Badfish: Good Music

California Ska act Sublime had a mercurial career, cut short by front man Bradley Nowell's early death at the hands of Mr. Brownstone. However, short though it may have been, Sublime's career turned out two of the more iconic albums of the 1990's in “40oz to Freedom” and their final, self titled release.

Despite nearly a quarter century passing since Nowell's death, Sublime has endured and continues to be a staple on college radio stations throughout the nation. Which is exactly how the band's music came to spawn Badfish.

“We were in college when we started the band,” explained Badfish drummer Scott Begin in a phone interview. “Sublime's legacy was still very fresh. That music kind of became a bit of a soundtrack to those college years to us. I met (bassist) Joel Hanks in school, and the idea just sort of took off from there.”

Begin and Hanks soon added Ben Schomp and Dave Ladin, and Badfish was born.

“It sort of took on a life of its own over the years,” Begin said. “We finished up school and pursued it even more seriously and it kind of snowballed.”

The band has evolved over the years—Ladin and Schomp have been replaced by current keyboardist Dorian Duffy and front man Pat Downes—but the sound has stayed the same. Playing exclusively Sublime tracks, Badfish (named after a track from “40oz to Freedom”) has grown in surprising levels of popularity: the act regularly books 150-200 dates a year, and sell out shows around the country.

“I think it makes a little sense now,” Begin said, referring to the band's popularity. “Back in 2001 when we started, I probably didn't expect that it would be successful. I figured, you can play in a tribute band and work your 9-5 and that's that. I didn't expect that we'd be touring the country and playing six days a week.”

One major difference between Badfish and most every other tribute act you'll see is that Badfish doesn't go out of their way to emulate the look of their source band. They've tapped into the core feeling of the band, without crossing over into impersonation or kitsch. Or, as they say on the band's Facebook page, “(We) perform not as Sublime would have or did, but as Badfish does.” And while keeping their own look rather than adopting Sublime's was a conscious decision, Begin admits that it might be hard to tell the difference.

“There was never really a serious discussion about emulating the appearance of Sublime,” he said. “One can argue that Sublime has a look—that SoCal style or whatever—but it's not like they're KISS. They didn't go out of their way to dress a certain way. We're just a bunch of guys playing in our t-shirts and jeans, just like they did.”

The biggest drawback of covering a defunct band, of course, is the finite material. There's never going to be another Sublime album, so there's never going to be a fresh Badfish set. But for people like Begin and those college kids all over the country, the appeal never wears thin.

“I was just thinking about that the other day,” Begin said. “We were in the bus and one of the guys put in (Sublime's) latest live CD. I don't go out of my way to listen to them now because we play them so much, but we listened to that CD the whole way to our next stop. They had something so unique. It's easy to lose sight of that, but its nice to go back and have a little refresher session.”

Originally appeared in Cityview January 29, 2014