The 411 On 311
By Dave Dimartino

Hip-hop 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.


LAUNCH: Describe the music of 311 for me.

NICK: 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.

P-NUT: 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 band.


LAUNCH: Your first big record, 311, had been out for a pretty long time before it finally caught on. What made it cross the line?

CHAD: 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.

NICK: 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.

P-NUT: 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!


LAUNCH: Tell me about breaking out of Omaha. It's not really known as a music industry hub.

CHAD: 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.

NICK: 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.


LAUNCH: Are you experimenting with new sounds for your next album? How would you describe the sound you'll be going for in the future?

NICK: 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.

CHAD: 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 like that.


LAUNCH: Have you chosen a producer for the next release? Or will you be producing the album yourselves?

NICK: 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 down already.


LAUNCH: 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?

CHAD: 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.

P-NUT: 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?


LAUNCH: Being on the road all the time, you guys must get sick of each other. How do you deal with it?

P-NUT: 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.


LAUNCH: You spend a lot of time in the summer playing the festival circuit. How do you like that vibe?

P-NUT: 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.


LAUNCH: What's the greatest gig 311 has played to date?

NICK: 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.

P-NUT: 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.


LAUNCH: What's the worst, most hellish gig you've ever played?

P-NUT: 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.

CHAD: 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.

NICK: 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."

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