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Nowell and Wilson hit it off and played together in a pair of garage-punk bands, Hogan’s Heroes and Sloppy Seconds. By high school, Wilson had befriended Gaugh, who had arrived from Northern California eager to play music and cause trouble. After jamming for a week straight at Nowell’s house, the trio formed Sublime. By then, both Gaugh and Wilson had been kicked out for unspecified offenses of Long Beach’s prestigious Wilson High School, from which Nowell had successfully graduated.
“Let’s just say I had something with me on campus that I shouldn’t have had with me,” Gaugh says.
“Yeah, something along those lines for me, too,” Wilson chimes in.
At the time of the band’s 1988 performance-turned-riot, Nowell had recently returned from an abortive stint at UC Santa Cruz and begun taking business classes at Cal State Long Beach, where Sublime played regular shows in the outdoor quad and at the Nugget Grill and Pub, a campus bar next to the student union.
“You never knew what you were going to get,” recalls Dave Shea, a student who booked shows for the university and later went on to become a member of the influential Long Beach rock group Shave. “They liked to piss off the crowd. At first, they didn’t stand out too much, but then in one show, they took it up a notch from good to great, and then to mind-blowing.”
Another early fan of the group was Shea’s friend Michael “Miguel” Happoldt, an aspiring young sound engineer and producer from Florida who’d moved to Long Beach to attend Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he had access to the school’s recording studio. After listening to four songs Nowell had recorded on tape—“Don’t Push,” “Slow Ride,” “Ball and Chain” and “Date Rape”—Happoldt convinced the band to come into his studio to record what would become Sublime’s legendary demo tape, Jah Won’t Pay the Bills.
The band brought boxes full of the cassettes to their shows and eventually sold 1,200 copies for $5 apiece. The demo was incorporated into Sublime’s first full-length CD, 40 Oz. to Freedom,which was released on Happoldt’s Skunk Records label in January 1991. “It took a while for the CD to sell, and that really took a toll on Brad,” Happoldt says. “It took six months to sell 1,000 copies. They were stacked up at my uncle’s house.”
With Happoldt’s promotional help, Sublime continued to perform sold-out shows at dive bars and small clubs around Long Beach—Bogart’s, the Foothill, Fender’s and Golden Sails. They quickly became the most famous band in the city. Just as the band’s reputation for musical prowess took off in 1992, so did their penchant for crazy behavior. When the Rodney King riots began on April 29 of that year in LA and Long Beach, Nowell and his friends drove north to participate in the anarchy. “They drove up to LA and stole booze and shit like that,” Wilson recalls. “There was some furniture stolen, some drum equipment.”
When the band’s aptly named sophomore release, Robbin’ the Hood, was recorded in late 1993, Gaugh, who had taken a prolonged leave of rehab-related absence, had already rejoined the band, and Sublime were touring up and down the West Coast, often sharing the stage with No Doubt, an Anaheim-based ska band who went on to become arguably the most successful band in Orange County history. Sublime played their first show with No Doubt in February 1992 at Anaheim’s Kona Hawaii club, and the bands became nearly inseparable.
“We had gotten a cassette tape of 40 Oz. to Freedom and just had fallen in love with it,” No Doubt’s Tom Dumont recalls. “I loved how they could blend so many styles, but in such a cohesive way. Brad obviously had a ton of soul in the way that he sang, and I found his lyrics reminiscent of [Charles] Bukowski in the honest way that they described both the lighter and gritty sides of Brad’s life. Bud and Eric were a really strong and distinctive rhythm section who could nail the deepest authentic reggae groove, and then switch it up to raw emotional punk as well.”
The two bands’ artistic collaboration cemented in the song “I Saw Red,” an uptempo duet by Nowell and No Doubt’s lead singer, Gwen Stefani, that was included on Robbin’ the Hood. Despite the brilliant music, mainstream success continued to elude the band. “The whole time, Brad and I were homeless and staying with random weirdos,” Happoldt recalls. “When you are squatting in a house, you don’t usually have cable, so Brad was our entertainment.”