25 Years Ago: Sublime’s Bradley Nowell Dies of a Heroin Overdose
One of rock's rising stars never saw how beloved his music would become. On May 25, 1996, Sublime singer Bradley Nowell was found dead in his motel room - just two months before his band's breakthrough self-titled album was released.
Nowell had grown up in a musical household. Even though his father made a living as a builder, the patriarch was an amateur guitarist, known to play tunes at family get-togethers. Meanwhile, Nowell’s mother was a piano player and classically trained flautist. So, it was little surprise when little Brad started showing interest in making music of his own.
In 1988 he formed Sublime alongside bassist and childhood friend Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh. Blending punk, ska and reggae influences, the trio made a name for itself in Long Beach, Calif.'s music scene. The group became intrinsically intertwined with the SoCal surf culture, playing to hundreds of people at local house parties - and regularly having those gigs broken up by the cops. Their eclectic brand of music drew a diverse crowd, with the band’s wild reputation occasionally attracting trouble.
"We played some pretty rough neighborhoods," Wilson recalled in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "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."
Sublime’s debut album, 40oz. to Freedom, was released in 1992. Sticking to its DIY punk ethos, the group released the LP on its own label, almost exclusively selling the album at shows. Word of mouth made the release a must-have among SoCal alt-rock fans. Soon, Sublime had an honest to goodness record deal with MCA Records.
Watch Sublime's 'Bad Fish' Video
A sophomore LP - 1994’s Robin the Hood - was met with less excitement, but things really started to take off for Sublime on a national level in early 1995. Los Angeles radio station KROQ, then the trendsetter for all things alternative music, decided to add the band’s song “Date Rape” into rotation (despite it having been released three years earlier on 40oz). The track quickly became one of the station’s most requested songs, and its popularity rapidly began spreading across America.
Largely underground up until this point, Sublime were suddenly becoming mainstream. During their gradual ascent, Nowell had become addicted to heroin. “He got this elitist attitude because he was a junkie,” Bradley’s wife, Troy, would later recall to Spin. “He always used to say, ‘You guys don’t understand because you don’t do heroin.' A lot of junkies are like that. They think they’re doing the most hardcore thing, sticking needles in their arm. We could say anything - ‘We understand what you’re going through’ - but we really don’t, and they know that. They like that.”
Although the singer’s addiction had affected Sublime - he at times was unable to make it through performances because he was so high - he certainly wasn’t the only one who was using. Sublime were a party band, and their drug-fueled antics became just as legendary as their music. “I think we’ve all been dead once or twice,” Gough matter-of-factly admitted.
“He wanted to be a rock star," Troy recalled to Rolling Stone of Bradley. "He said it was very rock 'n' roll, you know. Perry Farrell and Kurt Cobain and all those guys did drugs, and Brad wanted to see what it was like."
Watch Sublime's 'Date Rape' Video
As “Date Rape” gave Sublime an unexpected hit song, the band decided to return to the studio and work on a third album. Paul Leary, frontman of the Butthole Surfers, would be brought in to produce. By this point, Nowell had made several attempts at sobriety, spurred largely by the birth of his son, Jakob, in May 1995. Still, he relapsed every time, and when Sublime flew to Austin to begin recording in February 1996, the singer - and his bandmates - was at his worst.
“They’re the sweetest bunch of guys, [but] it was chaos in the studio,” Leary admitted afterward. Heavy drinking and drug use was commonplace throughout the sessions. “There were times where someone had to go into the bathroom to see if Brad was still alive,” the producer revealed. The singer got so out of control that Leary sent Nowell home before recording had wrapped.
Back home in Long Beach, Nowell again made a serious attempt to get clean. He’d purchased his first home, Sublime were gearing up for a brief tour of California before heading overseas for dates throughout Europe and, on May 18, after three months remaining clean and sober, he and Troy were married. Less than a week later, it all came crashing down.
Watch Sublime's 'Wrong Way' Video
Sublime were staying at a motel in San Francisco, where they were scheduled to play a sold-out concert. On the morning of May 25, Nowell, who had been partying all night, attempted to convince his bandmates to join him on a trip to the nearby beach. They brushed him off, saying they were too hungover to be roused so early. Hours later, Gaugh woke up and saw the singer slumped over.
"When I woke up, Brad was laying on the bed and he had his feet on the floor. And he was kinda undressed, and I just started laughing, like 'Ha, you must have had a good time. You couldn't even make it all the way into bed,'" Gaugh recalled on Behind the Music.
The drummer soon realized things were not right, noting that Nowell's beloved dalmatian, Lou Dog, was sitting nearby whimpering. "I got up and noticed [Nowell] had a film around his mouth. Some yellow and white foamy mucus," Gaugh explained. "Instantly I knew that he had overdosed."
Nowell was pronounced dead at the age of 28. A memorial service would be held on June 1. Afterward, the singer's ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Sublime’s third album, a self-titled LP, would be released on July 30. It became one of the biggest alternative albums of the era. Tracks like “Wrong Way,” “What I Got,” “Santeria,” “Doin Time” and “Caress Me Down” earned heavy radio airplay, while the group’s videos were all over MTV. Sublime would eventually eclipse more than 6 million copies sold in the U.S. alone. The band had become one of rock’s biggest sensations - and its singer never got to experience any of the success.
Watch Sublime's 'What I Got' Video
Wilson and Gaugh elected to end Sublime following Nowell's death. "We will go on in music and do other things," Jason Westfall, the band's comanager, told the Long Beach Press Telegram. "But just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died." Decades later, they seemingly had a change of heart, reuniting in 2009 to perform under the Sublime moniker alongside singer Rome Ramirez. Nowell's estate would swiftly follow with a lawsuit, claiming the late frontman was the sole owner of the band's name. The new incarnation of the group eventually agreed to move forward under the name Sublime With Rome.
In his memory, the Nowell family established Bradley's House, a rehab facility focused on helping musicians recover from their addictions. Troy, who has also remained active with antidrug causes since her husband's death, found peace by looking at all he accomplished when he was alive.
“He always wanted to have a baby," she remembered. "He wanted to get his family back, ’cause he had hurt them so bad with his drug use. And he did. He wanted to get this [self-titled] album written, and he wanted it to be the best one he ever wrote. And he did. He wanted his band to have glory. And they did.”