Political Punk

Word has it that, with their new album, Canadian pop-punksters Sum 41 have gotten serious. Hard to believe from a band whose first hit, 2001's "Fat Lip," included lyrics like "Well I'm a no goodnick lower middle class brat/Back-packed and I don't give a s--t about nothing." But how many of today's rockers have risked life and limb in the Congo? While working on a documentary about the ongoing civil war there, the merry band of Canucks interviewed veterans and victims on all sides. Their do-good trip turned dangerous, though, when they found themselves under heavy mortar and machine gun fire while holed up in a hotel. They say they have one man to thank for getting them out alive: a United Nations peacekeeper named Chuck Pelletier.

Back in North America, the band developed a new sound--it's heavier and more earnest (getting shot at will apparently do that to a punk). Their hard rocking new album, "Chuck," named after the man they say they owe their lives to, came out earlier this month. But these are still the same goofballs that became famous for their ironic poses and sophomoric lyrics. Just ask drummer Steve "Steveo" Jocz, who spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker on Oct. 23 while on tour with pop-punk darlings Good Charlotte. Steveo, 23, described the hair-raising Congo adventure, their new perspective and how making out with a Playboy Playmate brought its own set of fears. Excerpts:

Steve Jocz: This is NEWSWEEK? Wow, a real magazine. I'm going to have to put my thinking cap on. Last night the guy who rescued us--Chuck--we partied with him. Oh, god he drank me under the table. He gave me scotch. I can't do the scotch. I feel like garbage. NEWSWEEK:And you guys have to play tonight?

No. Deryck [Whibley, Sum 41 frontman] has laryngitis, a chest cold, so we had to cancel tonight. The doctor came by and gave him a steroid shot that probably won't work. But the best thing is to take three days, so we're probably going to have to reschedule these shows, so we're all pretty bummed out about this.

The conventional wisdom in the music press about the new album has it that you guys are getting serious now. Talking to you I don't know if I buy that.

[Laughs.] Well, we're not content with just staying the same. "Fat Lip" was our first hit song and it was kind of funny. Can you just keep doing that over and over again? No normal person is funny--even funny people--all the time. I'm a funny guy. I'm a goofball. But that's the confusion with the band. People always assume we're goofing off. You get any four guys together and, yeah, that's what we do. But it's kind of our job.

Right, but it is a different sounding album.

Everybody lives in a bubble. Our bubble at the time of our first album consisted of our band in high school. So you don't have that much to work with and everything does seem like a joke because, in my opinion, high school is a joke. No kid takes that seriously. As you get older your bubble grows, you start taking [life] a lot more seriously. Now we've toured the world four times and been to different countries with different points of views. And as you get older you start reading the newspaper more and NEWSWEEK doesn't seem like a lame magazine. You become an adult. So as an observer your subjects become more adult in tone, but as guys we still goof off.

Your first single is "We're All to Blame." Is that meant to be taken as a political statement?

Yeah, I think so. But it's very broad. It's not a direct thing about the war [in Iraq] or [George W.] Bush or whatever. When we were in Africa, a lot of the fighting there is these different groups trying to take over the natural resources there. Then the money goes to them, but the resources go here, to Canada and Western Europe and the States. In a way, just by being willfully ignorant, everybody's kind of to blame.

So you don't see any real tension between remaining a goofball rocker on one hand and an earnest social commentator on the other?

Not really. You can balance it. Obviously people can have opinions--and these are just no-brainers. I'm not a genius here. I'm a musician. I have an opinion. I always say in interviews to kids, "For the good of the world I would prefer it if Bush didn't get re-elected. But I don't think you should take my opinion [seriously]; what the f--- do I know?" Honestly, I tell kids to think about it: look who you're talking to.

But you have more cache with kids than most adults do.

Of course I do, but what I'm saying is don't take my word for it. If you're going to take any advice from me, go read a book. Start reading the newspaper. If you're going to vote, don't vote mindlessly. Everybody should vote; you should be proud of the fact that you can. But don't take it from some guy whose music you like. That's irresponsible. If you did that I would prefer it if you didn't vote.

You must be seeing a shift in the demographics of your audience from the last tour when you had these screaming teenage girls.

We sort of have lost the teenybopper kids who don't really get us anymore. Our audience is between 16 and 20 rather that between 14 and 16. It's good because it's not so fickle. It's an actual fan base that probably won't disappear.

You tend to get lumped with the punk revivalists. But the original punk rockers weren't exactly concerned global citizens. They were total nihilists; they didn't care about anything.

That's not true. The Clash cared. OK, the Sex Pistols didn't care. But they were just making a statement about how everything was f---ed up and terrible and what we're trying to do is to explain that, yeah, things are bad. But there are certain things you can do to improve it. Everybody here lives in a North American bubble and everything feels like a strip mall. But that's not the way the world works. We're lucky. That's what Africa really showed us. People over there are happy despite everything that's going on. People are optimistic and positive [even though] death is a part of their life. It doesn't get you down because it's going to happen. And it's strange because I have talked to women who have been raped repeatedly and kids who have been forced to fight in wars and kill people against their will and they're still happy. People here are miserable and jaded and bitter and they have everything.

Was it hard to come back from the Congo and deal with the music industry?

I love it! It didn't take the Congo for me to realize that this is all b.s. But I'm still having a good time.

I'll bet. I hear you got to make out with Jenny McCarthy.

Well, we did a couple of acting things. The guy who directs all our videos directed a movie called "LA Riots Spectacular;" it's a comedy about the riots in a Mel Brooks-y kind of way. So I'm in that. It's really a small part. That will be out in a couple of months. But then a week later we did the Jenny McCarthy movie, "Dirty Love." Her husband directed it and we play a band. And the part they wrote in for me was that I have to go in and make out with Jenny McCarthy. Here I am in my first movie making out with a Playmate! So I was in the trailer by myself and I had to give myself a little pep talk. I was a drinking a beer and talking to myself in the mirror saying "You gotta do this, buddy!"