“Just don’t let my pen stop” — Dan Campbell talks new Aaron West songs, feeling the Bern and keeping it kayfabe

Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties

On an unusually warm mid-December evening in Lansing, Michigan, dozens line up outside the city’s local hotspot Mac’s Bar, awaiting the opening of doors for tonight’s sold-out show featuring Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties. The ringleader of the evening’s headliners, Dan Campbell, won’t be found isolated in a tour bus or at the bar, getting loosened up before his set. He’ll instead be found behind the merch table, slinging CDs and shirts to the mass quantities of wide-eyed fans lining up just a have a quick word and a photo with a figure they not only deeply appreciate but also immensely respect. While it’s become a staple of Aaron West’s five-day December stint through the rust belt, but to Campbell, it just comes with pushing the band in the direction they need to be.

The idea of moving forward consistently shows up as a manifestation in Campbell’s life. Whether he’s fronting the Philadelphian powerhouse pop-punk sextet the Wonder Years, moonlighting in his folk acoustic side project Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties or just balancing the everyday occurrences of life in general, Campbell’s mantra seems to fall somewhere between taking life one day at a time and preparing for life months in advance.

However, despite an always-busy schedule, Campbell has plenty to look forward to. Aaron West is on the verge of releasing a new 7-inch; the Wonder Years’ latest record No Closer To Heaven came out this past September, with more plans for touring in the works. If that wasn’t already exciting enough, Campbell also plans to marry his fiancée after popping the question this past September. Yes, 2016 already looks to be promising in a year that only the future knows the outcome to, but if one thing’s for certain, it’s that Campbell plans to take it all in stride.

For these Aaron West shows, how has it been returning to We Don’t Have Each Other in a live setting?
 It’s been good, man! It’s a testament to the guys in the band being able to learn the entire record and being able to play it with me. I’ve said for the longest time that whether it’s with the Wonder Years or Aaron West that I am barely a musician. I consider myself to be a storyteller, a singer, a performer, a lyricist and a songwriter, but musician is definitely last on that list. These guys are the musicians, and they’re the ones that make it happen live. I sing, I stomp and I strum and they’re really what pulls the whole thing together. I love doing it acoustic but it gives the set a really intimate vibe, but having the full band behind me is just so much fucking fun.

When you perform Aaron West sets, does it take on a different dynamic for you, seeing how, in addition to singing, you’re also playing guitar and in character as Aaron throughout the show?
Oh yeah. There are two things that I didn’t do before this band: I never acted, and I never really played guitar. I wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I started Aaron West. The acting just came as a necessity point because I realized I just couldn’t go onstage, be myself and just play those songs—it breaks up the whole experience. I wanted to almost be theatrical. I love professional wrestling, so everything to me is pro wrestling. It’s like I’m kayfabing the audience. They know I’m not that guy. Just like in pro wrestling, you know that the Undertaker isn’t “The Undertaker”—it’s Mark Calaway. However, if you buy into him being “The Undertaker,” you’re going to enjoy the experience more. Everyone in that crowd knows that I’m not Aaron West, but if you buy into me being Aaron West, you’re going to enjoy the show more.

Now, I know you posted about this on your Instagram already, but are you, in fact, working on new Aaron West material?
Yes, we’re working on a new 7-inch! It’s almost done—the only reason it isn’t done is because Ace [Enders of the Early November] took his beautiful little children to Disneyland, so he’s enjoying that right now, and we’ll finish up when he gets back. We should be done around Christmas, but vinyl times are really, really slow right now, so it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t hear anything for six months, which is going to be torturous for me, but it is what it is. I can’t say much about it right now, but it’s three songs and I really, really love them.

When writing for Aaron West, you’re always writing from the perspective of West—a fictional character you created. Is it ever tempting to throw little bits of yourself into the mix, seeing how with the Wonder Years, you’re writing from your own outlook?
I don’t know if it’s tempting as it is inevitable. What I try to do to write Aaron West lyrics is do a lot of free writing and journaling. So I’ll storyboard it and know what the story arc is, and then I’ll sit down, just try to write like it’s a journal entry and go—just don’t let my pen stop. Once I finish that, I ask myself, “Out of the key points in that, what’s going to make for a good song?” And, from there, I lyricize it.

Now, with Aaron West, where do you see it fitting into your schedule with the Wonder Years?
It just fits wherever it fits. Right now, for instance, was a great opportunity for us to do some Aaron West dates—we don’t have any Wonder Years stuff coming up until February, so we’re doing these now. I don’t have the Wonder Years’ schedule for next year yet, but once I get the schedule, I’ll figure out where I can fit it in. It’s also a case of where I’m planning a wedding, The Wonder Years is a full-time gig, obviously, and this has been doing really well. We’ve sold out nearly every date of this run and the response has been just fantastic, so there’s a big demand for that as well. And there’s a bunch of other little projects that I’m working on from time to time.

Earlier this year, you got engaged. How did you propose?
We met on the High Line in New York, which is a park made out of an old train line, elevated above the city on the Lower West Side Chelsea, and it’s like…you ever been to Chicago and know how the subway platforms are? It’s like that, but it’s a park. That’s where we met five years ago, so I had to trick her. She used to live in New York, so I had her old roommate say, “You have to come up and we have to hang out! I miss you! Let’s meet up at this gelato place on the High Line.” We took her up there, and I got her. We actually had a bunch of Japanese tourists taking pictures of us, which was really sweet.

Ever since Senator Bernie Sanders announced his presidency, you’ve been a very active supporter of his campaign. What specifically about Sanders attracts you as a candidate for the presidency?
If you want to boil it down into just one sentence, it’s because he’s not in anyone’s pocket. I’m tired of candidates that are looking out for somebody else’s interests and owe somebody a favor. I don’t want you to owe a favor to the pharmaceutical companies, I don’t want you to owe a favor to the NRA or gun lobbies. I don’t want you to owe a favor to Wall Street, because then the way that you vote is going to be with that favor in mind. Bernie doesn’t owe anybody anything—his concern is with the American people. He’s concerned with the injustices that are happening in the United States and abroad. No candidate is perfect, and there are some things that Bernie and I don’t see totally eye to eye on, but I think he is the best candidate for president that I’ve seen in my lifetime, bar none, and I think he’s going to win.

You think so?
I’m incredibly confident that he’s going to win. I think that the entire political system has totally lost touch with the media and the polls that they’re doing where they’re cold-calling people and asking, “Who are you voting for president?” and they say, “Oh, I don’t fucking know. Uhh…Hillary Clinton, right? I’m a democrat, so Hillary’s the one, sure.” But if you look at any metric on the internet, Google searches, social media chatter, anything, Bernie’s the top everything.

With the holidays coming up, did you have any favorite holiday traditions that you either did as a kid, or now as an adult?
Yes! I liked that, if you’re driving home on Christmas Eve, there’s a radio station that you could listen to that would track Santa’s sleigh, so it would give you reports of like, “Santa spotted over St. Clemente” or “Santa spotted over Cincinnati, moving eastward!” I’d always get excited when Santa was ever reported heading east. It’s a cool radio station to check out.

With everyone making end-of-the-year lists, what were your favorite records that came out in 2015?
Desaparecidos’ Payola. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, which is a very close No. 2 to Desa. The Lucero Live In Atlanta album, I’ve spun so many times this year that it barely exists anymore. It’s like if you overspin a digital record and had the file corrupt or something, I would have done that. Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. The Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ. Father John Misty, Allison Weiss, Petal. A lot of really cool stuff this year.

Last question: What are you looking forward to in 2016?
There’s a tour I’m looking forward to that you can’t know anything about yet, but the biggest thing I’m looking forward to would be getting married to my best friend. And I’d also like to buy a house—that’s been a dream of mine my whole life is owning a home and getting closer to that. I hope. We’ll see; it’s nerve-wracking. When you play music for a living, you [might not] have a job in a week, so a mortgage is a terrifying thing, but I feel like that’s just incredible—to own the place you live is such a satisfying thing.