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.”