Farewell Sum 41: A career of pain and pleasure

As Sum 41 call time on a career of fat lips and underclass heroes, we look back on how the Canadian party-starters cemented their spot in the pop-punk hall of fame…

Farewell Sum 41: A career of pain and pleasure
James Hickie
Live photo:
Federica Burelli

Evidently, the pop-punk lord giveth and the pop-punk lord taketh away. So while on the one hand we have the classic blink-182 line-up back and fully operational, setting enormous venues ablaze stateside, we’re also faced with the announcement that Sum 41 will be disbanding after 27 years as a band. And while admittedly the Canadian’s farewell will be a protracted one – after the release of their album, Heaven :x: Hell and an accompanying worldwide tour yet to be announced – it’s sad nonetheless.

Recently, this K! writer had some friends over for dinner. As the evening progressed and the drinks flowed more freely, the playlist choices began rolling back the years, transforming the group from 30-somethings with jobs and an inordinate interest in council wheelie bins to the hopeful young people we were when the tunes first came out. Suddenly, In Too Deep came on and glorious chaos ensued. So, too, did the questions. When did the song come out? 2001. What was the album it was on? All Killer No Filler. Are Sum 41 still around? Umm. While, in light of recent developments, the latter answer is more complicated, it's a question some have been asking for years, which does a disservice to the excellent music Sum 41 have made more recently.

Why does this happen to certain bands? Because they remain indelibly linked to the formative years of listeners. And so, for many, Sum 41 will always be the In Too Deep band, or the Fat Lip band, forever preserved in aspic, rocking out in an empty swimming pool or outside a convenience store. But simply seeing them as those bouncing, gurning dudes ignores what made them special in the first place.

Having formed in Ontario in 1996, Sum 41 suddenly exploded into the early ’00s, with the line-up of Deryck Whibley (vocals/guitar), Dave Baksh (lead guitar), Jason ‘Cone’ McCaslin (bass), and drummer Steve Jocz aka Stevo 32 (drums). Their music was fun and, equally importantly, its authors always looked like they were having fun playing it, which made them easy to love. And they weren’t just fans of punk. Like so many of us when we discovered ‘heavier’ music, they loved metal too, which they made abundantly clear with tracks like Pain For Pleasure and its bombastic video – a passion they’d weave into their music ever more on subsequent releases.

That’s another thing that made Sum 41 special: they didn’t take themselves too seriously – whether that was starting out as Kaspir, a NOFX covers band, lampooning the music industry’s early 2000s obsession with indie bands in the video for Still Waiting, or gamely sidestepping the slings and arrows of being figures in the public eye. The latter served them well because, like many of their peers, Sum 41 came in for some stick over the years, not least from Noel Gallagher. The Oasis legend, who’s almost as well-known for his withering put-downs as his songwriting, once described them as no less than “the shittest band of all time”. Deryck and co. didn’t let a seismic slight like that bother them, though, and made lemons into lemonade by including the quote in the press release for their second album, 2002’s Does This Look Infected?.

There have been some developments over the years that couldn’t be laughed off, however. When guitarist Dave Baksh quit in 2006, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’, it seemed the good times left with him, which is possible given Dave’s admission that his exit was due to things getting “too dark”. Just how dark would be revealed in 2014, when alarming pictures of Deryck emerged that showed him looking decidedly unwell. A blogpost entitled ‘Rock Bottom’ soon followed, in which Deryck opened up about a battle with alcoholism that resulted in him being put in an induced coma for a week.

“My liver and kidneys had failed,” he’d recall to K! in 2020. “So I was in the hospital for about a month and I was an outpatient for another four or five months, and then it was a year and a half, two years of recovery.” Pictures of Deryck in hospital during that period are heartbreaking to revisit – his face contorted with pain, and arms peppered by bruises. This vulnerability being seen by the world was by design, he revealed to K! in the same 2020 interview, and born from a selfless instinct. “I knew instantly it was important to me to let our fans know,” he explained of informing the people who, even in his lowest moments, were never far from his thoughts. “Because there’s probably people doing the same thing as me and it could happen to them.”

Incredibly, the profession that put Deryck on a destructive path was also the one that saved him. No sooner had he begun to put his life together, he re-embraced the touring life. It was the prospect of getting back onstage, the frontman has revealed since, that motivated him to strengthen his body and recuperate. Meanwhile, Dave’s return in 2015 was a welcome development. “I definitely needed to wash away all of the cockiness and idiocy I’d gained over the years,” the guitarist reflected in 2016. “About five years in [after quitting the band], I was champing at the bit to get back because I heard [Sum 41’s fifth album] Screaming Bloody Murder and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a record I’d have loved to have been a part of!’”

The two albums released since Dave’s return, 13 Voices (2016) and Order In Decline (2019), showed their prowess as a five-piece completed by guitarist Tom Thacker and drummer Frank Zummo, as well as illustrating the thematic and musical heaviness of a band deftly maturing on record. Perhaps, then, on reflection, the saddest thing about Sum 41 calling it a day is that it curtails one of their most contented periods.

Later this year, on October 22, Sum 41 will play at When We Were Young Festival, alongside Green Day, blink-182, The Offspring, Simple Plan and New Found Glory, to name just a few. It's a prestigious bill of bands that Sum 41 can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with, as the beloved soundtrackers of young lives, of parties and good times, heartbreak and bad ones too. What’s more, the festival takes place in Las Vegas, which feels appropriate given its a place where success and failure are drastically heightened, where fortunes are won and lost, dreams made and dashed. It’s a rollercoaster of a city playing host to a band that’s had a rollercoaster of a career.

In the statement announcing their disbandment, Sum 41 suggested they are ‘excited for what the future will bring for each of us’. It’s clear they don’t simply mean the five members – Deryck, Dave, Cone, Tom and Frank – but their devoted followers, or ‘skumfuks’ as they’re affectionately referred to. When that sad day finally comes and Sum 41 are no more, the band and their fans will lose something important, though both parties will be able to access the vital component that rekindles those memories: the music. And boy will we need it. I mean, honestly, who wants to waste their time and become another casualty of society, eh?

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