They Get the Girls, But We’re Smarter: Modern Baseball, the Wonder Years, and Rock’s Sacred Uncool
For a while now, I’ve instinctively recoiled against the well-heeled clubbiness inherent in popular music. The sense that “very rich people making classy and well-manicured songs with expensive videos” currently dominate pop music is overwhelming sometimes, and frankly it grosses me out a little. I like Vampire Weekend and Beyoncé and Haim, too. Honestly, they’re great! But they might as well be our lizard-tongued alien overlords donning dubiously human disguises. Ultimately, what I connect with most strongly are human-human beings. I guess there’s still a 14-year-old reject inside of me who’s constantly in search of spiteful, sarcastic nerds spewing loud, melodic, and heavy riffing populism. The people who never get invited to join the club will always be my people.
Lately the record that’s been scratching this particular itch is You’re Gonna Miss It All, the second album by a sorta pop-punk, kinda emo, and occasionally folky rock band from Philadelphia called Modern Baseball. Ridiculously young (the members are between 20 and 23 years old) and barely out of the all-ages basement show circuit, Modern Baseball writes songs about universal subjects (most notably romantic angst and existential malaise) that feel like goofily trenchant generational snapshots.
What does this entail exactly? Obsessing over elusive members of the opposite sex on social media, for starters. (“I Think You Were in My Profile Picture Once,” a song from the band’s 2012 debut, Sports, is the new “Every time I phone you, I just wanna put you down.”) Or, if you somehow manage to get the girl, worrying that she’s making out with another guy when you call her. Like in “Rock Bottom,” where the protagonist’s attempt at seduction involves lying around in bed all day with a hangover and watching the Discovery Channel. “We can watch Planet Earth and brainstorm tattoos,” mewls one of the band’s two songwriters, Brendan Lukens, in a bookish, needling whine that’s virtually identical to Modern Baseball’s other songwriter, Jacob Ewald’s. (These guys are so green, they’re still each other’s primary influence.)
As you can probably tell, this band is called “Modern Baseball” like fat guys are called “Tiny” — either by design or because of their own personal natures, Lukens and Ewald affect an awkward posture on You’re Gonna Miss It All that I find endearing and that jockish types have historically taken as provocation. Of course, Lukens and Ewald aren’t far removed from that high-school milieu, and their songs are informed by the reductive (and yet comforting, because of the clarity) politics of the school cafeteria. As far as Modern Baseball is concerned, you’re either an anxious misfit or “Fuck you, here’s a quotable dismissal.” This ambivalence extends to the exclusive indie-rock world Modern Baseball has tentatively entered since the LP’s release in February.
“What do you call someone / Who calls you out on DIY ethics you don’t embody as he drains his dad and mommy’s monthly data plan?” asks Ewald in “Going to Bed Now,” setting up the punch line like it’s a knock-knock joke.
“An asshole with an iPhone.”
Last week I drove to Chicago to see Modern Baseball play a show at the House of Blues. I listened to Miss It All on the way down from Milwaukee and loved it more than ever — it was 52 degrees, the warmest day of the year so far. I rolled the windows down. Spring was in the air, and spring was made for snarky pop-punk records.
The headliner was the Wonder Years, another band from the Philly area that made one of my favorite albums of 2013, The Greatest Generation. Basically the Modern Baseball record plus five years, Generation chronicles that notoriously troubled period in your mid-twenties when college suddenly seems like a distant memory and adulthood hasn’t unfolded like you envisioned back when you had time to lie around in bed all day.
Generation is also a meta-concept record about a pop-punk band making its “mature” fourth record. On the fantastic “Passing Through a Screen Door,” lead singer Dan Campbell laments the collateral damage wreaked on his personal life from being on the road so much. (Campbell told me the band was on the road for 240 days last year.) “I’m 26 / All the people I graduated with / All have kids / All have wives / All have people who care if they come home at night / Well, Jesus Christ — did I fuck up?” he sings.
Unlike Modern Baseball, the Wonder Years haven’t crossed over from their pop-punk niche, and they likely won’t. Formed in 2005, the Wonder Years have more or less stuck to the pop-punk circuit, slowly building a reputation as one of the best practitioners of the form with albums like 2010’s The Upsides and 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. Lyrically, Campbell is ambitious, weaving narrative through-lines and deep pop-culture references into his songs in the style of his favorite lyricists, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Musically, however, the Wonder Years are strictly meat-and-potatoes, adhering to a template passed down by groups like Saves the Day and the Get Up Kids that defined the scene back in Campbell’s middle-school days.
Sonically, The Greatest Generation has all the signifiers of the glossy, unabashedly adolescent music frequently dismissed by outsiders as “Warped Tour punk.” (The Wonder Years played the annual summer tour showcase in 2011 and ’13.) It’s a style that’s never been considered cool and yet never seems to go away either.
Campbell (known to friends and fans as “Soupy”) was responsible for getting me on the guest list in Chicago. In lieu of going through a publicist, I reached out via DM on Twitter, where Campbell and I had corresponded off and on for several months, starting with a positive tweet that I posted about The Greatest Generation last summer. When I arrived backstage, Campbell hugged me, even though we had never met before. He hugs a lot of strangers, I imagine. On record or in person, he’s not one to underplay his emotions. Our preshow interaction had the urgency of a hard-charging verse in search of a cathartic chorus.
“Like, we’re just a pop-punk band and we get attached to the stigma of that, and it would bother me, I guess, except that I’m perfectly happy with my life. I love where I live, I love my girlfriend, and I love my fucking job,” Campbell says. “I couldn’t really ask for a whole lot more. Like, do I think we do a whole lot more than what you would consider generic pop-punk? Yeah, I think we do. We’re doing a lot, musically. It’s not like we all have three guitars that are all chugging the same open chord.”
When I asked Campbell for an interview, he originally said he wanted to talk only about pro wrestling and NFL football. He was kidding (I think), but we did end up talking a lot about football — his team is the Eagles and mine is the Packers, so naturally we shot the shit about Reggie White (hooray for me) and fourth-and-26 (hooray for him). Campbell loves White, but his favorite Eagle from the early ’90s is the late Jerome Brown, who is referenced on one of Generation’s best tracks, “We Could Die Like This.”
We discussed the invisible line that exists between bands like the Wonder Years and artists with similar influences that garner far more mainstream press coverage. Some of the most acclaimed indie-rock bands of the last few years — including Japandroids, Fucked Up, and Cloud Nothings — have made records that share DNA with Generation. It’s certainly not unreasonable to have aesthetic issues with the Wonder Years — if you’re not into subjecting yourself to a wall of blindingly shiny guitars and vocals that alternate between two settings (“highly expressive rage” and “highly expressive joy”), head elsewhere. But the Wonder Years’ greatest sin is that it has the “wrong” audience.
Campbell says his band won new followers by twice playing the Warped Tour, which is essentially boot camp for baby punks who load their own gear and work the merch tables from sunup to sundown to build a fan base, like politicians glad-handing voters. (“Warped Tour is a ‘reap what you sow’ kind of thing,” was how Campbell put it.) One year, Campbell fell off the stage early in the Wonder Years’ Warped run, badly bruising his back and one of his legs, “so I had to sit on an inflatable butt doughnut at all of the signings.”
Fan service is very important to Campbell, who describes himself as a “control freak” with a hand in every aspect of the band’s business. Before the House of Blues show, as at every show, the Wonder Years played a special “VIP” acoustic set that also included a Q&A session, a special laminate badge, and a silk-screen poster in exchange for $20.
“We knock it out like Comic-Con,” Campbell says.
But from a credibility standpoint, the Wonder Years would’ve been better off associating themselves with the oft-covered (arguably over-covered) and now defunct Brooklyn all-ages venue 285 Kent, the most recent spiritual headquarters for DIY fetishism in the indie-rock community. You reach more people doing Warped Tour, but more of the “right” people playing the hip New York City enclave (conveniently located in the midst of the world’s highest concentration of music writers).
Not that Campbell sees it that way. After all, how many of those bands could play two nights at the House of Blues as a headliner? Tonight’s show was added after the following night’s show sold out the 1,000-person capacity venue. Coupled with The Greatest Generation debuting last May at no. 20 on the Billboard albums chart, all those years of schlepping around in obscurity are starting to pay off in terms of the band’s actual popularity, if not its media profile.
“Motion City Soundtrack gave me a really good piece of advice on that,” he says. “They said at a certain point in their career, they felt like they were unfairly stigmatized as a Warped Tour band, and that’s all they could ever be. And so they were like, ‘Fuck that, we’re going to break out. We’re going to try to do NPR and all this stuff.’ Then they’re like, ‘Why did we do that? We have this whole group of great fans right here. Why would we ever be like, Fuck you, people that like us. I want these people to like me.’ The kids that listen to our band, I see myself at 17 in them. I’ve never been too caught up in who likes what and why they like it. I’ve never liked the cool things, so who gives a shit what it is?”
At 28, Campbell is an old man by the scene’s standards. He has taken the Modern Baseball guys under his wing, hiring two of the band members to work on his crew to supplement their lean wages as the tour’s opening act. “We met them, and we’re like, ‘Oh, shit, you’re just us at age 20,’” he says.
Because Campbell tends to write records about whatever is happening in his life at the time, I asked whether his next record will be the Wonder Years’ “road” album. But, really, all of the Wonder Years’ albums are “road” albums. The first song on Suburbia, “Came Out Swinging,” is Campbell’s “Turn the Page,” with self-deprecation in the place of sultry sax solos: “Been on a steady fast food diet, like we’re this generation’s Morgan Spurlock / But we don’t admit defeat,” he sings.
The Wonder Years and Modern Baseball will travel across the U.S. through April, shooting up flares all over America for those in search of “outsider” music that pulls you in like a bear hug. Thankfully, a growing number of people are heeding the signal.
“The weirdest thing for me is that people drive to school in the morning as high school seniors and listen to my band, and then think, ‘I can’t wait to get out of eighth period to go put that CD back on and listen to it while I drive home.’ I’m like, I did that,” Campbell says before hitting the stage. “And I don’t know why that’s such an exciting thing for me, but it really is, to think that all across the country, people drive to school and listen to The Greatest Generation. I don’t really need anything else.”