How Sublime's Self-Titled LP Outlived Its Doomed Maker - Rolling Stone
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How Sublime’s Self-Titled LP Outlived Its Doomed Maker

Bradley Nowell’s family, friends and bandmates recall the year tragedy struck just as the group was hitting it big

Sublime, 20th, anniversary, feature, Rolling StoneSublime, 20th, anniversary, feature, Rolling Stone

Sublime's Eric Wilson (left) and Bud Gaugh (right) recall the year they lost frontman Bradley Nowell and put out their defining LP.

Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty

Twenty years ago, Bradley Nowell wasn’t around to see himself become a star.

After two independent releases that had garnered his band Sublime a devoted following in their native Long Beach and the surrounding SoCal area, the singer/songwriter/guitarist had upped his game for the group’s self-titled third record. Released on July 30th, 1996, Sublime saw Nowell realizing the perfect summertime mix of upbeat hooks and punk-rock energy, layered over the danceable reggae beats of drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson. It was the kind of record that was destined to become the soundtrack of camping trips, barbecues and stoner bonding sessions for years to come.

It was also the first time the scrappy band, longtime veterans of touring in vans and playing backyard parties, would have the marketing and distribution power of a major label behind it.

Sublime would eventually sell more than 5 million copies and spawn several songs that decades later have aged into classic-rock-radio staples, but Nowell would see none of that success: On May 25th, 1996, he died of a heroin overdose in San Francisco while the album was awaiting release. He had married his girlfriend Troy one week earlier.

For Nowell’s widow, it’s easy to remember Bradley’s love of music, times when she’d hear him just sitting around, playing his guitar, singing and writing songs.

“My favorite memory of Bradley, I would have to say, is just how sweet he was,” she told Rolling Stone recently. “Just a sweet and gentle soul. Genuine, not a rock star at all.”

For Troy, there were good times mixed in with the pain of watching Bradley succumb to his demons. Though Nowell was using while the album was being written and recorded, there were things to celebrate: the birth of their son Jakob and the sense that this would be the album that would bring Sublime to a new level of success.

That duality is all over the album, with its peppy, upbeat, bong-rip vibe barely masking the darkness of the lyrics. “I’d pop a cap in Sancho, and I’d smack her down,” Nowell sings on “Santeria,” a cheerful ditty about murdering the guy who stole a girlfriend. Elsewhere, he tells tales of robbing liquor stores and music shops during the Rodney King riots (“That’s somewhat true,” swears longtime Nowell friend and collaborator Michael “Miguel” Happoldt) and hooking up with underage prostitutes from abusive families.

Some of the songs were rooted in Nowell’s own life, from the broken home he grew up in to the struggles of his life as a touring musician, but he kept his darkest problems, including his heroin addiction, private. “It not only gave his addiction power because none of us understood, it also made him more isolated and made him feel more lonely,” says Troy. “But near the end he did want to stop. He definitely was sick and tired of being sick and tired, like the lyric [from ‘Pool Shark’], ‘Someday I’m going to lose the war.’ It was prophecy.”

Bradley Nowell

The making of the album, which was recorded in Austin at the insistence of producer Paul Leary, was tumultuous. While many bands who experience indie success chafe under taking direction from a major label for the first time, Brad’s bandmates say he was happy to work with a big-name producer (it didn’t hurt that said producer was a former Butthole Surfer). But for every victory, like nailing “Santeria” guitar solo in just one take, there was a setback, like Nowell being sent home to Long Beach after getting high one time too many.

“Brad was great, but if there was drugs, he wasn’t as great,” says Happoldt. “It was hard to focus if he was doing drugs.”

Troy’s easygoing speech reflects her willingness to adapt to her role as her husband’s spokesperson in absentium, but talking about the past doesn’t necessarily come easily to his bandmates. Wilson refused to talk about Nowell’s state of mind during the making of Sublime, saying only, “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Gaugh is more forthcoming, acknowledging Nowell’s addiction and the pain that came from being shut down just as the band was hitting its creative and commercial stride.

“It was crazy,” he tells RS. “As soon as we got the rough edits, not even the full mixes, just the rough edits, we were playing them on our car stereos, at house parties all over the place. We knew this album was the best thing we had ever done. This was a new mark on the ladder for us to reach. We were in an upward moment; we were just beginning to realize all the hard work we had done was going to start paying off. And all of a sudden, I don’t have my best friend to share it with anymore.”

“We were just beginning to realize all the hard work we had done was going to start paying off. And all of a sudden, I don’t have my best friend to share it with anymore.” –Bud Gaugh

Two decades later, the record’s legacy is only growing stronger. Songs like “Santeria,” “What I Got,” the George Gershwin-sampling “Doin’ Time” and “Wrong Way” remain fixtures in the sets of bar bands around the world. Those songs also live on via the numerous artists that picked up on the band’s kinetic mixture of up-picked reggae guitars, frenzied punk and hip-hop tinged vocals, an influence evident in everything from Slightly Stoopid (a band originally championed by Nowell) to Magic! and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” For better or for worse, the appearance of the band’s former drummer Marshall Goodman, a.k.a. Ras MG, on turntables, would pave the way for the instrument to break through into the rock mainstream via Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Incubus a few years later.

“We did it in a genuine way,” says Goodman. “We had no precursors. We had no ambition other than to make some cool music.”

In a radio interview given before his death, Nowell reflected on the medley of influences that gave his band its signature sound.

“The way it all started was with the ska music – when we got into that, it just changed my life,” he says. “It’s the same thing as punk except instead of that distortion guitar, it’s that upbeat. And reggae is just halftime ska; it’s just a logical progression to put it all together like that.”

Not that Sublime was the only band combining ska with punk. The Clash had experimented with reggae decades before, and by the mid-Nineties, thanks to revivalists like Operation Ivy, the sound was everywhere. While Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the like might have found brief fame before becoming cult favorites among the ska faithful, Sublime and a few contemporaries like their friends (and original Warped Tour-mates) in No Doubt would be among the few to survive as more than one-hit wonders. Ironic, given that they were never even able to tour behind their biggest hits.

“You gotta imagine you’re on this magic carpet ride, right? We had just taken off, you know,” says Gaugh. “We weren’t even playing stadiums yet. One of our goals when Eric and I were kids, we went to go see the Who at the Coliseum with the Clash and it was like, ‘This is freaking awesome. There’s 100,000 people here. These guys are playing their asses off up there, just having a great time. Come on, Eric. You and me, let’s do that.'”

Contrary to the good-times vibe of Sublime’s music, things haven’t always been copacetic among its survivors. Gaugh and Wilson would collaborate in the Long Beach Dub Allstars later in the Nineties before drifting through various other projects over the next decade. In 2009, the two began performing under the Sublime name again with singer Rome Ramirez substituting for Nowell, a move which garnered legal action from Troy and the rest of Nowell’s estate. The trio would compromise by touring and recording under the name Sublime With Rome, but Gaugh would leave the band under less-than-friendly terms in 2011 and was replaced by prolific session drummer Josh Freese. 

“It turned out to be something I regretted doing,” says Gaugh. “It was pitched to me a certain way that just never happened. I just started my family and they came to me saying, ‘It’s not going to be the old way of touring. It’s not going to be drugs and hookers and all this stuff. You can bring your family out there, all these others bands do it,’ and it just was not that way.”

For his part, Wilson says his band is still able to play Sublime’s music with authenticity but some bitterness with his former rhythm section partner evidently remains.

“I believe Bud was a driving force and has a certain style of his own, but he doesn’t try well, and that’s too bad,” he says. “Bud’s kinda like the Mickey Rourke of drummers. Mickey Rourke’s blackballed in Hollywood for a while. If Bud was an actor he’d be blackballed all over the country.” 

At least some of the past wounds have healed. Troy acknowledges her early trepidation about Sublime With Rome – she was still grieving the loss of a soulmate, the father of her child and an artist whose legacy she fiercely defended.

“I was very emotional,” she explains. “We did not want them using Sublime. It was like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ But five years later, it hasn’t done any damage. I finally went to a concert last July to see them live for the first time. I was worried it would be too emotional for me, but I hadn’t seen Eric Wilson in a long time. I finally started speaking to their manager and it was actually a really beautiful experience because the fans don’t care who’s up there singing; they just want to hear the music live. That was the one beautiful thing about Sublime live: It united everyone. Everyone would sing along together.”

“That was the one beautiful thing about Sublime live: It united everyone.” –Troy Nowell

While Sublime With Rome is still bringing versions of Nowell’s classic songs to the masses, there is no replacement for the original. To that end, in June Geffen/UMe released remastered versions of the Sublime catalogue, which include the band’s three studio albums as well as posthumous compilations, live and acoustic recordings, and the band’s early EP Jah Won’t Pay the Bills, as well as as a 13-LP box set.

For Troy, a vinyl collector from back in the day, it’s a fitting tribute to a husband whose artistic legacy has far outlived him. For Gaugh and Wilson, it’s validation that they were part of something great and a chance to rectify slights from the first time around. Gaugh in particular was appalled there was no initial vinyl pressing of Sublime, given the influence dub artists had on the band.

“Don’t give the fans three songs from this album, three songs from that album and call it Greatest Hits,” he says. “We just don’t want to do that. There’s live music; there’s other things that we were interested in doing creatively like dub remixes of the album.”

The re-releases might help fuel some nostalgia for Sublime’s music but the continued existence of Sublime With Rome might be proof it’s not really needed. Kids are still discovering a band broken up long before they were born. It’s possible they are attracted by the reputation that sprung up around Sublime because of Bradley Nowell’s untimely demise: the doomed junkie whose addiction either fueled his songwriting or put a premature end to it, or both.

But for those closest to him, the reason Sublime the band and Sublime the album are still relevant is because no matter how his life ended, while he lived, Bradley Nowell wrote some great songs.

“I don’t think it’s just because of the way he died,” says Troy. “Some people, artists or musicians, get glamorized because of the way they died. It wasn’t that, the music just stands the test of time.”

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