An abridged version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of dtown Magazine.
The Wonder Years
… and the Past, Present and Future of Pop-Punk.
By Jack Firneno It’s late April, and summer’s already in the air on South Street in Philadelphia. The line outside the TLA stretches down the block, almost around the corner. As the crowd filters in, the usual rituals commence. Some visit the merch tables early, picking up t-shirts or vinyl records. Others head straight toward the stage, staking out their spot on the sloped, former movie theater floor long before the first band begins. The stage itself is crowded with six bands’ worth of drumsets and amplifiers. The curtains won’t even close for the five minute breaks between sets. In 2012 the only difference between the scene here today and 15 years ago is that some of the people standing against the wall or sitting cross-legged on the floor are engrossed in text message conversations. Technology and bands may change, but the attitude at a punk show never will. Tonight’s main attraction is The Wonder Years, who hail from nearby Landsdale, PA. With fast, occasionally chunky rhythms, bright melodies and intense, heart-on-the-sleeve vocals, they’ve got the pop punk format down cold. As the crowd settles in, their bassist Josh Martin is in a small office backstage, chatting with dtown. We’ll get to him in a moment. Near the bar area upstairs are Ian Stewart, Scott McNamara and Monica Bonanno. All three are clean-cut and in their mid-thirties. “We came because Ian dragged us out,” laughs McNamara. “We used to go to shows a lot, and see bands at the Rotunda at Drexel, or R5 shows [at the First Unitarian Church]. Now we make it out every once in a while.” Bonanno clarifies: “Ian told us The Wonder Years were good, so we checked them out. They’re vibrant and energetic, and they’ve got twists to their stories.” “It’s pretty similar to the late ‘90s here,” adds Stewart, referring to an especially fertile time for punk bands in the Philadelphia area. “They’ve got good energy and lyrics. Plus, we’re here to support the music scene.” “It’s almost nostalgic,” offers Bonanno. For Kerry, Ally and Abbey, three 16-year-olds from the Mainline area of the city, however, these shows are still a fairly new phenomenon. “I like The Wonder Years a lot. I relate to what they have to say a lot more than with bands I hear on the radio,’” offers Kerry. “I love the crowd, I love the energy. We know all the lyrics; we all sing along.” With a job and more permission to use public transit than her friends, she’s able to see plenty of bands, from local acts to big-name bands. “The[radio station festival] Jingle Ball was good, but the crowd wasn’t into the music like they are here. And a lot of people I know went to the Blink-182 concert just to tailgate, not to actually see the band,” she says disdainfully. “At shows like this, it’s really a community.” Meanwhile backstage, Martin mentioned this will be the second time Martin is playing the TLA. The Wonder Years had a quick opening slot here a few years ago, but are now headlining a sold-out two-night stand here on South Street. “I remember coming here when I was younger, and seeing bands like Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer and Reel Big Fish,” he remembers fondly. “ I stepped out on the stage today during sound check, and just visualized 900 people here. I felt completely blown away.” The band’s managed to stay so busy over the past few years that it’s quite possible this is the first time their success has sunk in. “Ever since The Upsides came out, it’s been a roller coaster,” Josh says, referring to the band’s 2010 album, their third release. “Ultimately, we just try to tour hard, write honest, and hope people notice so more come out to shows.” The simple strategy works. Locally, The Wonders Years went from playing smaller venues like Siren Records in Doylestown back in 2007, to the First Unitarian Church and then Union Transfer in Philadelphia. They toured with Streetlight Manifesto, and traveled to England and Australia. They spent a summer on The Warped Tour, and are headlining the tour they’re wrapping up here on South Street. A fitting culmination, the band will play their latest album, Suburbia, in its entirety tonight. Next is a tour with the band Early November. “I’m really excited about this one,” says Martin. “I listen to them a lot, so it’ll be great to be out with them. It’s a really great package.” After that, The Wonder Years will hunker down begin work on their fourth full-length album. Martin says there’s no telling what it will sound like until they start writing, but they’ll once again come up with a statement on where they are and what they think. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that a band is very dynamic,” he explains. “In between albums, you grow as people and as a band. Even for all the time we spend together, we all have different experiences and sets of emotions.” These perspective, he says, get thrown in the mix when the writing begins. “There’s no one songwriter for us; everyone has their say. Sometimes there’s a bit of push and pull with six of us in the band. But, even if one part seems wrong, putting it with another part can yield a great third. That’s how some of our best songs come about. Sometimes you feel like you’re taking a step backwards to go forward.” Later that night, even after five bands, the crowd’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. It reaches fever pitch as The Wonder Years take the stage. They start off with the appropriately-named Came Out Swinging, its opening siren-like guitar part revving up the already charged-up crowd. They break into the verse; the crowd explodes. A mosh pit breaks out. People start jumping in place. Crowd-surfers make their way toward the stage. “I came out swinging from a South Philly basement,” sings frontman Dan Campbell softly during the song’s low-key bridge. The crowd joins him. For people like Stewart, McNamara and Bonnao, it’s probably bringing back memories from the bands they saw at a house show a decade ago. For Kerry and her friends, it could be about the next batch of bands they go out to see. When Campbell sings the line again at full throttle and the band comes crashing back in, the crowd screams it with him. For all the bands in all the basements, right now the one that matters is The Wonder Years.