Dan Campbell | Behind The Lyrics

With a songwriting style that collides emotive storytelling with viscerally raw personal reflections, Dan Campbell has spent the last two decades using music to navigate the intricacies of the human experience.

Fronting Philadelphia rock outfit The Wonder Years since 2005, the vocalist has become known for his unparalleled honesty and vulnerability. Capturing the essence of youth, rebellion, and growth, Campbell’s lyrics paint a vivid portrait of life’s struggles and triumphs, resonating with listeners across the world.

With a keen eye for detail and a penchant for introspection, his narrative-driven emo-Americana project – Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – takes listeners on a poignant journey through the aftermath of heartbreak and loss. Exploring resilience, redemption, and the pursuit of meaning in the face of adversity, through the character of Aaron West, Campbell offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the human psyche.

A songwriter with a lifelong commitment to authenticity whether he’s dealing with fact or fiction, ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ continues the story of Aaron West. The triumphant third chapter that serves as an ode to the underdog, it’s an intimate tale of healing, inviting the world to confront their own vulnerabilities and shortcomings – even if it means screwing up along the way.

Cultivating a sense of connection and understanding in an often-tumultuous world, as the release of his latest project looms, Dan Campbell talks Rock Sound through ten of the lyrics he is most proud to have written.

“We held each other in orbit // Binary stars”, ‘God & the Billboards’ – ‘Routine Maintenance’ (2019)

“This is probably the simplest lyric on this list, and one of my all-time favourites. I had it in a notebook for a while, and I knew that I wanted it to be about Aaron’s sister, Catherine. I had spent some time trying to think about how to explain the relationship they have, and it comes down to that simple line. The simplicity of this one line reveals so much about their relationship, and I love the imagery. It’s so evocative, and it’s just eight words. I think that the band Fireworks are the kings of writing one perfect line after another, and they have so many lyrics that can stand on their own. I’m very much the opposite, and often in my songwriting every lyric within a verse leans on the next, but this one was different.”

“Cream fights through truck-stop coffee here in the quiet purple dawn // Last night we played another highway bar, for the first time they sang along // Spray paint a ’20’ up on the overpass // Like a blood pact for the drifters we’ve become // In the soft burgeoning sun”, ‘Runnin’ Toward the Light’ – ‘Routine Maintenance’ (2019)

“This lyric is very cinematic to me, but it’s also very easy to picture. Anyone that has spent time driving distances, especially in America, knows the truck-stop coffee I’m talking about. Everyone knows that feeling of watching the cream work its way through your coffee, and I think this whole verse tells us so much about the bond that’s forming between the band. It tells you a lot without having to say too much, and that’s something that I’m always trying to do with Aaron West songs. I want every lyric to be as cinematic as possible, and I want people to be able to picture it clearly. A lot of that has to do with the way that things are lit, and that became a big theme of that record specifically. I wanted to show the relationships blossoming rather than just flatly saying, ‘We’re friends now’. Spray painting on the overpass like a blood pact is a much more evocative way of showing you how that bond is growing. You can see it in their actions, and that’s always more meaningful.”

“No one told the birds the world was ending // So they keep singing like it’s spring”, ‘Paying Bills At The End Of The World’ – ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ (2024)

“During the pandemic, I found myself marvelling at the fact that nature doesn’t care about humanity’s struggle. It just continued onward, and spring came anyway. I love this lyric because it immediately sets you in the pandemic. It’s the first line of that song, and I don’t have to tell you anything else because you already know where you are. Again, I like to show rather than tell, so it gives you a setting without me saying, ‘It was April of 2020’. There’s a bitterness to these lyrics, because the world keeps moving even when you don’t feel like it should be. At the same time though, it’s also a little funny. I like writing lyrics that are simultaneously sad and funny.” 

“Rain on the roof of your parked car // Sam, I was fucking afraid // I bit the ulcer on my tongue // And spilled my guts in your driveway”, ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ – ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ (2024)

“I like to start songs in a way that feels like the events are already happening, and you have to catch up. As a listener, it puts you in a position where you have to lock in immediately or you’ll miss so much of the storytelling. I spent a lot of time focusing on hyper-evocative opening lines for this record, and I wanted the audience to join in the middle of a scene that is already happening. In this line, the scenery choice tells you a lot. Aaron is coming here to apologise, but it’s happening in a parked car while it rains. What we can presume is that Aaron went to the front door but was not invited across the threshold. Sam has said, ‘You can’t come in, but it’s raining so if you want to talk, we can talk to your car’. It tells you about the way that Sam is feeling, and how hurt they were. You don’t know why yet, but you understand that for them to forgive Aaron, there needs to be an act of contrition. 

A big thing with Aaron is his lack of ability to be vulnerable with people in his life after being hurt. Being nervous and biting down on his ulcer just to feel something… it’s almost a grounding thing. When I get a cut in my mouth, I will chew on it when I’m nervous. It’s a way of showing myself that I am physically in that space, and because I can feel that pain, I know that my anxiety isn’t going to drift me off into nothingness. Every word of this line is so calculated and it’s trying to tell you a story without telling you exactly what’s happening. Through what I’m showing you rather than telling you, you can understand so much more. I love songwriting as an art form because of the constriction. I like the fact that there’s not a novel to tell this story in, you get four minutes. There has to be a depth to all the image choices.” 

“Cherry blows off your cig // You say you wanna hear the band, and ask if it’s hard for me to still sing about Dianne // I kinda shrug // I mean, it’s not really up to me // I hand you a light and say, ‘Dolly still sings about Jolene’”, ‘Monongahela Park’ – ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ (2024)

“This is another line that is funny, but also sad. I thought about it a lot when I was doing the Aaron West shows, because this project is all a narrative, but everything that happens on stage is canon to the story. I’m in character when I’m playing those shows, and over the years, wounds will heal. It’s been 10 years since the first album, and even though Aaron is still upset about his divorce, he’s not upset about it in the same way as he was a decade ago. Over time, your relationship to that pain changes, and your relationship to that sadness changes. That’s going to change his performance of those songs, and the way that he interacts with the people in the crowd. The man has been divorced for 10 years, and it’s still hard to sing those songs, but he has to sing them. Aaron West’s job as a singer is to sing the songs that he wrote, because people like them. I imagine that’s true of all singers, and it’s been decades since it was released, but there’ll never be a Dolly Parton show where she does not have to play ‘Jolene’.”

“It’s already June // The light paints you pink when it breaks through the cherry trees // You shout at the moon // We lay on your swing // I’m right where I’m meant to be”, ‘You’re the Reason I Don’t Want the World to End’ – ‘The Hum Goes On Forever’ (2022)

“This is my favourite The Wonder Years song, and I could have chosen any lyric from it, but this one holds the nicest memory. It’s the first line of the song, and it’s about when I started my SSRI. I was with my oldest son, Wyatt, one evening, and we went and saw these cherry blossoms. We laid in this saucer swing that he has, and he only knew how to say a few words, but ‘moon’ was one of them. For the first time in my whole life, I was exclusively there. There was no other part of my brain that was worried about something else happening, and it was such a perfect memory for me. I was a couple weeks into the SSRI, and I realised that it was working. The volume inside of my brain had been turned right down, and I was present in that moment with my kid without being worried about something else. That song is about worrying, and that’s just part of being a parent. Every day when I send him into school, there’s a tiny bit of me that goes, ‘Please no mass shooting, please no catastrophic event’. It’s about that fear and the desire to keep your kids safe. To do that, you need to be able to put yourself aside sometimes, but that first line feels so peaceful to me.”

“I stopped making deals with God right around when you left // I said that I would start believing if they made you well again // Guess they knew it was bullshit // I’d never hold up my end // The walls are stained in nicotine // I can feel them closing in”, ‘The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me’ – ‘Sister Cities’ (2018)

“This is also in my top five The Wonder Years songs, and I love the way that the first verse is sung and scored. Songwriting is like poetry in that metre and verse matter, but with songwriting you can dictate the performance too. I don’t just get to write these lyrics; I get to decide how they’re said to you. I also get to score them along with my bandmates and set the mood correctly for them. There’s so much available to you as a creative, and I love how this song starts.”

“I’m a raw nerve in the sunlight, after two weeks in the dark // If you’ve gotta tell me you’re not using, it’s probably because you are // I saw you there, just a block off the sea // You’re a row home on an empty street where the others have been torn down, and you’re the last one standing // It must get lonely”, ‘It Must Get Lonely’ – ‘Sister Cities’ (2018)

“This is a memory from when we were on tour in Europe. It was winter, and it was grey everywhere. After several weeks of not seeing the sun, we got to Barcelona and there was sunlight. We were walking to the beach, and I saw this house. There was a block of row homes, and it was the only one there. For whatever reason, it reminded me of a couple of people in my life. They were part of these friend groups that were into drugs, and we lost a lot of them to the opioid crisis. I was thinking about how odd it must feel for them to be the ones that didn’t die. It must be lonely sometimes. In my experience, when people are so desperate to tell everyone that they’re not using, you can look into their eyes and see that they’re high. This lyric is a twist up of moment and memory, and often those end up being my favourite lyrics.”

“They’ll put a gun into your hand and call you weak until you’re violent // Don’t believe it // They’re hateful ‘cause they’re empty”, ‘I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave’ – ‘No Closer To Heaven’ (2015)

“I think this song is so underrated, and this is such a simplistic statement on violence. American violence gets twisted up with masculinity, and often we define gender roles by their relationship to violence. There’s this idea that if you don’t have an urge to be violent, it’s because you’re weak. When we wrote that line in 2014, it felt prescient for where the country and world was going. It’s wild to see a lot of people still expressing this violent hatred towards all sorts of marginalised groups and knowing that their hatred comes from a place of sadness and ignorance.

Honestly, there’s almost a little bit of pity about it. Maybe it isn’t fair to extend pity to people like that, but when I see someone say horrible shit on the internet, I can’t help but think about how that person must be so lonely, sad, and empty. It comes up a lot on ‘Sister Cities’, but the more you experience the world and the more people you meet, the more united everything feels. Nothing feels scary when you understand it, and I think that people who don’t experience the world in that way stay lonely, afraid, and sad. Those are the people that end up with those violent tendencies and that myopic view of masculinity.”

“When I was seventeen // I wrote a song about how I’m drinking kerosene // To light a fire in my gut // And I’ll be coughing out embers for decades to come // I was seventeen with a fire in my gut”, ‘Lost It In The Lights’ – ‘The Hum Goes On Forever’

“When I was 17, I was deeply invested in Chuck Palahniuk and the imagery of sadness and loneliness entwined with inward violence. I had written this song called ‘Kerosene Momentos’, which had a line about drinking kerosene in it. It’s the kind of overwrought song title you write when you’re a kid and you’re trying to describe passion, but I thought it’d be funny to reference that song in a The Wonder Years track. We never actually recorded it – and we only ever recorded one song – but the band the original track was written for were called Avalon. 

The line was partially about how bad I wanted to play music, but I knew that I did not have the talent for it. I went to a very big high school, and there were around 1200 people just in my year, so it was easy to look around the music classes and think that everyone was better than me. I had this realisation that if I wanted it, I had to outwork a lot of people because I just didn’t have that natural talent. I’m still coughing out the embers of that passion decades later, and that fire has not gone out in me.

This is my 19th year of being in The Wonder Years. We know that a lot of bands don’t get to celebrate their 20th anniversary, so by the law of averages, we’re closer to the end of the band than we are to the beginning. If we did it for another 20 years, I would be nearing 60, and I don’t know that my body could take it. When I came to that realisation, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do with the back half of my career, and I set a couple of goals. One was that I wanted to always feel gratitude. I never want to feel bitter that this thing is going to end someday, I want to feel lucky that I ever got a chance to do it. I also want to make sure that I am being a conscientious steward of the community. I’m trying to bring bands on tour that I think represent what the community can look like going forward, and I’m trying to take action. I want to set the right examples, and I’m trying to leave the world a better place than we found it.”

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties new album ‘In Lieu Of Flowers’ is out April 12 via Hopeless Records.

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