Philadelphia pop-punk act The Wonder Years plays Baltimore… (Ryan Russell / Handout )
When the Wonder Years formed in 2005, the pop-punk band from Philadelphia had a singular objective: Make themselves laugh. The evidence can be found in early song titles: “Dude, What is a Land Pirate?,” “I Fell in Love with a Ninja Master“ and “Let's Moshercise!!!“
“Our band was a joke band, and I mean that in a really honest sense — not like, we were so bad, we were a joke,” said lead singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell on the phone as the group's tour bus passed through Tampa, Fla., last week. “Everything was for our own amusement.”
A growing following — mixed with talent and a clear understand of the hook-heavy genre's most rewarding elements — made it clear the Wonder Years, who headlines Baltimore Soundstage on Sunday, had a realistic shot at Warped Tour stardom and beyond.
As the band took itself more seriously, Campbell was forced to mature as a lyricist. He found inspiration from Motion City Soundtrack and Fountains of Wayne, older bands unafraid to find humor in the midst of rough times.
“I've been in the middle of a bad breakup but something is so ridiculous that it still makes me laugh,” Campbell, 28, said. “So I thought that human emotion is so complex, and there are so many levels of gray, that I could include all of that into songwriting. That was a big moment for me.”
The Wonder Years' infectious, smart brand of pop-punk has turned the six-piece into one of the genre's leading bands. The success has kept the act on tour for 10 months of the year, Campbell said. The demand is not surprising considering “The Greatest Generation,” the group's fourth album released last May, debuted in the Top 20 of the Billboard Top 200 chart — unexpected territory for a band signed to an independent label like Hopeless Records.
“I don't want to call it luck, because it's not luck. It's a lot of hard work,” he said. “But at the same time, we're privileged to get the opportunity to play for people, whereas a lot of musicians don't get that chance.”
While many pop-punk bands eventually stray from the sound that first garnered them success — oftentimes attempting a more traditional but ill-fitting brand of alternative rock — the Wonder Years has maintained a recognizable sound of shiny, chugging guitars, larger-than-life drums and tempo breakdowns. The final product is indebted to the slick production found on records by New Found Glory and early Fall Out Boy.
Over the years, the band has tweaked and recalibrated its sound for a more dynamic punch, but it is Campbell's disarmingly honest and sharp lyrics that set the Wonder Years apart. Drawing inspiration from the Hold Steady's Craig Finn and the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, Campbell connects with listeners through detailed stories and characters. Characters have names, settings have specific locations and the observant details can feel ripped from a journal.
“The way [Finn and Darnielle] are able to be very specific but very broad ... is really impressive to me, and something I try to do,” Campbell said.
Many male pop-punk lyricists have been lambasted for concentrating almost exclusively on the scorn that comes from female rejection, but Campbell often avoids such trappings. He is much more concerned with existential crises, human purpose and family.
“Dismantling Summer,” a standout single on “The Greatest Generation,” details Campbell's grandfather's coronary artery triple bypass surgery and the complications that followed. The day after surgery, the band was scheduled to fly to England to begin a tour.
“At what point do I make a decision on this tour?” Campbell remembered asking. “Am I letting down my family, am I letting down myself or am I letting down the 10,000-15,000 fans that already bought tickets in other countries? There were a lot of things weighing on both sides.”
In the past couple years, pop-punk and the larger, catchall umbrella of “emo” has received praise from unexpected tastemaking corners. It could be a corrective on the collective bashing the genre received for years, or maybe critics have recognized the sound's surprisingly enduring impact on alternative rock. Either way, Campbell — who said his self-deprecating band consists of “fragile men” — is uninterested in the type of person that likes his band. He simply appreciates the fact fans exist.
“I'm happy I get to play music for people professionally,” Campbell said. “I don't think, 'Oh, I'd rather play for people who listen to NPR or I'd rather play to people that read Pitchfork.' I'd rather play to anyone who will have me.”
If you go
The Wonder Years performs April 13 at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place in the Inner Harbor. Fireworks, Citizen, Real Friends and Modern Baseball will also perform. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $18.70 in advance, $22 day of show. Call 410-244-0057 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.