This summer and fall, as live music began to return following a year and a half break amidst pandemic, Sublime with Rome teamed with Dirty Heads for the “High and Mighty” tour, one celebrating the shared array of sounds ranging anywhere from reggae to rap that makes each act impossible to pigeonhole.
There was a lot to celebrate. 2021 marked 25 years since the release of Sublime’s breakthrough self-titled album, one which has sold in excess of six million copies in America thanks to the success of massive 90s singles like “Santeria” and “What I Got.”
Sublime came to an end following the death of founding singer Bradley Nowell in 1996. Since 2009, singer/guitarist Rome Ramirez has performed alongside original Sublime bassist Eric Wilson in Sublime with Rome, a once unthinkable 12 year span that now nearly doubles Sublime’s entire initial run.
It’s a stretch that’s seen the group reach a new generation of fans over the course of countless live performances, moving to larger outdoor venues and headlining festival slots, a growth that can be attributed to the group’s respectful nod toward nostalgia while pushing the music forward through new recordings over the course of three studio albums worth of original material with Ramirez.
The bond between Sublime and Dirty Heads is a strong one, with both Ramirez and Dirty Heads vocalist/guitarist Jared Watson referring to one another as family. Sublime was also a major influence on Dirty Heads upon their formation in 2006, several years before Sublime with Rome would even form.
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“When we started, we were maybe one or two albums in and having success – and Rome was living in a van outside of our studio. Literally living in his van. And we became friends. So it’s been this family over the last decade or more,” explained Watson as the “High and Mighty” tour wrapped up this fall. “So to go back out with people that you’re so close to, it just takes that pressure off even more. Everything was lined up perfectly to have this really epic summer tour.”
“We’ve known the Dirty Heads for 15 years. So it’s been just like family. We always joked that it would’ve been crazy to come out of this a bit and go on the road with another band. So the fact that we’re able to have that opportunity and just roll that into a really big tour like the ‘High and Mighty’ tour, and have the opportunity to do it with our brothers in the Dirty Heads, it just couldn’t have been a better situation. It really couldn’t,” added Ramirez. “It’s just this whole synergy between band to band and audience back to band – it’s like a triangle of love, you know?”
I spoke with Rome Ramirez and Jared Watson about returning to the road following a year and a half break, the importance of live performance and more. Highlights of two separate phone conversations lightly edited for length and clarity, recorded prior to the arrival of the Omicron variant, follow below.
I caught you guys in Chicago at Riot Fest. And I only was able to jot down part of the quote but on stage, Rome, you said something along the lines of, “I swear to god we will never take this for granted. We sat on our asses for one year.” After the last year and a half, what was it like to get back on stage in front of actual fans?
ROME RAMIREZ: Well, I absolutely mean that. And I say some form of that every night to the audience – because it is true. It’s been an absolute blessing to be able to get back and do this. I mean, put aside the fact that this is our careers or whatever, but this is how we’ve really made our whole lives – surrounded by this community of people. It’s a huge family that we have. So the fact that we weren’t really allowed to go back and play music and connect with fans the way we used to was really tough. And I don’t think we really realized that until we got back on the road and saw, honestly, how much fun we were having. It gave a whole new purpose to it. It was really like the resurgence of a whole economy. It’s kind of crazy.
JARED WATSON: The energy is different this time around. You can feel it. Not only us as musicians – touring musicians for the last 16 years – but just the fans and everybody. The energy is different at the shows. You’d think it might be more pressure but I actually think it’s less. Because everybody is just so excited to be out, you know?
We had been touring straight for about 16 or 17 years. And we never took a break. We just never took a break. I mean, in this job, you have breaks, right? You have three month breaks or four months or half a year sometimes. But we had never taken a break for a year or two. And not to be inconsiderate to the situation, but I think we needed it. We didn’t know we needed it.
It was nice to be home and kind of see what we built and enjoy the fruits of our labor and be with our families and stuff. And really kind of look at the body of work that we had or what we want to do with the live show or what I want to do with my vocals. It just kind of gave me a nice new perspective on how lucky I am. And how much I do appreciate my job. And what I want to dive into more. And how can I make it better. And sometimes [to do that] you’ve got to step away. But when your trajectory keeps going up year by year and you keep getting bigger and bigger, you don’t want to stop that. So it was like this forced break that we actually kind of needed.
ROME: Everybody needs an opportunity to kind of take a step back and look at everything from a macro perspective.
Well, this odd touring experience of 2021… What was it like having shared that with Sublime with Rome in particular as I know you guys all go back a ways?
JARED: That was another reason why there was a lot less pressure. Because it’s like a family, right?
When we started, we were maybe one or two albums in and having success – and Rome was living in a van outside of our studio. Literally living in his van. And we became friends. So it’s been this family over the last decade or more. So to go back out with people that you’re so close to, it just takes that pressure off even more. Everything was lined up perfectly to have this really epic summer tour.
What was it like for you, Rome, being on the road this year with Dirty Heads?
ROME: We’ve known the Dirty Heads for 15 years. So it’s been just like family. We always joked that it would’ve been crazy to come out of this a bit and go on the road with another band. So the fact that we’re able to have that opportunity and just roll that into a really big tour like the “High and Mighty” tour, and have the opportunity to do it with our brothers in the Dirty Heads, it just couldn’t have been a better situation. It really couldn’t. Because we also have the same fanbase. We respect each other. It’s just this whole synergy between band to band and audience back to band – it’s like a triangle of love, you know?
Rewind all the way back to 2006 as Dirty Heads get rolling… How big of an influence was Sublime at that point?
JARED: Arguably the biggest. I think between Sublime and Beastie Boys and maybe a couple of other hip-hop groups. They were the two big bands that showed us that you could blend genres in a way that wasn’t messy and wasn’t confusing. And that there was a freedom to music – that you didn’t have to be just a hip-hop act or just a reggae act or just a rock act. You didn’t have to be one thing – there was a way to merge it. We loved, I think, the originality of Sublime and the Beastie Boys. You can’t copy them, right? There’s bands out there that you can copy. And the industry does it. The gatekeepers look for it. A band comes out and gets successful and then sometimes a year later there’s another band that sounds eerily similar to that band! But those two bands are so unique.
We wanted to not necessarily steal or copy what they were doing but we wanted to take what we loved and make it our own original sound. And I think that’s one of our biggest strengths. And, at times, it’s probably been a con. Because sometimes the industry had no idea where to put us. They had no idea what to do with us. But, over our career, I can proudly say that I don’t think there’s any other bands that sound like us.
I think people see that their favorite artist is back on the road and tend to generally take for granted just how difficult the situation was in 2020 and 2021 for a lot of artists without that ability to tour. In an era where it’s already difficult to monetize recorded music, just how important has touring become?
ROME: It’s always been important to be honest with you. As far as the artists go, we’ve never really made a substantial amount of money from the recordings even with record labels. So touring and merchandising has always been at the forefront of where the bulk of the money is being made.
But I will tell you, on the opposite end of that, for these artists that maybe have not had the opportunity to go around and tour from city to city or state to state, I’ve seen a big uptick in the number of artists who have learned how to build communities online and are able to monetize their time with their fans online versus in person. They each have their pros and cons. But I’ve just been seeing a lot more young creatives – and not just video gamers but musicians and artists and comedians, all kinds of different artists – everyone’s starting to figure out a way to build a community online and then learn how to respectfully monetize that.
I think it’s hard for people to fully grasp just how difficult it is to be on tour right now – how quickly the situation turns dire if you have to cancel shows. You have to be more careful and you have to be more concerned. What is it like out there right now to be on tour as a musician during a pandemic?
JARED: The biggest difference is the days off. And the lack of kind of the social aspect of travelling the world and making friends. And seeing those friends in the cities that you go to and going to those restaurants that you want to go to – those things that you look forward to on the road that kind of keep you sane.
In no way are we bummed. We’re super glad to be out here. It’s not that I’m complaining about it. But that is the one thing we are being faced with [that’s different]. There’s no guests backstage. And we really aren’t going out on days off. The shows, once we’re on stage, are the same. But it’s a ghost town backstage. Where usually it’s filled with friends and families and barbecues and things like that, now it’s just the three bands hanging out watching movies. It’s a lot more mellow. And that’s cool, that’s fine. We understand the situation. But it is a little bit more mellow. There’s a little less exploration of the cities that you like to explore.
Sublime’s original incarnation lasted for about eight years. Sublime with Rome has now been going even longer, about 12 years. How important would it start to become to kind of build on the band’s tradition while putting your own spin upon it through the creation of new material – to embrace that nostalgia fans have while pushing the musical experience forward? How did you go about that?
ROME: [Original Sublime bassist] Eric [Wilson] just mentioned that the other day. He kind of looked at the same thing. We’ve been a band longer than Sublime. From a fan standpoint, I can’t tell you how that feels – because that feels incredibly strange. But, at the same time, it’s really hard to be in any band for 12 years. In any band! Let alone a band that has such a rich legacy like Sublime does – the tragic loss of that, then the reformation, the addition of me. It’s so hard to be able to do this for a lot of bands. And I think we’re very fortunate in the way that we’ve been able to not only maintain the band but grow the band.
Honestly, it’s just kind of being honest from within. Honesty is the best policy when it comes to writing music. When you try and get smart with stuff, it gets a little bit gimmicky. So we’ve just kind of learned that the best way to do things is from the heart. We’re going to have some respect and integrity for the band. We just kind of focus on the influences that we have now while being as honest as we can with the songwriting. That’s how we look at it in terms of writing new music. We’re not trying to outdo the old music or anything like that – it’s just trying to keep the message of being honest out there while challenging listeners with these sounds.