311: 25 Years Strong
How 311 became a way of life
“Reside west coast from the Midwest, take what ya like and fuck all the rest man. We only enter in one contest that we made up ourselves that’s to be the 311-est.”
Those two lines, a nine second clip towards the end of a song entitled “Jackpot,” perhaps perfectly summarizes and serves as the powerful mission statement of 311. A statement they built 25 years ago and have stuck to at every turn along the way. The lyrics still give front-man Nick Hexum the chills.
This past June, 311 released a very special box set entitled 311-ARCHIVE – to honor their silver anniversary. The career-spanning box set commemorates the journey of the past 25 years through demos, b-sides, bonus tracks, pre-production tracks along with a book of old photos and memorabilia.
The history of 311 is simply a remarkable, unparalleled story. One that is still being written. In fact, it feels like there are a ton of blank pages that will house new unique chapters in the years to come. 311 naturally blends rock music, with reggae, hip-hop and funk. Their approach has always been to stay true to themselves, true to their music and true to their faithful fans. Speaking of their fans, they too are in a league of their own. They come from all corners of the globe and along with the five individuals rocking on stage before them, have created a larger than life movement. Though lead singer/guitarist Nick Hexum, singer/DJ SA Martinez, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, guitarist Tim Mahoney and drummer Chad Sexton are physically elevated a few feet higher than the crowd and facing a different direction, they are really just an extension of the community that they have built through music and unity.
311’s first show was on June 10, 1990 opening for Fugazi at the Sokol Auditorium in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. That lineup consisted of Hexum on vocals, Sexton on drums, 15 year old P-Nut on bass and a lead guitarist named Jim Watson. “I remember we bumped into the guys from Fugazi the next day at a Denny’s,” recalls Hexum. “They very energetically asked us where we are from. We told them we’re from here, Omaha. They could obviously see there was a ton of energy. It was a perfect launch for us because it was a sold out, 1,000 people show who were ready to rock.”
Bassist, P-Nut saw some symbolism in that show. “Cellophane Ceiling played the slot before us. They were an Omaha mainstay and a legendary mainstay in our eyes,” he says. “It felt like it was a passing of the torch and we took that thing and ran with it.”
Though that date is considered the starting point, the history actually dates back to high school. At the time, Hexum and Mahoney had a rock band together called “The Ed’s.” Hexum also played in the high school jazz band where Sexton was drummer. This is where things got really interesting. Hexum graduated from high school early and immediately moved to Los Angeles to follow his dreams of a career in music. “I moved out there by myself at 17 and worked at Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard so I can make connections and meet players,” says Hexum. “There was a lot of hair metal at the time, but there was also a lot of cool stuff going on like getting to see the Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Fishbone.” He remained close with Sexton and Mahoney however, partaking in occasional jam sessions on visits home. Soon enough, Sexton and recently added keyboardist, Ward Bones, would join Hexum in L.A. They would take on the city under the moniker “Unity.”
After a short stint on the west coast, Sexton moved back to Omaha where he would frequently play music with old friend, P-Nut. There was a comfort level playing in Omaha that could not be found anywhere else. There was just one thing missing. That would all be remedied by a simple phone call. “I’ll never forget that call,” Sexton explains. “Nick asked if I’d been playing and had any plans. I told him I had small band and we got an opening gig for Fugazi. There was then complete silence on the other line. No response whatsoever. I could basically hear the wheels turning in his head. He formed a plan in about 30 seconds that included him moving back and playing some old originals from Unity to make us a stronger band, not just playing covers. I said the others would be cool with it, let’s just go for it. If that conversation doesn’t happen this is definitely going a different way.”
After spending time in a lot of different areas including L.A., San Francisco and Germany, Hexum realized it was his hometown of Omaha that had exactly what he was out searching for. “I had been playing bass at the time. Bass was more of lead instrument within the music I was into then. Flea was really a pioneer with that,” he says. Thinking about what lies ahead Hexum knew, “I need to focus more on singing now.” Weeks later, there it was, the old friends were back with a new band. They’d call themselves 311.
The first two years back in Omaha would be incredibly formative. They played tons of shows at many infamous Omaha venues, opening for some big-name bands including the Smashing Pumpkins in 1991, as the alternative rock scene was starting to make its impact. “The thing that was so great about Omaha was that they were ready to accept us as a major band. We weren’t just some local guys that would get thrown on a bill. It was an event,’’ says Hexum who would take on the bands label and managerial duties at the time. “We would hold these Music Monday’s, which were all ages shows for $5. Each one would sell out.”
New guitarist and longtime friend, Tim Mahoney would ultimately replace Jim Watson. The last piece of the puzzle was turning a special guest, part-time performer S.A. Martinez, into a fulltime band member; an addition that would prove to be a key element in the band finding their dynamic and unique sound. Although P-Nut and Martinez were from the same high school, it was by total coincidence that Martinez and Sexton ended up being college roommates a few years later.
Over the course of 1990 and 1991, 311 released the EP’s Dammit, Hydroponic and Unity on their own label, What Have You Records. For independent releases they sold quite well. “Back in that day we were one of the first local bands to make a record and put it out on CD as most demos available in stores were on cassette tape at that time,” says Sexton. “A lot of those songs that we had written back in Omaha made it to our first record.”
Though Omaha was the breeding ground for 311, it was Los Angeles where they would harvest. They soon took off for the west coast where they would all live together in a small house in Van Nuys, California. “Omaha was a great jump off spot,” says P-Nut. “Chances are no one’s going to be knocking on your door in Omaha, Nebraska. And you can’t knock on their door. All you can do is wait for someone to maybe knock on your door and that’s bullshit in this industry, you have to do the door knocking.”
I asked Sexton if he was reluctant to move back to L.A. given his first experience. “Well I was certainly anxious, but we had already played every place in Omaha and the surrounding area. We were repeating ourselves,” he said. “We would make a demo, then release it and play shows and then we’d finish. Not knowing what to do next, we’d start the cycle all over again. We knew we needed more than that and we knew if we wanted to make a career out of this we had to go.”
The time the five of them spent living together in that one house seems to really strike a sentimental chord with each member. Hexum lightheartedly tells me a story about how they grew their own marijuana, “There was no internet then so we really didn’t know what we were doing. We’d say ‘I think we’re supposed to cut these leaves off’ and we ended up with just a giant stem. Then somebody stole it! We came outside one morning and it was gone,” he says humorously.
Southern California offered them the opportunity to be in front of record labels. “We had very limited budgets eating Top Ramen and surviving off the care packages of food some of our parents would send,” says Hexum. “None of us worked other jobs so there was a lot comradery. We spent most of our time jamming, rehearsing in the living room and swimming in the small pool that our house had.” The difference this time was they had gone back to the lab, found their magic formula and developed a significant fan base out of the Midwest that would stand by their every move. “There’s a whole different skill set of how to get a crowd going crazy that you can’t teach in any class,” explains Hexum. “We were putting in our 10,000 hours by playing every show we could get all around the Midwest during those first two years, so once we got out to L.A. we had a confidence this time that definitely wasn’t there on our earlier L.A. incarnation.”
Strong All Along:
The first shows back in California did not feel the same as the Midwest gigs however. The band then developed a plan to focus mainly on landing a record deal. What felt like moments before complete poverty struck, they were contacted by Eddy Offord (acclaimed producer who had worked with John Lennon and Yes to name a few) and 311 officially signed to Capricorn Records in 1992.
Sexton looks back at that time with the fondest of memories. The tone of his voice rings with pride as he reminisces, “The biggest highlight for me besides meeting Eddy was recording our first record at Ocean Studios, just a beautiful studio. It was an open and free period, where we could just completely submerge ourselves in the music. It was really a perfect summer. There was a Mexican food stand right across the street that we ate at almost every single day. It’s one of my favorite time periods of our career making that first record.”
The finished product, their major label debut, Music, was released February 1993. The band toured non-stop. It was at this point where they faced one of the more challenging scenarios imaginable. While driving westbound on Interstate 44 near Springfield, Missouri, their RV caught fire and eventually exploded on the side of the road, destroying the RV, their trailer and all of their equipment. The four band members, who were traveling in the RV, escaped the flames just in time. “I was actually driving to the gig separately with our producer in a Honda having a great time listening to the Cure,” recalls P-Nut. “I got to the gig and heard that it was cancelled. I thought everyone was tired and just didn’t want to do the show, as we were keeping such a rigorous tour schedule. Then I heard the news. What some people don’t realize is that Nick was driving the RV and he barely got out. His hair was all burned up.” Thanks to their already loyal fan base donating instruments, the band charged on. “It was a real put up or shut up type of moment for us,” P-Nut said. “The chips were down and we were broke. We realized more than ever what we had to do was work really hard and that’s exactly what we did. We bring that RV fire with us to the stage every night.”
Record number two, a groovier, more funk-infused rock piece, entitled Grassroots, followed in 1994, a year the band would play 130 shows. It was 1995 and 1996 however, where things really took off thanks in-part to the opening track on their self-titled third album. “Down” was # 1 on the charts (“All Mixed Up” went to #2) and burning up alternative radio stations everywhere. “I remember listening to the year-end countdown on KROQ out here in L.A. that year. It’s a station we all listen to. They get to #1 and it was us with “Down,” says Hexum. “It was five minutes before midnight so that was a very fun New Year’s party.” The band performed the hit live on the David Letterman show and on Conan O’Brien. Things were changing. A new collection of fans were jumping on board, joining the existing sea of dedicated followers. The self-titled record was their mainstream breakthrough as it went triple platinum.
Eight more records have been released since then. Each one unique in their own regard. To date, 311 has sold close to nine million records worldwide. Nine of their last ten albums debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard Album Chart. They work mostly out of their own studio called “The Hive” (also the name of their fan club). “We keep everything in house. It’s not huge, but it’s ours,” Hexum says. “When we put a record out its how we wanted it and it’s going to be an honest representation of where we are as artists.”
By the end of 2015, 311 will have played almost 1,700 shows the past 25 years. That would be 1,700 different setlists. 1,700 different experiences. While it seems like such a simple concept, it’s rare to find a live act that mixes up their setlist every single night. “For a rock band, we are very well-versed in techniques and manuscripts of music,” Sexton explains. “It’s a lot easier to play the same 20 songs over and over, but we have so many types of fans. The hardcore fans are probably not going to want to hear our radio hits, but then we’ll go play a radio festival where there are people who don’t really know us so we want to remind these people that maybe they do know who we are.” 311 have developed a reputation as one of the most energetic and entertaining live bands out there today. At some point around mid-set of almost every show you will find perhaps the only staple in the set. It’s for good reason. This would be the drum interlude in the middle of “Applied Science” where all five members of the band play the drums with Sexton leading the march. It’s utterly mesmerizing. “Music can only hold people’s attention for so long,” said Sexton. “We’ve always talked about; if we want to survive and we want people to come see us then we have to be exciting to see. We’ve always made it a point to be visually entertaining as well.”
As opposed to settling into a routine act, the band has made a conscious effort to continuously evolve. They insist upon constantly innovating and trying new things for themselves as musicians in addition to providing new experiences for their fans.
This summer was their 17th consecutive summer headlining a U.S. tour (1998 is the only summer the band has not toured). Every two years since 2000, they hold a massive 311 Day concert on March 11th where fans from all over the world come together for an epic night of 311 music – often exceeding five hours, 60+ songs and many performance surprises. This year the 311 Day experience returns to New Orleans, and this time it’s two nights (Friday March 11th and Saturday March 12th – both at the Smoothie King Center). All 311 Day info can be found at www.311.com/311Day2016 with the pre-sale on 9/22 and public sale on 9/25.
Additionally, 311 have played special destination shows in numerous countries, created and headlined their own Pow Wow Festival (a three day music and camping event) and have hosted four cruises. “Part of the reason we have these events is to go deep into the catalog for our hardcore fans,” Sexton tells me with sincere passion in his voice. “We want to give our fans as much music as we can. That’s the reason we got into the band. It’s because we’re musicians and we’re fans of music. Anything else that might come with it is just an awesome side note.”
311 even have their own beer Amber Ale coming out (a nod to one of 311’s biggest hits “Amber”) and were heavily involved crafting the recipe. “We’re excited about diversifying the whole 311 experience with the beer coming out and some of the other stuff we have planned,” says Hexum. “Since we are grassroots and since we’ve always been involved in the business side of things, it’s fun to think of ways and then see those ways come true to expand the 311 experience in addition to just concerts.”
Having played live in all 50 states and almost 20 different countries, 311 has attracted fans from all walks of life. Their music has introduced deep friendships and even marriages. The themes come full circle. To celebrate, fans are being treated with the new 311- ARCHIVE box set, which contains 81 songs over fours discs and a 60 page book. Sexton is the archivist of the group. He explains this is essentially what they found the fans wanted. “I went out and simply asked our fans at our shows over the past couple years what they would want? Would they want another album of greatest hits? Every fan said no,” Sexton said. “When we made the box set, we took deep cuts and anything a 311 fan would just love to hear. It’s a very intimate thing.”
Upon completing the last tour, work on album # 12 will commence. “I listen to Nick’s new demos and I’m just floored,” P-Nut says almost with a chuckle. “He does not need us. (laughs) He’s so talented and so good at letting you know where he wants the song to go. These four or five new songs, there’s nothing to do with them. They’re just perfect.”
Hexum giving insight into what’s next tells me, “The new songs we are working on right now are among the best. There’s a real excitement and open-mindedness within 311 to bring in new styles and new arrangements that really make it sound fresh. Everybody is on the same page with that so morale is high.”
The band has tapped longtime friend and producer Scotch Ralston to produce the record. “The balance Scotch brings to the table is incredible. When we sit down to write lyrics with S.A. and Nick we can bring in a little more conflict and topics that show its tough out there,” P-Nut explains with enthusiasm. “We think about the crowd when we write, maybe sometimes too much. There has to be a balance between rocking the songs with the crowd and rocking the songs in your arms. Scotch really has this cool stature about him that I really like supporting. He allows us to make mistakes. If we’re going to be depressed for a certain song, that’s OK. He’s a part of the family that we could’ve never seen. I want people to know just how important he is to our sound and how much we appreciate him.”
25 years of anything is commendable. Taking a moment to recognize what 311 has done over the past 25 years leaves you feeling proud. In part because it encapsulates the so-called American Dream, but also if you have been fortunate enough to be a part of the journey in even the smallest way, you can’t help but feel appreciative. The feeling is mutual. There’s a song on almost every 311 album that expresses gratitude for music in general and what it has to offer. “Hey You,” the first single from 2009’s Uplifter, is just one example with lines like – “you’re my constant companion, you always let me explain just what I’m sayin’ and we’ve just begun.”
Sexton remembering how he felt holding the box set for the first time the day before tells me, “It’s an accomplishment to be in a band 25 years and have every record be the same members. We have reggae hits, rock hits, longer songs and even creative interludes. What I’ve noticed now, what I’m most proud of is being able to take our time with our fans. We have different styles of music without trying to recreate hits so it feels more like a musical entity,” he said. “We’ve been so lucky and fortunate to come from our own hearts and minds. For me, that’s where I come from right now when I write any rock music. I want to make the fans feel a certain way. The inspiration behind all of my rock music is them. I doubt any of them know that, but it’s such a cool synergistic element to this band that is totally invisible.”
It’s the love of music that brought these five friends from Omaha together and kept them together 25 years strong. Their mission statement is lived every day. They practice what they preach with extraordinary gratitude along the way. “I don’t know what we did to deserve this. People thank us for doing what we love,” P-Nut said. “Of course troubles will come, but you have to be better because of it. Such simple things that we all learned when we were kids, to pick yourself up. It’s that positive struggle. I know I’m going to go that extra distance. I’m going to do that for you and you are going to do that for me and together we are going to bring a whole fucking bunch of people with us.”
“I would hope that 311’s legacy will be that we were not just a band, but a movement to our fans,” said Hexum. “It all starts with the music, but I think we have become a lifestyle and a positive way of looking at things as well.” When you attend a 311 show, absolutely nothing else in the world matters or comes to mind for at least those two and half hours. You can’t help but have a great time. You’re truly creatures for a while. “We realize we’ve got our thing,” Hexum says. “Because of our awesome fan base we’ll always be OK for touring and we are just going to compete against ourselves to be the most true to our unique vibe that we can be. It gives us a quiet confidence to know that we are going to be alright and lets us just keep doing our own thing.”
The best part? 311 fans have every reason to be overly excited as they know the best is yet to come. Cheers to the past, present and future. As Hexum often states at the conclusion of each show, “Stay positive and love your life.”
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