Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley: “I woke up to see my mum standing over me, and I knew instantly: ‘Okay, this is bad…’ ”
When Sum 41 frontman, Deryck Whibley awoke from a coma in 2014, with his arms attached to a tangle of drips and tubes in hospital, a fresh perspective was in place: life had taken a big-time dip.
Five albums into a seven-album career, and with a back catalogue featuring some of the most recognisable cuts from the post-millennium pop-punk boom, Deryck had tumbled towards rock bottom. Partying in the wake of Sum 41’s 2001 platinum-selling All Killer No Filler, and its sequels Does This Look Infected? (2002), Chuck (2004), Underclass Hero (2007) and Screaming Bloody Murder (2011), had taken its toll. The singer’s kidneys and liver had failed through heavy boozing. He was unable to walk, or even thrash at his guitar in frustration.
“I had to relearn how to play,” he says, resting at home in LA. “I had to teach myself how to walk again. I spent half the day in physiotherapy, then from the evening into the night I was trying to write music and relearn how to play instruments. Everything was starting over. It was a really strange time. My whole brain and body felt like it was starting from the beginning again.”
The results of this reboot was 2016’s 13 Voices, an album that saw a return of original guitarist Dave Baksh, and featured Tom Thacker on guitar, Jason McCaslin on bass and drummer Frank Zummo. And last year, they released their 4K-rated Order In Decline record, before being booked to headline Slam Dunk 2020 (now happening in 2021, due to obvious reasons). Recent live opportunities have worked wonders for Deryck’s rehabilitation, now zoomed in on music rather than hitting the bottle. “It might sound boring, but what I like to do is I love to go to concerts,” he says. “I like to watch great movies. I love to work on music and be in this band. I just bounce around from those things all day. And I do it all with my wife. We have a great time together…”
All of which sounds very wholesome and healthy indeed. A far cry from where he was just six years ago…
When you came round from your coma did you have any idea what had happened?
“The first thing I saw was my mum standing there, so I knew instantly, ‘Okay, this is bad.’ My mum lives in Toronto and I’m in a hospital, and I knew it had to do with drinking – it had to be. And after a couple of days of back to normal, it was just a clear choice of, ‘Okay, I’m done with that shit. Obviously it’s not working.’ And I was bored of it anyway. You can always try to have the greatest night of your life by drinking and partying, and doing the same thing over and over again, and thinking it’s going to be the greatest and you’re going to top something. But you realise you’re actually just getting bored. You’re searching at that point.”
How had it got that bad?
“I noticed it was taking a turn when I didn’t even like myself when I injured my back, for probably the third time. I have a herniated disc and it’s a chronic issue I have to deal with, which is really painful and debilitating. If I’m managing it, I’m fine. But when it flares up, it’s really bad and it got really bad. I started self-medicating because I realised that if I had a couple of drinks it always went away. For the first time in my life I started drinking when I didn’t really feel like drinking, or there wasn’t a party. It was to self-medicate my back injury, because I didn’t want to go on medication.”
“I looked at it as: I can take all these drugs – opioids that are killing everybody, which I’m glad I didn’t get on to – and I thought, ‘I’ll just drink.’ (Laughs) In the end it almost killed me, too. And once they turn and your body becomes addicted to it, it gets really hard to shut it off.”
What had booze done to your body?
“My liver and kidneys had failed, and you definitely need those to keep living. 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 about a year and a half, two years of recovery. I think getting out on the road was, surprisingly, what kept me healthy because I was forced to start moving around a lot more, and building my body strength back up by being onstage every night. The first thing we did out of the hospital for me was the Kerrang! Tour in 2016. I didn’t know how I was going to be on that tour. That was a real question mark for me, what my body was going to be like. After the first night I was like, ‘Let’s go, this is amazing. I’m back.’ But leading up to that was terrifying.”
Were you worried about the temptations of being back on the road?
“Like most people I started when I was a teenager. When you’re newly sober and you’ve been drinking for that long – my entire adult life – you don’t know any other way. Everything is a question mark. Yeah, you don’t know if it’s going to be tempting, but you don’t know if going down to the store is going to be tempting. Thankfully for me everybody’s different. And I don’t know why, but I never felt that temptation. I wasn’t really drinking for any other reason than to have fun and for my back pain. Since I’m having fun and I don’t have the back pain right now, maybe that’s the reason.”
You posted a lot of vulnerable pictures from hospital. Were you sending out a warning signal to fans?
“Yeah, definitely. I felt that if I was going through that, there had to be so many other people going through it too. It’s what you always realise: you’re never the only one. You may feel that you’re unique, but you’re not. I knew instantly that it was important to me to let our fans know, because there’s probably people doing the same thing as me and it could happen to them.”
Did Sum 41 ever indulge in anything harder than booze?
“No, not really. That was the one thing we escaped, I guess. The appeal to me just wasn’t really there, or to the rest of the guys. I don’t know, it was more of a sketchy-feeling vibe. With drinking, I never had hangovers. That’s why it always seemed doable; it was always easy, you could do it every day; it always worked the same. I didn’t really ever feel that bad and that just became my thing of choice. Jack Daniel’s or Grey Goose vodka, they were my two. The problem was, by the end my tolerance was so high that I could easily drink a bottle if I was drinking vodka, or Jack I could finish the bottle for that night. My high tolerance was my biggest downfall.”
Does it shock you that it’s been over 15 years since the release of Does This Look Infected?
“It does because it went by so quick and it doesn’t feel that long ago. I guess that’s how life is. Everything feels like it was yesterday. Well, at least for me it does. No, it doesn’t make me feel old at all. The Does This Look Infected?-era, Chuck, All Killer…, they were probably the hardest partying years for the band. It felt like it was a non-stop rolling craziness. I don’t know how we were able to do it, but it felt like it was never stopping. Work and partying.”
What was a typical night out for you at your peak?
“It just depended on where we were, what era we were in; what time of my life it was, what were we doing… Were we in the studio? Am I at home? Is it on tour? It wouldn’t necessarily be the same thing every time. When I was home, making [2011 album] Screaming Bloody Murder, I’d rented a house in the Hollywood Hills. I was newly divorced [from singer Avril Lavigne] and single for the first time in a long time. I had other friends of mine living with me and I was trying to write and record the album and it was great. We would hang out and drink cocktails all day, record music all day and by the evening we would usually go out in Hollywood. There are no nights off in Hollywood, and there would be a crazy party at some club somewhere. Even on a Sunday night on Christmas Day. Which I’ve done and Prince was there…”
“Yeah! I’ve been in LA for 15 years and I know a lot of people. You roll up to a club and me and my friends would get a bottle of Jack given to us, we’d have our table and it would be in the best part of the club. On this particular Christmas night, Prince was next to our table. He just floated right in and sat next to us. That’s what Hollywood is all about, I guess. We tried to talk to him, but his bodyguard wouldn’t let us. The weirdest thing was he was there alone with one giant bodyguard at the end of his table, so we thought, ‘He’s all by himself. He obviously wants to talk to somebody…’ So we went over there and the bodyguard said, ‘No, no, no. Don’t even try.’”
Are you surprised that Sum 41 has lasted as long as it has?
“Yes and no. Yeah, I am surprised because I know how hard it is for things to stay [the same]. During the days of Does This Look Infected?, I remember meeting Ice‑T. He said, ‘The only thing harder than being the mack is staying the mack.’ And it’s totally true. I’ve always kept it in the back of my mind. I feel if you work hard enough you can keep it. Maybe we just work hard.”
Did the success of All Killer No Filler catch you off guard?
“It did, but it also didn’t because I never felt it was that big. I always thought, ‘This is doing well.’ But it always seemed that other people felt it was bigger than we did. I know we felt it was almost like an embarrassment in a way, having success. It wasn’t what we were expecting, so we didn’t know how to handle it, and we always felt a little self-conscious about it. All of a sudden we were onstage with a lot of bands we’d grown up listening to. I felt it was like we didn’t quite belong. I remember the time that we played at Reading & Leeds [in 2003] and Metallica were on the bill. We were a few bands apart from that. Looking back we felt intimidated. We got asked to do the Metallica Icon show for MTV [in 2003]; we opened the whole thing for them and then ended up hanging out with those guys. They had compliments to say about our band. That felt like, ‘Wow. That was not what I was expecting. Metallica knows who we are…’”
How have you changed as a songwriter since you first started?
“I don’t know; I find that I don’t change that much. The one thing I’ve always done and I still do is that I have to play through a Marshall amp, loud, and make it feel like it’s onstage for me. I don’t write with an acoustic guitar and for the most part I play like I’m onstage. If the song starts feeling like it’s gonna work live, that’s how I get excited about it. If I can envision the crowd while I’m sitting in the room then I feel like I’ve got it. For the first four albums I would always write something and immediately listen to it in the car. I would make a little demo and drive around listening to it and I would make my new ideas by driving around. And I got away from that in the middle of our career and I’ve gone back to it, and now I’ve gone back to it, I can’t believe that I ever got away from it. It’s where music makes the most sense.”
You worked with Tommy Lee on 2005’s Tommyland: The Ride. What was that like?
“Tommy Lee is one of my favourite drummers of all time and he’s such a great guy. We’ve been friends for I don’t know how long, but playing with him was great. We toured with Mötley Crüe and there was a huge party in Tommy’s room every night after the show. His room turns into a dance club. It’s packed. He’s got huge PA speakers, everything is on stun level and there’s a whole lighting rig in there. You’re in a club all of a sudden. And that was every single night.”
Did you feel comfortable with fame in those early years?
“No, I don’t think I’ve ever embraced it. I don’t think it’s ever felt comfortable. I still act awkwardly when people come up to me and I don’t really know why. I think I’m a pretty shy person. I can usually talk to people if I feel like I’ve known them, or I feel comfortable, but I just always felt uncomfortable probably because of my shyness, which was helped a lot by drinking. I used that as an excuse a lot of times too. It helps me to be more social because I’m really awkward and other people feel uncomfortable because I feel uncomfortable.”
Did that intensify when you were married to Avril Lavigne?
“Yeah… well, it didn’t. When people talk to me and they say they love the band I usually think, ‘Okay, do you think I’m somebody else?’ So when the Avril thing happened, as a couple I never really felt that anyone thought we were a cool couple. If anything, I know our fans, a lot of fans, didn’t like the fact that she’s a pop singer, which to me, obviously, I didn’t care about. I never really knew if people either hated the fact that we were together or liked the fact that we were together. We stayed friends. We don’t see each other often, but we’re totally fine.”
While you were filming for War Child Canada in Congo, war broke out. Charles ‘Chuck’ Pelletier helped you to escape and inspired the name of the 2004 album. Did you stay in touch?
“We did for a long time. He’s got a couple of gold and platinum Chuck records hanging on his wall. I have no idea what he’s doing now because it’s been a while. He’s Canadian too, so whenever we played Vancouver he came to the show.”
Are you amazed you got out of the Congo alive?
“Yeah, definitely. We were amazed back then and we’re still amazed. It’s funny, that Congo trip comes back to my mind quite a bit. It was a crazy experience and you always know that war is bad and really ugly, but seeing it first-hand like that, it’s so much worse than you can ever imagine. We were only in it for three days, but we just had a peripheral view of the whole thing. War is really so awful… Everything that’s ever happened in my life, good and bad, I’m glad I’ve gone through, or seen, or been a part of because I’m happy with who I am today. I always think that everything you go through makes you who you are.”
With everything that’s gone on, where are you emotionally these days?
“I want to say it’s the best I’ve ever felt, but I always feel really good about where I am, so it’s hard to say. I’m just fortunate to be a pretty happy, positive person, but my appreciation is deeper – that’s probably the difference. I’ve always loved everything we did and every year was always great, but it used to just blow by. I appreciate so much more that it makes it feel like it’s better than ever. I’m actually feeling it this time as I’m getting older. Being sober and with age you recognise things. I’m trying to do Ice‑T proud: I’m trying to stay the mack.”
Sum 41’s latest album Order In Decline is out now.
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