Sublime always had a funny relationship with time. As Bill Guttentag’s exuberant documentary on the Long Beach-bred band details, the fun-loving trio of lead singer Bradley Nowell, drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson were never exactly the most punctual when it came to going on stage and when their big break came in 1995 with a song (“Date Rape”) they had recorded four years earlier, they had already moved on creatively as fans would demand them to play it at shows. However, in the wake of the untimely death of Nowell in 1996, Sublime’s detachment from a common chronology manifested itself in an even more unusual way as their posthumous self-titled album grew to become a classic with such an adventurous and fresh sound that songs such as “What I Got,” “Santeria,” and “Wrong Way” continue to be played in heavy rotation to this day, leading every generation since to claim the band as their own.
Naturally, this makes “Sublime” the documentary feel as if it’s arriving right on schedule, though with two decades to consider the legacy of the band that would inspire with their blurring of genres such as ska, punk, reggae, surf music and hip hop and Nowell’s ultimately fatal heroin addiction that cut things short, participants such as Gaugh, Nowell’s wife Troy Dendekker and his father Jim and mother Nancy can speak with clarity about the highs and lows that were equally intense and extreme. Demystifying what happened while retaining the sense of wonder that was inherent to their music, “Sublime” presents a group of artists on a different wavelength than everyone else, beginning with their lead singer who would think to sample George Gershwin in “Doin’ Time,” a trip hop track, and whose insatiable thirst for knowledge led to finding the name for the band in a dictionary, with Dendekker’s help.
While it’s suggested this grander intellectual curiosity led to experimenting with drugs, peers such as No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, Tony Kanal and Tom Dumont and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore speak to Nowell’s constant search for musical innovation, looking to other acts as diverse as The Clash and Bob Marley to find Sublime’s own distinctive sound. Although this made them an ill fit for radio, which was aligned along certain genres and led to constant rejection at local stations such as KROQ, the film traces Sublime’s grind from playing for “free beer and girls’ phone numbers” to a force to be reckoned with in Southern California where the inventiveness of the music couldn’t be denied.
Besides the lively stories told by those who were there, Guttentag taps into the band’s breezy, freewheeling energy to relate their story, setting subjects against local murals and letting the music wash over an audience as tenderly as it felt when Nowell once cooed “Caress Me Down.” In the midst of the Tribeca Film Festival where “Sublime” premiered this past week, the director, along with Gaugh and Dendekker spoke about honoring the spirit of Sublime and chronicling a history that wasn’t well-documented at the time, as well as the band’s frustration with one of their biggest hits and the cosmic energy surrounding the film.
How did this come about?
Bud Gaugh: We just wanted to put the whole story out there from the band’s perspective and from the family’s perspective, just trying to eliminate any false narratives along the way, so the best way to do it was just to tell the story ourselves. And finding Bill, we just really clicked and figured that he was the right man for the job.
Bill, what got you interested?
Bill Guttentag: I always liked the music, and I thought they had a really interesting story. Then we had met with Troy and then Bud and being part of the story isn’t necessarily synonymous with knowing how to tell the story well, and it’s tricky, because with Bradley [Nowell], one of the essential characters in the film is not here to tell his own story, so the question is, if Bradley can’t tell the story, who does? And that’s something that Bud and Troy did wonderfully well. At that point, we said, “Okay, well we have these two people who are at the center of the film and of course Eric [Wilson] as well, but who are the other people that did?” Virtually, everyone we asked to be part of the film said, “Yes.” People were really generous to be a part of it.
Bud Gaugh: And Bill really seamlessly put everything together. It was almost like when we’re telling one part of our narrative, then he got those other people to chime in, almost like we were riffing off each other in the same room. He was able to pull these stories together and verify them from different perspectives, and it was really, really cool the way it all pieced together.
Bill Guttentag: One example of that came from Bud, when you told the story of performing on the Winter Core Tour with No Doubt. They basically told the same story, but from different sides of the coin when they showed up and they were just rattled [that] you guys were drinking and they were doing vocal exercises. Neither side was contradicting each other and you always love it when that’s happening because they’re offering it with all sincerity and when it’s the same story, it makes you feel like, “Hey, it’s the real deal.”
When this project gets underway, was there anything that was really important for you to put out there?
Bud Gaugh: Just telling the story from the beginning, starting from childhood friendships to the evolution of the band from being able to make the self-titled album, [where it] was a sound we were striving for from the very beginning and being able to get to that point – it was a process. So telling the whole story, how it came along and all the way through was one of the main, main points.
Troy Dendekker: And making it not about how Bradley died, but how the band lived and affected the music scene in the early ‘90s, and what it was like to be at one of their shows. How they all came into each other’s lives was really important to me because the three of them together made Sublime, made the music and not to focus on losing Bradley, but to focus on what Sublime’s about.
What was it like gathering archival material? I understand you put out a big call on social media for concert footage.
Troy Dendekker: That was a trip. Seeing the rough cut was intense because there was a lot of stuff I’d never seen before – a lot of interviews and photos, [even some] photos I had and forgot I gave. But there was a lot of focus on stuff that [the filmmakers] found or people turned in that was just amazing.
Bill Guttentag: Yeah, it’s a funny world out there because it’s so spread out and one of the nice things of doing a film like this is we become a way of gathering all those materials, so the next person isn’t blindfolded. He’s got a much easier job. You have to remember that Sublime was super well known in Southern California and starting to get well known around the country, but because of Bradley’s death, there wasn’t this vast amount of footage of you guys touring, for example. In some ways, it’s incredibly authentic because it’s from Troy’s stuff and Bud’s and Eric’s – that’s where the footage came from. And it came from fans and it was a funny collection of people. There were super fans in places like Sweden. There was some postal worker in LA who devoted his life to assembling the stuff. It was just wonderful. It’s almost like that guy’s been waiting for this phone call.
Troy Dendekker: Some of the fans are so dedicated it’s like a religion for them. We are sensitive to that, and a lot of this is about giving the whole story to those fans and the new fans. There’s a lot of new fans who don’t even really know that Sublime is no longer together and then a lot of fans that don’t even know that Bradley’s gone because they just like the music. So this is giving a life to something that’s still alive.
Bill Guttentag: I can only speak for the folks that I bump into and I’ve seen working on a film on Sublime. There’s obviously a crowd that, “Oh my God. I love them.” And there’s also a crowd that’s like, “Who’s Sublime, right?” And then you play and it’s almost like name that tune. You play a couple notes, “Oh yeah, I know that,” so it’s a funny thing where people know and love the music, but they know and love the music without knowing the story or the name. [Looking at Bud and Troy] I think that that is certainly true for another generation like your kids’ age.
Bud Gaugh: Absolutely.
Bill Guttentag: And the music speaks for itself. A lot of times, with a lot of art, not just music, there’ll be like an asterisk next to it [like], “Oh, this is good for its time period.” You know it may not be good on an absolute scale. But the rest of the band’s music is just good. More than good, its superb.
Speaking of which, there are so many great songs to choose from – how did “Doin’ Time” end up getting the anatomy of a song treatment?
Bill Guttentag: Some of it just had to be, “How do you best tell the story? And what are the best stories?” It’s such an iconic song. What Bradley, Bud and Eric did with it is amazing because that song [“Summertime”] has been around forever – Billie Holiday did a version and it’s still a contemporary song, so that just became an interesting story from our point of view.
Troy Dendekker: What was great about “Date Rape” is, from what I remember, it was the boys’ least favorite song.
Bill Guttentag: But that was a different story. There was a lot on “Date Rape” too.
Troy Dendekker: That’s the one that gets on the radio, and the one they have them play [at shows].
Bud Gaugh: They’ve been playing that for years and years and we sent those tapes to Jedd the Fish and it was like play the song on LocalX, constantly like, “Play this song. Play this song. Local Licks. Play this song, Play this song.” And it was like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.”And then finally they play it and it’s like, “That was two albums ago. We’re tired of playing that song.”
Troy Dendekker: Was it “Date Rape” that you submitted or was it the whole album and they picked “Date Rape”?
Bud Gaugh: We picked a couple of songs, but you send them a whole album.
Troy Dendekker: Because I remember after a while, the audience was requesting “Date Rape” when they would be doing songs [at a concert] and they were like, “Date Rape. Again!” Again and then there was a time you guys never did “[Waiting for My] Ruca” live.
Bud Gaugh: There was a time when at some of our shows, the contracts were, “You must perform this song to get paid.” And we would just straight up refuse. You could just see the promoter sitting there, biting their fingernails. It’s like, “We’ll do it as an encore.”
Troy Dendekker: Half of it. Start with it. Turn it into another song.
Bill Guttentag: So I’m guessing under those circumstances you played it, right?
Troy Dendekker: No, they didn’t.
Bud Gaugh: Yes. Indeed. We’re always going to get paid. Show must go on. You got to have money to put gas in the van.
Troy Dendekker: They would take requests from the audience all the time. It was fun.
The interview backgrounds are part of what make the film so vibrant. How did you figure out what would be going on behind your subjects?
Bill Guttentag: We tried to match them to the people. We didn’t want to another film where people sat next to the mixing boards to do the interviews. That’s become a standard cliché, but we thought murals were interesting and the whole idea was Sublime’s art grew from the streets, but there’s still art growing in the streets and if you drive around, every mural you can see somewhere in L.A., and then we tried to figure out what a good fit [with each subject was] and we put some thought into it. With Bud, this was an explosion because when I watch Bud drum, I just think about this explosive energy going on. And the one behind Troy is straight out of Klimt…
Troy Dendekker: Which… when I walked out there [to do my interview], Tony Kanal from No Doubt just finished his and his [background] was still up. So we got the makeup done, and I went back out and they had [in the background] a take on “A Kiss” by Gustav Klimt. The girl in it, her face was almost like Day of the Dead and she is lying down. I almost started crying and everyone on the set’s like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “How did you guys know that’s my favorite painting?” I have a copy of it hanging in my room and [the filmmakers] didn’t know. [The mural’s] actually in Long Beach, and a couple months go by, when a friend of mine and I were driving back from Ventura, so she goes, “We’ve got to find that.” It’s called “The War Kiss,” and to me it’s cosmic because one of Bradley’s favorite lyrics is, “Someday I’m going to lose the war.” And it’s in Long Beach, it’s not one of the L.A. murals. It’s massive, we went and took photos in front of it. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it.
What’s it like to be premiering at Tribeca?
Bud Gaugh: What was really cool was the other day, we had a phone call with Dave and Scott, our managers that was literally the day before our first meeting four years ago. And he was like, “Look, Today is April 23rd — on April 24th, 2015, we discussed this and this” and went through all the bullet points. It was like, “These are things that we’re going to work on,” and four years is like hauling ass in Hollywood time. You start getting the gears just to even start to turn.
Troy Dendekker: I mean it took us this long to even to decide to start working on it [or] decide to move with new management, then to start working on it. It could have waited another 20 to get it done.
Bud Gaugh: Everyone’s schedules [are complicated] — like Eric’s on the road and I’m up in Reno and life’s happening. We’re all parents…
Troy Dendekker: So it’s pretty amazing how they pulled it off. It is pretty cool to be here and it’s finished and it’s not just on our wish list.
“Sublime” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1st at 9:45 pm at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park.