This article is in partnership with Don’t Fret Club, a positive mental health initiative helping music fans talk about mental health.
The inevitability of growing up has long been a dominating topic of Dan Campbell’s songwriting. While Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties sees Campbell slip into an entirely fictional persona, many of The Wonder Years’ most captivating songs centre around some form of fear and anxiety related to adulthood and the responsibility linked to deepening relationships.
When we meet the Pennsylvania musician in Melbourne, he’s months away from becoming a father, having married his sweetheart and began to settle into a mould that breaks away from many of his own lyrical concepts. Or so it seems from the outside looking in. Still juggling the stresses of managing music commitments and a never-ending tour schedule is what we talk about most during our chat, turning the conversation over to health care and the crippling pressure it can cause both financially and emotionally.
Before we meet outside that evening’s Brunswick venue, a jet-lagged Campbell is using his time wisely: “I was [just] reading a baby book. Like a ‘how to’ every little thing. So, I just found out some interesting things about breastfeeding…”
Do you still relate to the feeling that you’re on a different path to other people your age?
Yeah, I mean, pretty much constantly. That’s really the only thing you feel. You choose a job that is disorienting and foreign, and difficult for other people to understand and to get their heads around. What’s that Blacklisted lyric? ‘A tourist among my family and friends.’ And then time passes strangely. Not now because we’ve kind of paused booking new things, because I have the baby coming. But for years of my life, especially some of the early years of the band, I would know what I was doing 18 months in advance. And when you know what things look like that far in advance, it’s hard to live day by day. You’ve got to live in these chunks.
And so, years go by very quickly because you think of it as like, ‘I have this tour and then that tour, then I’m home for these three weeks, then I have this tour’ and they go so fast, they just get eliminated. Then there’s also this duality to it because you’re going all the time and things are moving very quickly, but also pausing to make progress on a lot of things. So all of your friends at home are doing this steady pace and maybe it doesn’t feel like it’s going so fast for them. You’re like, ‘What happened to this year? Oh my god, you guys made so much progress. Where have I been? What have I been doing?’ Some friends it gets harder to talk to and they don’t understand what you do, and you don’t understand what they do.
And now you’ve got fatherhood to focus on, too…
Some of the upsides are that if I worked at an office, I would see my baby in the morning and then I would go to work for eight hours, and I would come home and maybe see them and they’re probably asleep. But when I’m not on tour now I will be able to be there all the time. The downsides are when you leave, you are gone. Always gone, totally gone. And I have to imagine that that’s going to be very difficult.
“I’m pretty proud of what we did and how we did it.”
Also, you know, we have no job security. We get no unemployment if we stop doing this. We don’t have any benefits, any health care. I mean, luckily my wife does, but not everybody has that as an option. We don’t get any of that kind of stuff. There’s no maternity leave or paternity leave. We can only earn income away from home. Obviously, a couple of decades ago, your record sales would keep you afloat. That’s not a thing anymore. If we’re not touring, I can’t pay any bills. And so, it’s gonna be a tough balance.
Is touring still something you enjoy?
I like to play. I really like to play. If you get a good show, a really good show, where it’s packed and the crowd is alive. I like to explore still, but it’s definitely tougher on my body than it used to be. I suffer emotionally. It used to be, ‘everything is a fun adventure, what a fun adventure all the time’. And now it’s like, ‘well s**t, like my family needs me and I’m out here.”
Taking what you know now into account, what would your advice to younger you be?
Probably to invest in a proper van from the beginning, so you don’t have to go through the stress of losing so many so quickly. You know, maybe a little bit more organisation and some other things that we cut corners on [that] we didn’t need to. I don’t think there’s any huge piece of life advice I’d pass down because I think I’m pretty proud of what we did and how we did it.
Mental health is a topic you’ve addressed lyrically, but how do you feel the relationship between mental health support and music is managed?
Well the economics of it are difficult because it’s very hard to earn a living making music and it’s very, very hard to earn a living in the surroundings of making music – on a label’s side or on the management side, or the agent’s side. It’s just [that] the economics of music are very, very different than they used to be. There’s just less of a support system, I think, than there could be. It would definitely help to take more breaks and not be on tour as much [but] it’s not really an option. It would be great if record labels could provide health care [but] it’s not really an option. There just isn’t enough to make that kind of stuff possible. For other musicians in other countries that have socialised health care, it’s obviously easier but for American bands it’s not really an option.
“It’s about being more empathetic and understanding.”
[It] would be great to have access to therapists. A lot of it definitely is not so much about the music industry, so much as it is about the health care industry. There are certain therapists that your insurance will cover, but when I was looking for a therapist, the ones that my insurance would cover – which I only get because I’m married to my wife and [it’s] through her work. If I wasn’t married I wouldn’t have it at all. The ones that were available to me through the insurance, which were the affordable ones, had waiting lists of six, seven months. I’m like, ‘I need help right now’ and then so eventually I found someone that could take me right now but they’re not covered by my insurance. And so it was financially difficult.
I think the other thing is that it’s a little bit about maybe being a little more empathetic and understanding. I think about it a lot when I think about Scott from Frightened Rabbit and the piece that they wrote about him. When we write these songs that are kind of soul-baring, and it’s like, ‘hey I’m writing about a thing that’s painful for me and I’m going to sing it to you every night’. And some nights, it’s just automatic, it just comes out of your mouth. But then some nights you stop and think about the lyric and when you wrote it, and what happened and you just rip it right back open. Every night I’m opening an old wound back up, for the sake of the performance and the art, and how it can be useful to others. And most people are kind about that, but some people are not at heart very empathetic and don’t treat that with the kind of the respect that it maybe deserves. So that can be difficult.
Is writing a therapeutic process for you?
Maybe it is in a small way but I don’t know if I feel better once it’s written, so much as I feel compelled to write it. And I do appreciate that it becomes useful to others and that becomes a tool to help you with a thing. That’s a wonderful thing. But I don’t know that I find it to be therapeutic to write the songs so much as it is like a compulsion.
I’m working on an Aaron West record right now [December 2018]. I would say that I have written 60 per cent of the songs and then the remaining 40 per cent are started but not finished. If I’m on a roll, I just keep writing. But other times you just get so stuck into one thing that it’s impossible to jump out to do something else.
Congratulations to Dan Campbell and his wife, who’ve since welcomed baby Wyatt James into the world on 9th April.