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The Shen Pen

Sublime is still underground and worth exploring


When you’re asked to think about an “underground” or “unique” band the average person tends to lean towards the abrasive, edgy guitars of metal music; or even the slow, strange synths comprising a lot of modern indie. While that is probably an accurate assumption for 2024, music is a constantly shifting sphere completely attached to the social climate of the world at that moment. The bands viewed as “different” change every few years or so as people begin to accept new ideas of what music is. 

In a tale as old as time, 1988’s “Sublime” was just one such band carving out its own niche in the music industry. A crock-pot sound of whatever bands front runner Bradley Nowell had an obsession with at the time, whether it was reggae, hip-hop, ska, or traditional punk. Nowell’s connection to his inspiration bands was so strong he constantly sampled them multiple times in “Sublime” songs. 

But maybe the “underground” nature of a band isn’t defined by their sound at all. Rather, it refers to the behavior and struggle of the members in pushing themselves into the limelight; how they go about their meager stardom. They didn’t always have 10 million monthly Spotify listeners, it was an uphill battle that didn’t see results until the tail end of “Sublime”s life. Their early production was so rife with issues that the production of some of their first songs took place trespassing in California State’s recording booths between 12 p.m. and 7 a.m. There was a will, therefore they found a way. 

That’s what’s so personally lovable about “Sublime,” the fact that it never really stopped being just 3 guys expressing themselves creatively and having fun doing it. Most people can relate to being passionate about something regardless of how “good” you are at it. The artistic appeal of “Sublime” is how unapologetic they are about their sound; they know what they like and just want to replicate it in their own band. It sounds very juvenile, and critics regularly ascribed the band as such during their early days, but maybe that’s what’s been lacking in the music industry. 

Nowell wasn’t too concerned with the conventions of the music industry at the time which earned him fame and infamy alike.  He simply took the band in the direction he wanted without having a certain end goal in mind. Bands start out dreaming of adoring fans and swarms of people filling up venues yet “Sublime” always just seem to enjoy being in the moment. Nowell was there for the journey with his bandmates, not the destination. Maybe he foresaw how a sanitized corporatization of his band could lead to their creative downfall, or he was just too busy having fun right in that moment to worry about what comes next. 

It was mainly due to this stagnation that left them classified as more of a “cult band” in California with little reach anywhere else. It also didn’t help that their sound was ultimately too strange for most conventional venues, leading to the members forming their own label under the name “Skunk Records.” as a way to earn more credibility to perform live. 

But the bizarre mashup that was their music never really caught on during “Sublime’s” traditional lifetime; the death of Nowell in 1996 symbolically killed the creative vision of the band and the remaining two members decided to put down the project. 

“Sublime” only really obtained real stardom after their formal breakup, their short run-time of 3 studio albums, 5 compilations, and 1 boxset (roughly) punctuating their legacies. Maybe they wouldn’t really be considered to be very “unground” anymore, but their past seemed like the stereotypical antics of young musicians (including but not limited to-their raunchy sense of humor, prolific drug habits, and Nowell’s dog Louie being present on stage at nearly every live performance and getting them kicked off a tour for biting people).

When I see musicians today I see the culture of celebrities the media has propped up for our consumption. I read about details of their lives I never would have cared to learn before if not for or whatever putting it in the ad space on Instagram. It’s completely separate from the authentic nature of bands coming into the new century. I mean, musicians are still doing cocaine but at least they were more real about it in the 90s. So somehow, “Sublime” is more underground now than they were during their good ol’ days; its dirty, imperfect, wonderful interior almost perfectly preserved in amber.

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    Timothy CMay 17, 2024 at 12:47 pm

    Love this band! Not in my top 150 but still an amazing band!