By Jay Tilles
Sublime’s self-titled album turns 20 this month. The third—and final—album of their career, it took the band from the Warped tour to multi-platinum sales. Sadly, by the time the album was released, frontman Bradley Nowell had died from a drug overdose.
Many fans were unaware of his passing; to them, Sublime was a brand new band just starting to dominate alternative rock radio, as the format moved on from the grunge sound. Sublime sold over 6.6 million copies in the U.S., and yielded a number of radio and MTV hits, including “Santeria,” “Doin’ Time,” “Wrong Way” and, of course, “What I Got.”
But few know the real story behind the Long Beach, CA band’s groundbreaking album. Over the course of several interviews with band members and producers, we discovered—among other things—that “Doin’ Time” almost never came to be, that producer David Kahne almost quit after just one day with the band, and that the album almost never saw the light of day.
Jon Phillips, Band Manager: I signed them to Gasoline Alley. There was finally a recording budget, which they’d never had before. I just wanted to hear Bradley and Sublime record in different environments with producers that they hadn’t worked with before.
Two producers were selected; David Kahne, who had produced Fishbone’s early albums, and Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, who had produced the Meat Puppets’ 1994 breakthrough Too High to Die, which gave the band their first radio hit with “Backwater.”
Phillips convinced Kahne to fly from New York to LA to produce the tracks at Total Access Studios in Redondo Beach. The studio was used by Pennywise, No Doubt and was close to home for the band. Then, Sublime would fly to Texas to record with Leary.
Phillips: Bradley, Miguel and David went in the first day. I don’t even think the full band was there at that point. Sublime had demos that they had completed. They had the original version of “What I Got” so that was one of the songs that they were going to work on. I remember the morning after the first day in the studio I was lying in bed about 7:30 and my phone rang, it was David Kahne calling me from his hotel room down the street from Total Access and told me “Hey, Jon, I don’t want to waste your money. I think that I should go home. These guys just aren’t ready. I don’t know what’s going on. They’re just not prepared to make the type of record I want to make.” I told David, “Look, they’re not used to working in the professional environment that you’re used to working in. Sublime came from the punk rock world.” I felt that he needs to give it a chance because I knew they’d be like the kid that crammed the night before the final exam and still came out with an A minus. I convinced David to go back there and after day two he told me they’d had a heart to heart. I think they’d addressed some of Brad’s “usage” because I think that might have been having an effect.
During the sessions with Kahne, they recorded “What I Got,” “April 29th, 1992,” “Doin’ Time” and “Caress Me Down.”
Kahne: It was very strange. I’m in the garage in Redondo Beach and I went back to the hotel and said “What the f— am I doing?” I’ve done a lot of crazy records, but I think realizing the depth of Brad’s talent was a major thing for me. But it was frustrating. So, I remember what Miguel said to me. He said, “Just do whatever you want.” So I put the track together more like a hip-hop record than a band record.
For me it was just as simple as, here’s a killer f—ing beat with an acoustic guitar playing over it and him going out there, and finally after two days he just went out and sang through it about three times and that was it. He just laid it down and I was just sittin’ there going “F—, this is good.”
So, the label wouldn’t give them per diem money for fear of what they might spend it on. But they had an account at a sub shop and Brad would always get these Philly cheesesteaks with piles of pepperoncinis chopped up inside of it. So part of the ritual was every day at lunch there’d be these subs and they’d be eaten… and there were these two dogs—one was Lou Dog [Nowell’s dalmatian], frequently seen in the band’s artwork and videos] and the other was someone’s Mastiff. And they would sit there and watch them eat and drool. And the drool would run out of the mouths of the dogs and there was this contest to see which dog’s drool would go the farthest down to the floor without breaking.
Miguel: Paul Leary was great. I have some treasured memories. He’s a genius and I love that guy. But he was just like us. He’s in a punk rock band. He’s in the Butthole Surfers, with tattoos, touring the world. We completely understood each other. David Kahne is a connoisseur. He’s into it too, but he’s a disciplined man. It was funny. We were like cavemen men to him in a way. He wanted to quit a couple times, cause we were idiots. He’s like, “I’m not here to babysit. I’m here to make hits.” We had to refine our behavior so we could do that, and we did. But it was like the “Odd Couple.” I think there were a few times that he thought we were just wasting our talent. And he was probably right. He went on to work with Paul McCartney so he did something right… [laughs]
Floyd I. “Bud” Gaugh, drummer and band co-founder: It was like our first professional recording. We had a real producer, we were paying for real studio time… the 40 oz to Freedom album [the band’s 1992 debut] was recorded at Cal State Dominguez Hills and our friend Miguel was a student there in the recording arts department and we used the facility there to make our record and for him to complete his class project. And, [1994 album] Robbin’ The Hood was basically just demo tracks from various living rooms, garages and flop pads around Long Beach and Orange County. So, this was our first real recording session. We went out to Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, Texas—and were working with Paul Leary from the Butthole Surfers—we were on top of the world. It was unbelievable. It was all new to us. We were so pumped and excited and I remember on the flight out there [to Austin] I was sitting next to Eric and I was like, “Dude I think we only have two songs written… what the heck are we gonna do when we get out there?” He’s like, “I don’t know, but it better be good.”
Eric Wilson, bass player and band co-founder: I remember how happy we all were. It was quite magical.
Miguel: During the recording sessions, Brad was still struggling with his issues. But he was in a good headspace. He showed up and delivered.
If something wasn’t fun, we just went to lunch. There was pressure, but it was good pressure. It was just a good time. Nothing was overdone. Most of the songs are done in one, two or three takes. We were still trying to operate like an indie rock band like Mudnoney or Dinosaur Jr. That’s what we identified with. We can’t come out too slick. We still have to be a little greasy. If you really listen carefully, it’s not perfect. It’s not a perfect record at all. It’s a fun record.
During their session with David Kahne, the band recorded “What I Got,” “April 29th, 1992,” “Doin’ Time” and “Caress Me Down.”
Phillips: I remember [Kahne] handing me, Bradley and Miguel the final mixed tape from Scream Studios in the valley where he mixed it. No producer that I had ever worked with had ever made the actual difference like David Kahne did to those songs. It think there was maybe a little hesitancy on our part that they may have been too “pop” or a little soft but there was a sound to those that surprised all of us… what the session had accomplished and where it had taken the band’s music. Brad turned to me after listening to the tapes and said, “Yo Jonny, at least we got our money’s worth.” Those songs went on to become big hits off that album.
Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in a San Francisco hotel on May 25, 1996. Bradley had married Troy Dendekker just one week earlier in Las Vegas. Jakob, their son was almost one year old.
The album was finished, but Nowell was gone. To make matters worse, their label, Gasoline Alley, had gone out of business. MCA, Gasoline’s parent company showed no interest in the project, especially with a working title like Killin’ It. The future for Sublime’s first major release looked grim at best.
Also, there was a problem with the song “Doin’ Time.” The keyboard/bells that make up the basis for the song were sampled from Herbie Mann’s 1961 song, “Summertime,” which covered George Gershwin’s 1935 classic of the same name, but at more than double the tempo. But the problem lied with the Gershwin trust, who oversaw the usage of this particular composition, and is very selective about who they allow usage of their compositions.
After being told that Gershwin had denied the clearance for the sample, everyone, including Nowell, assumed the song would never make the album. Without that classic melody, there simply was no song.
Phillips: Bradley passed away not knowing if “Doin’ Time” was gonna make the album which collectively, one of our favorite songs.
Phillips realized that he’d seen Gershwin listed on the roster of businesses in the same building as Gasoline Alley. With nothing to lose, he walked in unannounced and asked to meet with the person who was responsible for denying the clearance. It turned out to be a gentlemen who he’d shared an elevator with for three years—a pure coincidence.
Phillips: I had a serious discussion with him about the relevance of hip-hop and how a classic song like “Summertime” should be used utilized in this respect because it’s taking that classic to a whole new generation that would never otherwise know the song.
After thinking about it for quite some time, he decided to OK the use of the sample with one caveat; the lyrical hook of Sublime’s song must be changed from “Doin’ Time” to “Summertime.” With Nowell gone, Miguel went back into the studio and re-recorded the vocal in question. Most don’t realize it, but the familiar “Summertime” lyric was sung and inserted after Brad’s death by Miguel. The rest of the song remained Bradley.
Anticipating the album’s release, Phillips walked into record stores expecting to see some early promotional materials from MCA and saw nothing that would indicate they intended to release the album. He saw promotion from other MCA bands like Live, Dig and Ocean Color Scene but there was no advance hype for Sublime’s major label debut. After a few calls to MCA, Phillips discovered that the album was being shelved with little explanation. Everyone associated with the band was devastated.
Miguel: This is 1996. When we mastered the record we spent a lot of money. At that time, to have a CD burnt from the master cost like a thousand dollars… each. They didn’t have writable CDs back then. So with our budget they would only let us burn three CDs, ‘cause we were out of money. Brad got one, I got one and Jon Phillips got one. [long pause] So, we mastered the CD and I had it in my hand. It went with me everywhere. I wouldn’t even leave it in the house. I wouldn’t leave it in the car. It was in my pocket. It wasn’t just a thousand dollars, it was ten f—ing years of work. So, after we mastered it, they dropped us. The whole label shut down. So now Brad’s gone… and we’re dropped. You want to talk about dark days… the record is shelved. It’s not coming out. And Brad had gone. We had a show on the calendar for Zeke’s Backyard at the Opium Den. [Zeke Piestrup, KROQ Los Angeles’ music coordinator held a weekly new music showcase at Hollywood club] It was supposed to be a Sublime secret show. We were going to go under an alias and play this secret show. But when Brad died he said he still wanted us to come and make noise. “Do whatever you want to do, just come and play.” We put a little band together and we went and played. Now, I didn’t know Zeke. I had just met him that night. But right when we were leaving, it was like two in morning, I was like “F— it,” I was drunk and just reached in my pocket and I gave him the CD. I looked at him and I said, “I didn’t give you that.” He looked at it, paused, and he just put it in his pocked with a grin.
Two days later he called me. He said, “Be ready tomorrow. You’re life’s gonna change,” and hung up. I wish I still had [a recording of] the message.
Zeke gave it to [KROQ DJ] Jed The Fish, and Jed played it and it just blew up. Jon Phillips, called MCA and said, “How many other artists do you have with a song blowing up KROQ? You’re going to drop these guys?”
Phillips forced a meeting with MCA and made the case that the album had to be released despite Nowell’s passing. He assured the execs that it would not appear exploitative, which he believed the label was using as an excuse to shelve the album.
Phillips: The family and all of us were of the mindset that this music had to see the light of day. That would be the only triumph and redemption after losing, to me, the most soulful musician of our time—and one of our friends. And they say they might not even release the record. So there was a very compelling sit-down meeting that took place at MCA a couple of months before the release of the record. We pleaded with them. “You have to release it.” And, honestly, they released it that first day and the posters weren’t even in the stores yet… and 55 radio stations added “What I Got.” MCA’s like, “OK, we’ve got a hit.”
Gaugh: It’s bittersweet. This is what we’d been working for since Eric and I were teenagers. We went to see The Who and The Clash at The Coliseum—I think I was 13 and Eric was 10 or 11—we’re on the 50-yard line watching The Who and was like “Dude, this is where we need to be. This is gonna be us some day.” And we’re finally there. We’ve got a professional album and it’s got real distribution you can go to the record store and it’s there… we’ve made it. It’s taking off… but it’s taking off without our best friend. It hurt. It hurt so bad.
Sublime has sold over six million copies in the United States. Its success has been credited with ushering in the third wave of ska and inspiring countless bands like The Dirty Heads, Slightly Stoopid, and Sugar Ray.
Miguel: My honest to God thoughts are that we had done a really good job but I really wasn’t a hundred percent convinced they knew what to do with us because we had no peer. Sublime’s biggest curse is we had no peer. Record guys want to say, “They sound like this.” But how do you sell something when it’s not like anything else? I knew it was good. I just didn’t know how they were going to sell it. I just figured if we recouped and sold decent they’d let us make another one. I really didn’t think we were going to get a single.
I felt like the path that we chose was dense brush and we had machetes. To get to where we wanted to go, we had to chop our way through f—ing dense jungle. Now you’ve got these bands—like Fortunate Youth, Slightly Stoopid—they’re lucky. It’s like a paved highway. It wasn’t like that for us. That Sublime sound patch… That was jungle and we cut that.
Kahne: Bradley was one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with. Just the most natural—everything was so expressive. He was just a force and didn’t really understand his own potential. Like a lot of artists, he just went and did what he did. He has a flawless f—ig voice. He’d sing a song once, even with gibberish, and it would make sense—using weird funny phonemes when he didn’t have lyrics and it would still make sense. There was so much intention in the sound that you felt a meaning. The only other time I experienced that was when I produced an album with James Brown. Brad was at that level of skill.
Jakob Nowell, Bradley’s son [who now fronts a band called LAW]: I think there’s a reason it was their breakout album. The band had finally refined their sound to the point—they had really gotten the formula down. They’d finally distilled it from all the earlier material and discovered what really made them Sublime.
When my dad asked for advice on song-writing, my grandfather told him to write songs of social significance. I think the recording of those songs reflects a genuine, no-nonsense approach to music that simply stands the test of time.
Phillips: I had this long conversation with Brad where he was like, “Man, I need to get down to Jamaica. Jonny send me down to Jamaica. I wanna go down there and record. I don’t know if I hit it with this record. It’s not 40oz to Freedom. And I was like, “Well, nothing’s gonna be 40oz to Freedom, but you came through with flying colors on this one.”
I remember when Bradley came into my office and gave me this quote for sleeve of the promotional album. Let me read it to you.
“Sublime is a hodgepodge of all types of bands I have been into since I was a kid. Not like I mix it all up on purpose but more like it’s a subconscious type of thing. As a young kid I was heavily into hard core punk, like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, then I first heard the ska sound from bands like the Selector and The Specials. I thought this was the best music I had ever heard. Then came the rub-a-dub style of dance hall reggae music which I’ve never been able to get out of my head since! A little later I was into Run DMC and the whole NWA sound. I was blown away when I heard groups like Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One mixing rap and reggae. It was devastating. Without really trying I now seem to put a dance hall style lyric melody over much of my attempts at writing other types of music. They will be up all night trying to slap a label on Sublime. Good music is good music, and that should be enough for anybody.”
Wilson: There were bands like Bad Brains and The Clash that were doing it way before us. We just kinda put everything in one song.
Gaugh: Well, I think that’s one of the things that’s odd about this album. It was made basically on-the-spot. There was hardly any pre-production—like any sit-down collaboration and writing before we went to the studio—it was all live, raw emotion from the seat of our pants… so it was real. The things Brad sings about in those songs are like little snippets, a montage of all of our lives. That sound from that album is like the sound that we were striving for all along and we finally got our musicianship in line with where our dreams were. It felt like what we were meant to do. We were in the right spot at the right time… there was electricity.
I love our fans. I’m so grateful for our fans ‘cause they’re the greatest people in the world. They’re the ones that have kept this story alive. And I think it’s the greatest story ever told.