By Dave Dimartino
Flowing311 is a hard-working band that cites touring as a key
ingredient to its longevity in this fickle commercial market.
After a decade of togetherness, these Omaha expatriates continue
to hone in on the quirky rap-rock hybrid that they helped push
from novelty status to standard fare on the alternative airwaves.
executive editor Dave DiMartino interviewed the band's Nicholas
Hexum and P-Nut just as they unveiled Soundsystem, the new disc
that follows the 1997 release of Transistor. The band recently
acquainted itself with some sophisticated recording equipment
and production techniques, the results of which "come original"
on Soundsystem. "It's more fulfilling than trying to get
someone else to realize your vision," Hexum said of the creative
freedom that comes with studio know-how.
while 311 continues to advance technically, the band hasn't abandoned
the optimistic outlook that informs its melodies. "You go
around this world one time and you have to make the best of it,"
Hexum noted of his millennial "mission of positivity"
through music. His pal P-Nut was typically offbeat when chatting
with DiMartino: the dreadlocked and horn-rimmed bass player mused
about bad lyrics ("just deliver them with confidence"),
the finer points of Backstreet Boys-ness ("being No. 1 ain't
sh-t if you don't have a future"), and being trapped on a
desert island with Shaquille O'Neal ("at least if you had
to resort to cannibalism, there'd be some good eatin' on Shaq.")
Now that's positive thinking.
Video excerpts of the conversation can be viewed in Issue No.
34 of LAUNCH on CD-ROM; an exclusive live performance "Come
Original" can also be viewed on the same disc.
What's the major difference between this record and all the others
The difference between this record and past records is that we
really waited for the songs to grow up organically. We took our
time, built our own recording studio, brought in our own gear
and learned how to use ProTools. We have an old-school 24-track
tape machine, as well as all the computer hard drive recording
equipment. Just learning to run that was a big learning experience.
We were writing songs gradually throughout the recording process,
so it really was a more organic experience. Whereas on Transistor,
we recorded 30 songs in two months, and this time we did 13 songs
in 18 months. We just kind of slowed down.
With the last album, we were coming off a big success and lots
of attention and lots of eyes coming our way, and we wanted to
do an album that excited our creative spirit and do something
different because that's what we always do. Especially after getting
all that attention, we wanted to follow a different route. I'm
sure we lost some of the younger fans that caught on because of
the singles, but that's just how the band is, and if we're not
excited about the music we're playing, we won't have fun onstage
and it all boils over. On this album we went more for the rock
side and we were looking forward to playing all the songs live.
On Transistor, we were spending a lot of time in the studio and
just kind of making ourselves happy and making music like we were
listening to--a lot of dub, more chilled-out. This time we wanted
to play every song live and we wanted to make sure people understood
that and could understand that when we did play the songs live.
Why did you choose to work with producer Hugh Padgham?
We just wanted to have a producer who was an impartial sort of
referee who isn't really connected with the band. We worked with
Scott Ralston, our longtime soundman, but this time we wanted
someone who would come in with a fresh palette and fresh ears;
someone who wasn't the standard Orange County punk/ hip-hop guy.
We wanted to expand our horizons. We thought if we could make
an album that he really dug we would make more of a musical statement--not
just something that was straight for our core audience. We wanted
it to be a longer-lasting thing that would reach out to many different
When Hugh came along, we pretty much had all the songs and delivered
the project. He helped us record everything correctly and worked
on melody ideas, and just added an extra opinion to the whole
project so it wouldn't just be the same album again. It's always
good to bring in extra people, especially a good English lad.
It was fun. We concentrated on the recording process a lot. We
recorded the album before Hugh showed up once, maybe one-and-a-half
times went through everything exactly as how we would. Hugh fine-tuned
everything. We made it easy on each other. It was a really good
You were one of the first hybrid rap-rock bands. It seems that
lately, that genre of music is really blowing up with bands like
Korn and Limp Bizkit on the scene. Tell me what it has been like
to be one of the purveyors of the rap-rock genre.
I think it's really cool to see all the hybrid rap-rock groups.
I remember when we were on 120 Minutes in 1993 and they were talking
about us like we were some new animal that never existed before--it's
really cool to see all the hybrid bands finally getting their
props. It's great.
Before us there was lots of groundwork laid for this to happen
with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 24-7 Spyz, Fishbone, etc.--everybody
knows that those are the guys who started it. We in 311 never
claimed to be the originators of rock-rap and if we were, we'd
be drinking too much. Now with everybody actually listening to
rock-rap bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, it will just be easier
to come out with this album and do the same thing we've been doing
all along. And people will be refreshed that we're coming across
in a positive way. Not to bad-mouth others, but it 's just so
much better to live your life being positive instead of negative
and breaking sh-t. And I'll tell that to Fred Durst's face. I
look forward to doing so because having a difference in philosophy
is good. And it's good to have perspective, to meet in the middle,
or at least talk about it; you'll be able to understand where
everybody's coming from. And I don't look down on anyone, I'm
just happy to be in 311.
Do you think there is a downside to making it big so fast?
I think that most of our fans that we really want to be associated
with don't mind if we sell a lot of records. There's a certain
elitism that goes with punk that we don't want to be a part of.
There are a lot of fans who've been with us through the long haul.
I'm sure we've lost a few, but we're most interested in dealing
with regular, everyday people, people who are like we were when
we were growing up in Nebraska. We were not part of the super
elite--any sort of musical scene. Some people say, "You used
to be great when you played tiny clubs and nobody ever heard of
you." But it's the same spirit; the same music and we're
still making music from the heart. And as long as our approach
doesn't change, people can say what they want.
We're taken care of, but we're not so well-off that we don't have
a lot of hunger still. Even though we're successful we're even
hungrier, especially with the trends now and people coming out
with music like us. More people are listening to the type of music
we've been doing for 10 years now. People are more aware of the
styles that are being flexed all around. It's a good thing. It's
going to happen more and more. People are demanding it. It's rare
that you run into a person that only likes one style of music.
It goes along with the short attention span. You want to play
every style of music in one song. I think the fans can relate
With all that happened at Woodstock '99 with the rioting and such,
are you glad you weren't one of the performing acts?
With the stuff that happened at Woodstock, it gives me more of
a motivation and a sense of purpose that there needs to be a band
that represents more of a positive attitude and collective spirit
than a testosterone rockfest. I think we're viewing our tour as
a mission of positivity to offset all the bad news and bad vibes
and anger, and all the tension that's going on with the millennium.
We want to be something that's hopeful for people. We see it as
a mission to be positive.
I'm really happy we didn't play [Woodstock] because I would have
felt that on my shoulders too much. And we wouldn't have incited
a riot. There's just too many bad vibes going around and I think
concerts on that level are played-out anyway. It's been done,
and it's not interesting for the people in the crowd because it's
like 20,000 bands, 200,000 people. It's too big. That's why we're
going out on the road doing clubs--no opening band and we're in
control, a lot more downplayed instead of all hyped-up with people
turning over cars and sh-t. We don't need any of that.
After listening to Soundsystem, I picked up on a lot of live elements
on the record. How did you achieve that?
I think one of our goals that we may have wrestled with was to
have songs that were more geared toward the moshpit and were really
high-energy. On Transistor we got into more psychedelic stuff
with dub styles, etc. [This time] we made sure the songs would
really cut it live, and when we rehearsed the songs they were
totally rocking, and we'd say, "Okay, that can stay."
We wanted faster tempos and songs that were more pumping.
Who do you look to for advice?
One of my oldest friends from first grade has a band called Grasshopper
Takeover. He moved out to L.A. recently and we bounce our songs
off each other. He gave me helpful compliments and comments as
far as pre-production, stuff like, "I hear harmony here,
etc.," and that was cool. Also my little brother Zach, he's
22 and an amazing jazz virtuoso. He can play circles around me
on any instrument, so I really value his opinion. But he's not
into rock. He's into jazz and more intellectual music, so I always
want to get his opinion on everything.
That person would be my girlfriend. She'd see me come home everyday
from the studio and we'd listen to it. But not being there while
it was going on, but listening to it showed me a lot of perspective.
She kept me going: "Just keep doing what you're doing, you're
on the right track." And that's what I need to hear.
What do you do in your down time between recording and touring?
A lot of my free time was spent learning computer software and
digital editing. I make a lot of continuous hip-hop, drum 'n'
bass, and jungle mixes that go from one song to the next. And
learning how to do fades and remixing other people's music. We've
been working hard and learning how to do things for ourselves.
We're learning recording skills, whereas in the past, we'd go
into the studio and ask others to do it for us. Now we can do
the EQs for ourselves and learn the plug-ins for the trippy effects.
It's more fulfilling to do it ourselves instead of trying to get
someone else to realize your vision.
We were writing the music with the time off that we had. Just
rehearsing and taking time off. We took a good four months off
before we started this project, just to get our heads straight.
We had been out on the road for almost six years straight working
our asses off. We toured to get where we are, put out albums every
year. It was time to take a break from everything, really concentrate
on what we're doing and make it as timeless as possible.
Tell me about the band's working dynamic. How well do you get
along as a band?
I'm always amazed by how well we get along. Luckily, since we
have five people, we can vote on anything and it will be three-to-two
at worst. Sometimes people will say, "I don't care,"
and we say, "No, you have to vote." I'm always shocked
at how well we get along. We've played like a thousand shows.
The thing that impresses me most about 311 is the fact that we
constantly change. And that we are as hard as we are on each other
as far as writing and performing the songs, gelling with the instrumentalists
and vocalists, and making it as tight a package as possible. It's
not just a bunch of riffs with some words we thought of at the
last minute. It's really thought-out and really solid. We have
a lot of fun in the studio even though it sounds like a lot of
work. This experience in the studio was great because we took
a lot of time. We knew it would come up when it was ready and
not to push ourselves. And that was a first in the studio because
it's always stress-filled.
What is more important to you, having a hit single or being a
successful touring band?
I think that it's not vital for us to have hit singles because
we were making a good living before "Down" blew up.
We'll be able to tour on catalog and on our albums and the core
audience we've built up through touring. It's not crucial, but
I've always thought radio was free music for the people. I back
that, and there's nothing wrong with that. It can only ruin a
band when they try to hard to fit into a certain format. We've
always done rap-style rock, which wasn't a format when we started
out. We're in a comfortable place where we don't receive a lot
of pressure, but we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always
feel like we're going forward and putting in a lot of work.
Hit singles are not important to us. It's nice, and I'd be crazy
to say it hasn't elevated us--because it has. Touring as extensively
as we have makes it easier for us to exist without radio or MTV.
That's the bonus for all you bands out there. Just go out there
and tour your asses off and the kids will follow. Then radio and
MTV will follow. Make the kids No. 1. Make that connection with
people when they're two feet in front of you feeling your heat.
That's the connection. Go out there and pound the music into that
kid and then it will be real. It can't be any more real. Radio
and MTV are fickle, more fickle than anything. Just know that
live is where it's at.
Which scenario would you prefer: to achieve overnight success
or a slow gradual rise to the top?
I think that if the band gets a hit on its first album and gets
accustomed to a certain lifestyle and doesn't get it on the second
album, they may fall into a frustrated spiral and not recover
from that. We didn't really have any blow-up hits on our last
record, but we had the biggest tour we've ever had. I think it
depends--maybe if we'd blown up on our first album there would
be more of a risk. But we can tour, and so there's not a time
It's something Hollywood has been doing for years and years. Jim
Carrey comes out on the scene, has the little show he did doing
stand-up, and they eat him alive. You have to reinvent yourself
constantly or you'll be here today and gone today, like Chris
Rock said. It's totally true. That's how fast things are moving,
how short people's attention spans are. Keep learning from the
mistakes and the right things. Just grow, adapt, and be yourself!
What is the biggest career mistake you think you could make?
The biggest mistake we could make would be to do choreographed
dance moves--like the Britney Spears/ Backstreet Boys dance moves.
We won't be doing that anytime soon!
The biggest mistake we could make right now would be to believe
our own press. If you don't have someone from your past or someone
who's not in the biz telling you what's going on, you will start
living in a dream and you will lose it. That's no way to be. There's
an interview with James Brown on CNN from the '80s. He's wearing
yellow glasses that he thinks are blocking his eyes and they're
closed, and he's not making any sense. And it just seems like--don't
get me wrong, James, I love you--you've been living in your head
too long and it seems like you don't know what's going on. Everyone's
just telling you how great you are, and you are great. But you
can't be an entertainer all the time. You've got to be a human
being. You've got to be yourself. And if that is who you are,
I'm totally wrong, and I apologize, and have a great day.
How literate are you when it comes to computers and the Internet?
I am the one in the band who is known as the one who really embraces
the technology. I've become accustomed to taking in information
by having two computers running and flicking through my satellite
system. I just really love technology and don't think it's anything
to fear. It's an amazing communicative tool and I want to keep
expanding our website. We just launched a new, much cooler website
with motion and 3-D pictures, so you can get in and see the room
from different points of view. There's sound on there; I wanted
to make remixes of our songs and put them on there for free, and
there will be ways to vote for your favorite one. As things get
quicker, it will really revolutionize what people do in their
spare time. I'm excited about stuff like that and it's a healthy,
natural pastime. I'm always into technology.
I think like everybody, the Internet and the computer industry
has become a really big part of everybody's life--unless you're
traveling so much, or writing a book on an island somewhere. Being
able to retrieve info at the speed of telephone cable is pretty
fast, and you have access to worlds and worlds of information.
But again, you need to be yourself, you can't live in a box--that
what you see on that screen isn't necessarily true, and that you
have to take everything you see with a grain of salt, especially
national news. I do not believe that the MP3 format or the Real
Audio or any digital music transference will take over the record
companies anytime soon. There's money being lost somewhere. Those
freaks that have the time to download our entire album over the
Internet are the same people that will be first in line to get
the album when it comes out. Those freaks are the same freaks
who are our diehard fans who will go out and buy the album. But
our manager is ripping his hair out. When it comes down to us,
it's not going to bother us, I guarantee it.
If 311 had a message, what would it be?
If 311 had a message it would be the lyric I had on Transistor,
which is "One thing I've got to say before sales dive is
stay positive and love your life," because that's the core
of what we believe. You go around this world one time and you
have to make the best of it, see all the beauty you can, and embrace
it while you're here.
I would say it would just be a positive thing. We're not running
through the daisies and we're not total hippies--even though I
have dreads. We're more on the positive tip, having fun; we're
definitely into the live show thing. I think we could have existed
really well, not in the musical form, but more in the philosophy,
in the '70s. We tour our asses off. The reason we took such a
big break was so that we could tour as long as we wanted and give
it to people in just the way that we wrote the songs.
What song are you most likely to sing in the shower?
That would probably be "All Of Me." That song does something
The song I'm most likely to be singing in the shower could be
anything on any given day, but it would probably be a Tom Waits
song. Something that is easily sung when you have gravel in your
throat, which I often do in the morning. Or something by the Smiths.
I caught myself recently singing some Smiths this morning and
I was embarrassed by it. But it has to be someone in my range.
A baritone. Or there's no use.
What kind of music do you listen to on long road trips?
Currently it would have to be [one of] the new drum 'n' bass bands
called Breakbeat Era, a new Roni Size project. I just got an advance
Well, Curtis Mayfield would maybe be the first thing I put on
to smooth everyone out before I put on the Melvins to shake everyone
up and get them ready for the show. Something like that, something
bipolar, something smooth and then something real hectic.
What kind of music do you listen to during sex?
The best song to do it to would be the Adult Favorites station
I get on my satellite network. It's a horrible-sounding station,
but it's Perry Como, the cheesier side of Frank Sinatra, Nat "King"
Cole, Mel Tormé. That's my vibe.
I'm very fond of having sex in silence. In high school I was really
into listening to music and hiding some of the uncomfortable noises.
I'm much more of a man now and I want to hear those sounds now.
It's much more romantic. I think silence is a good thing. I knew
a couple in high school who would sing to each other while having
sex and that freaked me out. I'd much rather hear breathing.
What's the strangest thing that's ever happened to you onstage?
The strangest thing that I can remember happening to me onstage
is looking over and seeing P-Nut throwing up. He got so worked-up,
he just barfed and kept playing. He didn't miss a beat. He was
so wound-up with energy. This was back in '92 or '91.
I was in New Orleans at a very famous club where I met my girlfriend,
who I live with now. There was a girl in front of me rocking out.
She was standing in front of me for what felt like a couple minutes,
but it was probably only a few seconds; I gave her a swift kick
right in the gut. I didn't wound her too bad, but I was full of
adrenaline and kicked her down and the whole rest of the show
she was just giving me the double fingers. I felt so bad. I went
back to the bus and sulked. I felt bad, but I wanted my space
Before you were in 311, what was the best regular job you ever
I was a waiter in downtown L.A. and I was on the breakfast shift
and there was nobody there, and people would pay cash and I could
work the tickets a little bit and pocket the money...that was
the old days.
One of the best things about my life is that I haven't had too
many jobs. The only other job I had was at a Shoney's washing
dishes for two weeks. I just wanted a rack case for one of my
amps. I knew the manager there and I could do things at my own
pace. I saved up my money and quit. Beyond that, I cleaned houses
for my mom. She was a real estate agent. I couldn't complain about
any of the jobs I had. They weren't that bad and they all were
If you weren't in a successful rock band, what would you be doing
What would I be doing if I weren't a rock star? I would be the
new leader of the Branch Davidians.
I'd be teaching bass. I was teaching bass in Omaha at age of 15.
I had a lot of fun doing that. I would be in music no matter what.
I played violin from six to nine. I picked up guitar at 10, then
picked up bass at 11. It's a part of my life, I couldn't imagine
doing anything else.
What's the worst thing that's ever happened to the band?
The worst thing that's happened to us has got to be the RV fire
that we had in '93. Everything burned up; we barely escaped with
our lives. We lost our equipment, our clothes, and our cash. But
we borrowed some gear and played a show the next night. We tried
to turn it into a milestone, like, "If we can get through
this, we can get through anything."
Since I don't really brood too much on things like that, I have
to pull something out. I don't know...Not too many bad things
have happened. There was the RV fire; that wasn't bad, just a
roadblock, and that made us stronger as a unit. That would be
over for us or the beginning. We just kept on truckin'. It was
all we could do and was all we ever had a choice to do. Just jump
over it. It's either going to stop you or not.
Who is your favorite Backstreet Boy?
My favorite Backstreet Boy? Probably the one with facial hair.
My favorite Backstreet Boy would be the lack of Backstreet Boys.
But I do think it's really cool that there is an onslaught of
boy bands out there that totally legitimize 311. They're writing
the songs you've heard before. You never go, "Wow, what a
great part of the song!" You should stretch yourselves. If
I was in the band that's what I'd be telling them. That's why
I like being in 311, a musicians-controlled band vs. a manager-controlled
If you were to become a Spice Girl, which one would you like to
If I had to be a Spice Girl, I would be Scary Spice. She most
embodies the spirit.
All those bands were thrown together, including Spice Girls--people
will get sick of it, for one. If you don't write original music,
people will get sick of it faster. Being No. 1 ain't sh-t if you
don't have a future, and if you don't have a future, you're not
a musician, you're just a puppet, and that's bullsh-t. I think
I dress a little more like Sporty Spice than any of the other
ones. Since I don't know very much about them at all, I'd have
to say that, as far as attire goes. She's the only one who can
sing too, I've heard.
In your own words, what would you say your life most resembles?
Sometimes I feel like the son, Ben, on that show Dr. Katz. Sometimes
I'm sitting in my house, I don't know what to do with myself and
I relate to the loser son on Dr. Katz.
My life most resembles a cartoon. Whereas anything can happen,
a lot of times the shapes don't look normal, the colors are a
little off, and the characters are totally absurd.
In your mind, what is the most stupid lyric you've ever heard?
The stupidest song lyric? That would be, "I believe the children
are our future" [from Whitney Houston's "The Greatest
Love Of All"]. That's the stupidest song. It couldn't be
any more obvious or redundant.
That's so hard, because there's a billion dumb lines in a song.
If you deliver a bad line without confidence, people will laugh.
But if you deliver a bad line with confidence, it will slip by.
But who am I to say? I don't have the balls to put myself out
in that way. I hide behind my instrument, my hands, and the music
I create. I really look up to lyricists because that is being
naked in front of millions and millions of people. That would
be hard to answer. I'll cop out.
Which trend or person is on the way out?
Hopefully it's George W. Bush. Who's on their way out? Probably
the Backstreet Boys.
Management bands. Bands that don't have control. Bands that are
non-original. You've got to surprise people even a little, even
in the slightest. Do something for yourself--make yourself happy
and others will understand. Otherwise you're moving backwards
in this universe and you'll be forgotten really quickly.
Who would make the perfect celebrity love match?
Me and Les Claypool. We're going to make a bass album, a double
bass album, and it will be nasty. Really, really nasty and no
one will understand it but him and me.
Carmen Electra immediately comes to mind. You can't think of a
crazier match than Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman. They need
to get back together. They belong together. We're rooting for
If you could push anyone off a cliff, who would it be?
That's a mean question. But I don't know. Just the philosophy
behind the boy bands needs to be pushed off a cliff. It's not
for me to say if it's good or bad music--that's someone's art,
and it could mean the world to someone else. And just because
I'm in a different creative realm, it's hard for me to have perspective
on that. I think people can see through it, people know they were
pushed together: "Hi, this is the guy you're going to be
in a band with." And that's bullsh-t. You have to go through
stuff with each other to truly bond. I don't see a real bond there,
and that bond has been what's kept 311 together through the ups
and downs we've been through.
I think all boy bands should be pushed off a cliff. We're getting
away from bands that play their own songs, and there are so many
bands that write good music. There's a weird resurgence in manufactured
music, but eventually that makes room for good bands. There will
be a backlash. It's just weird that there's all this money being
put into this teen thing. But there will be a punk backlash.
What song are you tired of hearing?
Well, I don't submit myself to too much radio play. I have been
lately, because I've been listening for our song to come on because
I'm greedy. But I don't know. That's so hard. I don't immerse
myself in that kind of music so I don't get to that level of wanting
to hate them or not wanting to listen to that song anymore. That's
inevitably going to happen if you listen to that music too much,
because it has no curves--it's just a straight line. I would lump
them all together and tell them to originate next time.
I don't want to bust on anyone too much. Pick someone dead...um.
Nothing good's coming to mind.
If you were stranded on a desert island and you had to resort
to cannibalism, who would you want to be trapped with that you
would eventually have to eat?
I'd want them to be big so I could eat for a while. That's tough.
I keep thinking of basketball players. I'd like to meet Shaq.
That would be cool. And there's a lot of good eating on Shaq.
You could have Jerk Shaq. Thai Shaq. You could work out the whole
menu just on his legs alone. I'd like to really get down with
I like someone large. I like a real rich steak, like a Monica
Lewinsky cut, perhaps. If I had to resort to cannibalism, it would
probably be her.