Culture

Rome Ramirez don’t practice santeria, but he has been the lead singer of Sublime since he was 18

Meet the 30-year-old who’s been tasked with carrying on the legacy of the most famous ska-punk band of all time.
Culture

Rome Ramirez don’t practice santeria, but he has been the lead singer of Sublime since he was 18

Meet the 30-year-old who’s been tasked with carrying on the legacy of the most famous ska-punk band of all time.

Imagine, if you will, being 18. Your favorite band, the band you obsess over — the band whose songs you’ve played and sung so many times that you know them backwards and forwards and inside out — has been broken up since you were eight years old, when their lead singer died of a heroin overdose. Now, imagine randomly meeting the bassist for that band, impressing him with your knowledge of his band’s catalog, and then being asked to join that band as their new frontman. You would feel insane. This does not happen to people. But it’s happening to you. And how are you, an 18-year-old kid, supposed to fill the shoes of your musical hero? Is it even possible? Do you even try?

Now, imagine your favorite band is Sublime. Led by the late Bradley Nowell, the band synthesized a truly staggering range of influences, pivoting from SoCal ska-punk (“Seed”) to Misfits-style horror-prom ballads (“New Realization”) to dubbed-out trip-hop tracks that crib their choruses from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (“Doin’ Time”).

The key to Sublime’s success, however, was its ability to use this musical omnivorousness as a means through which to articulate a specific lifestyle, one that prized skating, surfing, drinking beers, smoking weed, and generally chilling as hard as humanly possible above all else. As a 15-year-old who’d never so much as seen a joint, I remember listening to Sublime and concluding that this music sounded like how smoking weed felt. There have been better bands — and, doubtlessly, ones whose politics haven’t aged extremely poorly — but only a handful who were able to communicate an entire worldview to their listeners.

This was the situation Rome Ramirez found himself in shortly after he graduated high school. While bouncing back and forth between Oakland and San Diego as a teen, he’d internalized Sublime’s aesthetic sensibility, and, with little in the way of post-school prospects, decided to dedicate his life to making music like his heroes. “All I wanted to do was be in a Sublime cover band,” the 30-year-old Ramirez tells me of his younger self, calling from his home in Los Angeles. “I wanted to be that.” In pursuit of his goal, a near-broke Ramirez moved to L.A. in the mid-2000’s and began bumming around the music scene, eventually meeting Sublime’s former bassist, Eric Wilson. Impressed by Ramirez’s knowledge of the band’s catalog as well as his vocal similarities to the late Nowell, Wilson asked him in to join a revived iteration of the group that would, after a legal skirmish with Nowell’s estate over the use of the name “Sublime,” eventually be called Sublime with Rome. Despite existing in the shadow of Nowell, the band has earned a dedicated following in its own right, especially among music fans who tend to congregate at the crossroads of jam bands, reggae-rap, and ska-punk. On Friday, the band will release their third album of original music, titled Blessings.

Sublime with Rome rehearsing.

Sublime with Rome rehearsing.

Though Sublime will always be a part of culture, they are now experiencing something of a moment. This spring saw the festival release of a documentary about the band, directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Guttentag. Lana Del Rey just put out a cover of the band’s “Doin’ Time.”. Maybe it’s the ambient nihilism permeating our cultural moment or the seemingly imminent legalization of marijuana, but suddenly, tastemaking publications like The Ringer and The Fader have officially declared that Sublime is cool again. It’s important to remember that, for hundreds of thousands of people, Sublime were never not cool. And those are the people who Ramirez makes music for.

Last week, Ramirez and I spoke about his love of Twitch streaming, whether 2019 will be the summer of Sublime, and honoring Nowell. He called me five minutes before he was supposed to, which made me excited.

The Outline: I think this is literally the first time a musician has ever offered to do an interview early.

Rome Ramirez: I’m a morning person. I get up everyday at like 5:30.

Have you always been like that?

Ever since I had my first son, I just got really into just getting up before everybody and having my morning [routine]. Because it’s important for me to have my alone time — to drink coffee, read, and smoke weed.

One of the things I think characterizes Sublime as a larger project is this ability to synthesize all these disparate influences and associate it with a very specific identity and lifestyle. I think what y’all do on the new record is take sounds that are happening within the larger world of pop music and mesh them with Sublime’s sonic touchstones.

That’s kind of the formula of how it was created. It’s cool that you were able to pick up on that. Even going into the studio, Eric [Wilson] has always made it really apparent that he doesn’t want to make the same album over and over again. He’s really into really different elements being fused together at the same time. That took me a while to wrap my head around. [I’d be like,] “What do you mean, just don’t do a reggae song or a punk song?” And he’s like, “No we should do this part like this, and then have this part in here.” I would have never thought of that. Looking back as just a fan, I’m still kind of mind-blown about the things Eric’s done with my favorite [early Sublime] songs.

Where are you from originally?

East Bay. Oakland/Fremont. I lived there up until I was about 14, and then I was going back and forth from San Diego to Northern California. I had a bunch of family down south so I was always staying down there, going to school down there, getting in a bunch of trouble. We were just fucking broke, man, and being a broke kid sucks. I just got high and skateboarded and played music. That was pretty much my teenage years. And I was like, “I’ve got to do something with this music. All my friends are about to go to college and shit. Well, not my friends, but people my age should be going to college and shit!” So it’s like, “Everyone tells me I’m good at music, I’ve got to think of something. My plan was to move to southern California and become an engineer, then become a producer, then become an artist.

What sort of music were you making at the time?

All I wanted was to be in a Sublime cover band, or to start a band like Sublime. But nobody wanted to jam, nobody was that committed [to that sound]. So I was like, “Fuck being in a band, I’m just going to make my own music and do my solo shit.”

In the process of that, I started working at a recording studio. That’s where I met Eric Wilson. I was just hanging out with Eric so much, jamming over at his house.

What was the process of you actually joining a new version of Sublime?

Eric is not a man of many words. He really vocalizes himself through music a lot of the time, even when you know him very well. Everybody always wants something from him. He knew that I was a really big fan of his, but I wasn’t weird to him and all I really wanted to do was just jam. All he ever wants to do — any time of the day, any day of the week — is jam. I think he saw something in me he kind of related to.

Once I sold my guitar because I needed some money to live, and two days later, he was like, “Yo where’s your guitar?” I was like, “I had to fucking hock it for some gas and shit.” He’s like, “Dude, keep this electric [guitar].” That’s a guitar still that I cherish to this day. But yeah, he just kind of saw something in me, and then when we’d be jamming I’d every single part of every single Sublime song. So I think that gave him the idea.

How did y’all settle on the name “Sublime with Rome,” rather than a different name altogether or just “Sublime?”

At the time of all that, I was 18 years old. [If it happened today], I would have been at every single meeting, I would have been CC’d on every email, because I’m 30 [and know] to be involved in my business. But then, I wasn’t in those talks. It was just kind of like, “Are you down to be in Sublime?” I’m like, “Fuck yeah.” A lot of times I would find out [news about the band] through the internet.

Really?

Yeah, it’s crazy. I guess in hindsight you can’t really blame [Eric]. Because you’re talking about a million-dollar brand here right? So I look at it like, “What the fuck would I have been doing in any of those meetings anyway?” I think people also forget that this is business. Let’s not get too romantic with what we expect from our artists. There’s still margins and there’s still contracts. Now that I’m older I can look back on it with a much different lens.

Yeah. I kind of learned that lesson the one time I made the mistake of asking a musician how their taxes worked.

I mean, a lot of musicians probably couldn’t even tell you. It’s crazy out there man. The Man is always watching. The IRS, they go through your Instagram. That’s what my homegirl told me. If I was an IRS worker and I got assigned to your case and you were audited, first thing I would do is go check out your social media.

Tell me about the early days when you first joined the band. I could barely handle being a freshman in college at 18, so I can’t imagine how radical that transition must have felt for you.

It was definitely crazy. The first year of Sublime [involved] a lot of parties — a lot of alcohol and a lot of smoking weed, just meeting so many people. I don’t do any [hard] drugs or anything, really any psychedelics either. But it was college in its own right. I was definitely with people who were looking out for my best interests, so I’m really grateful for that.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned early on in that period?

The biggest lesson I learned, which sounds pretty mundane to most people, is that it really is the power of your circle. That’s easy to tell people but I do feel like people need to learn that through experience. Sometimes you’ve got to touch the burner. I’m very fortunate to have some people in my life who kick it to me real and would be like “Yo, that dude’s a piece of shit."

If you’re not prepared for that, it can really fuck you up. I’ve seen it fuck a lot of people up. Fame is a weird thing. And I don’t even know what it’s like to be truly famous.

I feel like culture is coming back around to Sublime in a way that’s set the band up to have a moment right now. People are looking at these songs that have always existed in culture and starting to appreciate them in this active way.

It’s funny you say that. You know how pop culture works in sectors, right? You have to buzz here, buzz there, bubble here, bubble there. And then you can then start to make big ripple. But everything kind of happens and you can’t force anything. As far Sublime thing, we didn’t tour last year and we haven’t released a record two or three years. So we put out a single that did really well for us last August, and this was right around the time that they were just wrapping up a Sublime documentary that eventually debuted at Sundance.

Then a couple months after that, we’re setting up the album launch and the next single started doing well on just streaming platforms. Then, Lana Del Ray [covered “Doin’ Time,” off Sublime’s 1996 self-titled record]. So everything’s feeding off each other and creating this ecosystem of hype. I think that’s kind of feeding into what you were saying.

How does it all feel from where you’re sitting?

I mean, I’m associated with one of the dopest things in the world. That’s the way I see it. I’m proud to be a footnote in the legacy of Sublime. That’s just insane for me. I get to meet people every day on tour, talk to them, and really get to see how this music affected their lives. I get great joy out of that.

I’ve noticed that on Twitter, you tend to have a lot of fun with the Sublime mythology. I remember you once tweeted, “Literally smoked two joints this morning.”

I’m a child of social media. When I was 13 I made a MySpace and I uploaded songs that I’d learned how to record [by doing research on] the internet. I’ve always loved the idea of being able to interact with other people who like what you like. To me, that was what I liked the internet for.

Twitter is the only social media platform that I have where I don’t feel like I’m working. With [a tweet], it’s just a thought I have in my head and I’ve learned to not think about it. If it’s an honest, quirky, stupid idea I have in my head I’ll just tweet it. Or I just intentionally try and think of something to make someone laugh. That’s why it doesn’t feel like work to me.

You’re also an active streamer on Twitch.

I’ll go on Twitch and I’ll get in the studio with the band and make music, talk to the fans. Or sometimes, I’ll play video games with my friends and fans can just watch us talk shit. I don’t know, for me it’s just fun. I like social media because I like to be around people who like what I like. It’s tight man, because there’s different communities in these different platforms as well. The community in Twitch is much different than the community on Twitter. I just like connecting with people I guess.

I’ve been doing Twitch for like a year. I like it. I’m not big or anything on it, but it’s not for that. It’s for me I guess.

What do you mean by that?

I just like talking to fans. I really like connecting with them and hearing what songs they like on the new record, what shit they want to hear live, what games they’re playing, what new music they’re listening to. You’ve probably got a lot in common — they like Sublime, I fuck with Sublime, they know about Twitch. They’ve got to be alright, you know?

What games are you playing right now?

Honestly I rarely get time to play games anymore. But when I do, the one that I’ve been playing with my brother is the Division 2, which I don’t really like that much. And I always play Magic the Gathering Arena. I love that game. I used to play [Magic] when I was a kid and then a year or two ago, one of my homies was like, “Dude you should play the computer game.” Now I can just knock a game out in like ten minutes or something.

How good a Magic player are you? I ask this as someone who just started playing and is terrible.

I’m pretty good. I mean, I know what the fuck I’m doing. It ages. There’s a lot of new mechanics that get added [with each expansion pack]. You’ve got to stay on it, but the essential nature of Magic is pretty much the same. I just try and keep on the same decks, same style of playing. I like to think I’m all right but I’ve got homies who can kick my ass.