Don't Start a Riot

Fourteen years after Bradley Nowell's tragic death, Sublime (With Rome) are back and headed for a town near you

“You smoke weed, dude?”

Rome Ramirez has just taken a break from discussing the relative merits of Range Rovers and Escalades to light up a glass pipe. After inhaling a deep hit, he leans forward to offer the remainder before stretching back in a chair set up between two speakers; smoke billows from his nostrils. The cherubic 22-year-old is covered in tattoos laid bare by a black wifebeater that matches his sagging, tapered jeans, the kind favored by skaters and hipsters, the cuffs of which are invisible behind an oversized pair of designer high-top sneakers.

He looks, in other words, every bit the rock star he’s suddenly become.

John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album
John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album

A year or so ago, Ramirez was serving up lattes at a Bay Area Starbucks and playing guitar at dive bars for 20 people on a good night. Now, as the sun begins to set on a recent Friday, he’s rehearsing at Sound Matrix Studios in Fountain Valley, about to embark on a global tour with two people he has idolized since he was 11: Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh, the bassist and drummer for Sublime—or, as the band are now called for legal reasons, Sublime With Rome.

The sound stage is cluttered with an intimidating array of amplifiers, instruments and sound consoles. Exhausted engineers sprawl on chairs in corners, wolfing down takeout Mexican food. When the pipe is spent, Ramirez and Wilson step outside to have a cigarette as the sun ducks behind the building, while Gaugh, a tough-looking character whose wary eyes dart back and forth beneath the angled bill of his baseball cap, shares auto-mechanical tips with one of the engineers.

Unlike Ramirez, Wilson, a towering figure with close-cropped reddish-blond hair, seems soft-spoken and shy to the point of introversion. They take turns circling the parking lot in the rear of the studio atop Wilson’s orange bicycle while half a dozen roadies affix an aluminum ramp to the rear bay of an empty semi-trailer. Ramirez’s eyes widen in delight.

“Dude!” he says. “I want to ride this bike up that ramp!”

A roadie turns around with a knowing grin. “For you, Rome?” he asks. “Anything you want!”

But it is not to be. A short, muscular man with a microphone headset who seems to be in charge of the roadies puts his arm over Rome’s shoulder and playfully noodles him in the ear with his knuckles. “I can’t let you touch that ramp,” he says. “I have to deliver you to the end of this tour in bubble wrapping. We can’t let anything happen to you.”

A 4-foot tumble could twist an ankle or crack a skull, and too much is at stake to allow for accidents, especially given Sublime’s touring history. The last time the band were on tour, 14 years ago, 28-year-old lead singer/guitarist/creative genius Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose after only two shows, just as the Grateful Dead-meets-hip-hop single “What I Got” began shooting up the Billboard charts, catapulting Sublime to worldwide—if, for the surviving members of the band, bittersweet—fame.

Flash forward to Feb. 28, 2010: At the Cantina Los Tres Hombres in Sparks, Nevada, a suburb of Reno, Sublime resurfaced from its decade-plus hiatus with Ramirez filling in for Nowell on vocals and guitar. The surprise performance followed a set by Gaugh’s surf band Del Mar; the sudden appearance of Wilson and Ramirez onstage with the former Sublime drummer drove the crowd nuts. Someone in the crowd posted footage of the show on YouTube under the title “Sublime With Rome.”

The name stuck, thanks in large part to a heated legal battle with the Nowell estate, which owns the trademark to the name “Sublime.” After reaching an undisclosed financial settlement with Nowell’s family, the newly suffixed trio await their first global tour, with performances in the United States, Germany, Great Britain and Brazil.

*     *     *

If Sublime are a household name among 21st-century teenagers and college stoners, that is a testament to the staying power of the unique combination of Nowell’s alternately vulnerable and testosterone-laced vocals and the snare-drum-taut rhythm section of Gaugh and Wilson. Indeed, the music is a time capsule of Long Beach circa the early 1990s, when punk rock, ska, reggae and hip-hop came together in the form of a trio of tattooed high-school and college dropouts who sold their self-produced music, some of it recorded on equipment looted during the LA riots, out of the back of a beer-soaked van.

During Nowell’s lifetime, the music they crafted became legendary, first in Long Beach, then Orange County, and finally in college towns across the country. In 1997, a year after Nowell passed away, “What I Got” was still No. 1 on the Modern Rock Chart, and Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Sublime the most influential band of the year. Even now, several of the band’s songs—including “Doin’ Time,” “Wrong Way” and “Santeria”—remain in heavy rotation, and KROQ, the hugely influential LA rock station, lists Sublime as the third most popular band of all time, after the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana, having sold more than 17 million albums so far while amassing legions of fans, many of whom were still in kindergarten or elementary school the last time the band performed live.

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