Sublime With Rome Tries to Recapture the Magic
Fourteen years after the death of frontman Bradley Nowell, is Sublime still Sublime?
November 18, 2010 | 05:59 PM
Midday Saturday, May 25, 1996. Checkout time at the Oceanview Motel. Long Beach-based band Sublime was slated to play at San Francisco's Maritime Hall—but lead singer Bradley Nowell was face-down, unresponsive.
"I saw my best friend, naked, lying on the bed with his feet on the floor," Sublime drummer Floyd "Bud" Gaugh later recounted. "I remember laughing, thinking he had gotten so drunk the night before he couldn't make it into bed. But when I got no response from him... that's when the world came to a screeching halt."
EMTs arrived at the scene and pronounced the 28-year-old Nowell dead. In fact, they told Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson, he'd been dead for hours. It was a week to the day after Nowell's marriage to Troy Dendekker and less than a year after the birth of couple's son, Jakob.
According to a story that ran two days later in the band's hometown daily, the Press-Telegram, investigators "said it will take weeks to confirm what family members say is obvious: Nowell, who had been clean and sober for two months, had stumbled, this time fatally, in his quest to conquer a five-year drug addiction."
A heroin overdose claimed the life of Nowell, just as Sublime stood on the verge of greatness. A year prior, the band performed at the inaugural Warped Tour, and since then had built a strong, growing following—on the West coast and beyond. They were poised for a European tour.
But Nowell died, just as the seminal radio hit "Date Rape" was peaking and mere months before the release of the band's third album, their first major-label record. Originally called Killin' It, it was renamed simply Sublime.
Grieving the loss of their bandmate, "brother" and primary songwriter, Sublime immediately disbanded but stayed on course to release Sublime and complete what they say was Nowell's dream. The single "What I Got" was certified gold by year's end—and later earned the #83 spot on Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time." The album, meanwhile, would go five-times platinum by the turn of the millennium.
A year later, a benefit concert featuring headliner No Doubt was held at the Hollywood Palladium "to promote drug awareness and prevention among fans" and honor the memory of Sublime's late frontman. "It's not a tribute," the widowed Dendekker told the LA Times. "We don't want to glorify the way Brad died... It's like everyone is desensitized to it—like it's OK because they were musicians. But it's not OK. And that's what we want people to know: enough already."
As is often the case with acts that burn out rather than fade away, some critics argue Sublime may never have achieved cult status were it not for Nowell's passing. And it's true that most fans were introduced to the band in the aftermath, with the flames fanned by things like much-hyped live footage of Nowell as a ghostly insertion into the cartoonish, saloon-set video for the song "Santeria." But the fact remains that Sublime is forever etched into alternative music history as one of modern ska's most influential groups, their music plucking the nostalgic heartstrings of a generation now coming into its own.
Immediately following Nowell's death, several band managers affirmed Sublime's absolute end. "I would assume that with Brad gone, they'd never play under the name Sublime again," Blane Kaplan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't think Bud or Eric have any interest in making anything in the future with the name Sublime in it," added Jason Westfall in the Press-Telegram. "Sublime died when Brad died."
But 14 years later, Sublime has been resurrected. Founding members Gaugh and Wilson reunite at bottoms and beats and have brought into the fold fresh-faced, 22-year-old guitarist Rome Ramirez, who assumes Nowell's position.
When news of the revival broke in 2009—with a show at the Cypress Hill Smokeout festival—contention arose immediately. Not only with the to-be-expected chorus of fans claiming Nowell cannot and should not be replaced, but with a legal challenge involving the heirs to Nowell's estate. A preliminary injunction prevented the new lineup from calling itself Sublime, but the parties settled out of court earlier this year, with the agreement that the band will now be called Sublime With Rome.
The question, however, remains: is Sublime (With Rome) still Sublime? And, even if they are, or could be, why bother? Gaugh and Wilson—along with a large cast of other musicians—toured from 1997 to 2002 as the Long Beach Dub All Stars, and seemed content to let the past remain the past. But in recent years, the music industry has taken a beating and the reformation of once-big bands (with their built-in fan bases) now seems like one of a small handful of ways to make a guaranteed buck. Is the return of Sublime more marketing than music?
In a MauiTime interview, Ramirez insists it isn't. "That was 14, 15 years ago. That's a long, long time," he says. His enthusiastic humility—touted by bandmates—seems genuine, and is painted all over his candid tone. "I can think back to what I was doing [when Nowell died]—I was playing with Micro Machines," he laughs. In May 1996, Ramirez was seven years old.
"I can't really speak for [Gaugh and Wilson], but from what I've gathered, that was a fresh wound, then," he says. "It's sort of like if I were to lose my mother. Would I want a stepmom, like, months later? A year later? No fucking way! But over the course of time, things change, and you start to understand that was part of the mourning process."
It's simple, Ramirez says: "The guys just wanted to play music again. They wanted to play the songs they never have a chance to play—especially when you have something beautiful that you want to share with people." Of course, Gaugh and Wilson are free to play the old songs under a different name, but, Ramirez asks, "Why should they? It was their band—Brad, Bud and Eric. Brad passed away, and it's Bud and Eric now."
It's easy to paint Ramirez as some sound-alike lottery winner, plucked from obscurity for a marketing scheme. According to him, nothing could be further from the truth. "I met Eric through a producer—a mutual friend—and we just started jamming," he recalls. "I was the piece that put that together. [Eric and Bud] weren't really speaking. They were on basic terms for a little bit of time. Eric met me, and we became buddies, and I kind of bridged their relationship back.
"I think it came to the point where they believed in me so much and it felt so right between us," he continues. "There was a mutual chemistry and they felt confident to propel as the band again."
From the start the band has had a mobile studio and records constantly. "I'm actually in the studio right now," Ramirez says as we talk. What are they working on? "Well, it's just a song, but it's pretty rad. We're doing the pre-production on it right now. We've got about four or five songs that are already pre-recorded, as far as just skeletons go." He says they plan to hit the studio in February, and put out an album by December.
New songs like "Panic" have gotten decent airplay and earned Ramirez critics' cred, but audiences can expect just a small sampling of new work on this tour. "We only play four or five new ones," Ramirez says. "We have close to 40 songs we play onstage now, so we're definitely playing long, long sets. All the old classics and a batch of new ones." Fans can look forward to seeing Ramirez with the Dirty Heads—currently opening for Sublime With Rome—as he guests with the band on "Lay Me Down," a track that recently hit #1 on Billboard's alternative chart. That song makes two things apparent: Ramirez has smoother, more pop-styled vocal capabilities, and his renditions of Sublime songs are heavily influenced by Nowell's intonation.
It's a tricky line to walk, between mimicry and homage, but so far Ramirez has been well received.
"It feels amazing. It feels so good. We're selling out shows. [Audiences] love it and they're responding to the new songs really well," he says. "I don't see any negative. I'm sure if I go out and look for it, I could find it. I'm sure if I looked for animal porn, I could find that too. But I don't want to look for that stuff. I just go about what I do. And when I'm on the road, what I do is play a bunch of really great shows."
Ramirez has said that growing up, Sublime was not just one of his favorite bands, but his absolute favorite band. That may seem a tad too perfect, but he reiterates it in our interview. He says he's reminded of his good fortune "every day, man—it's really humbling, a total trip.
"One of the fondest memories I have is when we played a show in Arizona with Primus and Weezer—those are two of my top-five other bands in the entire world," he continues. "Primus stayed and watched my entire set—that was really cool. That was a crazy day in my little head."
Under the tutelage of Gaugh and Wilson—and under the supportive eye of bands he idolizes—Ramirez is fast learning the frontman ropes. The primary lesson he says he's absorbed has a direct connection to Nowell's death: "Flying straight, staying humble and not fucking with drugs—that's the key to this whole thing," he says. (Though he adds that his plans on Maui include snorkeling and "getting really drunk.")
"Keeping your head on straight, and keeping everything cool," he adds, saying the last word not just like he means to do it, but like he knows how to do it. "Be respectable, and everyone will want to work with you."
As with any enigmatic band member lost to tragedy, Nowell will never be replaced. Everyone—and especially the band—has been in agreement about that from the start. Since that May afternoon in 1996 when heroin claimed—and perhaps created—one of this generation's greats, there's no configuration that will ever be the original Sublime. But the worth of Sublime's continuance, even more than a decade later, is proven by the band's commitment to its sound, by sold-out shows and still-committed fans.
"Bud and Eric are pretty certain that Brad would have been really stoked about this," says Ramirez. "I don't think anyone could say that other than them—and whatever they say is what Sublime says, in my book."
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