411 On 311
By Dave Dimartino
alt-rock funkers 311 spent years perfecting their unique brand
of "new school music" for live audiences before their
hit "Down" captivated the collective ear of alternative
radio programmers in 1996. This band of Omaha, Nebraska expatriates
blazed a slow and steady trail on the live touring circuit in
support of their eponymous major-label debut, which ultimately
paid off in mega-chart success and paved the way for their 1997
follow-up Transistor. LAUNCH executive editor Dave DiMartino caught
up with 311's lead singer Nicholas Hexum, bassist P-Nut and drummer
Chad Sexton just as the album 311 started to take off.
Describe the music of 311 for me.
To really accurately describe us you have to say five words: Reggae,
rock, hip-hop, jazz and funk, you know? And that still might be
leaving some out. We've had different little terms like, a long
time ago we called it "new school music," just like
the "new school of thought" being that you can put anything
in your music; we're not traditionalists, not strict. Whatever
we like will come out in our writing. Chad coined "rap style
rock," which kind of applies.
People should just liquidate all the extra adjectives on our name
and what we do--we're a rock band. Just listen. It's a rock-based
thing. That's where it starts from. It goes in many different
directions. Don't call us an alternative band, call us THE alternative
Your first big record, 311, had been out for a pretty long time
before it finally caught on. What made it cross the line?
Number one, I think our merger with Mercury was a good positive
thing; it's done a lot of good things for us. Number two, we weren't
that commercial to begin with; you couldn't fit us easily into
any radio category. I don't want to say people--radio programmers--finally
caught up with us, but I think it was just a different style of
music that everyone had to get used to. I think that had something
to do with it.
I really don't think that we have made any giant steps forward.
It's just a constant process. We've been making hard rock mixed
with dancehall, hip hop, reggae and jazz since 1991. Our approach
hasn't changed, but we had a feeling on "Down" that...
I mean, we had good songs, but we didn't just love them and love
to play them live like we did with "Down." That was
the first song that had a chance of getting on the radio, had
a hook, but was also really rocking and we loved to play. We had
a good feeling about that song. It was about time.
Before, what was happening was just us. Now we're getting lots
of support from many different angles and it's helping us create
better and bigger. We've proven ourselves out on the road and
that's why the support has come. With that solid base, a fan base,
we can pull a thousand people wherever we go. Radio has to support
that. The kids know, and then radio, MTV and BLAMMO!
Tell me about breaking out of Omaha. It's not really known as
a music industry hub.
Well, when we left it was your basic alternative, like Hootie
& The Blowfish. Omaha is a real basic city, very conservative.
Probably about 600,000 people. It was a good place to grow up,
but I don't miss it.
Omaha is real divided in terms of the supporters and detractors
of 311. Some people are really proud that someone is putting Omaha
on the map. So there are those who are supportive and then those
who aren't; there's been so many incorrect rumors, people love
to spread nasty things. When we play shows, there's usually a
good vibe there, but numbers-wise--even for a town of that size--it's
not one of our top markets at all. But we're all tight with our
family and friends there.
Are you experimenting with new sounds for your next album? How
would you describe the sound you'll be going for in the future?
When people ask me about the next album, I say "outer space
dub music." It will be similar to 311, but we're getting
into more trippy production, trying to change the vocabulary.
There's still gonna be songs, melodies, probably more melodies
than in the past, but the way we'll state it will be with different
arrangements--we'll expand on the instruments we use. There will
be more keyboards, samples, stuff like that.
For our next album, "future space music." I would call
it that. As for the past, or what we're about, it's just a blending
of styles of music: Funk and rock. Advanced space music. Something
Have you chosen a producer for the next release? Or will you be
producing the album yourselves?
We've just had a great experience working with our soundman who
engineered our last three records, and he runs our sound live.
He knows us inside and out. He's a young guy like ourselves and
he's really excited about producing a major record. And so I think
we're going to give him a shot. Scott Roston will co-produce with
us. We're not a band that uses a lot of production anyway. In
hip-hop, production means writing the song. The rapper has the
lyrics and the producer will write the music. We pretty much know
exactly what we want to do, and have the production ideas. The
producer, in our case, just oversees and makes suggestions. Some
producers play instruments, arrange vocals, etc. We have that
Now, you guys are known for playing a ton of live gigs. Do you
favor playing before an audience or do you prefer going into the
studio where you have more control over the musical output?
We are not to where I'd like to be represented on record yet.
I think there's just something about a live show, the energy--you
can just visually see it or something. It's way more appealing
to me. It's hard to make that on a recording, but we're getting
closer and closer definitely.
The distinction between the two, as far as what I do in my job
as a musician--that being playing live and recording albums--they
are completely different. I like them both; it rounds out the
whole career. I'm more comfortable playing live shows, we've done
it 400 times, but we've only been in the studio maybe 10 times.
We have so much more practice doing live shows that that's where
I feel more comfortable. Doing the studio, each time, you learn
that much more, and since it's rare, you want to soak it all in.
That's the difference. How's that?
Being on the road all the time, you guys must get sick of each
other. How do you deal with it?
It happens; it happens rarely, but it does happen. It happened
a lot more when we would got out on tour for seven months. Living
in a metal tube, going through the routine, sharing that space.
Doing it that long stresses out the relationship. Now, we're doing
six weeks on, six weeks off, and that's good for the head.
You spend a lot of time in the summer playing the festival circuit.
How do you like that vibe?
I really like festivals because you play with bands you wouldn't
normally tour with. You just hook up with them, and everybody's
cool. I'd like to say that most of the musicians we run into on
those things are pretty nice. There's not a lot of assholes being
egomaniacs. We're all musicians, we all get along.
What's the greatest gig 311 has played to date?
I remember our debut gig opening for Fugazi in Omaha being
really triumphant. Just because I'd never played for a moshing
crowd before, and we really wanted to come out strong. It was
such a great opportunity for a young band to open for a punk rock
hero. That was a great night. Also the Sandstone show in Kansas
City was just so perfect; it was a great experience from start
to finish. Just to see an ocean of people, way back, like little
specks, but you could still see them bouncing. With their hands
in the air. It was really cool.
I would say the band's best gig would probably be a tie between
Sandstone Amphitheater in Kansas City, the Red Rocks show in Denver
and the Omni Show in Atlanta. Those were all three of the biggest
shows we'd done on our own, and the fans in all those cities were
amazing and gave us great support.
What's the worst, most hellish gig you've ever played?
I kicked a girl once on stage and she was pretty mad. Nobody caught
her. That was probably the worst thing I ever did, and I knew
her, which makes it even worse. If it had been some anonymous
person, you know, you can just walk away, but she was like, "Why'd
you do that to me?" I felt really bad.
One time P-Nut threw up. I'm not sure what show that was, but
it was just over, and he was getting overworked and he just had
to get it out in some other way besides jumping.
The worst show? It was in England in some small town. I think
it was called Stoke On Trent. It was just a little pub, and there
was barely anyone there. Someone was heckling us. P-Nut walked
off the stage and said, "Who said that? Fuck all o' you all."
It was miserable, but when it comes to a situation like that--like
our European tour, which wasn't real successful numbers-wise due
to our following--we just had to say, "Okay we're tourists
now. Let's just drink beer and enjoy this."