The Wonder Years – Sister Cities: Exclusive Album Stream

Emotive east-coast Pennsylvanian punks stream sixth album Sister Cities exclusively with The Independent

Remfry Dedman
Friday 06 April 2018 16:07 BST
The Wonder Years, from left to right, Casey Cavaliere, Josh Martin, Matt Brasch, Dan "Soupy" Campbell, Nick Steinborn and Mike Kennedy
The Wonder Years, from left to right, Casey Cavaliere, Josh Martin, Matt Brasch, Dan "Soupy" Campbell, Nick Steinborn and Mike Kennedy (Jonathan Weiner )

Speaking to The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell (“Soupy” to his friends) over a transatlantic FaceTime call with the same ease with which one would phone a friend in the next street, it’s difficult not to marvel at how technology is making the world seem smaller and more interconnected than it has ever felt before. “The record is really about connectivity” says Dan. “You’re currently in London and I'm in Philadelphia, we’re about 3,500 miles apart and there’s an ocean between us. Now, you could consider there to be an ocean that separates us or you could consider there to be an ocean that unites us. It can be viewed as a body of water that keeps us apart or a body of water that keeps us together and keeps us connected. And that’s how the ocean is functioning in a lot of these songs; it’s the same water everywhere and the things that I do will eventually wash up on your shores and vice-versa. We’re all very much more connected than we ever used to be and we have much more of an impact on one another than we give ourselves credit for.”

To all intents and purposes, it’s the idea of our similarities rather than our differences which sums up the most important through-line within Sister Cities, the Philadelphia punk's sixth studio and quite possibly, their best. Ostensibly, you could argue that Sister Cities is about the butterfly effect; how small changes in one part of the world can affect larger change elsewhere and what that means in a world that is constantly shifting and becoming more frightening with each passing day. It’s certainly an extraordinarily worldly album; the genesis for these 11 songs came from chronicling the band’s mammoth 2 year tour in support of 2015’s No Closer To Heaven, the first strong indication that the band were moving away from their stylistic pop-punk roots and into something altogether darker in tone and heavier in themes.

“Sister Cities came about in a very systematic way” Dan explains. “I was journaling on tour and as a band we were taking photographs of everything and once the tour was finished, I had this stack of journals and photographs to look through. I scanned them all in and then printed them right back out and started highlighting anything that I thought was interesting to me, any moments I had that felt important. Then I started to organise them into different categories or topics and collated all the experiences together that thematically fit a song. It was the experiences themselves over two years of life on the road that struck me as most important to write about.”

Dan uses the album’s opening song as an example of this process. “Once you have a concept and some lyrics, you have to decide what the mood of it is and then try to find the music to match it. There’s a song on the album called ‘Raining in Kyoto’ where I’m talking about my Grandfather passing away as I board a flight to Japan and then having to miss the funeral because we’re touring. For us, that translated as a dark tense, pounding verse to match the rainstorm that we were standing in, so the rhythm of the song is pulsing behind you the whole time and building in intensity to mirror that image. And then when we get to the chorus, there’s a move to the relative major; that opens up the whole thing and feels like you're exhaling.”

Raining in Kyoto

I’m starting to shake

They’ll hold your service tomorrow

I’m an ocean away

Reached into my pocket, found a small paper crane

It’s been over a year now

April turns into May and I’ve barely stopped moving

I’ve been so fucking afraid

Too much of a coward to even visit your grave

Sometimes the experiences that inspired the songs were big moments, other times it was smaller moments that sparked something in Dan’s mind; the image of a solitary row house in Barcelona after the others around it had been demolished suddenly brought the phrase ‘It Must Get Lonely’ to mind, which inspired the song of the same name and caused Dan to draw parallels with people in his life that he felt could relate to feeling deserted. Or how seeing hydrangea bushes line either side of the road on a drive through Central American made him pine for home, where he’d spent the best part of a year drying out the flowers in his basement with his fiancé in preparation for their wedding. For many, such an image would simply be considered pretty and pleasant scenery but in a mind as receptive and expressive as Dan Campbell’s, the hydrangeas formed the basis for the vivid punk poetry present in ‘Flowers Where Your Face Should Be’.

“What I really wanted to do with that song was explain that I saw people in love in a lot of places around the world and how parallel their love ran to my own” Dan explains. “Love is a universal feeling that runs symmetrical to our own experiences of it; I saw that symmetry for myself in a couple in Costa Rica, I saw a couple sleeping under the 101 freeway in Hollywood and how my love was symmetrical to theirs. I guess if I could put it in one sentence, it's a love song about symmetry more than anything else.”

Seeing first-hand the universal similitudes of a unifying emotion that cannot be confined by borders or boundaries on the streets of Costa Rica inspired the lines...

There's a man with his head in his hands on the sidewalk

His wife's there behind him just off of the street

She’s scratching his back while he sobs on the asphalt

What strikes me most is the symmetry

How they're framed just like you and me

When the light from the hospital’s eastern wing

Tangles up in your hair and the sadness that’s

Pooled in my heart starts emptying slowly

“The whole record rests on this idea that, maybe just like me, you grew up in a town that's not so big” Dan continues. “And maybe like me, you didn't really travel more than a couple of hours from that town until you were an adult. And so maybe like me, you grew up thinking that the world was very big and other cultures felt so different from you that they might as well be on different planets. I think that right now, we're in a time where people growing up in those places are being told that people from other cultures are so different to them that they have no hope of ever understanding them. They’re being told that these cultures are oppositional to them, to the point where they’re the enemy and they’re causing problems. That’s causing a huge division in society.”

Sister Cities is a clarion call against this antiquated, reductive view of the world. It’s a record that seeks to create unity in a world that is becoming increasingly segregated. It searches and yearns for connection, solidarity and harmony in a time which is rife with dissent, friction and chaos. “It all comes back around to this idea of empathy” Dan explains. “In your head, you are important and that's not untrue, you are important. But as important as you feel in your own brain, as valuable as you think your life is in your own head, everyone else in the entire universe has that same perception of themselves in their heads. And that’s true, you are valuable and important but everyone is equally valuable and important. Your love is no more important than their love, your loss is no more important than their loss. The whole record's about drawing those lines and saying 'These people that you might think are so different from you are not so different from you at all.' I'm hoping that helps engender a sense of empathy into people. Maybe these people do seem very different from you and maybe a lot of people in your life are telling you that they are. But we're a voice that can tell you that they're not so different from you or I but the ways in which they are different are beautiful, interesting and amazing.”

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Considering the tumultuous disconnection that we’ve seen play out and increase in world events since the release of No Closer To Heaven in 2015 - the unpropitious inauguration of President Donald Trump, the European migrant crisis, the unsettling rise of populist nationalist movements, Brexit – it is no coincidence that Sister Cities combines the personal with the political, to the point where the line between one and the other blurs. “I think every personal relationship is in some ways a political one” says Dan. “Everything that happens can be viewed through that lens. That's kind of the crux of the record; understanding that things that you might see as apolitical are in some ways political. If you think that your love is somehow more important than someone else's love, then it's important to re-think that because there are people that love one another in the same way you and your partner love one another all over the world.”

To accompany this message, one that will perhaps emerge as the most vital and compassionate to be articulated on a record in 2018, the band took a step back from the frenetic power chords and effervescent bluster that typified their earlier pop-punk output and have sonically expanded further into the dynamic ebb and flow that hugely benefited No Closer To Heaven. Part of the reason for this foray into subtler textures might be the fact that whilst writing Sister Cities, the band were concurrently working on Burst & Decay, a 7-track EP of reimagined acoustic renditions of songs from their back catalogue.

“The goal on Burst & Decay was not to simply record the songs on different instruments but to make them interesting and give them a new life. We would look at a song, analyse the tricks that we used on that song, and then try to approach it in a different way. And I think we brought that approach to the writing of this record as well. We could look at individual parts of songs and say ‘hey, this thing that we're doing here? It feels typically ‘us’. Let's try to do something we wouldn't naturally do and maybe we can find a better way to finish this song'. Anytime we had a natural inclination to go in a particular direction, then that would be off the table and we’d try to find something better. Maybe after a couple of days of experimenting, it turns out that our natural inclinations were the correct thing but there was a concentrated effort to try everything else first before we rely on instinct because that's how you push yourself.”

As a result, Sister Cities is easily the most dynamic album of the band’s career to date; a song such as ‘When The Blue Finally Came’ would have been far beyond the reach of the band that wrote the likes of ‘Buzz Aldrin: The Poster Boy for Second Place’ and ‘Bout to Get Fruit Punched, Homie’ on 2007 debut Get Stoked On It!. Similarly, ‘The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me’, a song Dan describes as “my favourite song we’ve ever written” is indeed one of the best compositions the sextet have ever put their name to.

“That song is a direct result of us challenging each other to push beyond our natural instincts for the duration of an entire song. We hold back a lot on that song, in a way that we wouldn’t normally do. The first time we played that song, I had my eyes closed and I thought ‘did we really write this!? This is the song we've been trying to write since we started playing music!'”

And that’s exactly what as a whole Sister Cities sounds like; an album that’s the culmination of 13 years of experience from a band who have worked tirelessly on perfecting their craft. “I think we've been marching towards this since the beginning of the band” says Dan. “We've had a goal on every record to take one bold step forward so that we don’t end up making the same record that we just made, but it's got to be incremental. If we’d released (2010’s) The Upsides and then followed it up with Sister Cites, I think people would have been so blind-sided by it that as a fan, you would have felt abandoned or alienated. As music fans, we know what it feels like when a band leaves us behind. I remember hearing records when I was younger and saying 'wow, what happened to the band that I liked?' But I also remember what it felt like to get a record and be like 'Damn, this is just the last record they made all over again!' I think because we’ve taken those incremental steps and moved forward thoughtfully with each release, this feels like a natural move for us to make. I wholeheartedly think this is the best record of our career.”

Sister Cities is released via Hopeless Records on Friday 6th April and is available to pre-order now. The Wonder Years begin a UK tour at London’s Islington Academy on 11th April

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