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No Sleep Till Cardiff: The Wonder Years, Wrecked Vans And Time Capsules

Wednesday, 07 May 2014 Written by Huw Baines

Dan Campbell is really tired, and with good reason. To make the opening night of their UK and Ireland trek in Cardiff, the Wonder Years ploughed through a 20 hour drive across Europe, their former van’s wrecked axle leaving a 3 a.m breakdown call from the autobahn, a cancelled show with Bayside and a 10 hour stay at a Bavarian petrol station in its foul-smelling wake.

“What a miserable fuckin’ piece of shit couple of days,” he laughs. “The company whose van it was that broke down called another company in Germany that rents vans to bands and this dude drove six hours, straight shot, got there at midnight, went to sleep and took a train back.

“We got in that van and [drove] 20 straight hours to Cardiff. We got here at 2 a.m and crashed out. We have the van that we’re going to finish the tour in coming now. The German van is still out front...not a lot of sleep, not a lot of comfort, a lot of shittiness.”

Later he tells the tale to a packed room at Cardiff University’s students’ union, reiterating an earlier assertion that it’s great to be back on stage after another brush with the realities of touring. The Wonder Years are on the road more often than not and, like they did in Cardiff, people tend to hang off Campbell’s words. On stage, when he’s not windmilling around, he’s earnest but sincere, never tumbling into platitudes, and their fans’ investment can be traced to his lyrics, which are deeply personal but relatable.

The Wonder Years are a band that their crowds have grown up with. Campbell’s stories traverse his own world, but deal with stuff that’s pretty much universal: we all grow up, we all lose people, we all miss home or want to escape, we all review our own lives against our contemporaries'.

‘The Greatest Generation’, which was released last year, is the band’s fourth record, the second since ‘The Upsides’ established their effective blend of pathos and pop-punk, and is another snapshot of time and place. Like their previous albums, it’ll mean something different to its writers, and to those who took it to heart, in a few years’ time.

“You know Judd Apatow? I was listening to a podcast with Judd Apatow,” Campbell says. “He said: ‘It’s kinda cool because I can watch any of my films and it’s almost like a little time capsule of how I felt that year.’ He was like: ‘I went back and watched Funny People and thought, shit, I must have been really depressed.’

“The thing with writing lyrics that are so personal is that four, five years later you may not relate to those lyrics that same way you used to. You may not feel that way, but you can think about yourself when you did. You see yourself. It’s almost like I made a little portrait of me for those years. I see the places I lived, I see the places I visited, I see the people I spent time with.

“I think it [‘The Greatest Generation’] is our best record, and it’s also my favourite because it is a time capsule of only a year ago. Usually a year after a record I’m starting to think about what I want to do differently next time, but I’m just now beginning to scratch the surface of that because I love this record so much. We’ll get there.”

While van bunks stand in for their own beds for months at a time, Philadelphia and its people are a constant for Campbell and the band, even when they’re nowhere near the place. In Cardiff, for example, he warns people off Melrose Diner, one of the city’s less salubrious eateries and the name of an ‘Upsides’ favourite. Apparently that song is actually about a friend’s house around the corner anyway, so don’t worry.

Right now, Philadelphia possesses one of the pre-eminent punk scenes in the world and the Wonder Years are some of its most famous sons. For Campbell, who’s visibly proud of the way the city’s music has crossed borders, it’s all tied up in the place itself, which is amenable to bands at each stage of their development.

“Philadelphia is one of the most blue collar cities in the United States,” he says. “I try to encapsulate that. The idea of the song We Could Die Like This [from ‘The Greatest Generation] is to understand what it was like to grow up around Philly without telling you, to give you an aura of it. That’s the kind of town it is.

“It’s so much cheaper than New York too. The place we could afford to live was not always the best place but you could afford a house in south Philadelphia with incredibly cheap rent and move the whole band in there and start writing songs in the basement. And yeah, nothing in the house worked and it was a piece of shit, but we could do it, we could live there.

“You can’t do that in Brooklyn. You’re not getting a house for $650 a month. You’re not. It doesn’t exist. You can’t get an apartment for under two grand. It allows for that DIY nature to happen. You could rent a house in west Philly and run shows out of it. It’s possible. It’s affordable.”

At Groezrock, Belgium’s ever-impressive punk festival, they were joined on the bill by familiar faces in the Menzingers, Paint It Black and Restorations, while Campbell is happy to sketch out, layer by layer, how the scene can prop up its bands, from basement shows to DIY punk spots, to Union Transfer and beyond. The Wonder Years recently ticked off a Philly ambition by headlining a sold out night at the Electric Factory, while at the other end of the scale, Modern Baseball are running gigs at their house in the city.

“We’re on fire,” he says. “I feel pretty close to a lot of it, but a little distant from some of the newer stuff. We’re really good friends with Modern Baseball now and they’re at the centre of a lot of it because they’re doing shows out of their house. I was looking at Groezrock...that’s a serious Philadelphia contingent. And then with Will Yip doing all those records out of Philly right now, a lot of people are coming to live there for two months to do a record.

“Hostage Calm are just living in Philly for a while, and I remember back in the day Trash Talk moved to Philly just to get an east coast base. Philly’s on it man. This is Hardcore is the biggest hardcore festival in the world. We have such an incredible scene from the bottom up.”

The DIY perspective is an important one when looking at the Wonder Years, because for a while there they had to fight against the current and didn’t really have an option but to build things brick by brick. Now, though, they’re playing to thousands of people thousands of miles from home, something that Campbell believes their hard yards delivered.

“The Wonder Years can do whatever we want right now,” he says. “We call our own shots. If we want to do this show or that show or this tour or that tour, we do them. If we don’t want to do them, we just don’t do them. It’s nice and we earned that. We spent enough years in the basement to earn that.

“But I do miss the idea of playing a basement show. We always talk about how much we want to do it: ‘Let’s just go and play Modern Baseball’s house.’ It’s too dangerous. The last time we did a surprise basement show was us, Fireworks and Man Overboard in 2009 maybe. We hadn’t even written ‘The Upsides’ yet. We announced it that day, and it still put a way dangerous amount of people in that house. It was super dangerous to have it happen. So I don’t know how we could go about doing that now.”

The band are now back in the van, with A Loss For Words and State Champs along for the ride as support, and will be heading across to Birmingham, London, Sheffield, Glasgow, Dublin, Liverpool, Nottingham and Brighton in the next couple of weeks.

The Wonder Years Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed May 07 2014 - BIRMINGHAM Institute
Thu May 08 2014 - LONDON Scala
Fri May 09 2014 - SHEFFIELD Corporation
Sat May 10 2014 - GLASGOW Queen Margaret Union
Sun May 11 2014 - DUBLIN Fibber Magees
Tue May 13 2014 - LIVERPOOL O2 Academy Liverpool
Wed May 14 2014 - NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms
Thu May 15 2014 - BRIGHTON Haunt

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