Sublime Making the Most of '40oz.' of Success - MIKE BOEHM, times staff writer

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Sublime Making the Most of '40oz.' of Success By MIKE BOEHM, TIMES STAFF WRITER May 04, 1995

LONG BEACH — Sublime has moved up in the rock world lately, but the punkand-reggae band's progress has brought certain sacrifices.

With its topical but cartoonish song "Date Rape" jumping onto alternative-rock playlists around the country, Sublime was able to afford hotel rooms for the first time as it toured over the past three months.

Louie, the cover-dog on Sublime's "40oz. to Freedom" CD, stayed home with Nowell's girlfriend, Troy Dendekker, and their other dog, a young Rottweiler named Bishop.

"Louie's like Brad's alter ego," Dendekker said last week as she stood near the patio of a waterfront restaurant, where Sublime had decided to turn an appointed newspaper interview into a lunch outing for its extended family. "He cruises through the audience, he's on stage. You can tell he likes the attention."

The Sublime entourage included a couple of girlfriends, two male buddies and three canines, in addition to the three band members and their manager-producer, Mike Happoldt. Home just a week after a long haul on the road, the band wasn't about to miss an opportunity to mix business with pleasure.

Luckily for the other restaurant patrons, Louie showed a lot of composure for one of his hyperactive breed, and the 100-pound Bishop was more apt to whine for his master's company than to display any stereotypical Rottweiler-ish aggressiveness.

(Sublime will play for an audience of 10,000 on Saturday, capping the opening day of the Board in South Bay weekend punk-rock and skateboarding festival in Carson.)

If you examined Sublime's album art, song lyrics and publicity photos, you might assume that Nowell, bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Floyd (Bud) Gaugh were much taken with the pleasures of drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking pot and keeping dogs. (Wilson also came to the interview with a pet, his little basenji-terrier mix, Toby.) Hanging out with Sublime for a while does nothing to dispel the impression that this is a band that believes in the punk ethic of not making a great separation between life and art.

It's telling that the first words on Sublime's hot-selling "40oz." album--"Punk rock changed our lives"--come from the sampled voice of D. Boon, the late singer of the Minutemen, the adventurous early-'80s punk-alternative band.

Like the Minutemen, Sublime's Nowell, Wilson and Bud (as he prefers to be known) took punk as a starting point but defined it broadly. The band has its fast, thrashing moments--the tattooed, buzz-cut Bud joked that the more violently the mosh-pit churns, the more relentlessly Sublime is apt to play.

But reggae is the real foundation of Sublime's sound, rap is a liberally applied spice and Nowell's soulful singing and ear for pop melodies are its most distinctive and promising attributes.

Nowell, a man of many dimpled grins but few words, started playing punk rock with the massive, pink-faced Wilson about 12 years ago, when they were teen-agers in the Long Beach neighborhood of Belmont Shore.

Nowell's home-builder father (a guitarist known for strumming Jim Croce songs at parties) and his mother (a piano teacher and classical flute player) gave him his first guitar lessons.

"They've been supportive," he said, although "my mom doesn't like all the F-words" that crop up in Sublime's songs.

By age 10, Nowell was listening to Bob Marley's music. He moved deeper into reggae as he listened in his teens to Jamaican specialty shows on the radio.

"He was making me play (reggae). I didn't want to play it," Wilson, 25, recalled of their early bands. Nowell, 27, says he didn't press the point.

"I was trying to get them to do 'Cherry Oh Baby,' (a song popularized by British reggae band UB40), and it didn't work. They tried, but it just sounded like such garbage," Nowell said. "We were horrible."

Nowell went off to UC Santa Cruz for two years, then transferred to Cal State Long Beach to study finance. He says he is one semester short of a degree, but "I have all the hard classes left. . . . I doubt I'll ever go back."

With his return to Long Beach in 1988, Sublime was formed. Wilson brought in drummer Gaugh--pronounced "goff"--a boyhood neighbor who had been taught to play by Wilson's father, a big-band jazz drummer who died three years ago.

"Date Rape" was one of the first songs the band worked up in sessions at Bud's garage. Out of the garage and into various back yards, Sublime established itself by playing as often as it could, usually at private parties.

"We played some pretty rough neighborhoods," Wilson recalled. "You'd have to be afraid of your own safety. Gangster kids would show up at the parties, and there would be trouble. Somebody got stabbed one time."

In 1992, Sublime recorded "40oz. to Freedom" in do-it-yourself fashion and marketed it on the band's own Skunk Records label, run by Happoldt. The album sold well on a word-of-mouth basis, and Sublime emerged as one of the better-drawing bands on the Orange County/Long Beach grass-roots rock scene.

Two years later, the band was too broke to afford a proper studio recording as a follow-up. Happoldt suggests that drug use also was an obstacle: "We've all had pretty hedonistic lives . . . "

They came up with "Robbin' the Hood," a 1994 release that Happoldt dubs an experimental effort with its diffuse mixture of rock, rap, spoken-word nonsense and folk-leaning acoustic home recordings.

At that point, Happoldt said, "we were planning on doing some tours, making a record, and just going forward."

Expecting to continue its incremental progress, Sublime instead got a huge boost when KROQ started playing the 1992-vintage "Date Rape" in January. Happoldt credits Tazy Phyllipz, host of the "Ska Parade" show on the UC Irvine station KUCI-FM (88.9), with persuading KROQ programmers to air the song, an oft-requested number at Sublime's shows.

The phones started ringing with requests for more airplay for this breezy little morality play about a sex crime and its harsh consequences for the perpetrator.

Several experts quoted in a recent Calendar story about Sublime's ditty found fault with "Date Rape" for giving simplistic treatment to a complex, emotion-fraught issue. Nowell doesn't have much to say on the subject.

"I've told any of my critics to (expletive expletive)," he said.

In several Sublime songs, Nowell writes realistically about characters becalmed by too much alcohol or marijuana.

"I'm drunk by noon, but that's OK / I'll be president someday," he sings in the lightly ironic "Greatest-hits," from "Robbin' the Hood." But the songwriter says his such songs are meant as non-judgmental snapshots of life, not cautionary statements.

With "Date Rape" catching on as KROQ's most requested song, Skunk sold thousands of the newly revived "40oz." album in Southern California. But its national distribution wasn't ideal.

"On tour, everybody said, 'Where can we get your record?' " Nowell said.

"It was the most-asked question," added Bud.

The band had no good answer--until recently, when Happoldt lined up a national distribution deal and an alliance for the band's next release with Gasoline Alley, an affiliate of MCA.

"I'm not proud of what we've done," says Happoldt, who holds dear punk's traditional do-it-yourself ethic. "But if we wanted to keep going and do what we're doing" the improved distribution and resulting infusion of cash was a necessity.

Happoldt said that the distribution deal kicked in just recently and that orders in the first week alone for Sublime's two releases totaled 23,000 copies.

"It was getting bigger every day," Happoldt said of the difference that the "Date Rape" airplay phenomenon has made. "Now it's getting five times bigger every day."

To which Wilson added, "So's my stomach."

At this point, with reliable distribution kicking in, touring while hot would seem to be the thing for an emerging band to do. But Sublime plans to play only a handful of shows, then take some time off.

Nowell has important personal business to tend to: His girlfriend is expecting their first child, a boy, in June. The plan then calls for recording a new album for fall release, with touring to follow. An album's worth of new material will relieve Sublime of having to devote much of its set to songs from "40oz." that, in some cases, are 7 years old and getting a bit over-familiar to the trio.

"It'll be more fun for us" to tour again with a new record, Nowell said.

For now, the band will try to capitalize on the radio success of "Date Rape" with a new video version. If the song's tale is a fanciful concoction, the consequences were real enough for the friend of the band who played the villain in the video. Wearing a disguise that included a wig, he was set upon by the alarmed Louie, who failed to recognize the actor and gave him an unscripted bite on the face that Dendekker says required 28 stitches.

As show-closer for the sold-out opening day of Board in South Bay, Sublime will be in a position that some might take as conferring top-dog status on the local scene. Nowell isn't claiming it, though.

"Nobody else wanted that slot," he said. "They're paying us extra to do that slot because nobody wants to be the last band after a whole day."

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The Rockers Who Will Play a Role

Board in O.C., originally scheduled for May 6 at UC Irvine, has been moved to the Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills as part of this weekend's Board in South Bay festival. Gates open at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Saturday's show is sold out, but tickets are available for Sunday. $15. (714) 740-2000. The schedule:

SATURDAY

  • Noon: WhiteKaps
  • 12:30 p.m.: Further
  • 1 p.m.: FYP
  • 1:30 p.m.: Lidsville
  • 2 p.m.: The Grabbers
  • 2:30 p.m.: Unwritten Law
  • 3 p.m.: Excel
  • 3:35 p.m.: The Joykiller
  • 4:10 p.m.: Fluf
  • 4:45 p.m.: Dance Hall Crashers
  • 5:25 p.m.: The Vandals
  • 6:10 p.m.: No Doubt
  • 6:55 p.m.: Face to Face
  • 7:40 p.m.: Social Distortion
  • 8:25 p.m.: Guttermouth
  • 9:20 p.m.: Sublime

SUNDAY

  • Noon: Gwen Mars
  • 12:35 p.m.: Smile
  • 1:10 p.m.: Tilt
  • 1:45 p.m.: The Skeletones
  • 2:20 p.m.: Ednaswap
  • 2:55 p.m.: Jughead's Revenge
  • 3:30 p.m.: Strung Out
  • 4:05 p.m.: The Muffs
  • 4:45 p.m.: Samiam
  • 5:25 p.m.: No Use for a Name
  • 6:05 p.m.: Skankin' Pickle
  • 6:50 p.m.: Sick of It All
  • 7:35 p.m.: Face to Face
  • 8:25 p.m.: L7
  • 9:25 p.m.: Bad Religion