Sum 41’s comeback record 13 Voices was released four years ago today. We hear you: The idea of celebrating a fourth anniversary of any record’s release seems arbitrary at best. Besides being a pretty solid selection of tracks by Deryck Whibley and crew, the album does have a lot of resonance in the band’s legacy. It’s the record where he immersed himself into the producer’s role more than ever before.
The fact that 13 Voices even exists at all is a testimonial to the band who made it. It was the first album Whibley made after battling alcoholism and the related health problems that nearly ended his life. After signing with Hopeless Records, Whibley knew he had the chance to jump-start his band in the biggest way. What better way to reclaim his place in pop-punk and flip off his detractors than by controlling every aspect of the stuff coming out of the speakers?
Whibley reconnected with guitarist Dave “Brownsound” Baksh, the metal marauder who played off his punky tendencies in all the best ways. (Ardent rock historians will remember Baksh joining the band onstage during the 2016 APMAs.) When 13 Voices finally came out that fall, volume controls were peaking into the red zone, jaws dropped accordingly and both critics and fans couldn’t deny its ferocity.
Here Whibley discussed his production skills and how the sound in his head is always reachable when he’s the one grabbing for it. And sometimes Deryck the artist and the Deryck the producer don’t get along…
What was the impetus for you to expand your skills toward being a producer?
I always had an interest in recording bands right back to when I was about 15 or 16. And I would go around recording the few bands that I knew that were in high school. If there was a band in our town, I would try to go and record them. And that’s how I would record Dave’s [Baksh, guitarist] band when he was in a different band. And same with Cone [McCaslin, bassist]. He was in a different band, and then I stole them for our own band.
Did you ever produce your pre-Sum band Casper or self-produce?
We didn’t have any recording equipment in the Casper days. I didn’t really get anything until Sum 41.
So the first record you started producing was Chuck, correct?
Yes and no. On Does This Look Infected?, our manager and I were effectively producing. I didn’t really ever get any credit on that. I guess it was 2007’s Underclass Hero where I was the official producer.
You stepped into that role because you couldn’t find a good fit for Sum 41?
Usually I don’t start out wanting to produce a record. I always think it’d be great to meet somebody and see if we can get something going with somebody else. Then the songs usually just take shape quickly. We start rehearsing them, and we think, “Well, what else are we going to do to these?” Like, what are we looking for if we’re satisfied with what we’ve already got? It just seems strange to try to change them for the sake of change.
When Rick Rubin produces a record, he’s very much involved in the actual writing of the songs. Because you’re the frontman of the band and the chief songwriter, what is your role exactly as the producer?
I don’t really understand it or think about it too much. But I feel like there is a difference to me of my producer side telling my writer’s side when it’s good or when it’s not good. The producer side of me gets excited about what sounds and stuff to work on, but my writer’s side will not let me go do all that stuff until the music’s done.
I can leave things for the right time because it’s really fun. The second you have a song, you want to go and produce it and record and make it sound really great. But you can waste a lot of your energy [and] your creativity by doing that. So it’s best to stay in the songwriting mode till you have all your songs written and then dive into being the producer and analyzing and saying, “I’m just doing the demo” [and] making it sound a certain way.
What I usually do is I get in the car and drive around, and that’s where my producer side comes in. I’ll say, “This song is going too long,” or it doesn’t get to this chorus quick enough or whatever needs to happen. Or this chorus is not good and needs to be rewritten. And then I’ll send my writer side back and go rewrite stuff.
As someone who’s crafting the actual song, do you feel a conflict internally as a producer, as well? Do you have to have a hard separation between the two roles to make any progress?
Sometimes I will argue with my own self. There is a one-take vocal I did on [13 Voices], and I didn’t love it as a performer. I knew I could do better. I could hear that it was not sung the best that it could be. But the producer side of me was telling me, “You know, it is better because it’s not that good. It has a bit more of a charm to it.” And every time I listen to it, I’d say, “I got it. I can’t wait to redo that.” And then I would tell myself, “It’s actually better this way.” And I would argue back and forth. I just listen to it, live with it, listen to it, live with it. And I ended up just leaving it.
Has there been a particular goal when you’re producing? Do you know what you want it to sound like? Did you know what you wanted Underclass Hero to sound like when you approached it? 13 Voices? Is there a different goal for each Sum 41 record?
Once the songs are written, I have a pretty clear vision of what I want it to sound like. I started becoming the official producer because Does This Look Infected? didn’t quite sound like what I wanted it to sound. Other people involved in the process had a different vision or whatever it was. But I wasn’t experienced enough to talk about things on that kind of level of why I didn’t think it sounded right. I could only say, “I don’t know. It just doesn’t sound good to me” and not really offer anything up. But I started realizing, “If I just learn enough from these great guys that I’ve worked with, then maybe I can apply that knowledge and do it myself.”
And it’s only just grown over the years to a point where we got to this record where I produced it and engineered it. But I also mixed it for the first time. So I was really able to dial in exactly how I wanted it to sound…You’re always going to want it to be better, but it’s as close as I could get it to what I could hear in my head when I was writing the music.
In terms of production, what’s your goal? What’s the next step? And you said in terms of music, you don’t really necessarily think of what’s next. But do you think of that as a producer?
As a writer, I don’t really necessarily have a goal other than I’m just being honest in my own music. As a producer, I would have more of a goal because I want it to feel real. I want it to feel live, but I want it to sound exciting. I don’t want it to be over-processed and fake-sounding because that’s usually what a lot of people do to make it sound exciting. It ends up sounding fake, at least to my ears. I still record in a very old-school way. I don’t really do a ton of editing. I really just try to get great takes. We use Pro Tools like a tape machine on steroids because in their early days, we did our first three records on tape, and we still record that same way. To me, it just sounds better, and it feels better.
Have you produced bands outside of Sum 41?
I have not really worked on many other bands as a producer, really.
What’s a dream album that you’d like to produce? What artist?
Well, my dream bands or artists to produce would be completely unrealistic and would never happen. So I would choose Metallica or something. I think I could make Metallica sound pretty good.