For a brief time, Sublime artfully juggled ska, punk, and reggae, generating a monumental self-titled album that Nowell, as the band's singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter, never lived to see released. He died of a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996, two months before his record bombarded MTV and mainstream radio with four hit singles: "What I Got," "Santeria," "Wrong Way," and "Doin' Time." Nowell's death instantly cemented Sublime's legacy while leaving the band's surviving members -- drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson -- in a terribly awkward position. A seemingly never-ending string of Sublime product (live albums, collections of B-sides and outtakes) ensued, until Gaugh and Wilson had to make a choice -- generate new material or throw in the towel.
Hence, the Long Beach Dub Allstars, an unarguably Sublime-esque seven-man outfit with a catchy, eclectic debut album (Right Back), a slowly expanding fan base, and one hell of a legacy to live up to. Of course, Sublime comparisons don't do the band justice, though LBDA members are usually the first to make them. Phoning from a tour stop in Vail, Colorado, singer Opie Ortiz addresses Nowell's impact -- and tries to suggest ways in which the Long Beach Dub Allstars have their own identity.
"Brad could write incredible songs, telling stories and stuff," Ortiz explains. "Our style is a lot more laid back. We tell stories, but we're not as articulate as Brad was. We're just starting as songwriters. If you listen to Brad's early stuff, even in the beginning, he could write. It takes us a little longer, but the end product -- we're always happy with it. People compare us, saying that we're trying to be like Brad, but that's not what we're doing. We're just trying to play music and have fun. We're not trying to perfect it, we're not trying to make it sound better. You can't do that."
Right Back admittedly kicks up plenty of dust, complementing the now-familiar mixture of ska and punk with an authentic, swingin' reggae backbone and a revolving cast of singers and collaborators. Gaugh, Wilson, Ortiz, drummer "Field" Marshall Goodman, keyboardist Jack Maness, singer-guitarist RAS-1, and saxophonist Tim Wu compose the core of the LBDA, but guest appearances abound. Reggae luminaries Tippa Irie and Half Pint show up on "Sensi" and "Pass It On," while volatile Bad Brains frontman HR takes charge of "New Sun." More of a party record than a tortured studio creation, Right Back reveals a band born of tragedy, but now united by a love for music and a fierce desire to deliver to the fan base Sublime created.
"[Our fans] thought it was over. They thought Sublime and that whole family was over," Ortiz admits, recalling the reaction the LBDA received on their first nationwide tour. "The fans were amazed, just tripped out. We were in Montana, and kids were telling me, "We never thought you'd get out here.' It just blew the kids' minds."
These days, the kids mean everything -- much of Right Back aspires to frame the LBDA as a fan-friendly, grassroots outfit. "Fugazi" extols the virtues of that particular band while coyly noting that "you should never get your style by watching MTV." Ortiz will gladly back up the song's sentiment.
"We did a video, and we weren't too happy with it, and it didn't get played," he says. "I'm not really down with videos. I think they're just media hype."
At the same time, he freely acknowledges the ways media hype has helped his band -- after all, Right Back features a sample of MTV newscaster Kurt Loder promoting the band. In the end, the Sublime legacy and the thorny mainstream/independent issues might always plague the Long Beach Dub Allstars, but Ortiz and his bandmates find solace and peace on the road. A nationwide tour is currently in full swing, and onstage, the band complements the prime cuts from Right Back with random, bizarre covers (the Grateful Dead's "Scarlet Begonia," if you're lucky) and yes, a healthy portion of the Sublime catalog. To its credit, the original material holds up just fine.
"There's always the kids who wanna hear "Date Rape' or whatever," Ortiz admits. "We don't play that. We don't play the hit songs. We play the more eclectic songs, like "Work That We Do' or "40 Oz. to Freedom.' They love it when we play Sublime songs, but they're getting into our songs a lot more, singing lyrics and stuff like that."
Right Back's brightest moments hit hard onstage, from the slick tempo changes of "Rosarito" to the smoothed-out rap that runs through "Kick Down." Even "Fugazi" gets the head noddin', once you get past its ideology. Ortiz suggests several new songs have already made it into the set list and says the band's next album might cut down on the guest appearances -- another big step toward complete musical independence.
In the meantime, the Long Beach Dub Allstars vie for their own identity while still acknowledging how they got here in the first place. Prying journalists and relieved fans aside, the band will forever mourn the loss of Nowell, an intrepid musician who unified an entire community with coy, wickedly funny songwriting. The Long Beach Dub Allstars -- Gaugh and Wilson especially -- still struggle to absorb the impact of his untimely death. But nowadays, a Sublime cover feels more like an homage and less like a requiem.
"In the beginning, it was hard," Ortiz admits. "Thinking a lot and looking at Eric and Bud, goin' through those feelings. We all felt that way in the beginning. Eventually, playing became a way of relieving us, like therapy. Gettin' 'em out, beltin' those songs out. Last night, we jammed to [Sublime's] "Same in the End.' The kids were just going crazy."