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The Wonder Years Go Back To The Burbs.

November 11, 2014

TheWonderYearsJF01aText by Beth Ann Downey. Images by Jessica Flynn.

Of the patronage in Michael’s Family Restaurant tonight, it is doubtful you’d be able to find one person under the age of 50.

Taylor Swift and other comparable pop tunes play overhead at the Montgomeryville joint. The crowd, dispersed amongst seafoam green vinyl booths, enjoys the traditional diner faire, stocked salad bar and treats from the artfully organized pastry display.

It’s the kind of suburban spot where older customers can eat alone without feeling out-of-place. It’s a place where strangers can easily talk to each other over the wall between booths, or where the friendly waitstaff will greet you by name and listen attentively to your best new news.

This is the place about which Lansdale-based pop punk titans The Wonder Years wrote the song “Coffee Eyes,” off their 2012 release Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. While many of the same characteristics described in the song are apparent tonight, the diner seems different for frontman Dan Campbell, who would often hang out here with friends in their high school days. The waitress he references in the song, named Patty, now works at a diner down the street.

But as what proves true for most of us about relics of our childhood, some things about Michael’s haven’t changed for Campbell at all.

“Every time I eat the fries here I get really sick,” says Campbell, more commonly known as Soupy to friends and fans alike, upon seeing his order. “So what’s going to happen is I really want them and I’m going to eat them. But then, when I have to literally run for a while, it’s because of the fries. You didn’t need to know about my bowel movements but now you do.”

Despite the impending gastrointestinal issues, it’s nights like these that make Campbell happy to be living in Lansdale. Matt Brasch, guitarist for The Wonder Years, is in tow but opts for just a coffee. Brasch also lives in Lansdale but says he still ventures to the city frequently.

The two play flag football every week together with a group of friends, including bandmates Josh Martin and Casey Cavaliere, and both enjoy having a yard now just as much as they did when they were kids. Though Campbell misses biking everywhere like he did when he lived in Philly, he gets his dose of city life when visiting his girlfriend, who resides in Brooklyn.

“The idea of, ‘Oh we’ve gotta move to the city,’ when you’re in college or fresh out of it?” he says. “When it’s like, ‘That’s where all the bars and stuff are?’ That doesn’t appeal to me anyway.”

It’s fitting for a man whose lyrics echo the experiences of many suburban kids, to have never really moved on. Just as “Coffee Eyes” spells out verbatim, he ended up right back where he’d left.

TheWonderYearsJF22There are many reasons why someone would enjoy living out adulthood where they spent their youth. Campbell’s reasons don’t include his mother’s cooking.

“I don’t think my mom knows how to cook a Sunday dinner,” he says. “Bless her heart, but she’s not a chef.”

Campbell’s parents were just 20 and 21 years old when they had him. They didn’t know how to cook then and not much has changed. He grew up eating only what could be microwaved. That’s the reason why he’s still a very picky eater who orders out for almost every meal. His diet consists mostly of pizza, candy and chicken, but only if it’s boneless.

“I’m a child when it comes to food,” he says.

But childhood wasn’t so bad. At least it’s what gave him the DIY mentality he still holds today. Campbell remembers, as a 15-year-old, opening the phone book and highlighting every YMCA, library, fire hall, VFW, Knights of Columbus, Fraternal Order of the Eagle hall, Boys and Girls Club or church that he could con into allowing him and his friends to play shows at.

“I’d call them all and be like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to set up a teen band jam night to help keep kids off drugs,’” he says. “I would pretend I was 18 and illegally sign contracts to rent these places out.”

He guesses they averaged 100 to 150 people per show, but they weren’t all that size.

“I remember there was one at the YMCA, where we had 500-plus” he adds. “It was a total attitude of we didn’t need to appease anyone to do it. That’s a great middle class American privilege, that idea of nothing was going to stand in my way but me. I could pull it off if I wanted to pull it off.”

The Wonder Years formed in 2005 when Campbell had just finished his first year of college and the others finished high school. He and Brasch went to Temple University and Cavaliere joined them in Philly, attending Drexel University. Martin went to Millersville University and drummer Mike Kennedy attended Bloomsburg University.

Campbell received a degree in secondary education and English, something he still plans to use in a future career. He first lived on Bancroft Street in Newbold, which he says is now a much nicer area than when he lived there because of new businesses like the South Philadelphia Taproom. Back then, it was where he got jacked at gunpoint and saw his pizza guy get robbed right in front of his house. He then moved into an apartment above a flower shop at Broad and Porter streets, where his landlord was a total dickhead with probable mafia ties. Lastly, he lived at 6th and Manton streets.

“After that, I was done with the city for a while,” Campbell says. “I still am done with the city.”

The Upsides, the 2012 release that Campbell describes as The Wonder Years’ seminal record, was written in that row home at 6th and Manton. Song titles like “Melrose Diner,” “Logan Circle” and “Washington Square Park” are clues of its Philadelphia-ness, whereas Suburbia dealt with moving home after college.

“That was a whole record balanced on the idea of that homecoming and kind of experiencing the place that you grew up through adult eyes and kind of judging it in a different way,” Campbell says. “But since then, I like to think that the most recent record was less balanced on environment and spoke to a broader kind of full American experience. Or at least the America I know, because obviously there are many different Americas.”

There is a particular song off their newest release, The Greatest Generation, which Campbell says he specifically aimed to set up the feeling of growing up in the Philadelphia region. With a chorus of “I want to die in the suburbs,” Campbell said he wanted to capture the way the Greater Philadelphia Region has always felt blue collar, hard working, caustic in the song “We Could Die Like This.”

“I speak directly and purposefully toward the 1992 Eagles season after Jerome Brown passed away,” he says. “The idea of an entire city brought to its knees by the loss of this iconic athlete and this tragedy and the idea of banding together around that feels very Philadelphian. I was trying to get those points across without being too heavy handed. I don’t know what the success rate of that was. I haven’t heard a whole lot of feedback on it.”

Campbell and Brasch believe Google searches of “Jerome Brown” spiked drastically after The Greatest Generation was released.

“I do know that we’re on Jerome Brown’s Wikipedia page now,” Campbell says. “That’s a major life accomplishment for me.”

TheWonderYearsJF23Campbell lives on a quiet street in a house owned by his roommate and friend since high school. Wonder Years’ bassist Josh Martin and guitarist/keyboard player Nick Steinborn also lived here for a few years. Campbell has taken over a small basement room, which is adorned with The Get Up Kids and The Hold Steady posters, life-sized cutouts of Will Smith and The Undertaker, and a meticulously displayed collection of more than 100 Simpsons figurines.

Out on an enclosed back deck, next to a large bookshelf full of empty craft beer bottles (his roommate’s; Campbell doesn’t drink), a wooden chair faces a laptop propped on a table a few feet away. Every day, Campbell plays through the whole set for his new solo project, Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties, records it and self-critiques.

Campbell started writing solo material in order to get better at guitar. When he graduated from college, his father bought him a very nice Martin guitar (in lieu of a car, which Campbell said he would have felt uncomfortable accepting).

“So I had this guitar, I could barely play it. It was really bad,” he said, adding that when he and the band are in the process of writing a Wonder Years song, he’ll usually just sing the melody and strum his way through 8th note power chords. “But that was the determination. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get better. I want to get better. I have this guitar that I am not worthy of playing.’ I would like to focus my energy on becoming worthy of playing it.”

While challenging himself musically by writing solo material, Campbell also wanted to challenge himself lyrically. He started writing from the point of view of a fictional character, Aaron West – a middle-aged, recently-divorced Brooklyn man by way of Long Island.

“I think that I should always be pushing myself to be better at everything, and obviously, writing lyrics is key to my career,” Campbell says. “I should get better at it, I should always be getting better at it. So I set out to do something different. I had always been of the belief system that in order for a song to be good, it had to be very honest and very real and very passionate. It needed to be very natural and raw from a lyrical standpoint in order for people to connect to it. I came to a staunch realization that wasn’t necessarily true. I think that the emotions have to be real but the events don’t have to be real.”

On Warped Tour last summer, he showed the songs to Ace Enders, producer and solo artist most popularly known as the frontman of The Early November, whom Campbell describes as a “father, role model and great guy all around.” Enders told him he liked the songs and the direction he decided to take the album.

“I just thought he was being standard, nice guy Ace Enders and then the next day, his merch guy came up to me and was like, ‘Ace couldn’t stop talking about those songs,’” Campbell recalls. “So I went back to talk to him about them again and he was like, ‘If you want to record these, I want to be the producer.’”

Campbell thought about it some more.

“If he thinks they’re good, then they’re good,” he resolved. “Maybe I’ll actually write them and Ace will actually produce them and I’ll actually release a record.”

Enders says he was immediately impressed with the concept put forth on We Don’t Have Each Other, released in July on The Wonder Years’ label, Hopeless Records. Because it was already extremely thought out and well planned, Enders says it was easier for him to nudge the rest of the instrumentation, aside from the acoustic guitar parts Campbell had already written, in the right direction.

“It was really a fun experience because I got to just play off of the lyrics and the mood that he was trying to set,” Enders says. “I felt like once we got past that certain point of really understanding what everything meant, it left the door open for me to do what I thought would make sense to complement what he was trying to get across. It was cool for me to be able to take words that he was saying and be able to turn it into emotion through all the sounds that were happening.”

The album should appeal to the most extreme Wonder Years fan and to those who are simply general music lovers. Enders says that the passion Campbell emits through the lyrics is what really draws people into We Don’t Have Each Other.

“I think most Wonder Years fans who are listening to it, it might take them a couple of listens before they fully see what it is,” Enders says. “But by the time they do, they will absolutely love it. It’s a good balance.”

To personify Aaron West, Campbell dresses up slightly, sporting the character’s knit Buffalo Bills hat and the glasses he ordered for the character (but now wears regularly because his girlfriend likes them). For live shows, he simply introduces himself onstage as Aaron. Even at Warped Tour, where The Wonder Years fans were in attendance, Campbell says he saw a shockingly low level of confusion as to what he was doing.

“I expected a lot more of, like, ‘What the fuck? Your life got a lot darker over the last year and a half’ from fans,” Campbell says. “But people got it, which I was pretty impressed with.”
TheWonderYearsJF33Aaron West may live in New York but Dan Campbell feels trapped whenever he’s there.

“The idea of it being an island, it makes me feel really claustrophobic,” he says back at the diner. “I love going there for a couple days at a time and then I get kind of antsy and need to get back out.”

Despite this, Campbell might move there someday soon in order to be with his girlfriend full-time – the city providing the best offerings for her, career-wise. Ironically, they may also decide to move to Philly, maybe Old City.

“Wherever her career path takes her, that’s where I’m going to be,” he adds.
Campbell knows he can continue his own career wherever he lives, from wherever he can tell a story.

TheWonderYearsJUMPcover“Music, to me, has always been a vessel for storytelling,” Campbell says. “All of my favorite bands are lyrically dense and so I think there’s a lot of value there. But that’s just because that’s the way that I would choose. I guess I would consider myself a writer in a certain sense but songwriting is the medium by which I find my stories are most appropriately told. I don’t think I could ever be a novelist. I don’t think short stories are my forte and even poetry, I think, lacks something songwriting gives me. So on a lot of levels, I think there is a huge value there. But narrative songwriting isn’t a thing that is going to crack Top 40 radio. That’s not what people are looking for.”

“The thing I like that Dan does really well is throw in Easter eggs on new albums that reference back to our old albums,” adds Brasch. “I think that’s a really cool thing that he does. He’ll be referencing a story that happens on our first record on our newest record. If you haven’t heard that first album, you wouldn’t know. But diehard fans really get a reward from that.”

No matter what The Wonder Years do next, the diehard fans will probably still remain. In the immediate future, that means touring this fall with fellow Philadelphia pop-punkers Modern Baseball and British punks Gnarwolves. But somewhere down the line, Campbell looks forward to someday using his teaching degree to impact the lives of inner city kids or maybe become a peewee football coach.

It’s easy to see Campbell becoming this kind of mentor. His words have already helped fans deal with the trials and tribulations of growing up. Why wouldn’t his actions?

“I think that with every band, some of your fan base is going to outgrow you,” Campbell says. “We started it when we were younger, and we were targeting an audience around our age. But I think that a lot of our fans have grown up with us, which I really love. I think each record has taken another step towards adulthood and I think the fans have taken the steps with us, which has been really nice. Some of them were suburban kids. A lot of them are now suburban or maybe metropolitan adults. It’s interesting to see.”

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