost scientific and I really think people are going to love it.”
Talking during one of his rare off days from the Warped Tour – “It’s the hardest tour to do; really, really exhausting, but it’s always rewarding to work hard” – Dan is “incredibly, unbelievably excited” about the imminent album. “Every time I get to show somebody new, I get like a giddy child. I can’t wait for you to hear it,” he starts. He’s less nervous than normal ahead of its release and for good reason. “We’re really confident that this is inarguably and unequivocally our best record. There’s not even a shadow off doubt in my mind that’d lead me to think otherwise. I know we put everything we had into it. I know it’s our best record yet and I know that’s all we can do. We’ve made a really, really great record,” he enthuses. “I don’t mean that to sound really cocky at all but I’m confident it’s our best work to date, I’m confident our fans are going to love it and I’m confident that some people who didn’t like our band before are going to love it. Honestly it’s been hard for me not to leak the record myself, I’m so excited for people to hear it,” he adds with a smirk.
“We’re not offering answers,” states Dan. “I hope people understand that we’re not going to get everything right. We are not the gospel for anything but hopefully we can point you in the right direction and that’s what we’re doing with this record. At no point do we feel like we’re offering solutions, what we’re doing is trying to show you the questions. Whether it’s about pharmaceutical sales and the abuse of prescription drugs, systemic racism and class and privilege, manhood, violence and abuse or losing a friend to a tragic accident, it goes from those issues to how you handle relationships. How you handle being loved, loving someone in return and how you’re there for the people who need you in life. Whether it’s about any of those things, we’re not here to tell you the answer, we’re saying ‘Start thinking about the question and maybe you can be the solution to it’,” Dan offers, hopeful for change.
The idea of progress that sits so eloquently at the heart of the album, is also the beating engine behind The Wonder Years themselves. “We’re only really willing to go in and make a record if we can look at each other and say, ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever done’. That’s the only way we want to make a record.” Since the band formed a decade ago, it’s something they’ve always managed despite the impressive strides and admiration every one of their releases has demanded. ‘No Closer To Heaven’ is the next bounding leap forward. “We’re really confident the record delivers in a way that hopefully exceeds expectations,” continues Dan. “We did something really good with this record and I feel like we expanded on what the expectation of the genre could be. Maybe that’s a little heavy or high concept but if we’re not setting out to do that, why are we setting out?” he questions. There’s no need to worry about the band jumping the shark though. “We don’t want to write something that doesn’t even sound like us. We don’t want people to hear it and go, ‘Well I like The Wonder Years but I don’t know what the fuck this is’. There’s a fine line to walk but why plug your guitar in if you’re just going to say ‘I’m going to write something that’s ok and I’m going to be done with it.’ We’re trying to write a record that’s honest to who we are at that time in our lives. We just want to make a record that you’re going to love but also one you can grow with.”
Steady growth is something The Wonder Years have endured. On 6th July this year, the band were set to celebrate their tenth anniversary with a special set at the Warped Tour but it was cancelled due to rain. It’s something Dan called the “most Wonder Years thing I can imagine.” Even on the brink of their next step forward, he can’t help but look back. “We were set to play in Jacksonville, Florida and I’m standing on the Warped Tour main stage thinking, ‘The first time we played this city, we played someone’s living room and it was too small for us to play in so our keyboard player played in the kitchen.’” It’s the same story across America, Europe and the world. “It’s a trip, it’s never not a trip,” Dan promises. “It’s never not strange for us and we can never forget the journey.” As the band look forward, their goals are the same as ever. “Really small, achievable, incremental goals,” explains Dan. “We want to play the next biggest room and we’d like to play a few places we never played before. It’s just one step at a time.”
The band ticked off Alaska and New Zealand recently from their ‘to do’ list but it’s not just geographical advancements that are afoot. “A big thing for this record is that it’s a lot of songs that I was too afraid to write before,” starts Dan. “There’s a lot of topics that I was either too afraid to confront because I was afraid of what it would do to me as a person to face these painful memories again or what it would do to the people in the stories that I‘m telling or, if it would be too polarising for people for me to be this open and candid.” However Dan took lessons learnt from 2014’s Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties side project and brought them to The Wonder Years.
“For the sake of argument, one is fact and one is fiction but they were still having these really similar impacts on people and I realised it’s because of this honesty in both of them. Even though The Wonder Years stories were true and the Aaron West stories were made up, they were still coming from emotional places. I could take a story that actually happened to me or to someone I cared about and either composite it with other stories that happened or obscure details. I’m still telling a true story but telling it in a way that I‘m comfortable with. In that way, I’m able to write more honest songs because I’m writing about the things I was afraid of before.”
The Wonder Years set themselves a heady task in trying to follow-up 2013’s ‘The Greatest Generation’ and while the band are confident they’ve achieved it, it wasn’t without struggle. “Sometimes you have to go through lots of aggravating writer’s block and depression that cycles from the writer’s block and writer’s block that cycles from depression. At times you really fucking dislike yourself and your inability to create something of value,” explains Dan candidly. “You argue with yourself and argue with your loved ones because you’re so upset at how bad a job you think you’re doing. I went through lots of that, of really disliking myself in trying to write this record because I wasn’t saying the things I was wanted to,” he admits. “But once we broke through that, we got to the other end. I’m happy I went through that. The end product is worth the toil that went into it.”
The band “put a lot of trust in me to deliver lyrically which added to the issue of writers block because if I don’t deliver, I’m letting down my best friends,” offers Dan. “We can help each other when it comes to writing music but with lyrics, I’m out there on my own a little bit. They can give me encouragement and support but, in a way, it feels like you’re on an island. They put a lot of trust in me to deliver and all of them have come up to me separately since we finished this record and said ‘you really did do what you needed to do’. Casey [Cavaliere] called me after listening to the mix and said ‘I was listening to ‘I Just Wanted So Badly To Be Brave’ and for the first time ever during a The Wonder Years song, I just started crying when it hit the bridge’. It’s cool for me to know they stand behind the things that I’m writing.”
One of the biggest factors in helping Dan off the island came from outside the band. “I’m really lucky that some of the people who I think are the best lyricists in the world also happen to be some of my best friends,” says Dan before listing Firework’s Chris Mojan, Hostage Calm’s Chris ‘Cmar’ Martin and Jason Aalon Butler from letlive. as people he called up and asked for help. To be able to sit with one of the best lyricists in the world and have them say ‘I think you’re doing a really good job’ is enough to put you back on track.’”
‘No Closer To Heaven’ is full of songs that Dan felt, “I just need to write this. It’s important and it needs to get written. There’s a particular song about a friend of mine who was in a car crash and went into a coma for several years then passed away. I never thought that I could write that song but it started coming up to me in weird, serendipitous ways. I would find a note in my phone with lyrics for it that I never used. I was going through some voice notes and I discovered one that had a melody and a lyric to pertain to it and all at once, it seemed like the damn broke. I wrote most of that song in one day. All of a sudden, here it is and that’s just how it happened with a lot of these.”
“What The Wonder Years do is tell stories. We tell stories about our lives and we’re candid about it,” starts Dan. “What we’ve been able to do throughout our career is have people listen to those stories and go ‘Wow, somebody feels the way the way I feel and I’m no longer feeling so alone’. We’re able to give people that and that’s always been very important to us. It’s paramount to us that people can listen to these songs and see that somebody else went through that and they no longer feel so alone but secondary to that, what would really be ideal is for you to to listen to this record and hear us talking about bigger issues. We’re talking about the ways they’ve impacted us personally. Having people hear these things and thinking ‘do you know what, I’m going to take a couple of minutes and I’m going to Google this and I’m going to better understand it’. If we can help people, if we can help shape understanding at all, that would be really beneficial to us. To have people take a minute and say ‘maybe the position I have set myself up with, in this particular scenario, isn’t the right one or isn’t the best one. Maybe I should just be striving to be better with it.’ The thing we’re talking about is the idea that we should always be trying to progress.”
“What’s ironic about that,” continues Dan, “is, with the idea that we’re never going to get it totally right and we’re always going to be working on getting better, there is going to be some stuff on this record that isn’t perfect. There’s definitely lyrics I’m going to look at in five years time and think ‘I could have done a better job’ or ‘I could have taken a better position with this’ and that’s what’s really interesting about humanity. We’re always going to fuck something up. We’re never going to get it right. It’s a snapshot of what we were thinking at the time and we would like to be malleable people. There’s a great Walt Whitman quote,” offers Dan before reciting it word for word. “Do I contradict myself, very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes. We can reverse position on anything or even make slight intricate adjustments. While it is a snapshot of our lives, our lives are living, breathing, functioning organisms that are capable of improving and that’s the goal. It’s always improving.”
“I think people recognise the humanity in us,” explains Dan. “When they look at The Wonder Years, they don’t see a product. They don’t see something that was built to sell them something. They see some guys who are actually just guys. We are the people we are and we come with our flaws.” That everyman attitude has made heroes of The Wonder Years and a role model of Dan, which isn’t always the easiest. “It’s hard because I’m so anxious about everything in life and I don’t want to lead anyone astray,” he starts. “I’m aware I’m not anywhere close to perfect and I’m going to fuck up a tonne of times and the last thing I want to do is do something wrong and have people emulate that or stand behind it. At the same time, I try my best to take it seriously and to try. Even simple things like, if a kid says ‘Hey, I’m really struggling with this thing’ I don’t want to blow him off and give him shitty advice, I try my best to give good, sound advice that’s based in real life. It’s really daunting because you could really fuck up somebodies life. So, we try to take it seriously but at the same time, sometimes I take it so seriously, it fucks me up. They’ll be times where you can barely get me out of my bunk for a couple of days because I’m depressed because I feel like I fucked something up. It’s a lot of weight and I don’t always cope with it very well.”
That desire to help bleeds into ‘No Closer To Heaven’ alongside “getting older, being concerned about bigger issues and being a little less self-involved. We’re trying to understand these things more and they’re all issues that have impacted us personally. If we can raise a question, get people thinking about it and help somebody in that way, that’s really great or maybe we just made a record you like because it’s got cool instrumentals, we’re doing some interesting things with time signatures and you can really bang you’re fucking head when Jason comes in. That makes me just as happy. Whether the record does something socially or if people like it because they like the music, that’s just as good because all we’re trying to do, all music does, is connect people. Any way you can do that is mission accomplished.”
‘No Closer To Heaven’ is “about dealing with the idea that nothing’s really perfect. It’s more about the idea of striving for it than reaching it. People are usually so set in their ways and I think that’s really detrimental. To the world as a whole, to your relationships with the people that you love, to the societal structures to everything, right down to the fact we’re going to destroy the fucking earth that we live on with global warming, all of it. Inability to try and progress is incredibly detrimental so the idea behind the album was that we’re never going to find the answer. We’re never really going to get there on anything, There’s never going to be unequivocally the best way to do anything. We’re never going to reach heaven but we have two options at this point. You can either say ‘well, if I’m never going to get there, why the fuck am I trying. I’ll set up camp here in the darkness and fuck you all.’ That’s one way you could do it but it’s not what I’m advocating. What I’m advocating is saying maybe I’ll never reach heaven but I’m going to keep walking. I’m going to keep trying, to get better with every step and if I fuck up and take ten steps backwards, that’s ok because I’m going to pick those ten steps up,” offers Dan. “I’m going to keep working towards being the best that I can be and impacting the world, the best way that I can.”