In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
There’s no doubt in Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s mind that Sister Cities, The Wonder Years’ recently-released sixth album is the best one the Philadelphia band has ever made.
“It’s so far above at number one,” he beams. “It’s everything I wanted it to be in pretty much every way, especially if we’re considering the deluxe edition with the photo book, it’s in all ways everything I wanted it to be, because it’s so multi-faceted. The songwriting is what I wanted it to sound like, the production and the mix, the way the artwork came out, the journals, everything. As a whole piece it feels so fulfilling because it feels like it hit all of my marks and goals for it.”
That’s high praise indeed from the frontman, who casts an incredibly critical and fastidious eye over the rest of the band’s back catalog. Given the almost universal acclaim that the six-piece—completed by guitarist Matt Brasch, lead guitarist Casey Cavaliere, drummer Mike Kennedy, bassist Josh Martin, and keyboard player/guitarist Nick Steinborn—have received for the way they’ve constantly developed and evolved their sound since forming in 2005, utterly redefining what (whisper it) pop-punk could be and become, you think he’d go easy on himself. Far from it. Here then, is Soupy’s guide to The Wonder Years’ back catalog, starting with an album he didn’t even deem good enough to actually be put on the list in the first place…
Noisey: This wasn’t on your original list, but as it’s your first full-length, you kind of have to include it.
Dan Campbell: I mean, it wouldn’t make a list. This album is an unmitigated disaster. It’s almost like a different band.
But that makes it interesting. Could you ever imagine being the band you are now having been the band you were for Get Stoked On It!?
No. And you know what? It was such a joke. When we set out to make this, we weren’t going to be a band. We were in college and we were just joking around. It was just these inside jokes, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a song about this or that? And wouldn’t it be great if these joke songs let us go play music somewhere, just to have kind of an adventure?” But I remember thinking when we were making it that the downside to this joke—which was fun at the time—is that we’d never be important to anybody. That was my thought process: This is our band. It’ll never matter. And that’s fine, because we don’t think that this is what we’re going to do. But it’s a bad record. I mean, I’m glad that the people who like it like it, but it’s not good in any way. We recorded the whole thing in ten days and I think the guy that produced it has tried to avoid letting anyone know that he produced because of how it sounds. I remember being like, “Hey man, great news! Your name is going to be on the back of the record” and him being like “Could it not be?”
With all that said and done, though, if you’d never made it, you may not be here today.
Maybe. We were all friends otherwise, so there maybe would have come a time where we had decided maybe to be in a band and we would have written Won’t Be Pathetic Forever, which is the seven-inch that, in my opinion, is where the band really began. Before that, it’s almost like it should have a different name. We probably should have just changed the name.
I think this is the record that we wouldn’t be here without. A lot came from this record. When we were going to write it, I was overwhelmed and depressed and felt really down, and I realized at one point that I had only been listening to sad songs. I thought maybe that had something to do with my constant depression, so what if I tried to write songs that have some sort of silver lining to them? Like, maybe I don’t ignore the fact that I’m depressed and pretend like it’s all OK, but maybe focus on the positives and that’ll help bring me to a better state. That’s what I set out to do lyrically on this, and it helped me develop this lyrical style of “I’m just going to say all the things that I think. I’m not going to try to cover it in obscure metaphors but just say, ‘Hey, I’ve been really sad, but I’m going to try to not be so much anymore—and maybe if all of us tried to not be maybe it would do something and maybe we’d feel a little better.’” The downside to that is that it’s like trying to read your diary from a decade ago, so now when I go back and listen to it, it’s a little cringey. And my voice feels so different. I can’t put this record on now.
Well, in two years it’ll be ten years old, so maybe you can put out re-recorded anniversary edition.
That’d solve the problem! I mean, I love this record. It changed my whole life. It was this full plan that I had in my brain to make it a whole movement, which was maybe a little grandiose for the time, but we were 22! We wanted to not just have you listen to the record but have you interact with it in this different way, where everyone who was listening to it was going to be trying to get better together. I remember we put up the first song for it and I was on this road trip to a funeral and the reaction to it was so much bigger than anything we’d ever done before. It felt like everything started to change then. But at the same time, I don’t like to listen to it anymore!
Did it help? Did trying to look at the bright side of things affect some kind of change inside you?
It did help a little bit. It really did. It didn’t change everything—it’s not a panacea—but it helped my mindset to not wallow so much.
This record was also the start of the trilogy that continued with Suburbia, I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing and The Greatest Generation. Did you have that concept in mind when you were writing it?
I didn’t think about it that way at all until we were working on The Greatest Generation. We were setting out to write a record for the first time that was a record, that we wanted to be a collection of all-new material. It was the first time in my life that I said, “OK, time to write 12 songs together from scratch—let’s do it!” All I knew was I wanted to write some songs that, despite how depressed I was, they weren’t just wallowing in that depression. But there wasn’t yet any sort of unifying theme to the record. It really took until we’d finished writing it to understand how it all tied together.
This album is based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America”. Why did you decide to make that the focus of this record?
We’d signed to Hopeless Records and they’d re-issued The Upsides, but they said, “You’ve got to make a record. We need a record that’s just for us, that we can work from the beginning, and we need it right now.” But all we’d pretty much done since finishing college in May 2009 was tour relentlessly. We were being told we needed to write a record and I was like, “What the fuck about? Holy shit! All I do is play shows.” But when I’d go home, for a while it was to a mattress on the floor of the basement in my dad’s house or his couch and then it was the mattress on the floor of my friend’s house. I’d lived in the city [Philadelphia] for years before that and now I was back in this suburb and I had no idea what the fuck I was going to write about. Josh [Martin]’s now-wife was graduating from art school and we went to her studio space she shared with all these other students and someone had written “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” on the wall and I was like, “Yeah, that Ginsberg poem! I love that Ginsberg poem!” So I started reading it again and it just felt like some kind of sign to me, that I’d been looking for something to unite these ideas. Now it feels so nebulous, but at the time it felt so real and so on the mark and I was like, “This is what I have to do!” Now, looking back, I barely remember the process because we were so exhausted, but I remember thinking how this poem is saying these things about America that were echoing these much smaller-scale versions that I was seeing being back in my hometown for the first time, so I decided to write a record about that town and the relationship I have with it after being gone for years and coming back and seeing it again—looking at a place I love and looking at it really critically for the first time, in a way that said, “There’s a drug problem here, the cops aren’t really doing the right things, all these business are dying. What’s wrong here?” And the poem just brought my focus back to the town and gave me this opportunity to think about it in a critical way.
Obviously these songs were only focused on that town, but thinking critically about America isn’t something that’s done by many Americans very often, and here you are pulling it apart and exposing the truth behind this bastion of freedom—and the American Dream—that many Americans still buy into when, actually, it’s a pretty tough place to live in.
Yeah. And not that there aren’t much tougher places, and not that I don’t love my life here, but it was like, “Man, I love this place but I can’t just ignore these flaws. This is where I’m from and it shaped me and it’s always going to have a piece of me, but let’s not just pretend that everything here is fine.”
How do you feel your depiction then fits in with your ideas now about what America is, especially given that you-know-who is in the White House?
The portrayal is very specifically about our town. And I know people have been like, “Well, no, it’s not—my town is like that, too,” but I only grew up where I grew up, so it’s impossible for me to draw equivalencies, but I think that it’s a decently accurate portrayal of this suburban America that has, in some ways, this façade of white picket fences, of it being Pleasantville where everyone is just so happy, but underneath it there’s this wave of misplaced religion and bankruptcy and opioid addiction and clinical depression and alcoholism that gets ignored. All of that is washing beneath the surface of all this—and I think that’s a pretty fair portrayal of it still. Maybe it’s just easier to see it now.
Given the critical acclaim this album got, people might be surprised it’s not higher up the list. Why not?
We wrote it after all that touring and we had to write it really fast. I’m proud of a lot of it, but looking back now, there are three b-sides for that record that I’d probably put on the record and pull out some of the weaker tracks. We wrote those b-sides a couple of months later, after we finished recording it because the label said they needed more songs for exclusives, but I think those songs were on the tips of our tongues and if we’d been given a little more time to write they probably would have made it onto the record in opposition to some songs I don’t think stand up as well anymore. Also, it’s the first record we made with Steve Evetts and the first record we made away from home—we moved across the country and made this record with a producer who had this huge resume and who was really regimented in how he did things and it was really hard on us. It was boot camp for being in a band.
There are plenty of stories online. It sounds pretty harrowing.
Yeah. I mean, Steve did it because he wanted us to be better. He was a coach. But I threw up doing vocals a couple of times because he kept telling me to push harder. I remember the vocal booth was behind where Steve sits and you can’t see him at all and you’d sing a take and he’d just say, “Do it again” 40, 50, 60 times. And I’d be like, “What the fuck do you want? What am I doing wrong? Is it the pitch, is it the timing, is it the way the vowel sounds?” And he’d be like, “It just didn’t have it.” Like, what the fuck is “it”? Michael lost, like, four pounds doing the drums for that record because Steve would tell him he wasn’t hitting hard enough. But I think we came out of it better players, better musicians, and with a better understanding of songwriting, too. But once we figured it out, I think we made a lot of great music together.
You had a bad case of writer’s block going into this record.
That was one of a myriad of problems with this record. The thing we hear most often is that people don’t like the mix for the record. It’s hard to pin that on the guy that mixed it [Phil Nicolo], because he’s a legend. We were lucky that he considered working with us. I think the problem was we had way too many cooks in the kitchen for the mix, because we all sat in on it and everyone’s saying, “I think my part needs to come up a little bit.” I think for a mix you need to have someone who’s clearly in charge, but Phil wanted us to be happy with it and I think we got our own way a little bit. But the other thing with the mix was I just so depressed at this point. As anyone who has some depression issues will tell you, you go through highs and lows, and I was really, really low. I remember when we got the mix I didn’t even listen to it. Steve Evetts produced the record again and he called me and said, “Did you hear this mix, man? We can’t let this come out.” And I was like, “Steve, I don’t care. I don’t care if it comes out at all.” I was just in such a bad place that I didn’t give a shit. And other people went back in and worked on it and I’m glad they did, because from what I understand, the mix I was ready to turn in was entirely unlistenable. But between the writer’s block and being at such a low point, it was hard to get myself really self-critical.
This was also the album where you stepped out of your personal introspection more and directly addressed bigger issues like religion, classism, racism, Big Pharma, and death—which is the big thing on the record. Did confronting those difficult issues head-on contribute to your depression?
You know what helped me a lot on this record, which I still carry from it? There were some things I was afraid to go after. Like, “I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave” is a song about abusive households. Growing up, I saw a number of those, but I was always afraid to write about them because I didn’t want the people involved to know that I was writing these songs about them. I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about it because it’s their pain and their trauma. I had to view it, and it was painful and traumatic for me, but it’s not necessarily my story to tell. And what I was able to do on this record was amalgamate and obscure things. From The Upsides I had just been so direct, but here I changed things. I started to realize it doesn’t make the song less honest if you create details and amalgamate three or four different people’s stories into one song, as long as the song stays consistent. So that was super helpful when it came to tackling some of those bigger things.
Do you think that’s something you learned from doing the Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties [Soupy’s character-based side-project] the year before, that you can tell truth through fiction?
Yeah. I definitely think that made a big difference—realizing that fiction could ring as honest as fact sometimes, if done correctly and rooted in real emotion. One of the biggest upsides was learning to do that. And we would push our songwriting really far. I would say that “Cigarettes & Saints”—up until Sister Cities came out—was the best song that we ever wrote. I think “Cardinals” is up there, I love the title track and I love that we went out with a really subdued acoustic song. I wouldn’t change that for anything.
You probably thought you’d get through this interview without hearing the term “pop-punk,” but this was the record that a lot of people see as a concerted step away from that genre. Which you were always doing anyway, but this seemed like you were stretching further.
It’s interesting, because yeah, I think we’d been walking that way. We were already doing a lot of things that I don’t think you’d find on many records that are called “pop-punk,” but we were mixing them in. I think that The Greatest Generation did the same thing. We were always walking that way but I think No Closer To Heaven was supposed to be: “Let’s finish it. Let’s get to where we’ve been going.” But I think while there are some songs on that record I love, they also held it back from it being the destination. It was a record that had one foot on each side of the finish line.
What put this record at the top spot?
Up until Sister Cities, this was the record that most sounded the way I imagined it sounding in my brain. It was the right album for the time in which we were making it. If we went and made that record again right now, it would most certainly not be. But, for being 26, 27 years old, it felt like the exact right step to take. There are very few things about this record that I would go back and change. I think there are better songs on No Closer To Heaven and I think from a songwriting perspective that’s a better record, but there are more things I would change on that record than this one.
You’ve talked before about the internal war within yourself that’s represented on this album. Did writing it help you move past that into a better headspace?
It did. I think there are a lot of things about this record that helped with that. It was the first time we put out a record where it was legitimately a job. For Suburbia… it felt like that at any moment on that whole cycle that it could have been like, “OK, it’s over. Go figure out what you’re going to do.” But with this record it felt like everything clicked a certain way. It definitely cleared out my headspace a little bit. It made me feel like I had accomplished a thing that was important to me to get to, like I’d hit a life benchmark, maybe.
Was that something you were afraid you’d never reach?
We were trying to take a step with every record towards being more than just the baseline for what this genre has decided that you are. I think songs like “There, There” and “The Devil In My Bloodstream” were super important. I think doing “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral” was a really cool, bold step for us to try to do this big, kind of opus closer that brought back all these different parts of the record, and in some less obvious ways.
You said this got the top spot because it has the least number of things you’d change. What are they?
I think this one is too long. I could still go back and cut two or three songs. There’s probably some stuff on there that could have been b-sides, but as a whole it really felt like we had hit the mark.
Lyrically, it feels very structured and precise.
Yeah. I work better inside of constructs and I’d built out this construct in my head that it was going to have these symbols that come out throughout the record where you’re going to see bombs and ghosts and devils and pills throughout the whole thing, and they are all going to be representative of something. So, knowing that in advance, I was able to weave them in in certain ways to let the themes carry through the record. And that really helped with the lyricism, to say like, “You’re talking about this thing and I already have this thing which is representative of it throughout the record, so let’s go ahead and bring that back.” That really made me feel at ease writing it.
Often, that kind of stuff is a product of someone’s subconscious, so it’s interesting you were bringing them in deliberately.
It would be the kind of thing where I would realize I was getting that theme and then go, “You have a word for this!” But I’m a pretty obsessive kind of guy. I like the minutiae of a lot of things, so it gives me a sense of ease when I have targets to hit instead of just this big open canvas. They’re almost like these little buoys in the ocean that I can hold onto when I need something to hold onto.