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Late Sublime Frontman Bradley Nowell's Son Jakob on Joining the Band: 'This Is My Family' (Exclusive)

On the eve of his official debut at Coachella, Jakob Nowell reflects on surviving his own addictions and singing the songs of a father he never got to know

<p>Rowan Daly</p> Jakob Nowell in December 2023

Rowan Daly

Jakob Nowell in December 2023

Whenever Jakob Nowell visits the Bay Area, he always makes a personal pilgrimage to Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater. He wants to see the stage where his father Bradley gave his last performance as the frontman of Sublime, then an up-and-coming group on the SoCal party-rock circuit, thrilling fans with their beachfront blend of punk, rap and reggae. The next morning, on May 25, 1996, Bradley’s bandmates found him dead of a heroin overdose in a nearby motel, leaving his wife of a week and 11-month-old Jakob.

Now 28, the same age as his father when he took his final bow, Jakob is making his official debut as Sublime’s new singer at Coachella on Saturday, April 13. He’ll be joined by original members Bud Gough and Eric Wilson, whom Bradley tapped to be his son's co-godfathers. “This is my family,” Jakob tells PEOPLE. “I consider the bandmates in Sublime my uncles.”

<p>Joshua Kim</p> Bud Gaugh, Jakob Nowell and Eric Wilson of Sublime in April 2024

Joshua Kim

Bud Gaugh, Jakob Nowell and Eric Wilson of Sublime in April 2024

For Jakob, it’s a matter of unfinished family business. The festival, which regularly draws upwards of a 100,000 per day to the California desert, is magnitudes bigger than Bradley’s last gig with the band at the 900-seat Phoenix. He died just two months before Sublime’s breakthrough self-titled album was released, sending hits like “Santeria,” “Wrong Way” and “What I Got” into the Top 40 and onto MTV’s airwaves.

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Many who bought the multi million-seller had no idea that the singer had died, and that one of the best-selling alt-rock acts of the year no longer existed.

Jakob’s decision to step up to the mic was as much for his father — who never had the chance to enjoy his hard-won star status — as it was for fans. “There's been people asking me to join the band since I was 12, and it was something I never wanted to do,” he explains. “I’d always told myself I’d never do the Sublime thing.”

For the last 10 years he’s kept busy with his own music, including a lengthy stint with the band Law. In the time honored tradition of struggling young musicians, Jakob criss-crossed the country in a cramped mini-van and faced down the occasional unscrupulous promoter. “A lot of people think there was a nepotism thing at play for me and it was easy to snap my fingers and make [a music career] happen,” he says. “But I’ve put in my work. I've played on the road, I’ve slept on floors. I enjoy that, too. I like the pirate lifestyle!”

Since departing Law in 2021, he’s thrown himself into his latest project, Jakobs Castle. He describes it as “beach-y internet music” in the vein of digital-forward bands like Gorillaz (an early favorite) and 100 Gecs, with a touch of Nine Inch Nails and Outkast thrown in for good measure. In other words, it doesn’t exactly ape Sublime.

“I felt thrust into SoCal scene, but I’m also part of the extremely online Gen-Z world,” he explains. “Trying to merge the two is my way of coming into my own in an organic and genuine way.” The decade spent finding his voice on the road and in the studio made him reluctant to sing the songs of the father he never knew. “It's emotionally complicated. I didn’t want to step on the toes of a passed family member.”

<p>Courtesy Jakob Nowell</p> Bradley Nowell of Sublime with his newborn son Jakob in 1995

Courtesy Jakob Nowell

Bradley Nowell of Sublime with his newborn son Jakob in 1995

Though Sublime officially dissolved in the wake of Bradley’s death, Gaugh and Wilson assembled a group with singer and guitarist Rome Ramirez in 2009 called Sublime with Rome. Falling somewhere between tribute act and distinct musical entity, the blurred line has made Jakob increasingly uneasy, particularly as fans began to mistake this outfit for the real thing. “I’ll bump into people who tell me, ‘Dude, I saw Sublime play in 2014!’ And I’m like, ‘No you didn’t…’ It’s very weird. There's only one band called Sublime and they stopped performing when my father died in ’96.”

Despite this too-common misconception, the surviving bandmates have long made it clear that they only way they’d consider formally resurrecting Sublime was if Jakob agreed to be a part of it. Tentative talks of a reunion had been brewing for the better part of a year, but the turning point came when he dropped in at the Phoenix Theater while on tour last fall. Since getting crowded out of his father’s gravesite by fans and tourists, the empty stage has become his preferred place to mourn.

While there, he stumbled on an addiction recovery meeting. The attendees were fighting the war that Bradley had lost just a short distance away. It was a war Jakob had also fought — and won. He introduced himself (blowing the minds of the local punk-rockers in the group) and shared his struggles with substance abuse that began when he was 12, growing up with his mother Troy and stepfather in San Diego.

“They’re amazing people and we have a great relationship nowadays, but it was hard living with them. There was lots of chaos and craziness. It was a big party and drug household,” he recalls. The drugs became a point of connection with his late father, helping him understand his life and death. “There were times when I was almost dead on the bathroom floor, throwing up blood and having seizures.”

Seven years sober, he offered his family history as an example of both caution and hope to the assembled crowd. “They were all young, cool-looking people; the kind of people my dad's music would have reached in his era, and I hope my music will reach in this era.” he says. “It just felt like, ‘My people are here trying to save their lives and not die from drugs in the same place where my dad died from drugs.’”

The chance to exorcize the defining tragedy of his life, in the very spot where it occurred, proved the ultimate catharsis. “It was like this multi-generational saga was unfolding.” To Jakob, an avid reader who once planned to teach English Lit, it all appeared more than mere coincidence. His age, the occasion, the location, and even the name of the venue seemed packed with symbolism. “A Phoenix is a rebirth from the ashes,” he explains. The signs were impossible for him to ignore. The next day he called his manager: The Sublime reunion was officially on.

<p>Pete Santos; Steve Eichner/Getty Images</p> left: Jakob Nowell in March 2024; right: Bradley Nowell of Sublime performs at Wetlands Preserve nightclub, New York, New York in April 1996

Pete Santos; Steve Eichner/Getty Images

left: Jakob Nowell in March 2024; right: Bradley Nowell of Sublime performs at Wetlands Preserve nightclub, New York, New York in April 1996

For a low-pressure trial run, they performed a brief set at an L.A. fundraiser in December to raise money for the medical fees of Paul “H.R.” Hudson of the pioneering D.C. punk band Bad Brains. Jakob admits that the first time they played in rehearsals was “weird” for all concerned — especially his bandmates. “Imagine your dead best friend’s kid is there! It was emotional for them and for me.”

The experience reminded drummer Bud Gough of the band’s early days in the garage at Bradley’s parents’ house. “Closing my eyes, the hair on my arms and neck began to stand up and overwhelming emotions welled up inside,” he tells PEOPLE in an email interview. “It was hard to keep my composure. The tears, the sadness, the pain, then the flush of love.” He was taken aback by the physical mannerisms that echoed between father and son. “Jakob's personality is different but there are keen similarities that pop up out of nowhere,” Gough adds. “The way they stand, how he looks back, is very similar. Brad was in the room with us! Incredible!”

There was an added layer of new guy nerves for Jakob as he labored to learn the guitar parts. (The “Santeria” solo is particularly tricky.) But his anxiety was tempered by wielding his father’s customized brown six-string used on many of the original recordings. To Jakob, a fan of mythology, the instrument has become his own personal Excalibur. “I call it ‘The Rectifier.’ “It's my heirloom — the family ax.”

The first show was a success. Perfectionist Jakob fretted about some of the “messy” moments until he got a call from his new bandmates. “They were like, ‘Dude, that show was sick!’ They were almost stoked about how raw and punk rock it was. They're like, ‘That's Sublime, dude!’ Once we realized we had fun doing it, we're like, 'Why not keep doing it?'”

Their plan is to play some festivals and a handful of gigs each year for the foreseeable future. While Jakob released his debut album with Jakobs Castle, Enter: The Castle, on April 12, he says that he won’t be writing any new songs to record with Sublime. Instead, he’s savoring the chance to get to know his father through his music.

“When we create art, it contains pieces of you,” he says. “Recurring themes, lyrical inside jokes. Those things create this map of a person you've never met. I think stepping into this role has given me a lot of closure. The story feels complete.”

For more from Jakob Nowell, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.

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Read the original article on People.