How Mod Sun Became Pop-Punk's Go-To Songwriter, From Machine Gun Kelly to Avril Lavigne

Mod Sun

Mod Sun

It’s hard to imagine Mod Sun, with lime green hair and explosive amounts of energy, growing up in quiet Minnesota. It’s why, he says, “I was the total outcast.” The artist born Derek Smith recalls how being from the Midwest, particularly a town where few people shared similar interests, established a “me-against-the-world aesthetic and attitude” from a young age -- and taught him an important lesson. “If I wanted to find people that liked what I liked, I needed to go out and find them," he says. "They're not coming to me.”

He did just that, eventually drumming in a band formed with his first group of friends. “We didn't have laptops and Pro Tools or our own microphone and studio setup, we had none of that,” the pop-punk singer recalls. “That was not even possible 20 years ago.” Still, the experience proved pivotal as he learned the importance of collaboration: “It went from being me-against-the-world to understanding us-against-the-world.”

It’s a sentiment Mod Sun -- who entered the industry as a rapper, releasing his first EP in 2010 and debut full-length in 2015 -- has only recently realized the full power of. He counts chart-topping artists like Machine Gun Kelly and blackbear as lifelong best friends, and recently collaborated on hits with both. Meanwhile, he formed a friendship with the pop-punk princess herself, Avril Lavigne, who later became the only featured artist on Mod Sun’s February release, Internet Killed the Rockstar, his fourth album and first on Big Noise.

“I just signed a record deal, but prior to that I was competing with every major label artist as an independent and, that being said, I also didn't have a team around me telling me good or bad,” says Mod Sun. “I've been able to sustain all the time because I have all of these people who are great artists that support me and without them, I don't know if the world would have ever taken me seriously. It’s crazy because I grew up in what I call the scene, and then it died. And now it's like me and my best friends taking over the damn world.”

To keep that energy going, on Friday (May 7), the deluxe version of Internet Killed the Rockstar arrives with eight additional tracks, five of which have never been heard before. “I wanted to tell the other side of the story, which is that if there's a killing, there's a rebirth,” he says, explaining that the re-recorded and new tracks use major chords to invoke a sunnier, more positive outlook than the minor chords heard throughout the original album.

“There's been this idea of the rebirth of what a rock star is nowadays," he continues. "I don't do drugs or drink alcohol anymore, I'm running three miles a day, eating healthy… I made it past 27. I changed up my lifestyle and I want to live a long time. Bob Dylan is still making music at this moment right now and he's [nearly] in his 80s. That is a rock star to me.”

Below, Mod Sun explains how his latest high-profile co-writes came to be, from a rock and alternative radio hit for MGK to an Internet Killed the Rockstar standout featuring Lavigne.

Machine Gun Kelly, "Bloody Valentine"

Mod Sun first met Machine Gun Kelly while on Warped Tour in 2012. “He wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of people, he wasn't making friends, but me and him? Best friends, right there. Spent every second together from there on out." Mod Sun ended up directing the one-take music video for his song “Sail” with an almost non-existent budget -- it now has nearly 140 million YouTube views. More recently, Mod Sun creative-directed Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets To My Downfall, which topped the Billboard 200; co-wrote the hit “Bloody Valentine”; and also co-wrote and co-directed the album’s accompanying film Downfalls High. He says of all he contributed to this project, though, he’ll never forget the experience of working on the song.

“I'm sitting in bed and it was 11:11 PM, and this dude hits me up and I did not want to get out of bed," he says. "It was right after Christmas and he's like, ‘Yo, you want to come over and write a song with me?’ And we hadn’t really done that together. So I pull up, we get in the studio and ‘Bloody Valentine’ just comes out like vomit.” He believes the song took about two hours to churn out, and by 2 AM, he and MGK had been screaming at the top of their lungs for a little too long because eventually, his daughter (who is now 11 years old) walked into the studio to see what was going on. “It was the truest moment of like, me and Kels are forever going to be kids -- and even his daughter is acting like our fucking parents at this point.”

Mod Sun and Avril Lavigne, “Flames"

Last September, after a night out in Hollywood celebrating the release of Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets To My Downfall, Mod Sun was driving the two back home when Kelly stuck his head out the window and -- seemingly innocently -- hit the front windshield. Except his ring managed to create a spiderweb crack, which led to Kelly kicking the whole thing in as he documented the stunt on Instagram Live. Not long after, Avril Lavigne ended up seeing what happened online and decided to follow Mod Sun. “So the first thing I do is DM her like, ‘Hi icon,” and she was like, ‘Oh my God, that s--t was the craziest thing I've seen on the Internet in the last 10 years. You guys are awesome.’”

That same week, Mod Sun had released “Karma,” the lead single off Internet Killed the Rockstar, and Lavigne was blown away. She mentioned that she was gearing up to work on a new album and was curious to hear more of what Mod Sun was working on, so he sent her album track “Flames” to which she replied with a voicenote. She ended up contributing to the song, becoming the only feature on Internet Killed the Rockstar; the acoustic version of the track is included on Mod Sun’s deluxe album.

“The song changed my life, but further than that it opened this whole space of us working together on music for her,” he says. “We’ve made a ton of songs together now. It's literally the dream scenario to work with her as a songwriter because I actually get to hear my ideas come out in full form, in the best possible way.”

Mod Sun and blackbear, "Heavy"

Twelve years ago, Mod Sun’s lawyer introduced him to another client of his, blackbear, and the two became fast friends. “He used to be in pop-punk bands and all that, scene bands, so we had this camaraderie already right from there,” Mod Sun recalls. Soon enough, the two found themselves opening for Travis Mills on tour with blackbear riding on the bus and Mod Sun in his own van. “I'm telling you, I love life. I enjoy s--t. So blackbear was like, ‘Man, f--k being on this bus, I'm going to come ride in your van,’ which is a move that no artists will ever do unless they really love you,” says Mod Sun. “And we got back from that tour -- this kid has his own mansion -- and he decides to live in my pool house. And we went through it all.” The pair bonded while roaming around at 5 a.m. doing “real brother s--t” and stayed close ever since, even forming the alternative hip-hop outfit Hotel Motel.

“He was there for me when I was making all of these really, really vast changes in my personal life,” says Mod Sun. “We both completely switched lifestyles. Fast forward to this song ‘Heavy,’ the subject matter is about the weight of the world being very heavy when you're making these big decisions to want to grow old and live your life. ‘Live fast, die young’ is a whole different ideology than let's grow old and have a family. And to be present was a really big struggle for me, to actually put down drugs and alcohol and become present changed everything.”