Editor’s Note: When I was about six years old, I remember walking into my sister’s music poster-clad room, seeing the number “311” on the wall and wondering why 911 would ever bother changing its phone number (this was for emergencies!) I later came to find out that 311 was an innovative band that would pioneer their own fusion of rock and reggae. I’ve seen them perform live many times to date, and wrote down in my childhood diary that one day I’d interview Nick Hexum, the lead singer. This was another full-circle moment for me as a music fan and a writer.
This article originally was featured in the July 16, 2014 edition of The Aquarian Weekly.
311 easily can be classified as a staple in the “Most Liked” category of our generation’s yearbook of music. What’s not to like? They created a cocktail of experiential music, rooted in rock-rap-reggae and steady grooves.
Vocalist and guitarist Nick Hexum, vocalist and DJ Doug “SA” Martinez, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Willis, guitarist Tim Mahoney and drummer Chad Sexton pioneered a movement after finalizing their lineup in 1991 in Omaha, Nebraska.
Building a loyal and loving following, Grassroots style, the band explored a unique method of fusing instrumental sounds and vocals that remain on a pedestal all 311’s own.
Tracks like 1996’s “Down” and “All Mixed Up” brought 311 to the masses, garnering the number one and two spots, respectively, on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. But perhaps more telling of 311’s crowd power is their longstanding flexibility to tour with a variety of bands and artists across all genres.
Classics like “Come Original” and “Beautiful Disaster” are embossed in the ’90s catalogue of nostalgic yet timeless tunes—the soundtrack to our lives.
But let it be known that 311 are not resting on any residual laurels—they understand, 24 years later, how to keep loyal fans engaged, compelled, and perhaps most importantly, involved in the musical experience.
311 are in every sense of the phrase a “party band,” as they host worldwide fans on an annual Caribbean Cruise—a four-night trip from Miami to a private island in the Bahamas. They’ve also headlined the Unity Tour across the U.S. each summer for 11 consecutive years.
311 are comparable to a fine wine—enjoyed by the sophisticated, can cheer you up if you’re down, and evolve to be richer each passing year. The live experience of a 311 show is like the SA-Hexum melodic mystery—a formula exclusive to the band’s repertoire. It’s hard to figure out how it works so well, but it’s what makes the band so wonderfully special.
The band released their 11th studio album earlier this year, an independent record offering a hybrid of commemorative classic-like 311 songs, as well as a modern spin on that familiar sound of easy beats and hearty melodies.
I caught up with Hexum, serendipitously, on the date of the band’s 24th anniversary, to talk about this summer’s Unity Tour, their latest record, and celebrate the group’s exciting history. He emphasized the band’s contentment, excitement, and gratitude to be part of such a special community of dedicated fans. An excerpt of the interview is below:
How do you feel to reflect back on the last 24 years together as a band, to be able to have thrived, and keep thriving, so passionately as musicians?
It has been a long, strange trip, no question. To think about all the chaos we survived! We laugh about the old days when we were in an RV—that was our road atlas, and we were just trying to figure out where the heck to go next. There were a lot of times I was driving the RV, and I just think of the chaos and the nonstop partying that was going on at the same time. Now we have it well organized so it’s different than it used to be in the old days. To stay together as a band, you have to be flexible and be prepared not to get your own way. We just remember that we stumbled on a really great lineup of dudes and we’re better together than we ever would be on our own.
Your most recent album, Stereolithic, is your first independent release since Unity. How would you contrast the experience from that with records done collaboratively with major labels?
It was empowering to be able to represent ourselves exactly how we wanted. It’s also slightly intimidating to know the onus is completely on us to promote it. We were very proactive in keeping fans involved in the recording process by posting videos and strategically leaking songs, making teasers that got everybody so excited—there was so much chatter about it. We found ways to do a better job at being a label than the major labels had been for us. It was a really good feeling.
Musically, the record is so vibrant and fun—that’s what 311 deliver. But you’ve also stepped outside the box. Is that just the slightest bit of Auto-Tune on the track “Tranquility?”
(Laughs) [The Auto-Tune] is there, on that particular song. I think it was because that vocal actually came from my home demo. Our producer Scott Ralston said that it had a certain magic to it—the way it rings—so we were keeping it. I thought that was cool. That is the big struggle: We want to keep moving forward but we also don’t want to leave our fans behind by moving too much. They love to hear the special hybrid that we’ve created, which is the tone of the guitars, the tone of the voice, the sound of the drums, the style of reggae with rock and jazzy guitar. You know what our formula is.
To keep expanding that and having unexpected new sounds in there to keep it interesting—that’s the real struggle—how much to move. I think that we kind of achieved the right balance with certain songs, like “Friday Afternoon,” “Tranquility,” and “Made In The Shade.” Those are new sounds and then there are classic 311 rockers with the rap-rock that certain people love and keep as their favorites. You sort of have two categories of 311 fans, if I can be so bold: Some people will hone in on the classics; others only enjoy the departure, so there’s a little something for everybody on this record.
You definitely emphasize the live experience. Your setlists never disappoint. It’s a party for the ears and the soul—and a special experience that you guys create as a band. How do you prep?
We just have a band meeting after soundcheck and talk about the setlist. We’ve been doing this for so long we know what’s going to work in a particular city or venue. For example, when we play Stone Pony, we know it’s going to be an open floor and there will be a lot of old school fans that are going to want to hear early cuts. By comparison if we’re doing a festival, we’d probably do more radio songs.
It’s a group effort. In the early days the setlist making would fall on me and it was easier because we had a smaller catalogue of songs. After a while we realized it was something that everyone needs to be involved in, so we have a daily meeting regarding setlists. We talk it out. Sometimes there are disagreements but usually we just meet in the middle.
311 is a versatile band that has been billed on so many incredible festivals and shows. Who are your favorite bands to tour with?
We made some great friends back in the ’90s—Incubus, No Doubt, Sugar Ray, Korn—so it’s fun to see those people. We’ve had a lot of great shows with reggae bands lately, like Revolution, Shihad [formerly Pacifier], The Expendables, and Ziggy Marley. The Unity Tour has an outdoor, summer vibe, and we’ve played with a lot of great reggae bands. Most of my good friends are musicians, and it’s kind of a lucent club.
It’s great to see a video for the new track “Five Of Everything”; we haven’t seen a 311 video in a while!
We hadn’t been making videos lately. We’ve done behind the scenes videos, or “Road To 311 Day,” or recap footage from our cruise, but we just felt that the traditional music video form wasn’t really happening anymore. We just had the idea to just show ourselves in our element. One of our longtime friends, Brian Smith—who has become a huge fashion photographer—came back and made this video for us. It was done on inexpensive cameras. That was our first music video in a while and I think it turned out beautifully.
311 haven’t ever pouted over piracy. You are incessant innovators who understand how to connect with your fans meaningfully. How do you feel about the reality of music consumption?
I always just accepted that people’s love of music was so strong that they couldn’t help themselves. I’ve always felt that 311 focused so much more on the live show. That’s always been our thing. We’ve always looked up to and been somewhat compared to jam bands because that’s what separates the men from the boys. Certain bands can only cut it with studio trickery, and then when they come out live, they play tracks in a way that feels like they’re lip-synching to the album. We keep it very live. You can hear the humanness. That experience of seeing us live is something that can never be pirated. Piracy hasn’t affected us as much as it has other groups.
I just really like streaming services. I think Spotify’s model of making it way more convenient than piracy is totally worth spending that small monthly fee to have the convenience of your playlists to play them whenever. It’s a very enjoyable experience so I kind of bought into that. That to me seems fair. It seems like the way things are going in general, streaming—whether it’s Netflix or Spotify—seems like the way to go. I’ve been active on those platforms.
People don’t go to a live show only to watch the band. They are there to interact with each other. There’s a certain spirit that 311 fans have. They’re high-fiving each other and it’s a whole collective. It’s not just to watch a show; it’s a whole interactive experience. When we were on our last cruise, there was a costume party so I went out dressed as a ninja. [I was obviously disguised] so I was dancing with a fan and everyone was so cool. They were like, “Oh, a ninja; high-five.” They were so positive and inclusive and it made me realize, “Wow, this is something that’s bigger than just a band.” That was an exciting experience for me.