Dan Cadwallader talks to pop-punk's poet laureate Dan 'Soupy' Campbell of The Wonder Years
For those who prefer their punk rock at the thrashier end of the spectrum "pop-punk" is a dirty word. However to thousands of people all over the world it's the perfect soundtrack to the ups-and-downs of 21st century life. Besides, ever since the Buzzcocks bands have been using the frantic, four chord pace of punk to sing about love and loss.
Since their formation in 2005 the band who have taken the pop-punk formula and really ran with it are the Wonder Years, six college graduates from Philadelphia who have become the standard bearers for suburban youth from every country.
The band's mix of chunky, melodic riffs, high octane performances and melancholy, intelligent lyrics have seen them step out in front of the competition and forge a unique identity which takes in a lot more than the usual genre tropes of girls and high-school.
2013's "The Greatest Generation" saw the band move into even more complex thematic territory, as lead singer Dan "Soupy" Campbell looked to his Grandparents generation for inspiration, not just for his music but for his life path. It isn't often you get a punk band of any description writing material as emotionally complex as "Cul-de-sacs" or "I just want to sell out my funeral", and this depth has seen the band amass a huge and dedicated fan base.
Not that the band are a bunch of intensely cerebral dudes who sit around thinking up great musical concepts all day, their sound is pop laced, but their work ethic (not to mention their enthusiasm for the DIY punk model) is strictly Hardcore. They've practically been living in the back of a van since 2010, and their touring schedule would put most of the doc martins and Gorilla Biscuits tattoo brigade to shame.
I caught up with Soupy the night of their triumphant headline show at London's Scala.
Daniel Cadwallader: So, How's the touring been since you released "the Greatest Generation"?
Dan 'Soupy' Campbell: Good, the record came out last year and the release week alone felt like a year of touring. I think sometimes it's a little hard for people in the UK to understand, but if I say we played four shows in four cities in 24 hours, here, you'd say 'well fine'. But in America we played Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and L.A. in 24 hours. The distance between LA and Philadelphia would be like driving from here to Scotland four times. Obviously there were flights involved, but we did all that in 24 hours, and then we played in stores all week while simultaneously splitting into two teams and opening up our own store in Philadelphia. We rented an art gallery, and we set up there. we had events with comics coming in, we had movie nights, coffee and cupcakes and all this cool stuff. We did it with Glamour Kills and kids were invited to just come in at 2pm and hang out all day. If they wanted and they could buy cool limited merch, they could play ping pong, they could meet us, they could walk around listening to music and make new friends. That was the idea.
DC: the fan culture's really important to you guys isn't it
Soupy: yeah, absolutely. We wanted to give people a place to be. After that we flew straight to England and did two in-stores here. One in Kingston, At Banquet (records), for my dog JT, then went straight to Slam Dunk Festival, had four days off, we did two weeks of Canada, that went into the warped tour, we then flew to japan, did ten days there. We flew home, had a week or so off and we flew back here and di headline dates with real friends, neck deep and hand guns, and then did Europe with those guys, and THEN flew hope for the winter, which was really nice (laughs) super great. No we've started what we're calling the Greatest Generation world tour, which we kicked off in America,
with the biggest shows we've done in our career. I'm the happiest I've ever been playing shows.
DC: Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process for 'The Greatest Generation', what kinds of experiences were you drawing on for the writing?
Soupy: I am always taking down ideas for lyrics. I've got a running note on my iPhone and I put it down one line at a time. For example I'll just put something that comes into me head like... you know... "feels like 1929, I'm on the verge of a collapse". Done. And then when I get home from tour, and when we start to write a records I start to ruminate on all of those things and try and understand what I've been trying to tell myself. What is my subconscious telling me about what I want to do with these lines that are coming out of me? So I started to put it together piece by piece, and there was an overarching theme that I couldn't quite put my finger. It's about when It feels like everyone wants something from you, and you want to be everything to everybody. But you can't and you're being pushed in this direction and that direction and there's all these things that are holding you back. So I started to look at all of the things that I felt are holding me back and I realised that I'm allowing them all to do it. These things become a series of thematic images. They were bombs bird, bombs pill bottles, devils and ghosts that kind of floated through the record. These were all the things I was afraid of and that weren't letting me push forward. I wanted to create this record that explored the events that coincided with these feelings and it was almost like running through this list. I can't be great because of this or I can't be great because of that, and then I wanted to get a certain point within the records where I wanted to give the listener the kind of cathartic moment I had when I was trying to figure all this out. I realised I was being a defeatist about things, and I wanted to everyone to understand this moment of realisation. I also equated it to this generation prior to mine. I was thinking a lot about my grandfather, and about how before this generation they didn't have the luxury to think 'Oh poor me' it was like 'We gotta go to war' or 'you gotta get a job to support yourself' and the point I wanted to make with the record is, stop complaining and work harder, be the person you want to be. Don't say you can't become that person, just do it, push forward, work for it, earn it. What we had in the song "I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral" was this thing were all of this themes are referenced again, and musically we're doing it to. And we're building it up where I'm colliding all these themes to create this moment of confusion, but then we break through to the last chorus and that's where the catharsis comes in.
DC: You've always written very openly about your personal issues, do you feel that's partly why so many people have been attracted to this band.
Soupy: I think that it is a little bit of the relatability, I think it's a little bit of the raw nerves that we hang out there. I'm writing very specifically about myself, I'm using people and places from my own life and I'm using actual events. You may think it'd make it hard to relate because, you know, the audience wasn't there, but the fact of the matter is I root all of those songs in an actual emotion and you can say while I've never had this happen to me, I can relate to the emotion.
DC: Can you tell me about the band came together for the first record?
Soupy: We started out as a legitimate joke. We weren't supposed to be a band, we were only supposed to write one song and then just laugh bout how funny the song was and then be done. But we ended up being, like, well that song wasn't that bad, why don't we record it and put it on the internet, and then we'll be done. But then we needed a band name, and, honestly, it was literally the first thing said and we were like sure, we're never going to play a show, who cares what the band name is. And then we went away to college, and we got bored and decided to write a couple more songs on winter break. And then I was starting a record label and I wanted to put out some stuff from another band, but they really wanted to do a split EP. This third band they were going to do it with dropped out, so I just said I've got this sort of joke band we'll just record some song, write some more songs and the split can come out. As a part of running the label I sent the split out for review everywhere, and they came back really positive for the Wonder Years songs, and we got calls from a couple of labels and we were given the opportunity to make our debut record, that's... just bad, I mean really bad, I don't even want to talk about it. After that we started touring and thought maybe we're actually good at this, maybe we should try and do it properly. We started writing songs that we genuinely cared about and I finished up at college around the same time as we finished writing an album called 'The Upsides' and we 'Ok, we have our degrees, we can push our student loans back a couple of months, let's put this record out, tour and see if we get a response. If we didn't we figured we'd use our degrees and become teachers and anthropologists etc. The responses were insane and it hasn't stopped since then. We've been on tour since around 2009 (laughs).
DC: Has that been the ethos behind the band, as long as people want to hear it you'll carry on?
Soupy: Not just that, it's as long as we want to play to. If we get to a point where we're thinking that this sucks to do, we'll stop doing it.
DC: You've sought of become trail blazers for this new generation of 'tru' pop punks bands, alongside acts like The Story So Far, are you aware if it as a movement or has it just coalesced around you?#
Soupy: Trail blazers is an interesting term because I think we're treading a pretty well-worn trail. Maybe it overgrew a little bit, maybe we cut through some of the undergrowth again, but we just try and go out and write good songs and play good shows. It's not about any kind of a movement, there's a community, sure. But that's based on similar ethics more than it is about specific styles of music. You think about the beat generation, you're talking about Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs, but they were just friends with similar ethics who creating their own stuff, and it's looked back on in a certain way. I see it a little like that. Maybe we'll be regarded down the line as a certain turning point in the genre, but right now we're just guys who want to play songs. We're doing our best to write the best music we can make.
DC: that leads me into a collaboration you did recently with Jason Butler and the guys from letLive, how did that come about?
Soupy: I actually texted Jason and just said 'when am I doing one of these' and he text back saying 'you were the next person I was going to ask' (laughs) I was recording my solo record (the soon to be released 'Aaron West and the roaring twenties' record) which was produced by Ace Anders from the Early November. They sent me the track and I was like let's do it right now while I'm in the studio with Ace. So they gave me a track and the idea of Renditions (letlive's ongoing collaboration project) is that each collaborator writes their own part to the song. So I really love those guys and I called Jason to get from him what the songs about, and I wrote my own part. Ace sent down the vocal to them and they lined it up and played and were like that's dope! It's a little atypical but it's really cool. So they put it up on the net and I heard and I was just like oh no! that isn't what I recorded, it's a couple of beats off and it didn't line up right. Something went wrong when the track was pulled from the e-mail. It was even a surprise for me because it still sounds cool but in a different way than I anticipated. It comes in about two and a half beats too early than what I recorded, so it's almost like a rendition of a rendition.
DC: Can you me a little about the solo record?
Soupy: I really wanted to do some stuff that was pushing me in a new direction lyrically. I wanted to expand what I do. Like you said everything I write is very personal, it's from my own experience, so I thought if people can relate to songs about me, could I create a character and tell a story from their perspective that's still rooted in real emotion. To the outside the difference between me and the character is negligible. They don't know me and what I'm like and I don't know them, and so I started writing these songs and I created a character called Aaron West, who had a really horrible year of his life, and I wrote a record about it. I wanted to really get to know the character, I wanted to know where his dad was from, I wanted to know what his religion was growing up, what kind of house he grew up in, what cities has he lived in, what football team's his favourite football team, and why?. I wanted to know what he was like in colleage and how he got married and how he's going to handle sorrow, and how he's going to handle loss. Does he smoke? Does he drink too much? I wanted to know the full human in a fully realised world. I did a lot of research and free writing, and I've created what I feel is a fully formed human character, and the record has come out great. I sing and play guitar and harmonica on it, my drummer from the Wonder Years (Mike Kennedy) plays drums on it, Ace produced it and played bass, lap steel, banjo and keys, we had a whole horn section come in. it's very acoustic driven, I would I suppose link it to the New Amsterdam's, Bright Eyes, a little Frank Turner you know, a lot of the Mountain Goats, that kind of vibe. It's very 'story telly' and I think what's going to be cool is that the more you listen to the record, the more you're going to understand the character, the more you're going to understand the idiosyncrasies, the relationship between what happens in song four and what happens in song nine. A lot of time and a lot of love has gone into it. It's called Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties, the albums called 'We don't have each other' and it's out July 8th in the States.
DC: What's next for the Wonder Years?
Soupy: next thing on our books is Reading & Leeds festival. We're going home for the whole summer and we're just going to enjoy it. It's been a very, very long time since we had a summer at home. I'm going to my cousins wedding; I'm going to go on vacation with my family. I'm going to exercise and feel better. I feel like we've earned it. Last time we were at this point in the album circle we were just like 'Ok, we've got to write a record right now' where as this time we're just going to live for a minute. We'll get back on the road in August, and probably start writing again then.
Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties 'We don't have each other' is out now on Hopeless records.