Sum 41: Teenage Rock & Roll Machine - Rolling Stone
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Sum 41: Teenage Rock & Roll Machine

Canadian pop-punk rockers Sum 41 hang out with older women, break stuff and videotape their crazy antics – by request!

Deryck “Bizzy D” Whibley has a question for Toronto: “Who here saw us a week and a half ago at the Warped Tour?” Blink-182 are the headliners tonight, but this is Sum 41’s hometown; the audience of 10,000 screams an affirmation. “Well, it just isn’t your month, is it?” Whibley replies. “We’re doing the same show with the same sh*tty songs.” Then Sum 41 launch into “Motivation,” a perfect three-minute blast of pop punk. Nobody seems disappointed that they’ve heard it before.

The performance is as high-energy as the music: When the members of Sum 41 leap in the air, they corkscrew a full 360 degrees before they land. Steve “Stevo32” Jocz attacks his drum kit like it’s a rabid animal that needs to be subdued. Whibley teaches thousands of Canadians the Sum 41 salute: four fingers extended on one hand, just the middle finger on the other. “It’s great to see punk rock with personality,” says Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, observing from the wings.

By the time the band gets to its hit single, “Fat Lip,” from its platinum second album, All Killer No Filler, the crowd is in a full lather. Whibley sings the anthem of teenage dissatisfaction: “I don’t want to waste my time/And become a casualty of society/I’ll never fall in line/Become a victim of your conformity.” He wrote it in defiance of the band members’ parents, who wanted their sons to go to college and achieve middle-class respectability. Now the crowd sings along lustily, affirming Sum 41’s belief in themselves as mavericks. This rebellion has an embarrassing hitch, however: In the front row, cheering loudest of all, are Sum 41’s parents. They’ve arrived at the concert in cars with custom license plates: SUM41DAD, SUM41MUM and SUM41ROX.

The four members of Sum 41 are all funny, articulate and polite. They are also red-blooded young Canadian men, ages twenty to twenty-one, who consider their journeys across this continent to be excellent opportunities for enjoying the naked female form and destroying other people’s property.

In their adolescent years – not very long ago – Sum 41 would consort with the young female fans who wanted to prove their enthusiasm for the band. But recently, in a display of newfound maturity, they were mortified to discover that the girl whose buttocks they had just signed with a Sharpie was only twelve years old. Or as Whibley puts it, “We kind of got over young girls. Now I’m into girls who are older than I am. There’s not too many of them at our shows, but you see them at bars.”

Guitarist Dave “Brownsound” Baksh and bassist Jason “Cone” McCaslin both have steady girlfriends, to whom they are faithful. “Me and Dave are the cock-block-blockers,” McCaslin says. “Steve and Deryck will bring in girls, so it’s my and Dave’s job to take the girl’s friend, talk to her. If that girl stays with her all night, Deryck’s getting nowhere. She’s blocking the cock. And we’re blocking the cock-blocker.”

The other favorite Sum 41 distraction on tour: breaking stuff. Whibley remembers, “When I was six years old, I loved the sound of breaking glass.” To achieve the same happiness as an adult, he has been known to shoot out all the windows in a hotel room with a BB gun. During the MTV Campus Invasion Tour, an evening of drinking Jack Daniel’s with the band Saliva degenerated into throwing bottles through hotel windows and slashing tires. “Whiskey does bad things to us,” McCaslin says mournfully.

Around the sixth time Sum 41 returned a rental van with the interior trashed, their manager, Greig Nori, lost his temper. The group didn’t have any money, so the damages were coming out of his pocket. Sum 41 are good friends with Nori – all five of them have matching “41” tattoos just above their right elbows – so they speak with a little awe about how he chewed them out.

But now that Sum 41’s appetite for destruction has burnished their reputation, Lyor Cohen, president of Island/Def Jam Music Group, has made them an offer. Jocz repeats Cohen’s proposal: “I want you to go out there and f*ck sh*t up. I will pay for it.” Cohen’s one condition is that the band must record its mayhem on videotape, so it can be shared with the youth of North America.

“They’re nice kids, very respectful,” says Cohen. “I told them not to put so much cerebral cortex into it. They should enjoy themselves – we’ll pick up the trail of mayhem.”

Cohen was with the Beastie Boys during the Licensed to Ill tour and says the destruction is vastly greater with Sum 41. “The Beastie Boys were much tamer,” he says. “Sum 41 are a multiple of them.”

Jocz is the band’s clown, the one who came up with the best line in “Fat Lip”: “Trashed my own house party ’cause nobody came.” McCaslin, the quietest member, is the “glue gun” that holds everything together. Baksh, the son of Guyanese immigrants, is the band’s driver, gofer and – to his dismay – its most responsible member. He winces when anyone calls him the band dad.

Baksh describes Whibley: “He’s kind of short. His hair’s spiky. He’s got stains on his shirt, stains on his pants – he’s a supersloppy eater. He’s kind of shy at first, but once you get to know him, he’s really friendly. He’s a great songwriter, and a better guitar player than he thinks he is. And a good guy to have as the frontman of the show.”

All four members of Sum 41 grew up in Ajax, a suburb about thirty miles east of Toronto. They give me a guided tour of the town’s highlights, which takes about ten minutes: the high school they hated, the punk club where they used to play, the one decent restaurant, the train station that took them to the freedom of Toronto.

At age eleven, Whibley started a rap trio, Powerful Young Hustlers. They worked up a number of songs, including “I’m a Witness,” a tale of seeing a murder. Whibley’s mother gave him a dollar whenever he rapped for her – his first inkling that music might be profitable. He moved on to a Nirvana cover band, and then to a Weezer-obsessed group. When he entered ninth grade, he discovered skateboarding and started hanging out with the school’s rockers. “I almost didn’t like Steve at first because he was such a burnout,” he recalls. But Jocz soon joined an early version of Sum 41. At the same time, McCaslin had a grunge band, Second Coming, while Baksh was part of 747, a Rage Against the Machine sound-alike.

Whibley wasn’t getting along with his divorced mom’s new boyfriend. He spent a lot of time sneaking out of the house, catching the midnight train to Toronto. When he was home, his mom and her boyfriend would complain that his music was too loud. So at night he would sit with his guitar in the back of his car, in the driveway, writing songs.

When he was sixteen, Whibley went to see a show by Treble Charger, a band with several hit albums in Canada. After the show, he struck up a conversation with the singer, Greig Nori. Six months later, Treble Charger played another local concert, and Whibley persuaded Nori to see a Sum 41 show.

“He sort of had hair like me,” Nori says. “So there was a little-brother thing going on. I went to see the show, and they had great energy. Steve was so fast, he blew me away.” Nori took the group into the studio to record some demos. He started off giving Whibley advice and eventually became Sum 41’s manager. “It’s like the movies,” Nori says. “You find a protege he becomes your equal, and then he passes you.”

Sum 41 went through multitudes of guitarists and bassists. On weekends, Whibley and Jocz would prank-call ex-members and egg their houses. But Whibley finally managed to steal Baksh and McCaslin from their bands, forming an Ajax supergroup. After Whibley graduated from high school in 1998, his parents wanted him to go to college. Nori helped convince them that Sum 41’s prospects were worth pursuing full time. “I told him he had to make it in two years, or get a job, or go to school,” says his mother, Michelle, an OR nurse. “I used to call him every morning at 10 a.m. – I wasn’t going to have him sleeping all day.” The band made home videos for its own amusement, featuring remakes of action movies and footage of the members driving around, drenching pedestrians with Super Soakers. In late 1999, they edited the footage into a ten-minute montage with music and sent it off to a bunch of major labels.

Within a week, there was a full-fledged bidding war. They picked Island and released the EP Half Hour of Power in 2000. This spring, they put out All Killer No Filler, which they call their first real album, although it’s only three minutes longer than the EP. The album is twelve quick blasts of pop punk, with lyrics mostly concerning apathy (“Motivation, such an aggravation”) or breakups (“I don’t wanna hear you bitch no more/I was better off a year before”). Produced by Jerry Finn of Blink-182 fame, it’s filled with radio-ready choruses. “Fat Lip” showcases the group’s rapping skills, while “Pain for Pleasure” perfectly satirizes Iron Maiden. Both tracks indicate that Sum 41 may have the power to transmute their skate-punk genre into something new and surprising. “We don’t want to make another record that sounds like the last record,” declares Whibley. “I hate when bands repeat albums.”

Whibley fidgets a lot and often breaks objects just because he can’t stop handling them. But when he holds a guitar, his hands move confidently and fluidly. On a Friday night, Sum 41 are in the Toronto studio Metalworks. The band is overdubbing some live tracks with Nori, improving the sound so they can be released as European B sides. Whibley plays the rhythm track to “In Too Deep,” suddenly looking mature and square-jawed. Then it’s Baksh’s turn. The first time he recorded his vocals for “Pain for Pleasure,” on All Killer, he surprised the band by using a falsetto squeal the members had never heard before. Now, in the vocal booth, he pulls his shorts up high on his waist, the better to produce a castrato tone on the final, absurd line, “Satan is his name!” Whibley almost falls out of his chair laughing.

Jocz, the author of the “Pain for Pleasure” lyrics, is missing all this, since he’s in the studio lounge, watching TV and eating his dinner. There’s a soft-core porn movie on; as Jocz chews his hamburger, a naked blond woman caresses herself. Asked how her breasts feel, she says they’re “round and soft.”

Jocz shares his philosophy of how in the Eighties acts such as Motley Crue represented rock decadence. “It changed. White rock bands got really lame – they have broken hearts and all that sh*t. But the hip-hop guys, like DMX, they’re badass with strip clubs and booze. That’s what we want to be doing.” Right now, however, the autoerotic blond is giving him too much of the good life. “I can’t watch this and eat ketchup and salt,” says Jocz. He switches the channel to South Park.

From Jocz’s point of view, the band’s success provides him with more opportunities to goof around. Recently, a Web site posted the number of his cell phone, resulting in a flood of calls. So now Jocz has a new way to kill time on the road: He prank-calls random people who phoned him. “They’re calling me because it’s this childish thing to do,” he says. “I’m ten times more childish than them.”

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