Visiting Heaven, Hell and Canada with Sum 41

Sum 41
Sum 41 Photo by Ashley Osborne, courtesy of Big Picture Media
There’s Heaven and Hell and somewhere between the two there’s Canada. These wildly different locales are all on the map of our conversation with Jason McCaslin, bassist for Sum 41. The band returns to Houston Sunday, July 31, for a show at House of Blues and McCaslin, simply known as “Cone” to the group’s fans, discussed how each point on the map is giving Sum 41 direction going into its second quarter-century of music.

We start with the Great White North. The band is touring with Simple Plan, another longtime punk act from our neighbors to the north. The run’s been dubbed the “Blame Canada Tour” and McCaslin told why it made sense to team with Simple Plan.

“We both came out around the same time obviously. All Killer was 2001, I think their first album was 2002, so we generally came out around the same time, kind of in the same scene. We’d never toured together before, like ever, anywhere in the world, we’d never done a tour with them,” McCaslin said. “We just thought if we’re going to celebrate All Killer No Filler and they’re going to celebrate their first record, ‘cause it’s both their anniversary years, why not just go out and do it together? We kind of have the same fan base for those kinds of records because they’re more in the pop punk vein. So, it just kind of worked out.

“We’re a strange band in the way of obviously we’ve done the poppier punk stuff in the beginning and then we kind of had Chuck and Does This Look Infected? and our latest album which is pretty heavy and more into the metal realm or the thrash metal realm. This tour is very specific. We knew we were going to play a lot of the more poppy punk stuff from All Killer No Filler so then we started looking at the fan base and thinking, ‘’Okay, what will our fans like? If they’re going to come to listen to that kind of stuff, and they know we’re not going to play a ton of heavy stuff, what are our fans going to like?” he continued. “Simple Plan was going to go out and do the same thing so we thought, ‘Well, probably all of the same people that like All Killer No Filler will like their first record as well. We just thought that was a good fit.’”

Sticking with Canada for a moment, we asked McCaslin if he feels Sum 41’s music – which dates back to 1996 and the group's formation in Ajax, Ontario – is especially informed by growing up in Canada or listening to other Canadian bands.

“Our sound, especially in the beginning, was a little more southern California and then yeah, as it got heavier later, maybe even New York City. I don’t really feel like we have a Canadian sound. I think it’s more of an American sound, really. We loved American bands, we loved all the Epitaph stuff and the Fat Wreck Chords stuff, so that’s kind of what we were listening to as teenagers,” McCaslin noted.

He said they did listen to some Canadian bands, particularly bands that broke big and charted international paths to musical success. That’s the route they wanted to follow.

“Funny enough, throughout our career we’ve toured Canada, but we have actually not toured Canada all that much,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve spent a lot of time in America and Europe and Asia and, for whatever reason, we don’t seem to tour Canada all that often. I think our Canadian fans obviously don’t appreciate that but, for whatever reason, we’ve always just gone elsewhere.

“I think it’s probably because we don’t have a Canadian sound. There are bands in Canada that have been around in Canada for 30 years or 40 years and they’ve only just been a Canadian band, that’s all they do, is just Canada. We made a conscious effort of not wanting to do that. We did not just want to be a Canadian band that just tours Canada for the rest of our life. We wanted to be international, we wanted go everywhere, and so that’s kind of what we focused on.”

Mission accomplished. The band’s built a reputation on loads of global touring, routinely playing hundreds of shows per year. The last time McCaslin and the band – Deryck Whibley (vocals/guitar), guitarists Dave Baksh and Tom Thacker and drummer Frank Zummo – played Houston was just before the pandemic. Removing the obvious perk of connecting with fans, we wondered what’s still appealing about touring after all this time?

“Since we were teenagers that’s all we’ve known. None of us went to college, none of us had real careers otherwise, so I think what makes us excited is we get to do what we’ve done since we were teenagers,” McCaslin said. “I’ve been on the road since I was 18 and everyone else too because we’re all high school friends, the band is from high school. We just hopped in a van and did it. So, I think what makes us excited is we’re like, ‘Well, thank God! We really don’t have anything else to do, none of us can do anything else.”

New music means more touring and Sum 41 plans to be on the road again once its new, ambitious record is released. Its working title is Heaven and Hell and it’s set to be a double album. The “Heaven” side is expected to showcase the band’s pop punk sound and “Hell” will be a nod to Sum 41’s love for all things metal.

“No release date,” McCaslin offered an update. “Deryck had said that we’re doing this double album but, you know, we are still working on it. What had happened during the pandemic is obviously we had a lot of time off. Deryck was writing a lot of songs. He called me one day and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a ton of songs, I’ve just been writing, but just beware, they don’t all sound the same though. It could almost be like two different bands. There’s a lot of pop punk stuff from our early days and then there’s a lot of super heavy stuff.’ So, I was like, ‘Yeah, send ‘em over, I’ll throw some bass on them and we’ll just go.’”

The surplus of time allowed them to record all the songs, nearly 20 in total.

“One chunk of them was like very old school pop punk and the other side was like super heavy and then we all started talking on our text chains and our email chains and we were all like, ‘Why don’t we just make this a double album?’ Everyone loved the idea, our management loved the idea, so we’re going to kind of go with that.

“The problem is, now that everything’s opened up and we’re able to tour, we’re all gung-ho to get out and tour again but it’s like, well, now we need time to be home and finish this record, too,” he offered. “It’s kind of like this double-edged sword where we wanna go tour but we do gotta finish this record that we’ve said that we have.”

Discussing places as we are, we ask about a final destination for Sum 41, its overall place in the annals of music. A recent article listed both Simple Plan and Sum 41 among the all-time top 20 rock bands from Canada and there’s no question their music has influenced acts that came after it. Has the band pondered its legacy much?

“We never really thought about being influential, we just kind of always did what we did,” McCaslin shared. “Being in a band like this is kind of like a rollercoaster. We went through lulls. There were years and years where I feel like no one really cared about us and pop punk was not a thing and everyone hated it and radio stopped playing it. Now there seems to be a resurgence of it.

“I don’t know. I think our band still feels like we’re a young band, you know? We do get bands coming up to us now because we’re over 20 years into our careers saying, ‘Oh, I listened to you and I started my band because of you,’ and it’s great, but it’s kind of shocking to us because I still feel like we’re in our twenties even though we’re in our forties. I feel like we still have a long way to go.”

Sum 41, Sunday, July 31 at House of Blues Houston, 1204 Caroline. With Simple Plan and Magnolia Park. Doors at 6 p.m. and music at 7 p.m. for this all ages event. $35.75 to $60.75.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.