There are few stories as celebrated as the artist’s return from the brink of their own destruction. In the case of Canadian pop-punk outfit Sum 41 – or, more specifically, frontman Deryck Whibley – this timeless narrative rings as true as ever, forming the core of the band’s sixth studio album, 13 Voices. It’s impossible to talk about the band’s journey and the resulting critically acclaimed work without exploring Whibley’s widely publicised battle with alcohol – a battle he almost lost in 2014. But right now, speaking with us ahead of his return to Singapore, with co-founding guitarist Dave “Brownsound” Baksh reunited with the band, Whibley is on top of the world: “Everything is amazing and I can’t complain.”
For a band that has entered its 21st year of peddling heart-on-sleeve lyrics, power chord progressions and double-time drums, and continues to pull crowds in 2017 in the midst of an all-time high for pop music, there can’t be too much to complain about. What’s more, it’s no easy feat to rally enough fans to successfully finance an album, in an age in which music is often a perceived right, rather than a privilege.
Employing a crowdfunding campaign for 13 Voices – a first time for the band, and a somewhat desperate measure for one that has seen widespread success – even Whibley had doubts over whether the world wanted another Sum 41 album. “I think there’s always self-doubt when making an album. You never really know where it’s going to end up. You just do the work and hope for the best, really.” Taking a leap of faith and leaving it in the hands of the fans ultimately paid off, producing what critics seem to agree is one of the band’s most honest and accomplished albums to date.
Marking Baksh’s return following a nine-year absence, and the first album to feature drummer Frank Zummo following Steve Jocz’s departure, 13 Voices is inextricably tied to Whibley’s personal turmoil in overcoming alcohol addiction – one that doctors warned would kill him if he were to have had just one more drink. It therefore comes as no surprise that the album asserts a sense of urgency and despair from beginning to end, while seeing Whibley emerge from the ashes of personal destruction with renewed vigor and vitriol.
“We have a stronger relationship now with the fans than ever before. It feels more like a family.”
“It felt like a new beginning and a new band,” says Whibley on the new five-member formation, adding, “We sounded stronger than ever. It was really exciting starting back up.” Trading a bottle for pen and paper following the 37-year-old’s discharge from hospital care in 2014 – an age far younger than most would envision for the debilitating effects of alcohol abuse – Whibley’s struggle to regain his motor skills and the emotional ruin brought upon by addiction are translated through anthemic prose on each of the album’s 12 tracks.
On some, Whibley plays the role of a martyr, acknowledging the errors of his ways and accepting crucifixion – by the hand of a higher power, the media, the public, loved ones, or perhaps even his own. On others, Whibley plays the crucifier, returning from beyond the veil to hand down violent reprisal and judgment. It is, without a doubt, some of Whibley’s most candid and vulnerable work, but also some of his angriest. It’s within these contradictory stances that we find illumination, uncovering the ebb and flow of the frontman’s shifts from feeling abandoned and cast out, to rising above both internal and external demons.
“I like them all, but “Twisted by Design” might be my favourite,” he shares. “I like the melody, the lyrics and the sound of it all. It’s not fast but it comes off as pretty heavy, still.” The song is perhaps the most telling example of Whibley’s frame of mind, serving as an acceptance for past mistakes and using his “scars to bear” as a sobering reminder and source of strength, in both reconciling the past and moving forward.
While Whibley states that the self-produced, recorded and engineered album chronicles “everything I’ve gone through,” it also delivers the caustic anti-pop aggression that defined the band’s aesthetic during its heyday. When not exploring the concepts of redemption and the salvation of his soul, he spends the rest abdicating from those who have sacrificed their own. Snarling almost biblically on songs like “Fake My Own Death” and “God Save Us All (Death To POP)”, there’s an adamant stance of separation from those willing to sell their souls for a spot in the limelight – perhaps a plea born out of frustration, from someone who knows firsthand the difficulties in trying to reclaim his own.
Despite his own voice dominating charts, TV shows and radio waves in the past, Whibley appears to not only separate himself from the prevailing pop machine, but also the pop-punk resurgence on which Sum 41 stands at the forefront. Lending little time to hypothesise the reasons for the genre’s triumphant return, Whibley surmises, “I don’t know. I don’t really care or think about it, either. It might have something to do with the fact that most music is not very good these days – over-produced pop music with no meaning.” When asked what shape the pop-punk sound could possibly take in the future, including that of his own band, he similarly takes no liberties in speculating, adopting a ‘don’t know, don’t care’ stance.
What he clearly does care about, however, are his fans – and coming off the recently concluded Don’t Call It A Sum-Back Tour, he has witnessed the forging of a new bond between Sum 41 and its dedicated followers. “I think there’s a change in the relationship overall, since we’ve now been around for so long. We have a stronger relationship now with the fans than ever before. It feels more like a family.”
With an arsenal of new music and old favourites, and a five-piece formation to put on a performance that’s “bigger and better than ever,” fans who’ve been there since their metal-infused beginnings to new listeners recently inducted by the gospel of 13 Voices are assured that they’ll see the band at its best. “We always try to put on the best and most energetic show possible. We want people to leave the show having one of the best times of their lives,” says Whibley. In helping fans have the time of their lives, it’s evident that Whibley has renewed a new lease on his own.
Sum 41 performs in Singapore on 24 August, 2017 at ZEPP@BIGBOX. Tickets are $120 (free-standing), available at apactix.com.
Banner image by Gisela Jané – Fotografía.
Watch Deryck Whibley share on the punk and metal bands that shaped Sum 41 below.