Mod Sun’s coming-of-age experience has been a prolonged one, mainly because growing up never appealed to him much. Many of the artists he idolized as a kid, like Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious, didn’t make it past 27 years old. To the musician born Derek Smith, they were his teachers, both musically and philosophically. Their music showed what it means to be a tortured artist, but lacked guidance on what comes after the phase of high-speed self-destruction.
“That bled into my mind that you have to be addicted to the chaos and thinking that’s what’s pushing you to be this creative artist,” Mod Sun told Rolling Stone over Zoom ahead of an X Games performance in Aspen. “I’ll never forget when I broke free of that and all of a sudden understood that I was only focusing on such a small part of life.” The 35-year-old musician credits his nearly four years of sobriety, as well as relationships with his family and fiancée Avril Lavigne, with pulling him through to the other side. On his latest album God Save The Teen, out Friday (Feb. 3), he wants to be sure that none of his fans are left in the dark.
“In no way am I trying to stand on the podium and be like, ‘I’m fighting for the youth and that’s what my message is,’” he explained. “What I want to give to the world at this moment is to say, for all the young kids growing up right now, let me just be a messenger for the other side of life.” In 2021, Mod Sun pivoted away from hip-hop with his first full-length pop-punk album, Internet Killed The Rockstar. A decade after launching his career as a rapper, he’d found unexpected success with a young audience and a much-needed reset.
But just before this past Christmas, Mod Sun was six weeks away from having to hand God Save The Teen over to his label when he decided he needed a more literal clean slate. Listening to his own album, he founding himself wanting to skip over the four singles he released sporadically over the past year. “When you skip a song on an album when you’re first listening, it’s like removing bones from the body,” he explained. “It [used to be] such an event to get an entire body of work and I’ve missed that feeling lately.” So he got rid of all four singles. The tracks he created in their place function as cautionary tales and love letters to himself and whoever else happens to need them.
Through impassioned reflections on being raised by a single mother, replacing his dependency on drugs and alcohol with a healthy romantic relationship with Avril Lavigne, and the music that saved his life, Mod Sun walked Rolling Stone through God Save The Teen – the album that got him ready to grow up and excited to grow old.
Compared to the themes on Internet Killed the Rockstar, does God Save the Teen feel like a different type of vulnerability?
The album title, God Save The Teen, what it’s saying right now is like, if there’s anyone responsible for trying to create a better future, it would be the generation that is older than the young generation, right? That’s what I feel is fueling and feeding to the younger generation. And right now, I one hundred percent feel like we’re in the middle of something – where we’re not at the beginning and we’re not at the end. I think we’re right in the middle of a turning point of what is going on in society. The societal pressures that a young person in this world must feel every single day, I see it and I want to be a messenger for that. And I am in no way trying to put a good or bad stamp on these things going on.
Now, looking at what a younger person goes through on the daily with the internet and social media – in comparison to other people’s lives and filters – I think that’s a really big issue that could really affect the future. The idea of perfection, the idea that you need these things outside of you to be okay for society right now. When I think back to my youth, I think about my heroes that were saying stuff like this – that were saying what’s on the outside of current culture, where the whole counterculture was, the whole pop punk and the whole emo scene.
Being a male in the world at that time, it wasn’t pushed to be in touch with your emotions. It wasn’t like, let’s applaud the empathetic. But that’s what that music was telling me. Dashboard Confessional sounding like he’s crying on a song. That made me feel like it is totally okay to be emotional and to be connected to sensitivity and to wear that on your sleeve. So that’s what my goal with this album is – trying to say, what can we do for the younger generation? What can we tell them? There’s a song on my album, “Delusional Confidence,” that’s talking about rebuilding what this future looks like. And I think that history repeats itself. So I can see us really rebelling from all these things that society is telling us that we need to do right now.
In the lead up to the album, you shared short visuals that featured excerpts of the lyrics, not sung but spoken. What was the purpose behind that? Especially with you having pivoted from hip-hop to pop punk on the last album, it almost strips away the genre distinction conversation.
The lyrics are all based off poetry. I’m not just trying to make like this catchy chorus and just fill in the blank on the verse to get back to the chorus that you remember. It’s like every one of those words mean so much to me. And I want this to be an experience so badly. Every song on this album to me is like life or death. And I’m totally comfortable in my skin as an artist to be like, how I picture my music is important. I’m not afraid to say that. Am I one of the biggest artists in the world? Absolutely not. But I have people that I’m their favorite artist. Whether that’s a million people or five people, I want them to understand that their favorite artist is never going to take a shortcut when it comes to making art.
You worked with your producer and close collaborator John Feldmann again on this album. Was the process, especially the quick turnaround, significantly different from the last album?
We were talking about my last album and there was such a right place, right time with it. There is such a resurgence of pop punk and alt music and we’re in the middle of a pandemic where everyone is at home and completely listening to music non-stop. I’ve had this thing my entire career where it’s like, I just don’t want to do the same thing twice. I feel with this last album that I found this new voice and this new journey for me. And instead of just repeating that, I wanted to continue to add all the things that I’ve done in my career and bring it all together full circle.
When it comes to me making music, there’s just no negotiation with the process of something. And when you’re talking stream of consciousness, that’s exactly what it is when I go in the studio with John Feldmann. The whole idea behind everything is not trying to take ownership of anything that happens that day. John Feldmann always actually told me something great, which is: “Some days, the song is just waiting for you at the studio.” And that’s the mindset that I enter when I walk in that door and get behind the mic is to completely not try to own everything and allow myself to try to be channeled to something that’s not something that’s necessarily me holding on to it, but something that’s being given to me.
It seems as though you examined your own growth and were able to see yourself as a work in progress? Did that lead you to decide this record is not what you thought it was?
I try to be as in the moment as possible. The idea of being present to me is what has saved me over the last like, three and a half years. I’ve changed a lot about my life in the last three and a half years – with getting sober and not doing drugs and no alcohol – and there’s this whole idea of being completely present. And so when I went to make this album, I talked about what’s actually happening in my life. I absolutely love musicians that are storytellers. But I really like to keep it true to what’s going on in my life.
So when it comes to the self reflection part of this album, it’s really like my last album was a total kind of breakup album. That’s where I was when I made it. And this one is totally a love album. You know, there’s a lot of concepts about how important it is to allow love into your life. Comparing love and drugs, the effects that it has on us are so similar. I traded that high that I was getting from drugs and alcohol for the high that I get from love. And I really tried to put that down here on the album and make this giant love letter. That’s a love to being with someone and also really, really pushing self love as well.
You switched out that unhealthy codependency for a real connection that you can build a life on with Avril, how does that shift how you see your future playing out?
I finally really look forward to being married. I want to have a kid. I want to get wrinkles on my face and turn into this really cool grandpa with blue hair. I can’t wait to be able to reflect on all these things that I’ve done once I get older. I’m going to try to leave behind as much as I can and on my deathbed be able to go and look back on all these things and listen to these albums and keep creating this catalog and keep leaving words behind.
And you know, I’m so fortunate to be in this really healthy relationship. I’m truly with a grown woman, like, my girl is a grown up in the coolest way possible. She balances being this total badass rockstar with being a grown up and being like, it’s cool to do that. And she has really shown me that in so many ways and it’s just made my future so much more exciting.
I have a song on my album called “Avril’s Song.” Just like for my mom. So many people think that if you’re not being ultra relatable in a general sense, like, “Well, this song is about this person, but I need to feel like it’s everyone’s song.” They think that’s the way to connect to people most. And I think the total opposite, especially with this album. I was like, no, I really believe that when you write something so specific, that’s what crosses the boundary and really turns out relatable. I have a song that I wrote specifically for my girl and I know that it’s going to end up being something that so many other people connect to.
“Single Mothers” reminded me that, as kids, we view our mothers as these almost supernatural beings. But as we get older and we have our own experiences in adulthood, we come to see them in a more human way because we understand their experience more deeply.
I didn’t really start asking questions about what it was like for her to raise myself and my sister until recently, you know, she made it look so easy. There’s a line in that song that says, “She would cry while we would sleep and never showed us she was weak.” And that’s something I found out recently. I didn’t know that she was going through it and I didn’t really ever have to think about it because she was a superhero.
It wasn’t easy raising myself. I was a kid who wanted to rebel against everything. I wanted to run away from home. I wanted to be the kid in town that was the outcast and that was scary for my mom. We moved around a lot when I was a kid after my parents got divorced. And, I rebelled against that. I was like, I don’t fit in with these kids. I want to be different. I want to do things that no one else in my town is doing. I want to play music and I want to wear weird clothes. I want to dye my hair weird colors. And she supported all that, but in her head she was scared about what all these things could do.
How do those conversations impact how you approach or think about the next chapter of your life, getting married and building a family?
My mom really traded her own life for us. She really gave up on all her aspirations and dreams to make sure that me and my sister had this life. And that’s something that makes me think like, what would I have done in that situation? Like, would I have been able to be selfless enough to do that? My father passed away about three years ago or so. And rest in peace to my father, I mean no disrespect, but he didn’t change his life at all. He remained being about himself his entire life. And she had to do the complete opposite and sit on the sidelines and watch him make everything look fun. He would do everything he can to make it seem like he’s the fun parent. You know, let’s go have fun and be wild and all this, and my mom would never say a bad thing about him. She had to kind of sit on the sidelines and just be the strong one. It’s making me emotional just thinking about it right now. She really lived a hard life and she deserved a song.
You mentioned the fear and worry that your mother held for you while you were growing up and now you’ve been sober for nearly four years. Has cutting drugs and alcohol out of your life allowed you to better maintain healthy relationships?
It took me out of this made up reality that I had built in my head about being a tortured artist and Van Gogh syndrome and [thinking that] to do something great, you have to be putting yourself through hell. I have the 27 Club tattooed on my arm. Those were my heroes when I was growing up, so that bled into my mind that you have to be addicted to the chaos and thinking that’s what’s pushing you to be this creative artist. I’ll never forget when I broke free of that and all of a sudden understood that I was only focusing on such a small part of life.
Right after I cleaned up – I maybe had been sober for like 30 days – my mom, my sister, and myself went on this trip to Iceland. We had gone on family trips over the years and I would be out of my mind fucked up. And while we’re on this trip, my mom just looked at me and she’s like, “I have my son back.” That just changed everything for me. It does make me reflect on the fact that we are going to be dead one day, you know, and the people we love are going to be dead one day. We don’t know which one is going to come first. And it’s important to be present and to do all these things now and spend time with the people that you love.
“Courtney Fucked Kurt” is an attention-grabbing title. If that’s the one song anyone listens to, what are they meant to take away from it?
With the 27 Club, what I was talking about earlier with my heroes that I looked up to, it was so simple, it’s just the romanticization of death. The romanticization of drugs and, specifically, so many people that I was one hundred percent looking up to when I was young, were romanticizing heroin. My heroes were strung out on heroin. I just wanted to make something that was telling these people, “Fuck yeah, I love Sid and Nancy. I love the idea of this destructive, chaotic couple – but it’s dangerous.” It is so dangerous to look at those couples and be like, that’s my Halloween costume this year. I think that in those legendary tales of people and all that, there’s the other side that needs to be talked about – the dangers in it.
Look into their life, and if you think that these people that passed away – from suicide, murder, drugs – wanted to die that day, I completely argue against that. I don’t think those people wanted to die that day. Even when it goes to the suicidal subject of it, I wish there was someone there to save them. I think that lives in the underbelly of that song, saying, “Someone is here that wants you here.” And be very weary of believing that being strung out in an alleyway and sleeping in the gutters – be very weary of that tale that you’re feeding yourself. And I’m speaking from experience. I loved Charles Bukowski. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time and his whole thing was like: get as drunk as possible, go get in a bar fight, then come back home and sit at a typewriter. It was all so romanticized and I just want to, if in any way possible, influence the other sides of life that we can romanticize. The healthy parts of life.
Tell me about the Goo Goo Dolls cover. At what point in the recording process do you decide to include a cover, and why was “Iris” the right choice?
The whole idea of inspiring your inspirations is something to strive for. I posted my little short for the rollout of this album yesterday, and Goo Goo Dolls commented on the post. When that song entered my world when I was young, it changed my life at that moment. I can listen to that song today, right now, and it will find a way to change my life at this moment. And for them to just know who I am. It’s a journey that I want to tell everyone to try to do. Try to inspire your inspirations.
I started as a drummer playing in pop punk bands and post-hardcore screamo bands. We would play entire sets when I was 16 years old covering the Starting Line, Blink-182, and all those bands. But once I began my career as Mod Sun, I never covered a song. So I’ve been asked over and over, “What would be the one song that you’d ever cover?” And it was always “Iris.” There was never any other song that I would want to cover. I’ll never forget just walking through the halls of high school, headphones in, and just hearing: “And I don’t want the world to see me.” Hearing those lyrics and feeling understood and being like, I don’t care if all these people in the hallway completely ignore me and think I’m the weirdo. I’m understood somewhere. It made me feel like I had a home somewhere.
And when I’m saying “God Save the Teen” on this album, that’s the song that saved me when I was a teen. I felt it was only right to do this homage to it. This was the song that got me through everything, that made me smile, that made me cry, that made me say that this song saved my life. All of those things. It has been with me through my whole journey since I can remember. You know, it’s been there with me. The song that saved me when I was younger, it had to be on this.