The Wonder Years: “We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories”

The Wonder Years are the definition of a beloved band, but as they prepare to drop their new album, they may be the best they’ve ever been too.

Words: Alexander Bradley.
Photos: Christopher Kitchen.

There is so much we don’t know about the human brain. It’s happy when we do Sudoku puzzles and read. It’s less happy when we don’t drink water and doom-scroll Twitter comments. But, from one person to the next, our minds work in entirely different ways. ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’ is the title for The Wonder Years’ newest album. It’s their best work to date. As for The Hum? The one that goes on forever? It’s how Dan Campbell knows his depression.

The expression comes from a poem written with the book that accompanied their last album, ‘Sister Cities’. It goes: “The wind shakes loose teeth out of a tree above us and winter appears inevitable / The hum goes on forever / When I anticipate silence and am alone, it’s there with me.”

Dan is reading it from the comfort of his home. The dog is barking every now and then. There are giggles and a few little cries from another room from one or both of his young sons, Wyatt and Jack. He has just re-strung his guitar ahead of practice this evening. The hum is low. At least, it seems that way.

“It was supposed to be this double entendre. It’s both depression and tinnitus,” he laughs as he closes the book and sets it aside again.

“It’s a physical hum that I’m always hearing because I have destroyed my body through the thing that I love doing in certain irreparable ways. And then, it’s this understanding that this sadness is with me always.

“The thing you realise is that it can get louder and quieter at different times. The line in ‘Summer Clothes’, “I hate myself a little less when the salt air hits my skin”, is this understanding when I was young that I didn’t realise how bad I was until I felt better momentarily. So, it almost becomes conspicuous by its absence.

“I compared it to my kids having this white noise machine in each of their rooms, and you’ll be in there at night and notice it’s on, and then someone will turn it off, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, now it’s deafening’. It’s so loud.

“That’s how I generally feel about my depression; it is a constant thing that sometimes will be so overpowered that I will not be able to focus on or work through anything else, and sometimes it will get so quiet that I forget that it’s there.

“But, it’s not a thing you rid yourself of; it’s a thing you live alongside and the quicker you come to that conclusion, the faster the chance you will be able to build techniques for coping with it.”

The Wonder Years: "We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories"

“I’m able to take something that is causing me anguish, take it apart into its component pieces and rebuild it into something that is useful for someone else”

Dan Campbell

In the years that have followed ‘Sister Cities’ and since he first identified “the hum”, so much has changed. Not just for The Wonder Years, but the whole world has changed since 2018. In fact, it’s been closer to six years since the synapses first sparked for that record. But the biggest change for Dan has been in the birth of his children.

Of course, his children are a source of happiness and wonderment, but he also refers to parenthood as “constant agonising anxiety punctuated with small moments of surreal joy.” That is probably something every parent recognises, but when “it’s low tide / at serotonin bay”, as the track goes, he has struggled to adapt.

“I was having a lot of trouble with the sound of my kid crying,” he explains. “You are evolutionarily programmed to have alarm bells go off when your kid cries, and so when you can’t calm them, that anxiety gets so overwhelming to me. I start to freak out, and my fingers are going numb, and I’m like, ‘what should I do?'” In the end, his therapist (“shout out Melissa”) advised him to pop on some noise-cancelling headphones. And that’s what he does. He listens to a podcast and rocks his child back to sleep. It’s like not seeing the forest for the trees sometimes. The simplest solutions can seem like the hardest thing in the world when the hum is loud.

For every negative encounter with his brain, though, with anxiety, with depression, there is something utterly brilliant that comes from the way Dan’s mind works. The scrutiny he puts on his thoughts allows him to break down his emotions into all their elements and then put them back together in loud pop-punk songs. On this album, that happens more than ever. He likens it to a project local to him where they melt weapons down into farming tools. “I’m able to take something that is causing me anguish and take it apart into its component pieces and rebuild it into something that is useful for someone else,” he compares.

Taking apart the joy and absolute dread of parenthood, he opens the album on the line, “I don’t wanna die / at least not without you.” Dissecting it, he comments, “I didn’t necessarily want my own life to end as much as I want all of existence to cease at once. And you get that as the song progresses and I’m thinking about an apocalypse,” he reveals. At the source of it, it’s a lot of complex emotions butting heads; the love he has for his family but still the chokehold that depression has on him.

The Wonder Years: "We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories"

The reality is that these songs Dan Campbell writes as a way of trying to process his life and the world around him. He navigates a terrifying world of having children while school shootings, climate change and global pandemics become the norm. And he tells of his struggle to face that world and summon the strength to even get out of bed every day. But, he somehow finds a way to keep struggling on and the flicker of hope stops the album from feeling lyrically despondent. These are his conscious reactions to the world.

But, what are the songs your brain writes when you’re not thinking? Well, this album has a few of those too.

“Sometimes your subconscious just hands you something, and I think that partially is therapy and is a method for dealing with trauma where you don’t know what you’re writing until it all of a sudden clicks into place.

“It’s like, ‘oh fuck, I was being handed this by a part of my brain that I was not conscious was working on it all of this time / processing it all of this time’. And so, that song came into being in this interesting way where the song and verses were written for ‘Sister Cities’, and we couldn’t figure out where it would go,” Dan explains.

We are discussing ‘Cardinals II’. The song is the sequel to the track on ‘No Closer To Heaven’, but it wasn’t ready for the follow-up album as, “When I look back it, it was like my brain couldn’t finish the thought because something was wrong about it,” he considers. So he broke it down (like melting guns for tools again), and it became a different song, but a demo of the piano remained. It went to the back of his mind but, seemingly, it didn’t lay dormant there. Much like the hum lurking up there somewhere, there are some recesses of his mind that are constantly trying to figure out how to make a song come together.

Revisiting the demo ahead of this album, it started to click. “I had that chorus and I was listening to the verse and I started musing through lyrics and it was one of those where I don’t know what I’m writing about yet but my brain is just giving me things and giving me things.

“It starts to click into place what exactly I’m writing about, and I realise it is writing another piece of the ‘Cardinals’ narrative. It’s a conversation with that song. And all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘oh my God, it’s in the same key, in the same time signature and at the same tempo’. It was like my brain had been telling me subconsciously, this is the next piece of ‘Cardinals’, and it locked into place to bring back that piece of the original song in the bridge of this and look at it and hit it from a different angle and a different perspective. It was opening up all these different parts of my past and parts of my history that my brain had walled off for my own safety for so long that had apparently opened back up.”

The Wonder Years: "We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories"

It’s amazing how the mind can work; how it can keep us safe from ourselves. The outcome, the song, ‘Cardinals II’, ghost-written by some far-flung corner of his mind, is a brooding, tense mix of soundscapes that grows before erupting with white-hot intensity. “I had that nightmare again…” he cries, re-treading the footsteps from 2015.

Nightmares. They also played a big part in Dan’s subconscious writing skills on this new album. References to dreams are smattered throughout, but the album’s penultimate track ‘Old Friends Like Lost Teeth’ has the singer diving into the dream journal he keeps on his phone.

He scrolls through his phone, not knowing what he will find. “I don’t remember this at all… Looking through to find a short one to read you.” He finds one from 22nd April 2018 that ends with someone he was trying to hug injecting themselves in the neck. He wakes up. He writes it down. This is just one of many that clog up his Notes app. “So I have weird dreams all the time,” he concludes and smiles.

And ‘Old Friends Like Lost Teeth’ is based on one of those dreams, but the dream-like qualities stop there. There is a strong possibility this track hammers heavier than any previous Wonder Years songs. Drummer Mike Kennedy had previously stated he wanted to “play really fucking hard again” and according to Dan, “he goes all the way the fuck off on this record”, but the pinnacle of that might just be on this track.

There are the songs he needed to write to process life and, in turn, give to other people to help them. And then there are the songs his brain needed him to write to help deal with trauma and perhaps tell him some things he needed to learn. So then Dan is tasked with putting together ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’, and, of course, he had a unique perspective when it came to that too. That’s just how his mind works. It is a blessing and a curse.

“I took every song we were writing or that we had written, and I gave it as score for brightness – like is it a dark song or a poppy song? And I gave it a second score for energy – is it a high or low energy song? And I took those two data points, and I graphed every song like a X / Y graph so I could visually see what parts of the record was missing,” he details. The description sounds makes him sound like some sort of nutty professor, but it shows an extra level of consideration that has gone into album number seven. A lot of care and a lot of self-evaluation.

On the one hand, that extra attention to detail is a great thing. It’s the care taken to make a real, cohesive album in the age of the single. It’s that care that makes the album’s finale, ‘You’re The Reason I Don’t Want the World to End’ so rewarding. The payoff is spectacular. It ties the threads that make up the album superbly, and it’s subsequently earned the title of Dan’s favourite ever Wonder Years song, taking the mantle from the closer on their last album. There just seems to be something about ending an album that the band have perfected.

“We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories. We are trying to build through lines. We are trying to be self-referential. We are trying to build something that crescendos and falls and moves with the lyrics, with the music, and then builds to a moment of understanding. And we’ve never done it better with ‘You’re The Reason…'” he declares, beaming with pride.

That’s where that extra attentiveness to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together are signals of his incredible intellect. The times it can be a problem is when he is being his own critic. He had a lot of time to reflect following ‘Sister Cities’, and that is probably why this album does contrast quite dramatically with its predecessor.

That album was easily their most ambitious. It was a mature rock album with broad soundscapes and textures that weren’t made to come out swinging from sweaty basements but rather stride purposefully out across theatres and arenas around the world. It came around with a new label deal which meant more money and time to make a record than ever before. Plus, they wanted to work with a new producer and actively try to turn away from every comfortable decision they felt they had made on ‘No Closer To Heaven’ that time around. In every way, it became the biggest Wonder Years album they’ve ever made.

“I always want to self-reflect after a record. I want to go back and listen to it a year later and see how crowds react to it; think about, ‘what could I have done better?’ and critique myself,” he reasons.

Upon reflection, his big takeaway from that experience was that the extra gadgets to play with soundscapes and textures in the studio meant they forgot how what they were making would translate live.

“I think it was less audience participation orientated as our music normally is, which I think is so key. We are a band that exists so much in live, physical spaces and performing live is such an important part of who we are,” he concedes.

“That was my first big self-critique. I wanted to make sure, moving forward, that I remember to include that and not just exist within the in-ear mix and not just play with all these cool sounds we can make now and all these different things I can do with my voice, but remember that you’re a fucking loud rock band that plays loud rock songs for people that want to scream them with you.”

It’s a fair assessment of that album and a healthy practice to take off the rose-tinted glasses once in a while to properly evaluate the art you’ve made. It’s always the ambition to be better than your last piece but how often is that actually the case?

But the self-analysis goes on, and as the foundations of their new album started to form and the pandemic took hold, a “crisis of self”, as he puts it, began to creep in. Describing that enforced live hiatus, he adds, “If we are not on stage, then I don’t remember who we are in a lot of ways.”

That small crack can grow if not fixed quickly. It’s even easier with a mind like Dan’s it seems. That small crisis of self of what a post-pandemic, 2022 The Wonder Years would look like started to grow into a sense of self-doubt.

Writing ‘Wyatt’s Song (Your Name)’, the chorus was not working. It was close but just not quite there yet. And without an audience to test songs out on, that self-doubt began to spiral, and he began to question himself.

“That imposter syndrome that we all have as artists of, ‘Is this good? Am I good? Do I suck at this? Does it all work? Do I actually live in a simulation, and none of this is real at all? How could I possibly have a life and job, and how could people possibly like the art I make? And who the fuck am I to say anything?'” he asks.

In the same way he has a therapist to help when his mind is stuck, he has an expert for when a song isn’t working, too: in walks Mark Hoppus. Or rather, he jumps on Zoom. Like with his noise-cancelling headphones, all he needed was a slight adjustment to get him back on track. Mark didn’t do much, just pointed out the seemingly obvious – that the chorus structure needed tweaking.

With it started to click into place, Dan asked, “Do you want to hear another one? I feel pretty good about it. I don’t want to change anything, but just to get your opinion.” Mark agreed, and Dan played ‘Doors I Painted Shut’.

“From just slightly out of the frame, he slowly raised his arm, and all of the hair was standing up. He was like, ‘Dude, that song, are you fucking kidding me?’ and my confidence was back like, ‘Oh yeah, I can write songs’,” he grins.

The Wonder Years: "We are trying to stretch narrative. We are trying to tell stories"

“I don’t feel there is a better Wonder Years record than this one”

Dan Campbell

Getting a picture of how Dan’s mind works, you see the cross-sections convene between soul-baring songwriting, careful planning and lessons from all his own harsh critique. From there, the album comes together. And when he isn’t sure where to turn, he has coping mechanisms to steer him away from crashing against the rocks. Sometimes it helps from the band or pop-punk legends or, in the case of “the hum”, it’s therapy.

In Dan’s words, the hum “oscillates between a malaise where it feels physically difficult to stand” and anger. “It’s just pin-ponging between those two things,” he adds.

“I just fucking hate me. I hate being inside of my brain. Why do I have to process things like this? Why am I so miserable? Why am I so miserable to be around? Everyone must fucking hate me,” are commonly floating around his thoughts.

It can be debilitating when the hum is at its loudest, but for every dysfunction and feeling of ennui, there is almost an equal and opposite power from how he thinks. It becomes a battle between loving and loathing the way his mind works, but when everything clicks together, he is unstoppable.

Determined to keep learning from every experience, ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’ is an amalgamation of everything The Wonder Years have ever done. Each album informs the next one. This album is urgent. There is a sense of life or death again. It sometimes feels like the microphone in front of Dan is like a bucket he needs to spill his guts into. It’s reminiscent of those first few albums in that respect. And then there are the storytelling and self-referential moments of their breakout album ‘The Greatest Generation’ too. Then there is everything from ‘Sister Cities’ too; that polish and finesse and occasional restraint.

“We have a very big problem with restraint. In our whole career, we have never been able to write a ballad that has stayed a ballad. They always explode,” Dan reflects. They cracked it on the last album, though, with ‘Flowers Where Your Face Should Be’ and then have perfected it with ‘Laura & The Beehive’ – a piano-lead ballad dedicated to his Grandmother. They keep learning. They keep getting better.

In the end, when you clear away all the thoughts that whirl through his brain, The Wonder Years only had one goal.

“Go and be the band we spent the last 17 years building ourselves into. We don’t have to be anybody else for anybody else. We can just make the best Wonder Years songs and, in my opinion, mission accomplished,” he states before concluding, “I don’t feel there is a better Wonder Years record than this one.”

Whether you believe him or not, there is a lot to learn from this album. It’s a guide for surviving a world when you seemingly have all you ever wanted but still feel depressed. It’s a lesson on listening to the important things your mind is trying to tell you. It’s a warning to value the time you have. And in its final lines, it’s a comfort that when everything looks endlessly bleak to keep going, “Put the work in / Plant a garden / Try to stay afloat.” 

Taken from the October issue of Upset. The Wonder Years’ album ‘The Hum Goes On Forever’ is out 23rd September.