The Wonder Years on fatherhood, Mark Hoppus, and making a record that’s RIYL The Wonder Years
In the four years since The Wonder Years released their last album, 2018's Sister Cities, they put out an acoustic EP, and revisited their pop punk roots to play Suburbia and The Upsides on tour and release two new tracks in that style, while frontman Dan Campbell released a new album by his Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties project, put out his debut solo album, and had two kids. Oh yeah, and an entire pandemic happened. When it came time to finally write a new Wonder Years record, Dan found himself faced with a new challenge, questioning the band's very existence: "What are The Wonder Years? Who the fuck are we? What are we supposed to be doing? What are we supposed to sound like?" So he aired his frustrations to someone at the band's label, Hopeless Records, who suggested he "spend some time and think about what it means [to make a Wonder Years record]," and who added, "Make a record that sounds like you. And not like a derivative of what you've done before, like don't photocopy a photocopy. You can make new music that the genre is The Wonder Years." And with The Hum Goes On Forever, that's really what The Wonder Years have done; they've zeroed in on everything that's always separated this band from all of their peers, and everything that's made them such a special band to their ever-expanding diehard fanbase. They've made a record where the genre is The Wonder Years.
As for what exactly that means, it's something that's been in constant development for over a decade. With 2010's The Upsides and 2011's Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing, The Wonder Years and some of their likeminded peers helped solidify pop punk as a valid subgenre -- rather than just a watered-down version of punk -- and history has proven their efforts were anything but futile. By 2013's The Greatest Generation, they'd written arguably the best true-blue pop punk album since Enema of the State. With 2015's No Closer to Heaven, they pushed the boundaries of pop punk about as far as you can push them without losing the unique thrill of the genre. And with Sister Cities, they made a clean break from the genre, offering up emotional, cathartic, melodic, punk-informed rock music that was unmistakably the work of The Wonder Years, but seemed intent on proving that The Wonder Years were more than just a pop punk band. Having made their three previous albums with producer Steve Evetts (known best in the pop punk world for helming such classics as Saves the Day's Through Being Cool and Lifetime's Jersey's Best Dancers), they made Sister Cities with Joe Chiccarelli because of his work on Manchester Orchestra's Mean Everything to Nothing, and they experimented with their sound in ways they never had in the past. Dan doesn't really care what genre you call his band, and he still proudly talks about his love of pop punk, but having that tag attached to The Wonder Years for so long was starting to get in the way of some opportunities that an innovative rock band like this one deserved. Sister Cities helped get The Wonder Years a seat at some of the tables that previously ignored them.
With The Hum Goes On Forever, The Wonder Years have taken all the tools they learned while making Sister Cities, but they've also reconnected with the versions of themselves that made records like The Greatest Generation and No Closer To Heaven. In fact, there are explicit callbacks to both of those records; Madelyn from The Greatest Generation song of the same name re-appeared on Hum's lead single "Oldest Daughter," and NCTH fave "Cardinals" gets a sequel in the form of "Cardinals II," which reprises some lyrics and melodies from the original but is entirely a beast of its own. They reunited with Steve Evetts, who produced the bulk of this record, and it also features production from past collaborator Will Yip. And like they did on all of their earlier records, they wrote these new songs with their live show in mind. "The two things that really stood out to me with Sister Cities, that I almost forgot about when we were writing [it], was connecting it to the rest of the catalog through lyrical through-lines, and writing to perform it live," Dan said. "So those were two of the things I really wanted to concentrate on with this record, making sure I did those in a way that felt honest."
Another spark that led to the creation of this album was a little input from a pop punk legend: Mark Hoppus. "Like most people that enter this genre, my entry point was blink," Dan says. "I heard 'What's My Age Again?' and I had a thing that doesn't exist anymore called Flooz -- it was like internet currency, I guess like crypto in 1998 -- that I'd been given as a gift, and I bought Dude Ranch with it, and then just obsessively listened to Dude Ranch." Fast forward like 20 years, and Dan is calling up Mark for songwriting advice.
"I had a verse and a chorus for 'Wyatt's Song,' and I knew that the chorus had -- in my opinion -- the potential to be special for us, but I couldn't quite crack the code," he says. "Something about it wasn't quite working, and I was like, 'Well, you know who writes a really fucking good chorus? Mark Hoppus.' So I hit him up and he was like 'yeah absolutely' and he was like, 'Do you use like Logic or ProTools...' and I was like, "My dude, I use iPhone voice memos and an acoustic guitar.' So we just got on FaceTime and I played him the song, and he was like, 'Yeah, cool, great song, what do you want help with?' And this is the thing, he's so nice about it and he was like, 'You don't have to give me anything, I don't need points on this, I don't even need credit, I'm just happy to help and to get to hear the songs early.' And I was like, 'There's something wrong with the chorus...' and he basically instantly was like, 'Well, it's 'cause you have it going A-B-A-B and it should be like A-A-B-A, except the second A should be the same melody but different lyrics.' And I was like, 'Oh fuck! Such a simple answer and you're right, you're totally right.' And then we kinda fixed that up and I was like, 'Okay, so do you wanna do anything with the verse or the pre-chorus?' And he said, 'If you let anyone change the verse or the pre-chorus I'm gonna be really fucking mad at you.' That was all he had to do for it, but it was like the little tiny key to the lock for me."
Dan also adds that even showing Mark some of his songs gave him the confidence he needed to finish this record. "I played him 'Doors I Painted Shut,' and when I finished, he just held his arm up into the [FaceTime] frame, and all of the hair was standing up. And he was like, 'Yeah that song's unreal.' To have a guy like that feel that way about my songwriting gave me so much of my confidence back, and it kind of unlocked almost like a floodgate. And after that is when I wrote a lot of 'Low Tide,' I wrote all of 'Summer's Clothes,' a ton of the songs from the record just started falling out after I felt like I could do it."
The Hum Goes On Forever feels spiritually and musically connected to every Wonder Years record that came before it, and it sounds like a record that no other band could have made. There's a little pop punk in its DNA, a little emo, a little alternative rock, and there's also some ethereal post-rock, some folky or ballad-driven singer/songwriter material, some wall-of-sound sludge, and growled screams on "Old Friends Like Lost Teeth" that show off a love of metallic hardcore. It embraces everything this band has ever done and more, pushing the boundaries of their sound without forgetting why people fell in love with them in the first place. And it's one of the most consistent, cohesive records in the band's discography. Its sequencing is highly effective, with an opener that hooks you in the first three seconds, a climactic closer, and a journey of instantly-satisfying anthems and unpredictable left-turns in between. It has lyrical through-lines not just to past Wonder Years records but to itself, with recurring lyrics throughout the record. It's an album that, when taken as one piece of art, is grander than any of the individual singles could have hinted.
Maybe even more so than their genre experiments or their extremely catchy choruses, what has always separated The Wonder Years from so many other pop punk bands is their insistence to grow with their music and their fans and theirselves, rather than grow out of anything or stay in a constant state of adolescence. And that's a huge part of what makes The Hum Goes On Forever such a crucial addition to their catalog, and such a uniquely Wonder Years record. It's been a decade since Dan wrote the lyric, "I'm 26/All the people I graduated with all have kids/all have wives/All have people who care if they come home at night/Well Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?" and now he's 36, he has two kids and a wife, and a whole new set of anxieties that come with that, including dealing with his own mental health while he has two other lives he's now responsible for. "That's kind of the whole point of the record," Dan says, "answering that question of how do you care for these people [while dealing with your own mental health struggles]. Like my kids need me, and they don't care if I'm having a blue day -- I mean they do, if they see that I'm sad they wanna give me a hug -- but they will still need their dad's attention, and I need to figure out how to parent through that."
Like a lot of new parents, Dan was faced with the anxieties of "Am I doing this right? Am I doing that right?", so he went back to therapy and "ended up doing kind of an audit of my life and my childhood and kind of really trying to understand where a lot of these reactions and emotions were coming from, understand what it was that I was really afraid of, and the goal was just to be a better dad." And, he adds, "That's how we make the music we make -- whatever is happening [in my life] is what I'm gonna sing about." So The Hum Goes On Forever is not just the most honest record that Dan could've written at this point in his life, it's also a record that provides the kind of wisdom that Wonder Years fans who are 10 or 12 years older now than when they first got into the band might need to hear. The first line on album opener "Doors I Painted Shut" is "I don't wanna die," and he brings that back in album closer "You're the Reason I Don't Want the World to End," a song about trying to raise children as the world around you becomes an increasingly terrible place, and on that last song he adds, "I don't wanna die, 'cause I gotta protect you." On "Wyatt's Song (Your Name)," written about and named after Dan's oldest son Wyatt, he sings, "I've never been so afraid of failing at anything." He's as open, honest, and direct as he's ever been, and he's written songs that tackle fatherhood with the same desperation he had while singing about previous recurring Wonder Years themes like death and depression.
On paper, a "fatherhood album" might sound like something overwhelmingly uplifting or positive, and fatherhood has brought Dan all the joy in the world, but Hum acknowledges that the other stuff doesn't just magically go away. On "Doors I Painted Shut," Dan sings, "I need you to know I love you still/I don't like me," a line that's directed at his kids. "That piece of that song is me just feeling very down and defeated and dark, but being like, 'it's not you, it's about me.' And trying to figure out how I can let those two things co-exist," he says. "Because you can't stop those feelings entirely, especially if you like, look at the fucking news. It's just this constant deluge of darkness, and despite that, it's like: 'Oh are we like, maybe living through the end times? Huh!' But also, someone's gotta make my kid eggs [laughs]. So you gotta be able to do both. And it's not easy, there's no easy answer to it, it's just like, when you have to do something you do it."
"Low Tide" deals with similar topics -- the dreadful news cycle, therapy, negative self-talk -- and it's one of the most vulnerable, goosebump-inducing Wonder Years songs ever written. The song itself spirals like a depressive episode, and as it comes to a close, Dan wails, "I know I'm gonna be the one, the one who ruins everything." It's a song that might reopen some wounds, but it also reminds you that, even at your lowest, you're not alone. And the person that The Wonder Years have reopened more wounds for than anyone is Dan Campbell himself, which is why there's one common Wonder Years topic that this album is less interested in diving into: death.
"Some nights you can perform and can compartmentalize a little bit, and sing a very sad song and perform a very sad song honestly without totally opening the wound back up," Dan says. "And then there are other nights where you just can't. That's a difficult thing, and a thing that I ruminate on all the time, and I thought before this record, 'Hey maybe I don't wanna do that again.' Like maybe I don't wanna set myself up for that constant re-opening. But, you know, I did [laughs]." Enter "Songs About Death," where, over one of the heaviest musical backdrops in The Wonder Years' catalog, Dan sings, "Been writing songs about death too long/I gotta stop." On "Laura and the Beehive," he lets you know he's now doing the exact opposite: "I’m writing songs to tell everyone that I love them while they’re still here to sing along." That one in particular is about his grandmother.
"She had a little scare and was in the hospital, and she ended up being fine, but I was thinking about like, 'Oh man, someday I'm going to have to write a memorial song,' because that's how I process things," he tells us. "And then I was like, 'Why someday?' Like why should it happen after she's gone, wouldn't she want to hear it? Wouldn't that be nice? So 'Fuck it let's write it, let's write it right now' was the intention there. [...] And knock on wood, my grandma's in good health now! And it's nice to be able to play that song for her. We had a rough mix and I got to play it for her at Christmas last year, it was a special thing."
Dan also, as many bands who have been at it this long probably do, has been thinking about the day The Wonder Years just don't get to do this anymore, and he addresses that on "Lost It In The Lights," where he muses, "What if the magic's gone? I guess I should be glad that there was any at all." "I was thinking about career arcs," Dan tells us. "It can be very easy to, and I have seen other artists almost get angry towards the end, or like bitter, as they realize their career is like winding down. And I was thinking about how I can't be anything but grateful, because there's just like, logically no reason this should've happened. There's a lot of times where I'm like, 'Is this real?' Like is my fucking life real that I get to do this thing for a living, for all these people, to commiserate with all these people. So I wanted to make sure that I expressed that like, when the day comes that we don't get to do that anymore, the only thing that I will feel towards those people is gratitude."
In a way, expressing that gratitude towards the band's diehard fanbase ties right back in to the initial existential crisis of wondering who The Wonder Years are. That song says it directly, but really this whole record was written with the band's fans in mind, just as much as it was written for The Wonder Years' personally. "I think there exists this false binary with artists and with people in music journalism and fans and message board commenters where -- after your first couple records -- you could either make a record that you like, that will be an artistic departure that your fans will hate, or you could make a record that your fans will like and it'll be pandering bullshit that you will feel shitty about having made, that you had to do it for capitalism," Dan tells us. "And I just always reject that binary. Like, I fucking love this record, and from the reactions we're getting from fans, so do they."
"I'm sure every time I say this the record label cringes," he adds, "but I don't give a fuck if a single new person likes this [album]. I don't care if we make one new fan. I just don't, because I love the people we play for. I think that they're fucking awesome. They're the coolest people, the coolest crowds. We hear every tour -- from the support bands, from the venue staff -- what a thoughtful, conscientious, kind, excited group of people, we love having your fans here. I love playing for those people, and so I wanted to make a record that I loved and that they would love. And if that grows us, sure, whatever. But if it doesn't, I don't give a shit. As long as I love it and they love it, mission accomplished."
The Hum Goes On Forever comes out 9/23 via Hopeless. Pre-order it on blue vinyl and check out the current singles/videos below.
For much more on The Wonder Years, listen to our new podcast episode, featuring an hour-long interview with Dan. Dan talked a lot about the new record, the band's early days, When We Were Young Fest, some of his favorite late-career albums ("Tidal Wave, top 3 [Taking Back Sunday record] easily"), favorite new bands, favorite albums of 2022 so far, the back-in-action Fireworks (who they're touring with soon), and more. Listen on Spotify, Apple, Google, or wherever you listen to podcasts.