The Wonder Years, ‘The Greatest Generation’ | The Album Story

The Wonder Years frontman Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell reflects on the making of ‘The Greatest Generation’ as they continue to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

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After ten years, Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell is just starting to realise the impact that The Wonder Years’ fourth record, ‘The Greatest Generation’, has had on their fans. They’re currently touring across the US, Canada and the UK, playing the record in full every single night to a new crowd of people. I went to two shows, one in Los Angeles in September and one in Brighton in November. Despite the distance between the cities and cultures, there was a shared energy and desire for catharsis across both crowds. The band put on a show that leaves room for each person’s experience, and Campbell acknowledges onstage that every single person has their own relationship to a record that grapples with grief, addiction, mental health and existential anxiety. Campbell has found himself moved by what it means to people: “It’s painful, if you’ve been through that stuff. But we like to hope that it’s useful,” he says.

Playing the record again, he’s been surprised by the songs that people connect with. “Over the years of touring, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you play songs you think are the crowd’s favourites. You play those songs more, and the reaction gets bigger, and it fulfils itself.” Now, though, he’s seen what lesser-played tracks like ‘Teenage Parents’ and ‘We Could Die Like This’ mean to people, “and that’s a really nice feeling.” Wonder Years fans have grown up with this record, using it, as Campbell says, as a tool to deal with their own difficult feelings.

His own relationship to the record has evolved, too: “Playing these songs at an older age, I feel like some of the stuff that I was thinking at the time of writing the album is in sharper focus to me now. When you’re young and you’re making art like this, you have this feeling somewhere in your gut about what’s wrong, and you want to write music about it, but the specifics of what it is aren’t available to you,” he says. “I was too young and inexperienced to really understand the root of some of the problems I was writing about. I’m sure that I’ll say the same thing about myself in another 10 years, but I understand it more now than I did when writing it.”

‘The Greatest Generation’ remains a serious feat, flexing and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and what’s permissible to confront within pop punk. We caught up with Campbell to reflect on ten years of the album.


Over 12 tracks, ‘The Greatest Generation’ dives into everything from poverty to the death of a loved one. All that chaos and fear culminates in the final track, ‘I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral’, seven and a half minutes that Campbell says he wanted to feel like “the middle of a panic attack”: “I wanted it to feel like all of these things that you were worried about are now colliding at once around you. It becomes this storm that you’re stuck in.” Towards the end, you start to see the light: “I wanted this moment of catharsis where we’re able to see our way through these things,” says Campbell. ‘The Greatest Generation’ shows a sharp sonic maturation from its predecessor, ‘Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing’, and ‘I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral’ is where the band showcase that evolution. Formed of snippets of lyrics and pieces of other tracks, it plays with the motifs of the record. “We have these recurring themes: the devil, the ghosts, the bombs, the birds, the pill bottles. I wanted them to be colliding all around in the lyrics,” says Campbell.

The band decided to incorporate not only lyrics but whole melodies and guitar lines, cutting them together to craft something brand new that references the whole record. “It became this fun puzzle exercise for us. We were shouting out ideas, and it was one of the most exciting couple of hours in the room for us as far as writing a song,” says Campbell. He wasn’t worried about doing something so risky–he respects the Wonder Years’ audience, and doesn’t believe that to make something artistically gratifying is necessarily to alienate them. “We take the art of making an album really seriously. I think that our albums are albums, they exist as structures. The songs are leaning on one another and overlapping with one another in a collective space, instead of being a collection of singles that are unrelated to one another. We tend to do more of a thematic kind of album, something that’s interconnected and works better as a whole,” he says of the philosophy that shaped the sound of the record.


While The Wonder Years had loved working with Steve Evetts on ‘Suburbia’, when it came to finding a producer for ‘The Greatest Generation’, the band thought that they should try someone new. After going back and forth, someone said that they wished they could go back to Steve. “We were like, wait a minute, we totally fucking can. There are no rules!” laughs Campbell. They had considered asking Mark Trombino, who had produced some of their favourite records (Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Clarity’, Motion City Soundtrack’s ‘Commit This to Memory’), but they asked him to mix it instead. “Steve pushed us really, really hard. At some points, hard enough that I was like, fuck this, I don’t want to work with this guy anymore. I am mad!” Campbell admits now. At the time, though, he didn’t realise that was what he–and the record–needed. “We were so young making ‘Suburbia’. We were young in our career and young as musicians. I think he saw that we had the potential to be not just studio good, but actually good,” reflects Campbell. Often while recording, due to budget or time constraints, a producer will clean up a take later. Instead, Steve forced the band to get things right. “Steve had this thing where he was like, ‘I know you can actually play it. I know you can actually sing it.’ He made us better performers.” Campbell says now that, “to this day, we are better on stage live every night, because he pushed us to find our potential as players and as musicians.”


Growing up, Campbell loved “the energy of hardcore” and “the melodic sensibilities of pop music and R&B”. He found that emo and pop punk straddled those worlds, but he still didn’t connect with the lyricists. The lyrics on ‘The Greatest Generation’ are at once political and deeply personal, exploring both a disaffected alienation and a profound personal loss. Unsurprisingly, Campbell names Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst as an influence when striking that balance, among the roster on Omaha record label Saddle Creek. “Bright Eyes, Cursive, Rilo Kiley and Son, Ambulance built me as a lyricist,” says Campbell. On weaving the personal and the political together, Campbell says, “there’s this unknowable depth to humanity, so to view it so myopically and believe we can only write about one thing at once feels frustrating.” 

On ‘The Greatest Generation’, Campbell shares his deepest anxieties, his fears for the future, and his perception of himself in a way that leaves him vulnerable. It also makes a great foundation to build a relationship with an audience processing those same growing pains: “I’m going to tell you how I’m feeling, and I’m going to tell you what’s hurting me at that particular moment in time.” Its lyrics are evocative: you feel as if you are there, standing on frozen ground, digging through Campbell’s great grandfather’s memoirs, caring for someone who is dying. “I think we learned to be specific early,” says Campbell. “We wrote our seven inch, ‘Pathetic Forever’, and I was like, man, who’s gonna connect with this? A lot of them were just inside jokes.” He learned that a lot of people connected to it: “Even when the details are not identical, I think the specificity allows the emotion to come through in a way that it couldn’t otherwise. Even if someone hasn’t experienced the exact same moment, they know exactly what I’m talking about and connect to it. As long as it’s rooted deeply in that actual emotion, it’s going to connect.”


For this run of ‘The Greatest Generation’ shows, the band have been playing against an eight-foot tall inflatable devil. It was designed by James Heimer, the illustrator who also did the art for the record and its reissue. On the cover itself, a soldier marches forward with a big, red, drawn devil looming over his shoulder. “I wanted it to be mixed media and I had been buying up old photos in antique stores,” says Campbell. The photos were donated after someone had died, and Campbell gave them a second life in the album booklet. “It was so weird and cool to me, so I bought all of these old family photos of a bygone era that is presented to us as golden. Look at these perfect, prim and proper people,” he says. James Heimer then illustrated the photos with the themes of the record: “Societal pressure, hereditary mental illness, drug addiction and war,” says Campbell. “We gave it to James and said, hey man, here are a bunch of photos. I want bombs and birds and pill bottles and ghosts and devils in it. Go for it. And he delivered. He did a really, really great job.”


The record’s title captures its themes of bravery, masculinity, and what those things actually mean. Campbell says it’s a tongue in cheek reference to the way his generation–Millennials–were talked about and referenced in the media. “I was seeing these articles that were like, Millennials are ruining X. It all boiled down to this idea that millennials were lazy and entitled. Then a little bit later, it was that Gen Z is soft and weak,” he says. “I wanted to know who gets to define that, by whose standards are we entitled and lazy, who sets the goalposts on soft or weak?” Every night on this tour he has given a speech about the record to cheers and applause from an audience around his age: “I say that there’s nothing soft about empathy, about trying to understand someone else’s lived experience and accepting them for that. There’s nothing weak about not wanting to be caught up in a mass shooting. We grew up with school shooter drills, we grew up in endless war, we grew up in massive terrorist attacks.” 

The entire record, and its title, is also a reflection of Campbell’s own anti-war politics and his complex feelings about what makes someone brave. “There was this duelling obsession with war and celebrity that I have always been deeply uncomfortable with. It’s a twisted thing that I’ve never resonated with,” he says, referencing recruitment adverts. “There is a specific person they’re trying to reach, someone who feels they don’t fit in, and it makes me uncomfortable. It felt predatory to me when they were recruiting at Warped Tour,” he says. That suspicion of the idea of a ‘greatest’ generation is woven through the record: “I think that the idea of greatness per generation can only really be defined by that generation. What would be great right now is an equitable future, a just future, a sustainable future. I think that we’re capable of building that, and the generation that follows us is capable of building that and sustaining that. That, to me, is going to be a much more important thing for the survival of humanity than anything else. Maybe we will get to be the greatest.”


When we chat with Campbell, he’s in Ottawa, Canada, right in the midst of touring. He’s spent every night for weeks playing ‘The Greatest Generation’ in full, but when it’s over, he has no idea what’s next. “We’re gonna finish this tour,” he says. “We had some plans for next year that as of yesterday had been moved back. So currently, absolutely nothing, which is very weird.” While he does have an upcoming release with his side project, Aaron West, Campbell seems to be struggling to sit with that uncertainty and stillness, at least as far as The Wonder Years goes: “At the moment it’s really open ended for the first time in a really long, long time.” It’s only been a year since the release of their seventh record, ‘The Hum Goes on Forever’maybe he deserves a break.

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