After Bradley Nowell’s death in 1996 and the subsequent disbanding of Sublime, the reggae-rock genre continued to flourish, but it struggled to produce many standout bands.
With their surprise 2008 hit, “Lay Me Down,” The Dirty Heads seemed to be the perfect act to fill the void. Hailing from Southern California, the band fuses elements of reggae, hip-hop and punk into a mellow, melodic style that is equal parts Kingston and Compton.
We recently caught up with guitarist Dustin Bushnell to discuss the band’s breakout hit, upcoming album and touring with Sublime with Rome.
GUITAR WORLD: How did you get into playing guitar?
When I was about 10 or 11, I got drums for Christmas, and my brother got a guitar. We would just jam like that for a while, and we just slowly switched. He started playing drums more, and I started playing guitar more. One day we were like, “Let’s just switch.” So I ended up playing guitar.
Do you remember what your first guitar was?
My first guitar was a bright fluorescent green Ibanez. I don’t remember the type of Ibanez, I just remember it was the most disgusting bright fluorescent green color ever.
How has growing up in Southern California influenced your playing?
I think anywhere you live is going to affect who you are — your vibe and everything. Living by the beach and having that laid-back beach mentality definitely had somewhat of an effect on our music. I think that’s true for anyone. Anywhere you live, you’re going to become a product of your environment.
What other guitarists do you look to for inspiration?
I love Stevie Ray Vaughan. I love listening to him play guitar. He was probably one of the ones that really got me wanting to play guitar. Obviously, Jimi Hendrix is amazing, and so is Led Zeppelin. I definitely grew up listening to a lot of classic rock and blues.
What was it like to have such a breakout hit with “Lay Me Down,” especially considering it wasn’t even originally part of an album?
It was awesome. It definitely surprised us. It was funny, because we spent a year in the studio recording this album with producers, and this big budget and every toy we wanted in the world to record this album. It was doing alright, but we didn’t have any radio love or anything. Then we played this song in my backyard with two acoustic guitars, and it became a Number 1 single. We were like, “Are you kidding me?” It was hilarious. When we found out that song was blowing up, it was definitely a good feeling and kind of funny at the same time.
Are you sick of it, or do you embrace it?
I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it, because it’s the song that helped us get to that next step. We were in a lull, and that song definitely moved us forward. The fan base has tripled since that song, and the shows have gotten better, so I’ll take it for what it is. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of hearing it.
What’s it been like to tour with Sublime with Rome? Sublime is easily one of the most influential bands in the genre.
It was awesome. Growing up, they were definitely one of my biggest influences. I think I spent three or four years of my life listening to nothing else but them. Now they have Rome singing for them, and he was a buddy of ours even before any of the Sublime stuff went down. It was great to not only be on tour with Sublime, which I thought would never happen, but also to have one of our buddies singing for them.
There aren’t a lot of mainstream, successful bands in your genre. How does it feel to be one of its main flag-bearers?
We definitely don’t want to say that, and we don’t necessarily consider ourselves in that exact genre, really. We’re a reggae-rock band, and we have aspects of that music, but we’re not trying to be classified as only that.
Tell us a little about the new album you’re working on.
We’re in El Paso right now at Sonic Ranch working on the new album. This place is amazing. We actually get to live out here for a couple of weeks and just work on the new record. We’re excited to get some new music out. It’s been a long time, and I’m sure the fans are ready. We’re going to start playing some new songs on this upcoming tour and start trying them out. We hope everyone is excited for it.
How does it compare to Any Port in a Storm?
I feel like we might’ve just figured out who we are a lot more. The first album was our first time in a big studio with producers and everything, so we just kind of did everything we wanted to. It was cool, and we had fun, but I think we’re more zoned in now, and we’ve figured out our sound. We’ve been playing live, and the music has grown, so I think you’re going to hear a more cohesive album.
You mentioned all the toys available to you in the studio. What’s your favorite piece of gear right now?
My Ernie Ball Reflex when I’m playing electric and my Taylor T5 when I’m playing acoustic. I started out playing only acoustic live, but over the last few years it’s become about half and half. I just got this thing called the Alesis iO Dock, and it’s for the iPad. You slide your iPad right into it, and you can plug in microphones, guitars and MIDI, and you record straight onto your iPad. Then you can import that into your ProTools on your computer. It’s made recording the easiest thing in the world. I wanted to be able to record ideas on the bus with the upcoming tour and everything.
How do you like sharing vocal duties with singer Jared Watson?
It’s good to have another person to write with and bounce ideas off of. If we have writer’s block, one of us will come up with something and we can work off of that, so it’s nice. I like having someone else to take the pressure off, too.
How does the songwriting process work between the two of you? Is there a dominant songwriter?
We definitely work together. If one of us is singing the chorus, the other one is there helping figure things out. It’s a team effort. Jared, our percussionist, Jon, and I all went to high school together and knew each other even before that. We’ve been playing music with each other, not only with The Dirty Heads, but just for fun for forever.
Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you knew when you started playing guitar?
It gets more fun as you go. Don’t give up just because the first couple of months suck. Plus, the girls get easier once you get good. So if you don’t even want to play guitar, just learn how anyway.