Pop-Punk, and Then Sum

With an acclaimed new album and a goodwill trip to Africa, Sum 41 grows up -- a little

"Everybody thinks we're assholes," Sum 41 guitarist Dave Baksh says. "We're Canadian; it's impossible."

Phoning from one of the asshole capitals of Los Angeles, the Bel Age Hotel near Sunset Strip, Baksh and his band are taking a breather from an extended road trip with punk legends Unwritten Law. The plan is to knock out a round of headlining dates before embarking on a summer tour as openers for none other than Mötley Crüe.

"What else can you think?" Baksh enthuses. "Pure excitement. It's still kind of surreal. We've been fans of the Crüe for a long time, and Tommy Lee and our singer, Deryck [Whibley], are friends."

The whole of Sum 41: From left, Dave Baksh, Steve Jocz, Deryck Whibley and Cone McCaslin.
The whole of Sum 41: From left, Dave Baksh, Steve Jocz, Deryck Whibley and Cone McCaslin.

Any concern that rock's best-known cock will steal all the hot groupies?

"Well, not concern as much as knowledge," Baksh says, laughing. "It's a fact. There's no stopping him."

Pairing the Canadian pop-punk upstarts with the SoCal hair-metal godfathers might not be as strange as it sounds -- both bands have sold millions of high-octane rock records despite being raked over the coals by critics, and both can brag about near-death experiences. Mötley took the excessive route of drugs, alcohol, car crashes, and a degenerative bone disease. Sum 41 went to war.

Last May, the Sum chums traveled to the remote regions of the Congo with a goal that would make Bono weep with envy: They intended to make a documentary about the effects of war on the impoverished nation. The quartet got way more than it bargained for when a military clash broke out that left the group dodging bullets and bombs alongside the natives. After a tense night spent in a hotel basement, band members were evacuated via armored tank to a U.N. compound and later to the airport, where they hopped a plane to the relative safety of Uganda.

"We almost died," recalls Baksh, who promises that the documentary will see the light of day. "I'd really like to show these people's stories that we interviewed and just exactly what happens to a place that's been ravaged by war. It just made me hate war and despise the fact that nobody can talk without shoving something loaded with lead in their face. And a lot of those guns in Africa have our grandfathers' fingerprints on 'em -- a lot of them are just refurbished weapons from World War II and World War I."

Sum 41 survived the African affront primarily because of the efforts of U.N. worker Chuck Pelletier, who masterminded the escape. The band decided to name its next album after him. Songs for Sum 41's fourth effort, Chuck, were written prior to the close call in the Congo, but they already reflected a newfound maturity. Even Sum 41's harshest detractors begrudged kind words, hailing the album as a step up from the frat-rap mugging of older fare such as "Fat Lip."

"Nobody thinks that we can be serious, musically and personally," Baksh says. "It's very strange. We'll be doing photo shoots, and they'll be like, 'I thought you guys were crazy -- jump around and dump beer on your heads.' And we're like, 'No. Take the fuckin' picture.'"

Chuck had a picture-perfect start, debuting at number 10 on the Billboard charts and earning a 2005 Juno Award (Canada's Grammy) for Best Rock Album of the Year. Sum 41 put in a scorching performance at the awards show, but Baksh has no love for the music biz in his homeland.

"The music industry in Canada is a piece of fucking crap, let me tell you that right now," he fumes. "They wait for the States to jump on something before they get anything remotely close to it. Part of the reason we got signed is because there was a closeness between us and Blink-182. We were considered a pop-punk band. It seems like you can get signed because of your genre more than your music now."

The pop-punk label has stuck to Sum 41 like bubblegum to a Skechers sole, but lumping the band in with the mallcore crowd might also be a mistake. The group's overt metallic influences owe as much to Slayer and Judas Priest as they do to Green Day. In fact, Baksh and company refuse to use the p word to describe their music anymore.

"We just call ourselves rock," he grumbles. "It's easier to say than punk, especially around all these fuckin' kids that think they know what punk is. Something that was based on not having any rules has probably one of the strictest fucking rule books in the world. The whole thing's kinda getting ridiculous to me. It's all image. You don't love music if you own more posters than CDs."

And now that pop-punk has gone the way of the Cabbage Patch Kid and the Macarena, one might assume that Sum 41 has concerns about its future prospects. Not so, Baksh says.

"The fact that it's out of the media eye is a little bit concerning," the guitarist concedes. "But I think we survived that whole thing. We've been able to release three records. That's good enough for me if it all ends tomorrow."

 
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