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The SPIN Interview

The SPIN Interview: Sublime

Jakob Nowell and Bud Gaugh break down the band’s unexpected reformation
L to R: Eric Wilson, Jakob Nowell and Bud Gaugh (Credit: Courtesy of Sublime)

In the music world, a band is never really gone – just ask Sublime.

Indeed, at a time when unlikely reunions have become, well, likely, Sublime was rarely mentioned as a possibility, for good reason: their original lineup could never reform.

Play these Sublime Games

That’s because singer-songwriter-guitarist Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in May 1996, two months before the Long Beach, Ca., natives released their self-titled third album. Despite the tragedy, it sold 5 million copies thanks to the enduring hits “What I Got” and “Santeria” powered by the band’s punk-rock-reggae fusion. That sound would influence a new generation of bands.

Twenty eight years later, Sublime t-shirts can still be seen on celebrities, hipsters, kids and at big box retailers. Lana Del Rey even enlisted bassist Eric Wilson to play on her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.”

Following Nowell’s death, Wilson and Gaugh joined forces with old Long Beach friends in Long Beach Dub Allstars, which lasted from 1997-2002. In 2009, Wilson and Gaugh returned to familiar musical territory by enlisting singer Rome Ramirez for what became known as Sublime With Rome, and performed the self-titled songs for the first time live. However, Gaugh had a falling out with management and left the band two years later.

Fast forward to the middle of 2021, by which point Sublime With Rome existed largely to tour on Sublime’s legacy. Despite being partners on a shelved documentary, Wilson and Gaugh hadn’t been in touch in ages, but Wilson’s wedding that year helped them rekindle their friendship. Every so often, they’d talk on the phone, and late last year, at the behest of their old producer Paul Leary, they recorded a track together for the first time since Long Beach Dub Allstars.

In the meantime, Nowell’s son Jakob was carving out his own musical career, first in Law and presently in Jakobs Castle. He was less than a year old when his father died, and even though he has considered Wilson and Gaugh his uncles for his entire life, he never thought joining forces with them was within the realm of possibility until 2023.

Wilson and Gaugh received a call about playing a benefit for Bad Brains frontman H.R., and Wilson suggested that Jakob join them for the show. That led to an initial jam session to check the rapport. Once they got going, they knew it could be special. Beyond the public debut of the younger Nowell in his father’s position, their December performance at the aforementioned benefit was the first time Wilson and Gaugh played together live since 2011.

Now, what was intended as a one-off has grown into something much bigger. In April, Sublime will play in front of thousands of fans at Coachella – a far cry from the Long Beach backyard brouhahas on which the band originally made its name. The fact that fellow ‘90s band and their longtime friends No Doubt is also on the bill further demonstrates the timeless quality of the music originating from Long Beach and Orange County at that time. The band also has several other festival dates confirmed, but for now, they’re focusing on the big one in the desert.

SPIN spoke with Nowell and Gaugh separately over Zoom about the band’s prospects, how the reunion came together and whether there could be new music on the way.

The members of Sublime rehearsing (Credit: Courtesy of Sublime)

You previously said that your sobriety helped you embrace the Sublime legacy. How did that happen?

Jakob Nowell: Growing up in the household that I did, a lot of people might think there’s a silver spoon or nepotism element. To that, I say, I wish! Although there were certain opportunities I was granted, it’s not like I was the son of some insanely powerful music executive or something like that. My dad had a punk rock band that got more popular after his death and so it was not this crazy thing. My mom and stepdad were in their 20s and it was a party lifestyle non-stop when I was growing up. At the same time, it prematurely led me down a path of addiction, although I think I would have gotten there no matter what. Going through that experience of addiction uniquely connected me to my father’s music in a way that had nothing to do with us being related. I’ve even had fans say to me that it was a more sufficient deterrent to trying drugs. It was part of the impetus of how I came to be asked to sing for my dad’s and my uncles’ band.

When did you and Eric kick around the idea of playing music again as Sublime?

Bud Gaugh: I got a call over the summer last year from [Sublime producer/Butthole Surfers member] Paul Leary. He said, I’m in the studio right now with Wilson and he’s jamming and writing these songs with H.R. They’re doing it to a drum track and the songs deserve your drums on here. So I called Eric and we played phone tag for probably a month or so and we finally got together. He said H.R. wasn’t doing so well and we’re gonna do this benefit show for him. I think it would be really cool if you, me and Jake do it. So Eric’s transitioning from Sublime With Rome at this point. So, we all got together and jammed it out to see if it could work.

I know I can jam with Eric. Eric knows he can jam with me. But Jake? Well, can we even jam with Jake? Are we even gonna get along? Is it gonna groove?

When did you first jam together?

Gaugh: In late November. It happened fast. 

What was that like? 

Gaugh: I closed my eyes and it was like going back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Brad’s dad’s garage. ​​Relearning all these songs all over again was great and it had a little edge on it because Eric and I already know him. It was eerily familiar to that point and time in my life. After the first couple of songs, it was surreal: a lot of emotions, a lot of anticipation and anxiety. With Eric, it was like riding a bike. His father trained us how to play so it was like, alright, let’s do this. Pop open a beer and here we go. It was reminiscent of the early days.

Nowell: It was surreal – not because of who they were, but because they’re so good. They’re tight without sacrificing any of that chaos. I’m hoping we get better and sound better, but there’s always gonna be people out there who don’t like my way of doing it. They don’t like me singing up there. They don’t think I’m good enough at guitar. This new era of Sublime doesn’t have to be for them, but that is not what this is about. This is for the people out there who still want to experience the music in some capacity. I’ve got to do it the most genuine way I can. I want to be well-rehearsed, and I want to take my gig seriously. Sometimes it’s gonna be messy and crazy and chaotic. 

Was there a specific moment when you knew the time was right for you to play music with them?

Nowell: Last year, I was with my band Jakobs Castle touring in Northern California. Whenever I’m up in that area, I always try to take a trip through Petaluma [because] the Phoenix Theatre was the last place where my dad and Sublime ever played a show. The venue is a little community center now. There are skate ramps there, and I sort of walk around and trip out and have my little moment. I get up there on the stage and sort of reflect like, ‘Wow, this is really where it all went down.’ I’m on stage and then I hear clapping on the other side of the door. Theaters like that usually have double doors off to the side, and there’s probably an old green room in there. Then, I hear a big audience.

I opened the door, and what did I see? A huge AA or NA meeting happening in there. Everyone at the meeting was cool, young punk rock-looking folks, and here they are coming together, like a family. At one point, I stood up and said, ‘This is who I am and my dad had died of a heroin overdose in a band that played here. That’s his writing on the wall.’ 

That meeting coincided with my uncle Eric not wanting to play with Sublime With Rome anymore. I’m sorry, but without one of the original members of the band, that’s not Sublime. It’s something totally different. And if Eric wants to do Sublime with Bud, and they want me to sing in the band, I felt like I had this custodial duty to pay my respect and homage.

How did you get to that point?

Nowell: I have to respect where I came from because I wouldn’t be doing this if not for my dad, my uncles and everybody else they were involved with and worked with. When asked to do it, I almost felt like I couldn’t possibly do this. It’s not my place. That isn’t right. But it’s simply my custodial duty. I want to make it clear that Sublime is where the members of actual Sublime are playing together. I’m not Sublime, I don’t want to act like I have any entitlement, right or any of this stuff. He was just my dad, and I want to help out in any way that I can be a custodian of the music.

What do you have planned for Coachella?

Gaugh: We’re not gonna go for a whole Hollywood production. No extra crap. That’s what Sublime was back then. We set up, we kicked ass or fell down (laughs). We might venture into a different version here or there to maybe do some improv dub stuff. 

After Coachella and some of these other festivals, what’s next for Sublime?

Gaugh: We’ll see how it goes from the rehearsals, but I’m pretty certain we’re gonna see some music coming out with this project.

Nowell: Sublime is gonna be playing a few shows a year and some festivals, and I’m hoping to get to those alternative scenes and work with cool alternative artists. I’m going to be touring with Jakobs Castle and I hope both things can fuel each other. The way I look at it is, you have these two dudes who are best fucking friends playing in the same band and they want me to be involved with them because I’m their buddy’s kid. I have to do this. I don’t have an option. I hope we can add to the legacy of this band. Hopefully we can get Gwen Stefani to come up with us to perform [Sublime’s] ‘Saw Red.’

Gaugh: I mean, come on. It seems like a no-brainer.