Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties Find Communal Joy in Dark Spaces

Dan Campbell sits down with Paste to talk about West's latest album with his beloved 15-piece band—the dense, cathartic and multi-dimensional In Lieu of Flowers.

Music Features Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties
Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties Find Communal Joy in Dark Spaces

There’s a picture that Dan Campbell particularly loves—one featuring hundreds of New Yorkers at a standstill in Times Square, all of them with their gazes sent upwards at a Panasonic screen stationed above a Quest for Camelot advertisement. Together, they’re all watching the series finale of Seinfeld. In 2024, a spectacle like that seems impossible to replicate. With streaming the new normal and us all having the capability of watching any episode of any television show whenever (and wherever) we want, to look back at that photograph—which was taken on the evening of May 14th, 1998—feels like stepping, albeit briefly, into another lifetime, if not another far-away universe entirely.

Likewise, when Campbell steps on-stage as Aaron West, he is entering another lifetime—one unfurling perpendicular to his own. The project—titled Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties—began 10 years ago as a “character study conducted through music” that’s spawned three dense, multi-dimensional albums about the titular Aaron, an Upstate New Yorker who, in a short amount of time, has been dealt an irreversibly bad hand. When we met him on “Our Apartment” at the introduction of We Don’t Have Each Other in 2014, he’d just lost his dad, his wife Dianne suffered a miscarriage and, sometime after, chose to leave Aaron for good. Much like how Dickens wrote “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” at the dawn of A Tale of Two Cities, for Aaron West on his new album In Lieu of Flowers (and the previous two LPs), it is, mostly, just the worst of times.

By the time I decamped to Van’s Warped Tour with my friends in 2015, I was largely aware (and appreciative) of the Wonder Years’ music. I knew Campbell from that band, having admittedly been active on Tumblr when emo and pop-punk were having a moment (and when coding your own site layout was still cool), but I wasn’t online enough about it to know that he had another project: Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. So, when my friend Jessi brought me to the Full Sail University acoustic tent at Warped to see Aaron perform, I had no idea who she was talking about. “It’s Soupy from the Wonder Years,” she insisted. “So it’s a Wonder Years set?” I replied. “No, it’s Aaron West,” she remarked, frustratingly. Cut to us sheltered from the encroaching afternoon heat by a bright orange canopy, shadowed by a bearded man in a Buffalo Bills T-shirt (specifically, a LeSean McCoy shirt, for the OGs) calling himself Aaron West. “I thought this was Soupy from the Wonder Years?” I asked my friend. I think there’s a part of me that, nine years and one good friendship with Campbell later, is still confused.

Campbell admits that, at the beginning, the choice to do shows in-character as Aaron was made flippantly—on account of him wanting to maintain some level of narrative continuity in the space between the LP and the performance. “It was this decision to say, ‘Man, it feels really weird to jump in and out of character in-between songs,’ when I was practicing for my first shows,” he explains. “So I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do the whole thing in-character. What is it, six shows?’ And then six became 12, and 12 became 24, and 24 became 48.” It was easy when he was touring We Don’t Have Each Other, because—as Campbell puts it—all he had to do was show up and be a guy whose life was “pretty recently in shambles.” When you put out a debut album of any kind, no one has an expectation of what it’s going to be. “When you make it and people like it,” Campbell adds, “you have to try and figure out what parts of it are immovable, what are the core elements that people connect to with it? They have to stay in the undercurrent of the project, no matter what.”

It’s been a decade now, and Aaron has lost everything, gone through redemption and lost it all again. He tried to outrun his own trauma by driving from the East Coast to the Deep South, went to Los Angeles and fumbled through open mics, started the Roaring Twenties and then left them to help raise his nephew and, now, is dreaming about dying and fearing not having health insurance during a global pandemic. What Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties represents is, at the project’s core, a document of fallibility, of imperfections alive and well in the human condition. The big, driving force behind the music is the injection of communal joy into dark songs and dark spaces, as Aaron walks a fine line between being enraptured in the ecstasy of performing live in front of audiences and, sometimes, being forced to reflect on the losses that brought the songs to life in the first place. “One of the big things that’s happened to him is that he’s found this chosen family—and sometimes real family, because his sister Catherine is up there with him,” Campbell says. “But it’s this band of people that he loves doing this with, and it brings him a great deal of joy.”

That band—inspired by the E Street Band in the “Born to Run” music video—has swollen in size over the last 10 years. While only six players were featured on We Don’t Have Each Other in 2014, the ensemble grew to a dozen on Routine Maintenance in 2019 and, now, clocks in at 16 on In Lieu of Flowers. The Roaring Twenties are no longer just an emo-adjacent folk-punk group; they are a machine dabbling in jazz, country, Americana and lounge music—packed with pedal steel, strings, accordion, banjo, three guitars, horns and keys. Together, Campbell and his longtime collaborator and confidant Ace Enders have crafted an often-immeasurable ecosystem of vibrant, damning lyrical grief personified into rhapsodic instrumentation—all while refusing to skip a crucial period in Aaron’s life.

Likewise, there’s been no time-jump in his story. We Don’t Have Each Other ended in the winter of 2013 and then, in the spring, the three songs from the Bittersweet EP arrived. In the summer of 2014, Aaron was living in Asbury Park and painting houses on “Lead Paint & Salt Air,” while “Rosa & Reseda” took place for the entire year of his and Rosa’s lease in California in 2015. This last decade, Aaron has used NFL wide receiver Sammy Watkins getting traded from Buffalo to Los Angeles and then Kansas City as measurements of time; the spring often takes shape as a perennial hope that the Mets will win the pennant; true romance is defined by teenage recklessness’ timeless abandon, full of picking fights, hopping fences and pop tunes playing on repeat. 2016, 2017 and 2018 marked the years he and the Roaring Twenties spent on the road, and “Wildflower Honey,” “Runnin’ Toward the Light” and “God & The Billboards” took up the better part of a year each. Routine Maintenance was released in May 2019 and In Lieu of Flowers picks up there immediately—on “Roman Candles” and “Paying Bills at the End of the World” and “Monongahela Park,” which trace the entirety of the pandemic, covering two-and-a-half years in three songs’ time.

But to understand In Lieu of Flowers, you have to first retreat to the five years that passed between the first and second Aaron West records, when Campbell fine-tuned the persona. As Aaron, he would tell stories in-between songs that very earnestly painted greater portraits of a life many of us had already bought into the magic (and the grief) of. If you spoke to him at merch tables before and after shows, you were speaking with Aaron (he’d even autograph everything in-character, and I have the flask to prove it). He’d even scatter cover songs across setlists to emphasize Aaron’s life in ways stage-banter couldn’t, like Rilo Kiley’s “More Adventurous,” the Mountain Goats’ “Going to Georgia,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and, at that Warped Tour performance, the Weakerthans’ “None of the Above.” I remember watching Aaron perform “More Adventurous” at Mahall’s in Cleveland, Ohio on a much-too-hot summer night, witnessing the “if I get pregnant, I guess I’ll just have the baby / let it be loved, let me be loved” lines cut through the crowd’s silence in-between renditions of “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe” and “Runnin’ Scared.” It all felt deliberate and lived-in, as if one of the books on the shelf had come to life before our very eyes and ears.

When Campbell began writing Routine Maintenance, he realized there was a constriction present, because he had spent a handful of years telling audiences that he is Aaron West. Such a performance had become canon and unmovable, so he grabbed a bunch of calendars and started highlighting dates that he was on tour with the Wonder Years. To make Aaron’s life feel as real in actuality as it did on We Don’t Have Each Other, he and Campbell couldn’t be in different places on the same night—regardless of whether or not anyone was putting in the effort to fact-check those logistical details. “I was like, ‘Okay, if I’m here, then I can’t be there. This has to line up, it has to click,’” he says. “I made all those calendars line up and told that story through Routine Maintenance. And then, when I finished writing it, I realized it doesn’t have to be just constricting. It could be a tool for pushing the story forward. It could be to our advantage.”

While We Don’t Have Each Other found some semblance of resolve in Aaron making it to the Carolinas and waking up in the company of shorebirds, Bittersweet offered listeners a real sense of closure to that part of his story—selling his dad’s old car, returning to his and Dianne’s old apartment (which was now being sublet by a college student) and dreaming of his prized possessions floating out on the waves off of Rockaway Beach. But on Routine Maintenance, we watched Aaron live five years of his life between Asbury Park and Los Angeles, finally making it as the singer-songwriter he dreamed of becoming and striking up a band (“I’m not sure there’s a future there, or that there’s got to be, but it felt good to have purpose,” he sings on “God & The Billboards”—only to abandon it all when Catherine called to tell him that her husband passed away suddenly. His story, which was once haunted by the spectre of Dianne’s missing presence, had finally come full-circle; it was his turn to shoulder a loved one through losing a spouse.

But in Campbell’s eyes, the fact that Routine Maintenance came out means that Aaron made it right (with the label, with the band and with himself) after going home to help Catherine raise her son. “Aaron, as a person, is someone who takes his commitments or tries to honor his commitments,” Campbell says. “He falls short of it all the fucking time, but he wants to do it right—and especially at that point in his life, when he getting some semblance of being counted on back—I think that he would feel, at that moment in time, that it is his duty to the people that believed in this project and agreed to put out the record, to tour it. But with that level of inconsistency and touring, there’s no way that the band would come back to do that.” In turn, Aaron did a US and UK tour completely solo in the winter of 2019 and, while on-stage, told crowds that, though he was happy everyone came out to see him play, he was missing his band.

And that is where we regroup with Aaron West in “Smoking Rooms,” the opening episode of In Lieu of Flowers. He is playing a show in Asbury Park (doing Routine Maintenance in full) and, unbeknownst to the audience, believes that it will be his last—because he’d rather be at home taking care of his nephew instead of gigging solo. So, if that set was to really be Aaron’s last, he wanted to have Catherine come on-stage and sing with him. But Catherine had other plans for her brother, as she called up the Roaring Twenties and had them surprise Aaron on-stage while he’s playing—effectively getting the band back together.

“Smoking Rooms” exists in two parts, beginning with Aaron performing alone atop a deafening blanket of crowd noise (which Campbell captured in-between songs during a solo show)—which was recorded in one take with only one mic set up in a room to, as Campbell explains, make the sequence “feel as unproduced as possible”—making noticeable mistakes and sounding exactly like what you’d expect a bummed-out guy playing guitar by himself to sound like. The second part, which features a pan-flash mirage of horns from the Roaring Twenties, arrives hastily—meant to mimic the way Aaron himself was taken off-guard when the band joined him on-stage in Asbury Park in December 2019. “I missed you motherfuckers bad,” he confesses at the song’s end.

Campbell’s knack for narrative dates back to elementary school, when he took a writing workshop (“I did it, really, just to hang out with my friends; I was not interested in writing yet,” he protests, despite beaming with pride over the football rule book he wrote in order to get accepted into the program in the first place) and was told that, if he was going to develop a character, he should be able to answer any question that that character is asked. “You should know them well enough. I like to try to think that all of the decisions that are being made are being made with the understanding of who this person is and what they’ve been through and how that would affect their reactions to different things, different occurrences in life and just try to build a character that feels lived in and logical and rational,” he says. “I don’t want to make any story jumps that you’re like ‘Why would he do that? It doesn’t make sense for him.’ Everything I want to happen, I want you to say ‘Yeah, that feels exactly like what Aaron West would do there.’”

When sculpting the loose, yet compelling and logical, storylines that take up Routine Maintenance and In Lieu of Flowers, Campbell thinks about in television terms—where each album is a season and each song is an episode. It’s why you end up with a cliffhanger like the introduction of Sam as a character in “Paying Bills at the End of the World,” or why Aaron has nowhere to go at the end of “Bloodied Up in a Bar Fight” and ends up heading west on the following “Bury Me Anywhere Else.” But, as Campbell was looking at the macro of a micro life continuing to unfold, he was starting to doubt whether or not Aaron’s redemption was earned, whether or not the grace given to him came because the hurt grew too unnoticeable.

“With Routine Maintenance, there was a lot of healing happening,” Campbell says. “But it felt like there were these things that were plaguing Aaron that were humming in his head, and the hum got quieter and quieter to the point where it could be ignored. He was ignoring it because other things in his life felt good for the first time. His relationship with Rosa felt good—he had a friend—playing music felt good, getting with the Roaring Twenties felt good, being there for his family felt good. But none of those problems were ever addressed. They just got quieter. And, when you don’t do the work to actually confront past trauma, eventually it’s going to bubble back through.”

That line of thinking is why, on In Lieu of Flowers, we see Aaron go out and do the real work to try and heal the wounds that first began haunting him on We Don’t Have Each Other. Campbell wanted to see him arrive in a place where he was no longer ignoring any of it, a place where he’s meeting it head-on each time and moving forward. And for a few songs, Aaron did just that. “The band shows up when everybody’s done their shifts, we play through all the changes I wrote in marker on my wrist,” he sings on “Roman Candles. “And we talk about the future, like we’re begging it to kick our fucking teeth in.” But all roads lead back to his parting words at the end of “Routine Maintenance” five years ago: “I’m gonna be someone you can count on for a change,” he sang, declaring he was going to, finally, make it right. The thesis statement of In Lieu of Flowers, though, is that you can’t ignore wounds forever—we have to be able to count on ourselves, too. Suddenly, Aaron losing his dad, his child and his wife—paired with his “nail bomb” heart, “suits in the halogen glow” and the “fucked up thing about hope”—pointed his compass back to an old friend at the bottom of a bottle.

On We Don’t Have Each Other, Aaron made numerous references to his alcoholism—both past and present. On “Grapefruit,” it was the “if I start drinking, I’m gonna be town drunk” line; on “You Ain’t No Saint,” it was “I grew up and grew dull” and “like gasoline to matches.” He used to drink heavily in college but now he doesn’t. “He’s been able to tamp down his problems with drinking and just be like, ‘I’m gonna stop,’” Campbell explains. “But he never admits it’s a problem, he just ceases. He knows that, somewhere in him, that it is an issue—but he just doesn’t drink sometimes.” It’s a pattern that Campbell has noticed in people in his family who have struggled with alcohol, this disinterest in examining what’s perpetuating the cycle of addiction. That lack of desire to heal, it’s aching in Aaron, too.

From “Smoking Rooms” through “Monongahela Park,” though, Aaron’s avoids throwing himself into a drink, splitting Cokes at sunset and nursing seltzers at college bars. But once “Alone at St. Luke’s” hits and Aaron goes on tour with the Roaring Twenties in London, he’s drinking again. “He tells himself it’s celebratory,” Campbell says. “‘This isn’t the bad kind of drinking that I’ve done before, this is the good drinking, where we’re all excited and we’re celebrating coming back from a pandemic and it’s okay because it’s a good kind of drinking and I can handle that.’” By the end of “Alone at St. Luke’s,” the drinking is just drinking for Aaron. There’s no longer any delineation between good and bad drinking. He’s spiraling, using wine as a coping tool for his grief and the physical pain of the broken hand he got from pouring concrete in-between tours. It crops up disastrously in “Spitting in the Wind,” when Aaron sings “Yeah, I’ve had a few drinks to steady the nerves / Rosa could tell, I’ve been slurring my words” upon returning to Los Angeles and the “lifetime of bad luck” waiting for him there.

“It just becomes untenable,” Campbell admits. “And he almost fucks up everything again. And, at that point, there’s the realization that, ‘If I want to continue on this fucking mortal coil, if I want to stay on the ride, I got to do the work to actually fix it. I can’t just ignore it and pretend it’s not a problem anymore.’” In turn, Aaron checks himself into rehab on “Runnin’ Out of Excuses.” Suddenly, he has hope in a place that smells like a hospital and hosts meetings twice a day. Through the shakes and pill lines and the “cosmic fucking miracle” of existing at all, flickers of Aaron’s dad and Sam and Dianne and Rosa turn aglow and wash away. “I’m writing a love song, singing at brick walls, getting my voice back,” he cries out. “I’m patching up new faults with resin and sea salt, fill in the old cracks.”

Campbell famously lives an alcohol-free life, but he does have a relationship with the drink—one borne out of witnessing it destroy a few lives close to him. But, to ensure that Aaron’s relationship with alcohol and sobriety was depicted with a type of kindness rooted in truth, Campbell made sure to do research that would do the topic justice. “I spoke with a number of friends that are in different phases of their journey with sobriety and with drinking and was just like, ‘Hey, just tell me about it,’” he says. “I took notes and then, when I would work on lyrics, I’d run it by them and say, ‘Hey, does this feel true to you? Does this feel like I’m accurately portraying and capturing this feeling?’ And, through their generosity and sharing with me, I think that we got the record to a point where everybody feels like that feels visceral and real.”

Campbell often talks about the parallels between Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties and pro-wrestling, because it’s the only art form where “what happens in front of a live audience changes narrative moving forward, changes the arc of the story moving forward.” “No two nights are the same,” he says, “and everything is serialized live in front of you. And things that we don’t have control over—for instance, a pandemic—are also part of that story. They have to be, we don’t get to pick it.” The COVID-19 pandemic plays a crucial role on In Lieu of Flowers, with “Roman Candles,” “Paying Bills at End of the World” and “Monongahela Park” all taking place across a two-and-a-half-year span during quarantine. And including that detail of Aaron’s story was non-negotiable for Campbell. “Part of the full commitment to [Aaron’s life] being parallel [to ours] and in this timeline is that everything happens when it happens,” he says. “When I’m onstage, I’m Aaron and that person—briefly, for those 90 minutes—exists in this universe and it means that, when he gets off stage, he’s still in this universe. [The pandemic] had to be there. Part of that commitment is dealing with what comes, and I certainly didn’t expect that to be what came. No one did.”

The way that Campbell initially sketched out “Alone at St. Luke’s” in his head did not include the Roaring Twenties’ drummer Nick Steinborn testing positive for COVID, nor did it include him sending the rest of the band home and having them all test positive themselves a few days later. “Once Aaron didn’t have a drummer, there was no way full band shows were going to happen,” Campbell explains. “He just woke up every day, took a test, went to the venue, soundcheck, took another test before he went on stage and stayed negative and kept playing. That was really not what we planned to happen in the story, and it just meant that, okay, we have to pivot. We have to find a way to make the story now adhere to this reality that has unfurled before us.” To make that jarring transition feel even more alive, Campbell and Enders “scored the story” by cutting tails off the reverb so the track comes to a striking halt that, ultimately, hits listeners like a freight train.

Sitting on the Wonder Years’ tour bus last October, Campbell explained to me how he was going to save the last three songs of In Lieu of Flowers for the album’s release show livestream at Asbury Lanes on April 11th—how he planned to have his own Seinfeld finale moment for Aaron and let everyone experience those final songs together. Campbell has even timed the release of the album so that it won’t come out in Australia before they play the Asbury Park gig this week—it’ll come out at 12 AM eastern on April 12th, not 12 AM local time. “Most people would say, ‘Hey, that’s stupid. You’re undercutting your own streams,’” he says. “It’s just worth it to me to get the show off first, to have the finale be a secret until then. It’s like when they ask me ‘Hey, do you really need 15 people on the stage?’ I do.”

While the Wonder Years and Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties have, mostly, existed as separate entities for Campbell, it’s hard to not look at the former’s most-recent album, The Hum Goes on Forever, and consider the parallels in his songwriting there and here, on In Lieu of Flowers. This is not to say that both LPs are mutually or thematically exclusive (they’re not, save for the overarching sense of purpose in the wake of global atrocities bending our mortal coils), but that it’s clear how, over the last three, four years, Campbell has been paying attention to continuity on the, by his estimation, six albums’ worth of material he’s written for himself and for others. On Hum, though, he and his longtime bandmates used imagery and lyrics from their 20-year lineage together to make a stirring, resounding text about mortality and fatherhood in a post-pandemic world. On In Lieu of Flowers, Aaron West drops nods to songs like “Grapefruit” and “Carolina Coast” and “St. Joe’s Keeps Us Safe” and compares singing about Dianne to Dolly Parton still singing about Jolene. We feel like we’ve known Sam forever, and we find ourselves wanting to check in on Rosa, too. There’s Eric and Aaron’s mom and the band. They’re all still learning how to live a life without someone else in it. As The Hum Goes on Forever and In Lieu of Flowers both argue, the damage doesn’t ever leave, hope just finds its color again.

I won’t spoil the ending of In Lieu of Flowers, as I look forward to experiencing those last few verses with everyone else in just a few days. But I do ask Campbell if Aaron is doing okay once the album concludes—if, when it’s all said and done, it’s about more than just redemption or salvation for the Roaring Twenties’ bandleader. “I believe he is on the right path,” he replies. “At the end of [In Lieu of Flowers], he is given a test—to a degree. ‘Are you going to be consistent and reliable for the people that love you and that you love? Are you going to do the thing that you promised to do? Or are you going to see this triggering thing and fall to pieces?’ And I think, by nature of the fact that the record is coming out, you know that he did the thing that shows he can be consistent for people and he can show up on time.”

The obvious question that will crop up after Friday will be: Is this the end for Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties? Dan Campbell understands the unknowable nature of the future—that, if he does put out another Aaron West record five years from now, he’ll be 43 and will still be raising his two sons. “I want to give you an ending,” he says, “but I never really know what’s next.” That’s the beauty of Aaron West—when I get off the phone with Campbell, I can’t help but immediately wonder where in the world Aaron is and whose song he’ll sing next. For what it’s worth, my money’s on his own.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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