In the spring of 1996, the community of Long Beach, California was stunned and saddened by the sudden passing of Bradley Nowell, the beloved founder, lead singer and guitarist of ska punk trio Sublime.
Sadly, his death came before the band was a household name, with some fans not even aware of his fatal overdose until MCA Records decided to release Sublime’s self-titled third album in the summer, two months after the tragedy.
As music fans celebrated the life of a supremely talented artist and songwriter, some believed Sublime’s music would die with Nowell, while the band’s two surviving members – guitarist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh – struggled with the loss of their friend and frontman.
Wilson and Gaugh went on to form Long Beach Dub Allstars in 1997, playing both new music and a back catalogue of Sublime’s best-loved songs. However, both men agreed that no one would ever be a permanent replacement for Nowell, and in 2002 the childhood friends decided to pursue other musical projects – until one fateful day in 2008.
With the music gods smiling down, Lewis Richards of California’s 17th Street Recording Studio introduced Wilson to Rome Ramirez, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter. He impressed both Wilson and Gaugh with his understanding of Sublime’s music and his ability to echo Nowell’s vocal style without sounding like a sub-par impersonation.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Ramirez as he recalls their initial jam sessions. “These guys were like legends to me – and the fact that they believed in me enough and were willing to give me a chance, I’m so grateful for that.
“My sole passion in life is to keep writing music and keep pushing the bar forward to become a better songwriter and producer.”
Ramirez, Wilson and Gaugh began to tour under the Sublime moniker, making appearances at festivals alongside Cypress Hill, Deftones, Pennywise and Bad Brains. While their hard work was clearly paying off, in late 2009 Nowell’s family sought an injunction to prohibit the trio from using the name Sublime.
Undaunted by the setback and determined to keep Sublime’s legacy alive, in 2010 the Ramirez-fronted Sublime With Rome were announced. “I’ve never tried to fill anyone’s shoes,” Ramirez says. “There was maybe a little bit of a miscommunication at first. But we sorted out the problems and everybody is happier and we all get along – and we’ve all moved on.”
In 2011 the new-look band retreated to the studio to produce its first album, Yours Truly. While the album was initially well-received, Gaugh announced soon afterwards that he would be leaving the band. But that hasn’t stopped the Sublime With Rome juggernaut. They added A Perfect Circle drummer Josh Freese, and released a second record, Sirens, in 2015.
“With the addition of Josh, we really feel like a family,” Ramirez says. “With each album, Eric and I have grown closer and closer – it’s been such a good experience.”
Ramirez knows their international success is largely down to the millions of fans Sublime earned since their formation, but he also believes fans want to hear the newer songs too. “People want to hear everything, from the old stuff to the more recent songs from Yours Truly and Sirens, so we also try to aim right down the middle and make everybody happy – and because it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
Now 28, Ramirez has grown up a lot in recent years, and can’t hide his excitement about the prospect of a third album. “We’re looking to start work on a new album in the next couple of months, so that’s going to be dope. I can see us definitely playing some new songs at these shows coming up. I can’t wait to get in the studio with the guys again and to keep pushing it forward.”
Sublime play the Big Top Sydney at Luna Park on Thursday March 9.