Few bands have cultivated the same kind of reverence as The Wonder Years. The band cut their teeth on jokey pop-punk jams they’re admittedly embarrassed by, but over nearly two decades, they’ve grown into one of the most venerable forces in emotionally charged alternative music. They’d long stuck true to their pop-punk roots (albeit with increasingly darker tints), but on 2018’s Sister Cities, the band shed it entirely to explore a more strait-laced emo and post-hardcore sound.
Though polarising for some, that one-off musical detour proved incredibly beneficial for The Wonder Years. They’ve returned to pop-punk for their just-released seventh album, The Hum Goes On Forever, but they’ve done so with a matured perspective and poise that shows the band in their strongest form yet. It’s led to their most surprising material – the pseudo-gothic ‘Songs About Death’ and soaring ‘Laura & The Beehive’ among its biggest highlights – which, as frontman Dan Campbell tells Australian Guitar, is a direct testament to the band’s constantly evolving ethos and chemistry.
This is the new age of The Wonder Years, driven by a staunch determination to make you feel every feeling physically possible. Having just unleashed The Hum Goes On Forever, we sat down with Campbell to learn about how it came to be.
So on Sister Cities, you kind of stepped away from that pop-punk vibe. What drew you back to it for Hum?
Well, I think it’s more about why we left it for a moment. With Sister Cities, we didn’t want to do something that stood in opposition of our past work, we just felt like we’d reached a lot of limits of where we were allowing ourselves to go. And so we thought, like, “Let’s force ourselves to push past those limits.” I’ve given like 100 bad metaphors for this, so here’s one of those: we had this set of tools that we were really adept at using, and we had gotten so adept at using them that we felt like it could become rote and formulaic to keep using them.
We wanted to avoid that, so we said, “Let’s throw out all these f***ing tools and figure out how to use some new tools.” We went to a new producer, we looked at every aspect of the songwriting process differently, and we said, “What can we learn from this?” And I think we made a tremendously cool record – I f***ing love Sister Cities, I still think it’s got some of the best Wonder Years songs in the catalogue on it. But it wasn’t supposed to be like a fork in the road, it was supposed to be a thing that we could learn from.
And so when we got to making Hum, we said, “Okay, let’s think about the band, let’s think about who we are, and let’s think about everything we’re capable of doing. Then, let’s try to narrow in on what we think we do, frankly, better than anyone else. What do we think we’re the f***ing best at? Now, let’s go do that.”
I think that made for a better album in the end – there’s so much stuff on Hum that I don’t think you could’ve done if you hadn’t made a record like Sister Cities.
Yeah, I mean, we had to push past our boundaries – we had to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone – to get better. That really was the whole thing. If I’m being frank, I think of this record as a triangulation of our three most recent records: I think it’s part Greatest Generation, part Sister Cities and part No Closer To Heaven.
Ever since Fall Out Boy did that one song that referenced all their old hits and then broke up a year later, I’m skeptical whenever bands get nostalgic about themselves. This isn’t some roundabout way of telling us that Hum is The Wonder Years’ swansong, right?
I would say we’ve always been self referential, right? So that’s not a new piece of evidence that you have in this Charlie Kelly pinboard thing. But as far as it being the last record… Every record of ours could be our last record, because we don’t want to release bullshit. That’s been a very real thing for us – we only want to put out records that respect our fanbase and respect our legacy.
Every time you go into a new Wonder Years record, you should walk out of it going, “This is a contender for the best Wonder Years record.” And if we don’t feel that way about it when we’re making it, we’re not going to put it out. I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I go, “Yeah, I don’t know, we finished the record, and I think it’s probably our third- or fourth-best one... Still pretty good, right? Here you go.” I feel like that would be a disservice to everything we’ve built, and to the people we play for – for whom we have a lot of respect.
When you’re writing a song, do you think much about what Matt, Casey and all the other guys are going to play on it, or do you kind of just let them bring their own flavours into the mix?
I generally try to go into [the songwriting process] with the trust that, like, they are all very talented and will do a great job with it. When I wrote ‘Low Tide’, for example, I was just writing on an acoustic guitar, playing the chords you learn at the first-ever guitar lesson you take. It was a G chord, an E minor… Very, very simple shapes. Because I know that what [the other members] are going to do to it is going to add that colour and texture, and make it more Wonder Years-y than I ever could. I play the guitar, but I am definitely not the guitar player for The Wonder Years.
Tell me the story behind ‘Songs About Death’. Musically, at least, it feels like a massive leap into uncharted territory for The Wonder Years – which is saying something when you consider the entirety of Sister Cities.
That’s kind of an interesting story. So it did start with me, but not as a song – I wrote it to be the bridge of ‘Old Friends Like Lost Teeth’. That song was supposed to go from the second chorus into ‘Songs About Death’, and then ‘Songs About Death’ was supposed to be about half as long; it was just going to be the end of ‘Old Friends Like Lost Teeth’.
We played it that way a couple of times, and there were two prevailing sentiments about it – the first being, “This is very cool,” and the second being, “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not doing a third chorus on ‘Old Friends Like Lost Teeth’, because that’s such a good chorus.” So we were like, “Well, what do we do?” And Nick just went, “I don’t understand why [‘Songs About Death’] can’t just be a song.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s only these two parts,” so he said, “Well, just do them again.”
For a long time, we just called it an interlude. We weren’t even calling it a song. But then it just kind of kept growing, little by little, until we were like, “Holy shit, this thing’s like three minutes long – this is a song now!”
But I mean, that was one where what I was playing was so basic – it was such a simplified version of what’s on the record. But the great thing about working with these guys is that we’ve all been writing songs together since we were 17, so I went in[to the studio] and I was like, “Hey, I want something like this, but like, not this” And I kind of played it for them and sung it for them, and Nick was like, “I know exactly what you’re trying to do, it’s this thing, and I’m going to do it 100 times better than you ever could.”