Life with Bradley Nowell: Sublime Co-Founder Eric Wilson Looks Back

“The coolest thing we achieved is we took all those different influences and made them ours in one song,” says Sublime co-founder Eric Wilson. “And that’s what no one else really did.” Sublime’s self-titled breakthrough album turns 25 on July 30th, and in an interview on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Wilson — the only original member of the band to play in Sublime with Rome, the band’s current incarnation — looked back on his early days with the band’s late frontman, Bradley Nowell.

Tell me a little bit about growing up and starting to play bass. How did that all work for you? And Was that your first instrument?
My dad was a drummer. And he handed me a trumpet one day and said drums are too much to carry around. But I never liked the trumpet, so I never got good at it.  I was kind of trying to learn how to play guitar, and then my dad bought a knockoff of the [Gibson] SG bass called the Orlando.

And what was the first stuff you learned to play?
Probably some Minor Threat song or Sham 69 or something like that.

And did you have a sense right away that music was what you were meant to do?
Well, I grew up around music 24/7; my dad had the jazz station on all time. And I was kind of turned off about music because he literally had it all the time on this old tube radio. I wasn’t into it until I started figuring out that it was cool to play it And I didn’t have much else going for me. I sucked at school.

Were you a surfer?
I’d boogie board and stuff. But when I met Brad and started jamming with him, he taught me how to surf. I surfed for like 10 years and then we got on the road and then I stopped surfing because it’s  a lifestyle. It’s something you got to do every day. Can’t go on the road, come back and think you have the strength to catch a wave!

Tell me about first meeting Brad.
A friend of mine that was a musician called me up and he goes, “There’s this guy that lives near you. And you got to meet him. You guys will play good together.” I went over there and I had a guitar. At the time, I was playing in this really shitty punk rock band and I sucked at guitar. Brad and I jammed and we were playing Circle Jerks, Exploited and whatever we could pick up that we both knew. And he was way better on guitar than me. So I came over the next day with that Orlando bass. I had no idea that I was any good at playing bass until then.

How far along was Brad as a musician and performer at that point?
He didn’t even think he could sing. He lived in Tustin right before that. He moved to Long Beach, to his dad’s, because his mom couldn’t control him anymore.  There’s not even sidewalks in Tustin – it’s kind of country, so he was sheltered. So when he came to Long Beach, he found out about punk rock and other stuff like the Cure. And he helped me broaden my horizons for music. Brad was really smart. He was always good in school and stuff.  I was a total loser. And if I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. It’s for sure. I’d be on my mom’s couch.

What was your first gig together? Like do you remember?
You know, actually, our first gig was at his mom’s house, because they were out of town. And our audience was his sister. don’t think there’s anybody else here. But it was supposed to be a party. We were called Hogan’s Heroes at that point. This drunk guy sang and we played some punk songs. I think we had, like, two originals. And then we took his dad’s Lotus out and that wasn’t a good idea. But we drove around these Tustin hills. Brad was driving really fast and we almost went off a cliff. So we decided not to drive the Lotus anymore.

And Brad introduced you to reggae, right?
We started playing in this band called Sloppy Seconds. They introduced ska to me, and I wasn’t into it. [laughs] But Brad made me play it. I wanted to play with Brad and we just meshed so good together, so I played it anyway.

Brad had gone to the Caribbean with his dad and heard reggae for the first time and then came back here all stoked about it. I was listening to Bob Marley stuff and wasn’t feeling it at first, but I remember we were driving in Brad’s Jeep Cherokee and he had these subwoofers. And then I was all, I love this music. From that day on, I just loved it.

Then I heard Bad Brains. They were punk rock and reggae. I started learning that it all had the same attitude. I got into early rocksteady, and the Specials. I was like, this is badass. Then we went to go see Fishbone for a free gig. That was my first introduction to seeing anything that was like ska. These guys were in the air more than they were on the ground! They’d throw their horns up in the air, throw them to their roadies. They were incredible. We went home and right away, by the next day or so, we wrote “Date Rape.” And then we wrote a lot of songs off that first album.

How did the songwriting process work?
Brad was mad smart, and he had a huge vocabulary and he had a lot of passion for whatever he did. I had to tell him all the time that he could sing a lot better than the jerk-offs we had singing for us. We had a darkened room, and we sat in his room for hours every day and his dad was never there. He had a full liquor cabinet. And so I’d dip into the scotch. The songs just came together so easy. And it was just fun.

Jumping ahead, what do you remember about “What I Got” coming together?
I didn’t have much to do that song, because we weren’t getting along at the time. [laughs] It was already laid out pretty much and I just the bass on that..

How about “Santeria”?
I wrote all the music to that song on the previous album, Robbin’ The Hood [where it appeared as “Lincoln Highway Dub”].  I just did it on his four-track. And he loved it a whole lot, he wanted to make it something more, so he made up some lyrics to it.

What was it like in the wake of Brad’s passing? I can’t imagine.
You know, you got to live on, shit happens. And that was like, some huge shit that killed part of me, pretty much. It sucked.