Sum 41 Frontman Deryck Whibley Learns to Live Again

Photo: JW Hopeless

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the October 2016 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

About a year into Deryck Whibley’s recovery from kidney and liver failure, an alcohol-related collapse that put him in a medically induced coma and left him unable to walk, the Sum 41 frontman reached a tipping point. The process was at a halt — hours of daily physiotherapy didn’t seem to be working and he could barely stand without excruciating pain. Neither Whibley nor his doctors knew if he was ever going to get better. It was no way to live; death by drink was even a more appealing fate. Then, one night, at four in the morning, amidst swirling thoughts, a lyric suddenly surfaced.

“What am I fighting for? Everything back and more.”

He wrote it down. Then another.

“Some days it just gets so hard.”

The lines kept coming, flowing. He had a song — something to work towards. Words to live up to.

“And then that moment, it sort of gave me that realization of what it means to actually have faith in something,” Whibley reflects. “To believe that you will get better. You don’t know how, you don’t know why, you don’t know when; as long as you push and you fight harder — if you think you’ve been fighting hard already, you gotta fight even harder and you just gotta believe. And that’s what I told myself. And a year later, I was finally able to step out onstage and go out on tour, and now here I am.”

Today, Whibley is happy and healthy — a state he credits to his journey to  sobriety.

“Even if I would have quit drinking before, it wouldn’t be what it is now,” he maintains. Booze  had simply become part of his lifestyle, reaching its most excessive after Sum 41 wrapped a three year long tour in support of 2011’s Screaming Bloody Murder. Whibley then decided to detach — no music, no  responsibilities. And therein lay the problem.

“I mean, obviously this band has always been heavy drinkers, heavy partiers, and, you know, I was probably an alcoholic a long time ago, but really functioning,”  he continues.

“It’s when I lost the function was when I had no more work to do.”

The aforementioned lyrics would make up the song  “War,” a hopeful track off Sum 41’s newest album, 13 Voices. The project, the pop punks’ first in five years, proved to be the key for Whibley to push forward as he determinedly re-learned how to play guitar, while slowly becoming comfortable in his own skin again. As a result, his songwriting is reflective of a man piecing his life back together. The title track, for example, refers to the constant noise that blared in Whibley’s head.

“I actually felt like I was going crazy for a while and I thought I’d done some serious brain damage that, like, this is it — this is how I end up like one of those guys on the street, screaming at nobody,” he says. Cinematic moments that appear throughout the record indicate the way Whibley regained his guitar fingering — playing along to muted Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton movies.

Musically, 13 Voices  administers a tremendous punch, which partly comes from the reemergence of original guitarist Dave “Brownsound” Baksh. Baksh,  who left the band a decade ago, reconnected with Whibley before his hospitalization and stayed with his old friend after he returned home. It felt odd not to play together again, so they did, with Baksh’s official return also marking Whibley’s to the stage at the 2015 Alternative Press Music Awards. Baksh’s presence now adds three guitarists to the lineup, alongside Tom Thacker and Whibley.

“You really notice it live,” Whibley says of the dynamic, which also includes bassist Cone McCaslin and drummer Frank Zummo.

“I think that’s where we sound different than we’ve ever been able to sound before, because we can play a lot of stuff that is on the record that we couldn’t do before. It’s a much bigger sound…it’s just a really full sound. Just being a five piece, it’s so fun. I never thought I’d like being a five piece, but now I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

Indeed, it’s certainly scary, Whibley admits, to release music that was written from such a vulnerable place — but getting personal isn’t something new. He’s always written from his soul and 13 Voices is just, in many ways, a new chapter. Now, Whibley says, “it’s time to take it into a whole other world.”