The Wonder Years have grown from 2010’s diaper dandies to 2012’s pop-punk powerhouse.
How did they get there? By getting a little better every day.
Words and Photos By: Thomas Nassiff ABSOLUTExclusive song streams courtesy of Hopeless Records
It’s almost 5 p.m. and Dan Campbell is having trouble adjusting to the light outside.
The Wonder Years frontman just finished soundchecking with his band at The Social in Orlando, Fla., intermittently belting out lines from the new Menzingers record while running through “Don’t Let Me Cave In” and “Washington Square Park.” The band is only hours away from playing a show they sold out a week in advance, but right now, Campbell really just wants to get his hair cut.
The mop on his head is too long and scraggly, and although it hides his receding 26-year-old hairline, it’s time to clean up a bit. His beard has grown to gnarly proportions, so we’re about to trek along with guitarist Casey Cavaliere and stage tech Conor O’Brien to what we’re told is something of a punk-rock barbershop. But when we step outside, the light of the Florida sun is blinding in comparison to the shadowy innards of The Social. Campbell doesn’t have much time to adjust – there is a trio of fawning young women and a couple of giddy young men outside who just remembered why they wait outside the venue three hours before doors open.
“Sure, we can take a picture,” Campbell says. “But we only have time for one, I have to get my hair cut.”
He does his duty and we quickly shuffle past the line of waiting show-goers, then traverse the downtown Orlando traffic to find, in fact, a punk-rock hair cuttery. The owner of Liberty Barbershop is named John, stands about 6-feet tall, is covered in tattoos, sports a grizzly (but well-kempt) beard of his own, and is snipping away at a current customer. He’s a fan of ‘90s punk rock and has a few tour stories of his own. He cuts hair because “not everyone has to be a tattoo artist.” We arrive just in time. He stops taking customers at 5:30. If Campbell would have stopped for a couple more pictures in line, we would have been too late.
O’Brien is the first subject of the scissors, so Campbell, Cavaliere and I head to a bench outside to chat. It’s still pretty bright out, but the usually unforgiving Florida heat isn’t so bad today. The Philadelphia natives are grateful.
We talk about change. A lot is different for The Wonder Years on the Glamour Kills Tour. A weird van/bus combo called a Rock-It Ship has replaced their normal maroon-ish passenger van. It has bunks, so they can actually…you know…sleep. They don’t have to split the driving time between gigs during this tour, either – there is a hired, designated driver now. Their normal entourage of six band members and a tour manager has swelled to include three more crew. They’re selling out venues they’ve never headlined before.
But some things stay the same.
“When was the last time I showered?” Campbell wonders aloud a little while later, back inside the barbershop. The conversation continues along while he looks around silently and thinks. It’s a couple of minutes before he recalls a concrete answer. “I think the last time I showered was in Little Rock. I think that was it.”
Other things stay the same, too. As tour manager John James Ryan and bassist Joshua Martin are quick to point out later the same night, a bigger crew doesn’t mean the band is sitting around relaxing all day. They still work just as much as they did on their first “real” tour, which they recall as a 11-day trek in England – there’s just more work to go around now, so more people are piled in the van…erm…Rock-It Ship. Besides, they’ll be back in their normal van and back to their normal crew size after the GK Tour ends.
“The venues have grown, the number of people that come out has grown, everything else has stayed the same,” Ryan says, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and blue shorts, which reveal a variety of tattoos ranging from Ronald McDonald to Rugrats characters. His personality might be riddled with childlike wonder, but when it comes to tour managing The Wonder Years – which he has done for three years now – Ryan is all business.
“We run the same tight ship we’ve always run, we’re always there when we’re supposed to be there, we’re always prepared for everything. Nothing has gone to anyone’s head – everyone’s the same exact person they were when I met them.”
That latter part is proving to be especially important. As Martin describes it, The Wonder Years have been on a “fast, furious, and time-consuming ride” since The Upsides came out. But nothing has changed in the minds of the six bandmates…there are just more kids coming out to watch the punk shows.
Even as fan adoration has quickly ballooned to creepy levels, the band has kept itself firmly planted in the earth. Campbell recalls a recent incident where a female superfan posted on Tumblr a completely fabricated 30-minute conversation she allegedly had with Campbell, adorned with fake quotes from him and all. And the letters from fans, enthusiastically thanking the band for writing such meaningful songs…those haven’t slowed down in a couple of years.
“It’s weird seeing that type of fan with this type of band,” Ryan says. “It’s definitely a weird thing. But [this stuff getting to the band’s head] isn’t important, because it just doesn’t happen. It’s like, here’s a letter. ‘Great!’ We made you these things. ‘Thanks!’ We baked you these cookies. ‘There might be poison in them, we’ll eat ‘em anyway!’ We take it all, all the submissions, all the demos, all the trinkets and the gifts, but it’s no importance. It doesn’t change anything.”
Still other things remain the same. As the band’s steady growth to popularity since the release of The Upsides has shown, The Wonder Years have made a point to simply progress every day. It may not be perfect, and at times it hasn’t been pretty, but progress has been the name of the game.
It’s February 3, 2010, and I think I accidentally just woke up Campbell. I’ve never met him before and I’m not sure what he looks like, so I decide to give him a call outside The Farside in Tallahassee, Fla. He answers and we exchange a couple of sentences, then I see him groggily stick his head out of his band’s van. I climb in and we do an interview. He had just woken up from napping on the second-row passenger bench because he drove the rickety van late into the night, but he manages to form coherent sentences and even teach me a fist-bump handshake that I still remember to this day. I’ve never interviewed anyone before in my life, but I manage to ask 11 questions.
A lot of the questions are about The Upsides, which came out eight days before this show took place, and Campbell shares with me that they’re pleased about the early sales numbers. They sold around 1,700 units in the first week. Somewhere 3,000 miles away, No Sleep Records will soon realize to realize that The Upsides will be a launching point for it too. After the interview, Therefore I Am finishes a short set, Man Overboard plays for about a half-hour, and The Wonder Years rip through nine songs. The Farside, if packed to its brim, could probably hold about 60 people, including the band playing and the merch guy. There is no stage. A guitar amp impedes the entranceway and it’s a little cramped when you walk in. But The Farside was not packed to its brim that night.
That show in Tallahassee, the first time I saw The Wonder Years, stands in stark contrast to what I saw Thursday night. Over 400 people sold out The Social this time – at a venue that wasn’t even sold out when The Wonder Years opened for Four Year Strong a little more than a year ago – and, for lack of a better phrase, completely lost their minds for the band.
It helps that the GK Tour – what Campbell is calling the band’s first “big-boy headliner” – features a stacked package. Polar Bear Club, Transit and The Story So Far offer direct support during the whole tour, with Into It. Over It. on the first leg and A Loss for Words on the second leg. The band is quick to point to the strength of the package as a big reason for the success of these shows. “This is a tour that we would actually want to go see,” Cavaliere says.
He and Campbell won’t say it in as many words, but the six-week trek is something of a statement. A statement to those who have doubted, and a statement to other bands, that The Wonder Years can pull their own weight.
After releasing Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing in June, the band actually spent several months out of the spotlight, despite the album’s phenomenal reaction. They played two months on the Vans Warped Tour, then played third out of five bands on the Pop Punk’s Not Dead Tour in support of New Found Glory. They took the winter off and decided to pull out all the stops for their big-boy headlining tour – and it paid off.
They put together a tour split, featuring all six of the bands covering each other, which was a mountain of a project that miraculously came together. They let fans vote on Facebook for which B-side they wanted to hear every night. They expanded their set list to 17 songs. The result? Over a month of shows that are sold out almost every night. The result? Hundreds of kids in every city freaking out for about four hours each night – oftentimes, Campbell says, they’re almost deliriously tired when it comes time to sing the closing “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands.” Still, when asked about how the tour has been going, the band doesn’t revel too much.
How has the tour been going?
“Well,” Campbell says.
“Strong,” Cavaliere says. “But we gotta say something more than, ‘Well.’”
“But ‘well’ is such a good summation of the tour,” Campbell counters. “It’s definitely going well.”
“Does ‘well’ sell it short, though? How about ‘extremely well’?”
The banter continues but finally, Campbell expands. “The bands that I always perceived as ‘big bands,’ the bands I would buy tickets for in advance and not just assume that I could show up at the door, we’re playing the venues they would route through. Which is crazy to me. Like, where I saw Brand New play, or The Movielife.”
He says his band may have even sold itself short in some cases. They added second shows in Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia because those sold out so quickly. In Chicago and New York, they actually played two shows in one day – one full-album performance of Suburbia as a matinee feature, and one “normal” set. But nothing was normal about those days. Those were long days. In Boston, they had to bump up the room size and ended up playing to 1,000 kids – double what they thought they could play in that market. This is all new territory.
You want to talk about progress? Suburbia outperformed records in 2011 that were put out by bands that The Wonder Years opened for within a calendar year of the album’s release. Set Your Goals’ Burning At Both Ends? Four Year Strong’s In Some Way, Shape or Form? Suburbia had higher first-week sales than both of those albums. Its 8,100 units sold in its debut week speak to how much more attention surrounded the band in June 2011 as compared to January 2010.
Certainly, those facts should be taken with a large grain of salt. Album sales are anything but indicative of a band’s true reach in the climate of today’s industry. But it’s just another rung in the ladder of slow and steady growth The Wonder Years have been exhibiting for years now.
In fact, that growth has led to a point in time where there is another movement among the band’s older fans. They’ve reached the point that many bands reach where getting called sell-outs and being criticized for their popularity is commonplace. Signing to Hopeless Records? Sell-outs. A t-shirt in Hot Topic? Who are you, Nickelback? Having a driver on a tour? Lazy bums. The Wonder Years are no longer just your band – that band you told your best friends about but never wanted to tell everyone about. You didn’t need to tell everyone…they already found out for themselves.
Campbell puts it into perspective more eloquently than most. “A lot of times when a band gets to a level of popularity and you start to see that fucking kid you hated in high school wearing their T-shirt, kids are like, ‘But no, that’s my ba – oh fuck it, fuck this band,’” Campbell says. “And I can’t blame them, I did it too.”
Just another piece of the progress.
“There are so many bands that are around, and so much music coming out, that you wanna give back to the people that listen to you,” Martin says, the show time in Orlando now creeping closer. Transit is playing inside the venue. In the band’s Rock-It Ship, drummer Mike Kennedy, guitarist/keyboardist Nick Steinborn and John James Ryan are getting matching Deathly Hallows tattoos on their legs. Guitarist Matthew Brasch just finished getting a gnarly-looking rendition of the Alkaline Trio heart on his arm. Punk rock is truly alive in Orlando this evening.
Martin is talking about his band’s tendency to constantly stay active in the release of new music, even when they’re spending two-thirds of the year out on tour. More so than their peers, there is hardly a time where you can manage to go a long while without seeing the band’s name in the new release section. After the June release of Suburbia, a Japanese-only B-side was unearthed over the fall and the GK tour split was put up for stream in early March. On April 24, another “new” song will be released on a split 6” with Stay Ahead of the Weather – “new” is relative because “Me vs. The Highway” was recorded a year ago, there just was never a perfect time to release the split until now. It’s a classic Wonder Years ditty, with Campbell’s realist lyrics owning the bridge.
“We definitely didn’t have to do this [GK tour split] for this headliner, but we thought it might be something that people enjoy,” Martin says. “It’s also fun, we had a lot of fun covering each other. It’s fun to stay busy instead of writing one record every two years and doing one headliner, we’ll tour as much as we can and support bands we like.”
The band will have a rare summer off this year after playing Bamboozle and a doing short run with The Early November that extends into early June. But they won’t be relaxing too much – they’ll be writing their fourth LP, which should come out on Hopeless Records in late spring or early summer next year. Recording that album will take place around an as-of-yet-announced, month-long fall tour in November or so. Campbell has already started collecting lyrics that he’s been jotting down for a while.
While we may not know what LP4 will sound like, or how the community will react to it, one thing we can bank on is that The Wonder Years will constantly try to keep moving forward. Even when you ask the band or their friends individually about where they see The Wonder Years in a couple of years, it seems like there’s a common vision in place.
“They have a good head on their shoulders of where they are and where they want to be,” says Mitchell Wojcik, a long-time friend of the band who is photographing and documenting the GK Tour. “They see things growing and they’re like, ‘Well if we can build from this, let’s build from this.’ They’ve been growing slowly for a long time, and unless they put out something completely different from what they’re all about, I see them continuing to grow just at an exponential rate. It’ll get bigger and bigger.”
“Hopefully we’ll just keep going on more tours,” Martin says. “We have this summer off but hopefully we’ll be real busy next summer promoting a record that just came out. I don’t see it slowing down. I see us on tour, grinding away, finding more bands to tour with and to support.”
There’s no end in sight to The Wonder Years’ increasing reach. There’s no end in sight to the progress.
In the immediate future, you can check out a new song called “Me vs. The Highway” right now, which will be released officially on April 24. You can check out The Wonder Years live at Bamboozle and on their run with The Early November. Campbell also teased us with details about a new music video that has already been recorded and what he calls a “secret, major project that’s going to be really cool. It’s not so much rooted in music, but it’s going to be really cool and we’ve been preparing it for over a year now.”
“What? American Nightmare? What does Silverstein know about American Nightmare?”
Shane Told is speaking freely. The Silverstein frontman and lead vocalist, donning a deep, white V-neck and a pair of black skinny jeans, sits on a bench just outside the Orlando House of Blues. On the ground near his faded black Vans is an iced coffee, and Told seems tired.
A group of children accompanied by two weary parents walk past the bench, sporting Mickey Mouse ears and grasping the ends of strings that tame the hand-made balloon animals on their opposite ends. Casting a shadow behind us is a five-story virtual amusement park called LaserQuest; in the not-so-far distance is another enormous building, which houses the circus spectacle Cirque Du Soleil.
Playing a show at Downtown Disney just provides a different setting than your average nightclub.
Told has a good reason to look tired. Less than an hour ago, he was tearing through a blistering set of just over a dozen songs with his band. In a direct supporting slot, playing right before August Burns Red, Silverstein’s set was essentially a greatest hits of sorts. From songs on the band’s first LP, When Broken Is Easily Fixed – they still close with “My Heart Bleeds No More” – to tasty previews of new tracks that will appear on the early February release of Short Songs, Told and Co. played a little something for every Silverstein fan.
They even played songs that would entertain non-fans, like the American Nightmare cover of “Hearts” that has become a staple of Silverstein’s set within the last year. In fact, Silverstein’s rendition of “Hearts” was released on a 7-inch called Support Your Local Record Store. The Record Store Day-exclusive vinyl featured two other covers: Kid Dynamite’s “Pits and Poisoned Apples” and Propagandhi’s “Fuck the Border.”
Perhaps those melodic punk staples aren’t what you’d expect a band touring with August Burns Red, Texas In July and letlive. to cover for a surprise 7-inch. You wouldn’t be the only one surprised by Silverstein’s early influences.
“It's weird when people say we aren't a hardcore band or we aren't a punk band,” Told says. “It's like, obviously we know we aren't [a band like that], but our influences are those bands. We just put a different spin on it instead of trying to rip someone off.”
Silverstein’s story leading up to the release of Short Songs is one of a band in transition. For most of the group’s career, it released music via scene staple Victory Records, and that partnership led to a great deal of success. From the fan-favorite, critically lauded Discovering The Waterfront in 2005 to the more straightforward Arrivals and Departures in 2007 and the concept record A Shipwreck In the Sand in 2009, Silverstein became a post-hardcore tour de force on Victory’s roster.
But after four albums, Silverstein’s contractual obligation to the label reached its end and despite all the success the pairing had delivered, the band chose to part ways.
“There comes a time when a term has reached its end and you look forward to something new. It was time for a change and to explore what else was out there,” Silverstein drummer Paul Koehler says. “It's like completing a term in school and now it's your turn to get a job…There are people at Hopeless that we've known almost as long as we've been a touring band.”
With a new label that goes about business in a different fashion, Silverstein was set for a revitalization of sorts. While A Shipwreck In the Sand wasn’t a negative stain on the band’s catalog, their momentum wasn’t as high as it used to be; things were beginning to feel stale, at least from an outsider’s perspective. Switching to Hopeless, with the label’s innovative mindset, got the band out of whatever mini-rut it was in. Subsequently, the appropriately titled Transitions EP had some of the best songs Silverstein had written in years.
“[After Victory], we decided that there were other labels that were a better fit for us with our ethics and with the things we wanted to do musically,” Told says. “With Hopeless we were able to do the Transitions EP, the Record Store Day 7-inch, and now Short Songs, and I think with Victory that wouldn't happen. We wanted to do this stuff before, put out lots of releases, but with Victory, it comes down to dollars and cents a lot of the time, and with Hopeless they saw the passion we had for these projects and was really supportive of them.”
Told described the process of getting Short Songs approved as “shockingly easy.” The band simply brought the idea to the label, was given resources to record the songs, and was sent on its way. “We were like, ‘Really?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, it’s a cool idea,’” Told says.
Told expands on his thoughts, saying he wants Silverstein to be a more evolutionary band. It’s no secret the music industry has changed since the band started, and where Silverstein and Hopeless meet eye-to-eye is in the belief that the traditional model of a band releasing a record, then touring on that record for two years, is dead.
Ian Harrison is the head of marketing at Hopeless Records. Hopeless sat down with Silverstein before the release of Rescue and “challenged the band to come up with something amazing,” Harrison says. “We’re always encouraging bands to move beyond the model of traditional recording and touring. We want to see more creative and interesting stuff that fans can connect with. We were really impressed when they came up with Short Songs and we thought it was the perfect move for them. We feel there is a lot more to Silverstein than people know about because of how the band has been presented in the past.”
Harrison continues to point out recent releases like the acoustic versions of When You’re Through Thinking Say Yes and Reach for the Sun that Yellowcard and The Dangerous Summer, respectively, put out through the label. It’s these kind of smaller releases that Hopeless strives for because of the connection they bring between fan and artist, and because it keeps the band’s momentum rolling.
“We think that’s the future of how bands, especially in this scene, are going to thrive moving forward,” Harrison says. “You’ve got to put out more projects like [Short Songs] if you’re going to stay relevant.”
The leeway to be more creative and Silverstein’s chance to “have more fun with [its] career,” according to Koehler, is just one aspect of the band’s changing face. The group put out a full-length in 2011, Rescue, that felt like its most cohesive record since Discovering the Waterfront – a welcome release in the minds of older fans.
Rescue felt more lightweight, like it was written with no outside pressure, and the band echoes that sentiment. After four well-received records, the group’s fifth studio LP came with the ebbs and flows you would expect out of a veteran band. The hard, fast songs were there – so were the signature Silverstein breakdowns and the more ballad-y aspects. Most importantly, it was the record Silverstein wanted to write most, perhaps more so than any album in its career.
“It's important to remember that Rescue was written over the course of a year in between everything that was going on,” Koehler says. “It was a time without a label – we wrote and recorded on our own, before we even secured the home. Hopeless was already in discussion with us and heard some of the demos, but the album was pretty much finished by the time we signed with them. I think this made Rescue ‘our’ album, and that’s something we're very proud of.”
Musically, Rescue isn’t a far departure from anything Silverstein has done in the past, but the punk influences that always linger around the band are certainly felt. The back-to-back pair of “Texas Mickey” and “The Artist” conveys this well – the former is a more pop-punk song, featuring Bayside frontman Anthony Raneri on guest vocals, while the latter is a straightforward, blunt hardcore punk song. “The Artist” was appropriately featured on the Support Your Local Record Store 7-inch, fitting in with the covers the band chose better than any song in its catalog.
Despite the band’s original influences – “American Nightmare, Kid Dynamite, Propagandhi and Lifetime are our favorite bands collectively,” Told says – Silverstein chooses to go in a different direction when it writes its own music. At least until now, that is.
“I don’t think we purposely try to stray away from our influences,” Koehler says. “I think we’ve just found our sound, our Silverstein sound, and that’s what it is. No matter what type of song we’re writing, it’s still the five of us – it’s always been the five of us – so it has our sound there. Even with [Short Songs], we’re not trying to be Kid Dynamite. We’re not trying to be American Nightmare.
“Since we started 12 years ago, there was no The Used or Underoath – those bands weren’t around back then,” Koehler continues. “So we were trying to make a band that sounded like Mineral and Knapsack and The Get Up Kids – that’s what we purposely wanted to sound like, with hardcore mixed in. And then we started screaming, and it just so happened that there was a floodgate of bands that were doing that, and I guess that’s how we became popular. We just started doing something that ended up catching on at the right time.”
For Silverstein, what it boils down to at the present time is letting its influences shine through more than ever before. While always evident in the musicianship on the band’s records, from the prominent heaviness in the guitars to the pounding kick drum, Short Songs shows the kind of band that Silverstein could have become – and probably almost did become.
Told talks about how each of the members in Silverstein were in previous bands that sounded like a lot of the groups they cover on Short Songs. “I played in a punk band that sounded like Propagandhi and Lifetime,” he says. “Our old guitar player was in a band that sounded like Hope Conspiracy and old Cave In. When we made Silverstein, we tried to use those influences in our own way.”
Told says that Short Songs is just an example of the band letting their original influences become more obvious in their songwriting. On the release, the A-side is 11 original Silverstein songs – and although that half of the record only amounts to 11-and-a-half minutes, listeners actually get an abridged version of a normal Silverstein release.
All of the characteristics of the band’s career-spanning sound are still there – the ballad-y parts, the slower parts, the breakdowns and, of course, Told’s signature screaming-to-singing switch-offs. It’s essentially a typical Silverstein record that is drastically cut down in time, with none of the songs topping 90 seconds, and instead of some of the grandiose post-hardcore elements in Rescue or previous albums, everything is considerably more stripped down.
Pointing again to the influence of Hopeless Records, Told and Koehler describe a “less stressful” recording environment during the creation of Short Songs. With the whole album written and recorded in just a couple of weeks, Told says the production value and depth of musicianship is what changed most. Instead of multiple layers of vocals, and instead of using a segment of strings, and instead of all the other tricks in the post-hardcore production bag, the band recorded everything very simply. It’s the difference between going into the studio and knocking out two songs in their entirety versus going to the studio, working for a few days, but then knowing that one song isn’t even completely done yet, Told says.
As a result of the short song lengths and the stripped-down sound, however, the band had to be careful to write parts that were especially memorable. “You might only play the chorus once, so the chorus has to sound like a chorus right away,” Told says. “It can't just become catchy because you repeat it four times. We have a 7-second song about Josh stealing Billy's food out of the bus fridge. Even that has a verse, chorus and ending,” he laughs.
At the end of the day, Silverstein doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything drastically different than it has been all along. For over a decade now, this band has been playing its own sound, but because of the wave of post-hardcore/screaming bands in the mid-2000s, got lumped into a category that it doesn’t necessarily fit into. Short Songs should do more than enough to separate Silverstein from the pack.
While the 11 originals on the album make for a good listen, the 11 covers on the B-side will be much more fun for fans that grew up with these old punk bands themselves. From the pure aggression of Gorilla Biscuits’ “Good Intentions,” to the familiar half-minute of the Descendents’ “Coffee Mug,” to the short-but-sweet acoustic sounds of Green Day’s “Ballad of Wilhelm Fink,” the covers present something for everyone. The band even recorded two versions of NOFX’s “It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite” – the album version has the original lyrics, while the version that premiered on Punknews a few weeks ago has lines playful lines like, “We survived Victory.”
“It’s funny how, over time, people have assumed because of all the other bands like us that have come out, that we don’t even know who these bands are,” Told says. “It’s weird that people are like, ‘What, American Nightmare? What does Silverstein know about American Nightmare?’ And I mean, I have an original American Nightmare shirt. I saw them play at Hellfest. It’s just weird that because we sound a certain way, people don’t think that we have those influences.”
What remains to be seen is how much of a lasting effect Short Songs will have on Silverstein’s songwriting moving forward. Koehler and Told say that although the band won’t change the way it goes about writing music, there is no doubt that the experience will leave some sort of impression. Told says even something as simple as how the guitars were recorded could run over to the next Silverstein LP.
With the ever-changing landscape of the music industry, a shift toward its earlier influences could be exactly what Silverstein needs to stay fit and relevant. Or, maybe it’s not – only time will tell. What’s certain is that in an industry fueled by social media and the ever-shortening attention span of its audience, a band keeping its momentum going is essential.
And Silverstein’s momentum might just be starting again.
The most identifiable thing about Ryan Rockwell is not his voice. It isn’t his guitar playing or the melodies he writes. The most identifiable thing about Ryan Rockwell actually doesn’t have to do with his band at all. It’s not even the Jughead Jones tattoo on his left arm.
“That guy is always wearing flip-flops.”
“I love that he never takes off his sandals.”
These were quotes overheard around Gainesville, Fla., on October 30, a day perhaps better described as “the Sunday of Fest.” As one walks down Main Street, outside the CMC where Rockwell’s band, Mixtapes, is about to play an acoustic set during The Fest 10, there is a large group of friends talking about his attire.
Later that night – in paltry 50-degree weather, which is more or less tundra status for an October eve in Gainesville – Rockwell is again seen at an after-Fest party, still sporting his signature footwear. This time, there is a group of members from other bands talking about his sandals. Most everyone at the party was wrapped up in at least a hoodie. Rockwell’s explanation? “I don’t really get cold,” he says, months after Fest is over, on the phone from his Cincinnati abode, as I swear to him that the questions I’m asking are relevant. “In the winter, I wear a hoodie just for comfort, flip-flops and shorts. I only own one pair of pants.”
The flip-flops don’t tell much of a story themselves, but they do provide a decent reference point for Rockwell’s character. When the going gets tough, it’ll be okay. Whatever’s wrong probably isn’t really as bad as it seems. Sandals and a tank top at the end of October seem lighthearted enough to get that message across.
Who knows for sure what Rockwell will be wearing when he, guitarist/vocalist Maura Weaver, drummer Boone Haley and bassist Michael Remley head into Moonlight Studios near their hometown of Cincinnati to record their first full-length album with Eric Tussendsam. You can rest assured that he’ll be wearing whatever the hell he wants to wear, though. Mixtapes has always done exactly what it wanted.
Older fans of the band may find a problem with that last paragraph; Maps, a 10-song record that weighs in at a whopping 18 minutes, was released in 2010. That, technically, is Mixtapes’ first full-length record. But not if you ask the band.
“Maps was written so hastily – it was never meant to be an album and was only worked out with a ‘full band’ the night before we recorded the whole thing,” Weaver says. “Ryan probably wrote three more songs to add and make it an album the night before [we recorded] because he always does that because he's crazy. Since then, we've been wanting to make a real full length but I guess since we started touring, winter 2011 has just seemed like the best possible time to make it.”
Rockwell agrees, saying recent writing sessions were Mixtapes’ first chance to actually make a cohesive record, rather than just a collection of a few standalone songs. Maps wasn’t even written with the current incarnation of Mixtapes – Weaver and Rockwell wrote the songs on acoustic guitars before Tymm Rengers, drummer for Detroit pop-punk group Fireworks, decided he wanted to play drums on them.
“I’ve known Fireworks for a while,” Rockwell says, “and I don’t remember why, but they stayed at my house for like three days once. We were hanging out, Maura and I were working on acoustic stuff after a huge game of dodgeball, and Tymm was just like, ‘I’m gonna play drums on these.’ We were like, ‘Oh, okay.’”
Although it surprised Rockwell, Rengers actually did end up calling Mixtapes a short while after to schedule recording time, and it’s a good thing he did – those songs may never have been recorded otherwise.
“I got home from the tour I was on, drove down and they taught me the songs the first day and then I tracked everything the next day,” Rengers recalls. “I didn't really think much of it, to be honest. I thought it was more just a ‘fun thing we did that one time.’ A while later I get an email with the master of the record. I was honestly impressed. I remember showing everyone in Fireworks that evening on a drive and we all agreed that the songs came out great.”
Although Rengers treats the happening fairly lightly – “I will forever hate them for kicking me out of the band,” he jokes – it’s possible that without his assistance, Rockwell and Weaver might still be writing acoustic ditties after working their day jobs in Cincinnati. Given the duo’s history before Mixtapes, it isn't a stretch of the imagination to think so.
An Accidental Beginning
Maura Weaver had never been in a “real” band before Mixtapes – her only musical experience was “playing bullshit Blink-182 covers with some friends” – and Rockwell, jaded with the community he was a part of, had hung up his guitar and was performing in a rap group.
“I was just in so many bands where I liked the music, but was never comfortable with the people or the bands or the indie/underground/punk scene in general,” Rockwell says, explaining his departure from the community. “It wasn’t just everyone else’s fault; it was my fault just as much. I just got tired of it and it left a real bad taste in my mouth, so I met a few guys when I was working at a shoe store and we started recording rap songs, just because it was fun and we didn’t really have to deal with anyone else.”
The rap group, called Small Time Crooks, may have started as a joke in a Journeys shoe store, but it was probably Rockwell’s most significant experience as a performer before Mixtapes. The seven-piece ensemble got the chance to perform with Gym Class Heroes and Kid Cudi, and Rockwell says they recorded over 100 songs over the course of a year.
But Rockwell’s outlook on music, and life in general, changed dramatically in January 2009, when his father passed away the night before his birthday. Rockwell says dealing with his father’s death and watching his mother grieve got him back into writing the kind of music he used to write.
“My dad and I were very close,” Rockwell says. “He passed away the night before my birthday, and it just had such a huge impact on my life. It was hard to see my mom deal with it so I just started writing these songs and they were coming out like crazy, even if they didn't have to always do with that one situation, they were just impactful.”
Rockwell says he reverted to his old songwriting habits, taking influences from his favorite bands like Counting Crows and The Weakerthans. But Mixtapes didn’t take full form until he started writing with Weaver, whom he knew from working together at The Mad Hatter, a popular Cincinnati venue.
Weaver says partnering with Rockwell provided her with a concrete opportunity to create large quantities of music in a more serious and organized fashion than she had done before.
“I spent a ton of time in my room piecing together songs but not much time actually putting anything legitimate together. For a while I was really down about the fact that I was having trouble finding people to be in a ‘serious’ project with, and any motivation I had just seemed to be mine,” Weaver says. “I was lost in the overwhelmingness of feeling alone against the odds and no opportunity to play music seemed like anything really worthwhile.”
Since Rockwell didn’t care about Weaver’s lack of experience in bands, the two were able to bounce tons of ideas off each other and writing came fluidly. His experience and her new ideas created what Rockwell calls a “gimmick-less” songwriting style. Out of those first writing sessions, Maps was born.
When Rockwell talks about those writing sessions, he describes them as “a mess, but in a good way.” The result, for that record and for the numerous Mixtapes releases that have come after it, has been a sound that can’t be pigeonholed by just one genre. Rockwell and Weaver certainly have the voices to pen pop hits, but the band’s repertoire ranges from short, simple acoustic tracks to full-band, gritty pop-punk. For every sing-along hook, there is a punk edge in the production. For every silly song about an ex-girlfriend, there is a darker song about something much more serious.
“We didn’t talk about whether we wanted to be diverse or not. Maps came out good because we had an opportunity to do what we wanted without being scrutinized,” Rockwell says. “There was a lot of accidentalness about it.”
Part of the reason Mixtapes has yet to be thrust into one genre is because of how the communities have changed over the years. To some, bands like Fireworks and The Wonder Years are prominent pop-punk groups. Mixtapes tours with bands like that regularly, so kids in that community have become familiar with the band. On the other hand, fans of older pop-punk bands like Screeching Weasel and the Copyrights, which Rockwell cites as influences (he has a Screeching Weasel tattoo, to boot), have learned to appreciate Mixtapes as well.
“It seems these days everyone is so eager to throw a title on the music they listen to and invest so much of themselves into that said genre,” Rengers says. “Mixtapes seems to really understand that there is a world bigger than the music scene you participate in. It's refreshing to find a band that really doesn't care about what 'entitled' kids on the Internet have to say about them and just do their own thing.”
Sticking out of one genre is due in part to the band’s sound, of course, but also to their extreme do-it-yourself approach to their writing, touring and management. The reason Mixtapes has worked its entire career doing exactly what it has wanted to do is because, for the most part, they’ve done it all themselves.
“Since [Mixtapes’ beginnings], it seems like they have really buckled down and started to take the band seriously,” Rengers says. “Ryan especially has everything orchestrated in his head. I like his ethics and his mentality about approaching this band. No management. No crew. Self-sufficient. It really is the way more bands should be doing it. We have since toured together and it’s great watching their chemistry come to life. They play 15-minute sets with no setlists and they do it all with no shoes on. It's brilliant.”
“I wouldn't have done this any other way than the way we've done it,” Weaver says. “Being without a label has allowed us to do basically whatever we want. I think it's a popular myth that being signed equates success.”
One thing is certain, though: Although Mixtapes’ start-up might have been full of accidents, their rising popularity is anything but. Like Rengers says, the band knows what it’s doing – and its attitude has helped it grow quickly.
10 Releases. No LPs.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Mixtapes’ early career is its astounding collection of songs and releases, all before a proper debut LP. With over 40 songs in its catalog and a total of 10 different releases (if you count a new song contribution to Adeline Records’ The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore compilation), Mixtapes has written enough music for at least three full-length records.
With its material spread out across a variety of splits and EPs, Mixtapes has just never felt it was the right time to record an LP until now. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a true record label to back the band, and a desire to avoid some of the negative aspects that come with certain parts of the music industry.
“Gimmicky bands in general, I just have a distaste for,” Rockwell says, sounding like he’s told this bit to more than one or two people. “Everyone can do their own thing, you know, I’m not the scene police. I just don’t get it. I’ve never sat around with a marketing plan on a major label. Some bands do it around here, but it just seems foreign to me.”
Weaver agrees wholeheartedly with Rockwell, and the fact that the two are on the same page that has helped Mixtapes’ early career take off. She says if Mixtapes had been on a label from the beginning, nothing would have gone quite as well as it did.
“Yes, if you're signed, it's more likely that someone is going to pay for your record to be made and that an ad for your band will end up in some big magazine. When it comes to the politics of the music business, I guess it's also more likely that you're going to end up on a big tour,” Weaver says. “Note the ‘more likely.’ I think if you're making good music and there's easy access to it, people are going to hear it and share it no matter what.”
Weaver’s points have been backed up by Mixtapes’ growing influence. The band has used a unique distribution system; a lot of its music has been given away courtesy of Death To False Hope Records and physical products have been made with Animal Style Records.
Rockwell points to the success of Mixtapes’ physical products as proof that maybe the industry isn’t in as much peril as most people make it seem, especially for independent bands. “We had Maps available for free download on our website for the longest time, and we still sold all of our CDs on tour,” he says. “Kids would tell us they downloaded it but still wanted to buy it to support. It’s good to see that. The CD was also a top-seller on Interpunk for weeks and weeks. Kids could have gotten it for free a click away but still wanted to buy it.”
Mixtapes has built a fair demand for its vinyl releases on Animal Style, but has worked with the label primarily because of its tendency to give the band free reign with its decision-making. They prefer to stick to themselves, doing everything from booking tour dates to scheduling recording times. No managers, no tour managers. Just Mixtapes.
“It's certainly not hard to do things yourself. If anything, it makes things more interesting and gives us a better connection to people who like our band,” Weaver says.
One of the few people who has actually helped Mixtapes throughout the past year or so is Dan “Soupy” Campbell. Best known as vocalist for Philadelphia pop-punk act The Wonder Years, Campbell has taken on a role as an unofficial booking agent for the band. By his own admission, “I'm more of a friend acting as an agent until they blow up and someone with way more influence than me wants to bring them on board.”
But until that happens, Campbell is happy to help the band book shows, and he thinks Mixtapes’ independent attitude has contributed immensely to their modest success.
“Mixtapes literally give zero fucks,” Campbell says, as the adored lyricist sums it up more eloquently than most. “They do whatever they want, whenever they want. They say what they want. They write what they want. They are exclusively themselves and it works well for them.
“I've said a bunch of times that the world is getting tired of being served pre-packaged entertainment. We have the option now to listen to or watch anything we want … Mixtapes have a ton of personality. They're some of the most fun people I've ever met and people attach to that personality. They like that Mixtapes do things their own way.”
As much as Mixtapes has forged its own path with help from close friends at Death To False Hope, Animal Style and The Wonder Years, there arguably comes a time when an unsigned band hits a point where it stalls. Established record labels can provide immense help for growing bands – from distribution to booking bigger tours to advertisement and marketing, a record label could give Mixtapes everything they’ve been doing themselves this whole time, in a more efficient way.
Weaver and Rockwell are the first to admit they’re willing to do what it takes to get their band heard by as many people as possible. Talking with the duo, they have big dreams; much bigger than those an average unsigned band can attain.
“I’m obviously not against being signed, or more people hearing our music,” Weaver says. “I want as many people to hear it as possible. I just think if you're going to jump to a label, you better make sure the offer you're getting is worth it. It was worth waiting for an offer that felt right to us.”
The offer Weaver is referring to is Mixtapes’ decision to partner with California-based independent label No Sleep Records for the release of its full-length later this year. The band’s decision to pair up with No Sleep, Rockwell says, ultimately just came down to a matter of who they trusted and who would let the band continue its familiar ways of going about most of their business on their own.
“We talked to a decent amount of labels, and the main thing was knowing so many people that have worked with Chris [Hanson, owner/president of No Sleep] and knowing he does good work,” Rockwell says. “Some other labels, we know we’d have ideas and there would be red flags. Chris knows we kind of operate on our own. If we signed to a label with a lot of hoops, we would just end up parting ways.”
Although it may seem just a minor detail in the long run, Rockwell points to a specific example for evidence as to why a larger label wouldn’t have worked out for his group. When the band was getting ready to release Maps and Companions on vinyl late in 2011, Rockwell put one of the new songs on an Internet message board for fans to hear and get feedback.
After a short while, the song was floating around the web and Matt Medina, owner of Animal Style, called Rockwell about it. “He just basically called me and said, ‘Did you do this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Okay.’” Rockwell is correct when he says most labels wouldn’t have been okay with that.
Justin Oscapinski, a longtime friend of Mixtapes who resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, says No Sleep wasn’t just the best fit for Mixtapes – it was the only fit.
“For the entirety of my relationship with Mixtapes, every decision they’ve made has been for the health of their band. There aren’t many bands that have gone on for the period of time that Mixtapes has in accord with their own vision, with no outside influences,” the 24-year-old Oscapinski says. “The honesty in their music and vision is something that [will grow best] with No Sleep.”
A New Venture
With all the changes going on in the Mixtapes camp and a bright hope for continued success in 2012, the one constant that has stayed the same is the band itself. Always willing to say what’s on their mind, even when it may offend others; always being true to themselves and what they want to do; and always doing it how they want to do it, Mixtapes isn’t changing a damn thing despite any increased pressure or expectations that accompany a label signing and a looming LP.
Rockwell and Weaver agreed that writing for the full-length didn’t bring much more pressure than normal. However, the LP will certainly be the first time many listeners discover Mixtapes. With the album coming out on No Sleep, a larger demographic stands to be reached, and although some have listened to this band intently for over a year, many will be listening for the first time later this spring. Much like Into It. Over It.’s Proper, the first “real” full-length is a springboard to greater acclaim.
However, Mixtapes is writing off whatever effect that anticipation comes with. Rockwell repeats many times that he just wants to organize the best possible sequence of songs and make sure that those who hear his band for the first time are hearing his band’s best songs ever.
“I think the first time bands start thinking about signing to this label, or that tour, or what these songs will be like in those places, they mess up because it isn't natural,” Rockwell says. “All we really do is write down our thoughts and put them to music and anytime that isn't real or natural I think people can see that.”
Although it seems idealistic in an industry with so many manufactured parts, Rockwell and Weaver write purely as an outlet, instead of something planned or pre-organized. In fact, nothing is ever really planned. Whatever patterns are seen in the band’s writing is just characteristic of the writers themselves; they never stop writing, and it all comes out in tidal waves.
“I just know that one thing I like about us is that we never ‘tried’ to be something from the beginning, so it always seems easy to write. We don't have some standard we have to fit because we made our own,” Weaver says. “I just know that whenever I've sat up at night thinking about what this person or that person thinks or says about me or my music, that's the second it starts showing when I write and it doesn't make for easy, or good, writing. Or even easy living.”
Despite their dislike for gimmicky bands or anything manufactured, Mixtapes has developed something of a reputation for themselves in some ways. For one, the band’s music is almost always bright, cheery and catchy. Whether it comes out in the form of an acoustic number with an underlying guitar part or a full-band jam with a hook-laden chorus, a pop accessibility is stressed in every Mixtapes release.
For every grungy crust-punk who listens to the band because of their DIY attitude and punk edges, there is somebody’s girlfriend, who knows nothing about punk rock but who just happens to like the wittiness of the lyrics in “Hey Baby.” But that’s not a gimmick – that’s just how Mixtapes turned out.
Also known for “getting weird” at live shows, according to Rockwell’s own phrasing, Mixtapes has also strangely cornered itself into another classification. As can be seen by the band’s personal stories and how Rockwell and Weaver use their writing as an emotional outlet, many of the band’s songs have somber lyrics that directly contrast their bright musicianship.
“Most of the songs come from sad places but also involve a lot of looking at things from a different perspective and making yourself feel better,” Rockwell says, reflecting his outlooks on life. “The content is some of the same ideas as [previous releases], but every time Maura or I brought an idea to the table, we just wanted to make it the best we could. Then when we all got together we'd just make sure everything was perfect and we were happy with it. It's cool being in a band with three other people that make music that you'd like to listen to, then you are like ‘Oh hey, this is my band.’”
The group is planning on recording 19 tracks for the full-length, with a rough concept of including about 13 on the release. The rest will be kept as B-sides or perhaps turned into a future EP release.
“At the beginning stages of writing [the new record], Ryan told me he knew exactly where he wanted it to go with it,” Oscapinski says. “He never said anything about experimenting with different sounds or changing the writing process. Mixtapes’ vision of the full-length is a reflection of the band and how far they have come. The only difference was the desire to release a cohesive piece of art.”
While for many bands, a first LP is, in a way, a lifetime in the making, the same does not hold true for Mixtapes. With so many songs and different projects before this band, this is a case where the songs had to come together in a normal timeframe. As a result, the lyrical content presents something of a slice of the band’s personal lives – and a lot of it comes from darker places. Many of Rockwell’s lyrics are about his recent personal trials and how they’ve shed a light on the rest of life’s everyday problems.
“I've dealt with death the past few years more than anyone I know, and it sucks, but it also puts things in perspective. For me, instead of just being bitter, all these people that have passed away have helped me rationalize actual life and made me realize how most normal things aren't a big deal,” Rockwell says.
“We worry about so many things and complain when really most of it is fine and will get better, so it's a bittersweet mood to a lot of the songs. Traumatic things in your life, at least for me, helped me realize, like, ‘Hey, there are these five things I really care about, and they might not be the same as what you care about, but that's okay, that keeps the world going around for better or for worse.’ ... Personally, I’ve never been the type to write about girls all the time or anything. It came to a point a few years ago where I had these favorite records that all seemed to be concept records about girls breaking up with you. But when people close to you pass away, you realize that a lot of that stuff isn’t really that big of a deal.”
Weaver empathizes strongly with Rockwell's sentiments, but she also writes in themes more common to the punk community.
“I guess the content for each song just depends on how we were feeling at the time – some are apathetic, super passionate, or an attempt to make sense of the two,” she says. “As for the whole album, a lot of [my] lyrics deal with feeling disenfranchised in our town but express pride in what we've made here and how we've grown as people. It's just about growing up.”
If those themes sound familiar, it’s because they probably are. To Weaver’s own admission, the concepts of growing up in a boring town and trying to get out of it, and by extension feeling disenfranchised in a place one used to call home, are fairly common among Midwestern punk bands. “Living in, not necessarily a smaller town, but there’s kind of a stigma where people who live [in the Midwest] don’t necessarily fit in with the larger culture,” Weaver says, choosing her words carefully. “Lots of things make me feel super out of place. People who like The Wonder Years like us – they write about stuff like that a lot. Punk bands like Dear Landlord and Banner Pilot, they all write about all that too.”
As dark as the band’s lyrical content can be at times, their positive vibes spread wildly throughout their music and energy at live shows. And, as always, there will be a few songs that err to the side of being sillier or more cheerful than the rest of the pack. For example, Rockwell mentions songs about “getting arrested in a parking lot” or “sitting under a bridge with someone and trying to rationalize life.” It’s that balance, and the band’s genuine, chin-up outlook, that will keep them afloat through 2012 and beyond, even when the going gets tough.
Whatever they’re singing about, the one common ground the two songwriters came back to is how much they already love their own record. Weaver and Rockwell consistently went back to talking about how the other was writing songs much better than everything they had written before – and at the end of the day, they just want people to give it a chance.
“I just want people to hear it and come to a show and be our friends. We like to hang out and meet people who can relate to any of the same things as us. I think we have managed to get where we are because we just write these songs, play shows, and meet people and become friends,” Rockwell says. “There is no cool factor to our band – we are who we are and that's it. We don't have an image or a style. We just want to be your friend, and sing you songs.”
Although that sentiment might be so vague it seems cliché, Weaver and Rockwell really don’t want anything else. They don’t really seem to need anything else, either. When Weaver goes on a rant about not fitting into a specific scene, and therefore not having concrete goals for the record (“Maybe if we use more auto tune? Or should we use less? What does the scene want?”), she debates the merits of selling 10,000 copies of the new album and saving up to “buy fingernail clippers” and getting sponsored by Walgreens.
“People can tell when they hear your music, whether it’s sincere or not. It’s only when I’m sitting in my room and listening to a record I like that the writing comes. You can’t be thinking about the people who like your band and the anticipation they have for what you’re writing – it doesn’t make for good writing,” Weaver says. “When you’re listening to the record, and you can tell that the band really fucking believes in what they’re saying, that’s you’re going to care about it more.”
As down-to-Earth as they might be in person and as silly as they might be on stage; as sarcastic as they might be on Twitter and as accidental as their conception might have been, Weaver and Rockwell do have a lot to say. And they just want everyone to hear it.