The music industry is built on underdogs. As fans, we want to see the little guy succeed and we’re compelled to support someone whose rise to stardom has been an uphill battle. However, for Derek Smith, known to the world as Mod Sun, finding the confidence to pursue his passions has been a journey years in the making. “I always wanted to be a singer, but I was told for the majority of my life that I wasn’t a singer,” Mod says. “I was in bands surrounded by incredibly trained musicians with perfect pitch who told me that I wasn’t a singer and that killed a lot of my confidence. But there was a burn inside of me that I always wanted to sing.” Against the odds, Mod Sun is an artist who’s thriving in multiple disciplines right now, debuting his crossover album “Internet Killed the Rockstar” with a collaboration from Avril Lavigne, as well as co-directing “Downfalls High” alongside Machine Gun Kelly.
Mod knew from an early age that music was his calling, making his professional debut in a post-hardcore band at only 17 by playing drums for Four Letter Lie. His time in the group gave Mod the name recognition to branch out as a solo artist. He spent several years releasing albums in his self-proclaimed genre of “hippy hop,” but soon Mod realized he couldn’t keep his voice caged forever and it was finally time to give singing a fair shot. “I didn’t have [confidence] until four or five years ago when I made a project with blackbear called ‘Hotel Motel,’” he explains. “That’s when I really found my voice. Not only did I find confidence, but I really love my own voice.
“I’m one of my favorite singers and I’m so blessed because singing is not something that you have to be born with,” Mod continues. “I was able to do it this whole time and I believe in the journey, whether you learn that when you’re young or on your last day.”
Buoyed by his newfound confidence, Mod made a big change with his fourth album, showcasing his singing to the fullest extent through a new pop-punk sound. Like many musicians who came up in the 2000s, Mod felt at home with pop-punk and now, he’s using “Internet Killed the Rockstar” to reclaim the glory of his youth. “[This album] is a statement to when I was growing up,” he says. “When I was growing up, I had to have my three best friends in the room to even make music. We were the last era of garage bands and then the internet came along so we started making solo music. But now I’m feeling the desire for camaraderie and the hunger to make music like I did when I was 16 again.”
Mod has used pop-punk as a vehicle to come together with his homies and has leaned into all facets of the genre, from the uptempo guitar work to major chord progressions. As a true lover of the genre, he recognizes that pop-punk is more than just upbeat instrumentation; it’s a musical dichotomy. “Pop-punk is based on pounding music with sad lyrics about breakups, growing up, being an outcast and not fitting in,” he says. “Bands like Dashboard Confessional lit the fire inside of me by having a guy with a guitar being able to make you fucking cry. It’s true emotion and I think that’s what music was missing in the last decade.”
With the freedom to showcase his feelings to the fullest, Mod went into “Internet Killed the Rockstar” with the intention of putting his heart on the staff line. For the album’s lead single, “Karma,” Mod let his emotions run rampant in a way that resonates with pop-punk listeners. “One of my absolute favorite things to come out of pop-punk is the love letter revenge song,” he says. “You’re writing a love letter to your ex and saying poetic statements of revenge and redemption. It’s based on the idea of the underdog winning in the end and it taps into the beautiful, hurtful pop-punk ideology that you saw from a band like Fall Out Boy. I think it’s my truest pop-punk moment of this album.”
Mod has used this album to showcase his emotional range as an artist and, to put it plainly, let loose. That release of restraint comes through strongest in his single “Bones,” which he admits is his best vocal take ever captured. “‘Bones’ is pure emotion and when I made that song, I wanted it to feel like the three seconds before a car crash,” he says. “When you think about those seconds before a car crash and you have no idea what’s about to happen, I wanted to capture that feeling. That is the style of music I did when I played drums, and the heavy, in-your-face yelling just does it for me, man. This song is the introduction to how deep and personal my album gets.”
When putting together the tracklist for “Internet Killed the Rockstar,” Mod decided to arrange the songs in the order they were created, allowing his fans to see his process unfold. The album’s first two singles, “Karma” and “Bones,” were created back-to-back on the same day. Then, when it came to his third single, “Flames,” he laid down the chords and realized that this song needed some extra kerosene. “I’d made the song ‘Flames,’ but I was feeling like it was unfinished,” he says. “Avril and I connected, then when I showed her my music, she was like, ‘Oh my God, I love that song.’ I got up the courage to ask her to be on it and it all happened that quickly. It’s honestly the biggest turning point in my career.”
Mod allowed the magic of the moment to take over while recording in the studio. He turned off the thoughts running through his head in order to purely capture the energy in the room. “There’s a way deeper lyrical meaning that came out of me, and if you listen to it, a lot of the song is based on the idea of relapse,” he says. “Within ‘Flames,’ I shared a lot of vulnerable things that someone in my position shouldn’t necessarily say, like, ‘I might relapse.’ A twisted love story came out during that song, but also a lot of my personal life flooded through.”
Mod cut drugs and alcohol from his life on May 11, 2019 and used this album to explore the many facets of sobriety. While ‘Flames’ allowed him to admit that he might one day relapse, ‘Rollercoaster’ is a single that showcases his sobriety as a celebration.
“I don’t think that gets talked about enough in music, how it’s cool to not do drugs,” he says. “You can’t turn on the radio without hearing a song about popping a bottle and drinking all night. So I think it’s fucking cool to make songs for the people that don’t do that shit and are proud of how far they’ve come. Every album right now has a song about partying all night and I made sure not to have that song on my album.”
Mod has ridden the wave of the pop-punk resurgence, surfing alongside fellow genre-bending musician Machine Gun Kelly. For almost a decade, Mod and Kelly have worked together in music, first coming together on the video for Kelly’s “Sail,” which was shot in Mod’s home. Along the way, the two have not only collaborated on music, but tattooing as well. “Kells has given me, like, 15 tattoos,” he says. “When we went on tour together, I brought a tattoo machine and we practiced on each other. He tattooed ‘1970’ on the bottom of my fingers, which came out so good. I tattooed a safety pin on him, which is my insignia that I draw all the time.”
Like Mod, Kelly made the switch from hip-hop to pop-punk on his 2020 album “Tickets to My Downfall.” After being offered to turn this album into a movie, “Downfalls High,” Kelly knew that collaborating with Mod was the right move and the concept of a punk rock musical was born.
Mod and Kelly took inspiration from “Grease 2,” with Mod noting that through “Downfalls High,” they’ve done more promotion for “Grease 2” than the 1982 musical did for itself. “We decided to make a fucked-up musical, not some fairy tale,” he says. “I don’t care who’s a fan of ‘High School Musical,’ I’d probably be a fan too if I sat down and watched it, but we all know that shit is corny. We decided to make a fucked-up musical that didn’t have a happy ending and work backwards from there.” This rock opera, like the music of both Mod and Kelly, tells the story of an outcast against the world, a message that speaks to the past, present and future of pop-punk.
With a brand new album and his directorial film debut already under his belt, 2021 is already shaping up to be Mod Sun’s year. But, no matter how much success comes his way, Mod will always be a pop-punk kid at heart. And if a pop-punk kid knows anything to be true, it’s that you’re always better off being the underdog.