Bands on the Greatest Generation tour

Pop-Punk’s Credibility Problem

Ian Cohen

By Ian Cohen

on 04.23.14 in Features

If four of pop-punk’s biggest and best bands are going to do a tour together, the least they could do is come up with a cool name for it. And yet, the Wonder Years, Modern Baseball, Citizen and Fireworks have lamentably not called their tour Monsters of Pop-Punk. They have called it “The Greatest Generation Tour” instead, which sounds boastful but is really only the name of a Wonder Years album. On a Sunday night in late March, the tour (which also includes the needling, vaguely obnoxious and undeniably photogenic spite-rockers Real Friends, who will probably be bigger than everyone in a year) has stopped at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip for another sold-out show. After talking with the bands’ members for just a few minutes, it becomes clear that “Revenge of the Nerds” might also have been an appropriate nickname.

But like the Tri-Lams, all four bands have a unifying quality: The gatekeepers of coolness either ignore their merits and achievements or actively try to discredit them. There is a delegation by class rank in our roundtable discussion. The whip-smart, joke-cracking Philadelphians in Modern Baseball are the freshmen, almost literally — they look far younger than their actual age, which is early 20s. They’re all wearing bummy T-shirts, jeans and hats, but I’m told they dressed up for the occasion. An associate quips, “Last time he was in L.A., Brendan [Lukens, singer/guitarist] wore sweatpants.” Citizen could be the sophomores, having started in 2009 — they’re more a burlier, darker take on alt-rock and guitarist Rylan Oehlers resembles something of a young Dimebag Darrell.

And then you have the upperclassmen, Fireworks and the Wonder Years. Fireworks are days away from releasing their musically triumphant, lyrically devastating third LP Oh, Common Life. The Wonder Years, led by relative elder statesman Dan “Soupy” Campbell (at the ripe age of 28), still want to talk mostly about Korn and the Philadelphia mall scene.

For a band with a reputation of being the nicest, most humble and genial dudes you could ever meet, the Wonder Years have a funny way of making rock journalists feel worthless. It’s nothing in their demeanor, but the facts of their story feel like a rebuke: 2013′s The Greatest Generation was the strongest pop-punk album since the last Wonder Years record, debuting at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 in its first week. The group’s seemingly endless, intercontinental tour continues with a spate of packed, 1000-capacity rooms, and they’ve brought their friends, who have fervent fans of their own: By my estimate, there are probably 600 or so people in the audience singing along to every single Modern Baseball song, both from their new album and their more obscure 2012 debut Sports. It’s 6:30 p.m. and they’re the first of five bands on the bill.

Still, they recognize they’re in a different, more visible position they were even two years ago and it’s forced them to consider theoretical items that 99 percent of the people filling the House of Blues probably don’t acknowledge at all — how they feel about being a “pop-punk band,” whether there’s a stigma attached to their genre and why they haven’t been able to endear themselves to the indie-rock industrial complex that includes Coachella, secret after-parties and critics’ lists.

Campbell described the tour as “30 guys that just get each other’s humor,” and our “roundtable,” predictably, turned out to be more of a party — Citizen was represented by guitarist Nick Hamm, Oehlers and drummer Jake Duhaime (their vocalist Mat Kerekes was the only frontman who declined to participate). Brendan Lukens and Jacob Ewald spoke on behalf of Modern Baseball, while nearly everyone from Fireworks and Wonder Years chimed in, with guitarist Chris Mojan and Campbell respectively doing most of the talking.

What principles unify all of the bands on this tour?

Brendan Lukens, Modern Baseball: This tour is very open and welcoming. The Wonder Years have been exactly where we are, and it’s cool to have them to share experiences. It’s not like they’ve grown up and said, “We don’t have to deal with this crap anymore.”

Dan “Soupy” Campbell, the Wonder Years: It’s a DIY mentality we’ve all stuck with our whole lives. We come out on these tours, playing the House of Blues and we’ll have sound guys be like, “Oh, you don’t have to get that.” And I’ll say, “I can lift this, I’m a human being, I don’t need you to do my bidding.”

Jacob Ewald, Modern Baseball: It all roots in punk. We all have very outward, open lyrics that peek into our lives. We all have the mentality where we didn’t just find two guys who played guitar and two guys who played bass and started trying to find a big-name manager and a booking agent and try to buy in from there.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: We all piled into little vans and drove around hoping it’d work while our parents were like, “Why are you spending money on this thing we don’t understand.”

All five bands on this bill have been called “emo.” Why do you think that is?

Campbell, the Wonder Years: That’s a cool thing people say now? We all cry together.

Chris Mojan, Fireworks: I don’t think anyone over the age of 30 wants to say “pop-punk” because of the negative connotations. But if they say, “Well, it’s emo so now it’s cool for me to write about it.” It stands for emotional!

Mike Kennedy, the Wonder Years: As a 26-year-old, when I meet an adult for the first time…to say “I play in a pop-punk band,” it just hurts a little.

Mojan, Fireworks: So does emo!

What was your musical introduction to punk rock?

Nick Hamm, Citizen: I was in third grade on the bus, and I heard Dookie coming out of someone’s headphones. I don’t know why, but I was interested and asked if I could borrow his headphones. It just took me from there.

‘Other bands can get talked about in magazines, and that’s cool. I don’t need to be talked about in a magazine. I’ve never been cool.’

Campbell, the Wonder Years: The tipping point was in middle school when I was listening to whatever was not a boy band at the time. Like, “Fuck yeah, Korn’s cool!” I didn’t listen to any Korn record all the way through but I had them. But blink-182 was in that category of what was being played on rock radio and I could listen to their whole record and then follow that down the rabbit hole into the Get Up Kids and Promise Ring.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: The first two bands I listened to were because of my dad and it was Smashing Pumpkins and U2, so I think I could just end that there.

Ryland Oehlers, Citizen: Same with me, except Nirvana and Green Day. Those were the first two bands whose songs I learned on guitar. That was what I found so enticing, that you’d be able to do it yourself. And I guess that’s the point of punk anyway.

When did you first become aware of punk rock as something that went beyond music into a lifestyle?

Nick Steinborn, the Wonder Years: It was the first time I was asked to be in a band. They just said, “Hey we’re starting a punk band.” Great, I don’t know what that is. “Just play as fast as you can.” I had Dookie and Smash, and I just amazed by this aggressive music that had swearing in it. But I was 1.0, and I didn’t grasp it as “punk.” And once I finally dug into music and learned what it meant for them to be punk bands and I’d read thank you notes and zines at shows.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: When you’re listening to blink-182 in elementary school, it’s easy to like the music. But I had no concept of where it was coming from, like it was flown in from some other planet. Then you get into high school and start going to shows in your area. There are these smaller bands in vans, and you can see them right in front of you. And this is a tangible thing that people put time and effort into. You see how that’s made and it becomes more accessible to you and your friends and you start playing those same rooms.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: Half of Wonder Years went to one school and the other was from another one 20 minutes away. We were all playing in different bands, and there was a VFW scene in Landsdale going at the time. Transitioning out of high school, you’d notice when local bands would come through that you’d never heard of. You’d grasp that they were coming from a similar scene, that wherever they were from, they had that VFW or fire hall situation. When we first toured, that’s what drove it home — there is that community all across the country, that’s where these bands on the radio were coming from 10 years before.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: Being in Maryland and having the “Maryland scene,” there’d be fire halls and such — in Philly, there’s a house show every night. “Did you guys start a band yesterday? Great, you guys can play. We’ll give you $20.” But when we were in high school, you had to play a certain kind of music. In Philly, anything you wanted to do was accepted and people would give you the time and listen. No one was put on a pedestal as being “the best.”

Hamm, Citizen: Fireworks is responsible for exposing me to this venue in Ann Arbor called “Metal Frat” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. They had punk shows and that was my first exposure to the Michigan/Detroit punk scene. From there, it turned into more of a social thing.

Was there ever a time when you started rejecting certain aspects of the “scene”?

Lukens, Modern Baseball: When we first started Modern Baseball, it was to rebel against the community we were in. Everyone was doing the same thing, doing these bullshit pay-to-play shows. It was “MARYLAND POP PUNK!” and you’d have a T-shirt with the Maryland flag and a crab on it. You would start a band, play a few shows and then it would fizzle out. Then you’d take two guys from a better version of your band and start a new band and have more money from your job to have a better recording. It was just a fight to make a better version of the thing that came before.

Hamm, Citizen: We were in a similar situation. We’re from Toledo. There were a lot of truly terrible metal bands and we were like, “Yeah, we should not be in a truly terrible metal band. Maybe a truly terrible band, but not metal.” And that’s how Citizen started.

Do you feel successful?

Campbell, the Wonder Years: We all went to college — Drexel, Temple, Millersville — and we’d tour on the weekends or breaks during school. We decided after we graduated, “Let’s take one year after school. Things probably won’t work out because it’s hard out there and we have the background to get other jobs, so…let’s have fun with it.” I’m still sure we’re going to have to get real jobs at some point. We don’t have that “fuck you” Tom Brady/Giselle moat mansion money.

‘Younger kids are just excited about music. At that age, I was just excited to see a band, and that energy is fun to play to.’

Mojan, Fireworks: You don’t? Check your record deal — we make a lot of money. That’s why we didn’t do anything for a year. We were just spending money. Do you need any? Because we’ve got way too much.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: [Sarcastically] It’s literally impossible to spend it all.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: We didn’t expect any of this, so it’s icing on the cake. The cake is shitty, but the icing is fantastic. The original cake is Mark Walsh’s basement and there are 15 kids there, and they knew every word to the four songs we put out. And I was like, “Holy shit, this is insane.” It’s funny to be on this tour, because the last time we played in this area, it was in the back of a porn shop.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: We try to keep things in perspective. We are just humans who are incredibly fortunate, whatever social and cultural tides have aligned to have the children like us right now, thank you. We know it could be gone tomorrow. Or gone the day after that.

So what was the reaction when the Greatest Generation debuted at No. 20 on Billboard?

Mojan, Fireworks: They were above the Beatles! [The album charted higher in its first week than a Beatles catalog album — Ed.]

Campbell, the Wonder Years: Haha, “Fuck you, dad!” It’s not like it came easy and everyone bought a record and that was that. Leading up to that record, we started off by playing four shows in 24 hours. One was in Philly, one was in New York, one was in Chicago and one was in LA. Following that, I woke up at 9 a.m. to do the cover shoot for Alt Press — half the band flew home the other half stayed with me. The half that stayed with me did two in-stores in L.A., the half that flew back to Philly started setting up our own store. We rented an art gallery and opened up a Wonder Years shop for a week. We hosted events every night, we had special vinyl on sale, we had ping-pong and cupcakes and music playing. Kids could hang out on couches all day if they wanted to. The other four of us did in-stores in New Jersey, upstate New York, Long Island. And then the day we finished those, we flew to England. And we found out how we debuted. It was more, “Oh fuck we did it, good week guys!” A lot of thought and energy went into that, it wasn’t just, “look, we made it!”

What does the term “indie rock” mean to a band in your position?

Campbell, the Wonder Years: It’s a safe umbrella that makes you an alternative to an alternative-rock band. It’s discretionary and subjective.

Mojan, Fireworks: The term is way deeper now. If I’m describing to my 50-year-old aunt what our band is, she might call us indie rock. Because she means it “they’re on an independent label, they’re not that aggressive.” As in, “not metalcore.” But I assume if I was to play our record to anyone the age of people in this room, they would probably say, “This doesn’t sound like indie rock.”

Campbell, the Wonder Years: “Yeah, fuck you, this isn’t the Antlers.”

Do you consider yourselves a bridge to that world from pop-punk and the Warped Tour?

Lukens, Modern Baseball: We’ve been lucky. We haven’t been put into just one scene. We had the whole pop-punk thing, the emo thing, the indie thing, but we’re a Fest band. Since all these scenes seem to be accepting us, we’re gonna go with it.

Hamm, Citizen: It’s cool because [Modern Baseball] is at the center of a lot of meeting points, Title Fight is the same thing.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: Title Fight is definitely bridging a gap — those shows they’re doing with Waxahatchee and Hop Along? Weirdest thing ever, but it works.

Mojan, Fireworks: But I’ve given up trying to figure out the whole genre thing.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: I seriously couldn’t care less. I think we’re gonna sell out tonight, we’ve sold out the last four. There’s so many awesome, really nice, really honest people that watch our band. Why would I want anything else? I don’t care what you call it. I like it and I like playing it for these people.

Mojan, Fireworks: Other bands can get talked about in magazines, and that’s cool. I don’t need to be talked about in a magazine. I’ve never been cool.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: I’ve always listened to the wrong kind of band. “You listen to punk? That’s cool…oh you listen to these bands, you’re not cool enough to hang with us.” I’m always happy with the people I’m around. I’m happier with these people and I’m happier with those fans.

But how does it feel now that you’re being exposed to a different audience?

Ewald, Modern Baseball: When we were on Grantland [in a piece written by Wondering Sound contributor Steven Hyden], Sean [Huber]‘s phone was blowing up from all of his athletic high school friends.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: The first crazy thing for us was when Sports [their debut album] was reviewed on Absolute Punk. We were like, holy fuck!” Freaking out. On tour, you’re hitting directly who’s in front of you, but this past record cycle, it’s a cool way to realize who you’re actually reaching. You can see the discrepancies between even those punk places which seem like similar audiences — for example, everyone on Absolute Punk is very critical of us…and everyone on Brooklyn Vegan is very critical of us.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: But I don’t know if anyone on this tour thinks about this thing that deeply. When you think about the amount of people who would like to be a professional musician and the infinitesimally small number of people able to accomplish it, does it really matter who’s listening? I’m just happy that someone likes it. I’m happy someone gives enough of a shit to cover it because we work very, very hard and it’s not about who or why.

Mojan, Fireworks: When “Glowing Crosses” [the lead single from Oh, Common Life] premiered on Pitchfork, we were like, “Oh that’s cool.” But you don’t understand the random people who have never cared saying, “Hey, that’s really cool.” I guess that’s the point of opening a new audience, but it’s more about who’s attached to it than the actual music.

Pop-punk is often viewed as something people “used to listen to.” How does playing to such a young audience affect your perception of your band?

Campbell, the Wonder Years: I see myself a lot in kids who come to shows. It’s cool to play to those people the way Get Up Kids and Saves The Day played to me.

Mojan, Fireworks: Younger kids are just excited about music. At that age, I was just excited to see a band, and that energy is fun to play to. If they’re 14 or 15, they haven’t been beaten down enough by what’s cool and what’s not cool. They’re just, “I like this.” They’re happy to be part of something. Even if I go to a sold-out show that’s over 21, it’s just a weird vibe there, because it’s not a music crowd, it’s a drinking crowd that just so happens to like music.

‘You can see the discrepancies between even those punk places which seem like similar audiences — for example, everyone on Absolute Punk is very critical of us…and everyone on Brooklyn Vegan is very critical of us.’

Casey Cavaliere, the Wonder Years: One of the first big [support tours] we did was with Streetlight Manifesto. We were more of an outlier, but we wanted to do it, and we thought, “Let’s do it maybe some of them won’t hate us.” And still to this day we have kids who are in college and are still like, “That was the first time I saw you guys and I loved you ever since.” So when you’re playing to really young kids who don’t know who your band is, that could be that exact same scenario. When they’re not jumping around, maybe they’re focusing and actually engaged mentally and they want to take it all in.

Hamm, Citizen: If you’re writing pop songs, it’ll bring a younger crowd. We’ve seen 50-year-olds buy this “dad hat” we’ve been selling. It’s really rewarding that we can bring in a younger crowd and embrace those who were there when it was first created. A lot of people are confused about genre and that’s fine. People have safe words like “pop-punk”…you can say you “used to be into it” so you don’t get judged a certain kind of way.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: When we have shows with no barricade and people are jumping over and singing along, that’s great. We’ve had some shows on this tour with no barricades and 800 kids crammed into a 500-capacity room and there’s tons of stage diving. But as a 28-year-old, I’m now concerned about their well being a lot more. As we’re playing, I’m putting my mic down, “Oh, watch your head! Are you OK? Do you need water? What can I do to help?”

Mojan, Fireworks: Yesterday, a kid fell on their head and started seizing and foaming at the mouth. They had to shut down the show. There’s also that element where you get dad-like about the stage diving, like, “C’mon, lift your knees up. Be nice about it.”

There’s few, if any, pop-punk bands that come from New York City — most seem to be from places such as Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit or Florida that seem to have a certain kind of cultural inferiority complex. How does being outside of major media centers affect the way your bands have developed?

Campbell, the Wonder Years: Suppose you live New York City, and you’re 15 and you want to play a show. You can very certainly go fuck yourself. There’s open-mic nights, but usually it’s a club and there’s a talent buyer and there’s a bar. In the suburbs of Detroit or Philly, when I was 15 years old, I would call every church, every VFW, every YMCA and I would say, “I wanna do a teen band jam to keep kids off drugs!” They would say OK and I would pretend like I was 18 and I was not. I would falsely sign contracts and I would get all my friends’ bands to play the show and then I’d have a friend who was an artist draw up a flyer. I’d break into the teachers’ break room and run a 1000 copies and I’d walk through North Penn high school handing them to every kid and get them there. Because we could and no one could fucking stop us. There was no guy with a full-time, five-figure job telling me I’m not good enough to play their room yet.

Mojan, Fireworks: Same mentality in Detroit. For a little bit of time, there was a New Jersey/Detroit connection, hall shows because those were the places that seemed to be doing it.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: Everyone would hit you up in the hallway, like “can my band play?”

Mojan, Fireworks: “Of course!”

Campbell, the Wonder Years: “We got the sickest ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ cover!”

Steinborn, the Wonder Years: We just did what people older than us did.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: The whole basement thing in Philly is that there are 30 houses that are way too small. You can spill beer on each other in a 5′-by-5′ room and before the bands get out of there and make a record in a real studio, that’s how it sounds. It’s grimy and raw and this is exactly how I feel, “I’m living in shit but I’m also playing music.”

Hamm, Citizen: There’s a small town charm that goes along with it. I love NYC and all the Brooklyn pop acts that come out of there, but it’s such a fast-paced and competitive place.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: I remember Rob Hitt was in a band called Midtown and he had a label called I Surrender and works for Crush Management [who currently reps Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco and Train, among others]. When we were first starting, our friends in a band called Valencia gave him one of our songs and he said, “Yo, come play New York, I wanna come see you.” I tried for months to figure out how to play New York and failed. Finally I got one show and it was in some deep Bushwick part of Brooklyn before it was cool. And he was just, “I can’t make it all the way out there, this is ridiculously far from where I am and not accessible on the L.” But we played with a lot of metalcore bands and the show got shut down that night. That’s how hard it was to play New York. You could play Long Island, but New York was not an accessible thing.

Hamm, Citizen: New York is actually one of the best places for us to play. It’s strange that any of our peers aren’t from there. When we started, I basically viewed that scene as a lot of Pennsylvania bands.

Lukens, Modern Baseball: I’ve never spent more than a half hour at a time in NYC. I think where you’re from has a lot of impact of what kind of band you are. Long Island bands are super “We’re Long Island bands and we’re gonna stick together.”

Hamm, Citizen: Maybe there’s a certain element that doesn’t exist in this genuinely happy Fest scene and we’re just a bunch of kids from a lot of suburbs trying to do right by ourselves. Not to make a blanket statement…but then you have stuff like PORCHES. That deserves to be heard as its own movement.

Why does pop-punk tend to flourish in the suburbs?

Kyle O’Neil, Fireworks: I could be totally journalizing about this, but my parents could buy me a bass for Christmas. I was bored, I didn’t have anything to do I lived with my parents.

Campbell, the Wonder Years: There’s actually nothing to be worried about so I should probably invent some shit.

Mojan, Fireworks: And you can practice in the basement. All the tools are there, whereas when you live in the city, a lot of those things aren’t possible. For us, it’s, “Dude, you wanna play guitar in our band? Cool, ask your parents for a guitar for your birthday.” Or, “Can we practice in your garage? Cool, I can use my parent’s car to drive my gear to your house.” That’s why a lot of suburban areas flourish with bands with that DIY mentality. And we’re also more angsty because we don’t have any real problems.