Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis via Getty Images
by Yasmine Shemesh
This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2001 Week continues with an honest conversation with Deryck Whibley of Sum 41 about his band’s All Killer, No Filler album, which became a runaway pop-punk success and spawned two of the year’s biggest rock hits, but which he continues to have mixed feelings about two decades later.
As bands like Green Day and blink-182 gained mainstream success through the nineties, punk was becoming pop music and one of the most ubiquitous sounds of the era. Helping drive it around the turn of the millennium was Sum 41, thanks to their exhilarating debut full-length, All Killer No Filler.
The Ajax, Ontario foursome were old-school punk rock and metal enthusiasts who paired their prankster sense of humor with an earnest, hardworking approach to their craft: 2000’s EP, Half Hour of Power, signaled such nascent talent. But it was 2001’s All Killer, with its irresistible melodies and anthems of adolescent disillusionment, that resonated with teenagers everywhere and landed as one of the most vital releases during an exciting crossover moment in music when pop-punk fully emerged as a worldwide phenomenon.
With its ripping opening riff and authority defying lyrics, lead single “Fat Lip” exploded that summer, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay and launching the band into superstardom. “In Too Deep” and “Motivation” were likewise hits, but the album was true to its title: songs like “Handle This,” “Heart Attack,” and even the self-described metal gag “Pain for Pleasure” made for a sharply-written and spirited record that also earned the respect of Sum 41’s heroes, like NOFX and Judas Priest. “This is gonna be the next great heavy metal band of the future,” Rob Halford declared after sharing the stage with Sum 41 at MTV’s 20th anniversary celebration. “Nothing was ever the same in my life, ever again, after that performance,” frontman and songwriter Deryck Whibley tells Billboard.
Sum 41 has continued to evolve creatively, further expanding their sound and exploring their punk and metal roots as time has progressed. But two decades later, All Killer No Filler remains an important entry in the pop-punk canon, and a generation-defining classic. Below, Whibley speaks to Billboard about making the album — which he still doesn’t consider to be particularly good — as well as playing the Vans Warped Tour during the band’s first flush of fame, and how teens are still flooding the front row of their shows two decades later. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I read that before Sum 41 got signed, you filmed yourselves making action movie spoofs, then mailed it to record labels. What was the response to that?
We sent our music out first and it got turned down by everybody. And we would film ourselves doing stupid stuff, like drive-by water gunning people, egging houses, and cut it with some film of our shows. I put this thing together, just for our friends, and our manager saw it and said, “This is great. Let’s put a three-minute video together with your music, we’ll send this out to record companies, and this is your demo.” And then, it was a matter of weeks. Every label in the U.S. was trying to sign us, and it turned into a big bidding war. But it was the same music — that was the funniest part. That music was already turned down by everybody.
Did any of those songs make it to All Killer?
Mostly Half Hour of Power. I’d have to go watch that tape again.
You already had lots of songs in your pocket, though, right?
I remember I had “Rhythms,” “Nothing on My Back,” “Motivation,” “In Too Deep,” and “Handle This” all ready. We knew those were stronger songs, so we thought, “Let’s save those for the real album.” And Island Def Jam was like, “Let’s put something out right away” and basically Half Hour of Power was our setlist. I was just going to continue writing, but the label wanted us on the road promoting it.
Did touring help flesh out the rest of All Killer?
I was just writing wherever I could, little bits here and there, in s–tty backstage dressing rooms or hotel rooms or hiding in the back of the van. And then I’d come home — I’m still living at my parents’ house, and my parents go to bed at, like, f–king 8 o’clock [Laughs.] So I used to sit in the car with an acoustic guitar and tape recorder. But it was freezing, because it’s Canada, and I can’t turn the car on, because you can’t waste their gas. It was really difficult. I think I only had another song or two by the time we went in to do All Killer.
You mentioned “Motivation” and “Nothing on My Back,” and there’s others like “Heart Attack,” which are relatable anthems of adolescent angst. Were you inspired by your own experiences growing up?
Yeah, definitely. It was just coming from adolescent angst, really. For me, music’s always been somewhat autobiographical, and I just write about what I’m going through at the time or what I observe in my day-to-day life. My writing style hasn’t quite changed much from the very beginning. There’s not a lot of thought, you know, it just kind of comes out. I specifically remember writing “Heart Attack” and it all just poured out.
I love “Handle This” for that reason, being so emotional. It shows off your songwriting.
Oh, thanks. Stylistically, that song was totally different. It was more acoustic and it didn’t really sound like a Sum 41 song. It was actually very similar to Third Eye Blind, “How’s It Going to Be.” And we recorded in that type of way and it didn’t make any sense. Then one day, I was like, “Let’s try to heavy this thing up a bit,” and I picked up a guitar — I don’t write in front of people, ever. But now and then, if you’re put on the spot, sometimes you come up with something really cool. And I came up with that intro, daw-naw-balalaw, this riff, instantly.
Speaking of Third Eye Blind, how did you feel about alternative radio at the time?
When “Fat Lip” came out, I remember the music scene was very heavy. You had Green Day and you had blink-182, but that was kind of it in that world. There was Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Korn, Staind. It was such heavy, dark rock. It wasn’t like “Fat Lip” was a shoo-in, like, “This is going to be a smash hit.” It was more, “This is really going to be difficult.”
I think what stood out on All Killer was these great pop sensibilities. Was that something you kept in mind?
No, it’s just what came out. I’ve always liked that kind of stuff. Even when I listen to heavier music, I only like the heavier stuff that has real songwriting and melody. Metallica, to me, is amazing, but they’re kind of The Beatles of metal. Their melodies are so catchy and it’s so accessible. Like, my mom can like Metallica — but it’s not Slayer, you know? It’s just different. I think I’ve always gravitated more towards things that have pop sensibility to them.
All Killer was produced by Jerry Finn, who worked with Green Day, blink, and Rancid. How did he help shape it?
He did a lot for us musicianship-wise. We were horrible musicians. And we didn’t know we were horrible. We actually thought we were pretty good — because we were so bad and so young that you don’t even know you’re not good. And he kept telling us to do it over, it’s not good enough. And we’re like, “What is this guy talking about? It sounds great!” But he kept pushing us and you would start to see it take shape and hear how better it was. In fact, the way I produce our stuff now is basically how Jerry Finn did All Killer. I built upon that since, but it’s all rooted in what I learned from Jerry Finn.
I have to ask about those Iron Maiden homages, “Introduction to Destruction” and “Pain for Pleasure.” How did they come to be? Was that from your love of metal?
Yeah, but both were last-second jokes. The record was done and we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did something like The Number of the Beast intros?” Our A&R guy at Island Def Jam, we’re like, “He’s got the greatest voice, let’s ask him to do it.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” and went in and recorded it. “Pain for Pleasure” was a joke — Dave [Baksh, guitar] wrote this little Iron Maiden thing, he started playing it and then Steve [Jocz, drums] started singing over it. 10 minutes later, he had the whole song written. We’re like, “Well, we gotta record it for fun.” And then, of course, we’re like, “Well, we have to put this on the album, it’s amazing!”
They were never intended for anything, except to make us laugh — just like that video that we were signed on. It was always – everything — just to be funny for ourselves.
Do you have a favorite from the album?
“Fat Lip.” It was a favorite when I wrote it. It’s still one of my favorites. I don’t get sick of it, ever.
When it was released, it felt like the success was immediate.
The thing that made it explode, really, was when we performed for the MTV 20th anniversary party. We wanted to do one of those classic awards-style collaborations, and we brought out Tommy Lee, Rob Halford from Judas Priest, and we played a little medley of music. We opened the whole show and nobody really knew who we were. And from that moment on, our lives were never the same. The song went into heavy rotation everywhere around the world and it just exploded right at that moment. That was, like, five months into it being out on radio.
What was playing Warped Tour that summer like?
It was awesome. It was everything we ever could have imagined and more. We started the band because we went to Warped Tour ’96. We said, “We have to start a band because we have to be a part of this thing.” We got the full tour in 2001 and it was great. Rancid was on that tour, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fat Mike, The Vandals, Pennywise. So many bands we grew up listening to. And we got to hang out with these guys every single day.
I remember when we started the tour, we were terrified, because we were the only band that was on MTV at that moment. We just thought, “Not only are the bands going to hate us, but the fans are going to hate us,” because it’s such a punk rock tour. And it was the complete opposite. Everybody embraced us, we made friends with everybody. I’m still friends with all those guys, to this day, because of that tour.
We had to pop off the tour to do that MTV anniversary party — and when we came back, it was a whole different thing. Our shows, the fans. The bands we knew were like, “You guys are about to be superstars.” We’re like, “What? What are you talking about?” They’re like, “You have no idea what’s about to happen.”
Did you have any memorable interactions with the big pop stars of the time?
I remember we did [MTV’s Total Request Live] one time and we were on the same day as Will Smith and Christina Aguilera, so we were all put into a green room together. I was actually just going through a bunch of footage, because we always had a video guy with us, and I came across that day where we’re all hanging out. And Will Smith and us are having a good time and talking. And Christina would, like, not speak to us whatsoever. So, we’re all in this room together and we’re all kind of interacting, but she wouldn’t look at us or acknowledge us, even though she’s a foot away from us.
But I mean, I don’t blame her. I’m super shy, too, so if nobody talks to me, I don’t talk to them. So that’s probably perfectly understandable. But we found it funny at the time. We wanted to say hi — we always want to be friends with everybody.
What do you remember from the “Fat Lip” music video shoot?
Bengay. That week, we had a ton of press, we had two days to do the video shoot, then right after we had a concert in L.A. And that show, our legs were just burning. You could barely stand. And we were just putting Bengay all over our legs. After the show, there’s so many people we had to meet, and the entire dressing room just smelled like Bengay. Everyone kept saying, “Why does it smell like Bengay?” [Laughs.] It was so potent.
It was really fun. There was no concept to that video. [Director Marc] Klasfeld came from a documentary background and we came up with this idea of having no idea. It’s sort of like the Seinfeld thing, a show about nothing: we’ll invite all these fans to come down and we’ll just film them doing stuff. And it came out great. It was like a mini documentary of suburban punk rock kids outside of L.A.
You also worked with Klasfeld on “In Too Deep,” which riffs on Back to School.
We actually asked Rodney Dangerfield to be in the video. His response was, “I don’t do videos.” And we were on Warped Tour — the same 2001 tour — and we asked Fat Mike to be the coach. He said no. It’s funny because we joke about it, still. He still brings it up to me, to this day, like, “I should have f—king done the video!”
This album was so defining. Do you have any thoughts on its legacy?
You’re so generous. No, I don’t. I’ve always felt it wasn’t that great, if I’m being honest. I never quite understood — to a point where it’s almost like, when people tell me it means a lot to them or it was a really good album compared to other records, I always think they’re lying. I’ve always felt like, “Have you listened to it lately, though? I don’t know if it holds up.”
I’ve always felt somewhat, like, when that record had success — and maybe this is just my personality — but when it got as successful as it did, I had an immediate embarrassment. Almost like you become ashamed of your own success. In some way, I feel like it snuck through and everyone’s going to find out soon that it’s not that good. Like I sort of cheated my way, somehow. That’s kind of what I’ve always felt about that record. I think if I listen to it now as I’m older, maybe I can be a little bit more objective. But for the longest time, I thought it wasn’t a very good record.
That’s interesting because, I think as creative people, we tend to be so critical of ourselves, especially our work. I wonder if that’s part of it.
I think if I could have sung that record better, I’d probably like it more. My voice was so undeveloped at the time. I was so young, and I knew back in those days I didn’t like my voice — I still don’t really like my voice, but I’m a much better technical singer than I was. I just hear my voice straining so hard to get through some of those songs. Maybe that’s what it is.
Pop-punk is in another wave today, with artists like Machine Gun Kelly. How would you compare this new class to your generation?
I don’t think I would compare. Music is always evolving, changing. From what I hear from Machine Gun Kelly, it doesn’t quite sound like what it was 20 years ago — which is good, it should be different. I mean, if you call it pop-punk, does it mean it has to sound the same as it did 20 years ago? When All Killer came out, there was no genre called pop-punk. That came later, once there were so many bands. But the whole thing of a revival, I’ve heard this, like, seven times in the past 15 years. [Laughs.]
It’s always been there.
I think the bands and the music are always there. I think it’s a youthful sound, so kids, every generation, seem to get into it. That’s what we find with our own music. When we go on tour, it’s not people from 20 years ago – yes, some of those people are there, usually at the back, but the whole front row, as far as I can see, looks the same as it did 20 years ago. It’s all mid- to late-teens. I didn’t expect that when we were writing those songs. You just don’t even think about that, but that’s sort of what’s been happening.