Later tonight The Wonder Years will take to London’s Alexandra Palace as main support to Enter Shikari. It’s the last night of a seven-date tour that’s seen the Pennsylvanian six-piece bring their latest album ‘No Closer To Heaven’ to the UK for the first time. What started as a pop-punk band back in 2005 has grown into so much more. Album number five takes their songs of struggle out of the suburbs and into the wider world, dealing with pharmaceutical sales and the abuse of prescription drugs, systemic racism, class and privilege, masculinity, violence and abuse. It’s heavy weather but The Wonder Years still aren’t a ‘political band’.
“I think when you say that, it means that’s all that you do. I don’t even think that it’s a political record,” starts vocalist Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell, fighting through illness. “I think it’s a personal record but the things that personally affected us, speak as part of a larger societal dialogue. We’re not writing songs about things that didn’t touch us in any way. I’m not writing about the pharmaceutical industry for no particular reason, I’m writing about it ‘cause it personally affected our lives.” The band take their own experience and bring it to the conversation. “I would say we’re still a personal band,” Dan offers. Their lives have just become more entwined with bigger issues.
Those Big Issues are hard to break down but people got what ‘No Closer To Heaven’ was talking about from the get go. From the very first show, “from the first note of ‘Brothers’ people were singing and being wonderful,” even though the discussions the band wanted to start weren’t front and centre. “I don’t think I hoped everyone would get it. I just hoped that if they were looking for that, it was there for them, but if they weren’t then the songs could stand on their own. That was the big thing for me. To write songs that I felt were important but could function with or without that aspect.” One simple desire rang true. “It’s a good song no matter what we’re talking about.”
This layered approach meant that some fans were stoked because they could lose themselves in the melody, while “some of them are taking the time to learn about the things we are singing about and didn’t have any idea of before. In a way we’re spreading awareness about topics we want to bring awareness to, which is a really rewarding thing for us. Other fans just go, ‘I like jumping up and down to this song, it’s fucking sick’ and that’s all you need then. Whatever it is about music that makes you happy, I hope we gave it to you.”
With every album, The Wonder Years have presented fresh challenges to their audience. It’s a daunting undertaking helped along by the band having “a lot of respect for our fanbase, they’re really smart. I don’t underestimate them at all. I feel like they’re smart enough and they’re mature enough to deal with what we talk about. At no point did I think ‘oh, I hope that they get it’ – I kinda knew that they would. I guess, I have a lot of respect and a lot of confidence in them and they responded wonderfully.”
‘No Closer To Heaven’ provokes a discussion. Like Tonight Alive’s ‘Limitless’ and letlive.’s upcoming fourth album, it’s a record set to inspire questions about the world at large. “There’s a shift,” starts Dan. “Everyone can be more aware because information is so much easier to disseminate. We can film the police now, we can film travesties and we can live blog revolutions.”
That ability to capture and share information is, according to Dan, the only way things will get better. The future is absolutely in education: “I say that as someone who went to school to be an educator so maybe I’m a little biased, but I feel like in every major quarrel on Planet Earth and at the centre of every major issue, if we better educated people about those issues and they went in with a better understanding of it, I think we’d see much less of a problem. The information being disseminated to us as a culture is sometimes so breathtakingly inaccurate and biased, it makes us less informed and more hateful and causes problems.
“Things like abstinence-only education, which I’m not sure you guys have over here, but it was a government-funded program for school that basically didn’t teach you about contraceptives, safe sex, and STDS. It just taught you that you have to abstain from sex or you’re bad and bad things will happen to you. We actually just signed a bill to remove federal funding for it which is a really great step in the right direction, we need to teach our young people about safe sex, we need to teach our young people about consent and we weren’t and it’s manifesting itself into problems later in life. The way our major news networks and the media present Islam in America is dangerous and causes such hatred. If we were better educated about the religion, I think there would be so much less hatred.”
It’s a world-altering view and one that The Wonder Years incorporate into their music. “We’ll educate in our own way and where we feel comfortable with our voice and its place in the conversation. Sometimes our voice isn’t as important as other voices and hopefully in those instances we find ways to amplify the voice that is important. Sometimes we just don’t know enough about something to talk about it and sometimes I think being silent is important. It’s better to not talk about something than it is to talk about something and disseminate incorrect information.”
The Wonder Years knowing when to step forward and when to step back is a gut reaction. “I just feel where the line is. I never think ‘When do I start or stop talking’. If I feel like I can do a positive thing, I’ll do it.“ Writing songs that deal with bigger issues was “challenging, because I haven’t written this way before but now that I have, I feel like it’s a little easier for me.” That’s not to say The Wonder Years are going to lose that balance of entertainment and education.
Dan never wants to get to the point where he feels “like me talking is going to have a negative repercussion or turn some people off because it’s too preachy. If everything I do shifts to a political thing, then there’s a chance we could rapidly lose our fanbase and then all of a sudden the soapbox that I have to speak from is suddenly kicked out from under me, whereas if I were to speak when I feel like it’s important and my voice is valuable only, then I’m able to have a greater reach,” but it’s not something he spends much time thinking about. “I’m just doing the things that my brain is telling me to do. It’s not so deliberate, I guess.”
Over the past ten years, The Wonder Years have attracted a passionate, attentive fanbase but Dan doesn’t really think about an audience when writing music. It’s never an overwrought process but the fact “our audience has been receptive to our progress means we don’t have to fear making progress. We respect the intelligence of our audience and their ability to hang with us, which is cool.”
“You have to find a balance between who you’re writing for and what you’re writing for, but there are definitely times where it’s about finding where your voice is important and worthwhile. In the times where I find my voice to be important and worthwhile, and then I feel like it should be part of the conversation, then I do feel an obligation to join the conversation but again, standing back and letting the people whose voices are more important to yours on a particular topic to be heard is of equal importance.”
That sense of obligation has grown as Dan has got older but he readily admits, “I’ll never be done working out the balance. The whole point of ‘No Closer To Heaven’ is that all these topics, the people singing them and the people they are being sung to, are all a work in progress. I don’t think I’m ever going to get it right, right? Hopefully I can just get a little better.”
Taken from the April issue of Upset, out now – order your copy here. Photo: Sarah Louise Bennett.