Watching My Heroes Turn Human: A Weekend With The Wonder Years
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“I saw someone with a giant Wonder Years head tattoo the other day. Both sides,” Dan Campbell says in between sips of an overflowing iced coffee in a Dearborn, Michigan Starbucks. We’re two blocks from a record store where fans have been lining up for hours in the pouring rain, in anticipation of The Wonder Years’ first appearance in a series of acoustic in-store performances. “If I’m remembering correctly one says ‘it’s awkward’ and one says ‘it’s nervous.’” It’s a reference to the refrain from the opening track of the band’s 2013 masterpiece The Greatest Generation, a thirteen-song epic reflecting upon one’s place within a legacy.
Five years ago, on a similarly rainy day in April 2013, I was one of those fans that braved heavy precipitation, waiting for The Wonder Years to play in a record store to celebrate the release of The Greatest Generation. I clutched the multiple copies of the CD that I had purchased for entry to the event, protecting them under my sweatshirt from the falling rain. I was 16. It was there, at a small record store in Long Island, New York called Looney Tunes, that I saw the band for the first time, squeezed between LP racks. They only played a handful of songs, but it felt magical. I waited in line to get my CD signed; I shook the hands of each member of the band; I wanted to thank them for everything, but I was too preoccupied with playing it cool.
The Wonder Years’ fans are a force to be reckoned with, many of them unwavering in the face of long country roads, state borders, or even bodies of water that might stand in between them and an appearance from the band. “We have a few fans that we know by name that we’re pretty close with who are racing to their hundredth show,” Campbell says with a smile. “They’re all trying to beat each other. At this point, when we get ready for a tour, we mail them each a laminate and just say, ‘You’re not allowed to buy tickets anymore, we’ll see you when we see you.’”
Just down the road from where we’re sitting, fans in line at Dearborn traveled from all over the Midwest to catch the six-song acoustic set. Some drove upwards of three hours, just for a chance to experience the songs live in an intimate setting. “We have the world’s best fans. They’re kind and they’re thoughtful and they’re empathetic and they’re forward thinking. They’re wonderful people to get to play music for. The vast, vast majority of them I feel very lucky to perform for.”
The Dearborn in-store performance is the first event in promotion of the band’s new album Sister Cities. From here, the band is headed to Chicago for a two-day pop-up store, where they will take over a gallery in Wicker Park to display photography and other pieces from their travels, as well as to sell exclusive merchandise. Each day will conclude with an acoustic performance in the basement of the space, a call back to the band’s humble DIY beginnings.
The in-stores and the pop-ups are all part of a way for the band to say thank you to their fans, and to make sure that the people who really care are able to hear the album before anyone else. “Everything is all in, so doing a thing like this, what we’re doing, is coming to you and saying, ‘Please own this record we’ve put our whole lives into it.’ That’s kind of why you do the in-stores and the pop-up shops, to get that record that you worked so hard on into people’s hands.”
But it’s also more than just a thank you; it’s a demonstration of the band’s attention to detail and willingness to give fans something to be excited about. “People are like, ‘Oh, I want one of those red jackets,’” Campbell says of the merchandise at the pop-up. “There’s not those red jackets, there’s that jacket because [bassist] Josh [Martin] and I spent hours and hours and days going to different thrift stores and individually sourcing one, at a time, jackets to be stitched for this pop-up shop.”
Witnessing this unbreakable fan-to-band relationship first hand, after so many years of being a fan myself, makes a record like Sister Cities all the more impressive. It’s a collection of 11 songs that document life on the road, each solidifying a simple understanding that love is borderless and compassion sees no bounds. Even in an unfamiliar city, a person is a person, and what became increasingly clear to The Wonder Years is that a different culture doesn’t mean a different humanity.
“Throughout the trip, it was common to experience commonalities with people and connectivity with people because even though this guy in this side of a mountain in Japan may not understand why I’m crying by this candle, he understands why he has cried in front of a candle, and he understands how I’m hurting, and he has hurt that way, so he shows me a kindness,” Campbell explains. “As I drive through Costa Rica and see a guy on the curb with his head in his hands and his wife scratching his back, I don’t know what happened to them, but I know that posture. I have been in a symmetrical situation, and I can connect to it that way, and to feel however he’s feeling in that moment, and also feel the love of your partner right next to you supporting you. There’s a commonality there.”
Musically, Sister Cities is a record that sees the sextet perfecting their craft and taking what Campbell calls a full step and a quarter forward in terms of their lyricism and songwriting direction. Much of this massive progression comes from a collective desire to be bold and stray away from anything that might be considered a “safe” move. Instead of going with an arrangement or melody that felt comfortable and perhaps like a sure shot, they put those on the back burner to leave room for a handful of different approaches. Through this process, each member was pushed to pull their weight in taking risks to create something completely new for the band and for their fans.
Across its 11 tracks, Sister Cities feels like a culmination of a decade of non-stop hard work. Of course, the exertion of raw emotion that pulled fans in from the start with 2010’s The Upsides is still present. But the harsh, fast instrumentals and yells have oft here been replaced by beautiful exercises of restraint, songs like “It Must Get Lonely” and “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” taking on more of an indie rock sensibility than the band has presented to date.
The songs bloom with vivid colors, among them crimson, violet, blue, and orange. “When I think of the record I see these big pops of color with a lot of the songs,” Campbell notes. This idea is further exemplified by the companion book the band released with the LP pre-orders, which contains photos and journal entries from their nearly two-year tour. “When you go open up the book and read some of the stuff while we’re writing ‘Raining in Kyoto’ and you see the orange gates, it’s going to be illuminating and that song will always be that color orange in your brain.”
A few hours later, after a quick soundcheck, the disjointed creation of a setlist that will see the band’s three guitarists changing their tuning the least, and a nuanced backstage discussion of the most impressive recent installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2017’s Logan), The Wonder Years perform a short acoustic set for a crowd of almost 200 at Dearborn Music that included old and new tracks. Each song receives a singalong louder than the last, even the ones released only days prior.
At the conclusion of the set, the band lines up behind the store’s checkout counter to greet fans and sign copies of Sister Cities. Off to the side, I watch as kids approach the counter the same way I did at Looney Tunes five years ago. They’re shaking the hands of the musicians that created the songs that mean so much, some even gifting them with artwork that was inspired by the music. What strikes me most is the symmetry.
Suddenly, I hear my name being called. Campbell is waving me over. “This is the tattoo I was telling you about earlier,” he exclaims. A fan turns to face me, smiling from ear to ear, both sides of their head shaved. On each side, over a flourish of colors, are the words “awkward” and “nervous.” It’s astoundingly beautiful. It’s clear that there was no hesitation in the decision. This band, and their music, deserves the permanence.
Sister Cities is out now via Hopeless Records
Zac Gelfand // @gac_zelfand
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