The pop-punk icon battled alcoholism, went to rehab in 2014 and is in recovery. At its core, his story is an inspirational one, and as Sum 41 gears up for its next release, Whibley really wants to talk about it.
We caught up with the frontman to discuss the future of his band, their first album in five years, touring plans and more.
FUSE: You're working on a new album. How far along is it?
WHIBLEY: We're on the last home-stretch of the record. It's getting there. It's been about a year [since we started working on it]. There have been some months off because we had to do shows, some things here and there. If I had to add it all up, it's been eight months over the course of the last year.
You've crowd-funded the album through PledgeMusic. What made you decide to go that route?
There were two reasons. One, there's the freedom of no record company, nobody telling you what they think you should do because we've had those experiences and they're usually not great experiences. Two, it's a way for fans to be involved with the whole process from the beginning. When I first heard about this kind of stuff I thought it was an interesting, new way to have fans involved. I would've loved to do that when I was younger. It's pretty cool.
It seems like a really democratic move. Is there a particular freedom in doing that? Do you get to call all the shots?
We always did. The difference is that you don't have people to argue with as much. On our last record [2011's Screaming Bloody Murder], being on a major label in a time where most music is just pop when I want to make a rock record, you have people to argue with about why they think you should be making a pop record, ruining your career, trying to convince you of that. I have to say, 'No, wrong, and I'm going to do this anyway.' And they say, 'Fine, you can do that but we're not going to put any money into it,' and I say, 'Okay, fine.' It's that kind of shit. That's our last experience. When that last record was done, and I really love that record but it was record that was put out and didn't have any promo because it's a rock record. We said, 'Can you just let us fucking go at this point?' So we got off the label and we're in this position and it's been great.
That frustration must've made you hungrier to do your own thing.
Definitely, and we did. We played bigger shows and we toured more than we've ever toured in a whole career but the record company experience sucked, more than it has ever. But I get it because it's a time of pop music and I don't want to pander to that style of music. It's just not who we are. I can't get behind it.
Do you feel responsibility towards rock music in general to get this thing out there? It's seems like there's a certain energy in that these days. There are younger bands that are asking, "Where are all the guitars?"
I can only go on how I feel. I don't listen to radio, even if it was majority rock right now, I don't listen to new things intentionally. I kind of stay in my own world of what I know and like. I don't really want to be influenced by anything else. I stick to Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Aerosmith, The Stones for what I like, and if that's what's influencing me, then great. I stay away from it. If I do hear anything new, there's no guitars in it. People will call a certain band a rock band, but I'm like, 'Where are the guitars?' They're like, 'It's not a guitar, it's a keyboard that kind of sounds like a guitar,' but I don't know if it's a rock band.
If there's no guitars, drums and bass, is it a rock band?
A lot of times it's a rock band that's now become pop. They say, 'They're a rock band.' Well, they used to have guitars 10 years ago, but I don't hear it.
We went to your comeback gig at the Alternative Press Music Awards last year with Darryl "DMC" McDaniels. Was there a particular reason you chose that event to reunite?
We've always liked AP. They were the first publication to ever put us on the cover in America. Our relationship goes pretty far back. This opportunity came up and we thought this would be a great place to bring [guitarist] Dave [Baksh] back and bring DMC with us, just have fun with it.
The DMC collaboration was really great and unexpected. How did it come to be?
We've crossed paths before and we've met once or twice in the past but it really just came together on this. It was an idea we had. We reached out and we didn't really hear anything back for a little while. It took some time to get to him and then get back to us that he was interested so it came up closer to the actual performance than we would've liked. We reached out a few months before. We jumped on the phone and started talking about what we could do and it happened. We didn't have any rehearsal for it, we just sort of talked about, went out there and winged it. DMC isn't on the new record, that's all us, but we've talked about doing a song with him. I don't know when that will happen but hopefully pretty soon.
It's been five years since your last album, Screaming Bloody Murder. What made you decide to get back in the ring, now?
It's just what we do. We make records and we go on tour and we have a good time. I went through everything I went through, I got out of the hospital and the first thing I wanted to do was make music. As I was recovering out of the hospital I wrote songs and it gave me a reason to get better, faster. If I didn't have a record to make or a tour to go on I may not have recovered as quick.
You've said that your recovery experience gave you something to say. Is this album pretty candid?
I would go as far as to say it's a concept record about my entire experience. From being to end, I would say it's chronologically laid out, which I didn't intend to do at first. I just started writing and it came out. As it grew I realized what it was. At first, I didn't want to do that. When you're writing that personally, about yourself, you can fall into a thing or it just being a journal or a diary. As it started going I tried to find ways to make it sound more storytelling than journaling.
“I would go as far as to say it's a concept record about my entire experience”
That makes it feel more universal. Do you think this album will be educational? I'm sure people have shared their stories of alcoholism with you in the past. It will probably continue in the future.
In terms of that, I have no idea. Whatever I went through, I'm just talking about it. If it makes sense to other people, then great, but I don't know.
Let's hope it does. Sum 41 songs have always had this like cathartic thing about them—that's healing.
People have said that to me before. Songs that I've written have moved something for them. When I write it, it's like, 'Wow, this is so personal, how can it relate to anybody else?' I feel like it's almost too personal but people seem to relate to it. I can understand it. I've never really felt like that. I've never really connected to a song until I was older. That's when I started realizing that there are certain songs where I get that feeling, "Oh my god, Tom Petty is singing to me." I've certainly had that feeling before.
Last month you shared two short teases of new songs. In one, you sing, "Not enough to take the pain away / They say believing is the hardest part." Is that about your recovery? It seems like it could be about a 12-step program.
It is about that kind of thing but I never went to a 12-step program. I went through my own program which is probably the same sort of feeling. I went through my own steps and did my own thing to get to where you'd get to in a 12-step program. It's about the healing process. When I write, it's about whatever's going on in my head at that time. Whatever I'm healing, those are the lyrics. It was just how I was feeling that day.
When are we going to hear a full track?
If it was up to me, in a couple weeks. At this point we have to go to a record company and do that whole thing, go into the business world. Once that happens, we won't fully have control over when the record is going to come out. There's other people involved.
Are you going to go on tour?
We're going to Europe, to the U.K. in a couple weeks. That's all of February. We're going to Asia in April. We're going to be out all summer, all year and all of the next year, probably. The last record we toured for three years straight, almost exactly to the day. That was a really long tour. I think that contributed to why I went so crazy when I got off the tour. That was such a grueling experience. We might go that long again, who knows?
There's a photo of you in the studio with 5 Seconds of Summer from last year. Did you write with them?
Oh yeah! I wrote a few songs with those guys. I didn't know what to expect because I had never met them before, but they were cool guys. They're funny, they're young, they're cool, they listen to cool music, they know cool bands. They reminded me of what we were like when we were young. They're just fun guys having a blast.