35 years and four albums later, Mod Sun is finally ready to start the "grown up" chapter of his story.
A true punk at heart, the musician, born Derek Smith, has been constantly reevaluating where he belongs. Even before he made the pivot from hip-hop, Smith never settled down. From child athlete to drummer in various pop-punk outfits, rapper to solo pop-punk phenom, Smith’s nomadic upbringing reflected in his career path. It also almost killed him.
"'Alright, I don’t want to die.' Plain and simple," he confessed to PAPER. Between high-profile relationships and the never ending cycle of touring and recording, Smith’s addiction took a turn for the worse. "Battle Scars," one of the most soul-bearing tracks of his forthcoming untitled album, captures the euphoric explosion of sobriety and the ensuing mental clarity.
First teased two years ago, "Battle Scars" strips back Smith’s high-octane persona to reveal the complete picture fans don’t normally see. He belts, "I think the problem is you, is you, is you/ You think the problem is me,” on the fiery chorus, unleashing a pent-up frustration with the never ending cycles of toxicity in unhealthy relationships, whether it be romantic, platonic or even with substances. "I made this song with an amazing young team of writers and producers and it took on many different lifeforms to get to where it is today."
Following his engagement with pop-punk princess Avril Lavigne, a feature film with Machine Gun Kelly and an upcoming tour, Smith is finally ready to take the next step in his journey fresh-faced, happy and sober.
Listen to the PAPER premiere of "Battle Scars" alongside the exclusive trailer for the song’s cinematic music video and learn more about Smith’s second lease on life, below.
Your roots are in pop-punk and you pivoted from hip-hop back to those roots over your last few albums. The genre is seeing such a huge resurgence. What is that like to witness?
Growing up in what I call the pop-punk scene, or just "the scene" in general, it really did feel like such a community at all times. Kinda like our little secret world! I felt like the community side of music had been missing for a really long time, so the fact that this scene has made any kind of comeback, I feel like there's a community that speaks more for the outcasts than it does the cool kids. I like to amplify that voice at all times.
Sonically, I think a lot of people have been waiting to hear real drums and guitar again. You know, guitar is like the instrument of the decade! And I don't know if anyone really saw that coming. It had gotten so electronic for so long, and there's an energy that's added to music when you have real drums and guitar and real bass, and all those things. I think it's for music and the sense of community that comes along with it. It's super special. And then like, if you go and see any of these bands live, those shows are unforgettable. They really are unforgettable.
Did you have any specific influences you channeled in the making of this new record?
My influences are a lot of music that came before I was even born. You know, my favorite artist in the world is Bob Dylan. I think I go to him all the time for courage. Bob Dylan famously switched up his sound for every single album, and never did the same thing twice. I always look to him for fearlessness and courage. Not only that, I think he's one of the greatest lyricists of all time. As far as new artists go, an artist that screams courage and fearlessness that I really love is The 1975. I just think that they do things their own way and I love that!
“Part Of The Band” was so strange and confessional. It blindsided me.
That was like their comeback song and they just made the weirdest song, which is amazing, but it's also not what you'd expect. I just thought that was so cool. I just love a band that does things their own way and is ahead of the audience. Not in a way that's rude or not giving your audience what they want, but just someone who doesn't give you the same thing twice.
"I don't want to die and I need to make a change."
You’ve been sitting on “Battle Scars” for three years now. What made you feel like this was the time to release it?
Here's the story of the song: I've been sober now for three years, three months, 10 days. This was the first song I made pretty much right after getting clean. Due to that, it just holds like this entire piece of my heart. I would listen to this song every day over the last three years, literally, and the song's kind of like my best friend. It was something that was keeping me from sabotaging myself. And what was going on in my life, I knew eventually one day it was going to have to come out but I didn't know when it was gonna be the right time. With my personal sobriety journey, it's getting harder as the days go by. I needed to do something about that. As hippie-dippie as this might sound, part of me felt like letting this song out into the world. The first lyric of this song is "I like the first shot better than the last." I think that's my whole sobriety journey, you know? I feel like sharing the song with the world is going to help me be able to continue down this path and not sabotage myself.
In the world right now — maybe it's the post-pandemic, or maybe it's the influence of social media — mental health is at an all-time... serious place? I think this song could really help people. The baseline of this song is pretty much about choosing yourself. You will go out and serve this world, or you will go out and do crazy things for love, or you will go out and be a part of toxic situations. At the end of the day, you choose yourself. These are all the things that this song means to me. I'm about to go on tour for the fall. I'm about to be releasing a new album soon. Something in my heart is telling me now's the time.
It seems like the pattern with your latest singles, especially “Battle Scars,” is your desire to have your audience hold you accountable.
You nailed it. That's so much of what art means to me. I believe in the laws of the universe. If you say things out loud, they're so much more powerful. Other people hear these things and can hold you accountable. I put this song out there, and I believe this song can create a new audience that has never heard of me before. They add to the amount of people that hold me accountable.
You mentioned listening to this song almost every day. Do you normally listen to your music like that?
Do I listen to my music? Yeah, I do. But not to the degree of every day for three years. That was insane. Like I said, it was my best friend accompanying me on this journey that I was on. Anytime I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, I had this song to really make me feel good about myself and proud of myself. I've had other songs in the past that I think are great songs that I'm like, "Wow. This is something special. This is awesome." This song just felt bigger than me. It was something that I had every day to really keep me strong.
Congratulations on the sobriety. Was there a specific moment that you’d consider your turning point in pursuing this journey?
Definitely. Drugs almost took my life. I was fortunate enough that I got a second lease on life. I was able to look at that and be like, "Alright, I don't want to die." Plain and simple. I don't want to die and I need to make a change. For the first year, it's very self-indulgent. You're like, "Yeah, I can do this!" It makes you feel good about yourself. And then the second year, that feeling starts to wear off a little bit. Now it's the third year and it's very, very hard to stay in that mind state that it's worth it to do this and not throw it all away.
To be totally honest with you, I'm still in bed right now and I've been having a really hard last couple of days. I've really felt like throwing it all away for some reason, which is so strange, but it also makes sense that the week this is coming out, I'd have this car crash happening inside my mind. This song is there for me. I'm so excited for people to see this music video. I made a short film. It's not just a performance music video. It's a short film based off of Gus Van Sant's movies stylistically, and it's very "junkie derivative." I'm just so excited for this music video. I put my everything into it. Now I'm just in a little bit of a state of fighting with my fear of everything. I'm just trying to get back in the mind state of taking it one day at a time, but for some reason I just feel like this song has helped me stay the course. You know, I don't think it's selfish to do things in life and ask for things back. And I'm not talking about giving someone a gift and expecting that they give you something back. I'd call my sobriety a great trade! I've been in this music industry for almost 20 years, and I know that once I got sober, my music went to places that it had never been before. It's that great trade where I was like, I'm going to do what I feel is the right thing to make me feel good about myself and it's going to be really hard, but I want something in return. It's time for the next chapter of this journey, which is undoubtedly going to be even more difficult because I don't want to relapse. I don't want to go back in time. I don't want to self-sabotage. I'm in this amazing relationship that I would not be in if I was still getting fucked up, and I have this great life in front of me. I want to live it.
Both in the industry and adult life in general, so much of socialization is dependent upon substances whether it be drugs or drinking. I could imagine that being difficult for you.
In this industry that I'm in, it's not only a part of it, but it's celebrated. I definitely got my kicks and I definitely lived it up in those moments. I'm glad we're talking today. I probably shouldn't be spending an interview talking about feeling like shit, but I don't want to do false advertising. This is a real conversation that you don't get all the time with your favorite artists. A lot of it is just this glossy overview of what life is, and you're just expected to think that your favorite artist or the people that you like are perfectly fine all the time. These are the conversations that most likely mean the most to people. Lately, I've been looking at someone drinking and being like, "Would I be more fun if I was drinking?" That's the worst place to be in! I'm a pretty energetic, fun person to be around and I don't want to feel that way anymore.
Zooming out, you love film and recently released Good Mourning starring Machine Gun Kelly. What made you decide to pursue filmmaking?
Before music and before skateboarding, I came from a broken home and moved around a lot. I was raised by my mom with nothing. We were very, very poor and due to that, my mom was working her way up. We would be moving every year because my mom was doing better and better. She was a super hard worker and she wanted to give us a better life. We started with nothing and every year, we would move and get a little more. While doing that, I would make friends over that year then move to a different school and start again with no friends. My mom's thought was, "I'm gonna put you in sports because then I think you'll be able to make friends." Before anything, I was playing sports. I looked at my future in sports and I saw all these professional athletes and they could only be professional at one sport. I thought that you could be good at multiple things and you could take on wanting to do multiple things in life. At the point that I quit sports, I said I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be an artist. On my tombstone, I don't want it to say, "Here lies Mod Sun. He was a hockey player." I want it to say, "Artist, poet, director, designer," all these things because I just thought that's what life was about. I've always kept that in my head that it was possible to make that happen.
When it came time to really do these things, I started directing my music videos, and then from there, I got to direct other artists’ music videos. From there, it led to finally doing this movie last year. I got to do a short film for one of my albums in, like, 2015 and then we did a short film for Machine Gun Kelly's album. That led to us being able to do an actual film. This is something that I picture being able to dedicate a portion of my life to. When it comes to music, when I close my eyes and I listen to a song or I'm making one, I'm seeing a film inside my head. I think that's a trait of a visionary. Whether or not I'm a good visionary, that's debatable, but I think that's a trait of a visionary. I did that and I believe that anyone can do that. The basis of me doing any of these things is to show people that it's possible.
For this song, when it came time to make this film. I had been seeing this movie in my head for the last three years. I always say to stick to the vision inside your head. If you can just get even 50%, you're doing great. If you can get close, you're doing amazing.
"You will go out and serve this world, or you will go out and do crazy things for love, or you will go out and be a part of toxic situations. At the end of the day, you choose yourself."
It’s honestly super punk to just take matters into your own hands and do something, regardless of whether or not you know how to do it. What does the next most logical step look like for you after pursuing writing, directing, acting and all that.
The most logical step is getting to the highest place of my music endeavors, which means finally being able to have the live show that I've always wanted. There's only so much you can do on certain stages and there's only so much you can do within a budget. I want to have the production that I've always wanted to make. I've always wanted to have a Broadway play aspect to my live show. I want this next album I'm releasing to not just push myself to the place that I've always wanted to be but to push the sonic landscape of this scene that we're in right now. Listening to "Battle Scars," it obviously doesn't really live in the pop-punk scene, and that's purposeful. I want to continue evolving what this is and have people hear it and be inspired.
From here on out, I can't wait to get married! I can't wait to have a kid! I feel like putting my all into this next album so I can start to really enjoy the other parts of life.
To end this, you recently got engaged to your partner Avril Lavigne. How did your relationship play a part in this pivotal moment in your life?
Like I said, "Battle Scars" was made three years ago and that was where I was at in life. All these other songs for this album were made within the last year. A lot of it is like a love letter to her in so many ways. Just as far as the effect she's got on me, she's the most pure person I've ever met in my life. I wish the whole world could get to meet her the way that I know her. She's truly the most one-of-a-kind special person I've ever come across in life and she really loves me for who I am and allows me to share my feelings. I mean, we both support each other, but honestly, I've never been in a relationship where I have the support from someone like I have with her. I've wanted to be the best at things, whether it be the best artist I could be or the best designer I could be. For the first time ever, I want to be the best partner I could be for her. Further, I want to be the best dad. I've always wanted to be the best dad. These are all things that, because of her, have made me consider the growing up side of things.
I never wanted to hear people saying anything about growing up. I was like, "I'm gonna be a kid forever." And it's like, she allowed me to be the kid that I am, but at the same time, I want to be the best partner I could possibly be for her.
Photography: Pretty Puke
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