Sublime Reunion: New Lead Singer, Same Old Dysfunction

Chaos surrounding band's re-formation is only fitting, in Bigger Than the Sound.

On February 28, at a Mexican restaurant in Sparks, Nevada, Sublime reunited onstage for the first time in more than a decade, playing a hit-filled set before a few hundred awestruck, half-drunk revelers. Or maybe they didn’t, since this Sublime consisted of drummer Bud Gaugh, bassist Eric Wilson and — in the place of late, lamented (and, at this point, practically sanctified) frontman Bradley Nowell — some dude named Rome. The genuine article it most certainly wasn’t.

So, really, who knows? To some — most notably, Thad Peterson, who booked the show — it was very much the return of Sublime, a point that he made to me repeatedly when I spoke to him all those months ago. (“They sure sounded like Sublime,” he enthused. “It was incredible.”) To others — like, say, 90 percent of the commenters on sites like PunkDisasters.com — attempting to replace Nowell was close to blasphemy, a move akin to Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl jamming with J.D. Fortune and calling the end result Nirvana.

And herein lies the problem with all things Sublime: It’s been 13 years since Nowell died of a heroin overdose, and in the years following his death, the band has sold something north of 17 million albums worldwide, becoming an institution and ascending to the first level of rock immortality. And yet, seemingly no one can agree on anything.

And I’m not even wading into the debate about whether a Rome-fronted Sublime is even really Sublime at all. To me, that’s largely semantics. Like it or not, the band is back, due to appear at the 2009 Cypress Hill Smoke Out (as trumpeted in a press release sent Monday), alongside the likes of Pennywise and Cheech and Chong, which seems sort of perfect, when you consider the history of the band.

No, what I’m talking about is the behind-the-scenes stuff, the inner-workings (or lack thereof) of a band for whom drugs and death and dysfunction are par for the course, a band that has spent the past 13 years getting arrested , getting wasted and getting perilously close to obsolescence. And they’ve been perfectly OK with most of it.

I know this because, ever since the night Sublime may or may not have reunited in Sparks, I’ve been attempting to land an interview with them. For six months now, I’ve played phone tag with someone very close to their daily operations — a very nice, very mellow SoCal guy who just might be in over his head — and I’ve heard more horror stories than you could possibly believe. Possible legal battles. Debates over the use of the Sublime name. Battles to stay clean. Rumors of stints in rehab. With each bit of bad news, the promise of an interview (and “a big announcement”) kept getting pushed back. Looking in my desk calendar now, I have the name “SUBLIME” written next to dates like March 11, May 1 and May 4. They all came and went without a bit of news.

And, of course, I’m not blaming my contact for any of this. Like I said, he just seemed to be doing the best he could, and none of these catastrophes fazed him in the least. Seems they become fairly regular occurrences when you’re working with a band as checkered as Sublime.

And somehow — much like the band sharing the stage with Pennywise and Cheech and Chong — all this chaos has seemed somewhat fitting. Sublime were born out of squalor, out of weed smoke and empty 40 bottles, out of violence and grime and poverty. They existed amid all these things, rose above them, but they never really left them, because they influenced the music they made. And, after Nowell died, Gaugh and Wilson basically returned to them. And — by many accounts — they’ve been there ever since. Dysfunction is what this band runs on. It’s what made them who they were and are today.

So, when the news of the band’s Smoke Out appearance broke, I called, texted and e-mailed my guy. It took him about a day to respond with a quick e-mail and the promise of a phone call. I still haven’t received that call, of course, and to be honest, I’m not even certain I ever will. But that’s OK. If anything, it made me realize that even if Sublime are carrying on with a new frontman, they’re still the same band — deeply flawed, supremely dysfunctional, and completely fine with both of those things.

Some things never change, either because they can’t, or because they won’t. So long as the tunes are still good, what’s the difference, really?

Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.