Mitchell Wojcik

Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties – New Jersey as His Resting Place

With seven days until the new album drops and six days until the Asbury Lanes takeover, a lot if happening in the bustling world of Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties.

Aaron West may be a fictional character created by The Wonder Years’ frontman Dan Campbell, but his story is real and genuine. The vocalist embodies the Aaron West character the second he hits the stage as him. He lets real life events affect the overarching story. It is everything to see and everything to hear.

Being a fan of this project means feeling like you are a real part of the journey. By going to shows and buying the albums, you involve yourself into the storyline. 

The most striking aspect of Aaron West, the musician, are his lyrics; they are brutally honest and touch upon the beauty and pain of everyday life. Whether it’s just hopping in a car and driving far away from your problems, the responsibility of having people count on you, or the battles of the bottle, Aaron West is a regular guy. His problems are relatable. His truth is powerful. The way Dan Campbell is able to tell a story through song in such an immersive way is captivating and akin to watching your favorite TV show. 

We had the incredible chance to talk with Dan about the new album, In Lieu of Flowers, the band’s forthcoming Asbury show (and its adjoining livestream), and much more.

In Lieu of Flowers comes out on April 12. What is going through your head?

I feel excited. The thing I kept coming back to was how much this project is scratching an itch in my brain. There are these lengths I go to, to do these kinds of singular things. The entire project is singular. The release show/livestream idea is singular. Even down to the promo photo for the record, it is down to these obsessions I’ve had. It feels really good to be actually finally doing them. 

That makes sense. The Wonder Years is incredible, but if you were to write a banjo/folk song, the fans would be like, “What is this?” Whereas with Aaron West, you’re known to experiment. You can do whatever you want. 

Yeah! That’s another thing I was thinking about recently, and I talked about it at such great lengths with The Wonder Years record, so I don’t want to waste your time on it. The idea of artists making albums once you have established your band and your fanbase… I think it’s important to keep them in your consideration as you move forward with your art. They were drawn to you because of these core elements of your art that they love. It always felt, to me, unkind to pull the rug out and say, “We’re a free jazz band now.” I’ve always felt it’s important to expand what you do musically and artistically record over record, but not to lose the core of what that band is. The reason I think that’s such an easy thing to accomplish is because there’s no limit to the amount of bands you can start if you want to start more bands! If I want to make Americana/folk punk/whatever I’m doing with this, I can just do that and call it something different, so I did. 

You’ll have fans of your solo album or The Wonder Years that bleed into this and you’ll have fans that just like Other People’s Lives or The Hum Goes On Forever. That’s ok, too, because you’re not bringing the sound over into different projects.

Absolutely! This entire project, for the uninitiated, which I know is not you but might be for someone reading, is one decade long piece of narrative fiction wherein I created this character named Aaron West and I tell his story. In and of itself, it is not entirely novel. There are plenty of artists that write fiction. There are plenty of musicians that stretch that fiction across multiple records. You know, The Hold Steady has multiple characters that recur through the whole thing. Something like Right Away, Great Captain! [Solo project from Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra] is one piece of fiction across multiple albums. 

The thing that Aaron West is that I think is unique is that I inhabit the character live, which makes everything that happens live canon to the story, which is both constraining and freeing. It’s both an opportunity and an obstacle in our songwriting but is entirely singular. If you come to an Aaron West show, you will be seeing me embodying the character of Aaron West on stage and what happens on stage that night is canon for the story. If something of note happens, that could end up in a future song because it continues to move the story forward in a way that I can only liken to professional wrestling – what you watch on live television in the ring one night changes the arch of the story as it moves forward. I can’t quite think of another art form that’s exactly like that. 

I absolutely love that! First off, it can almost sometimes be a slap in the face when an artist will hype up a concept record, then you hear it and you can kind of draw a concept, but it still sounds like 10 songs. With Aaron West, the story continues song to song. You can’t put an album on shuffle. You’d miss the story.

It’s very serialized. It’s very episodic. Record to record I think of them as seasons of a television show and I think of each song as an episode. 

Photo by Mitchell Wojcik

I think that is perfectly put! You have tracks on the new record that reference “Grapefruit” and Diane from the first record. It really is a TV show. Chekhov’s Gun theory for screenwriting: if you reference something you’re going to have to close the loop in the future.

Even to the degree, we write cliffhangers in songs. If you listen to “Paying Bills At the End of The World,” you get this reference of Sam and then the song is over. Wait, who is that? Then you find out in the next episode, “Monongahela Park.”

I want to ask you about the structure. One of my favorite parts about the Aaron West project is how at the end of every record, there is a conclusion. If you just heard We Don’t Have Each Other or Routine Maintenance separately and got to the end of the record, it’s still a complete story. 

It’s another almost-TV-based concept. I try to end every season with something that would be a satisfying ending. For TV, it’s always ‘we don’t know if the network is going to give us more shows.’ We have to see how it tests or whatever they’re going to say. For me, I think what probably haunts most singers is something can happen to your instrument. You can break a cymbal and you buy a new symbol. You could break a guitar and buy a new guitar. [For singers], something could happen to your instrument that could end your career. 

I always think about that record by PUP, The Dream Is Over. Obviously PUP is still playing, but before that, Stefan had done something to his vocal cord and the doctor said that. That’s why it’s the title of the record – the doctor said, “Oh, you’re a singer? The dream is over. You won’t sing again.” I always know there is a chance any record is my last one, either due to external forces like that or just because I don’t feel the inspiration to write more. I never want to turn out records just because I feel required to. I always want to turn out records, but because I feel inspired to. I just try to really work so that every record gives you a satisfying conclusion in case it’s the end. 

t’s not even so much an Aaron West thing. It’s you – a Dan Campbell thing. “If this is my last record, I want to go out on the highest note. I want to conclude everything.”

Absolutely! It also goes back to The Wonder Years. It’s always strange to me when you’re doing an interview… and this is not a thing you did, so don’t get in your head. This happens all the time; I’ll be doing press for a brand new record and the interviewer will be like, “So, do you think you guys are going to get back in the studio soon?” I just finished one! The answer I always gave and always will give: “I only want to make a record if I feel like it’s going to top the one I put out last.” The idea is not to make a deluded and worse version of the art you already produced. The idea is to expand and push and make better music. If I don’t feel capable of that, I’m not going to waste your time, money, and resources on it. 

That’s also almost a slap in the face. “Oh, you just listened to my brand new record that I put my heart and soul into and now you’re like, what’s next?” You know what I mean?

I understand where it’s coming from; it’s just scoop-age. Everyone wants something breaking. They would like to have the pull quote that says, “We’re back in the studio already!” That’s good for their magazine and good for their ad sales and good for their continuation of independent journalism. I’m not mad about it. I’m just never thinking about the next record when I’ve just put out one. There’s plenty of time. I want to make sure I’m making art that I feel is legitimately well constructed – that’s good! It would be very difficult to do on the tail of already having done that.

As you said, inspiration! You can write a song everyday but it won’t be as good as the ones you hone for a few weeks. 

Into It. Over It. I did that project called 52 Weeks where he wrote and recorded a new song every week. Some of those songs are fucking brilliant. I’m sure Evan will tell you that some of them are not. They’re not bad songs – absolutely not. If he was going to comb them down to an album or two, they would end up on the cutting room floor. 

Switching gears, I do want to talk about the Asbury Lanes show on April 11. The Aquarian obviously being based in New Jersey, this is so cool for us. Tell me about the 15-piece ensemble and all that you have planned!

A lot of this shit is to scratch a creative itch in my brain. I have pictured this show for years now – since probably when we first started touring on Routine Maintenance because I started seeing the show take shape in my head. I have this nostalgic obsession with appointment television. Before there was a DVR, before there was streaming, when a show was on and you wanted to see it, you had to watch it or you missed it. Then the next day you were unable to talk about it. I know it’s impossible to create that entirely, specifically around finales you had to experience it in the same moment everyone else did which allows for you to process together and talk about it together. I just think the communal experience of something ending and us all being witnesses to that end at the same time (whether it’s a season or a series) is a value and has been largely lost. 

I had this idea that I would do a release show for this album the night before it comes out and we would play the entire story. Every song that is absolutely necessary to get the story across we would play. It’s not the entire catalog, but is within spitting distance of the entire catalog. We’re going to livestream it. You will have heard singles from this album before we play that show, but you will not have heard that conclusion. You won’t hear the season finale or perhaps the series finale… like I said I never know. We’re livestreaming the show and everyone gets to communally witness it. It is appointment television again! The show sold out in 50 minutes, maybe. Then there’s a livestream ticket that can be purchased and a lot of people bought that, too. I’m so excited to have this audience see the whole story unfold, including what you don’t yet know. You get to be a witness to that which is really exciting. In order to do it properly, to me, it needs all the people that played on it. I’m playing guitar and singing. There is an electric guitar, a bass, drums, a keyboard player, an accordion, a lap steel [guitar], another vocalist, a banjo player, trumpet, a trombone, a saxophone, two violins, and a cello. We had a meeting about it last night. Originally we had a different venue. That venue [House of Independents] has flooded and closed, unfortunately, as I’m sure you’re aware of. It’s very sad. We moved to Asbury Lanes. 

I went up there with a tape measure and measured the stage and then I built a grid where every square is one foot by one foot and drew in where the risers are going to go, who is going to stand where, how we’re going to fit it all. We have to bring four different audio people for the stream and two sets of monitors because there are so many channels in front-of-house. We have a whole camera team and production team coming. We literally have to go vertical to fit on the stage. It’s going to be a whole thing. It’s not the smartest, easiest, or most profitable thing to do. (We’re spending most of the money we’re making to make it happen.) The urge to do it is the creative itch in my brain. I need this thing to be real, and so I’m going to make it happen.

When you’re performing live, typically you have four or five people behind you, but with this, everywhere you look you’re going to see another instrument that’s vibing with the music you’re playing. I’m sure as an artist having that community on stage with you is going to feel different. 

With every album we end up adding a bunch of people. Do I think it’s better musically? Absolutely, I do. That’s obvious. More than that, it’s because it’s more fun. I get to invite more of my friends to come and do fun shit with me. “Hey, do you know how to play the accordion? Well, could you learn? C’mon!” There are very few joys in life, to me, that are sharper and clearer than performing live music with people that love doing it with. Having the opportunity to share that joy with more people is itself a reason to do it. Most of the people in the Roaring Twenties are not touring musicians. – they’re professional musicians, but they don’t spend their lives on the road the way Nick and I do [and LJ does]. It’s fun to invite them out. They get to take a break from going to their job to fly to London and play a show. It’s exciting.

That’s incredible! Now, Aaron West has a diehard following – us, included. When you first started Aaron West, was it weird to see the crowd expecting hard rock and then there’s an accordion? “Thunderbird Inn” plays and there’s piano keys playing!

Yeah, I think less about the music. It wasn’t people having expectations about what the music would be – it was the confusion about me portraying a character on stage. The percentage of the audience that knew that going in, the percentage that didn’t, and the percentage that didn’t was split into two subgroups. 

There was the percentage that expected the guy from The Wonder Years. Then there was the percentage that does not know Aaron West is a character. They found it because it got played on a radio station or it got playlisted somewhere or they read about it in a magazine. They had no idea that I’m in another band and that my name is Dan. There are these three separate factions to the crowd; the ones that are buying into it because the mass suspension of disbelief makes the story magical, there’s the people that don’t understand why I’m not saying my own name, then there are people that don’t know that it’s a story at all. 

That dynamic has evened out. Most people there understand what’s happening and are willing participants in the theater of it. If you go to a pro-wrestling show and see Seth Rollins, you know his name is Colby Lopez. You know he goes home to his wife and daughter, but in the ring that’s Seth freakin’ Rollins. Most people are now a part of that feel about it.

I was always curious about that, because you’re right – it’s such an ambitious and unique project that I’m sure at the start caused confusion. You do still have the aggression on this new record In Lieu of Flowers! On the track “Alone In St Lukes” and  “Spitting In The Wind,” you have grit that is found in a lot of these tracks.

This other interview I did was like, “How do you balance how much Wonder Years you put in the vocals?” My answer is just, “My voice is my voice!” I can’t sing with somebody else’s voice. That’s what is in my throat. I can try to affect it in different ways, but at the end of the day it’s still going to be me singing and I can’t shy away from that. I’m still going to do the things I think I’m good at. 

I agree! Your personality is naturally going to bleed into Aaron West. On We Don’t Have Each Other, you closed the album with “Going To Georgia” by The Mountain Goats – an amazing cover. If you were to close In Lieu of Flowers with a cover, what song would inspire you the most?

The thing about the head-canon and lore (it’s not pretty plain, but it’s in my brain about it), with “Going To Georgia” I always think that’s the song that came on the radio in “Runnin’ Scared” when he’s in his dad’s car and he’s like “Yeah! I will go to Georgia!” Maybe this is a boring answer, but it’s about that communal joy of playing music together. No one can orchestrate that better than the E Street Band. We did cover “Thunder Road,” but for this record it’s a little more of “Born To Run”.

I love that! That’s a good Jersey answer! Being a New Jersey magazine, could you tell us New Jersey’s importance to Aaron? Jersey is weaved throughout the entire record. If you could summarize New Jersey in the Aaron West story, how would you?

I think it’s a place of escapism to him. The first time you get it is when he’s hanging out in a friend’s yard. The first album, which is a decade old now, there’s a line that says, “I’m stuck on a memory of you dancing in a yard in North Jersey.” He and his wife lived in Brooklyn, they went to visit friends that lived in Jersey, and that is his happy memory. Then after the entire saga of We Don’t Have Each Other, we have Routine Maintenance. When he needs a place to settle down, he picks Asbury Park. It feels like a safe place for him, a little bit of a haven! I think that’s why we keep coming back to it, why we keep ending up in Asbury for these shows. It just feels like his natural resting place. 

That makes perfect sense. Being in New Jersey, the Asbury scene is so strong. You have huge bands and local bands that come in. For Aaron West to be painting houses in Asbury, like depicted on the second record, and then play a show at night, that’s believable. That’s what that scene is. 

Yeah! It felt really natural.

My last question for you is about a rumor floating around, and I’m curious to know the validity of it. Is it true that Fall Out Boy helped out on “Heaven’s Gate” from Sister Cities and you helped out during Fall Out Boy’s M A N I A cycle?

Half true! We were in the studio making Sister Cities. The funny thing is we were working on “Heaven’s Gate” this day, the day in question. Basically it’s Sunset Sound Studio, it has three rooms in it and the first room when you come inside is where we were working on Sister Cities with Joe Chiccarelli. The next room over it was Slipknot working on a new record. Then the third room (there’s a courtyard around them) was Dweezil Zappa working on a new record. I was in the courtyard. We would do a live take of the song, get the tempo feeling good, I would do a scratch vocal and then I would go live while they would track the instrument live again. I always went to the courtyard and shot hoops, put up free throws. Someone came out of Dweezil’s room and said, “Hey, are you a musician?” I said yes. “Are you here with a band?” Yeah, I was! “Well, we need someone to come in and do some stomps and claps in this song. Could you guys come over?” I grabbed the guys, went into the room, and said, “Hey, Dweezil needs up!” Everyone was like, “Cool! We’re doing some stomping and clapping on a Dweezil Zappa record!” We go over there and walk in and we see Andy Hurley from Fall Out Boy. What we didn’t realize was that Dweezil left the day before and they were doing drum overdubs for the M A N I A record. Even cooler! What are we working on? They start playing the song and the lyrics are, “Give me a boost over ‘Heaven’s Gate.'” I was like, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! We’re literally recording a song called ‘Heaven’s Gate’ two doors over!” In that chorus, the stomping and clapping is The Wonder Years! It was a crazy place to be to be making a record. You walk through the walls and it’s just Grammys and platinum records all over the place.