Interview: The Swellers x The Wonder Years

The Swellers And The Wonder YearsWith the Vans Warped Tour now in it’s 19th year, we’ve assembled a few unique features that open up the general community to artists considered influential and must-sees on this summer’s trek. Coming from Flint, Michigan and Philadelphia respectively, THE SWELLERS’ Jon Diener and THE WONDER YEARS’ Dan “Soupy” Campbell have transferred everyday experiences to records, trudging through publicity campaigns and endless tours to ultimately connect with audiences. We linked the drummer and vocalist to put the spotlight on the Warped Tour scene as a whole, opening up about the accessibility of music and how the punk/hardcore genre is associated with judgement.

If you’re headed to Warped Tour this summer, make sure to catch The Swellers on this year’s Ernie Ball Stage and The Wonder Years on the Kia Forte Stage. You can find artist/lineup info and a list of dates at the tour’s website.

Is it difficult to write about your personal experiences and showcase them to thousands of fans?

DAN “SOUPY” CAMPBELL: I personally feel like it gives gravity to the situation and gives you a little bit more accountability. So when I say I want to do or be better, you bare your soul a little bit. In the first song of our record (“There, There”) there’s a lyric indicative of this whole idea, “I’ve got my heart strung up on clothing lines through tenement windows in mid July”. The idea is that when you’re writing songs as personal as our bands do you’re really hanging yourself out there for the world to see and judge.

But there’s also a sense of accountability, so when I say I want to do a certain thing, the fact that I know 20,000 people bought the record the first week and have now heard that song and are expecting me to do that, leaves me to push myself and actually better myself. There’s a certain level of difficultly when you’re singing about open wounds, but at the same time you’re forcing yourself to work to close them. That was kind of a bad analogy, sorry.

JON DIENER: No, it works, I thought it was great!

SOUPY: Thanks, buddy.

JON: No problem, we can just reassure each other the whole time (laughs). I’m in the same boat too – our new record, which isn’t coming out until the fall, but it’s the first time I kind of got to step in a little bit more. The last year for us has been super strange with weird music industry crap going on, personal life stuff and just questioning why you even do what you do. It’s different because we’re used to constantly touring forever, and then we were stuck at home for seven months to work on the record, so people got jobs so they could afford rent.

I got to experience life the real way. I guess that’s a good way of putting it – stationary life – which is something I’m not used to because I graduated high school and started touring a week after. The craziest part is that when you’re writing lyrics, in theory, a song is timeless, whether or not you think it is. Down the road, 20 or 40 years, someone could find this song, and they will listen to it, and whether they know the references or not, have this bigger picture of relatability to a song. That’s what really moves someone regardless of what you’re saying.

You could listen to some Motion City Soundtrack song and hear some obscure ’90s show reference, and be like “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, but what they’re saying around it is really important to me.” So I think, as Soupy was saying, if you’re writing about trying to better yourself, or overcoming something, it gives you a tangible reason to want to do that, because you have a responsibility from that point. It really sucks when I hear lyrics from someone, then I meet that person and they just suck. It happens once in a while, and it kind of crushes that image of the whole band. That’s why I always try to be a good person as much as I can. Lyrically, our whole new record is about how awkward life is, and that’s something a lot of people can relate to.

Is it possible to make music that everyone can relate to and never outgrow?

JON: There’s a different version of timelessness to a lot of people. That’s why you get these mainstream pop songs that are dumbed down so much. What’s that Black Eyed Peas song? “It’s gonna be a good night” or however it goes? Some people hear it and think, “I also had a good night, cool!”

SOUPY: Do you think it could be the song of our generation?

JON: Exactly (laughs). It’s one of those songs you hear that is so dumbed down and simple, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to like it, but it is relatable. There’s definitely songs that are too obscure for people to relate to, but they like it because it is a challenge. There’s a bunch of different options, but I just think the more dumbed down something is, the more relatable it is, unfortunately.

SOUPY: I think Jon-o hit it dead on. No matter how obscure the song or the reference is, if it’s rooted in a real emotion, then it can connect to just about anyone. So it doesn’t matter what exactly you’re singing about, as long as you can trace that thing down to the nerve of a serious emotion. That will cause the same type of emotional synapse to fire in someone else and that’s what makes a song relatable to me – when you can find some sort of imagery that is going to trigger the synapse into that emotion for someone else.

Whether the imagery is necessarily the same experience in their life or not, it doesn’t matter as long as you can find where it’s based. There’s still a certain amount of peer pressure or societal pressure around whether or not everyone can relate to it. The people who don’t listen to this kind of music are going to hear whatever they want out of the lyric. Despite the fact that our new record is all about trying to be the best person you can be, someone who doesn’t want to hear that because they listen to something else might call us names for not being that genre of music. They might say, “I listened to this song once, and it sounds like he’s fucking whining about this”. Well okay, but you didn’t get it, because you didn’t really want to get it.

Similarly, when you talk about things being timeless, we play a type of music that, societally, you’re supposed to move on from, apparently. Which is something I never necessarily did because I still love all the bands I loved in high school. I still love The Starting Line and The Early November, even more so now that they’re all homies. I also love a lot of new music that I wouldn’t have loved then. To me, you don’t have to scrub clean away everything you listened to before to like something else.

I think a lot of people are in that mindset, that in a few years they will be over this pop punk genre and those bands aren’t going to ring true to me anymore. I don’t listen to nearly as much hardcore as I did when I was a kid, but does that mean if I put on Background Music by American Nightmare, I’m not going to be into it? Fuck no, I still love that record. I don’t think it’s possible for one to create music that everyone can relate to, because I think some people will forcibly not relate to it. As for creating something timeless, I think people are going to feel pressure to move on from what you do. It’s almost a bullying tactic, “Oh you still listen to that”. I remember going to college and people scoffing at me saying “You don’t listen to Animal Collective? Like fuck you,” and I’d be like “C’mon, can’t I like Animal Collective and New Found Glory?”. Why can’t I?

JON: A big thing is nostalgia too. There’s a list of about ten bands that I got into at the age of ten or something, and whether or not I think the albums are cheese, I loved those God damn records and I can always go back to them. When I was in seventh grade, or whenever New Found Glory’s first EP came out, I had their t-shirt, and I would listen to them every morning before I went to school, and people would make fun of me saying “You listen to that pussy shit man?”. Fast forward to now, all these tough hardcore guys are listening to them because it’s cool. Those guys used to make fun of me for that, so what the hell? There’s almost a certain age denomination that goes with a type of music. Let’s say you hear a song when you’re 30, it might not hit you as hard as it would have when you were 15.

Are expectations, and these false rules that people tend to put around certain genres, the biggest negative aspect of being a musician?

SOUPY: No, I don’t think so. They can definitely get to you. I try not to focus too much on the negatives. Obviously being away from home, away from your loved ones are probably more negative than those people who expect you to write something and won’t like you if you write something else.

JON: Conversely, when we started, I grew up on Fat Wreck Chords, Epitaph, stuff like that – and, when we started, our first EP was just lightning fast. We sort of thought we sounded like No Use For A Name and that we could make a record based off that. We still have something I call the “punk rock curse”, where, basically, if you started out a certain way, and you start growing up and broadening your horizons, people do judge you. People judge us all the time and, whether or not it’s just some 45-year-old dude in the basement with his hand down his pants saying “Oh pop punk music, you guys suck”, we just try to not care about that stuff. When I was 17, The Swellers were supposed to sign to this label called Nitro Records which Dexter Holland from The Offspring owned. It was a big deal but that fell through because they pretty much went bankrupt.

Ever since then I’ve seen the music industry from an outside perspective, which made me think, “This is really fucked up. All of these people have this crazy expectation from certain bands about how they want them to sound”. We’ve always been that band that’s awkwardly in the middle. We were never a hype band, never too poppy or tough, we were just friends with everyone, and it was cool. But it resulted in us getting shoved aside once in a while. However, we made a point to not care what people thought, and just did what we wanted. We did so much growing because of that and as a result made some of the best music we’ve ever done.

SOUPY: Do you know what sucks worse than expectations? Shin splints, they suck way worse. Shin splints from jumping around onstage, that shit fucking hurts!

JON: Yeah, I can’t do karate kicks anymore because of my God damn shin splints!

SOUPY: I’m getting too old for this shit because after getting off stage I’m like, “Oh my god! My back! My knees!”

JON: Yeah, “the bangover” (laughs).

SOUPY: I’m a fucking old man now.
They say you’re only as old as you feel… inside.

SOUPY: I feel like I’m fucking 70!

JON: So you’re 70; that’s what she’s saying (laughs).

SOUPY: I feel like an arthritic old man!


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