words by ben tipple
“We’ve definitely slacked on something for the doors,” The Wonder Years’ vocalist Dan Campbell admits. He’s referring to the band’s (then) forthcoming pop-up shops in Chicago and his Philadelphia hometown, building up to the release of their sixth full-length album Sister Cities. Hosting tattoo artists, a full gallery space and more, Campbell has turned his attention to the doors.
It’s this level of detail that has underpinned The Wonder Years’ acclaimed career, one that has seen them shake off their early pop-punk label and cement themselves as one of the driving voices in alternative music. “I like to think of us as existing on an island,” Campbell later notes, “we’re not part of anything. We’re just a band that writes music we believe in.”
2013’s The Greatest Generation, although an obvious progression from their three prior records, pushed The Wonder Years rapidly into the mainstream conscious. It appeared in many publications’ end of year lists, ones that had otherwise failed to give much light to emotive, guitar driven rock. This critical success didn’t happen by chance, instead it was (and remains) an outcome of the band’s (led by Campbell) carefully considered development.
“As far as our songwriting goes,” Campbell says while deliberately removing The Wonder Years from any genre or community, “we just want to push it.” To Campbell, this comes from a methodical approach to songwriting and to the band’s career. It’s about considering the doors, as well as what’s behind them. “I don’t give a shit about any kind of music or community,” he continues. “I don’t give a shit about being the one you think about differently. We just want to write great songs.”
From 2007’s comparably raw debut Get Stoked On It to 2015’s No Closer To Heaven, The Wonder Years have made large strides forward. What has underpinned each release is their melodic prowess and Campbell’s heartfelt and incredibly emotive delivery. Each release has taken the band’s sound in a slightly different direction, yet acknowledged what has come before.
“There’s this misconception about writing follow-up records that you can do one of two things,” Campbell explains, “that you can write a record that pleases the fans or one that pleases yourself artistically, and that somehow those things exist in binary. But we’ve never believed they are directly opposed. We’ve always believed there’s a record you can make that satisfies you as an artist and satisfies your fanbase and the things they want from you.”
With their latest album Sister Cities, The Wonder Years have once again struck that balance. A leap forward from No Closer To Heaven, it retains the band’s distinctive sound. Yet what it adds is a universal depth; a result of time on the road and a reaction to the changing political landscape of the world. It is also a result of careful planning and execution; a preparatory process which Campbell unequivocally lauds.
By Campbell’s admission, the band’s most recent album, No Closer To Heaven, was rushed. “I didn’t feel prepared,” he notes, explaining his reflections that the album was not as big a move forward as he would have hoped. “I wasn’t in a space where I felt like I was compelled to write.” Instead the band entered the studio bogged down by external pressures. Time was in short supply.
“The economy of music right now is that if you aren’t touring there is no income,” he explains. “If we’re not on tour we can’t feed ourselves or take care of our families. There was a pressure to get the album done so we could go back out there, play more shows, and continue to live.”
To add to Campbell’s anxiety, drummer Mike Kennedy was living on the other side of the country. His time in the studio was limited, so Campbell had to ensure he had written new songs ahead of his arrival. “All that stuff piles on top of each other until you start second guessing everything. I’m super proud of the record, but it was just really hard to make.”
Sister Cities sounds altogether freer. The sound itself is liberated from the shackles of logistical pressure. The lyrics celebrate a universal truth. Campbell and his five fellow bandmates planned and prepared for the album’s creative process. They all saved, knowing that cash might be tight when writing and recording.
“The economics of creating music in a world where streaming is king and record sales don’t matter as much, it shuts the window for bands to write records. It just boxes you in. We just prepared for this one, so that we were ready to take as many months to write and record it until it was the record we wanted to make.”
With creative freedom restored, Sister Cities was influenced by the road. Taking photographs on tour and keeping a personal journal, some of which are included in the album’s liner notes, Campbell drew the record together from his global experiences. After touring was over, he sat down with his notes and photographs and began to reimagine places as music. “That’s what brings the record to life and gives it its lushness,” he states enthusiastically.
It also provided Campbell with the means to be more methodical in his songwriting. “I like to build out an outline of the record beforehand,” he reveals. “Some of the most success I’ve had, or the most gratifying experience that caused me least amount of anxiety when writing, was (2011 album) Surburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing. When we came into writing that record I knew there were going to be thirteen songs, and what each song was about. We put them up on a board and created the moods around the lyrics.”
For Sister Cities, Campbell found the balance between this hyper-structured process and the flexibility required when working with five other people. Drawing influence from The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Campbell took a more cinematic approach. Finn reportedly sends his lyrics to bandmate Tad Kubler, who them scores them like a scene in a film.
“We write every song together as a band,” Campbell says of their process. “What makes The Wonder Years sound like The Wonder Years is all of us pushing each other in one room together. But obviously the idea must start somewhere. If the idea has started with me, what I was really trying to do with this record was start with the lyrics; the concept and the journals. I’d figure out what I wanted to write the song about and build some lyrics. Once I’d done that I’d really think about the mood of the song.”
The result is beautiful. Sister Cities offers a sweeping view of the world, drawing influence from places and from people. It’s less angry than No Closer To Heaven yet more intricate. Opener “Raining In Kyoto” jumps between places and atmosphere, the drums mirroring the pouring rain.
“My friend Joe said it feels like he’s in so many different places at once and I’m skipping back and forth, and that’s what I wanted to create,” Campbell says. “With songs like “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be”, if I can get you to shift where you are three times over the course of the song, that’s a huge success.”
There’s also an important message in the record’s unbounded sound. Sister Cities is a political record through experience. Through their worldwide touring, The Wonder Years have seen firsthand the impact of the current social rhetoric.
“It’s a divisive time. A lot of the worldwide rhetoric happening right now is about walls and borders and refugees, and that this person is your enemy and that person is your enemy. That this person is so different from you that they threaten your way of life and you should dislike that and be afraid of them and hate them. “The thing that we could do to combat that after this world tour, seeing what we saw and experiencing what we experienced, what we could do to be the most helpful is to say that everyone’s not that different. People are more like you than you think that they are.”
Sister Cities celebrates the common ground between all. It’s an ode to both individual differences and shared experience. “I think we were trying to write a record that was personal, but political in that way. Not to write protest songs but to write something that could be informative and helpful.”
Campbell and his bandmates didn’t necessarily set to out to send this message. When starting to write the album much of the political changes that have spawned negative and hateful attitudes seemed unlikely, impossible even. When looking back through his journals and photographs, Campbell was faced with changing times, yet a strong realisation of shared identity. “All throughout the journals I kept coming back to these themes of symmetry; of seeing myself in others and others in myself. It’s so engrained in the journals that it became engrained in the songs, and then in the record.”
Campbell relates his experiences to his upbringing, one which saw him rarely venture further from home than the Jersey Shore, an hour and a half from his Philadelphia home. “When you don’t go very far and don’t meet a huge amount of people, the world can feel unstoppably massive. When you only hear about another culture on the news or in a textbook, other countries can feel like other planets. The thought of visiting them makes you feel like you’d be an alien on their planet.”
Sister Cities brings the beauty of the world into living rooms, to celebrate cultural differences and similarities. “Maybe you haven’t left your town, and people are telling you they are the enemy, they are different from you and threatening your way of life… we are trying to say that we just went there and these people are pretty cool. They are very much alike, and kind. They love the way you love, they hurt the way you hurt, and they matter the way that you matter.”
An ode to people and places, Sister Cities draws a new world; one without borders. It’s about positivity. The Wonder Years deliver this vital message with calm reflection. In sound, the album ebbs and flows from the gentle ripple of waves to the crashing of thunder. It’s personal, political and moving; an obvious result of a balance of emotion and meticulous planning.
Campbell and The Wonder Years find strength and power in the small, subtle moments, like the art hanging on the door.
‘Sister Cities’ is released April 6th, via Hopeless Records