Michael 'Miguel' Happoldt Interview with Pilipo - ThePier.org
Michael "Miguel" Happoldt for most may be regarded as the “unofficial” fourth member of Sublime, but those that know the band’s history extensively, appreciate he was even more than that. Through his producing, guitar playing, song-writing and friendship, Miguel the Skunk Records founder, was also at the forefront and a huge part of Sublime’s musical vision.
Most of us discovered Sublime after front-man Bradley Nowell’s tragic passing in 1996 and as the legacy of Sublime grows stronger every day, any glimpse into that early nineties Long Beach world is a rare treat for the fans. The Pier graciously thanks Miguel for taking the time to share those experiences with us and what plans he has for Skunk Records in the future. This is going to be epic so let’s get started.'
The Pier: Do you remember the first time you met Bradley Nowell?
Miguel: My roommate Mark was a friend of Brad’s and he told us that we need to meet, as I was doing recording with The Ziggens and that Brad would also like to do some recording. So he introduced us at a party, that was the Winter of 1989. It was cold I remember that. Since I was a student I asked if they wanted to record for free since I could get free studio time. It all just went from there.
The Pier: How about seeing Sublime play for the first time? What was your first impression?
Miguel: The first I ever heard of them was through my cousin Chris who was going to Cal State as well and I saw him on campus and he said, ”I’m stoked for Thursday, Sublime is playing. Meet me at the Nugget.” That is where they would do these early shows and start at about 5pm so people wouldn’t leave. People would go to their last class and then go there and get drunk.
Seeing them was just unbelievable man. They just completely rocked the place. Everyone was dancing. When they played punk rock, people were slam dancing, but it wasn’t malicious, everyone was just having a good time. I couldn’t believe it. An idiot would have been impressed by Sublime at that point, it was no great discovery how great they were. It was obvious.
The Pier: At that time were you into reggae music yourself?
Miguel: A little bit, but I was more into the classic rock and punk rock. Brad pretty much educated me on reggae music past Bob Marley.
The Pier: The band certainly had its ups and downs throughout the years, did you ever find it difficult working with Sublime in the studio?
Miguel: It was never difficult. If we weren’t having a good time we went home. The honest truth is when we were recording is some of my most fondest memories. Cause every time, even if it was just a 4-track or working with David Kahne, it didn’t matter, it was just the gravy of life. If there was some weird or bad shit, that would be the end of the recording session. We would never try to work through it (haha). My memories of recording are all golden.
The Pier: How much of a role did you have with deciding how a dub effect sounded and would be incorporated into a Sublime track?
Miguel: Yeah that was kind of my world. I was into some of those independent/alternative groups like Love and Rockets. That was the first group that Brad and I together really loved to death. So I liked those effects and shit. I was doing dub kind of stuff with songs that I would write thinking I was going to be top of the pops. Brad saw what I was doing and how it was like what Lee Perry was doing and he turned me on to that. I became enveloped into that reggae world, which was completely different for me. I started buying one dollar records at Culture Beat, a great record store. I just absorbed and started studying that music.
The Pier: Do you have any particular fond memories recording 40 oz to Freedom?
Miguel: It was a good time. The fondest memories were rehearsing for it. At that point, the band was me, Brad, Eric and Marshall (Goodman) on drums. The album was basically our set at the time. Except we pretty much wrote the song’s Right Back and 40 oz to Freedom on the spot. Brad brought those songs in on the last day and surprised us with those two and there was no way we were not going to do them. We literally threw those together and the next day we tracked them. It is hard to imagine the record without those two songs (haha).
The Pier: How did you choose what covers you were going to put on that album?
Miguel: What you have to understand is that except for a few songs that we put together in the studio it was just our live set. It’s what the four of us were playing every night. Covers are weird, band’s play them, then they stop playing them and those covers just happened to be the ones we were playing at that time. Sublime had been doing the Bad Religion cover from the night I saw them and they may have even been doing that song from the day they started the band.
The other covers we just did them. Scarlet Begonias - we would always go see the Grateful Dead. It was a big party back then even if you were not completely into the music. It was the place to be as it was pre-Lollapalooza and shit like that. It was the wild fucking west. I saw them in Vegas and I swear to God they flipped stuff and they flipped Scarlet Begonias into a reggae shuffle groove.
It was psychedelic because when I got back from seeing The Grateful Dead in Vegas with all my friends, my roommate had been to the thrift store buying records and he goes, “Here you are you fucking hippy,” and he left a Grateful Dead record for me on my bed - it had that song Scarlet Begonias on there. So I had the song now so I could figure out how the chords go and I just did it to show the guys and they liked it.
It was another last minute song addition. Originally Brad sang the whole song and then the middle part where he sings “Summer of love…” was a guitar solo. That version was probably pretty good. Brad would save you like that and he would do stuff like go out to the car, smoke and listen to the demo I gave him two weeks ago. He then came in with a bummed look on his face, he was not a perfectionist but he knew with minimal effort the song could be way better and that we have to go that extra mile. We have to!
He told me I had to sing the song, as I sang it better. So I went into the vocal booth and sang it and for some reason Eric was there and the three of us tracked the whole song in about 30 minutes and Eric was saying well Brad has to have his stamp on the song and Brad should sing something or do another guitar solo. There is a lot of guitar solos on 40 oz to Freedom if you trip out on it. Do we really need another one?
So Brad just went out to the car again and wrote that verse in about five minutes came in and did it and we mixed the track that night. Most people don’t get it. For us it didn’t matter that Brad didn’t sing the song. Whatever sounded better he would go for that shit. He didn’t really have an ego. He wasn’t trying to bring out the best. Wait that’s too simple, he was just always wanting to do something special. He was good at zeroing in on that real heart moment.
The Pier: What was your role in terms of production on the hugely successful self-titled album?
Miguel: The only way to explain it, is that I was the only person who was there every day for everything on every song. If it was a movie I think I would have been the Producer. Paul Leary and David Kahne were the Directors. My role was to keep the train on the tracks and guide us around. That’s why they gave me the title Production Coordinator.
At the time we had no pull, we weren’t selling many records and we wanted a major label to hire two different producers for our “first record” in their eyes. They thought we were fucking crazy.
The Pier: So that was Sublime’s choice to go for those two producers?
Miguel: Brad wanted five different producers. He wanted KRS-One, he wanted Sly & Robbie and Rick Rubin. We wanted all them guys, but reality set in and David Kahne and Paul Leary called us back and they were as cool as hell on the phone, like real people you know? We could have maybe worked with some of those big names, but then you could be talking a two year waiting list and if you knew Sublime well enough, you knew that was not going to be the answer we were looking for. Fuck that!
David Kahne’s work on Fishbone’s Truth & Soul is strong. In my opinion that album is a masterpiece. For us it was real obvious to get him and he turned out to be this real awesome person that saved our lives really.
Both those producers gave us a 110% and I think they were just ready to do this shit. It was just perfect timing. Paul Leary got the most awesome takes out of those guys and the way he cut them all together. He would help Brad finish a verse by meticulously putting his freestyle’s together from 10 different tracks and just fucking saved us.
David Kahne had a great sense of what to leave out. His material would sound a lot more stark, he was on that New York tip. Brad made the list of producers he wanted to work with and the whole band just agreed to those two guys. At one point they wanted to take the cheap route and have just Brad and me do it. We were like, “Fuck that!” We were only doing it ourselves because we had to.
The Pier: That’s interesting, I was going to ask if you were bummed for not getting the chance to produce that album yourself?
Miguel: I had no illusions of doing that. Not at all. It wasn’t what we wanted. It was great we got to learn from those guys. Honestly, you also got to understand it was also economics. We thought why do a record on the cheap when it was in our contract that we could spend “so much” on recording? Which was a lot of money back then. We were going to spend that shit. They were not just going to give us the money, but they would pay professionals to record us.
The Pier: Did you have a favorite moment working on the Sublime S/T album?
Miguel: All of it, it was like a dream. All real nice studios. Probably my favorite memory was that in Willie Nelson’s studio it had a homemade Reverb Chamber, which was pretty common before digital. Their sound is really good and they are not that difficult to make. It’s just a room with non-parallel walls and tiles tiled all over it like a psychedelic mosaic. When you go in there it is like the most insanely reverb-ent bathroom you have ever been in.
Brad and I would mix drinks and go and sing and play guitar in there when there was nothing to do. Just us harmonizing in this chamber, it sounded amazing in there. We tried to talk the guys into recording in there, but we had already recorded so many songs at that point they probably thought we were joking.
The Pier: Did you have any feeling or idea how big the S/T album was going to be commercially, or how influential it was going to be over a decade later?
Miguel: I was laughing with Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo, he has got a band called Kirkwood Dellinger and they were out here. Awesome band. He asked me the same question and I had to tell him the real honest answer and it was when the album Bug by Dinosaur Jr came out we loved that album so much, but it is so simple and sounds like if you practice it you could play that music, it’s not that fancy. So that was our goal, we thought one day we could be as big as Dinosaur Jr.
The Pier: What were some of the best East Coast Sublime shows?
Miguel: Everything in Florida was always good and Virginia Beach was always real good. We didn’t get a real chance to play the East Coast that much. We just got a crack on the last tour we did with Lordz of Brooklyn in ’95. Unfortunately that summer in 1996 was going to be the next time we would play out there. Most of the bands playing in the scene today are playing to bigger shows out there then Sublime ever got the chance to play that’s for sure. I don’t know if they realize that or not. You got band’s like Slightly Stoopid selling out Irvine Meadows, that’s where we went to see the Grateful Dead for Christ’s sake (haha).
The Pier: Here’s a sticky fan question, is the story true about Sublime and 311 not liking each other?
Miguel: All I will say is barely know them. I think we played one show with them. We played, they played. Big deal? I don’t remember anything.
The Pier: I think I remember reading somewhere about a rumor of Brad going on the 311 tour bus and accidently erasing some of 311’s demos.
Miguel: That’s fucking wacked and doesn’t even make sense.
The Pier: We got this question from a lot of fans, but is there any more unreleased Sublime material waiting to be released?
Miguel: In my opinion the box set (Everything Under the Sun) was stretching it to the limit, there is some real gems on there and are worth the $40, like The Real Situation and the Sweet Little Rosie of course. I think people need to appreciate what is already out there, we have already four or five records since Brad passed and the box set. You have to understand when the band ended, the band was just starting to get warm. Shit was starting to get tighter. I know right now it is not a top priority to release anything or flood the market, for a band that only made three records there is not that much material to put out.
The Pier: Being so close to the band and Brad do you find it hard to revisit these old Sublime songs when you are putting together a compilation or box set?
Miguel: Yeah it is a bum out. I can’t lie. I don’t look forward to it. There is some joy in it, like when I found the Foolish Fool that is on the box set. Number one, I couldn’t believe we originally stopped on it, I don’t understand how at the time it got shuffled out of rotation to get finished.
Wait I do remember now, I think it was because we were going to try and get Gwen (Stefani) on it. But it didn’t happen as their record just broke and so there was no way they could have done it. I am friends with the No Doubt guys to this day, but I think it was a scheduling nightmare so we just dropped the whole song.
I think the version on the box set is what we tracked so to send the music to Gwen so she could learn it. Brad did just a scratch vocal over the drums. When David Kahne was remixing it the drums were all in Brad’s vocals and shit. It was crazy when we were mixing it. We were having studio geek fun doing that track, but then David got all melancholy about it while listening to the voice coming out of the speakers. I told him, “Welcome to my world.” Maybe it is best to just let shit rest. The best stuff is on the records out there anyway.
The Pier: What do you know about this Half Pint/Sublime album that was going to be in the works?
Miguel: I called Half Pint up when I was down in Jamaica and we going to try and link and he said there was loose talks about that. That was the last I heard of it. It would be cool. Why not? Shit, what an amazing honor that would have been. Could still happen, I don’t know. That seems to make more sense than releasing half finished Sublime songs.
The Pier: Overall, do you have favorite a memory with Sublime?
Miguel: Not really, not in the traditional sense. There is just too many. I think the best time and my best memories would be when I left the band and they got Kelly (Vargas) on drums, that was a wild fun time. Then we got Bud back. That was just unbelievable - that we got Bud back! The dude invented it! It couldn’t get any better than that.
That day Brad called me up, actually he probably paged me and I called him back, this was a long time ago children. I asked him what he was doing and he said they were jamming. Kelly had left the band so I asked who was playing drums? He told me they got a new drummer. I was like, “Who is he?” Brad answered “Bud.” The shock was unbelievable. I went over there and they were jamming. Bud was just elated. They told me to sit my ass down and check this shit out. They played STP and to do this day not a note has ever changed in that song. When the song was over all I could think is they got Bud back and he is even more insane on the drums than he was before.
When Bud came back in that condition, it was like a stream roller, the songs he played on Robbin the Hood just made a name for himself. Eric and Bud set the benchmark for bass and drums for the genre on that album.
The Pier: What was it like getting back in the studio recently with Bud to work on those Del Mar (Bud’s new band) demos?
Miguel: Oh yeah that was fun and a good time. It was a quick little mission and they did a good job. We recorded the whole band together at the same time. Me and Bud are as cool as can be, we had that one band together, Volcano, that a lot of people slept on. That was a fucking great band. We have been doing little shit together here and there.
The Pier: Looking back on the Long Beach Dub Allstars years are you satisfied how that band carried on the Sublime legacy? Would there be anything you would have done differently?
Miguel: Not really, to tell you the truth it was mission accomplished. We had a ton of fun, it was also real profitable for everybody involved.
The Pier: It must have been cool to work with all those reggae greats like Half Pint, Barrington Levy, Born Jamericans, and Tippa Irie?
Miguel: It was a gift. Though sometimes it would be awkward as we would be playing these big shows, with these legendary guys and it was kind of weird until our first album came out. It went from being a hobby band to us doing some bigger things. When Right Back came out it was kind of unbelievable we caught some of the wave that Sublime had to miss. It was always a good time until the day I walked off because I could see it was not going to be a good time any more (haha).
The Pier: What are your thoughts on the rise of the reggae rock scene that was really built out of the Sublime/LBDA era? Is the music style still growing?
Miguel: Not to sound negative, but not really. People don’t understand the lengths Brad went to bring influences and styles into his music. When I met him, he had the biggest cassette box you could buy. Without a question it could hold a 150 cassettes and he had it in his truck with him at all times. He was just so into the music. It seems a lot of bands hear covers that bands do and then they do the same covers. Sublime would never have done that. I hear a lot of drummers and bass players today where you can tell the only style they know is Sublime or Slightly Stoopid. They don’t know all the styles Bud and Eric was listening to, to get to where their playing was at.
I remember when the Red Hot Chili Peppers got big on Mother’s Milk, every single band on the club circuit was instantly trying to be them. Same like Bad Religion they got big, then every band was like Bad Religion. You can get work as you can get all these bands together to play shows, but no one is trying to go Joe Strummer and invent a new music. Brad was like Joe Strummer to me. It’s weird and I think people have got to try a lot harder.
I just mixed a record by a band called Dios Malos and they are amazing, they are light years ahead of 90% of people trying to do a sound loosely based on Sublime or Slightly Stoopid. It’s hard for me. On a positive note, reggae rock music is a real fun type of music and that is why Brad played it, because he would like to get in your backyard and make people happy. To see people poppin’ with the positivity. You can’t get enough of that in the world.
The Pier: Having produced Slightly Stoopid and knowing the guys well. What do you think of its progress and potential?
Miguel: I have nothing but respect for those guys and love them like brothers. It is just unbelievable. I knew very well it was possible, but just thought it was improbable for them to get as big as they are because they make an uncompromised music. With those guys if I tell them something solid they would really take it to heart and just really tear it up. If we gave them an opportunity they would just make the most of it. I don’t think people really understand how hard they work. That band can take any little thing you give them and make it better times ten. The whole band is that same way. I think they are making the best music around and I think they are the coolest and chillest band I have ever seen in my entire life. Hand’s down. So that’s my ass kiss session to them.
The Pier: Back when Sublime was blowing up, I am sure there was lot of bands and companies trying to be involved with Skunk Records, what was your thinking at the time and the direction of where you wanted the label to go?
Miguel: At that point when I lost Brad as a friend, he was also Skunk Records, he was my partner. So continuing on without one of the chief operating officers just didn’t make sense and I didn’t have any real opportunity to work with anybody I respected on that same level you know? Until now. With Kevin Zinger (Suburban Noize) it feels like it did with Brad. We are doing it together, it’s no big deal and it’s a natural vibe. We won’t trip on little shit. People ask me why am I doing shit now? It’s because the people who wanted to do deals just didn’t understand and it was too big a loss to come back from for a while. It was too deep, Brad and I had it all mapped out. It was better to start over.
The Pier: So what have you got planned for this new partnership?
Miguel: The easiest way for me to explain this is I just like making records. I just make the things, I don’t have any real interest in marketing or running a label at all. Not even remotely. I never did. It was part of survival. With Brad though it was fun. After that I thought, “Fuck that, this shit is not fun.” Now I have somebody in Kevin, that I can trust and we know him well. It is crazy to see how much success they have. We are lucky to have found them. Firstly we are going to re-release Tasi, Philie and Paulie Nugent’s records internationally. All those guys are writing right now for their second record and that’s what on the agenda right now.
The Pier: Are you looking for new acts to work with?
Miguel: Nah, I never have. That’s a good question. I never have and never will. This is like a family over here. You have a minimum of seven years of hard kicking it without falter and showing me that you are down, for me personally to even consider hitting record. You know what I mean? I do the professional thing of recording and mixing for others, but someone I know, love and trust has to be presenting it to me. It is a community vibe that we are doing over here. Almost everything that is brought to me is imitating. Toko, Philie and Paulie, are innovating, so they are three best soldiers I got right now to go into battle with.
The Pier: Is there anyone based on just their talent you would like to work with?
Miguel: It would never work. Somewhere along the line bands have lost their power, even before iTunes. People starting getting all soft and accepting things with terrible conditions on these package tours. Fuck that, it just get worse. The last couple of records I made for fun. Nowadays the band’s have got managers that want to meddle and use Pro Tools so you can change shit all the time. There is no more “singularity of vision,” this just makes terrible music with no human element, this was a powerful lesson I learned from Brad.
All the records I have ever made money on is for shit that was done flaws and all, who gives a fuck, smiles on faces. These days a lot of it gets lost as bands just don’t know how to be themselves. I could rattle off a list of bands I want to produce, but what would they want me to do? Make them a hit with vocals blaring extra loud and tinny sounding? That’s what a hit sounds like to me now. Nothing sounds warm or like good music.
The Pier: Any new word on the Skunk Story DVD you mentioned to me before?
Miguel: Yeah, it will probably be released next summer on Suburban Noize. It will be the Skunk Story, 1990 to 2010 - Part One (haha). It is going to be low-key, just a nice little documentary. I am sure there is going to be lots of interesting and cool stuff on it.
The Pier: What’s up with this new group Rickshaw you have been jamming with?
Miguel: Rickshaw is Marshall Goodman’s baby you could say. He is basically utilizing all the resources he has of these great musicians to be a backing band. For different shows we could almost back anybody. For Toko Tasi, Philieano and Jack Maness it is easier at this point to have one band, instead of all three trying to have own bands. Times are tough right now, we got to have one band a bunch of singers.
Right now we are just trying to start over and we have a local regional mindset. I figure if we can do good here then maybe we can see what’s next. It’s all really cool for us here right now, we got six shows planned coming up.
The Pier: How involved are you with this new reformation of Sublime with Rome?
Miguel: I am not involved at all. Like everybody else I just want to hear Bud and Eric making music together again. When those guys are playing drum and bass together that shit is extraordinary. They are one in a million rhythm sections and I just want them to do something. I am not particular about the “what” or “how.” Like everybody else I just want to see them rock.