Mitch Wojcik

The Sad, Beautiful Story of Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties

Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell’s side project is a deeply real work of fiction

Aaron West had a bad year once, and has been recovering ever since. Aaron West is a guy from Brooklyn who lost his father, his wife, and their unborn child in the same year. He takes to the road, burying himself in alcohol, longing, and regret along the way. And then, of course, he does the only logical thing there is to do: He sings songs to audiences about his long journey to the emotional bottom.

Aaron West isn’t exactly real, which could either make him more or less fascinating to the casual listener. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is the side project of Wonder Years frontman Dan “Soupy” Campbell, a largely acoustic project he began in 2013 in an attempt to hone his guitar-playing skills. To call it a “side project” is both honest and a bit unfair to the project’s scope. It is a character study, more than anything else — Campbell writing prolonged fiction and then allowing himself to step into it in order to play the starring role in his own story.

While the music of The Wonder Years tends to rely on Campbell excavating his most personal emotional moments, the Aaron West project relies on Campbell’s ability to invent an entire world and populate it, with nothing to rely on but his own imagination and his ease with accessing universal emotions. The latter is something he’s been familiar with in his work with The Wonder Years, but the former is a real task, one that, for those familiar with his trajectory, has sharpened his writing in the past few years. Campbell is pop-punk’s great conceptualist, approaching each Wonder Years album to this point with a direct narrative goal in mind, and fleshing it out through the album’s unfolding.

With this in mind, Aaron West seems like a leap that should be simple, but it is an entirely different process and approach. It’s the difference between writing a poem and writing a novel, essentially. At the end of a song, the character can vanish, even if the character is yourself. The character can move on to another set of feelings, or another scenario with very little, if any, recall back to past themes. But Aaron West, person and project, is not a single-serving experience. To enjoy a single song is to immerse yourself in the story and experience, the way all good fiction works in chapters.

When Dan Campbell walks onstage at New York's Studio at Webster Hall and steps into the beam of light pouring down, he introduces himself as his other self. “Hey,” he says in a morose tone. “I’m Aaron West, and these fine gentlemen behind me are the Roaring Twenties.” It’s a complete commitment to the craft. For anyone who has ever seen a Wonder Years show, the onstage shift is notable — Campbell doesn't even break character when he tells a fan to stop crowdsurfing, an admittedly odd choice of behavior during an acoustic set about a man’s life falling apart. (“I ... uhhh ... I don’t think this is the appropriate musical outing for crowdsurfing,” Campbell-as-West says.)

Aaron West has a whole and complete story. For example, during the set, he stops in between songs to tell stories about growing up in a religious household that eventually caused him to sever himself from religion. Onstage, Aaron West wears an old Buffalo Bills shirt. This is his favorite team, a team passed down from his dead father, which he outlines in the song “You Ain’t No Saint.” It’s impossible to not see this as another layer of metaphor for the character: a loser team from a forgotten city, passed down to him from a dead father. Campbell, as Aaron West, lets the audience arrive at their own interpretation of sadness, as opposed to using every motion to carry them there.

For all this talk of emotional groundwork being laid, and Campbell thriving, again, off of his ability to unearth the narrative inside of the narrative, it must be said that the songs are also good. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties sound, at times, like a stripped-down Wonder Years that washed up on the Jersey Shore. There are horns, keys, the clashing of electric and acoustic sounds. In the sold-out Studio at Webster Hall, where space is limited, the band works together seamlessly, even when Campbell shakes off the somber persona and slips, in moments, back into some of his Wonder Years-like showmanship.

The project's musical arrangements vary in tone. Some are the expected slow and sad, like “Our Apartment,” the first track from the Aaron West debut, 2014’s We Don’t Have Each Other, the song that sets the table for the entire story, swelling with a dirge of horns while Aaron West describes finding out that his wife is leaving for good. And then there are the more upbeat offerings: “Green Like the G Train, Green Like Sea Foam,” from last year’s follow-up EP, Bittersweet. The song details West returning to the old apartment that his wife left, picking through the closet, reminiscing about the furniture that once was. What doesn’t get lost in this project is Campbell’s ability to sit inside the interior of a moment and archive all of its moving parts. It is why his approach to Aaron West is so meticulous, with each character — mothers, fathers, and ex-wives — having their own story to weave into the grander narrative of West. The theme of longing for a distant parental connection and the theme of longing for a life with someone even when you know the love has run out blend together and form a single, common thread that hums along underneath each song, heartbreakingly.

I’m interested in the ways we tend to limit sadness and what it can drive us to, as an emotion. It’s complex, the emotion that we’re most often asked to fight through in an attempt to get to the joy on the other side of it, without realizing that there might be small joys already hidden inside of whatever sadness we are currently existing in. On the surface, Aaron West is only asking for the direct thing: I have a sad story, and I want you to listen to my sad story. Beyond that, though, the story of Aaron West, through all of its drunken nights and broken cell phones and ill-advised long drives, is a story of making yourself comfortable with loneliness. And, personally, I’m not sure if I believe that to be sadness. The long journey into the abyss of loneliness might be filled with sad stories, but once any of us arrive, if there is no crawling out, the best thing we can do is learn to become comfortable with ourselves as our only masters.

So many of Aaron West’s songs sound and read (because make no mistake, this is a literary project) like a man talking to himself on a long and dark road trip, articulating his stories into the vastness of another empty road. It’s what I have done when I am both sad and not sad, an exercise to remember what it is to keep myself company with no expectation of reciprocal attention. This doesn’t mean that facing the emptiness, when it comes, will make me, or any of us, immediately less sad. But the best gift of the Aaron West project is imagining, for a brief run of songs, a person trying to retool their crumbling life with all they have at their disposal: time, space, regrets, and the ability to write.

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties are a full-length album and an EP into the story, and the songs weave together, leaving room at the end of Bittersweet to journey back to a more healing space. I was struck by watching the project played out in a physical space with a full band. The room at Webster was hot and intimate, and the act thrived in the space. Campbell is, quite plainly, good at making people feel the things he’d like them to feel. During “You Ain’t No Saint,” the scenery is so vivid that by the end of the song, it can feel as though you are also mourning this father that is not your own. During “’67, Cherry Red,” a briefly triumphant song about West returning home back north and preparing to sell his father’s old car to pay off some debts, I found myself almost celebrating, hopeful for West’s next chapter, even though I’d heard the song several times before. There is bringing a project to life on record, and then bringing it to life inside a physical space, especially when it is a project that requires this much of an emotional engagement. It is, I think, the difference between listening to an audiobook and holding the book in your hands, feeling the weight of it and pushing through the physical pages. To see Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties in person is a master class in an artist making a moment bend to them instead of bending to the moment.

The fan favorite from We Don’t Have Each Other is “Divorce and the American South.” It is a brutal and detailed account of West speaking directly to Dianne, the wife who left him. It is equal parts a plea for sympathy, a plea to get her back, and a diary entry meant to be read by no one. He tells her that he’s trying to quit cigarettes, he tells her that he wasn’t there for her after they lost their child, he tells her of the loss he feels driving through the South without her. The song ends on a haunting and painful image: West recounting a dream that he had about dying in a plane crash during a trip back north to see her. “You didn’t come to the funeral,” he sings, after describing his death. And then, before the song ends, “I hope you come to the funeral.”

It is that which strikes me as the most difficult thing: West pulling his funeral out of his dream-world and making it an inevitability. Even after we’re gone, we want to still be loved by the people who loved us once and then let us go.