Bradley Nowell’s Son is Sublime’s New Singer. His Path Hasn’t Been Easy

Music

For Jakob Nowell, turning 28 was a major milestone. It’s the same age his father, Bradley Nowell, was when he died, leaving behind both his band, Sublime, and his infant son. So there’s a certain poetry to the fact that this is the year Jakob is taking over as the new singer of Sublime, starting at April’s Coachella festival, alongside original members Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh. (At the same time, Wilson’s band, Sublime With Rome, with Rome Ramirez on vocals, is winding down with its final dates this year.)

For Jakob, it’s one of the biggest moments of his life, with his own solo debut, under the band name Jakobs Castle, also due in April. On a recent episode on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, he looked back at the rocky road that’s led him here. Some highlights of the interview follow; to hear the whole thing, along with an interview with Gaugh, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play above.

You lost your dad when you weren’t even one year old. So you don’t have any memories of him, of course.
Correct. 

That’s rough. I’m sorry about that,
Oh, all good man. It was definitely a screwy way to grow up. A big part of my story that I’ve always wanted to get out there is when people see me joining this band and they must think, this kid must’ve just handed everything. But the truth is, it was really not easy at all growing up. I love my mom and the man who raised me, my stepdad. They were doing as good as they could. But the truth was just total chaos. Nonstop party lifestyles. There really wasn’t a whole lot of money coming in a lot of the time, and oftentimes it was just an unsafe environment for a little kid. Just seeing that crazy, California white-trash party lifestyle was a lot. As a kid, I didn’t feel like I fit into the whole California thing for the longest time, but it was always there around me and it was always thrust upon me and from a young age. 

I’ve been a drug addict since I was 12 years old. Now at 28, I’m seven years sober. A big part of me wanting to do music in the first place and wanting to be a part of my father’s music now is realizing how much all the art that inspired me helped me out. I’ve spent almost 11 years of grueling, grinding work and basement shows and sleeping on floors. I’m still putting in my work here, man. So for me, getting to play with Sublime, it’s like a custodial duty. I just feel very lucky to get to be there with my uncles and very honored to get to be a part of music at all, man.

So what was your path into becoming a musician yourself?
I think there was always a curiosity. I knew that, in many ways, it was almost like my dad had given his life for this music. And I always wondered why, and I think there’s always that urge to follow in the footsteps. It seemed like a reasonable enough path, but really, it was never the overarching goal. I went to school, or at least tried to, and I was going to be an English teacher and all these things. A big part of it for me is that when I started my first band, which was Law. I remember the first time I played a show, how good it felt. For me, the juice in this thing really is the performance. 

When you talk about not having much money growing up, I think some people might be surprised.
It’s a tough line to balance, because I don’t want people to think I was destitute, but I also don’t want people to think I had a silver spoon in my mouth. The truth is, for the longest time my mom moved around a lot. And then all of a sudden, I think around when I was four or five, a bunch of money came in. But as soon as it came in, it was entirely gone. Here we are in this big, beautiful house and we can’t keep the lights on. It was a crazy white-trash upbringing, dude. Of all of my parents’ friends, all the women were sex workers, and all the men were drug dealers. It was, do anything we could to survive. It was just total chaos, man. And I love my parents and my family for who they are. Again, it’s a family business and I’m very close with them nowadays. But when I got sober, I didn’t talk to them for years, man. It was a scary, overtly sexual and overtly party/drug lifestyle. It terrified me, which is why it pushed me into escapism. It’s why I think I love all these nerdy things like anime and video games and stuff like that.

And when I escaped what was essentially a glorified trap house growing up, I did have my grandparents, they were more stable. They were more well-off because my grandpa was a contractor and they helped me out a lot. That was awesome, but it had nothing to do with Sublime. It had nothing to do with the fact my dad was in a big rock band. People don’t understand, he died before their time. There were no big parties in Beverly Hills with them. They were a punk-rock band — they wouldn’t have wanted that shit to begin with. 

And when I moved up to Long Beach and decided to start music, where was the nepotism, man? I would have loved to have a fucking leg up. No, man. We would book tours in Colorado and then the promoter would ghost us the last minute. And we’d find pictures of him sleeping in a tent somewhere. I did that for 10 years and I’d gladly do it again, man. And the fact that people want to book Sublime at a big enough event like Coachella, that’s awesome.

There’s obviously a hereditary aspect of addiction. It has a heavier weight when you know that’s how your dad die. How did that all work for you in your head?
It’s the same as a man who’s never fought in his past, that his pacifism is a little less meaningful. If I had never experienced a similar lifestyle to my dad, then me abstaining from it would be a little less meaningful. I’ve been at the depths of my addiction. I’ve been on the bathroom floor throwing up blood and convulsing. There is a better life than that. And not everybody gets to that point. Some people have killer time with drugs and alcohol and put it down or only use it occasionally. That’s awesome. But some people, it’s just not their path, and for me, having that in common with my father, I think allows me to connect with the music on another level.

When I’m singing a song like “Pool Shark” or even “Bad Fish,” you can see the evidence of his struggle with the addiction. You just hear the fucking sirens constantly singing. It could drive a person totally nuts, but there’s no beeswax in my ears, man. Those temptations, although they might have been there in the beginning, I’ve been seven years sober now. If I do some simple things and honor what I’m supposed to honor and lead my life the way I’ve been taught, hopefully I’ll be able to continue doing this for a long time. And the fact that me and my dad have that common, it’s a pretty trippy story, 

I imagine it also maybe helps you understand him better. And if necessary, forgive him more. 
I think so, man. Oh, of course. There’s always going to be an element of you being angry, but I think I forgave that aspect of it a long time ago.

Do you have any message to or thoughts about Rome? He did keep the fire burning for a number of years in Sublime With Rome.
Yeah, and I think that was a great thing. I think a lot of fans still wanted to hear the music, but I don’t think it really has anything to do with Rome. It could have been anybody up there. It’s Bud and Eric. That’s their music too. Obviously my dad was a large part of their creative force, but he could not have done Sublime without Bud and Eric. 

So with Sublime With Rome, it’s almost funny that his name is attached to it like that, because to me it was just Eric and Bud. And for the longest time, fans got to buy tickets and go to shows and get to hear Sublime songs being played by at least one of the guys that wrote them. But the fact of the matter is if Eric doesn’t want to play with Sublime With Rome anymore and he wants to play with Bud, and they’ve asked me to be their singer, then it’s my custodial duty to uphold that. Rome wasn’t the singer of Sublime in that way. He was a guy that Eric asked to sing his songs with him. 

It’s a little confusing, because Sublime With Rome still has final dates booked this year, even though the end of that band has already been announced.
And so there will be confusion with some of the fans like, “wait a minute, I’d heard Sublime was playing Cali Roots.” And every time I hear that, it breaks my heart a little bit. I bear no ill will to Rome, the person. He’s just a singer and entertainer. We work in the same field, but there is an emotional aspect that I want to make known to people. I had to deal with growing up. I remember being 14 and chilling in my friend’s basement and we’re all listening to music and smoking weed. My friend put on a Sublime song and I thought he was kind of messing with me. And I look over and it’s Rome singing it. And it was weird. It hit me like a gut shot. It didn’t feel right.

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And I came to accept it over the years. But no one knows what it’s like to be a little kid with a Sublime backpack and you go to the airport and the airport lady’s like, “Oh, you like that band? I just saw them play last week.” And it’s like, no, you didn’t. That’s truly how I feel about this thing, man. And I don’t know if I’m going to be a better or worse singer than Rome. I don’t think that’s the point. I don’t know if I’m going to be better or worse guitar player. I think the way he portrayed the songs was rad. And I think a lot of people are going to be his fans for life. And that’s awesome. And he’s going to have an awesome solo career and that’s awesome. But the fact is, it’s because he was in this situation with Sublime. Bud and Eric asked me to sing with them and sing in their band. And that’s why we’re calling this Sublime, because that’s what it is. 

Bud says that there’s a bunch of, unreleased compositions that your dad had and you guys are starting to look at that and trying to figure out how you would release them.
We are working with a lot of newer artists and stuff and there’s so much meat on that bone still, a lot of unreleased, really cool Sublime material. There’s no plans for us to write new music at Sublime, which again, is another good distinction between Sublime With Rome and us. We’re not going to play Sublime With Rome songs. They put out a bunch of music. We play Sublime songs. If there’s anything new that does come out, it’s most likely going to be remixes, reimaginings of unreleased songs. Maybe working on new versions of old songs with new artists. Again, that family vibe, man. Anybody who was influenced by this thing, whoever thought Sublime was cool. Anywhere from the biggest of the big, like, Post Malone down to people who are just starting to come up in the smaller California scene.

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