Living By Their Own LAW: Jakob Nowell’s Band Find Their Way, Despite Sublime Expectations

LAW, photographed in Long Beach by John Gilhooley

Beneath the hazy pink-and-purple neon sign of the Homestead Bowl in Cupertino, Jakob Nowell sits curbside with LAW band mate Logun Spellacy. As they review the set list in the mild October air, they are interrupted by a long-haired blond guy who sits down beside Nowell and stares. He slaps the singer on the shoulder, then asks what time he goes on.

“We’re the second or third on, I think,” Nowell replies.

“That’s great, man. Someday, you guys will be headlining,” the man says.

An awkward silence follows as Spellacy watches with a sly grin.

“You know what, man?” the Shoulder Slapper asks, putting an arm around Nowell. “I really like your soul. I can feel it,” he says, poking his finger on the singer’s chest. “Wanna come party in the woods with us after the show? We get drunk on Jack Daniel’s around a bonfire, black out, play a little mandolin. You can take your shirt off, strip or whatever. It’s great; no one’s around for miles.”

Before Nowell can answer, guitarist Aiden Palacios walks out and sternly tells his band mates to come inside.

“What was that about?” bassist Spellacy asks as he and Nowell scurry inside.

“Uhh, I guess that guy liked my soul,” Nowell says.

It sounded more like he wanted to sodomize Nowell in the woods.

“Yeah,” Nowell says with a laugh. “He really wanted to touch my soul.”

“Hey, it’s better than the usual stuff,” Spellacy says. “At least he didn’t ramble about smoking joints with your dad in the ’90s.”

Bradley Nowell toting a little Jakob. Photo courtesy the Nowell Family

For the son of Sublime front man Bradley Nowell, such encounters are common. But few realize how taxing comparisons and hero-worshipping can be for a man who barely got to know his father before his spirit left the Earth.

The Cupertino show marked the second stop of LAW’s mini West Coast tour, which ended with their opening slot at Sacramento’s Aftershock Festival, headlined by System of a Down and Alice in Chains. But that night at the X Bar, adjoining the Homestead Bowl, things were looking pretty grim; the turnout wasn’t that great, and the band needed gas money to make it up to Sacramento, then home to Long Beach. The day before, they’d been paid mostly in food for a gig in San Luis Obispo, which is great if you’re a starving artist, but less so if you’re hauling pedal boards, amps and a drum kit up the coast.

A mini-tour is typical for up-and-coming rock bands: the crowds aren’t sold out, the pay isn’t great, and the band depend on merch sales if they want a decent meal. LAW’s show at X Bar was far from prestigious. While signs inside boasted it was voted “Best Bar for Underground Music” by Metro Silicon Valley, the place resembled a vestigial appendage growing off the side of the Cupertino bowling alley.

LAW opened their X Bar set with “Pastora.” Spellacy plucked solemn bass chords as drummer Nick Aguilar lightly tapped a splash symbol. A small crowd gathered in front of the sign as the song erupted into madness with the rough kick of the bass drum and lashing chords from Palacios and Spellacy. Nowell’s voice rose with vitriol over the PA system. The unrelenting energy enticed the audience to romp around the dance floor.

On the surface, LAW appear to be a typical rock band, though their connection to Sublime is the blessing and the curse that alters their journey. A few years ago, in attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps with a reggae rock outfit, Nowell’s band nearly fell apart because of his drug addiction and the anxiety of expectations thrust upon him.

Now re-formed, LAW are dropping There and Back Again on Black Friday. If you’re expecting a salvo of white-boy reggae sucking off the Sublime teat, as so many have done, you’d be spectacularly wrong. The album’s dark, mystical, funky flow is an alloy all its own. The only things about LAW that are reminiscent of Sublime are their chaotic story and their maverick attitude to creating something genuinely apart from their contemporaries.

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LAW bassist Logun Spellacy. Photo by John Gilhooley

Though Nowell was destined to pick up a guitar at age 16, there would be no LAW without Miguel Happoldt. The producer, mentor and longtime friend of Bradley Nowell started Skunk Records with the Sublime front man in 1990. He’s often referred to as the fourth member of Sublime.

But Happoldt’s role in LAW’s formation came about by accident in 2012.

One of the bands he was in at the time was playing a show at DiPiazza’s with Mike Watt, “who’s a legend,” Happoldt recalls.

At the time, Aguilar had played drums for Watt (formerly of the Minutemen) on and off since he was 13. “It became a thing that I would fill in on a song or two,” Aguilar says of his early teen days. “You can only do that for so long before it stops being cute.” That night, while playing “Glory of Man,” he caught Happoldt’s attention.

Happoldt introduced himself to Aguilar and his parents and gave the kid a high five. “[Nick’s] capable of playing real complicated material,” Happoldt remembers thinking. “When Jake [Nowell] decided he wanted to move to Long Beach [from San Diego], it was in the back of my mind, like, ‘Well, maybe I should get him with that kid.’”

“Two months later, I get an email from [Happoldt],” Aguilar recalls. “I was super into Sublime at the time, and I’m like, ‘Okay, this’ll be sick!’”

In March 2013, LAW featured Nowell on guitar and vocals, Aguilar on drums, and Dakota Ethridge on bass and vocals. Much about their early style—from the upstroke chirp of Nowell’s guitar to Ethridge’s meandering bass lines and the band’s abrupt tempo changes—echoed Sublime’s sound.

They were unpolished, but with Happoldt’s guidance and constant practice, LAW quickly improved. Offstage, Aguilar’s caustic wit and precise attitude didn’t mesh with Nowell’s carefree demeanor. However, Nowell’s innate love of entertaining crowds shined alongside Aguilar’s mastery of the drum kit. Within months, they were playing shows alongside reggae-rock royalty Slightly Stoopid and the Expendables.

When Sublime formed in 1988, their sound was so vanguard that an entire genre sprang up in their wake. “Brad was determined to make a sound that had no peers,” Happoldt says. “You could do all these genres. You could do punk rock, ska, rap and metal, and then just fit in. Brad was determined to have all these sounds together that he liked. Then the public will come to us.”

When Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in 1996 (a year after Jakob’s birth), he left a void nobody could fill. No matter how talented bands such as Long Beach Dub Allstars and Slightly Stoopid are, they’ll always be following the path forged by Sublime. Many fans believed Bradley was irreplaceable, even by the talented Rome Ramirez, who now fronts Sublime With Rome. When Jakob Nowell and LAW started, many die-hard Sublime fans hoped Bradley’s son would pick up where his father left off.

For a time, LAW obliged those fans’ wishes, and the band’s success seemed to justify the decision. Throughout 2014, LAW played for growing crowds at the Observatory in Santa Ana, SOMA in San Diego and the California Roots Music and Art Festival in Monterey. By the end of that year, they had begun recording their debut EP, Mild Lawtism.

As the album neared completion, Aguilar invited Palacios to play guitar for LAW. Palacios’ punk-metal background gave the band’s sound an added punch, but his addition, as well as that of Spellacy on bass, caused an unexpected shift in their style. “Once Aiden joined, it just opened up this whole other world. I had thought that we just had to play ska-punk kind of music,” Nowell says.

LAW’s,Jakob Nowell. Photo by John Gilhooley

“Jake was talking about how much he liked Tool and Queens of the Stone Age, and I was like, ‘Where’s that in the music?’” Palacios says.

With Palacios’ mellow persistence, Nowell’s songwriting eased toward a heavier sound, at which many Sublime purists balked.

As LAW began developing their new sound, things changed fast. Nowell, who’d struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol since he was a teenager, got sober in 2015, and the band began writing their sophomore EP, Toxic. But a rift was also developing, as the band juggled playing ska and metal.

By the beginning of 2016, Aguilar and Palacios formed a secret side project with Spellacy, Palacios’ cousin. Playing ska to live up to another man’s legacy was losing its luster for Palacios and Aguilar, both of whom came from punk and alternative bands. The trio would meet at the Koos Rehearsal Studio in a sketchy San Pedro neighborhood. According to the LA Times, there were 193 violent crimes in the area surrounding the studio between March 12 and Sept. 9, 2018.

The tense, semi-industrial area mirrored the sound the new band—who dubbed themselves Benz Boyz after the license plate of a car perpetually parked outside Koos—were looking for.

Meanwhile, Nowell and Ethridge were constantly arguing; they soon parted ways, and LAW continued with Spellacy replacing Etheridge on bass in April 2016.

At the same time, Nowell found out about the Benz Boyz’ jam sessions, and, infuriated, he drove to Koos to confront them. Nowell and Aguilar debated whether Nowell’s voice could handle singing metal.

“‘I’d love to sing on a song like that!” Nowell recalls yelling. The singer then began training his voice to meet the required range.

“That’s when we became an actual band,” Nowell says. “Before that, me, Nick, Aidan and Dakota . . . were always trying to chase that ‘Well, we’re supposed to be doing reggae, right?’ Once Logun joined and we put Toxic out and started writing new music, that’s when we started discovering ourselves.”

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LAW drummer Nick Aguilar. Photo by John Gilhooley

After abandoning their old style, LAW began writing songs without worrying about the Sublime legacy. Their primary objective was to create something entirely their own—just as Bradley Nowell did with Sublime 30 years prior.

LAW’s fascination with fantasy became a creative catalyst for them all. They wanted to transport your mind to a mystical state, to foster a tactile experience that bridged reality and imagination.

But trouble lingered as the band prepared for their first California tour in June 2016. Nowell was used to being the primary songwriter, but he found Spellacy’s prolific output frustrating. Before Spellacy joined the band, Nowell had veto power, but now, everyone’s creative direction carried equal weight. The singer lost confidence and quit songwriting prior to the June tour. To make matters worse, he relapsed into drugs and alcohol.

For Aguilar, it was a heartbreaking repeat of what happened a year before. For Spellacy and Palacios, the trip up the coast was an introduction to madness. One particular night in Seattle stood out.

Bradley Nowell with a baby Jakob. Photo courtesy the Nowell Family

They had made arrangements to stay with a guy named Burley—a friend of Sublime’s—and play a handful of local shows. “My mindset was ‘we’re playing a show in a back yard. Of course we’re gonna drink some beer,’” Spellacy remembers. “But I didn’t know what ‘some beer’ meant to Jake.”

“Seven or eight beers before the show,” Nowell says and laughs, “and vodka.”

When Nowell stepped onto the neon-lit patio stage, he blacked out. Spellacy asked Nowell to ease up on the drinking, but the singer was already obliterated. “I really only recall random people telling me how much my dad meant to him as I was slamming IPAs chased with vodka,” Nowell remembers.

The show went terribly by all accounts. “Burley saw the way that I drank, and he was like, ‘Oh, man, you’re just like your dad,’” Nowell says.

He woke up hungover the next morning and promptly asked Burley for more beer. Though Burley initially thought it was a joke, it was not. “He sees me pounding a beer from the fridge first thing in the morning,” Nowell recalls, “and he said, ‘I think you’re a little worse than your dad.’”

After the tour, the band collapsed again. Aguilar played drums with a few side projects, and Spellacy and Palacios tried playing in other bands. Nowell even tried to re-form LAW with a new cast, but nothing worked.

While Aguilar, Spellacy and Palacios re-enrolled in college, Nowell went to rehab.

Four months later, Spellacy reached out to Nowell, to check on his friend. Soon after, Palacios, Spellacy and Aguilar met at Niko’s, a pizza place in San Pedro, to review what went wrong.

LAW got back together in the following months and began work on There and Back Again. Although it’s technically their third release, it’s the first full album with their new sound. Though the band’s early exposure as a ska-reggae band perhaps pigeonholed them and Sublime fans might be pissed, they should give them a chance.

“People will always have an expectation, but it’s so easy when you’re a fan of something to dehumanize it.” Nowell says. “We got ‘The kid . . . he’s gonna do the Sublime thing.’ . . . They don’t think about [my] thoughts on this. Not to say I’m some teenager kid who’s gonna say, ‘I don’t wanna be anything like my dad; screw you, Sublime fans.’ No, that stuff’s all cool. It’s so not the issue. We’re just like any other musicians. We just want to make the music we like, but we have this added curse and blessing.”

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LAW’s Aiden Palacios. Photo by John Gilhooley

The morning after the Cupertino show, after speeding LAW’s black sprinter van to Discovery Park in Sacramento, the four band members—plus Nowell’s and Palacios’ girlfriends, Ashlyn and Nikki, respectively—are ready to play Aftershock. It’s a monumental opportunity for the band, as it’s their first bona-fide metal festival. Both Nowell and Palacios feel sick to their stomach, but it’s too late to back out.

LAW rock out on “Pastora,” just as they did at the X Bar. Spellacy’s long blond hair flares wildly as he headbangs to the track. Halfway through their set, Nowell tears off his shirt and screams into the microphone. The growing crowd twist their hands into devil horns in appreciation.

After their 30-minute set, the crowd cheers loudly as the band hustle offstage. Things couldn’t be better, and LAW couldn’t be happier.

For a band that fought so hard against the Sublime legacy, finding an original sound and battling the demons of addiction are the best ways to show their appreciation to Bud Gaugh, Eric Wilson and Bradley Nowell, whose aversion to being what people wanted made them great.

Photo by John Gilhooley. Design by Richie Beckman

“We’d go try to play Hollywood, and they’d have us stacked up with metal bands and glam rock, and we’re sharing the backstage with guys who have more cans of hairspray than we do beer,” Gaugh once told the Weekly. “Promoters were like, ‘How do we bill this?’”

Fans are still bonding over music and a lifestyle that at the time it was created felt wild and authentic. “We did something different,” Gaugh says. “And people were like, ‘I’m digging that. I see that; I feel that. I’m living it.’”

Nowell believes this feeling will always draw people to music—hopefully includng the kind he makes. “When someone is really drawn to a band, they end up really enjoying and identifying with it because they see something genuine in it,” he says. “I always thought that about my own dad’s music. Within the writing and the whole lifestyle they were portraying, they weren’t fucking faking. If we have anything in common with them, that would be the only thing.”

LAW perform an album-release show at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; Dec. 7, 8 p.m. $10. 21+.

The band will also perform with Long Beach All-Stars, Burritos, Corn Doggy Dog and more at Gaslamp (benefit show for Bradley’s House), 6251 E. Pacific Coast Hwy.,, November 24, 5 p.m., $20, all ages.

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