Sumthin' Else

February 21, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

 

Fans of punk rock know that a distinct line can be drawn from pop-punk masters the Ramones through Chicagoís influential Screeching Weasel up to Green Day, Blink-182, and finally to Canadaís latest exports, Sum 41.

To some purists, this makes the chart-topping, snot-nosed quartet five times removed from anything original or innovative. But these traits have always been overrated in a genre where all that really matters is whether or not a band serves up solid tunes with maximum energy. And on album (including the new ďDoes This Look Infected?Ē) and onstage, guitarist-vocalists Derick Whibley and Dave Baksh, bassist Cone McCaslin, and drummer Steve Jocz deliver the goods.

I spoke with Whibley by phone from the south of France as the band was on a tour that brings it to a sold-out show at the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine, starting at 7 tonight. (No Use For A Name, the Starting Line, and Authority Zero open.)

Q. You guys have made another strong record, but Iíve got to say, your live shows have always been where itís really at.

A. Thatís the best part of being in a band! Or the fun part, anyway. I really enjoy being onstage; a lot of times I feel like Iím not really myself until I am onstage, and then thatís really me. I donít really talk a lot in front of people; if thereís ever a group of like four people, I wonít be the guy thatís telling the stories. But if you give me 5,000 people and a huge microphone, then Iíll be able to talk.

Q. Whatís the wildest thing youíve found yourself doing in concert?

A. Sometimes Iíll climb up to the top of the P.A. speakers, and sometimes theyíre a lot higher than you think, or theyíre not very stable. One time I was in London, and it looked really high but it looked really sturdy, so I climbed up there and I was gonna do like a joking guitar solo and it just started shaking and I was like, ďOh [heck], this whole thing is gonna tip over!Ē I always drink before I go on, so my equilibrium is already kind of shaky. I had a close moment on that one.

Q. Iíve seen a lot of different theories on the Net for where the bandís name came from. What does Sum 41 mean?

A. There are a lot of different theories. But if you take a penny, a nickel, a dime, and a quarter, it all equals 41. We should have put some more effort into naming the band, but there it is.

Q. Take me through the groupís history.

A. Basically we were just a high school band that got lucky. We used to practice in our drummer Steveís basement, and we used to play these basement concerts and little crappy shows all the time. And then thanks to like the success of bands like Blink-182 and Green Day, every single record company went and looked for a pop-punk band. I guess we were starting to make some noise in Toronto where weíre from, so people started getting interested. Record companies started asking us for demos, and instead of sending out CDs, we sent out this video of us causing all this trouble in our hometown, like drive-by water-gunning people and egging houses and all this stupid [stuff]. And we put our music over it and it started getting circulated around to all these different record companies, and all the sudden we had like 12 labels that wanted to sign us.

Q. Doesnít that seem sort of absurd for a band that starts out in the basement, playing DIY shows?

A. Yeah, basically. It just happened to work. We werenít really expecting anything to work; we didnít really have a plan. It just sort of came out like that.

Q. You get the Green Day and Blink-182 comparisons all the time. How do you see yourselves fitting into the pop-punk spectrum?

A. I donít think we do, really. Weíve never really said that weíre a punk band or a pop-punk band. I think weíre just a rock band that has different influences. We have punk influences and metal influences, but we also have like slow and hard and fast and all different styles of music.

Q. So you werenít necessarily coming from the Lookout Records scene and bands like the Mr. T Experience and Screeching Weasel, like Blink and Green Day were?

A. Well, we like those bands, and I was definitely into punk-rock music, and we grew up with the So Cal Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph-kind of bands. We just never really considered ourselves one of those bands.

Q. What was different?

A. We listened to so many different styles of music as well. Some of my other favorite artists arenít punk-rock people; we listened to metal and just straight rock music, too, so itís just hard to say that weíre like a certain style of music or a certain band/

Q. What does the word ďpunkĒ mean to you in 2003?

A. To me itís not really anything because I donít really consider myself a punk. To me it doesnít really matter. But if I thought I was a punk, Iíd probably say itís just doing what you want really. Not like saying, ďDo what you want, who cares, Iím gonna just go beat the [heck] out of people ícause I want to.Ē Just not following what society has assigned to you.

Q. Make your own rules. Be yourself.

A. Yeah! Be yourself.

Q. Humor is a big part of what Sum 41 does. You donít take yourselves too seriously.

A. Weíve always had a good sense of humor I think. I donít think weíre all about jokes and funny and ha-ha, but weíve always been able to make fun of ourselves and other people. Thatís just the way we are. It wasnít like anything intentional, we just canít help it.

Q. The best rock íní rollóeven the stuff that is serious or heavyóstill always maintains that attitude of, ďIím not the center of the universe, anybody can do this.Ē

A. Thatís true. There are so many other bands that have come and will come that have done the same thing and more, so you canít really expect that youíre the [stuff].

Q. Still, youíre making a living doing this, youíre calling from the south of France, and 99.9 percent of everyone else making music isnít able to say that.

A. Yeah, I think weíre lucky in the fact that we are having success with a career that we love, and not a lot of people can say that, so thatís where weíre really lucky. And weíre just really thankful for it all, I guess.

Q. How do you know when youíve written a good song?

A. I donít know. Itís hard to tell when your own songs are good or not; I never know. So I just write a song that I like or that I think is done, and half the time I donít know if itís good or bad. I usually know when a song is good when everyone tells me it is. ďStill WaitingĒ was my favorite song on this record. It was weird because I was working on it and we were already in the studio recording the album. I just kept singing this little part over in my head, and I was like, ďI think itís good, but Iím not really sure.Ē I was too afraid to show anyone in the band or our producer. Finally after about two weeks of me singing this in my head, I played it for them and everyone was like, ďOh, thatís gonna be the best song on the record; finish it!Ē So for two days I just stayed in my hotel and finished the song and we went in and recorded it the next day, and it was the last song we did for the record.

Q. Was the immediacy of it that appealed to you?

A. I think so, but I donít know. It was just something different that we hadnít done before. It was something vocally that I didnít know if I could do; thereís a lot of screaming in it and Iíd never really done anything like that before. We just tried to meld two styles together with really heavy verses and really melodic singing as well.

I didnít know what to write the song about. It kept coming out not directly about 9/11 but somewhat inspired by the whole situation of the state of the world, I guess. And I didnít know if it was going to be too heavy or if I even knew what I was talking about, but it just kind of came up and I was really happy with the way it turned out. I donít know; itís probably one of the most serious songs on our record.

Q. As a Canadian, whatís your perspective on the U.S.? There seems to be a love-hate relationship with Canadians; American culture is inescapable, and our neighbors can be annoyed by our tendency to think weíre the center of the universe.

A. Yeah! [Laughs] I donít really have a whole lot of patriotism to say, like, ďCanada is so much better and Iím Canadian and I hate Americans.Ē Iíve never really cared about that. Thereís a lot of stuff thatís bad about both countries that a lot of people donít know about. I think a lot of people know weíre Canadian now, but in the beginning weíd be onstage and weíd be like, ďHey, weíre Sum 41, weíre from Canada,Ē and people would start booing. I thought it was a little ignorant, and people didnít know why they were booing, they just knew we werenít like them.

Q. Youíre smart guys; you know how ephemeral the music industry is. When the pop-punk craze blows over, the labels will move on. Where does Sum 41 go from there?

A. I think weíre gonna keep growing as a band. I think the three records that weíve had in the past three years, each record is like a draft for change. Weíre at such a young age that the amount of growth in a short time has been really big. Being our age and being put into this thing of traveling around the world and doing things that most 20-year-olds arenít doing, youíre kind of forced to grow up a little faster and you just become more aware of whatís going on.

The industry is what it is. People a lot of times forget that the music business is a business, and itís a really fickle business. I donít really care about it that much. I think weíre OK, because weíve always been able to sort of change with the times and grow as a band. You should always know as a band that labels change their minds very quickly, and a lot of times the record companies donít really know what the hell theyíre doing. But we could do our own records and our own tours easily; we could always go back to doing it ourselves.

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