Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley is going pretty steady these days. From that stability, he's crafted 'Order In Decline' - a vicious, emotice, accidental commentary on the state of the world.
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You may have thought otherwise up until now, but Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley is the antithesis of the tortured artist you may see in your head.
He writes when he’s happy, he gets writer’s block when he’s not. Much like many bands you’ll read about across these pages, he pulls from the deepest, darkest places he and those around him have been to. But unlike pretty much any other songwriter in our world, he needs to be happy to piece it all together.
“When I’m in any kind of difficult situation in life, I don’t feel like picking up a guitar and writing songs. I don’t know why,” he says.
In fact, it’s a case of the less turmoil, the better when it comes to actually writing the songs that pay his bills. “Sometimes I feel really inspired and I don’t know why. I don’t know where that inspiration comes from. I’m starting to realise that it must come from what I’m doing in my life,” he says. “I feel like I write better when I’m happy.”
It means he goes through a loop of peaks and troughs as he’s happy and creative, then less happy and stuck, then happy and creative once again. It sounds exhausting, but it works.
And when he sat down at the end of the touring cycle for his band’s sixth album ‘13 Voices’, a handful of years coloured by his descent into and miraculous recovery from alcoholism, he had time to breathe, and time to think.
He looked around the studio he’s put together in his Los Angeles home, filled with racks upon racks of gear he’s collected over the years. He rifled through the riff ideas he’d stockpiled across the previous couple of years, and he found himself in… a really good place.
“I just sort of sat in my studio all day and all night and just played around with stuff, kind of experimented around sounds. It all just came together,” Deryck grins. It was time to take advantage of this hot streak while he could.
Within three weeks, the music for his band’s new album ‘Order In Decline’ was done. Next? Deryck just had the small task of putting words to the music he’d created. In other words, the hard bit.
“Then the challenge is like, ‘Well, what am I going to say? What do I have to say at this point?’” he shrugs.
When he’s writing songs, Deryck first just starts to sing. The early stages are gibberish, things that sound good or interesting or fit with the music he’s written, but slowly, surely, he starts to feel his way into what he wants to say with each song.
“If my gibberish kind of sounds like something and if I find some words in there, I just follow those words to where it’s taking me,” he explains.
“If I sit and try to come up with what [a song is] supposed to be about, or I try to stop where it seems to be going and try to change the narrative, it never works for me.”
He’d get up at five or six in the morning each day, turn on the news and make some breakfast while he got ready to go into the studio. And slowly, that sense of desperation, hopelessness and pure anger that a lot of us feel when we take a look at the world around us started to penetrate his psyche.
“Pretty much every country has their own sort of division or hatred,” he says. “It almost seems as if chaos… everywhere you go has their own version of it.”
“It just sort of seemed like the state of the world is that order is in decline, you know. Everywhere you look, you can feel like it’s all falling apart,” Deryck continues.
“I live in the States and I have Donald Trump to deal with. He’s not my kind of guy whatsoever.”
So pretty much instantly, Deryck found himself turning his gibberish into songs about politics, songs about the state of the country he lived in and way, way beyond. Songs about the desperation that seeps into every corner of the western world and yes, songs about Donald Trump, most notably ‘45 (A Matter Of Time)’.
“I just thought, ‘Now this asshole has taken over my fucking music’,” Deryck grimaces.
He and his band had touched on politics before - most notably on ‘Underclass Hero’ and as a part of the Rock Against Bush movement in the noughties - but not for a long old time. Revisiting this stuff felt uncomfortable, and didn’t sit well with Deryck at all.
“I didn’t necessarily want to go down that road again, personally,” he says. “But as I started trying to change some of the lyrics and go in a different direction, it just didn’t make any sense to me anymore. Even my gibberish sounded like it made more sense in comparison.”
He spent a few weeks battling this theme, trying to shape and mould it in to something - anything else, but the more he worked to get away from what he was writing, the more nothing else sounded right. After a few weeks spent fighting it, he gave in, and ‘Order In Decline’ was born in earnest.Deryck is almost 40 now, and although he’s toured the world time and again, even he’s noticed things changing.
“Traveling around [the world], it’s just chaos and division and polarization everywhere about different things. Whether it be Donald Trump or whether it’s Brexit or what’s going on in France, it was just everywhere you went.”
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It’s not just Donald Trump et al in Deryck’s eyeline this time around, mind. The space and time he’s had in the past few months allowed him to go to places in his mind he’d never been before. Subconsciously, of course.
Sitting at his new piano one day - the first one he’d ever bought - he wrote a song. As with most of Deryck’s songs, when it came, it came together fast, and before too long, he had a fully-formed song he needed to find the words for.
“I got a few lines in and I go, ‘Okay, well, what am I trying to write here? This sounds a little personal but I don’t even know what I’m trying to talk about’,” he explains. “I wrote these words down, and I looked at them like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to write about that’.”
That song would become ‘Never There’, a song about his absentee father and the first time he’d ever been referenced in a Sum 41 song. Hell, it was the first time Deryck had sat and thought about him for a long, long time.
“I could tell I was writing about my dad, who I’ve never met. It’s a subject that I don’t really think about or care about. It’s never really bothered me. I started thinking about it, and it never bothered me because my mum was so great, and I have such a great relationship with her and she was so strong as a single mother for my whole life that I never needed to think about my dad,” he continues.
“I thought, well, he’s got to feel worse than I do. Because I have this great mum who I just didn’t even need to think about my dad. And he’s been without a son, his whole adult life. He’s probably been thinking about it way more than I have.”
Elsewhere? The other slow, emotive, much less furious song on the album is the closer, ‘Catching Fire’.
“The other thing which seems to me to be happening recently is a rise in suicides,” Deryck starts. “It just seems like it’s happening so much, especially… I guess celebrity suicides get a lot more attention. It was on my mind.”
“To me, [‘Catching Fire’] was like a love song. It’s about how I couldn’t even imagine what I would do if I lost my wife."
Written around the time Anthony Bourdain took his own life in the summer of 2018, the likes of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington surged to the front of his mind when he starting putting words to the music he’d written.
“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song about this’,” Deryck says. “But my wife was out of town, I was at home alone, and I just started thinking about the feeling of being the person who had just lost somebody.
“I guess I’ve just never really had those feelings of depression like that. You know, I’ve gone through things, I’ve had downs, but I’ve always gotten back up. I’ve always looked a bit more on the positive side. That’s just how I’m wired I guess. I felt it more from the perspective of losing somebody.”
Given all that Deryck has been through in recent times, it’s striking that a song that isn’t about his own experience is one of the most poignant he’s ever written, and indicative of a newer, more wide-ranging, worldly band.
It its core, ‘Order In Decline’ is the most consistent Sum 41 have been in years, and that’s come primarily through knowing exactly what and who they are in 2019, over 20 years since their formation.
Now there’s finally some semblance of stability in Deryck’s life after what feels like decades filled with anything but, it’s allowed him to make a very good, very relevant rock album.
“We started really young and I think we stayed really young,” he reflects. “But there was a lot of other stuff involved, too. I mean, we all were partying way too much for too long.
“[We didn’t have] a lot of life experience yet to handle things,” he continues.
“You’re always learning and we’re not done yet, but as of right now, we’re better off than we were 10 years ago.”
No small amount of that is down to the fact there’s a solid Sum 41 now. Guitarist Dave Baksh is firmly bedded into the band following his return from the wilderness in 2015, while drum supremo Frank Zummo goes from strength to strength on this, the most mature Sum 41 album yet.
A decade ago, maybe they wouldn’t have been so measured. But as of right now, they’re able to concentrate on what matters most to them: being a bloody good rock band.
“I think music is so calculated right now, [made] to just be consumed, and that’s why so much of it is just kind of pop garbage in my opinion,” says Deryck.“If there was one conscious thing that I wanted to do on this record, it’s that we’re not [turning into] a pop band. We’re not going down that road. I know a lot of other rock bands start leaning towards that, and that’s fine if they want to do it, but for us…”
He pauses, ever careful with his words.
“You know, this is what we do. We’re a guitar band and that’s that. It’s about riffs and guitar solos. We have three fucking guitar players, so we might as well use them all.”
This album is a rarity in that it’s instinctive and primal, fast and loose instead of being made over a period of months by half a dozen cowriters. It’s exciting.
Music, even rock music, needs more of that. And even if, in a lot of ways, this is the album Deryck didn’t particularly envisage making - heck, didn’t even want to make - by hook or by crook, ‘Order In Decline’ is here, and it’s got something to say.