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40 oz. to Renaissance: Sublime Is Cool Again

The ’90s are back, the weather’s getting warmer, and a band of Long Beach burnouts are prime for a cultural comeback

BMG Direct Marketing/Ringer illustration

The raucous SoCal party band Sublime rose to fame in the mid-’90s with the release of Sublime, its third and final studio album. Its ska-reggae-punk music has never really gone away since then, serving as a perpetual soundtrack to barbecues across America where at least one uncle has weed on him. Singles like “What I Got” and “Santeria” have remained in rotation in the two decades between the band’s mainstream crossover and today, drifting from staples on alt-rock radio to staples on classic rock radio. Still, Sublime’s reputation curdled in the time between the “horns!” fad of the late ’90s and the emergence of mid-aughts garage and indie rock. They were dismissed as a puka-shell necklace of a band. In the 2010s, comedian Brian Posehn called their fans “terrible, stinkier” Juggalos, while music blogs reappraised the band only to decide that, yeah, they still mostly sucked. I once told a friend that I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to date someone because he seemed really into “music like Sublime.” Loving Sublime was like loving the Scarface poster: understandable, but deeply embarrassing, a surefire sign someone hadn’t matured past their college dorm.

“I ain’t got no crystal ball,” Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell once sang. It’s too bad, because Nowell would’ve been pleased if he could’ve seen what was brewing now. There are signs that a Sublimaissance is upon us. For those unfamiliar with Sublime’s history: Nowell, the band’s primary creative source, died of an overdose right before the release of Sublime, and just a week after marrying the mother of his infant son in 1996. In 1997, Rolling Stone called Sublime the year’s biggest rock act. Nowell became famous only as a ghost. A ghost with endurance—the two surviving members of the band, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, still tour around the country playing the hits as Sublime With Rome, and Geffen/UMe has seen so much sustained interest that it released remastered versions of the band’s catalog in 2016. Lana Del Rey recently teased an upcoming cover of “Doin’ Time” (Sublime’s best song), a move sure to bring the band to a new and younger group of listeners. Sublime is still being discovered on streaming services, where the genre-agnosticism that had made it hard for the band to get radio play in its early days is less of a hurdle for the current, playlist-oriented generation of listeners. Sublime was a cultural magpie’s experiment; most countercultural, young songwriters during the ’90s were not riffing on George Gershwin and Don Quixote, but Bradley Nowell was, and this eclecticism kept Sublime fresher than counterparts like Reel Big Fish or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, bands that stayed in the third-wave ska lane and now sound dated in a way Sublime, with its hodgepodge of appropriations and influences, does not.

What’s more, the larger appetite for ’90s nostalgia shows no signs of abating, and people looking for a short-lived and influential band led by a charismatic frontman who died young can’t wear a Nirvana T-shirt every day. Sublime is especially primed for this moment in fashion; the cruddy dirtbag surfer look has been back, embraced by contemporary celebrities like Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf. “Right now, celebrities from the worlds of music, film, television, and just about any other medium you can think of are looking more and more like the kind of guys who spend their time perfecting shoplifting techniques or creeping everyone out at the bowling alley bar,” Esquire wrote in 2018, declaring it the Summer of Sleaze. “It’s about looking like a complete scuzball because you can get away with it.” Sublime was sleazecore before sleazecore. They didn’t dress like Long Beach burnouts because it was trendy; they dressed like Long Beach burnouts because they were Long Beach burnouts.

A documentary called Sublime, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, does not have a wide-release date set yet, but it looks like it will arrive at an opportune moment. Directed by Bill Guttentag, the film is a handy primer for new fans of the band. Stuffed with talking heads from Sublime’s surviving members, Gaugh and Wilson; Bradley Nowell’s wife, Troy Dendekker; and industry peers like Fishbone and No Doubt, and collaborators like the Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, it is a melancholic rise-and-fall story that underlines the band’s genuinely chaotic and rebellious roots, as well as the drug problems that destroyed it and Nowell. In between gushing interviews about Nowell’s wide-ranging curiosity and the band’s wild reputation, plenty of upsetting anecdotes about the repercussions of their substance use are included; for example, a potential producer described how they alienated him by smoking crack in the studio. Since the story of Sublime is really the story of Bradley Nowell, and most of the available footage of Nowell is either of him onstage and/or extremely intoxicated, it seems unfinished—but functions nonetheless as a compelling reminder that Sublime had some undeniably good tunes. Sublime is corny stoner bro music—and that’s a good thing! What are people supposed to listen to whilst ripping bongs or making out at a beach bonfire? Rachmaninoff? Psh.

There is plenty to grouse about in the band’s catalog. The already-dicey lyrics to songs like “Date Rape” and “April 29, 1992” haven’t gotten any less jarring and unpleasant as the years have passed. The vast majority of the rest of lyrics, meanwhile, are still goofy, gross, or goofy and gross. “Caress Me Down” is catchy as hell, but it’s also a reggae song sung in a faux-Jamaican accent by a lily-white American dude about being “hornier than Ron Jeremy” and then getting a handjob to completion. Thinking about Sublime’s songs does not increase enjoyment of Sublime’s songs. (If “living with Lou dog’s the only way to stay sane,” as Bradley croons in “What I Got,” then why does he insist that he does not cry if his dog runs away? Care about your dog, man!)

But Sublime is not for thinking. Sublime is for drinking, for lying in the sun, for backyards and docks and bonfires, for being a young idiot. Sublime is for the summer—if all signs are to be believed, this summer in particular.