Taken at face value, it's an archetypal rock 'n roll story: Young kid gets his chance with the band he grew up idolizing. That's what happened to Rome Ramirez in '09 when he stepped into the shoes of the late Bradley Nowell, frontman for '90s ska-punk hitmakers Sublime. You think he's psyched?
"Dude, it's still fucking nuts," says Ramirez, who was a tender 20-year old when he first started jamming with bassist Eric Wilson, and later, drummer Bud Gaugh, both of whom moved on to the Long Beach Dub Allstars after Nowell's death. "I'm very grateful. This opportunity doesn't happen to a lot of people. Maybe one percent of the population gets to be in a band that's on the radio and TV. How small of a fraction of that one percent get to do it with their favorite band?"
It's a small fraternity, no doubt. There's one-time Judas Priest singer Tim "Ripper" Owens (inspiration for 2001 Mark Wahlberg-vehicle Rock Star. There's Journey's Steve Perry-facsimile Arnel Pineda. And then there's Ed Crawford, who reunited the remaining Minutemen members as fIREHOSE — at least they had the good sense to change the name.
Ramirez and company slipped up pretty bad in that last regard. They attempted a "reunion" show at Cypress Hill's annual Smokeout Festival where the trio was billed as "Sublime," until Nowell's estate howled in protest. This is how the "Sublime With Rome" moniker was born, and, according to Ramirez, things are cool now.
"Everything's fine," he says. "We've been compensating the estate admirably for the past couple years that we've been on the project, and everything's been pretty kosher."
Sublime without Bud
Last summer, the trio released Sublime With Rome's debut album, Yours Truly, which they dedicated to Nowell. While there's no mistaking it for a Sublime album, it's nowhere near as bad as that last Queen album with Paul Rodgers on vocals. It's also a better listen than Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, and features more original members.
Still, even if the dispute with the Nowell estate is in the past, that didn't put an end to the drama. Gaugh stormed offstage during a late-November show in Hawaii. A subsequent statement from the band claimed everything was fine, but the drummer ended up leaving the band a few weeks later. (He's now being "temporarily" replaced by an unannounced "big name" drummer. "You all know him," Ramirez says.)
For his part, Ramirez downplays the idea that the departure was the result of a soured relationship.
"Bud took some time off — a hiatus — like he's always kinda done," says Ramirez, who's currently in the studio working on a solo album. "There's certain things going on in his life that I can't speak on. We all hope the best for him. His mind is a little crowded right now, a little distracted you could say, but we hope that he'll come around. But that doesn't mean we have to stop the band. We're just waiting it out until Bud gets well."
But read an interview Gaugh did with budztv.com last month, and you come away with a different impression. In it, Gaugh says he'd play again with bassist Eric Wilson but never in Sublime With Rome. He also bags on the album, which he says felt rushed, and complains about choices in arrangements and post-production that soured him on several songs. He even gripes that he was just playing someone else's parts on all but three songs, although Gaugh isn't exactly the first drummer to play parts someone else wrote for the album. (Ringo Starr says hello!) It's also notable the best song — catchy ska-punk single, "Panic" — is one of three Gaugh says he was involved in writing.
And the band plays on
All of which raises the question: Is Sublime Without Rome worth all the fuss, bad feelings, and what some may view as trampled legacies? It may be, at least for those who, like Ramirez, were only children when Nowell overdosed, and consequently never had a chance to see Sublime perform live.
Then again, the current band has spent two plus years revising those old songs in sold-out venues around the world from New Zealand to Brazil. The sheer amount of touring could be a factor in Gaugh's departure, something even he acknowledged. And Ramirez is, in fact, a fine singer, equally comfortable with a flowing rap, a frenetic skank, or a loose soulful groove.
All that time on the road also helped hone Ramirez's stagecraft. An energetic presence, he's overcome the initial trepidation that accompanies a jump from coffeehouse to stadiums. He credits his more seasoned bandmates with helping ease the learning curve.
"They taught me a lot of things on the road," says Ramirez, "and definitely showed me what not to do."
"Don't take drugs from random girls backstage," he answers. "That never leads to anything positive."
As for what the future holds, Ramirez is sticking to his story. "As soon as Bud comes back we plan on hitting the studio again. Probably around 2013," he says. "It wouldn't be Sublime without Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh."