How The Wonder Years Turned Their Songs Into Renewable Resources

The Wonder Years
Jonathan Weiner

The Wonder Years

The second installment in the rock band's 'Burst & Decay' EP series reimagines deep cuts & old standouts.

Are songs ever really finished? These days artists can tweak their tracks on SoundCloud at a moment's notice or give singles extended lifespans with remix after remix, making songs into ever-evolving creatures like never before. There are obvious pros and cons to this "Ima Fix Wolves"-ization of music, but beloved Philly rockers the Wonder Years have found a comfortable way to make it work for them, well into their second decade as a band.

Last Friday (Feb. 14) the Wonder Years released the second edition of Burst & Decay, an EP series in which the sextet re-records a hyper-curated selection of tracks from across its catalog of white-knuckled rock into elegant, acoustic chamber fare. The raging pop-punk of 2013's "Passing Through a Screen Door," arguably the most popular song in their catalog, turns cozy and contemplative, still ready to reflect lead singer Dan "Soupy" Campbell's mid-20s suburban existentialism. "We Look Like Lightning," a chaotic deep cut off 2018's Sister Cities that was never meant to be single or live staple, trades its synthetic beats and crushing breakdown for bittersweet strings and scurrying drums. It's still crushing -- perhaps even moreso -- since Campbell's lyrics detail queueing up your preferred song to die to on a plane that feels like it's about to crash.

"You get to revisit things in retrospect," Campbell says. "I don't want to call them mistakes, but if I never liked how [a song part] ended up, now I get to change it." Under the expertise of Early November frontperson Ace Enders as producer-engineer, the seven refurbished songs are often pretty but seldom static. Lush but never cluttered. Paced with occasional percussion, but not too much. Think of them as Medium-Sized Desk Concerts.

The first Burst & Decay was released in 2017 when the oft-overachieving band demanded an accompanying project for an upcoming acoustic tour. This time, real-life responsibilities left the bandmembers, now closer to their mid-30s than their 20s, far away from completing a follow-up to Sister Cities, but ever eager to hone their chops in the studio and onstage. Alongside Volume II, they'll embark on a full North American tour today (Feb. 20), playing two sets per show, acoustic and electric. They'll be performing more songs per night than any time in their 15-year history. All this from a band that essentially disowned its sophomoric 2007 debut album and only held onto the band name because they figured no one would care either way.

Earlier this month, Billboard chatted with Campbell about re-contextualizing a sprawling catalog and contextualizing his own ever-changing life.

What inspired the original Burst & Decay EP in 2017? 

The first thing was time. It had been a while since we made a record [2015's No Closer to Heaven] and we knew we weren’t ready to record another one yet. And as I'm sure people are aware, the music industry shifted greatly in the last 20 years. Bands used to be able to take advantage of having royalties from record sales coming in to keep them afloat. But now, to be a mid-sized band like we are, you have to go out and play shows to pay the bills. It's just the harsh reality of the situation.

Full disclosure, we get BMI royalty checks every quarter and I would say they average about $1,000. They're nice, but they're not a job. So if we have to go back on tour but we're not ready to make a record yet, what do we do?

We always toyed with the idea of doing an acoustic tour. We usually [play acoustic] for in-store performances and there were a couple tours where we would do an acoustic VIP session for 50 to 75 people on the floor of the venue. There were songs we redid a bit -- not massive structural changes, but more than just showing up and playing the songs the way they are on a different kind of guitar. So we were like, let's give this a shot, let's re-invision songs and put them on an EP we can release before the tour.

What's so appealing about reimagining these songs? 

You get to be creative without a ton of pressure. If someone really doesn't like one of the new versions, that's okay because the old version is still right there for you. If you're like, "I f--king hate what you did to 'Hoodie Weather'" -- well, no problem, because "Hoodie Weather" still exists. And it's fun to stretch your legs in other styles of playing. Like, Josh [Martin] is a jazz-trained bassist; it's fun for him to get to play a little more. We can have these open-ended conversations like, "We can do anything with this song. What do you want to do with it?"

Are there any other artists who inspired the series?

There's so many members in the Wonder Years... if everyone's playing, it's f--king loud! [Laughs] A lot of the bands we admire are quieter bands: Rilo Kiley, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes. On the new version of "Washington Square Park" on the new Burst & Decay, we were thinking of Death Cab's The Photo Album.

Early on in my music loving days I asked for Nirvana's MTV Unplugged for Christmas and was obsessed with the different ways they did the songs, the different ways Kurt's voice sounded. That's my favorite Nirvana record.

What are some other things bands can do in between album cycles to stay creative and financially stable?

I'm in two bands at once, which is great -- I get a lot of creative fulfillment out of making the music and writing the story of Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. [Wonder Years] drummer Mike Kennedy is really into visual art, like painting. All three guitarists produce records in-studio: Matt Brasch at Brasch's Woodshop, Casey Cavaliere at True Level, and Nick Steinborn at Red Hand Recording. And Josh Martin, our bass player, runs a record store called Wax Bodega. So it's about finding ways to stay busy, finding things that keep you fulfilled artistically and personally.

How did you go about picking the songs for the new Burst & Decay?

We wanna spread 'em out cross the catalog. It's almost like pitching a set list: Okay, we have x amount of records, we have to play something from each of them, and we don't wanna just pick the biggest songs. Let's pick some deeper cuts for the more dedicated fans... Songs that I think are better than how they got presented, that maybe aren't as popular. [It's] the ability to pick songs you love but didn't love one thing about: what would you change if you had the opportunity?

Your hometown of Lansdale, Penn. is so integral to many earlier Wonder Years songs like "Hoodie Weather" and "Cul-de-sac," which reappear on this EP. What's your relationship with Lansdale like these days?

I moved pretty far away to [the New Jersey suburbs just outside Philadelphia] because it's close to my wife's work and close to her parents, so they can help us a little more with the baby [their 10-month old son Wyatt]. I'm not back there too often and when I am it's usually for a rehearsal. So it's weird now. When you go back, all this new s--t has been built or torn down.

If we need to go somewhere around where we live now, I just put it into my GPS. I don't know my way around at all and get lost constantly. But I know where I am whenever I'm back in Lansdale. North Penn High School, where I went, is bigger than some colleges, and I had friends in all these neighboring towns. I have memories attached to every single place. I went there recently to rehearse with the piano player in Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. On the way to her house I was like, I have memories attached to this road, and this road, and this person who lived down this street. It's a cool feeling you're not gonna get anywhere else in the world.

Were there any lyrics that were difficult to revisit on this EP? 

I wouldn’t say anything was difficult. What happens is first, you write a lyric about a particular moment in your life that brings a sense of darkness with it. And when you’re recording it for the first time, it’s very raw. And difficult to sing. And then you go play it, and the first time it’s very raw and difficult to sing. But then you play it hundreds of times and it scabs over. Some nights it can still be hard -- if it’s the anniversary of an event or you happen to be in the same city where something happened, that might make you think about it again. But for the most part, it's part of the healing process to sing it every night. Tracking it again, it's not anywhere close to as hard as it could have been the first time.

You go back as far as [2010's] The Upsides on Burst & Decay. On a future volume, do you think you'd go back any earlier?

I could conceivably see us going back to one of the [earlier] seven-inches. There’s a record we made before that [2007's Get Stoked On It!] but it felt like a different band. We didn’t change the name of the band because we didn’t think anyone would f--king hear it, so what was the point? [Laughs] Although a lot of the members were the same and we didn’t change the name of the band, it was just like a different goal, a different thesis statement.

What would you say was the thesis statement of the older stuff?

Making music to make us laugh... We were just supposed to be that band that played in between other bands at the VFW show that everyone goofed off during, and that was that. It just so happened that we picked up a little steam. We had a bucket list of goals that seemed unreachable [such as] playing shows on both American coasts and in the U.K. By the end of 2007 we'd done that, so pack it up, done and done baby!

Then No Sleep Records had said, "Would you wanna make anything else? I know you talked about wanting to put out a seven-inch because it would be cool to have something of yours on vinyl. This band started with 2008’s Won’t Be Pathetic Forever EP. That was when we were like, oh this is what were gonna do. [I realized] if I'm gonna make music now, I wanna make music with some emotional resonance to it. I enjoyed writing songs where I'm trying to do something valuable. Then we just kept doing it.

What did you think of Halsey shouting out the Wonder Years as an influence on her new album Mania

Very cool. I met Halsey on the 2013 Warped Tour. She was there with our friend Dave Shepperd. I’m not always up on things and it was before her first big record had come out. I was like, who’s with Shep singing along to all our songs? Dave was tour-managing Imagine Dragons and someone told me, "Yo, Shep's gonna come over with Imagine Dragons' LD." So in my head, this person singing all our songs was the lighting director for Imagine Dragons. Which I thought was the coolest thing, she must program the most insane light show!

So I'm with the two of them and people are coming up asking for photos. Dave wasn't my tour manager, but he goes into full tour manager mode: "Guys, you need to make a line! We can only do so many photos!" And I look to my right and the other person with them is getting mobbed, mobbed by people. Then it dawned on me, this person is clearly not someone's lighting director. Halsey introduced herself and I'm like, "Oh s--t!" What a doof-a-- moment for me. We hung out for a while and got to hear some of her new songs before Badlands came out. I was like, "This is gonna be massive."

So it's cool to hear she still thinks about those Wonder Years records when she's writing songs. At this point she's a much better songwriter than I ever will be, so it's cool to know that we in any way contributed.

What are your plans beyond the Wonder Years' upcoming tour and the following Aaron West dates in May?

To spend the summer with my kid as much as I can, really soak it in. He isn't walking yet but he is pulling himself up, so obviously by summer time he will be. I want to be taking him to the beach, making those memories... Time is like a giant block to me: I'm home for three weeks, gone for four, home for six, gone for three. When I'm home I try to be as present as I can.

Is there any new Wonder Years material in the works?

If there was a loading bar for a new Wonder Years record that's at 100% when it’s done being recorded, it’s probably at 3% right now. But it has started. The seeds of making a record have been planted. I would say not to expect one in 2020, but in 2021 it's probably a decently realistic goal.

Burst & Decay (Volume II) is out now on Hopeless Records. Find the Wonder Years' upcoming tour dates below. Free Throw, Spanish Love Songs, and Pool Kids will support all dates, except March 6, which excludes Pool Kids.

Feb. 20 - Boston, MA @ The Sinclair
Feb. 21 - Boston, MA @ The Sinclair
Feb. 22 - New York, NY @ Webster Theater
Feb. 23 - Baltimore, MD @ Rams Head
Feb. 25 - Orlando, FL @ House Of Blues
Feb. 26 - Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
Feb. 27 - Nashville, TN @ Cowan
Feb. 29 - Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
March 1 - Dallas, TX @ Canton
March 3 - Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
March 4 - San Diego, CA @ Observatory North Park
March 5 - Pomona, CA @ Glasshouse
March 6 - Las Vegas, NV @ Fremont Country Club
March 7 - Los Angeles, CA @ Regent Theater
March 8 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
March 10 - Salt Lake, UT @ The Depot
March 11 - Denver, CO @ Summit
March 13 - St. Louis, MO @ Ready Room
March 14 - Detroit, MI @ The Majestic
March 15 - Chicago, IL @ Concord
March 16 - Cleveland, OH House Of Blues
March 18 - Buffalo, NY @ Town Ballroom
March 19 - Asbury Park, NJ @ Asbury Lanes
March 20 - New Haven, CT @ Toads Place
March 21 - Philadelphia, PA @ The Filmore