The rise of Sum 41, as told through their most important gigs

Almost 30 years on from a Battle Of The Bands in which they sold “zero tickets”, Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley reflects on the shows that made them – from MTV medleys, to a legendary K! Pit, to selling out rooms of 10,000 people.

The rise of Sum 41, as told through their most important gigs
Sam Coare
Luther Redd

“We’ve always looked at records as a necessary evil just to get back out on the road,” Deryck Whibley says. And with Sum 41 embarking on one final world tour before closing the book for good, the pop-punk legend relives 10 key chapters that have made them the band they are today…

1996The very first Sum 41 gig

“The first show we ever did was a Battle Of The Bands in Toronto. The whole shtick was that the promoter would give you a bunch of tickets to sell, and the more tickets you sold, the better slot you got on the line-up. It was kind of the only way to get on a real stage and play in a real venue in the city. We sold zero tickets, so went onstage at 5pm, when there was nobody in the crowd except for a few other bands. But, y’know, I have a cassette of our show, and it’s actually pretty decent for a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds. We did maybe six songs, including a cover of NOFX’s Stickin’ In My Eye. Something good came from that show, though. About three weeks before, I’d been to see this band Treble Charger, and invited their frontman, Greig Nouri, to come see us play. And about two years after that, he became our manager.”

2000The first proper time on Vans Warped Tour

“We actually played two shows, in Montreal and Toronto, on Warped in 1999, but 2000 was the first time we spent a couple of weeks on the tour. The whole thing was very overwhelming. We’d just signed our record deal, so we had a little bit of money and some equipment. It was all brand-new, and we had new road cases for everything. So when we showed up on day one, and we’re in this tiny little shitty van, and we pulled out these brand-new sparkling blue road cases, everyone on the tour was just looking at us like, ‘Who the fuck are these spoilt rich kids?’ Nobody knew who we were. There was no buzz about Sum 41 yet. At the time we used to have all this dumb stuff onstage, like trampolines and cardboard cutouts of movie stars like Will Smith that we would get from the movie theatre. We were just hustling to make a name for ourselves. It was our first chance to meet bands that we looked up to.”

2001Playing with Tommy Lee and Rob Halford at the MTV 20th Anniversary bash

“This was insane. Growing up we’d always seen these collaborations and medleys that people would do. So when we were asked to play this MTV party, we pitched the idea and asked if we could reach out to some people to join in. We got in touch with Tommy Lee, Rob Halford, Slash, Beastie Boys… They weren’t interested, and Slash was like, ‘I don’t even play Guns N’ Roses songs with Guns N’ Roses, let alone anyone else.’ But Tommy said, ‘Fuck yeah!’ and Halford to our surprise said yes, too. We didn’t really have much of a rehearsal ahead of it. I remember I came offstage thinking it wasn’t so good and that we were fucking up the whole time, but then we got back to the green room after and everyone from our label and management and MTV were just freaking out about how good it was. Rob Halford called us ‘the next great heavy metal band’ [on live TV]. It took weeks for us to process what happened. That was the turning point for the band. We went from a band that had a bit of a buzz to a life that was never the same ever again after that moment.”

2002The first gig we knew that Sum 41 had blown up

“Towards the end of the All Killer No Filler cycle, we took a break from starting work on our second record to play a radio festival in Washington, D.C. It was in a stadium, to something like 60,000 or 80,000 people, with Eminem headlining and us playing directly underneath. The crowd that day was crazier than any crowd had ever been for us. We had to keep stopping the show because things in the crowd were getting so dangerous. It felt like the whole stadium was jumping. That reaction had never happened to us before; it had never been so extreme. I was 21 years old, and I felt like I was in control of all these people that could get hurt. No-one teaches you how to deal with that. That show stands out in my mind still to this day. I feel like we just played it last weekend.”

2003Making the Sake Bombs And Happy Endings live DVD in Tokyo

“We were always blown away by how far the band reached and how big we got in certain places. We were still so young, too, and a lot of stuff passes you by before you can really recognise it. It went by so quick in those days. Our shows in Tokyo were always crazy. It’s such a respectful culture, and it’s so quiet in between songs, but then the second we’d start playing, they’d just go mental. We had two nights booked at this huge arena, so thought it would be cool to do a live DVD there, because it’s not every week you get to do two shows in a place that size. We had these big meetings with the production team and told them that we wanted to get tons of crowd reaction shots. I remember being onstage seeing a reaction like I’d never seen before, and thinking, ‘This is gonna be the greatest live DVD ever!’ And then we get the film back and they didn’t show any of the crowd! So it was all lost (laughs).”

2004Playing a musical therapy event for children in the Congo

“We’ve long been involved in a charity called War Child, and we had travelled with them to make a documentary on the effects of the civil war in the Congo. We were supposed to be there for two weeks but we got caught up in the war as it started back up, and had to be evacuated by the UN. We were 23 years old – we weren’t trained for anything like that! There was a moment one day where we went to a facility that did rehab through music for ex-child soldiers and victims of the war. We got to play music for about an hour or two with them, which was interesting, because they have a much different sense of rhythm in music. They played us some of their music, but we were like, ‘We can’t play them Sum 41 songs, that’d just be too weird!’ So we jammed some Beatles for them. We did the ending of Hey Jude, thinking it’d be easy for them to sing along to. But it was just so different for them… the reaction was definitely crickets (laughs).”

2007Injuring my back and having to cancel the rest of the Strength In Numbers Tour

“That was a really big moment, in a lot of ways. We had put out the Underclass Hero album, and for the first time it felt like our momentum and everything we had on our side disappeared. None of us were expecting it, or knew how to deal with it. It just wasn’t working. But we at least felt we could get on the road and show people we were still a great live band. About five or six shows into the tour, we got to Calgary. Back then, we would close the set with Pain For Pleasure, and I would play drums. The second I sat down, I had a shooting pain through my back, and lost function of my legs. I’d herniated discs in my spine. I was in a wheelchair for weeks and took the rest of the year off, but the mental side of having to sit around while our career began to stall was as painful as the physical side. It felt like life was falling apart. By 2009 I was healthy again, but then injured my back again in 2010 when I got jumped outside a bar in Japan. That time was a lot worse, because I was self-medicating with alcohol to numb the pain. I conditioned my body to become dependent on alcohol. And that made everything worse.”

2015Reuniting with Dave ‘Brownsound’ Baksh

“I hadn’t heard from Dave [Sum 41’s longtime guitarist] since he left the band in 2006. We started texting every now and again in early 2013, when I was still drinking, and then I went into the hospital [in 2014, with severe liver and kidney damage brought on by alcohol addiction]. He came to visit me when I got home and we rekindled our friendship. Soon enough we just thought, ‘We’re friends, everything is great, so why are we not playing music together?’ We had an offer from Alternative Press to play at their awards, and we just thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a great place to debut the new Sum 41?’ Dave was back, and we had a new drummer in Frank Zummo. We thought back to the MTV show and wanted to do another collaboration, which we did with DMC from Run-DMC. It was my first time being back onstage in front of a lot of people since I’d been in the hospital, so it was a big thing for all of us. I can admit that I was terrified. The band had been in such a low place that it felt like starting over. It was like the beginning of a whole new era of the band.”

2019Playing a tiny bar show at The K! Pit in New York

“When I think of our career, that was one of my favourite-ever moments. We hadn’t ever done something like that – something so small with so many of us onstage. The fucking crowd was crazy. I thought the whole thing was such a great idea, and we have such a long history with Kerrang! that we knew it would be awesome. But it was better than we even could have imagined. I thought it was great while we were onstage, but then I watched it back and it was even better. I’ll be honest with you: we actually kind of stole the idea for ourselves. After that, we started having this idea of doing small shows. We used to refer to them as K! Pit shows, and eventually named them No Personal Space shows. The whole idea came from The K! Pit.”

2022Playing to 10,000 people at Alexandra Palace

“When the idea was pitched to us, I was like, ‘Isn’t that really big?’ But I trusted our agent and the show sold out super-quickly. It was that moment of, ‘Fuck, we’re really back’ for this new version of the band. We’d come back with the [awards] show but that was really us starting from the lowest point the band had ever been at. It was like starting over, and selling out Alexandra Palace was the moment we really felt like we were back. The really cool thing for me personally was that my whole family is from England, and my grandfather comes from right around the corner in Wood Green. He had all these stories of playing in the fields at Alexandra Palace when he was a kid. So it was a super-cool moment for my whole family to see us play there.”

Sum 41’s final album Heaven :x: Hell is out now. Catch the band at Download, which takes place from June 14 – 16, 2024 at Donington Park – get your tickets now. You can also see Sum 41 live at Rock For People this summer – get your tickets here. This article originally appeared in the spring issue of the magazine.

Get your hands on the Kerrang! x Sum 41 capsule collection now.

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