Sum 41: ‘Pop-punk was seen as paint-by-numbers nursery rhyme music. But there’s a lot of creativity’

For a generation raised by Napster and MTV, the video for Sum 41’s Fat Lip is up there with 9/11 news broadcasts and Sonia Jackson’s surprise baby on EastEnders among the definitive footage of the turn of the millennium. Backing one of the band’s sweetly snotty pop-punk songs, handheld cameras capture teens skateboarding with fireworks; girls get Chelsea haircuts; crust punks taunt the police. Strung together like every early 00s Saturday flashing before your eyes on your deathbed, Fat Lip – still with one of the brightest choruses in punk history – preserves the feel of a subculture gone mainstream.

It was included on 2001 debut album All Killer No Filler, but Sum 41 actually formed back in 1996 in Ajax, a small town just outside Toronto. They were still teenagers when they signed with Island Records, following the same path that catapulted Green Day and Blink-182 out of their local DIY scenes as A&R guys searched for the next poster kids for disaffection; All Killer No Filler’s songs were propagated everywhere from MTV and video game soundtracks to teen dramas and superhero blockbusters. At the band’s commercial height, frontman Deryck Whibley was a paparazzi magnet, dating Paris Hilton then marrying (and later divorcing) Avril Lavigne, prompting relentless tabloid gossip about his personal life.

“I think the world was looking for something to fill the void [left by Nirvana], and mid-90s punk rock came along,” says Whibley, also the band’s main songwriter and only constant member, speaking from his studio in Los Angeles.

Whibley is remarkably at ease considering how many storms Sum 41 have weathered since, which is a surprising amount for a band mainly associated with sunny riffs and water-pistol pranks. There was the near-fatal car accident early on that prompted original bassist Richard Roy to leave the band before All Killer. Members including lead guitarist Dave Baksh and drummer Steve Jocz have gone and – in Baksh’s case – returned. And the speed of 21st-century youthquakes, from pop-punk to emo, grime, crunk and new rave in the space of a few years, threatened to outpace a band that achieved the “rockstar dream” – complete with trashing hotels on mushrooms and sharing stages with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford – with their first two albums. At a party in 2003, Whibley received some prophetic wisdom from, of all people, Ice-T: “The only thing harder than being the mack is staying the mack.”

Whibley with Paris Hilton at the 2003 Kerrang awards. Photograph: Shutterstock

By the late 00s, that statement would prove true as Sum 41 struggled to fill 300-capacity venues. As flannel-and-beards indie usurped punk, they doubled down in the opposite direction. “We got heavier because that’s what we wanted to play,” Whibley says. “We’ve always done what we wanted to do – it hasn’t always worked professionally or financially, but that’s never bothered us.”

More urgently, Whibley has contended with some serious health struggles. In 2010 three unknown men attacked him in a Japanese bar, exacerbating a pre-existing back injury, and he began drinking heavily to self-medicate. He was hospitalised in 2013 and 2014 – almost dying from liver and kidney failure resulting from alcoholism – and again in September 2023 with pneumonia, facing the possibility of heart failure. He was discharged less than two weeks before the release of Landmines, the lead single from Sum 41’s upcoming eighth and final album Heaven :x: Hell. The word that comes to mind, I say, is exhausting.

Whibley shrugs, a mix of stoicism and rockstar bravado. “You go through these things and you get over them. There was never a thought of: should I change what I’m doing? It was always, OK, that’s done. Let’s get back on the road, put another album out, keep moving. I’m such a forward thinker naturally that if something happens I’m just like, well … gotta figure out today and tomorrow and that’s about it.”

But, after 28 years as a band, Sum 41 are calling it quits with Heaven :x: Hell, a double album uniting the two major strands of the band’s DNA – skate-punk and heavy metal. The 20 mostly high-speed tracks burst forward like they have something to prove, but the band didn’t know they were making their final record at the time – least of all Whibley, who was feeling refreshed after a pandemic-enforced break.

“When the pandemic started I was like, thank God I can take a break from this fucking band!” he laughs. “It’s all I think about.”

Sum 41 circa 2001. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

Meanwhile, he was being asked to write for other artists. TikTok had become a breeding ground for a new generation of alternative music, When We Were Young festival was celebrating emo and pop-punk legends, and mainstream artists such as Olivia Rodrigo, Willow and Machine Gun Kelly were turning towards the style. Suddenly everyone was in the market for 00s pop-punk again. “When pop-punk first exploded, it was looked down upon as a passing fad; paint-by-numbers nursery rhyme music,” Whibley says. “It took having some time away from it [for] people to see that there’s a lot of creativity there.”

Whibley, having not written in that style for well over a decade, wasn’t sure if he could even do it, but as an experiment, “I sat down and tried to write some stuff, and I wrote some stuff rather quickly”.

Two other major events propelled the album forward. There was the birth of his son, Lydon Idby, in April 2020, making him and his wife Ari first-time parents; the only music that would chill their baby out was, improbably, semi-old school punk such as NOFX and Pennywise. “It took my son to remind me how great that music was,” he says, finding meaning in it that transcended “stuff I listened to in high school”.

Then a few months later, the opportunity to sell his catalogue came up. He said no at first, but in another thought experiment, “I asked myself: what would it be like if I just had nothing all of a sudden? Would that be exciting or would that be depressing? Imagine waking up and starting from zero,” he recalls. So he sold up in August 2022 for an undisclosed sum. “And my creativity went to a new level almost instantly. I found myself wanting to write for myself again.”

The songs that came out first, including infectious lead single Landmines – the band’s biggest US hit since Fat Lip – had Whibley tapping into the same energy he had as a teenager writing All Killer No Filler. “When did I write all those songs? It was when I had nothing and I had to make my life happen. I had to go out there and make the band heard,” he says.

Breakup talks didn’t happen until the album was finished, but the lyrics are full of foreshadowing, opening with the lyric: “Time is just a fuse / It’s burning fast, nothing lasts.” On a subconscious level, Whibley says he knew what was coming, and had been burying thoughts of ending the band for years – but it was a shock when he eventually mentioned it to his bandmates. “Because my life is consumed by the band so everyone assumed: ‘He must love it because that’s all he does!’ And in my head I’m thinking: ‘They must know that I’m burning out because it’s all I do!’”

But he claims dogged perseverance is a Whibley family trait, and one that has served them all well. “I come from a long line of lower working-class [people]. Nobody has some crazy career, but everybody’s pretty positive,” he says. Now 43 and sober since 2014, he’s happy to “just get led down this path to where I’m supposed to be going. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes usually come when I intervene and I try to think about how things could be better. Every time I accept life and where it’s going to take me, it always seems to work out.”

Given rock bands’ tendency to un-retire, I ponder the chances of a reunion further down the line. “It’s a very strange breakup because we still love being on stage and we still love each other’s company, but that’s why I want to leave it on that note,” Whibley says. “You never know what will happen in the future – but I’m making a change and it’s very possible that I’ll never look back.”

Heaven :x: Hell is released 29 March


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