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What the hell is “realist pop punk”? Josh Martin, bassist/founder of Philadelphia outfit the Wonder Years, was joking when he coined the term to describe his band’s buoyant, vigorous approach to songcraft. But the more they’ve talked about it, the more the band have come to embrace the genre.
Singer/lyricist Dan “Soupy” Campbell points to three incidents from April 2009 or thereabouts that were instrumental in establishing the Wonder Years’ commitment to concrete details—and a positive attitude—in their lyrics. The first happened while Campbell was at college, during a particularly awful storm. “It was cold, and I was wet and pissed, but I remember thinking, ‘I’m still happier than I was last year. Even though I really hate it here right now, I’m not that upset,’” he recalls. As he sood in line as for a bagel, he came up with the verse “I’m not sad anymore/I’m just tired of this place,” which would find its way into the song “My Last Semester.”
Another time, Campbell was going to work in the band’s hometown when he saw that an enormous fountain in Logan Circle had been turned on. “The fountain was representing to me the fact that it was just going to get warmer and nicer outside from here on out. That’s generally a happier thought,” he says. This inspired the song that takes its title from that location.
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The third event occurred as he was reviewing a section of lyrical snippets saved in his notebook, in which he cataloged everyday irritations. “I sat down to write the lyrics for a song, and I realized these weren’t problems,” Campbell says. “If I was considering these problems, then my life was fantastic because a lot of people have a lot worse issues to deal with.”
So, there you have it. “Realist pop-punk” is upbeat music, coupled with lyrics about retaining optimism even as life is kicking the daylights out of you.
This approach is stamped all over The Upsides, the Wonder Years’ sophomore release. Campbell developed this angle in response to “an avalanche of negativity” that he felt has long burdened punk rock. “It seemed that [punk] became almost synonymous with being miserable,” he says. “I wanted to counter that movement a little bit.”
The affliction has also struck punk and hardcore bands he enjoys. “Grave Maker have some songs that are generally self-deprecating,” he says. “It doesn’t make them not a great band; it’s just not what I wanted to sing about.”
Campbell intends for his lyrics to be devoid of metaphors, allegories and other poetic devices. Instead, he gets right into the stories of his life. “Hostels and Brothels,” for example, is a thorough account of when the band and some friends toured in the U.K. The boys didn’t actually drown in Strongbow cider, nor did the world literally collapse in “Hostels,” but you get the idea.
In a dismal twist, just around the time The Upsides and its invocations of goodwill were released, Campbell and his longtime girlfriend split up, and he moved out of his house without anywhere to live. Speaking of literary devices, he’s aware of the irony. “While I do feel like I’m trying to fight toward positivity, there’s no way I can deny the fact that I get sad sometimes,” he says. “There’s a song on [our upcoming] record that discusses the idea that I’m not some dam holding back the sadness. I’m fucked-up just like you’re fucked-up, and I’m sad just like you’re sad, but I came to realize that I can’t just let myself continue with that trend.”
This approach might sound simplistically good-natured, but Campbell says the Wonder Years’ next work will have a different focus. He will ruminate on “the concept of home and deciding where your place in the world is,” instead of fighting anxiety or depression by keeping your head up. Still, he hopes to never lose sight of his optimistic sensibility.
“I was reading the Latterman break-up letter a while ago, and Matt [Canino] wrote something like, ‘It’s not about being positive or whatever the fuck that meant at 18,’ so I guess even people that I consider bastions of positivity at some point lost it, but I think that [thinking positive] is a good way for me to live my life,” he says. “The biggest thing is to not take what you have for granted. Most people probably have much better lives than they let themselves believe.”
The Wonder Years perform with This Time Next Year, Tonight Alive, the Greenery and We Are the Arsenal at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067; www.allages.com. Fri., 7 p.m. $10 in advance; $12 at the door. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Keepin’ It Realist: The Wonder Years sweat the small stuff with their cheery brand of pop punk."