Few songwriters know the feeling of seeing their names next to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard charts, never mind on their first try. Deryck Whibley had just turned 21 when the first single from Sum 41’s debut album All Killer, No Filler, entered at the top of the Modern Rock chart. He was legal age to celebrate in America, where the scrappy pop-punk-rap song became an instant MTV fave, an anthem for brats and wannabe brats everywhere.
The song has since been featured in several films and video games, such as EA Sports’ NHL 2002, American Pie 2, Guitar Hero, ESPN X Games Skateboarding, GuitarFreaks V4 and DrumMania V4 and as downloadable content for Guitar Hero 5. The song is also heard playing in the background during the Season One Smallville episode “Leech.” It was made available to download for play in Rock Band 3 Basic and PRO mode.
Its initial release was the start of a wild ride for the band from Ajax, ON – from the Warped Tour to the Grammys, to Japan, the war-torn Congo and beyond. Despite several member shake-ups, and Whibley’s harrowing near-death liver failure in 2014, the band has a new album ready and is mounting a full-scale comeback. Whibley spoke to SOCAN from his home in Los Angeles.
Sum 41 was a punk band, so why are you rapping on “Fat Lip”?
I grew up in the city, and that was the popular music. LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Run DMC — late ‘80s, early ‘90s rap was the first music I was listening to that wasn’t my parents’ music. I actually wanted to do more but the other guys weren’t as into it. We loved Run-DMC. We were trying to do our “King of Rock.” Our voices, since we were three nerdy white guys, made it sound more like Beastie Boys, that’s all.
Take us back to the songwriting process.
It took a really long time to put that song together. It started in my mom’s basement, which was also my basement at the time. [laughs] I had started recording since around age 15. Marc Costanzo [of Len] gave me some microphones and I just started practicing and recording bands around Ajax. I remember I had the rap, but it wasn’t a full song. We didn’t do anything with it for a while. Then I wrote a chorus. I didn’t touch it again for a long time. One day I came up with the intro. And then that sat for about six more months. So I was writing that song for probably a year and a half.
How did it ultimately end up on the album?
Jerry Finn, our producer. I wasn’t sure what anyone would think, I just had this demo of me rapping all the parts, but I could hear it all in my head. He was the first person I played it for. We were pretty much done recording All Killer, and I said, “I have to finish this song.” I was just hoping it would be good enough to go on the album, but Jerry said, “That’s your first single. That’s a hit.” I wanted that to be true. It was the most interesting song I’d written. So once he said that I had the confidence to show it to everyone.
What was the reaction from the rest of the band?
Dave asked for as few lines as possible! [laughs] I mean, everyone knew that we couldn’t rap. In the early days, we were actually taught by this pretty old school rapper, MC Shan. He’s one of the originators. We got hooked up with him. And we’d go down to the studio in Scarborough and he was trying to teach us how to rap. And he was very frustrated. This very good rapper trying to teach these suburban kids how to rap.
What is your favourite memory of performing the song?
Absolutely the MTV 20th anniversary special with Tommy Lee and Rob Halford. They had us open the show. We were an unknown band at the time, the song wasn’t a hit yet. I guess they liked the video for whatever reason, so they called us up. So we said let’s try to get some guests together. We grew up watching those big performances, the huge collaborations like Kid Rock and Steven Tyler, stuff like that. Rob Halford was one of our idols — the lyric in “Fat Lip” is “Maiden and Priest were the gods that we praised.” It was like, holy crazy shit! That thing really exploded our career. We were doing well on radio and MTV was playing the video. Then overnight that was the tipping point. The next day, it was never the same. There was no going back after that.
The song is about being a teenager who wants to party. How does it feel to play it now, at age 35?
I still like it. It still has balls. Even though it sums up who we were at that time – hanging out at suburban parties, getting drunk and not giving a fuck – I don’t think it’s dated. I’m certainly not embarrassed to play it.
Looking back, what do you think that “Fat Lip” taught you, as a songwriter?
I was capable of taking different styles of music and blending them, and it worked. We just played loud rock music and I was able to pull different influences into it. I remember, when I was first talking about the band, of bringing metal into punk, people were like, “How is that going to work? That is just so strange.” I even started questioning. I knew I wanted to do it, but could I? Same thing as with “Fat Lip.” My circle of people said bringing in rap would never work. [That’s] one of my capabilities as a writer… and it’s not that I think I’m that great, I just know what I can do that feels right to me. Even though everyone’s telling me I can’t, I’ll figure out a way.