What Does Pop-Punk at 40 Look Like?

What Does Pop-Punk at 40 Look Like?

The year is 2006. Your older dude cousin pulls up Sum 41's "In Too Deep" music video on a large desktop computer, behind the closed door of any carpeted game room across suburban America. You're thirteen, watching Deryck Whibley, Steve Jocz, Dave Baksh and Jason McCaslin as spiky-haired and scrawny teenagers, storm a high school diving meet. You laugh out loud as they perform their own disaffected loserhood, making goofy faces as they belly-flop off the high-dive. The perfect form of their competitors, toned and Speedo-clad jocks, signals soulless conformity and unutterable lameness. There's nothing dirty or particularly extreme about the upbeat track, which was originally a reggae song. But the door's closed because this is for kids: a celebration of breaking the rules, acting like an idiot, and sticking it to… something. It's the best thing you've ever seen. Please don't judge. It was the mid-2000's.

Sum 41's dirty jokes ("In Too Deep" is clean, but their debut album featured the song "Grab The Devil By The Horns and *** Him Up The ***), chugging stadium riffs, Beastie Boy-lite rapping and snotty teen nihilism first hooked American teens on their breakout album, 2001's All Killer No Filler. However, Whibley's spitting delivery and rapid BPMs were latched to chunky pop hooks that allowed Sum 41 to release six major label albums on Island Records and chart multiple top ten albums on the Billboard Hot 200. They were a little more sinister than Blink 182 or Jimmy Eat World (their fans call themselves skumfucks), but appealingly douchier (their rap-rock hit "Fat Lip" soundtracked American Pie 2) than their intellectual counterparts, Green Day.

Currently, pop-punk, scene and emo are experiencing a revival, after spending nearly a decade as critics' punching bag. A new era, nicknamed #20ninescene, has emerged as journalists and listeners have begun to appreciate how pop-punk bands provided early community around then-taboo issues like suicide, and also cathartic, mostly harmless — if crude — fun. Pop-punk's rebellion had a certain wholesome innocence and the ability, as New Yorker's Amanda Petrusich writes, "to express foolishness, and, by extension, true joy" that's once again become appealing to millennials.

It's mostly a coincidence that Sum 41's seventh album, Order In Decline, out today, arrives at this juncture. That's because, unconcerned with rock's radio death, Sum 41 has been happily releasing albums and packing the biggest venues of their career with the genre's niche but enduring global audience.

The question of how pop-punk — coming-of-age music — can ever grow up plagues every new release by a scene veteran. For Sum 41, the answer to that question has mostly been ditching the part preceding the hyphen. Though they'll always be associated with the juvenilia of their breakout, it's actually been a long time since Sum 41 sounded or acted like those knuckleheads falling off a high dive. Unlike most bands, who get more commercial throughout their career, Sum 41's mall and movie soundtrack-friendly sound pretty quickly gave way to harder metal and arena rock, as well emo ballads. The band traded parties and homework for subjects like the Iraq war, AIDS and general despondency about the world starting with 2002's Does This Look Infected. Their 2004 album Chuck was inspired by witnessing warfare in the Congo, and 2007's Underclass Hero was full of Bush-bashing anthems. While rock was being pushed out of the mainstream, Sum 41 was cultivating a stalwart old-school rock fanbase with the classic sounds of 2011's Screaming Bloody Murder and 2016's 13 Voices.

Deryck Whibley is 39 years old now. He was 21 when "In Too Deep" was released. He was 26 became one of pop-punk's most visible frontmen by marrying Avril Lavigne, and 29 when the three-year emo power couple marriage ended. He was was 34 when he very publicly hit rock bottom with alcohol, and 36 when he recorded his first album sober, 13 Voices.

The closer Whibley's gotten to 40, the less Sum 41 has sounded like a Warped Tour headliner, and more like a band that would share a bill with Iron Maiden. Order In Decline is the band's heaviest and most distant album from pop-punk yet.

However, there's certain circularity to the album. Order In Decline was inspired by Whibley's horror at watching the global conservative red tide from his hotel rooms on tour. The songs are occasionally time-stamped to Trump, like on "45 (A Matter of Time)" and "The People Vs…" but the collection builds on the gruesome imagery and condemnations of chaos and deceit, that can be found on Sum 41's Bush-era work. The band pairs them with a bigger, brasher, angrier sound than ever, translating their fear and rage directly into the volume, as well as cinematic, dystopic storytelling. The explosive political tracks are broken up by some of the most markedly adult and vulnerable topics Whibley's ever explored, including his marriage and relationship to his absent father.

Even when writing about a complex relationships or political anxiety, however, there's still something teenage about how Whibley writes and sings straight from his gut: all doom, drama and instinctive emotion. Order In Decline might be a perfect snapshot of the head of a 39-year-old rock star, grappling with the Trump age, but the naive clarity of that picture shows Sum 41 is still the band we fell in love with in our cousin's game room.

PAPER sat down with Whibley to reflect on Sum 41's career, pop-punk's legacy, and making rock music in 2019.

You've said that "the last thing you wanted to do was write a protest record." Why was that? It's not as if Sum 41 or pop-punk as a genre is apolitical.

I don't really consider if music works in a genre, or if people have done it in the past. I was just using music as an escape. When I started writing, I was excited to dive in and be in my own world. I didn't know what I was going to write about. That's how it always is: I just let stuff come out and whatever happens, happens. I realized where it was going, and thought, "Oh, this is not where I want to go. I want to escape from all the fucking chaos and the noise and the bullshit of what's going on in the world." It was impossible not to pay attention to everything that's going on. Especially traveling, the whole tour of the last record, everywhere we went, every country kind of has their own version of division and hatred and chaos we have in America. Everyone has their version of Trump –– it just seemed like it was different but the same everywhere we went and you couldn't get away from it.

The album is really dark and heavy. Is that where your head's at?

I'm actually a pretty positive person [laughs]. I tend to look at the world positively, but I can't ignore what's going on. History repeats itself, everything goes in cycles. This too shall pass, that's how I look at it. It is what it is. Is there a lot to look at that's positive right now? I don't know. I mean, sure my life is positive but there's a lot of shit going on in the world. It'll get better, it's just –– we're in that cycle right now.

The album is both more personal and political than the beginning of Sum 41's discography, which had a kind of jokester humor. What was that shift in your songwriting about?

Well, the music's always been very personal to me. We've had songs that have been just as personal in the past. Sometimes they get attention, sometimes they don't. On our Underclass Hero record, which came out in 2007, there's stuff on there criticizing Bush that made a writer try to have me deported.

Woah, back to Canada?

Yeah. I can't remember what prompted the whole thing. But they looked into trying to get me deported. Of course, they couldn't because it's just a song. It was now 12 years ago, so the news has definitely passed, but there was a moment where it was everywhere for a second. But yeah, so being political and personal isn't new to me, it's just different. It's another version, maybe hopefully it's a better version.

"I'm a pretty positive person and I tend to look at the world positively, but I can't help ignore what's going on."

"Never There" touches on your relationship with your dad, who's not in your life. What inspired you to write about that now?

It was a subconscious thing. I just sat down and it took like three to five minutes to write. I read it back and I was confused, like, "I don't want to talk about this." I've never had much interest in the fact that I never met my father. My mom was a great single mother who I have amazing relationship with. I never had to think about not having a father, to be honest. But I thought, "Well, it's obviously coming from some deep subconscious place." So figured I'd record it and maybe I'd give it away or it'd be for something down the road, a different project. But I was playing everything for my manager and I said, "I got this other song, it's not a Sum 41 song. I want to know what you think I should do with it." When it finished, he was like, "Why would this not be a Sum 41 song?" I thought, "It's not very heavy, the rest of record is on the heavy side," and he was like, "This is one of the heaviest songs you've ever written, just in a completely different way."

You mean emotionally heavy, versus musically heavy?

Exactly. Once he said that, it sort of opened my eyes to it. I thought, "OK, maybe it does belong on this record."

You're calling this your most aggressive album ever. There's this idea that punks grow up and calm down. As you've gotten older, have you ever found being 'an adult' in conflict with the ethic of emo and pop-punk?

I think the short answer is no. The reason why, is that I feel like our style changed so much over our career. I don't know if I ever really felt much attachment to that youth kiddie thing. We came up in a scene of bands talking about those topics, I don't know if we ever did. Maybe in the very early records. But from our second record, Does This Look Infected?, the first single off that record was "Still Waiting," a song about the Iraq War and George Bush. Our second single off that record was "The Hell Song" which is about a friend of ours who found out they had HIV. After the first record, we started doing our own thing. It's gotten into darker, heavier music and lyrics since then.

There's a lot of condescension towards pop-punk, chalking it all up to "youth angst," that doesn't really recognize those bands started writing about pretty serious shit.

We've always taken things and the world seriously. Sometimes it gets attention, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes that's our own fault because the songs just aren't as powerful or strong as they could be. Lyrics are not always obvious, so sometimes it's our own fault that people just glossed over it and assumed we didn't have anything to say. Even when you tell them you're saying something, they don't hear it.

Did you guys ever feel like you weren't taken seriously because you were a pop-punk band?

I think that was part of it. Part of it was just that our own messaging was not as strong as it could've been. There are two sides to the band, there always have been. There's the music side, which is what we've always taken seriously. I'm not really a very funny person. I'm more of a shy, quiet person who mostly cares about writing music. But we have four personalities and the side of us — there's some of us who are really funny. Often the goofy stuff got more attention than the quiet guy writing songs in the background. So, in a way, some of the stuff that –– because there is a funny element to the band, got more attention, because that's what this genre was about. It's easy to overlook some of the serious stuff in the music. Which was our own branding. We put those videos out. We acted like that in public. You hope that the music is going to stand for it –– and speak for itself.

Yeah, definitely.

It wouldn't have made sense for us, at the same time, to have been too serious. That isn't who we are fully either, you know what I mean? We were just being who we were, but there are a few different sides to us that people don't always see.

How has getting older changed the kind of music you make and the things you write about? You were 20 when you broke out, you're almost 40 now.

As we got older, the music got heavier probably because that's just where our minds were –– I don't know, like I said, I don't ever think about writing music, I just do it. But I think age is why it's gotten heavier, darker or more aggressive. I found out pretty soon after our first record, All Killer No Filler, with "In Too Deep" on it, I didn't really know how to write songs like that anymore. My brain just didn't go there. I didn't really write music like that.

Songs like what?

As light or as poppy, like pop-punk. My brain didn't really go there anymore. It went darker, heavier. When I tried to go back to that style, I didnt feel like I knew what I was doing anymore. It felt more, I was trying to write music instead of just letting music come out.

When you're trying intentionally to write music it doesn't work?

Nope. The only time I ever tried was on Underclass Hero. With that, it's not that I don't like the record, but it was uncomfortable writing-wise because it felt like I was trying too hard. At the time, I didn't think I was, but in hindsight, I could see why it was a struggle to me. I vowed to never ever try like that again. I would always just let it come out and hope for the best.

"Often the goofy stuff got more attention than the quiet guy writing songs in the background."

Do you mind touring with your old hits like "In Too Deep" or "Fat Lip"?

No, I love playing those songs. It's not that I don't like those songs anymore, it's just that I don't know how to write songs like that anymore. I mean I probably could if I really really had to for something, I could probably write a song like that, but I couldn't put out an album and feel confident about it. You know? When I say I couldn't, it doesn't mean that I can't actually come up with something like that. It's like I couldn't feel strong or confident about putting a record out like that.

Speaking of pop, what is it like to make pure rock music in an era when rock is pretty much on the margins?

Well, it's not on popular radio, but the rock audience is there. Our tours are bigger and better than ever and keep growing. When you travel and you play at all these festivals and there are 120,000 people at a rock festival, night after night around the world, you know the rock audience is not dead. The radio is playing pop and hip-hop, but you don't have to live in that world. I mean, we never were a band because we wanted to be on the radio. We were a band because we wanted to play live and be on stage every night. For us, it's getting bigger and better. So we're happier than ever.

So you're not bummed that rock is out of the spotlight.

Well, I don't like the music that's in the spotlight but that's fine. I don't know what's really going to stand any test of time. It seems to disappear pretty quick. But you know it's music for the moment and that's fine.

Is there any pop or hip-hop you listen to today?

I don't think so… I don't really pay attention. Nothing is really on my radar that I thought is really great.

Did you listen to Avril's new album?

No, is it out? I've heard the first two songs, or one song –– I know the one song, the slow one, "Head Above Water." But yeah, I don't know enough to really have an opinion or anything.

What kind of bands are you listening to while you're writing now? What current music is inspiring you?

I try not to listen to too much current music, especially when I'm writing because the stuff you listen to can creep into your own music. So I end up listening to stuff that I've always listened to like Tom Petty, the Stones, Aerosmith, I listen to Sinatra, I listen to some jazz stuff but I kind of listen to –– I like old Rod Stewart and The Faces, a lot of stuff like that. It's just great classic songs that I love and everyone loves. I don't care how many times I hear "Maggie May" or "Dream On," it still gives me chills you know. That's the kind of music I love.

I saw a lot of fans commenting on your first few singles off the new album, noting that you guys have stayed true to your sound. I think one said "Thank you for not twentynine-teening your sound." Do you take any offense to comments like that? The implication your sound hasn't really changed at all?

[laughs] No, not at all. For one, I really try to stay away from comments. But hearing that doesn't bother me. I think that's great! Because I'm not hearing anything in 2019 I think is any good. I mean there's some stuff that's sort of newer in the rock world. I think Liam Gallagher's solo record is fucking great, I love the first two solo Noah Gallagher records. That's not a brand new sound, but those songs are great. He's doing fucking well, so you don't have to do the pop thing to do well.

"No, I love playing ['In Too Deep' and 'Fat Lip']. It's not that I don't like those songs anymore, it's just that I don't know how to write songs like that anymore."

Partying was a pretty big part of the scene and culture you came up in. How has getting sober changed Sum 41 as a band?

Life just goes in phases. You do things for a while, then it turns into something else. I was just done with all that. I had a great time in my 20s partying and being on a tour bus, which is basically a rolling bar, every single night and all of us sitting up drinking and listening to music all night. I don't need to do that anymore. As I get older, it's not that my personality is changing as much as it's my priorities. That just doesn't interest me anymore. For one, that shit was going to kill me anyway so I had to make a choice. But number two, it just ran its course, and I prefer now to be sober.

I'm not sure if you guys know this, but there's a ton of nostalgia right now for emo and pop-punk. People are really excited to revisit that music and culture. What do you think might be drawing people to that moment?

I didn't really know that was a thing! But I would just say history repeats itself. When I was your age, everything from the 70s was nostalgic, King Cool, we had all these bands with a 70s vibe to it. Then, that changed and then it the 80s vibe and you had The Killers and the Bravery and a bunch of other bands. Now we're getting to the 2000s. When I was in high school, everything was about the 60s and everyone started dressing like 60s. It was so cool to come in bell bottoms pants to high school all of a sudden because it was just that time.

Are you nostalgic for that time?

Not at all. It's just as great right now, if not better. If anything, I really prefer what we're doing right now. We're playing bigger shows and doing better around the world than we were in that supposed "hey-day" of ours. Not that it wasn't great then, but if I had to compare, I'd say now is better.

You guys are a touring band. Do you think there will ever be a time you don't want to tour anymore?

I definitely don't think so, but if the day comes, I'll stop. I think most musicians feel like this, like all I want to do is this. I understand why Paul McCartney still tours, because you can't stop. I have that thing where I don't know if I'll ever want to stop. I mean sure it can get tough, when it's like "Alright I need to go home for a while. Let's take a year and make a record and just be at home." But every time I take a break, even when I say I'll take a year off, within about six to eight weeks, I'm ready to go back.

"When you travel the world and you play at all these festivals and there are 120,00 people at a rock festival, night after night around the world, you know the rock audience is not dead."

What's your weirdest fan story?

Okay, only one thing comes to mind, but it's not a good story, it's actually a bad story, really. There was this pornstar that was really obsessed with our drummer, Steve Jocz, when we were pretty young. She was like, I don't know 45 and we were probably about 22 or 23. She was obsessed, she flew around the world coming to shows, trying to hook up with our drummer. Then she started bringing her daughter along, who was really young too, trying to pawn her daughter off on one of us. We had to ban her from coming to the shows.

Yeah, you must have had to deal with a lot of crazy stuff as a young band.

It was not what we were expecting, but nothing really was.

Photos courtesy of Ashley Osborn