Twenty-four years later, Kellie Nowell still trembles when she recalls the moment she got the news.
May 25, 1996: She pulled into the family garage and knew immediately something was amiss. Her mother’s car was parked in front of the house, and her husband met her as she exited the car to deliver the devastating news — her brother, Bradley Nowell, was dead.
That he passed as his band, Sublime, was coming into its own as one of the most popular purveyors of ska-punk was tragic in and of itself. That he died of a heroin overdose a week after marrying his long-time girlfriend and the mother of his 11-month-old son, during a period in his life when addiction seemed to have released him from its murderous talons, only compounded Kellie’s grief.
“He had been battling heroin addiction for four years — in and out of rehab, and he even tried getting clean at home,” she told The Ties That Bind Us during a recent interview. “There were times in his life when he was really in the obvious grips of it, just heavily using, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to get a call like that. We had even talked about needing to prepare ourselves for it.
“But at the time, he had been clean almost two months. The band had been recording the self-titled album (released two months after her brother’s death) in Texas, and they sent him home because he was so strung out. But he got clean, and he had just gotten married. He had an 11-month-old son, and I even helped plan the wedding. No one expected it when it came, so it took us all by surprise.”
Life for the Nowell family changed dramatically that day, and like so many who lose loved ones to addiction, they’ve gone through the roller coaster of emotions associated with Bradley’s death. Now, almost a quarter-century later, they’re so very close to using it as a springboard for a new venture: Bradley’s House, a six-bed sober living and addiction recovery facility that will provide treatment to those in the music industry who struggle, regardless of their financial resources.
There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of money to be raised, but the work has begun in earnest. This week, many of Bradley’s peers, former colleagues and punk scene collaborators will give the cause a jump start thanks to the release of “The House That Bradley Built,” a compilation album that will donate profits to the Nowell Family Foundation’s effort to make Bradley’s House a reality.
None of it will bring her brother back, Kellie said, but it might do the next best thing: Prevent another sister … or mother, or wife, or child … from getting the same devastating news that she did all those years ago.
Bradley Nowell: A beautiful beginning
Growing up in the South Los Angeles sprawl of Long Beach, the Nowell childhood was a roller coaster ride of typical Middle American suburbia, Kellie said: “Lots of marriages and divorces, step-siblings and half-siblings, but Brad and I were the original set.” As her big brother by 2 ½ years, he was a fixture in her life, always providing a grounding rod through the divorce of their parents, Jim and Nancy, and rising to the role of protective of older sibling.
“I was dependent on him as the one stable factor in my life, so that losing him at 25, even though I was already married, was devastating,” she said. “I felt like my whole world was turned upside down.”
As a hyperactive kid, Bradley was an explorer. Music? He devoured it. Adrenaline? He craved it. And drugs? When they came along, he embraced them.
“I knew he had started smoking weed when he was pretty young, like late elementary school, and then in junior high, there were little glimpses I would catch here and there that he was doing other things,” she said. “I remember in high school, we were sitting at a Jack in the Box drive-through, and he was driving, and he handed me his wallet to get money out, and I found a razor blade in there.
“I said, ‘Brad, are you doing cocaine?,’ and he flew off the handle that I knew a razor blade was used for cocaine! He was mad that I was so young and knew what it was for. There were little signs along the way, so by the time he started with heroin, it wasn’t unusual for him to be doing lots of different drugs, but nothing with the intensity that heroin grabbed him with.”
After dropping out of the University of California-Santa Cruz, Nowell joined Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, who were already performing as The Juice Bros. With Nowell’s affinity for reggae and ska, the trio began fusing those genres with the punk sounds prevalent in Southern California in the 1980s, and by the time that decade came to a close, Sublime had earned a reputation as a premier party band, complete with Nowell’s Dalmatian, Lou Dog. The band made its bones alongside fellow ska purveyors No Doubt, established its own label (Skunk Records) and released the groundbreaking “40 Oz. to Freedom” in 1992.
Those halcyon days were full of promise, and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle made her brother’s consumption of substances seem like part and parcel of the band’s rise to success, Kellie said.
“I wasn’t aware that (heroin) was a big problem until he was fully entrenched, because he was so involved with music and that lifestyle,” she said. “I remember the first time my dad called me and told me he was going into treatment, I thought it was like he was going in to have a tooth pulled — ‘Oh, good, he’s going to be fixed!’ I knew very little about addiction back then.”
A stratospheric rise and meteoric fall
Sublime’s growing success was paradoxical to the typical downward trajectory of addiction, which made it more difficult to understand just how much of a problem her brother’s habit was becoming. By 1995, the influential Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM had the Sublime song “Date Rape” in heavy rotation, and it was at the annual KROQ Weenie Roast that she began to understand just how big her brother’s band had gotten.
“I always liked to go to shows and watch from the audience, to feel the energy that way, so while Sublime was performing, I was out in the audience,” she said. “It was a big venue, and ‘Date Rape’ was getting a lot of airplay, but when they played it, everybody around me started singing along. There were just thousands of people, singing his lyrics, and just the fact that people knew the words he had written, that’s when I realized something was going on here.”
By that point, the band’s second album, “Robbin’ the Hood,” had been released, and Sublime co-headlined the 1995 Vans Warped Tour … at least until the group’s chaos led to its dismissal from the lineup. By that point, Bradley’s struggles were beginning to take their toll, and the cycle of addiction, sobriety and relapse were spilling over onto the family, Kellie said.
“Every time he got clean, we took a deep breath,” she said.
But it never lasted, and after his death in May 1996, she retreated from the public eye. In fact, she said, for the next decade and a half, she cut herself off from the Sublime phenomenon, because the group’s massive success in wake of Nowell’s death was too painful to bear.
“My way of dealing with losing him was to completely isolate from everything that involved him,” she said. “I didn’t want to listen to the music, I didn’t talk to any of his friends, I didn’t listen to any of the bands that were direct offshoots of Sublime, like the Long Beach Dub Allstars. It was just my way of coping, because I couldn’t handle both things at once — my life and him being gone at the same time.”
Others made efforts to call attention to the affliction that claimed her brother’s life — Bradley’s widow, Troy Holmes Nowell, worked with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in 1997 to highlight the specter of addiction in the music industry, but Nowell’s immediate family members retreated to comfort one another and step in to help raise Jakob, Bradley’s son. It wasn’t until Kellie joined social media, particularly Facebook, that she began to understand just how far and wide the Sublime gospel had spread.
“I started getting messages from people who found me from my name and would pour out their stories about how Sublime had impacted them, or how the band had played a part in their sobriety,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out why they were telling me — I mean, I wasn’t in the band! — so I really didn’t get it at first. It took me about a year to figure out why they wanted to connect with me, as his sister — because it was a tangible connection to someone they would never be able to meet or see in person.
“They told these things to my dad and to my mom, too, because they wanted someone close to Brad to know how he impacted their lives. And when I realized that, it was a huge mental shift for me. I took him from having a band to play a role in people’s lives that he never even knew existed.
“And that’s bittersweet,” she added. “I would love for him to have seen that, because like most artists, he suffered from never feeling like he was good enough or that his music was good enough.”
Bradley Nowell: A legacy of music and love
History tells a different story. Sublime is consistently touted as one of the most popular and influential bands from ska’s “third wave,” and the self-titled record released after Nowell’s death has sold more than 5 million copies. Overall, the band’s catalog has sold roughly 17 million records, and for years KROQ has ranked Sublime as one of the most influential bands among the station’s listeners, behind only Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“All the lives he’s impacted, it’s very touching — but it’s also very painful,” Kellie said. “The fact there here we are almost 25 years later, and his music is still drawing crowds and he’s not the only playing it, is painful. His songs were so personal, and his music was so personal.”
It took something equally personal to foment the establishment of the Nowell Family Foundation: Jakob, Bradley’s son, began battling his own substance abuse problems. Roughly 3 ½ years ago, Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins, a long-time friend and artistic collaborator with the guys in Sublime, helped get Jakob into a drug and alcohol treatment center, and faced with the prospect that Nowell’s demise due to addiction might be revisited upon his son, the family decided to push back, Kellie said.
“Z-Man was my nephew’s sober coach, and he was really instrumental in getting him into detox and rehab, and I’m happy to report he’s been sober since then,” she said. “At the time, we had these family meetings with him, and there was one time that it was lunch with just Todd and I, and he discussed the idea of starting Bradley’s House. He asked me, ‘Would you like to be involved?’
“I just thought it was a beautiful idea, and I told him to let me know what he needed me to do. Well, that turned into me running it!”
Her nephew’s battles served a twofold purpose: It brought the Nowells closer as they fought to save Jakob’s life, and it gave them a glimpse of how powerful music can be as a healing force, she said.
“To my dad’s credit, he immediately committed to doing whatever it took to help (Jakob), so we didn’t mess around,” Kellie said. “He struggled with it for a while, but he knew he needed help, and he reached out, and I’m so glad he did. I give him so much credit, because he’s 25 years old with 3 ½ years of sobriety under his belt, and he’s had to deal with things that most people his age can’t or won’t deal with — and he’s done it in the spotlight.
”It’s tough at any age, but especially at a young age, and when you’re in a band. But he’s made such a commitment (to sobriety), and we’re all really proud of him.”
And throughout his sober journey, she added, music provided a steady source of comfort. It was an outlet, and as he progressed in recovery, he gravitated toward other sober musicians. That, she pointed out, became the template for what Bradley’s House will become.
“There was a sense of, ‘Wow — there’s a real power of not only going through the process of recovery with other musicians, but also having that camaraderie of not being alone in this party industry, that other musicians are facing the same struggle,” she said. “We thought that’s what could be different about Bradley’s House — that it’s specific to the music industry, and that common bond will exist within the house, so the idea will hopefully continue beyond that as well.
“We want to really develop a community of people who can relate — not only to their struggles, but to the victories of remaining in that industry and staying clean. We started the (Nowell Family) Foundation with the main goal of opening Bradley’s House, and even though we would like to do other things beyond that, the main thing is to open the house and provide treatment to people who can’t afford it but need and want it.”
A foundation takes shape
Establishing the foundation was the first in a series of baby steps that are still taking place. In the beginning, the Nowells knew only that their name, aided by Bradley’s success and reputation, would help the cause. What they didn’t realize was just how many fans and friends seemed to waiting to help make a difference.
“Within five months of starting the foundation, a friend of mine, a local musician who liked to play Sublime covers, asked to do a show and donate money to the foundation, and that’s how we started doing these different shows with different artists,” Kellie said. “They’ve played all kinds of shows for us and donated a portion of the proceeds, and that’s really helped to get the name out and the word out in a really huge way.
“Gradually, we started doing music festivals the Cali Roots Music and Arts Festival, just setting up a merch table and helping to get the word out.”
One of the biggest developments took shape last year, when Paul Milbury, the general manager of LAW Records — established as the label of the like-minded band Pepper, whom Sublime influenced — offered to help the foundation raise money. Last October, he got back in touch with the Nowells and offered to help put together a compilation album of acoustic Sublime covers by various artists.
“I told him, ‘If you can make that happen, we are definitely down for that!’ And nine months later, he had the whole thing done,” Kellie said. “It’s been the most amazing thing, and we’re just so honored to work with him. We’ve been releasing two singles every week until the album releases on (Friday), and it’s been getting the word out in such a huge way. Every artist on that album is promoting their song, and it’s reaching all these different audiences, so hopefully the donations from this will be super beneficial.”
Some of the highlights include covers of “Hope,” by Descendents; “Little District,” by the Long Beach Dub Allstars; “Work That We Do,” by Pepper; “Santeria” by Trevor Young (of SOJA); “40 Oz. to Freedom,” by Johnny Cosmic; “Pool Shark,” by Tunnel Vision; and more. There’s even a version of “Rivers of Babylon,” performed by Bradley’s father and son. Friday’s release will be on all digital platforms, and fans can special order a vinyl copy, and every purchase helps — the foundation estimates that they need to raise roughly $750,000 to open and operate for the first year.
“So far, we just have $50,000, but I don’t think it’s going to take as long to raise the remaining as it has to get here,” she said. “The main thing is just letting people know it’s out there, and that it’s a legitimate organization. We have a medical director who’s committed to helping us by providing deeply, deeply discounted services, and while we don’t have an actual location yet, we know we want to open it in South Orange County.
“A lot of it depends on when the money is raised and what the market is like, when the funding comes through and whether we decide to buy or lease, but we want to make sure we have funding for a full year before we open the door, so that we’re open and up to code and have everything we need to operate for the first year, even assuming there’s no revenue coming in.”
Bradley Nowell: Life after death
It’s a legitimate concern, given that COVID-19 has upended the music industry — but the Nowells haven’t lost sight of the fact that addiction hasn’t slowed because of the pandemic. It’s still out there, stalking the unsuspecting who, like her brother, will use one more time and lose their lives.
“It doesn’t matter if someone sells millions of albums or plays guitar on the bed in their rooms — it’s a disease affecting everyone around you,” Kellie said. “To be able to help people, whether they’ve sold millions of records or none at all, is a really good use of our effort and influence. We get asked every once in a while why it’s just for musicians, and it’s because we wanted to create a place where everyone in the industry can really pull together, and we’ve got to start with what we know.
“That’s where our passion is — helping musicians, all of whom have their own spheres of influence with fans of their music, so that can have an exponential effect on this epidemic. I really do feel like this is the right thing, and the people I’ve met or who have reached out to me have reaffirmed that constantly. Anybody who’s ever started a nonprofit can attest to how difficult it is — it can be a real thankless job, just as starting any business can, and it’s not easy asking people to give to something that hasn’t opened yet.
“They’re putting their trust and faith and all of these things in us, as a family, and we take that very seriously,” she added. “Our family’s name is on there, so it’s not just hopes and dreams on the line — it’s us, as well.”
And it’s Bradley — somewhere on the other side, free from the bondage of the substances that claimed his physical life, laughing and cheering and encouraging his family on. That’s something Kellie believes with her entire being, because the serendipitous signs from the universe continue to nudge her and the rest of the Nowells down this road toward a recovery solution for others.
“Earlier this year, back in February, I had a lot of stuff going on for me personally,” she said. “One of my kids has struggled with substance abuse, and I was supposed to go to this festival for the foundation, and I just didn’t want to go. I was emotionally, physically exhausted, and driving there, I didn’t want to deal with anybody or put on a smile and talk about my brother.
“But then a Sublime song came on the radio. Not that it’s unusual for a Sublime song to come on the radio, but the timing was perfect, and it felt really personal. Just little things like that — to hear his voice and have some sort of consolation that he’s still a part of this — lets me know that we’re on the right track and doing the right thing.”