Badfish: a tribute

Sometime before noon on May 25, 1996, Brad Nowell ingested a quantity of heroin that his body could not survive. The band he sang and played guitar for, Sublime, was two months away from releasing its third LP. Nowell’s surviving bandmates decided to call it Sublime, and it would go on to sell over five million copies in the U.S. alone. Several of its songs, including  “What I Got” and “Santeria,” would receive heavy radio play for the next 17 years and counting. Sublime the band, however, was dead with its frontman.

Today, Scott Begin plays drums for a Sublime cover band. He’s a handsome, short-haired white guy who looks eight years younger than he is (35). The muscles in his arms reveal which instrument he plays. He told me to meet him outside Blue State before the show; he wanted an Americano.

His band is called Badfish, and it’s the biggest Sublime cover band in the U.S., according to him and Google. The bassist, Joel Hanks, and Scott conceived Badfish in 2001, while they were juniors at the University of Rhode Island. They met in a computer science class.

“The name was the one thing Joel and I agreed on in the beginning,” said Scott as he paid for his Americano. “That song defines Sublime.” After the barista handed Scott his change, he dumped the whole handful into the tip cup. It looked like at least $1.75. I couldn’t tell whether it was an over-the-top performance of charitableness in front of a journalist or a quirky habit. We went next door to Au Bon Pain to talk because all the seats in Blue State were occupied at 10:30 p.m. on this Friday night.

“I don’t know how much it was a calculated decision,” Scott said, regarding his band’s decision to “go pro” and play Sublime songs full time. That was back in 2003. “It was a big risk at the time. But with hindsight, it was a good call.”

Scott, Joel, and Pat Downes, Badfish’s lead singer and guitarist, live in Rhode Island, where they grew up. Dorian Duffy, who plays keyboards and rhythm guitar, is the outlier: he’s still in his 20s, lives in New York City, and is unmarried. “Our old singer, Dave, left in 2007 to start a family,” said Scott. Joel and Scott are married with kids, and Pat is recently married.

They support their families by participating in national tours that can be grueling. When the band arrived at Toad’s last Friday, it was coming off three packed weeks of shows. In one week, the four traveled from Anaheim to Cambridge, taking turns driving, and playing shows six out of the seven nights. The band makes it to Toad’s something like five times a year, according to Scott.

One thing that makes their lives a bit easier, as opposed to those in bands that cover, say, KISS or Guns ’N Roses, is that there’s no costuming or making-up involved whatever. The original three, from Long Beach, Calif., never tried to cultivate a signature look, dance style, etc., which means Badfish’s job is to play the original songs as accurately as possible. But copying the sound sometimes means appropriating the gestures. “One thing Bud [Gaugh, Sublime’s drummer] does, if you watch footage of them live,” said Scott, “is he raises his left arm way up before hitting the snare, and I find myself replicating that motion. When I do that, the rhythm is closer to the original, because the mechanical part of it is the same as his.”

During the show, it becomes evident that this, and whatever else the band does to practice, works dramatically well. You can see it in YouTube videos of them too. They play everything in the originals down to the grace notes in the bass part. Two minutes into their performance of “Wrong Way,” a trombone comes out of nowhere for a perfect reproduction of the solo. That’s not to say they don’t add their own touch. Toward the end of “Doin’ Time,” the hip-hop-sounding song based around a vibraphone (or glockenspiel?) sample, the band breaks into double time. They also like to morph the slow, melancholy “Pawn Shop” into an extended jam.

What’s as interesting as the band’s performance is the crowd it draws. Before Badfish comes on, my friend and I are in the middle toward the back. The band emerges and takes up their instru-ments. They open with the lesser-known “Garden Grove,” the first song on Sublime. Almost right away, the guys surrounding my friend and me start moshing wildly.  We manage to dodge their aimless arm-heaving, but soon a wide circle in the crowd is pushed open around us, and for a moment we are the most vulnerable targets in the club.

We duck, dive, and dodge, and manage to avoid harm. We hurry out to the where the bar and tables are and get a better look at the audience. The people in this tamer section seem all to be searching for other people. The music is too loud for me to hear if any of them say “excuse me” before they spill my drink. One guy’s wearing a Tribe Called Quest T-shirt—right era, wrong genre, guy. “Garden Grove” is still playing, and everyone seems to know all the lyrics. When the singer hits the line, “Finding roaches in the pot,” you can’t hear him over the fans’ sing-along.

The rest of the show, I’m amazed by the amount of Sublime lyrics this crowd of 300-400 knows by heart. On the verses of even the most obscure tracks Badfish play there’s an audible backing chorus. Sublime is a popular band, for sure, but it was a surprise to see this many fans this devoted. This is part of the point of going to a concert, I guess: to commune with the fellow fans who you know exist based on reports of the band’s popularity, but who exist only anonymously. Here, at Toad’s, we’re acting out our community by doing the one thing that links us: loving Sublime.

Except it’s not Sublime we’re all loving. And it’s not quite Badfish either; it’s a bit more complicated. Beyond the offer that every cover band implicitly makes to its audience—you can pretend we’re the real thing, if you like—Badfish is performing as Sublime in a particular sense. Sublime broke up just before they became really popular, before their big album came out, and before they could perform Sublime all over the world. Badfish are filling the space left after the premature end of Sublime and its leader; they are creating the stage life of Sublime themselves.

Heads, shoulders, and outstretched arms that fan along with the beat obstruct my view of the stage. Scott is keeping rhythm off to the right, the farthest from where I stand. He and the kit he’s seated at are almost entirely invisible to me. The only part of him I see is his left hand, which he occasionally thrusts upward before swiftly striking the snare.

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