The bittersweet Odyssey of Sublime is both a Cinderella story and a tragedy.
Fusing ska, dub, roots and dancehall reggae, punk, hip-hop and even heavy metal and acoustic-folk, the Long Beach trio incorporated disparate influences along with samples and sound-bites to concoct an original sound that would unexpectedly propel them from playing backyard barbecues, college parties and dive bars around Southern CA. to selling tens of millions of albums worldwide, and ultimately becoming the progenitor of reggae-rock music. In a similar fashion to how Bob Marley helped roots reggae spring forth from Jamaica to reach seemingly everywhere on Earth, Sublime’s limited yet highly impactful output served as a vehicle to introduce a new generation of fans to the blessing of reggae music, while fostering a new sub-genre that continues to mushroom today.
So goes the Cinderella element of Sublime’s tale. The tragic element, of course, was the sudden death of singer, songwriter and creative leader Bradley Nowell on the verge of their skyrocketing ascent due to a heroin overdose.
While Bradley Nowell’s musical legacy lives on as arguably the most influential artist on the now-thriving reggae-rock scene, his untimely demise sadly adds him to a list of storied musicians who prematurely left adoring fans lamenting what “might have been” had they not fallen victim to the irresistible lure and horrible dangers of narcotics.
Fortunately, after many years of grieving, the loved ones that Nowell left behind have resolved to use his musical legacy to turn the heartbreaking loss of their son, brother, husband and father into a beacon of hope and second chances. Spearheaded by Nowell’s sister Kellie Nowel, the Nowell Family Foundation has recently taken a giant step toward their goal of launching Bradley’s House, a recovery facility that will provide treatment services to musicians battling the insidious grip of addiction.
Their process begins with fundraising, and to that end they have partnered with LAW Records, the label of Sublime peer/Hawaiian reggae-rock pioneer Pepper. Initiated by the conception and driven by the dedication of label general manager Paul Milbury, on September 4 the label digitally released The House that Bradley Built, a compilation album that features 24 artists performing acoustic covers from the Sublime catalogue with proceeds going to Bradley’s House. Recently LAW Records announced that it will release a Deluxe Edition of the album on January 15, featuring an additional 32 acoustic covers of Sublime music.
Rootfire spoke with Kellie Nowell about the genesis, vision and primary fundraising efforts for the Nowell Family Foundation (of which she is the executive director) and Bradley’s House, as well as life growing up with a future musical icon.
Fans can donate directly to the Nowell Family Foundation here.
Fans can donate to Bradley’s House by purchasing all versions of The House that Bradley Built albums and other merchandise here.
Rootfire: I just want to tell you a little bit about myself and why this interview is special for me.
Kelly Nowell: Ok.
Rootfire: So, I’ve been a fan of Sublime since their early days. I had a friend from college who was a surfer and after school, in the early 90s, he had moved out to the Long Beach area. And I remember him calling me about this band called Sublime that he thought I would like – and he must have sent me CDs because I had both 40oz to Freedom and Robbin’ the Hood. And of course, I was blown away. I’m guessing this must have been around ’94, and back then I used to rent houses at the beach with my friends each summer, and Sublime quickly became the soundtrack to the next several summers at the shore.
Kelly Nowell: I love hearing that! That’s so rad!
Rootfire: Yeah, so, at the time, I had been writing for some reggae magazines as well as a local music zine called IMpress, the Independent Music Press. I wanted to write about Sublime, and so my editor got in touch with Skunk and arranged a phone call with Brad…so I actually interviewed your brother.
Kelly Nowell: (Gasps) No, shut up! Oh God, that’s crazy!
Rootfire: I know, right?? I was so excited to speak to him. Cause at the time, to me, they were groundbreaking. I mean, they will always be groundbreaking…the fact that they were combining, you know, classic reggae sounds with punk rock, and a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and samples and sound bites, you know? They were definitely unlike anything that I’d ever heard. So, it’s kind of strange, because who knew then that I’d be speaking to you now, you know?
Kelly Nowell: I know, it’s so crazy! So, how was your interview with Brad?
Rootfire: So, um, to be a hundred percent honest….
Kelly Nowell: (Laughs.)
Rootfire: It was a little bit of a letdown.
Kelly Nowell: Was he wasted?
Rootfire: I don’t know, he could have been. He was just…from his music, I expected him to be so full of energy and passion. But his responses were, just kind of blasé. He was just so casual about everything. I mean, was he high? Who knows, right? He wasn’t disrespectful or anything like that. I just would have expected someone like him to have a lot more charisma, you know, and he was just really nonchalant. Then again, I mean, I was just some freaking dude from the East coast writing for some shit little magazine, you know? So what did he care? He was probably like, “This is a pain in my ass!”
Kelly Nowell: (Laughs.)
Rootfire: It wasn’t like I was writing for Rolling Stone! (Laughs.) So, who knows, but I was still stoked to speak with him.
Let’s shift gears, and get to the questions I have for you about the Nowell Family Foundation. Did you create the Foundation specifically for the purpose of building Bradley’s House or have there been other accomplishments or goals as well?
Kelly Nowell: We originally started a corporation called Bradley’s House with the idea that that would be the nonprofit, but then we thought, you know, rather than limiting ourselves, let’s change that and make it the Nowell Family Foundation and that Bradley’s House would be sort of our flagship program. And that way, if in the future we wanted to do other things, other forms of outreach or recovery programs or different things, we would have more flexibility to do that. So, we really did start with just opening Bradley’s House. That was the big vision.
We started in July of 2017 and in like February of 2018 we finally got our nonprofit status. It’s a long process. So that was really exciting. And really, it just has been a grassroots thing right from the start.
I mean, we really didn’t know where to start with getting things going, getting the word out, but we just knew that we really wanted to make this happen. And we figured with the connections that we had and the name recognition and, you know, such a huge need right now that, that this would be a really cool thing to do. So that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing the last few years is just trying to get the word out, get the name out, show people that we are a legitimate charitable organization and, you know, make contacts and connections.
But this album has just been an absolute game-changer for us. It’s done so much to really expand our audience. And it’s just exciting. So right now, it’s just an incredible time because things are growing and changing so rapidly.
Rootfire: Right. When doing my research, I noticed that there was a fundraiser held in December of 2018 at the Gaslamp restaurant and bar. So, I realized that fundraising for this initiative has been going on for at least two years. Do you have any sort of idea how much you’re going to need to raise before you can actually move forward with building the facility or buying a facility or whatever?
Kelly Nowell: Yeah. So, we have a business plan, a full budget. And our goal right now is to raise just under $750,000 to open and operate for the first year. And that’s assuming that nobody has any means of support, that we don’t have any revenue. That’s the worst-case scenario, because I don’t want to open the doors until we know we can stay open.
We met with MusicCares a couple years ago and they’re super excited about what we’re doing. A large portion of their budget goes towards treatment programs. So, we could offer them a discounted rate, which would help their bottom line, and they could provide some revenue, which would still allow us to provide the services free of charge. So, in that situation, it won’t require quite so much capital to get started. But I really want to be conservative and go with the worst-case scenario and have the money, so that if we don’t have any revenue or anything, we’re fine. And so that’s the goal right now.
Over the last three years, we’ve raised just over $100,000. But of course, you know, with the expenses that go with running the organization and all, we have just about $60,000 right now in reserves and savings that has just been everything that we’ve done the last few years.
We’ve done a few benefit shows. We do merch tables at smaller events locally. We’ve done a few music festivals. We sell merchandise. Just kind of, you know, spreading the word and meeting people and sharing the vision of the foundation. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing so far.
Rootfire: Can you tell me about MusicCares, the charity you mentioned?
Kelly Nowell: They’re the charitable organization arm of the GRAMMYs. And so, they provide a lot of services to people in the music industry, whether it’s financial services, medical services, that kind of thing. They do some great work really.
Rootfire: So, would the Nowell Family Foundation be under their umbrella?
Kelly Nowell: No, no, when we met with them, you know, we talked a little bit about what they do and what we were looking to do. And because so much of their budget goes towards treatment programs, they were excited about being able to refer their clients to us, because we could offer them a discount from what they’re getting at other places, but that would still provide some revenue for us. So, it would kind of be a symbiotic relationship.
Rootfire: Will you need paying clients to sustain the business?
Kelly Nowell: No, all of the services will be free. No paid clients. Unless they have some means of support and can pay something, that would be great. But the idea is to, you know, help the musicians that are trying to scrape together enough money to put gas in the tank to get to the next gig. You know, the ones that are, are really struggling and that have found themselves trapped in this addiction and wanting to get some help.
But, you know, so many of them don’t have the means to do it. They can barely put food on the table cause they’re pursuing their dream of music. And so, we really want to be able to serve that portion of the population. So, the idea is not to have to charge anything and be able to provide the services free of charge. But if they come through MusiCares, because they do work directly with people in the music industry, then MusiCares would be able to provide some revenue for those clients.
Rootfire: Gotcha. So, regarding fundraising, hopefully The House that Bradley Built album will yield significant contributions, but do you have any other fundraising initiatives planned already at this point?
Kelly Nowell: We don’t really have anything right now that’s nailed down beyond that. I’m really hoping that the visibility created by this album will allow us to connect with some bigger artists that could put potentially, you know, maybe donate a portion of their ticket sales or something like that. You know, that’s just kind of something that we’ve always thought would be a natural fit, but we’re open to anything.
Like, I never could have predicted this album. We had talked about doing something like this, but I certainly don’t know anything about putting an album together, you know? And so when Paul (Milbury, GM at LAW Records) approached me last October and said, “We’d like to do this,” I was just like, “That would be fabulous. If you could make that happen, that’d be so great.” And boy, if he just didn’t turn around and do it (laughs), that’s awesome.
You know, so many people will say, “Hey, I have this idea” or “I had this idea,” or “I could do this or, this…” But you know, we get busy with life and they don’t follow through. And that’s fine, but boy, Paul is amazing! He just completely made it happen in like nine months! Put the whole thing together and did a really, really quality job. I’m excited for it. It’s a great, great album.
Rootfire: As far as your role as Executive Director, will you personally be overseeing the staffing of the facility or will you mainly be managing the financial end? Do you have any background with this sort of thing?
Kelly Nowell: I don’t have any background in the recovery industry. We have some people on our board that are heavily involved in the recovery industry and they have a lot of connections with people. So, we do have a couple of candidates identified for Program Director and we have a Medical Director and that kind of thing. They’ll be the ones who are responsible for the program. I’m really just running the Foundation.
Rootfire: Gotcha. I was wondering if you had plans to expand the Foundation services, like beyond the facility? You’re so far from even getting the facility established that it’s probably kind of premature to ask that, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.
Kelly Nowell: A lot of times, I’d think about it. I’ll tell you that one thing we get from a lot of people — because our plan right now is for Bradley’s House to be a six-bed residential facility for men… There are significant studies that show greater outcomes when there’s gender-based treatment programs. So, we really feel strongly that since it’s a small facility just for men, I think it would be super cool if we could, after this, go on to open another Bradley’s House that’s for women, and potentially, you know, maybe open in other locations, other places around the country.
If this is something that works the way that we hope it will — that it’s effective by allowing musicians to go through the recovery process together and have that common bond of music, and really use music in their recovery – then who knows where could go? But, you know, our heart is really just to help people who are struggling. We’ve seen the challenges of addiction, especially within the music industry. It’s hard to be the life of the party and be sober. So being able to have other people that are going through the same thing, you know, really developing a strong, sober community within the music industry, it could be something really powerful.
Rootfire: Absolutely. And I hope you reach these goals. It would be wonderful.
Kelly, do you mind if I ask a few questions about Brad?
Kelly Nowell: No, not at all!
Rootfire: So, were you his older sister or younger sister? How many years were you apart from Brad?
Kelly Nowell: I’m two and a half years younger.
Rootfire: I’m just curious if, back in their heyday, or maybe even before they made it big, so to speak, were you part of that scene? Were you going to shows? Were you active in that community or were you into something else?
Kelly Nowell: I wasn’t into that scene at all. Brad and I definitely had different scenes, but I went to the shows because it was my brother. I was super stoked for him. Even in high school, when my mom went out of town and I had a party, Brad’s band played. At the time, it was a punk band that he had with Eric called Hogan’s Heroes. And they all came in, you know — I had like all my little preppy friends at the time — and this punk band, I mean, it was crazy. (Laughs) It was just these two worlds colliding.
But to me, it wasn’t necessarily about the music. It was about my brother. And so, I would go to the shows, whether they were in little dive bars with sticky floors or, you know, I went to the weenie roast and everything in between.
And I just was stoked to be able to be there and support him. And I went, and I would listen. And most of the time I would stand in the crowd. I prefer even to this day to watch shows from the crowd because, you know, you get that energy, you get to see how people are responding and just feel that energy.
And, you know, I’d make sure that we catch eyes so he knew that I was there, because I couldn’t always hang out afterward. And I certainly wasn’t, you know, going to go back and party with them. We started partying together a couple times in high school…It didn’t work out. So, we just had very separate lives in that regard at that point.
And then as they started getting a little bigger, they would go tour across the country and that kind of thing. And at that point, I was already married, so I wasn’t hanging out with them. But I was always talking with them, always supportive, always excited about what he was doing. And I went to as many shows as I could. So, I saw some good ones and I saw some not-so-good ones. But to me, it was just about him, just about being there for him and being stoked for what he was doing.
Rootfire: I get it. I have a sister that I’m real close with, so I know what it’s like to want to support a sibling and be involved in their life. I assume you guys grew up in the same household?
Kelly Nowell: Yeah. Our parents divorced when I was eight and he was ten. And then he moved in with my dad a couple years before I did. So, we both stayed with Mom for a little bit after the divorce. And Dad moved back to Long Beach, which is where they’d been living before I was born. And then, you know, after a couple of years, Brad moved in with Dad. And a couple years later, I moved in with them, but we were always going back and forth as well.
Rootfire: Gotcha. I probably asked Brad this back in the nineties, but I’m curious if the love of reggae was something that was within the family or something that Brad kind of sought out on his own?
Kelly Nowell: We grew up surrounded by all kinds of music, so it never really occurred to me that people just listened to a single genre or, you know, were into a certain genre. And Brad certainly wasn’t either. I mean, he would put on all kinds of stuff. You know, everything from Bob Marley to The Dead Kennedys and everything in between.
We grew up listening to a lot of folk music, John Denver, you know, all kinds of music, a very musical family. We just thought that was normal to be surrounded by all different types of music. So it never really came as a surprise to me that he incorporated so many different styles into his music, because that was just kind of the way we grew up. There was never just a single genre.
Rootfire: I hear ya. I grew up in a similar type of household, but I always ask about reggae only because it’s not the kind of music that is common, quite frankly. I mean, maybe more so in California, but in a lot of the parts of the country, you just don’t find too many people that really grew up with reggae. I certainly didn’t, you know, I discovered it as a teenager and it just really resonated with me and really intrigued me. And then it prompted me to research Rastafarianism, and I went to Jamaica, and I just really threw myself into it because I was just so taken by it.
Kelly Nowell: That’s where he really got turned on too. It actually was in Jamaica. He went on a sailing trip with my dad. My dad had a small sailboat while we were growing up. We used to sail all the time, and they did like a charter kind of a thing, and sailed the boat around with some cousins. And they went to Jamaica.
And it’s great to hear my dad tell the stories. He said, you know, in typical fashion of both my dad and Brad — they’re both very “people” people — they just got to know some of the locals and they got invited to party and, you know, got to hear the music, and everyone’s playing and, they’re picking up their guitars. I think that’s where Brad really fell in love with the reggae community. That acceptance, and that music being such an integral part of the evening’s entertainment – in an informal way, you know — it wasn’t like a concert. It was just everybody sitting around playing instruments or singing or dancing or whatever. And that was very comfortable for him, ‘cause that’s, that’s how we grew up. That’s how our family parties were, and that was our normal, you know, so I’m sure it felt very comfortable for him.
And when he came back from that trip — I think I want to say he was around 11, if I’m not mistaken — then that’s when he really started to explore reggae a bit more. It was never, you know, all about reggae, but that certainly I think is what triggered it for him.
Rootfire: Awesome. That’s such, such a cool story. Thank you for sharing that.
Looking back, considering the whole new genre or subgenre that Sublime really fostered, could you ever have imagined like that Sublime would influence a whole generation of musicians 20 years later?
Kelly Nowell: Absolutely not. Even now, it’s hard for me to really grasp because, you know, I still get super stoked when I hear a song come on the radio, or if I see someone wearing a Sublime shirt or see a sticker or something, you know? I see it all the time, but it just never gets old.
You know, that’s just Brad. And so, it’s weird to me. I try sometimes to put myself into a different state of mind and think, “Okay, if this wasn’t my brother,” you know, “What would my response be to this?” But I can’t really separate that.
And so, it’s weird to me that, you know, the guy I would hear blowing his nose in the shower, you know, this is who people are so impressed by!
Kelly Nowell: He was definitely incredibly talented. I never questioned that. I always felt he was brilliant and talented. I looked up to him and really just thought he could do anything. But it’s hard to wrap your brain around it. You know, if all of a sudden people started telling you that your sister changed their lives.
Rootfire: I know, right?
Kelly Nowell: I mean, it would be hard for you to grasp.
Rootfire: Exactly. It’s just been so exciting and interesting to see how the reggae-rock community has grown exponentially since the early days of Sublime, especially over the last 10 years or so.
Kelly Nowell: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Rootfire: It really is. And I’m sure almost every band will cite Sublime as an influence.
Kelly Nowell: It really blows my mind. Blows my mind.
Rootfire: It really resonated with people, and it still does today. Their music is timeless. You know what I mean? When a Sublime song comes on, everybody knows it, no matter what their age is, you know? They could be 50 or they could be in their teens, their twenties, and everybody knows it. It’s just great music that will never get outdated.
Kelly Nowell: Yeah. It’s amazing. I wish he was here to see it.
Rootfire: I know. (Sigh.) So, Kelly, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure.
Kelly Nowell: Hey, well, thank you. It was really nice talking to you. I still can’t believe that you interviewed Brad. That’s just going to trip me out for several days! (Laughs.) What a cool thing, that you talked to him and I’m talking to you. I don’t know, that’s just really cool.
Rootfire: (Laughs) Back in my twenties, I was writing about this up and coming band out of Long Beach called Sublime, and here I am 20 something years later, writing about Sublime from a completely different perspective. So with this article, it kind of comes full circle now for me. Well, thank you, Kelly. I hope you have a great evening!
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