LAW's Jakob Nowell Discusses New Music, Overcoming Addiction and Father Bradley's Legacy

John Gilhooley


The Nowell Family Foundation is raising funds for recovery facility Bradley’s House.

Following in the footsteps of a famous parent can be difficult, but the path can be even tougher when one also battles the demon of addiction. Jakob Nowell, frontman for Long Beach, Calif., hard rockers LAW, understands this well. It is not so much that he is living in the shadow of his father, late singer Bradley Nowell from Sublime. In fact, he feels blessed that interest in his heritage is helping him build a buzz for his own music. But his father struggled with heroin addiction and succumbed to it in 1996, not quite a year after Jakob's birth and shortly before the release of the band’s third album, Sublime, which ironically became a multiplatinum hit. Later on, Jakob battled the bottle for nearly a decade.

Two years sober next month, and in the midst of a personal creative renaissance, 23-year-old Jakob is embracing his music destiny and pushing forward full steam ahead. LAW's first full-length album, There and Back Again, released Nov. 23, takes off from the reggae-punk sounds that Sublime thrived on -- lead single “Cold,” in particular, with its Game of Thrones-on-a-budget satire video. But the band further injects a ’90s hard-rock sound and other influences into its milieu. While Jakob often sounds like his father, on the track “Kaizoku,” he invokes Rush frontman Geddy Lee. At the tail end of “Doses of Psychosis,” guitarist Aidan Palacios whips out the riff to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” for a few seconds, and his melodic guitar solo to “Logun’s Run” is straight out of the ’80s. Even though its sound isn't as metallic, the members of LAW -- whose ranks also include the solid rhythm section of bassist Logun Spellacy and drummer Nick Aguilar -- are fans of ’90s outfits like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, System of a Down and Jakob’s favorite group, Tool.

The first two LAW EPs, Mild Lawtism and Toxic, found the band exploring a similar reggae-inflected rock style like Sublime, because it felt that was what it was expected to pursue. “I didn't realize I could play the music I wanted to,” admits Jakob. “Once I got a little bit more bold, I wanted to branch out. So we're trying to ease people into that process.”

Jakob appreciates the fact that fans of his band generally know about them because of his father, and he hopes that they will stick with LAW through its musical evolution. He knows success is not guaranteed just because of lineage, and he and his bandmates are willing to work hard to make it. (Before press time, they made plans to record with producer Steve Albini [Nirvana, Cheap Trick].)

“At the end of the day, we really want to play the music that we like,” stresses Jakob. “It's becoming more heavy. Many of the songs on this album were written years ago, and we've been sitting on them for so long. It's a natural progression from our old style, and most of the newer songs that are unreleased, about 30 of them, are a little bit heavier. But we still really like to have that pop sensibility without sacrificing the riffs and realness that make a rock band.”

LAW’s members have been playing music since they were in middle school. Jakob’s paternal grandfather taught him the basics of guitar. Early footage of the band as a trio playing four years ago at the 25th-anniversary show for Skunk Records -- the label that Bradley founded to help Sublime gain extra attention as a signed band -- proved that his son was already a natural in front of a crowd.

“I’ve always really liked the stage,” declares Jakob. “Being an entertainer and a performer has always really resonated with me. I think there's a lot that one could do onstage that they can't do off of it. Personally, I feel more comfortable up there in front of an audience than I do on the ground floor talking to people.”

When asked about which songs on There and Back Again are the most personal, Jakob, who is LAW’s lyricist, chooses “Autumn Light” and “Blinking.” The former song is very influenced by his upbringing. “It's from the perspective of driving back home to go to San Diego, which is where I grew up, and the anxiety and fear that come along,” he explains.

“Blinking” was written when the current four-piece lineup was jelling. “It was about the struggle we had trying to get along and getting to know each other,” he says. “It's very much about that inner band turmoil and personal stuff. We're four best friends. We spend a lot of time together. There are times we don't get along. There are times when we have a great time and hang out. But we're all in our young twenties. We're growing up and learning about ourselves. A lot of our music comes to reflect that.”

“Doses of Psychosis” was written while Jakob was in rehab. He had his guitar with him and wrote a lot to pass the time. “A lot of that [song] is just fun wordplay and lyricism,” he remarks. “I think what inspired it mostly was the feeling of being trapped. Drawing from other times in my life. Feeling trapped like you can't progress out of your nature.”

Bradley developed a fatal addiction to heroin that resulted in an overdose when he was 28, even after he had reportedly become clean following his son's birth. That struggle and Jakob's own are chronicled in the recent documentary The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins. Jakob began drinking at age 12 and struggled with alcohol for almost 10 years. Bradley’s close friend Zalkins, whose 17-year battle with opioid painkillers is the focus of the documentary, helped Jakob overcome his unhealthy dependency.

For someone who has been through as much as Jakob has, he comes across as confident, peaceful and open to a dialogue about his journey. “Life is very different, and it's so much fucking better,” he reveals. “But for the longest time, it was a struggle. It was fun. A lot of people say this -- it was fun, and then it was fun with problems, then it was just problems.”

What prompted Jakob’s slide into drinking was wanting to experience and understand the lifestyle that people like his father and Jimi Hendrix had indulged in. “Part of it was that cool allure of everything that a rock band brings,” he recalls. “I've always wanted to do that.”

When Jakob was drinking heavily, he says he would hang out with people around his age. "We were trying to make music,” he says. “Everyone's inevitably too fucked up to really do it, and everyone's wondering, 'Why can't we make it?' It's almost like people have it backward. Before you could get famous and then addicted to the drugs and alcohol. Now people do it the other way around.”

In the end, he didn’t want to become a cliché: yet another rock musician to succumb to drugs and alcohol. “It's played out,” he concludes. “You still see it with these young rap dudes now, who are basically the new rock stars. In the ’90s, they died at 27. Now they're dying at 17.”

One imagines that Jakob's mother, Troy Dendekker, who has remarried since Bradley's death, must have been distraught seeing her son start down the path that had claimed his father. “My mom's just always been very supportive,” explains Jakob. “She chooses love rather than to be harsh. She's always had my back no matter what. I think she just was super grateful that I'm in a better spot now.”

His family started the Nowell Family Foundation in 2017 to offer financial aid to members of the music community seeking treatment for addiction. They are currently raising funds for Bradley’s House, a planned six-bed recovery facility to provide treatment for those in the industry struggling with opiate addiction and lacking the means to get help. Kellie Nowell, Jakob's aunt, is executive director of the foundation.

“Right now, we're putting on benefit shows, and I'm trying to raise awareness,” says Jakob. “The Sublime cover band Burritos is playing a benefit show on the 22nd of this month at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa [Calif.]. There's a lot of stuff going on right now, where we're trying to raise awareness for the organization.” He says they are close to meeting their fundraising goals and are scouting for the right Southern California location. Hopefully, Bradley's House will open in 2019.

Jakob also has a vision of integrating music into the center. While he was in treatment, music brightened his time there. He recalls meeting a young rapper who had come in to kick heroin. The two of them spontaneously jammed outside of the facility; Jakob playing guitar, his newfound friend singing and rapping. They found joy in their rapport.

“He was like, 'Man, I haven't fucking smiled in so long. For five minutes, you made me forget that I'm kicking heroin right now,’ ” recalls Jakob. “I never thought that could be possible. And it made me think that this stuff, even if it helps just a little bit, alleviating any of that pain is so huge. A big idea that I want to do with Bradley's House is to have an in-house engineer and have set times for the client to be able to make music and to have stuff that they recorded through their experiences there and take it home with them on a CD or an MP3.”

Jakob hopes that LAW can really ramp up its career where it can tour and play music year ’round, and have a positive impact on its fans. He believes rock is still very much an active musical force, given the recent success of acts like Greta Van Fleet. “We truly believe that we have a unique take on the rock formula,” he says of LAW. “Nothing groundbreaking or that’s going to change the formula, but we have our own specific take. We believe that there are people out there who still want to hear genuine rock music.

“Our hope is to produce the kind of cinematic experience that'll stick with them,” he continues. “My ultimate hope is to make music that can help people through hard times. The main thing that I love hearing when people come up to me and mention my father is they'll tell me that his music helps them through hard times when they feel alone and they have no recourse. If our music could do that for people, that would be amazing.”