A Conversation With Sum 41's Jason "Cone" McCaslin
They say you’re judged by the company you keep. If that’s true, then SUM 41 is definitely a rock band – especially based on their lone Grammy nomination that saw them in the hard rock vocal category alongside Mastodon, Megadeth and Dream Theatre. Sure, the little band from Ajax, Ontario has sold over 30 million records making music often given multiple labels: punk rock, pop punk, skate punk, punk metal, alternative metal, melodic hardcore, pop rock, thrash metal and arena rock. At the end of the day, however, the diverse styles of hits like “Fat Lip,” “In Too Deep,” “We’re All To Blame,” “Over My Head,” “Pieces” and “The Hell Song” prove one simple fact: Sum 41 is first and foremost, a rock band. Just ask bassist Jason “Cone” McCaslin, who along with bandmates Deryck Whibley (lead vocals, guitars), guitarist Dave Baksh, guitarist/keyboardist Tom Thacker and drummer Frank Zummo, are still making rock albums that are musically – and socially – relevant twenty years into an incredible hit-making career, including their well-received 2019 album, Order In Decline.
In support of their upcoming show with The Offspring November 15th at the Meridian Centre, the man known as CONE took time to talk with GoBeWeekly about surviving in a war zone, border-hopping in the time of Trump and the joys of middle age.
GOBE: I worked at the local St. Catharines rock station and there was always talk that SUM 41 had entered their Rock Search indie band competition and was overlooked. Do you have any recollection of entering that contest and therefore, confirming the failure of contest organizers to recognize your band’s true potential?
CONE: (Laughing) That is possible. I don’t totally remember it but I wouldn’t say that’s far out of the realm of what we were doing back then. And the fact that we were overlooked, there’s probably something behind that.
GOBE: It’s been 20 years since you started this crazy ride. When you look back at what your initial hopes may have been for being in a rock band, what accomplishment still amazes you? Selling 30 million records, touring the world, a Grammy nod, Juno wins? Or simply just surviving?
CONE: When we first started we never thought about album sales or awards or anything and we still don’t. We were just a band from little Ajax doing our thing. If we could play a bunch of shows around town and Southern Ontario back then, that was pretty good for us. Nothing has really changed. We all love playing and we all like making new music, just on a bigger scale now. We’re all pretty happy having made it a career.
GOBE: You’ve definitely all been road dogs over the years. How have you consciously adapted to that lifestyle of constant touring? What comforts do you demand, or have you just come to enjoy the joys associated with travelling?
CONE: I think over time it’s gotten to the point for me that I appreciate the places we go to more than I did when I was younger. When we first started and had our first couple records we were all partying pretty hard. It was one of those cliché things that you wake up and you don’t know what city you’re in. Most of the day was spent nursing your hangover and you forget the fact that, wow, I was just in Brussels or the south of Spain. We didn’t really care about that back then. Now I make a point, especially in Europe or in Asia, all these places that are super interesting, I try to make a point of getting out and actually care about the places we’re going to. That’s what’s changed for me.
GOBE: You’ve got kids and family and all the trappings of what appears to be a happy life, but success doesn’t come without cost and sacrifice. For you personally, what has that been? What has been the greatest personal sacrifice you’ve had to make following this career path?
CONE: It’s the kids really. Being on the road so much, it is tough. You miss so much of your kids’ upbringing. I didn’t get to see my son’s first time he walked. I just missed my daughter’s first birthday. Stuff like that is part of the sacrifice. This is what we do and have always done, we tour. But this is the kind of stuff you look back on and go, it’s shitty I’ve missed so much. When you’re home you just try to be the best dad you can be.
GOBE: In doing the research for this interview I came across at least five websites that claim to know your net worth, your personal information, your kids’ birthdays, all this personal information. I won’t even let Alexa in my house. Does that kind of exposure as a result of fame ever freak you out?
CONE: I find most of that stuff is fake anyway. If I had that kind of money I’d be pretty excited. I remember looking that up a year ago for something that popped up about Deryck. So I was like, I wonder what they say he’s worth, and what they say I’m worth. When I saw it I was like, whoa…(laughing)
GOBE: That’s when you talked to the band’s accountant?
CONE: (laughing) Yea, I’m like wow, what happened to all my money. I don’t really look at those things too much. That was kind of funny to look at. As for all this online stuff floating around, I just don’t pay too much attention to it really. I also don’t think I’m really famous. I think of myself as in a band that can play great shows and has popularity. I don’t think of myself as a famous person.
GOBE: You’re rolling into St. Catharines with Offspring. Did hanging out with that band again help you remember some of the stories you may have forgotten during Sum 41’s earlier tours with them?
CONE: In 2000 when our album Half Hour of Power came out they took us on a week-long tour of the U.S. It was actually the first time we ever got a tour bus. We had been touring in a van for a few years, doing crazy tours in our van across the U.S. Those were crazy times, being in a band then was really fun. But I remember the first day of the Offspring tour and seeing a bus roll up. From then on we toured in a bus and we were all pretty excited about that. Then we did another tour with them across the U.S. in 2008 I want to say. That was amphitheatres across the US. We’ve continued running into them at festivals and stuff, we’re pretty good friends with them now. In fact their new bass player Todd (Morse) is the guy I do my side project with, Operation MD. It’s just a strange little connection.
GOBE: You mention the U.S. You’ve got the new album out, Order In Decline. There’s a track on there, “45 (A Matter of Time),” which is a clear knock on the POTUS. Sum 41 had a deportation scare during the Bush years. Has there been any issue border hopping these days given the sensitivity of the song and the man-child in power there?
CONE: No, nothing’s really happened yet. I don’t know that everyone really realizes what that song is about. You’ll get messages on Instagram or Twitter from someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, obviously full Republican, saying ‘I love that song, I love your album.’ So I’m not really sure everyone’s picking up what we’re putting down in the lyrical content. Or the best case scenario is, they know what the song is about but they just like the music, which is also great as well. I feel like a lot of bands are expressing opinions now so it’s just become the norm for the Trump presidency.
GOBE: I don’t think fans really realize the difficultly and reality involved in travelling back and forth across borders to work and perform.
CONE: Well, Derek is a U.S. citizen now. Dave and I just use our VISAs. It’s been pretty relaxed so far. Maybe at renewal time it won’t be (laughing).
GOBE: This tour you’re also revisiting the Chuck album in a big way. I was really curious about the band’s experience that inspired that album title, travelling with World Vision to the war-torn Congo during its civil war. What was going through your mind at that time when you were actually trapped in a war zone.
CONE: We thought we were going to die. That was the biggest thing. It got pretty serious. I actually went out to dinner with the War Child people a while ago and we were reminiscing and we were all saying the same thing, what were we thinking. I don’t actually remember in my head that I thought I was going to die, but I did feel the vulnerability that it could happen. They straight up said, yea, we thought we were all going to die. Then it sunk in again. Coming from the War Child people who come from these active war zones quite a bit, for them to say that kind of made me realize that we were really in danger. When I see the video documentary, and I have put it on the last couple years, it still gives me chills. We were in a rough spot. The mortar rounds were pretty close, enough that they were shaking the hotel. It was 15 years ago, and I didn’t really think about it for a long time. But now we’re doing the Chuck thing, it’s all coming up again and I’m starting to remember it all.
GOBE: You are sliding gracefully into relative middle age. How has age shaped your attitude toward the music you make, or music in general? Do you find yourself listening to Diana Krall now, or are you still hardcore?
CONE: I think when I was in my 20s it was metal and punk and that’s it. But now I pretty much listening to anything. I even like jazz. I’ll listen to jazz at dinner, I like the blues, I like folk music, I like everything. Maybe it does come with age, I don’t know. I just kind of picked it up along the way. I’ll put on Myles Davis and go, this ain’t bad. I’m pretty eclectic. My collection is pretty diverse. And the music we make, it’s just a reflection of what’s happening at the time with us and around the world. When “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep” came out we had just come out of high school. All we knew was high school living. That’s why the lyrical theme was what it was. Now we’re approaching 40 we have a lot more to talk about that’s affecting us.
GOBE: It’s funny you mention the labels often attached to music. I always felt that SUM 41 was just a rock band. The music has always been about big guitar riffs and a rock energy. What kind of confirmed it was Sum 41’s Grammy nod. Do you think that helped clarify things for dumb writers and people who always strive to put a label on the music you make?
CONE: I still feel like we get the pop-punk thing thrown around even more so. Labels, I never really thought about it. We started the band because of punk music, NOFX, Pennywise, all that kind of stuff. We didn’t really call ourselves anything. Everyone else kind of makes it up for you. “Blood In My Eyes” was a heavy song and fit in that category. We’ve just done so many genres. You put that song up against “In Too Deep” and they’re kind of polar opposites. I’m like you. I just say we’re a rock band, hard rock band. We do punk style songs too.
GOBE: So what’s left for you to accomplish? What keeps you motivated at this stage?
CONE: We’re not done obviously. We want to play bigger shows and keep getting better as musicians and write the best songs we can. The worst thing for us would be to make albums that aren’t relevant anymore and everyone just wanted to hear the old stuff all the time. Obviously, people come to the shows and they want to hear “Fat Lip and “In Too Deep” which is cool because we love playing them. We just like the new stuff just as much. We want to continue to play that.
GOBE: So for the St. Catharines show, for people who may never have seen the band live, how does this tour measure up to some of those epic Sum 41 tours?
CONE: The production stuff we’re doing is more above and beyond anything we’ve done before, so there’s a lot of hoopla and blow up stuff. The set list will include a lot of everything. We’ll be playing a little over an hour, an hour ten. There will be some new songs and all the old singles.
GOBE: SUM 41 lost the Best New Group Juno to Nickelback a long time ago. Given that they’ve become sort of a punchline and reverence for SUM 41 has continued to grow, do you feel any sense of vindication?
CONE: (Laughing) We know those guys. They’ve always been cool with us. I don’t really follow them enough. I know they’re the butt of a lot of jokes. I don’t really have a comment on that.
GOBE: Finally, I learned something about you today: that you got your nickname “Cone” because you liked eating ice cream. I always thought it was a bit more nefarious, or that maybe you earned it by eating something far different.
CONE: It’s one of those stupid nicknames from high school that people started calling me because of the ice cream thing. Now I’m 40 and it’s still stuck. I don’t know how Flea got his name, or Sting. It’s one of those things you never thought would stick around. I’m 14 and I’m Cone. Now I’m 40 and I’m still Cone. (laughing). Be careful what nickname you take.
GOBE: You know you’ve made it when people can address you by one name. Elvis, Cher and Cone. You’re in good company.
CONE: I guess so.
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