Sum 41: Blow Up
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, December 2004
Are they a punk metal band or a metallic punk band? Sum 41 nuke the distinctions on Chuck, their heaviest album yet.
Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley and Dave Baksh possess the yin-yang bipolarity most great rock guitar teams exhibit in one form or another. Dave is a brown-skinned man of Guyanese descent. He’s focused, pragmatic, affable and talkative. Deryck is pale and scrawny, an archetypal punk kid, full of ADD fidgets. He’s reluctant to speak about himself and if forced to do so will generally respond in fragmented non sequiturs containing occasional flashes of insight. And while Dave is a happily married homeowner living in Toronto—not far from the suburban Canadian town of Ajax, where the members of Sum 41 grew up—Deryck has recently decamped to the bright lights and silicone-implant excitement of Los Angeles. He says he has a steady girlfriend, but he doesn’t seem certain on this point.
“I’m not single, but I’m not…like…I dunno. I’m still me.”
To put it another way, Baksh plays lead guitar and Whibley plays rhythm. Dave and Deryck’s itchy, fluid, push-pull guitar dynamic has always been Sum 41’s secret weapon. “Deryck has a great feel for the rock- and acoustic-type things,” says Baksh, “whereas my main stuff is leads and the metal parts. It’s really good to be able to record with Deryck. I don’t have the type of rock feel he has, and he doesn’t have the type of metal feel I have.” On their new album, Chuck (Island), Sum 41 venture outside the pop punk formula that made successes of their first two albums, All Killer No Filler and Does This Look Infected? They flirted with metal on both albums, but with Chuck they’ve fully embraced it. Songs like “No Reason” boast the muscular chug of downtuned guitars pushed to meltdown gain levels. And Whibley, the group’s lead singer and songwriter, seems to have caught a severe case of the tonsil-shredding scream-itis that’s making the rounds of the current modern rock chart.
“There was a lot of influence from the band Refused in that,” says Baksh. “Great band. We got to do a lot of gang vocals as well. It just seemed to fit what we were doing.”
Adds Whibley, “I tried to do so many things vocally on this record that I’ve never done before.”
In contrast, Chuck also contains some of Whibley’s most cherubic, melodic singing, often within songs that contain his most vituperative screaming. Juxtapositions of this sort—including tempo changes and mood swings—permeate the album. Whibley emerges as a kind of pop auteur on Chuck, strumming the acoustic guitar and even tinkling the piano, which he recently began to play in earnest.
“We’re going to get him a pair of Elton John eyeglasses,” says Baksh.
Chuck is the work of a band that has grown up but not wimped out. Whibley’s lyrics take on topics like mortality (“The Bitter End”) and self-loathing (“Angels with Dirty Faces”). The album’s first single, “We’re All to Blame,” is an elaborate emotional roller-coaster ride that alternates fits of sociopolitical rage with passages of elegiac, world-weary resignation couched in a haunting minor-key melody. Whibley deftly skewers the recent politics of paranoia with lines like “We spend our lives living in a culture of fear.”
“It’s basically about how we’ve come this far and what we’ve turned this world into,” he explains. “And a lot of it has to do with greed. That’s the moral of the song. It’s not about the war or terrorism or anything like that. It’s about how everybody, in some way or another, is at fault for the way the world is, because we all want all we can get. It’s human nature to want something for nothing, and as much of it as possible. So in that way, we are all to blame.”
Like many bands that arose from the turn-of-the-century pop punk explosion, Sum 41 are maturing. In their case, a close brush with death accelerated the process. On a trip to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, for the charity group War Child Canada, Sum 41 were trapped in their hotel when fighting erupted between the national army and a rebel militia group. They spent agonizing hours huddled together in a groundfloor bathroom while bomb blasts rocked the structure and shattered glass flew everywhere. After a harrowing evacuation from the hotel, they spent three days in an overcrowded United Nations refugee camp where, says Baksh, “there were still bullets whistling through the air.”
Thankful to be alive, the band members named their new album after Chuck Pelletier, the U.N. official who arranged their rescue and that of some 40 others. The adventure has burnished Sum 41’s pop punk brattiness with a newfound sense of global responsibility.
“We have a better understanding of what’s going on,” says Baksh. “Our first two albums are based on what was happening as we were growing up as teenagers in Ajax. But now that we’ve had a chance to travel the world and see how other cultures live, it’s given us a good insight to what’s happening over here. In the Congo, there are a lot of things going on that we have no idea about. We’re just oblivious to it.”
Deryck says “We’re All to Blame” is a direct outgrowth of the band’s Congolese experience. “I started writing it when I was in Africa, the day the war started. We got stuck there for three days, then we had two weeks of promo to do in Europe and the United States. The first thing I did when I got back in Canada was pick up my guitar, and I played this whole song perfectly, all the way through. I hadn’t recorded any kind of demo of the song because there was no electricity where we were in Africa.” Whibley couldn’t even call home and sing the song onto his answering machine, since cell phone service wasn’t available. “I couldn’t record it on anything. And when I got home I was really surprised how I remembered the song from beginning to end so perfectly. So I thought, Well, that’s definitely a special song. I showed it to the rest of the band, our producer—Greig Nori—and the record label and everyone was like, ‘Fuck, that’s better than anything on the record. You gotta record it.’ ‘Cause the whole record was finished before we went to Africa. But we took a few weeks to record ‘All to Blame,’ and that became the single.”
Whibley adds that they selected “All to Blame” to be the Chuck’s first single “because it’s a perfect representation of the whole album. This is our most diverse record. It has slow and soft and hard and fast songs. And ‘We’re All to Blame’ has all of that in it. It’s kind of a metal ballad or something. I dunno.”
Whibley and Baksh attribute this newfound stylistic diversity to the simple availability of time. “We actually took 10 months off,” says Dave, “which is the first time we’ve had a good long break since 2000.”
“We tried extremes of every kind of music,” says Whibley. “And in the end we just chose the best songs. Our first album was written when I was in the back of a van touring around, and the second record was written in the back of a bus touring around. This time, I went home, sat in my basement, wrote songs and recorded demos of them. I wrote for about four months and we went into the studio for about two months. So the whole thing took half a year, which is twice as long as our last record.”
Sessions for Chuck began at Sound City in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, where Nori recorded the drum tracks onto analog tape. From there, the project was completed in Pro Tools at a number of studios in L.A., Toronto and New York. “On the last Sum 41 album, I recorded the basic guitar tracks to analog, syncing two tape machines to Pro Tools,” says Nori. “But that just proved too cumbersome. When the guys were waiting to punch in a guitar track, it just took forever for the tape machines to chase to the punch-in point and lock up. We did A/B tests and the difference between analog and digital is negligible—especially since the advent of Pro Tools HD, which lets you record in 96kHz as opposed to 44.1 or 48.”
For every guitar part on Chuck, either Baksh or Whibley’s ax was fed into a Little Labs Distro two-in/six-out splitter box and routed to two or three different amps. Typically, they would use a recent boutique metal amp, such as a Diezel or Bogner, for a fat, yet tight, bottom end; a more traditional Marshall for midrange roar; and a small vintage combo for
brown tone sparkle and warmth.
“The star amps for this album were the Diezel Herbert and Bogner Ubershall,” says Nori. “For example, I might send the guitar to a Diezel with a 4x12 cab and to a Marshall JCM800 with another 4x12 cab, and at the same time it’s going to a little Fender Champ with a 10-inch speaker. Every time Dave or Deryck played, there were three amps creating the guitar sound. Then I’d usually have them double the part, using some other combination of amps.”
Other amplifiers that came into play include a VHT Pitbull, a Bogner Ecstasy, a Soldano SL0-100, a Marshall DSL 50 and a 1976 Marshall 200-watt bass head. Baksh estimates that, “on the song ‘The Bitter End’ there are five tracks of rhythm guitar,” the most employed on any of the album’s songs. “It’s kind of our tribute to Metallica, so we wanted the rhythm sound to be really massive. When you consider each of those five rhythm tracks was running through two or three different amps, that’s really like 10 or 15 tracks!”
Typically Nori places two or three microphones on each 4x12 cab: a Shure SM57 combined with either an AKG 414, a Sennheiser 421 or 451. With this many amps, speakers and microphones in the sonic picture, the potential for frequency and phase cancellation is immense. Nori avoids such unwanted aural phenomena by paying meticulous attention to amp settings and mic placement. “First you’ve got to check the phasing between each amp. Each output on the Little Labs box has its own phase reversal switch, which helps with this. Then you’ve got to check the phasing of anything you’ve miked in the room. The distance of the mics from the speaker is the whole trick to phasing. You actually have to bring a tape measure into the room and make sure that the distance between the mic and the speaker cone is identical for each mic.”
All of which brings up another benefit to working in Pro Tools: “You can see sound waves,” says Nori. “You can display the sound waves for each guitar track up against one another, and if you’ve recorded something out of phase, you’re going to see it. It will be completely opposite all the other waves, like a mirror image. In Pro Tools, you can actually go into that track and flip the phase after you’ve recorded it.”
Baksh and Whibley typically tune their guitars down a half step from standard tuning. Baksh will often drop his lowest string an additional whole step, down to C sharp. In the past, these low tunings have presented intonation and playability problems. But during the Chuck sessions, the band, producer, engineer Matt Hyde and guitar tech Dan Druff hit on the idea of using ESP and Yamaha baritone guitars.
“Baritone guitars are not supposed to be tuned up to E,” Nori explains. “They’re made to be tuned down to B or C. So I thought, What if we put some heavier strings on the baritone and tuned it up to E flat? The necks on baritone guitars are much stronger and longer than regular guitars, so you can put a much fatter string on and tune them to E flat. A Les Paul won’t play well if you do that, but a baritone guitar will. So we were using string sets with gauges ranging from about .052 to .012—kind of like if you had a G string from a bass guitar as your low E string and went up from there.”
Of course, loads of conventional guitars also were employed during the recording sessions. “With this record we got to experiment with a lot of guitar tones,” says Baksh. “We actually changed guitars for the metal sections of songs. The main guitar for the metal parts was an ESP LTD Max Cavalera model with Seymour Duncan JB pickups in it. It’s not an expensive guitar but it sounded really good. And for solos it was basically just my PRS Singlecut.”
Baksh’s main Singlecut is one he designed with PRS. It’s a copper-brown color—a nod to Baksh’s nickname, “Brownsound”—with a red racing stripe and a single Rio Grande Barbecue Bucker pickup in the bridge position. “There was no routing done for a neck pickup,” Dave explains. “There’s just a volume knob, and the electronics bay is about as small as a Les Paul switch. The thing has so much wood and so much balls it’s amazing.”
Dave’s PRS can be heard in blazing action during the “metal bolero” section of the song “88.” The fluid, legato, shred-fest solo sounds like it was tapped, or executed with the aid of hammer-ons and pull-offs. But Dave insists it was all picked.
“What can I say?” he says. “Internet porn keeps my wrist in shape. To play the ‘88’ solo, all you have to do is make your hand go as fast as it can for however many bars the solo is. Keep your hand anchored on the 12th fret. And it’s just basically a walk-down. Theorywise, I have no idea what it is, actually. I just play what sounds right.”
In contrast with Baksh, Whibley is more of a traditionalist in his choice of guitars. His main instruments for Chuck were a ’58 and ’59 Gibson Les Paul, a ’61 “SG Body” Les Paul and a ’68 Fender Telecaster. For the top-string embellishments heard during the verses in “No Reason” he used a Gretsch Angus Young signature model to double his SG. The two guitars were then panned to either side of the stereo field.
Whibley’s mid-Seventies Gibson Dove acoustic—“the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” he raves—crops up on several of Chuck’s songs. It can be heard on the “backward” guitar effect on “Some Say.” “That’s a sound from my original demo, which I did in Cubase,” says Whibley. “Many of those sounds from my demos are hard to recreate, so I just ended up flying a lot of that stuff into Pro Tools from my computer.”
“It’s always good when a musician is writing in something like Cubase,” says Nori. “You can preserve sounds that came from the artist’s gut instinct right when the song was created. Why would you want to reproduce something like that when you have it right there on the demo? Going from Cubase to Pro Tools can be a little tricky. You have to export the file and convert it to a WAV file. Sometimes the file gets corrupted—it doesn’t always work—but it can be done.”
Such a labor-intensive work ethic is certainly something new for Sum 41. But according to Baksh, it’s simply another manifestation of Sum 41’s burgeoning maturity. “When we made All Killer No Filler, we were basically going to strip clubs every night and blowing the recording budget,” he says. “But this time there actually wasn’t a lot of fucking around. We wanted to get the record done and get it out.”