An Intimate Portrait Of Aaron West Courtesy Of His Creator, The Wonder Years' Dan Campbell

The Wonder Years' Dan Campbell peels back the layers of his musical alter ego Aaron West

An Intimate Portrait Of Aaron West Courtesy Of His Creator, The Wonder Years' Dan Campbell
Mischa Pearlman

Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties was never meant for public consumption. It was intended to be an exercise in songwriting for Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell – a way for The Wonder Years frontman to “be a better songwriter and musician.”

As someone who says he doesn’t learn well through lessons or homework, grabbing a guitar and writing songs was his preferred method of learning. Afraid of using up ideas that might work or be relevant for The Wonder Years, Soupy decided to start writing vignettes about fictional people, with each song being a full synopsis of their life. That, however, proved too tricky, so he instead honed in his focus and decided to write “a whole album about one guy.”

When he played the songs he had to The Early November’s Ace Enders, Ace convinced him to not just write a full album’s worth of songs, but record it and let him produce it. The result was 2014’s We Don’t Have Each Other – a deep dive into the heart, mind and tragedies of an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck character called Aaron West. Soupy thought that record would be it for the project, but after seeing the response to the few shows he initially played – and played in character – it started taking on a life of its own. Five years after that debut record (and three after 2016 EP Bittersweet), Soupy/Aaron is back with a second record, Routine Maintenance, and is embarking on his first ever UK tour (only a few tickets remain in Glasgow and London – act fast!) while trying, as he explains, to navigate the increasingly blurred line between reality and fiction.

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This might seem like a strange question, but who exactly is Aaron West and how did you come up with the idea for his character?
“It started by trying to find common threads in the half-finished vignettes and trying to marry ideas, but I knew I wanted to write a story arc where someone loses everything and has to decide whether or not it’s worth it for him to continue living. So I wanted a series of tragedies to befall him, but I didn’t want anyone to be at fault for them – like, I didn’t him to get divorced and it be somebody’s specific clear-cut fault, because then there would be this vitriol. So it was a matter of finding a way to lay out this series of tragedies in a way that they were all just horrible turns of the world to set up the story arc.”

The Wonder Years stuff is so rooted in your personal emotions, insecurities and anxieties. Was it difficult to write songs about things that hadn’t happened or feelings that you hadn’t directly experienced?
“At the beginning, I was like, ‘How do I do this?’ but it ended up being easy in a lot of ways, because I don’t have as many confines. I’m kind of open to anything and I can take the story any way that I decide to. Especially at the beginning, when there was no precedent for it. I needed to get into the character’s head, so I started journaling in character. Then I started doing some research to make sure I was doing justice to these tragedies. I started reading support group message boards and bereavement boards online, reading what people were going through and trying to apply that. That’s kind of how that first record came about.

"It was going forward into the new stuff that it started to become real interesting for me, because I never intended for there to be LP two. I decided after I made the record that in order to do the project justice, I was going to have to perform it in character. So I get onstage and say, ‘Hi, my name is Aaron West and the people behind me are The Roaring Twenties.’ When it came time to write the second record and I was thinking about what happened to Aaron between now and then, it’s no longer totally open – things happened because I stood onstage and said I was him. So now you know at the very least that Aaron West must play music and he must play it for people because people saw him play it. So where does that take the story? And that’s what really became interesting to me. Some people have said it’s almost like musical theatre because you’re monologuing in character and playing songs that attach to those monologues, and it kind of is like musical theatre, except that musical theatre is static. What happens onstage happens onstage every night and it never affects what happens the next night or the next time a song is written. But this dynamic, the only art form I can compare it to is professional wrestling, where you’re at this live event to see these characters portray a role, but the thing you see in front of you at that live event drives the character arc going forward.”

READ THIS: The Wonder Years: "We need to reach towards kindness"

Have many things happened at gigs that became part of this story?
"The one that immediately comes to mind is playing a show in St Louis, Missouri and being like, ‘Wow, my guitar sounds fucking terrible’ and then taking it to this place in Nashville the next day where this woman looked at it and told me I was destroying it by playing it too hard. That worked its way into a song. But the narrative of Aaron being a musician who goes on tour and finds a band is part of it. Now the new record is out, if you’re following the story arc, the last thing that happened that you’re aware of is that Aaron has left the band to go home and take care of his sister and nephew, because his brother-in-law just passed away. So I was playing some shows earlier this year and I’m showing up solo and people are asking, ‘Where are The Roaring Twenties?’ And the answer is they had to get other jobs. If I’m taking care of my sister and not touring a lot, they can’t feed themselves by waiting around for me to be ready, so it’s just me. And I’m working into the monologues and talking about what’s happening in the story right now, and that stuff might make it into LP three.”

It sounds like you’re making life quite difficult for yourself…
“Oh, I definitely am!”

Are you ever worried it’s going to get too meta and you’ll get tangled up in the blurring of reality and fiction?
“The continuity is definitely a challenge and there are a few instances – which I’m not going to name – where it gets broken. There are a few slip-ups here and there, but for the most part I’m probably the only person that cares this much about it on the planet. But I do try to keep it pretty in lockstep, so that when the first full U.S. solo tour was happening, Aaron was playing by himself, and by the time the first full-band tour happened, Aaron had found a band. What I wanted it to be was if you saw Aaron West standing on a stage in St Louis in June of 2016, in the story arc he would have been there.”

READ THIS: How The Wonder Years helped me grow up

How much of his backstory did you map out, and how much of his future has been determined?
“The future, I only know one or two things, right now; one or two important plot points. There was five years between LP one and LP two. I don’t think there’ll be another five years, but I do think it could be two or three, so I’m going to give myself space to let the story happen. Like, if I’m onstage in London and something absurd happens that works inside of the narrative arc, that might go into the next record. Which is not to say show up in a cowboy outfit and I’ll write about it, but if I get the flu and pass out onstage, that might. And that’s what I think is one of the most interesting things about going to an Aaron West show – you’re going to be absorbed into a parallel fictional universe where everyone in the room – though aware that I am Dan Campbell and that I have another job where I sing in The Wonder Years – suspends disbelief and buys into that fact.”

With that in mind, how much of what happens in your life influences what happens in his? For instance, now you’re a father, has that made you realise things about the world that have perhaps informed Aaron’s life?
“Before an interview once, my publicist asked me that question. She was like, ‘Is this because of this?’ and I went, ‘Well, not consciously, but actually you’re probably right.’ Like, in a way he becomes a paternal figure for his nephew after his brother-in-law passes away, and I was writing those songs about the same time I found out I was going to have a child. I didn’t intend for it and I wasn’t thinking about it, but when she asked me in retrospect I went, ‘Oh – maybe that’s why I wrote that.’ Because I wasn’t 100 per cent where that story arc was going to go at the time my wife got pregnant, and then a month later it clicked into place, and I didn’t even think about the fact that one was influencing the other.”

It's interesting that alcoholism is a big part of Aaron West’s life, but you don’t personally drink. How do you reconcile that?
"I have never drunk, so it’s hard to write about that. But alcoholism is a part of my family. So it’s just a matter of some things you experience yourself and some things you experience second-hand and bear witness to from a formative age, and it’s just a matter of reflecting that.”

Has his character evolved in ways you never imagined?
“Absolutely. There’s a lot that happened to the character that I didn’t anticipate when I first sat down to write. When I got a guitar and played the first verse of Our Apartment, I definitely did not know the character was going to end up where he is now. When I look at it, I almost see each record as like a season of television and each song as an episode. So I wrapped up both records in the ways that most television shows do – because they don’t know that they’re going to get renewed, there’s always a little closure. Usually you’d know what Act Three is, but I only know the ending. I don’t know anything that happens in Act Three. And by ending I mean the last two lines – that’s it. The rest of it is pretty open-ended, although I know a couple of things that are going to happen over the course of this next year. We’re playing with the dynamic of the things that happen onstage are canon and the things that happen in songs are canon, and so I can push the storyline forward onstage without having to do it in song and without having to write new music. I know the next two steps, but I don’t know what comes after that.”

Do you get catharsis from writing Aaron West songs? Is there much emotional attachment to them?
“I don’t know. As far as The Wonder Years, I don’t necessarily know if that’s good for me. Sometimes it feels good to write a song and then you have to play that song live and it feels horrible. So there are ups and downs to both. Whereas with Aaron West, even if I put myself in the moment and try to method act through it, you can always pull yourself back out, which is nice, and it makes playing more enjoyable sometimes, because you’re not so emotionally burdened by the things you have to say every night. Some nights you go onstage and start dwelling on the things that you wrote and as memories fly back you’re just cutting yourself open in front of 2,000 people and saying, ‘Watch me bleed.’ And that’s not great. That doesn’t always feel good!”

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