The Wonder Years have grown from 2010’s diaper dandies to 2012’s pop-punk powerhouse.
How did they get there? By getting a little better every day.
Words and Photos By: Thomas Nassiff ABSOLUTExclusive song streams courtesy of Hopeless Records
It’s almost 5 p.m. and Dan Campbell is having trouble adjusting to the light outside.
The Wonder Years frontman just finished soundchecking with his band at The Social in Orlando, Fla., intermittently belting out lines from the new Menzingers record while running through “Don’t Let Me Cave In” and “Washington Square Park.” The band is only hours away from playing a show they sold out a week in advance, but right now, Campbell really just wants to get his hair cut.
The mop on his head is too long and scraggly, and although it hides his receding 26-year-old hairline, it’s time to clean up a bit. His beard has grown to gnarly proportions, so we’re about to trek along with guitarist Casey Cavaliere and stage tech Conor O’Brien to what we’re told is something of a punk-rock barbershop. But when we step outside, the light of the Florida sun is blinding in comparison to the shadowy innards of The Social. Campbell doesn’t have much time to adjust – there is a trio of fawning young women and a couple of giddy young men outside who just remembered why they wait outside the venue three hours before doors open.
“Sure, we can take a picture,” Campbell says. “But we only have time for one, I have to get my hair cut.”
He does his duty and we quickly shuffle past the line of waiting show-goers, then traverse the downtown Orlando traffic to find, in fact, a punk-rock hair cuttery. The owner of Liberty Barbershop is named John, stands about 6-feet tall, is covered in tattoos, sports a grizzly (but well-kempt) beard of his own, and is snipping away at a current customer. He’s a fan of ‘90s punk rock and has a few tour stories of his own. He cuts hair because “not everyone has to be a tattoo artist.” We arrive just in time. He stops taking customers at 5:30. If Campbell would have stopped for a couple more pictures in line, we would have been too late.
O’Brien is the first subject of the scissors, so Campbell, Cavaliere and I head to a bench outside to chat. It’s still pretty bright out, but the usually unforgiving Florida heat isn’t so bad today. The Philadelphia natives are grateful.
We talk about change. A lot is different for The Wonder Years on the Glamour Kills Tour. A weird van/bus combo called a Rock-It Ship has replaced their normal maroon-ish passenger van. It has bunks, so they can actually…you know…sleep. They don’t have to split the driving time between gigs during this tour, either – there is a hired, designated driver now. Their normal entourage of six band members and a tour manager has swelled to include three more crew. They’re selling out venues they’ve never headlined before.
But some things stay the same.
“When was the last time I showered?” Campbell wonders aloud a little while later, back inside the barbershop. The conversation continues along while he looks around silently and thinks. It’s a couple of minutes before he recalls a concrete answer. “I think the last time I showered was in Little Rock. I think that was it.”
Other things stay the same, too. As tour manager John James Ryan and bassist Joshua Martin are quick to point out later the same night, a bigger crew doesn’t mean the band is sitting around relaxing all day. They still work just as much as they did on their first “real” tour, which they recall as a 11-day trek in England – there’s just more work to go around now, so more people are piled in the van…erm…Rock-It Ship. Besides, they’ll be back in their normal van and back to their normal crew size after the GK Tour ends.
“The venues have grown, the number of people that come out has grown, everything else has stayed the same,” Ryan says, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and blue shorts, which reveal a variety of tattoos ranging from Ronald McDonald to Rugrats characters. His personality might be riddled with childlike wonder, but when it comes to tour managing The Wonder Years – which he has done for three years now – Ryan is all business.
“We run the same tight ship we’ve always run, we’re always there when we’re supposed to be there, we’re always prepared for everything. Nothing has gone to anyone’s head – everyone’s the same exact person they were when I met them.”
That latter part is proving to be especially important. As Martin describes it, The Wonder Years have been on a “fast, furious, and time-consuming ride” since The Upsides came out. But nothing has changed in the minds of the six bandmates…there are just more kids coming out to watch the punk shows.
Even as fan adoration has quickly ballooned to creepy levels, the band has kept itself firmly planted in the earth. Campbell recalls a recent incident where a female superfan posted on Tumblr a completely fabricated 30-minute conversation she allegedly had with Campbell, adorned with fake quotes from him and all. And the letters from fans, enthusiastically thanking the band for writing such meaningful songs…those haven’t slowed down in a couple of years.
“It’s weird seeing that type of fan with this type of band,” Ryan says. “It’s definitely a weird thing. But [this stuff getting to the band’s head] isn’t important, because it just doesn’t happen. It’s like, here’s a letter. ‘Great!’ We made you these things. ‘Thanks!’ We baked you these cookies. ‘There might be poison in them, we’ll eat ‘em anyway!’ We take it all, all the submissions, all the demos, all the trinkets and the gifts, but it’s no importance. It doesn’t change anything.”
Still other things remain the same. As the band’s steady growth to popularity since the release of The Upsides has shown, The Wonder Years have made a point to simply progress every day. It may not be perfect, and at times it hasn’t been pretty, but progress has been the name of the game.
It’s February 3, 2010, and I think I accidentally just woke up Campbell. I’ve never met him before and I’m not sure what he looks like, so I decide to give him a call outside The Farside in Tallahassee, Fla. He answers and we exchange a couple of sentences, then I see him groggily stick his head out of his band’s van. I climb in and we do an interview. He had just woken up from napping on the second-row passenger bench because he drove the rickety van late into the night, but he manages to form coherent sentences and even teach me a fist-bump handshake that I still remember to this day. I’ve never interviewed anyone before in my life, but I manage to ask 11 questions.
A lot of the questions are about The Upsides, which came out eight days before this show took place, and Campbell shares with me that they’re pleased about the early sales numbers. They sold around 1,700 units in the first week. Somewhere 3,000 miles away, No Sleep Records will soon realize to realize that The Upsides will be a launching point for it too. After the interview, Therefore I Am finishes a short set, Man Overboard plays for about a half-hour, and The Wonder Years rip through nine songs. The Farside, if packed to its brim, could probably hold about 60 people, including the band playing and the merch guy. There is no stage. A guitar amp impedes the entranceway and it’s a little cramped when you walk in. But The Farside was not packed to its brim that night.
That show in Tallahassee, the first time I saw The Wonder Years, stands in stark contrast to what I saw Thursday night. Over 400 people sold out The Social this time – at a venue that wasn’t even sold out when The Wonder Years opened for Four Year Strong a little more than a year ago – and, for lack of a better phrase, completely lost their minds for the band.
It helps that the GK Tour – what Campbell is calling the band’s first “big-boy headliner” – features a stacked package. Polar Bear Club, Transit and The Story So Far offer direct support during the whole tour, with Into It. Over It. on the first leg and A Loss for Words on the second leg. The band is quick to point to the strength of the package as a big reason for the success of these shows. “This is a tour that we would actually want to go see,” Cavaliere says.
He and Campbell won’t say it in as many words, but the six-week trek is something of a statement. A statement to those who have doubted, and a statement to other bands, that The Wonder Years can pull their own weight.
After releasing Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing in June, the band actually spent several months out of the spotlight, despite the album’s phenomenal reaction. They played two months on the Vans Warped Tour, then played third out of five bands on the Pop Punk’s Not Dead Tour in support of New Found Glory. They took the winter off and decided to pull out all the stops for their big-boy headlining tour – and it paid off.
They put together a tour split, featuring all six of the bands covering each other, which was a mountain of a project that miraculously came together. They let fans vote on Facebook for which B-side they wanted to hear every night. They expanded their set list to 17 songs. The result? Over a month of shows that are sold out almost every night. The result? Hundreds of kids in every city freaking out for about four hours each night – oftentimes, Campbell says, they’re almost deliriously tired when it comes time to sing the closing “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands.” Still, when asked about how the tour has been going, the band doesn’t revel too much.
How has the tour been going?
“Well,” Campbell says.
“Strong,” Cavaliere says. “But we gotta say something more than, ‘Well.’”
“But ‘well’ is such a good summation of the tour,” Campbell counters. “It’s definitely going well.”
“Does ‘well’ sell it short, though? How about ‘extremely well’?”
The banter continues but finally, Campbell expands. “The bands that I always perceived as ‘big bands,’ the bands I would buy tickets for in advance and not just assume that I could show up at the door, we’re playing the venues they would route through. Which is crazy to me. Like, where I saw Brand New play, or The Movielife.”
He says his band may have even sold itself short in some cases. They added second shows in Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia because those sold out so quickly. In Chicago and New York, they actually played two shows in one day – one full-album performance of Suburbia as a matinee feature, and one “normal” set. But nothing was normal about those days. Those were long days. In Boston, they had to bump up the room size and ended up playing to 1,000 kids – double what they thought they could play in that market. This is all new territory.
You want to talk about progress? Suburbia outperformed records in 2011 that were put out by bands that The Wonder Years opened for within a calendar year of the album’s release. Set Your Goals’ Burning At Both Ends? Four Year Strong’s In Some Way, Shape or Form? Suburbia had higher first-week sales than both of those albums. Its 8,100 units sold in its debut week speak to how much more attention surrounded the band in June 2011 as compared to January 2010.
Certainly, those facts should be taken with a large grain of salt. Album sales are anything but indicative of a band’s true reach in the climate of today’s industry. But it’s just another rung in the ladder of slow and steady growth The Wonder Years have been exhibiting for years now.
In fact, that growth has led to a point in time where there is another movement among the band’s older fans. They’ve reached the point that many bands reach where getting called sell-outs and being criticized for their popularity is commonplace. Signing to Hopeless Records? Sell-outs. A t-shirt in Hot Topic? Who are you, Nickelback? Having a driver on a tour? Lazy bums. The Wonder Years are no longer just your band – that band you told your best friends about but never wanted to tell everyone about. You didn’t need to tell everyone…they already found out for themselves.
Campbell puts it into perspective more eloquently than most. “A lot of times when a band gets to a level of popularity and you start to see that fucking kid you hated in high school wearing their T-shirt, kids are like, ‘But no, that’s my ba – oh fuck it, fuck this band,’” Campbell says. “And I can’t blame them, I did it too.”
Just another piece of the progress.
“There are so many bands that are around, and so much music coming out, that you wanna give back to the people that listen to you,” Martin says, the show time in Orlando now creeping closer. Transit is playing inside the venue. In the band’s Rock-It Ship, drummer Mike Kennedy, guitarist/keyboardist Nick Steinborn and John James Ryan are getting matching Deathly Hallows tattoos on their legs. Guitarist Matthew Brasch just finished getting a gnarly-looking rendition of the Alkaline Trio heart on his arm. Punk rock is truly alive in Orlando this evening.
Martin is talking about his band’s tendency to constantly stay active in the release of new music, even when they’re spending two-thirds of the year out on tour. More so than their peers, there is hardly a time where you can manage to go a long while without seeing the band’s name in the new release section. After the June release of Suburbia, a Japanese-only B-side was unearthed over the fall and the GK tour split was put up for stream in early March. On April 24, another “new” song will be released on a split 6” with Stay Ahead of the Weather – “new” is relative because “Me vs. The Highway” was recorded a year ago, there just was never a perfect time to release the split until now. It’s a classic Wonder Years ditty, with Campbell’s realist lyrics owning the bridge.
“We definitely didn’t have to do this [GK tour split] for this headliner, but we thought it might be something that people enjoy,” Martin says. “It’s also fun, we had a lot of fun covering each other. It’s fun to stay busy instead of writing one record every two years and doing one headliner, we’ll tour as much as we can and support bands we like.”
The band will have a rare summer off this year after playing Bamboozle and a doing short run with The Early November that extends into early June. But they won’t be relaxing too much – they’ll be writing their fourth LP, which should come out on Hopeless Records in late spring or early summer next year. Recording that album will take place around an as-of-yet-announced, month-long fall tour in November or so. Campbell has already started collecting lyrics that he’s been jotting down for a while.
While we may not know what LP4 will sound like, or how the community will react to it, one thing we can bank on is that The Wonder Years will constantly try to keep moving forward. Even when you ask the band or their friends individually about where they see The Wonder Years in a couple of years, it seems like there’s a common vision in place.
“They have a good head on their shoulders of where they are and where they want to be,” says Mitchell Wojcik, a long-time friend of the band who is photographing and documenting the GK Tour. “They see things growing and they’re like, ‘Well if we can build from this, let’s build from this.’ They’ve been growing slowly for a long time, and unless they put out something completely different from what they’re all about, I see them continuing to grow just at an exponential rate. It’ll get bigger and bigger.”
“Hopefully we’ll just keep going on more tours,” Martin says. “We have this summer off but hopefully we’ll be real busy next summer promoting a record that just came out. I don’t see it slowing down. I see us on tour, grinding away, finding more bands to tour with and to support.”
There’s no end in sight to The Wonder Years’ increasing reach. There’s no end in sight to the progress.
In the immediate future, you can check out a new song called “Me vs. The Highway” right now, which will be released officially on April 24. You can check out The Wonder Years live at Bamboozle and on their run with The Early November. Campbell also teased us with details about a new music video that has already been recorded and what he calls a “secret, major project that’s going to be really cool. It’s not so much rooted in music, but it’s going to be really cool and we’ve been preparing it for over a year now.”