Bradley Nowell

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Bradley Nowell
Bradley Nowell


Bradley Nowell

Bradley Nowell was an American Guitarist and Singer/Songwriter for the popular ska band Sublime. Bradley Nowell was one of the largest influences to this style of music and may be one of the most influential ska players of all time.


Bradley James Nowell, Born February 16, 1968, was an American musician who formed the popular ska punk band Sublime. He died May 25, 1996 at the age of twenty-eight from a heroin overdose shortly before the release of Sublime's self-titled major label debut.

Early Life

Music was an important part of Nowell's upbringing. Nowell's mother, Nancy Nowell-Watilo, had perfect pitch, which Bradley himself inherited, and Brad's father, Jim Nowell, was fond of Jimmy Buffett and often played guitar during family gatherings. On holidays, Brad often played guitar and sang with his father and uncles for hours. Brad was often able to play a song on the guitar after hearing it only once. Bradley grew up with the stigma of attention deficit disorder and the associated (incorrect) assumption that he wasn’t very clever. Coupled with his parents’ divorce made for a difficult childhood.

Later Years

In 1988, Nowell founded Sublime with bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, whom he had met while attending Cal State Long Beach. Sublime eventually became one of the most popular bands in Southern California. Specifically, they were the most popular band on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, where they often played at parties and bars in exchange for alcohol.

In 1989 Nowell and Michael "Miguel" Happoldt, Brads long time friend and former guitarist for Sublime, created Skunk Records, the label for which Sublime's early recordings were produced and distributed. Skunk Records was named for Sublime's combination Ska and Punk genre, and the names of the two were fused into "Skunk".A few years later, Sublime produced its first studio recording, which resulted in the popular cassette tape called Jah Won't Pay the Bills and released it in 1991.

As Nowell prepared to tour with the new material, he found that Gaugh was battling a drug problem. Gaugh soon decided to check himself into a drug rehabilitation center. Rather than tour without Gaugh, the trio decided to focus on recording their music in the studio.

In 1992, 40 Oz. to Freedom was released. Drummers Marshall Goodman and Kelly Vargas temporarily covered for Gaugh. Sixty-thousand copies were distributed and sold from the trunk of Nowell's car. Despite growing popularity in Southern California, Sublime still had not landed a record deal with a major label. Around this time, Nowell teamed up with longtime friend Gwen Stefani, of fellow Southern California ska band No Doubt, to record the single "Saw Red". The single was eventually released on Sublime's Robbin' the Hood album.

Frustrated by rejection of the major record companies, Nowell descended into a two-year heroin "experiment". Nowell claimed that his heroin use was justified, claiming it aided his artistic creativity, thereby increasing the likelihood that his material would attract the attention of a major label.

About a year later, Tazy Phillipz took a copy of 40 Oz to Freedom to Los Angeles radio station KROQ, requesting that Sublime's song "Date Rape" be added to the playlist. It was the bands first big hit. Soon after, MCA records picked up 40 Oz. to Freedom for nationwide distribution. The album soon entered the Billboard charts.

Attention from a major label did not help to stop Nowell's drug abuse. His use of heroin just increased. He sometimes was know to pawn his guitars to support his habit. Miguel would have to go find the pawn shop and buy the guitars back. His song Pawn Shop was written about these incidents. Nowell's struggles with addiction were sometimes referenced in his music. The song Pool Shark is one of the most obvious examples of Nowell's drug dependency being referred to in his music: "Take it away but I want more and more, One day I'm gonna lose the war".

In February 1996, Sublime returned to the studio to record the bulk of their self-titled major label debut album. Production was done by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, Producer of The Meat Puppets and Marcy's Playground, at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin, Texas. At this time, Nowell's addiction to heroine spiked. He spent about four thousand dollars on heroin that month while recording the tracks. Due to Leary's fear that putting this record on the market would be exploiting a junkie, Nowell was flown home early from the sessions because of the drug use.


7 days after Nowell's marriage to Troy Dendekker, Sublime embarked on a five-day tour through California cities in preparation for a summer tour of Europe. The European tour was intended as a means of promotion of their upcoming major label debut album. On May 25, 1996, Before checking out of San Francisco's Ocean View Motel, Sublime's drummer Gaugh, who was sharing a room with Nowell at the time, found Nowell's naked body lying on the bed with his feet still on the floor. Nowell had died of an accidental heroin overdose, at age 28.

Nowell's last performance took place at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, California.

Nowell was cremated and his ashes were spread over his favorite surf spot, Surfside. A headstone was placed at Westminster Memorial in Westminster, California in his memory. At the memorial service on June 1, 1996, Bradley Nowell's father, Jim Nowell, said:

"Brad will always live for me in his son, Jakob, and we can all seek relief from our grief by loving and nurturing the son he gave to us. Brad touched many people with his caring personality and musical genius and we are all lucky to have had him in our lives. Men who have lived longer have achieved less and I am content that he is now at peace".

A few weeks after Nowell's death, fellow Southern California band No Doubt headlined a "cautionary" benefit concert in tribute to Nowell. Nowell's widow and the various bands who performed wanted to make it clear that they were not glamorizing the way that Nowell died, but that they wanted to celebrate his life as well as establish a college fund for his year-old son, Jakob.

In a January 11, 1997 Los Angeles Times article titled "Cautionary Concert in Rocker's Memory", writer Jerry Crowe quoted No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal as saying: "Obviously, it's going to be very emotional because you're there playing a show to commemorate a good friend who passed away and died for very wrong reasons. But you're also there to change things for the future and prevent stuff like that from ever happening again. A lot of times we hear about musicians using drugs and it's so blase and cliched. You just kind of say, 'Oh, he'll be fine. Somebody will take care of him.' But that's not true. It's important for every single one of us to stand up and say, 'Enough of this shit.' It's time to make a difference".

Jason Westfall, one of Sublime's managers, was quoted as saying that the surviving members of Sublime had no interest in continuing to perform and record under the "Sublime" name. "Just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died", Westfall said.

In light of Nowell's death, record executives considered not releasing Sublime's major label debut album. After some debate, the album was eventually released, though the album's original title, "Killin It", was substituted with an eponymous title. Sublime's major label debut album Sublime was released on July 30, 1996.

By 1997, the album entered Billboard's Top 20, and its first single, the largely acoustic hip hop-influenced "What I Got", soon became the number one song on the Modern Rock chart. Throughout 1997, the album produced three more radio hits: the ska ballad "Santeria", the anti-prostitution anthem song called "Wrong Way" and the George Gershwin-inspired dance song "Doin' Time". The accompanying music videos from Sublime for radio hits including Santeria, What I Got, and Wrong Way received heavy rotation on MTV, with previously filmed footage of Nowell performing live interspersed into the video.

To the surprise of many, Sublime became arguably the most successful American rock/Ska act of 1997. The album Sublime has since sold over 5 million copies. Danin says, "he will live inside all of us and will influence the music careers of many!"

Gear & Style


Marshall JCM-800 Combo / 2x12

Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus Combo / 2x12


Dan MacDonald Custom Electric Guitar

Ibanez S-470 Electric Guitar


Boss DD-3 Digital Delay

Boss OS-2 Overdrive Distortion

Whirlwind A/B Selector


Bradley Nowell blended the sounds and styles he heard around him in Long Beach, California and used them to develop his own blend of music - mixing genres that didn’t seem to belong together but made for excellent gigs. His biggest influence as a musician was Bob Marley and other reggae artists.Brad continued in education but music was still his first love and after three years in college he dropped out to concentrate on his playing. His influences grew to be more widespread and the songs he wrote combined not only punk and reggae but also elements of hip hop, ska, funk, and heavy metal.