Soup’s On: The Wonder Years’ vocalist talks religion, racism, concept albums and more

The Wonder Years
photo: Barbara Witherow

With the release of their fifth album, No Closer To Heaven, in September, the Wonder Years have certainly blown past the line of what is considered “pop-punk.” The band has been pushing these boundaries for years, but here they finally flourished within their individuality. We had the pleasure of catching up with frontman Dan Campbell on the muses of No Closer To Heaven.

Stained glass normally displays saints and symbolic motifs. What can you tell me about this relevancy to the cover art of No Closer To Heaven?
DAN CAMPBELL: I spoke to my friend [professional artist] Mike C, who is a chameleon of styles. I called him and said, “You know how you told me that you can do everything? Well, how about Picasso?” Literally, 40 minutes later he texts me, “Something like this?” and he sent over the picture he doodled on a napkin while having dinner with his daughter, and I was like, “That’s it. That’s the album cover.”

As far as imagery, we wanted to take lyrics from songs and put them in there. For example, we reference “Cigarettes & Saints” with the line, “I’m sure there ain’t a heaven/But that don’t mean I don’t like to picture you there/I’ll bet you’re bumming cigarettes off saints.” That is the most heaviest reference of all, but there is also from “You In January” with, “Goddamn you look holy/Hit from behind with light/You’re a painting of a saint.”

Would you say that this is another concept album, or is this record a clean break?
It is a concept record. This whole album is about how we all fuck up and fucking up is okay. We may never be perfect and that is also all right, but we shouldn’t stop striving for perfection. With any path that you are taking in life, with anything that you are looking to do, or even the purpose of a relationship. You don’t just give up and take it as it is for the time being. You don’t stop trying. The idea is as we try to do things to better ourselves and to better the world, we may fall short of that. Falling short is okay as long as we continue to strive forward.

Does the title of “Stained Glass Ceilings” reference to the church term of not being able to break past a certain hierarchy?
It was more of a view on a personal level. Not a student of mine, but where I taught an after-school program, a student was shot and killed by their cousin in an apartment. Subsequent to that, I was robbed at gunpoint and the officer who [responded] told me to buy a gun. To me, I was understanding about how little he seemed to value life. In the macro sense, it was looking at systemic racism.

With writing this song and touching on those topics, what was it like bouncing those emotions off of letlive. frontman Jason Butler’s energy?
Jason and I were talking after Mike Brown was shot and were discussing systemic racism. Jason has a really interesting viewpoint, because he grew up in Inglewood and he is half-black. He has a different understanding of it than I can ever have. I thought that was really important to bring in his view of these things. As a white man in America, all I can ever be is an ally. All I can do is lend a voice, but it is not about me and it is not my conversation. I can be used to amplify the conversation, which is why in the song I am not attempting to provide any answers, because I don’t have them. I thought it was more important to raise those topics and make them available. While we are writing about these social issues, the whole point is that Wonder Years songs are retelling of personal things. This song touches on those personal stories, but it also opens up on broader social issues. I thought Jason’s voice as a person—not just his singing voice—was most important to be heard on this song. Not to mention he annihilated that part!

This record expands on what defines the Wonder Years both as a whole and individually. What does it mean for you to press against the boundaries of generalization?
The whole idea for each new album is to take what we’ve done before and to build off of that, to expand the idea. We don’t want to be what we are told what we are. We want to expand our perception and the fans’ perception. As a lyricist, I wanted to tackle personal issues and what makes a Wonder Years song and build from there to focus on broader issues. S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #48.