Last week, The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell introduced the world to Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, his new solo project. Campbell detailed a concept album called We Don't Have Each Other, which follows the story of a man named Aaron West who, as Campbell puts it, is having a bad year. Now you can hear the first song from We Don't Have Each Other, called "You Ain't No Saint," and read the first interview with Campbell regarding his solo project exclusively on Fuse.tv–check them out below!
Out July 8 via Hopeless Records, Campbell's first solo effort takes on a more folksy soundscape compared to The Wonder Years' "realist pop-punk." Rooted around acoustic guitars, horns, harmonicas and banjos–along with impressive drum work courtesy of The Wonder Years' Mike Kennedy–the album provides a challenging, rewarding experience as you discover more about Aaron West and his story with each listen. Enlisting the help of producer Ace Enders of The Early November, Campbell has crafted a deft, layered record with immense lasting value that will please fans of The Mountain Goats, The Weakerthans and good storytelling.
In "You Ain't No Saint," which comes close to the album's end, West finds himself in a bad state–"I've got bruises I can't place, I've been coughing out blood"–and thinking about his late father–"If my dad was here, I wonder if he'd even recognize me." The horns in the chorus offer an interesting backbone to an emotional track, but to get the full picture, you'll have to check out the whole album. The record can be pre-ordered now via physical or digital outlets.
Read through our interview with Campbell below to learn more about Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, including details about why he started the project, how it will impact his work with The Wonder Years, what he's doing to support the album release and much more.
Who is Aaron West?
I guess the first answer is that Aaron West is a fictional character that I created. But Aaron West is a 31-year-old man, originally from Long Island, that was living in Brooklyn with his wife. He's having a really bad year... I think that's the best way to put it. We Don't Have Each Other centers on his existence.
How did you come to start writing about Aaron West, and how did writing about him differ from the work you've done with The Wonder Years?
What The Wonder Years are known for, primarily, are these crazy, super-personal lyrics that are directly about my life. I always thought that was what I had to do to be a good songwriter–write these lyrics that were about me, to make them raw and real. But as I've grown up I came to the realization that a lot of my favorite songs aren't like that, but they feel just as real to me. The point isn't necessarily that you have to put yourself on display to write great lyrics–it's that you have to write from a strong emotional point. Mountain Goats records showed me that, Weakerthans records have shown me that, Manchester Orchestra stuff... Andy Hull [frontman of Manchester Orchestra] is obviously great at it. The Hold Steady are fantastic at it.
There are all these pieces of fiction that I care about, and they're not just in music. I couldn't tell you how attached I was to the characters in Friday Night Lights. I couldn't tell you how attached I've been to characters in this movie or that movie. And it's all fiction, but because it's written from a very real place, you still connect with it.
“it's all fiction, but it's written from a very real place, so you still connect with it.”
I thought it would be beneficial for me to try to stretch what I was able to do lyrically and see if I could elicit that same emotional response as I was getting with these really raw Wonder Years songs by writing a work of fiction. It takes a lot more effort to do that. But when you think about it, if you're listening to a Wonder Years song and you're really connecting to it...if you don't know me, you have to separate the emotion from the very strict story portion to connect to it. It's not that you were in this place at this time doing this thing, it's that you've felt the same feeling that I did at that time. So I realized that if I could recreate that feeling that you can connect with, I could still create something that was very raw. It's about the emotional core of it all.
So in the case of this record and this story–and this is a spoiler alert about some of the narrative–it's not that everyone listening has necessarily been through a divorce or lost their father, it's something deeper than that.
Definitely. The biggest challenge was making sure that I was basing the story around the real emotions of loss and the understanding and journey back from those kids of things; the toll it takes on you when you lose somebody in your life, whether it be from death or them deciding that they don't want to be a part of your life anymore, and you having to fill that hole in your heart. As a whole, it's a record about coping, about putting the pieces back together. That's a real emotion that a lot of people are familiar with. In order to do all that, I really needed to know this character. And actually now, years later, I'm glad I took a lot of creative writing classes in college. They told me if I wanted to write something long-form, I had to understand everything about my characters. I should be able to answer any questions about them immediately.
You have to create this whole world, so that was the goal–I wanted to know everything about Aaron West. I wanted to know where his parents were from and the relationship he had with them. I wanted to know what kind of household he grew up in, what kind of god he knew, down to the simpler things, like how he talks. Whether he colloquially says "ain't" or if he's a guy that doesn't do that. Does he smoke cigarettes and could he quit if he wanted to? Does he drink, does he not drink, and if he doesn't drink, why not? What was he like when he was younger and how did he meet his wife and what's their relationship like? I needed to know all of that and more; there are plenty of things that I know about this guy that don't appear on the record at all, but it was important to know all of that so I could create a character that felt like a full human so, like I said, the emotions could feel as raw as I could make them.
Did you have that whole story in your mind before you started writing the lyrics?
There were little pieces of lyrics that I wrote, like little nudges, and I made a basic arc for the story, but that was just a skeleton frame. I had to get into more detail before I could really write it. I had to do a bunch of research, too–you'll hear lyrics in there that are very specific to a type of person. In "St. Joe Keeps Us Safe," there's a bunch of stuff about Roman Catholic beliefs–stuff about the Infant of Prague and the statue of St. Joseph and things like that–those things really characterize a person. But I had to research those things and made sure they correlated with the type of person I wanted to create.
When did you find yourself wanting to get away from writing songs about you? Why did you feel like you should start writing songs that weren't Wonder Years songs?
At the beginning, it wasn't about what I wanted to do–it was about pushing myself. I think The Wonder Years have a great thing going, and I wouldn't do all this [the character study] for The Wonder Years. But I knew that I needed to do it lyrically to push myself, and because I wanted to become a better guitar player. I thought the best way to do that would be to throw myself into the fire and say, 'Write a record. Figure out how to write a record with a guitar.' I had the idea for a while that I wanted to do some sort of a solo record–I didn't think anyone would ever hear it–just so I could force myself to become better at the guitar.
“At the beginning, it wasn't about what I wanted to do–it was about pushing myself.”
The idea at first was that there would be character studies but just sketches, like Reunion Tour from The Weakerthans, where each song is about a different character. I was in that headspace for a while. I had a loose idea that ended up becoming "Our Apartment," which is the first track on this record about a guy that is going through a divorce. Then I realized pretty quickly that I wasn't going to get the depth of the character that I wanted out of one song, and that I would have to do an entire record about this one guy to really make it work. I came to that conclusion around last summer, but I was pretty unsure of myself at that time. So I showed Ace [Enders, frontman of The Early November], I played him a couple songs that I was writing. I expected him to be nice, because he's my friend, but he immediately asked if we could do this record together. He told me about chord progressions that he thought were interesting and he could see that I was forming this really full character that he thought could be complex and nuanced and idiosyncratic. But yeah, he wanted to produce it and he told me to come in with the songs; so from there I knew that if Ace was going to work on it, then I would do it for real and that people were going to hear it. I kept writing, and I asked Mike [Kennedy, drummer for The Wonder Years] to play drums on it.
From there, when we finished our fall tour, I had the winter to get into the meat of writing the record. I knew the story arc and the character but I only had a few songs really done, but I got into the right headspace over those months to finish it. In February we went into the studio with Ace and we were off into recording.
What did Ace bring to the table as producer?
Really a lot of the instrumentation was Ace's production work. He would chime in like, 'I really think this song could use some banjo. I think we can get a really cool organ tone here.' And then he would go and hit it, perfectly. It was really something to watch. Like, here's a song, and then it's like he closes his eyes and he just knows what it's supposed to sound like. He'll realize that we need a certain guitar tone on a certain song and then break out the perfect tone right away. He was really invaluable in that degree. He was, in a lot of ways, the other member of the band for me.
From the first time I listened to the record, I knew this was the sort of thing where I'd be picking up a little bit of the story every time I listened to it. Given that people can only listen to "You Ain't No Saint" at the moment–and given the more general issue that we all have short attention spans these days–how are you hoping that people digest the album?
It was definitely difficult to pick a single, a song that people could hear before they buy the record. It would be really unfair to ask people to buy a record without hearing any of it. For me, it's important that people hear the entire thing in context. But Ace really worked hard with me to make sure that each song, from a song standpoint rather than a storytelling standpoint, could function individually. Where you can hear it and say, 'That's a good song, the instrumentation is good, the melodies are good,' and maybe you're not getting all the layers of the lyrics, but at least on that first layer you're getting something that you can grasp onto. But the real goal is that you'll be picking things up on your 10th listen. And you'll pick things up on your 20th listen. In my opinion, the king of that is Craig Finn [frontman of The Hold Steady]. I'm on my hundredth or two-hundredth listen of some of those records, and every once in a while I still pick up new things where I'm like, 'Oh my god! I can't believe that!'
“The real goal is that you'll be picking things up on your 10th listen. And you'll pick things up on your 20th listen.”
It's really exciting for me as a listener to unearth things like that and peel back these new layers to understand those songs on a deeper level than I thought I understood them in the first place. I spent a lot of time trying to do that, and I think it'll be a really rewarding process for listeners. I understand what you're saying about how we're in a world where it's all about the single and how catchy it is and attention spans are shorter and people don't want full records. But like...these songs aren't going to do Top 40 radio or get any of that type of play–I think these are songs for people who want want the experience of a story and of a record with layers that they're going to understand more as they grow. Something that can grab you and affect you emotionally from the very first listen, but continues to dig deeper on subsequent listens.
What other influences would you name, besides The Weakerthans, The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats?
I think Bright Eyes is a really chief influence on this record, especially records like I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. I think Kind Of Like Spitting are a bit of a sleeper influence for me. Lucero, to a degree, that's a band that showed me that you can make a lot of different instrumentation be cool. And we have a lot of instruments on the record–we have horns and lap steel and harmonicas and banjos, and a lot of that comes from Lucero. I think also Frank Turner, who blends Americana and alt-country and alt-folk with punk and emo, and he does it in a way that has a really smooth transition.
Do you think the experience of writing this record will help you in the future when it comes to writing new Wonder Years stuff?
I definitely think it helps me from a lyrical standpoint–we haven't started writing songs, but I've started doing some lyrics–and I think this has helped know learn how to hone in on ideas. You never want to be complacent where you are; there are people who find me to be a good lyricist, and I appreciate that. But I wanted to work harder, and this was a way to work at that.
So you're doing a week of Warped Tour on the Acoustic Basement to help support the release. What else do you want to do with the project moving forward?
Yeah, I was actually really excited at the prospect of spending a summer at home. We haven't had a summer off since 2007. But I'm really thankful they let me hop on for just that week. So I'll do a week on the Acoustic Basement. But other than that, I really want to do shows with a full band. I think I would want to do a full eight-piece–it'd have to be me, Kennedy, Ace, a bass player, another guitarist and a three-piece horn section. But I think we can scale it if we need to. I can do it by myself, or I can do it with just Kennedy, or Kennedy and a bass player... there are a lot of ways it can work.
We Don't Have Each Other comes out July 8 via Hopeless Records. You can pick it up in physical format via the label's webstore or on iTunes and follow Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties on Twitter. Dan Campbell is also on Twitter.