How 'force of nature' Sum 41 made their way to the top
Ajax band's rise to fame came a decade ago, as pop-punk band blazed path in rock and roll world
It wasn’t so long ago that a group of young guys from the suburbs east of Toronto burst onto the music scene, just a few years after finishing high school.
They called themselves Sum 41.
The Ajax, Ont., foursome were boisterous, fun-loving and ready to blaze a path in rock and roll, playing a type of metal-tinged pop-punk that quickly caught fire with fans.
2001 was the year they hit it big. Their hit album, All Killer No Filler, went platinum on both sides of the border.
Rolling Stone profiled the band and wrote about their rise to fame, which involved a home video mailed out to record labels, a bidding war, trashed hotel rooms and other hijinks.
Deryck Whibley, the lead singer, had been given a two-year time limit by his mother to make it before she expected him to get a job or go to school.
His stepfather, Kevin Gordon, recalls that he and his wife believed that they were being strict when they set the make-or-break deadline. Not so much, it turns out.
"All the other parents had only given their kids one year," Gordon told CBC News in a recent interview.
Gordon said they expected him to stay focused on his music and to meet expectations — that included respecting the fact that his parents held regular jobs with regular hours.
Sum 41 soon blew up big time. Whibley and his pals were on their way to becoming bona fide rock stars.
"He proved us wrong really quick," Gordon said.
Journey to the top
The band’s bassist, Jason "Cone" McCaslin, told CBC News back in September 2002 about the band’s rapid ascent to stardom — that saw them initially start out touring their home country on a side stage and eventually graduate to leading their own tours.
"It's, like, insane to us," he said.
Liam Killeen toured alongside them for several years as a part of Not By Choice, another Ajax-based band, including when All Killer No Filler made its way up the charts.
At the height of their fame, Sum 41 were playing 150 or more shows a year.
"You have to remember, at that time — it took off worldwide," Killeen said in an email to CBC News.
Killeen said that while popular in the U.S. and Canada, "they were one of the biggest bands in UK/Europe, even bigger in Australia, and even bigger in Japan."
"Great times," he said.
The band also enjoyed itself over the years.
"Rock music has a long history of partying. We are no different," Whibley says in the bio on the band's webpage.
Platinum records in the past
Paul Tuch, the director of Canadian operations for Nielsen Entertainment, says that to date, Sum 41 has sold 900,000 of those records at home and another 3.7 million south of the border.
Those sales came from a loyal fanbase, made up of people like Peter Di Salvo — a goalie who sought out and was granted permission from the band to put their likeness on his mask while he was playing in the OHL.
Di Salvo, who was barely a teenager when the band was in its heyday, grew up to become a long-term fan.
"They are still my favourite band," he said.
But over time, Sum 41 has faded from the public eye with less-dedicated fans losing track of the band.
As well-known music journalist Alan Cross remembers, they were a made-in-Canada success story who came from the world of independent music. And they knew how to put on a show.
"At their prime, on stage, Sum 41 was a force of nature," Cross said in an interview with CBC News.
Within a few short years, the band sold millions of records and toured the world.
"People grow up, times change, tastes change," said Cross, who believes that the pop-punk style simply fell out of favour, leaving Sum 41's glory days in the past.
Gordon, the lead singer’s stepfather, said that while the band may not have had the same marketing push in recent years, they kept up a fairly steady touring schedule.
And they put pressure on themselves to keep up their showmanship skills. In the band's aforementioned bio, Whibley states that "all we've ever tried to do is play better live."
His stepdad says that Whibley also put pressure on himself to keep going out there, knowing that fans want to see the band and that there are many people who make their livelihood from its tours.
"He doesn't want to let anybody down," Gordon said.
Splits on and off the stage
Cross says it has been said that the lifespan of a band is about seven years.
"Any band that lasts longer is extraordinary," he said.
And the collapse of a band often involves the gradual departure of members.
In the spring of 2006, guitarist Dave "Brownsound" Baksh left Sum 41, to pursue another project, saying that he didn’t want to be "a thorn in the side of the band."
That turned the band into a trio.
Lavgine would later remarry, wedding Nickleback frontman Chad Kroeger, in a coupling that was quickly dubbed as "Chavril."
A few months after the couple announced their engagement, Whibley made headlines when he and his girlfriend mockingly dressed as "Chavril" for Halloween — he as his ex-wife, his girlfriend as the Nickleback singer.
There were other challenges ahead for Whibley. In 2010, he had to be treated in a Japanese hospital after he was attacked in a bar while on tour. The band ended up having to bow out of dates that followed in the U.S., so he could recover.
But Whibley's stepfather said that fans may not understand the pain that Whibley has dealt with, the result of a now long-ago back injury, which he tried to mask for a time with Advil.
Touring kept him from giving his health the attention it deserved, he said. The abuse of alcohol didn’t help either.
Yet the party never slowed down on the road.
A former roadie, Brian Keith Diaz, recently posted a piece online about the time he spent with Sum 41, starting back in 2010.
In the piece, Diaz describes walking onto their tour bus, before he began working with them: "The bus was littered with empty bottles of booze. Empty cans and bottles of beer, empty bottles of wine, empty vodka bottles, and empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s."
Diaz writes that he figured that was the mark of a long tour. It turned out that the bottles were remnants from the previous week.
Sum 41 saw another departure of one its original members, when drummer Steve Jocz left last year.
In a message to fans, Jocz said that being in the band had taken him from a practice space in his parents' basement "to countless countries around the world."
Summing up the Sum 41 experience and thanking fans, Jocz said: "I had a blast."
A wake up call?
Fast-forward to the present, a time when Whibley has revealed he is in the throes of serious health problems that relate to alcohol abuse.
"The reason I got so sick is from all the hard boozing I've been doing over the years. It finally caught up to me," Whibley recently wrote on his website, in a post that was titled "Rock Bottom."
The post is accompanied by pictures of the 34-year-old Whibley laying in what appears to be a hospital bed, his eyes closed.
He says that doctors have advised him that he cannot ever take another drink in his life.
In the post, Whibley describes remembering pouring himself a drink and getting ready to watch a movie "when all of a sudden, I didn't feel good."
Cue his wake up in hospital.
The news has left fans, his friends and other musicians very concerned.
"Hard to hear because you hate seeing one of your idols in that condition," said Di Salvo, who believes Whibley has been "scared straight" and is hoping he can recover.
Simon Head, who served as Sum 41's tour manager in their early days, told CBC News it was "too soon" for him to talk about the band and their past, given what is going on.
Killeen, who now works with Greig Nori, who once managed Sum 41, said he and Nori are "both concerned about Deryck's health, and hope he’s back on the up and up soon."
Some of Whibley’s Sum 41 bandmates have also acknowledged fans' concerns, as well as their own.
On Twitter, McCaslin said, "I've heard he's starting to do better which is great."
Baksh tweeted he and his family "send our deepest thanks to everyone that helped in the recovery of my brother BizzyD," referencing a nickname of Whibley's.
The singer's story has also drawn concern from peers, like Ashley MacIsaac, the famous Canadian fiddler, who posted a message on Whibley’s website.
MacIsaac told CBC News that he didn’t know Whibley personally, but that the story resonated with him.
"Seeing the pictures, it seems completely, completely sad," he said.
His advice is for Whibley to come back to Canada, chill out for a while and escape the lifestyle he has been living.
Whibley's family believes the singer has turned a corner.
"He's come back from near death," said Gordon.
What the future holds for Sum 41 is unclear. Whibley has said he has a renewed passion for writing music and has some ideas for songs he would like to write.
His stepfather said that Whibley remains close with his family in Ontario and it is expected that he’ll be heading back to spend time with them in the weeks ahead.