The 411 on 311

We interviewed the shit out of 311.

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Feb 20 2014, 4:35pm

Nick Hexum of 311 is about to get some sushi, which he likes more than pizza, because sushi is a magic food. It’s a recent Thursday afternoon, and the lead singer of the longtime funk/stoner-bro-jam/rock/reggae/whatever-else-you-wanna-call-it band has a free, unscheduled day. After he finishes a conversation over the phone with me, and after he has himself a California Roll, he’ll do a little bit of writing, play a little bit of guitar, and do a little bit more writing. He's feeling self-actualized. The color of his energy is amber. Whoa-Oh.

Beginning in 1990, 311 emerged from the great midwest city of Omaha and went on to become a household name—and in doing so, became a band that you probably made fun of on a regular basis because, like me, you’re a judgmental asshole. But, come on, these dudes have been making music successfully for over two decades, so they must be doing something right. Don’t lie to me or yourself and say you haven’t hummed the words to “I’ll Be Here Awhile,” or jumped up and down to “Down,” or vibed just a little bit to “Beautiful Disaster.” Like oxygen, their music has been everywhere and nowhere at the same time—you cannot escape it even though you want to; you cannot live without it no matter how hard you try. And the reality is that, even though you’re probably laughing to yourself thinking about how people probably have spent a bunch of time making out to “Amber,” you yourself have probably spent a bunch of time making out to “Amber.”

On March 11 (a.k.a. 3/11, lol), the band will release their 11th studio album Stereolithic, which sounds pretty much exactly how you’d expect a 311 record to sound in the year 2014. And you know what? That’s okay, because music is subjective. Some people will like it. Others will make fun of it. And we’ll all wake up on 3/12 and get on with our lives. Hexum is self-aware and recognizes that this mindset exists, so during our 40-minute conversation, we touch on the stereotypes and challenges he’s faced being in a band that a lot of people love to hate. He explains the "311 lifestyle." He explains his love of Phish. He explains what it was like for the band to play their first show ever—opening for Fugazi.

In other words, I interviewed the shit out of 311. This is what happened.

You have a new record coming out, obviously on March 11. What are you most proud of?
Oh man. I really like that we increased our productivity and have 15 songs, and the eclectic nature of all the different styles that are represented makes me really proud. I just think we were working as a well-oiled machine. Everyone was getting along well. A lot of credit goes to Scotch Ralston, our producer and soundman, for really adding so much enthusiasm. He was just such a force of nature with how many ideas he came up with. It was a really nice injection of excitement.

This is the eleventh record you’ve recorded as 311. That’s a lot of records. When you go into your eleventh record, what do you do to stay excited and innovative?
That’s the challenge. You don’t want it to be kind of routine. There’s certainly some fans that would like us to have a certain sound that we’ve already done. They want us to sound like the old stuff. That’s the challenge as a musical alchemist, is to have the right blend of old and new sounds. Basically, why I think this album went well is because we had more of a “whatever’s new, whatever’s innovative, whatever’s fresh, let’s pursue those ideas,” and that made a more creative environment. That’s the challenge: How to remain groundbreaking without alienating your fanbase. Different bands move at different paces. You take a band like AC/DC, and they have more of a linear sound that people love, and it doesn’t go all over the place. Where Radiohead on the other hand take super crazy turns. And I guess we’re somewhere in between.

Would you rather be Radiohead or AC/DC?
I’m the one who’s usually pushing more for the weird ideas, I think, so probably more on the Radiohead side. But I just love bands like The Clash. They’d use whatever they wanted. They had from reggae to punk to Latin to gospel to disco to rap to funk, dub, you name it, everything went into their music. That was my favorite band of all time. And I would hope that we’re continuing in their spirit. And to know that before he died I got the chance to record and hang out with Joe Strummer and knew he was a big supporter of 311 kind of validated my whole existence. [Laughs]

Do you still live in Omaha?
We relocated to California quite a while ago, but I’m a midwesterner at heart. I think wherever you grow up, especially your high school experience, really shapes your character.

I’m from Iowa, so I feel you, dawg. What was it like coming up in the reggae rock scene, one that you guys seemed to define.
It was a huge life goal that we achieved to be able to be that underground band that young people couldn’t stop talking about. When we would have a show during those times, I mean, the excitement—the people were just vibrating before we came out. There’s still a lot of excitement at our shows now, but just to have that—people would start moshing before we even got on. That was a huge thing to have captured the Hottest Underground Band in the Land title for those years. And I think we just stuck to our guns. When we first came out, what was successful was Seattle music. It was Pearl Jam and also the Seattle knockoffs like Candlebox and all these different grunge bands. That’s what the label was going after. But we were like, “We need to be more funky than that. It doesn’t appeal to us to be kind of a mainstream rock thing.” So we just stuck to what we’re doing even though it wasn’t on the radio at the time. We just had to do it through touring. We had a little bit of help here and there; certain radio stations had the guts to support us, but we didn’t have any nationwide support until our third single of our third album. It seemed like an eternity. I guess now looking back it was just a few years. But we were slugging it out on the road and it was the whole grassroots thing.

Now we’re kind of going back to that, where we’ve got our own label and we rely on direct relationships with our fans through social media and bands talking to each other to do our promotion. Because we’re not even part of a major label anymore. It’s kind of going back from whence we came.

What did you learn from that period that you’re applying to your approach now?
Just to stick to music and rely on word of mouth. It’s that simple.

What’s it like to be somebody who’s operated in music for so long? There’s been so much change in the past 15 years.
The Internet has good and bad effects. Of course the piracy has been troubling for the business side of music, but there’s more good that outweighs it. The fact that now people can be exposed to so much music no matter if they live in a small town in Iowa or wherever. Growing up in Omaha we’d have trouble finding the new stuff and we’d have to go and dig. There was like one underground record store downtown who’d be checking out what was happening on the coast. Now there’s more global exposure. Anything’s at your fingertips. You can get music lessons online. You can do so many things. And artists can do it for themselves. There are more good effects from the Internet than bad.

The first show you did you played with Fugazi. What was that like?
June 10, 1990. We’d had a band called Unity for a couple years before that and we were doing similar to the 311 sound, but we hadn’t really had a lot of success. I was over in Germany kind of bumming around and then I called home, called Chad, and he was like, “I got a band going. We got this guy, we call him P-Nut, playing bass. He’s really good.” And I used to be the bass player, and I was like, “That’s cool, I want to focus more on being a frontman.” He was like, “Why don’t you come back and sing for this band? We got a gig opening for Fugazi.” And I was like, “That sounds like a great launch.” People came ready to launch. We hit the ground running. Developed a big word-of-mouth around the midwest, and we’d go and have day trips to play shows in Ames or Kansas City or Wichita or Lincoln, just of heading out from Omaha, taking whatever gigs we could get and making a party out of it.

Fugazi’s not necessarily a band I would associate with you guys.
We had a crazy huge mosh pit. It was a pretty obvious fit at the time. It was a good fit.

How did you grow into the sound that launched you into the mainstream?
There’s no real calculation. The whole thing about being a musician is you have to make music from the heart, and we were just making whatever we liked. Anything goes in music. We were excited by hip-hop and heavy rock and reggae and dance hall, so that’s what went into our music. That’s how it came out naturally.

What kind of hip-hop were you into at the time?
Our favorites were like the intelligent...we liked the stoner hip-hop, Cypress Hill, that type of thing really attracted us to being in California, but then East Coast stuff like De La Soul, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, more intelligent stuff was a huge influence on us. De La Soul might be my favorite hip-hop of all time.

What’s your favorite De La Soul record?
Buhloone Mindstate. I probably listened to the most.

Were you nervous about rapping? Was there any hesitation there?
Maybe there should have been, but there wasn’t. We decided we were gonna do whatever felt good to us. Yeah, I wouldn’t call it emulation, but definitely influence; whatever you listen to will come out in your writing. If you listen to some of the raps on “Grassroots” I think you could say that I was channeling some De La Soul on those. But we’re all just standing on the shoulders of giants. We’re all building on what other people have done in music. Anyone who thinks they’re coming from a vacuum and making it all up for the first time is totally full of it.

What has the shift of the past six/seven years been like?
It’s so gradual, there’s no real way to describe it. We just felt lucky to be doing what we’re doing, and we’re still very fortunate and grateful. We’re approaching the 24th anniversary of that first Fugazi show. That is a long time. That’s longer than a lot of our fans have been alive.

What’s the x-factor you’ve had to be together for so long?
I think you gotta be ready to not get your way. You have to adhere to the democracy of the band, and whatever the group conscience wants to do, you have to embrace it. I think you just learn to communicate well and realize that our opinions and stuff are just opinions. Nobody’s desires are facts. You have to be flexible to maintain a musical marriage like this for so long.

Were there any moments of strife?
Definitely disagreements and tension. Any band would have that. Not lately. We’ve been getting along very well. Every member has gone through points of being a little more stubborn or difficult, or whatever, and you just learn to look at our part in things and just respect the group conscience and be democratic.

I heard secondhand that you guys were traveling in multiple buses on tour for a while.
Well we didn’t each have our own bus. We kinda paired up so we’d have more space. It was really more of a luxury thing than based on any tension. And we’ve realized that that’s kind of a waste of fuel so we’ve cut back a little bit. It is good to have space. At one point, we could all live in the same house, but now we all have families and when we get together, it’s cool, but you need those breaks from the band.

There’s a stereotype that 311 fans like to play hacky sack and smoke weed. How do you feel about that association?
There have been times when I’ve bristled at that association because we’re artists. But now I feel like there is a lifestyle associated with 311 and I think that a lot of bands have turned a lifestyle into a kind of bigger business. If you look at Grateful Dead or Jimmy Buffett, there’s a party vibe associated with them. I don’t feel any reason to fight it. I think our fans are intelligent and thoughtful and really listen carefully to music, analyzing lyrics and stuff. It’s not just a dumb stoner. We have very intellectual fans, but they also like to party. So I’m totally good with it.

What is the 311 lifestyle?
Hacky sack and smoking weed? I don’t know, man. Sure. I don’t even smoke weed currently. I think the bigger thing that draws 311 fans together more than any substance is the positive attitude and the philosophy, the constant community, the feeling when they’re at a 311 show or event that they’re part of something bigger, and it’s kind of like a brotherhood feeling. That type of stuff is much stronger than the party associations.

Have you ever been to a Phish show?
I was on a bit of a Phish kick last year. Went to two shows.

I went to a Phish concert at Madison Square Garden and saw some crazy shit, and even though I still don't really like that band, I kind of get it now.
I had a similar experience, more musically, where I just kind of got it, when I saw the Hollywood Bowl show. They were jamming and experimenting and I was going right there with them. I felt, oh, to have 15000 people go with a band on a journey into the unknown, that was pretty cool, and it inspired me to want to do more improvisation. I launched my side project, the quintet; we do a lot of jamming, we had a fun tour doing that in early January. Trey [Anastasio] and 311, we definitely have a mutual respect and admiration for each other. I also flew to Denver with my wife to go to a show just to have that experience of being a Phish Head for a weekend.

Do you consider yourself a Phish Head?
I would put them in my top 10 favorite bands.

Who else is up there?
Man, lately... that’s part of the Internet and Spotify experience: My tastes are all over the place. I’ll go from some electronic dance music to some reggae, a lot of blues lately. But my favorite bands of all time, like I said, The Clash, The Beatles, Bob Marley, The Smiths. I love great music of any genre.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how effective was “Amber” at getting you laid in the early aughts?
[Laughs.] 10.

Was 311 an inside job?
311 had outside forces helping. That’s my answer for that.

Eric Sundermann is so chill right now. He's Noisey's Managing Editor, and he's on Twitter@ericsundy

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