Nick Hexum Reflects on the 30 Years of 311

So much has happened in 30 years. In some respects, it doesn’t seem like any time has passed since 311 hit the scene with their breakthrough, self-titled album in 1995. Already a fixture within their native Omaha circuit, the album was the band’s third but it was their most momentous—at that point—and set the scene with the love and party anthems of “Down” and “All Mixed Up” and everything else that 311 would deliver throughout the next 25 years.  

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Through the years, 311 have remained constant—even claiming March 11 as “National 311 Day”— and consistent, releasing albums since 1993 debut Music through their most recent, 13th record Voyager in 2019.

Now three decades in, the band has managed to tap across generations, and recently embarked on its 50 Dates in 50 States tour earlier this year to commemorate 30 years as a band. Kicking off during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the tour continued through a Las Vegas show on March 11 (3/11, of course) before everything shutdown following the coronavirus outbreak.

Although the 50 shows were put to a halt, Nick Hexum says that he’s glad the band managed to get to play some of the last concerts in the country—for the time being. 

“People traveled from all over the world [to see us],” Hexum tells American Songwriter. “There were people from Australia, who, if they came all that way for nothing, it would have been a major bummer. All this actually added an air of magic, because it was like, ‘this is going to be the last time we’re gonna be able to do this for a while.’”

Split between homeschooling, learning activities, outdoor play time, and family bonding, Hexum, who has three daughters with wife Nikki, is affectionately calling his kids “Corona Buddies” now. Whoever you’re bunkering with right now, that’s your corona buddy,” says Hexum. “So let’s help each other out.”

For 311, the idea to take on 50 Dates in 50 States came up toward the end of 2019 when the band wanted to do something notable to mark 30 years. The idea just popped up, and it stuck. Ready—physically and mentally—for 50 dates (and trekking to 50 states), the band has always had an almost Olympic mindset with touring, and already have 26 consecutive, summer tours behind them, so “50-in-50” made sense. 

“I think we’ve just learned to really train for the tours, almost like athletes,” says Hexum. “I’m making sure my chops, whether it’s my voice or my playing, are ready to go because it’s a series of muscles that have to be ready to perform. [It’s] just having a commitment to working really hard for it, and then taking care of ourselves in our off-time.”

Today, most 311 fans have been with the band for the long haul—high school, college, and beyond—representing multiple generations, including old-school Gen-X fans, who now have kids. “Older fans are bringing their kids, and i just love that, because that’s such a huge part of what my family does—bonding through music,” says Hexum. “I get extra excited when i see multigenerational families at our shows.”

Back in 1988 when the band initially started piecing together, there was a simple formula in place for the Nebraska-bred band. Hexum, along drummer Chad Sexton, Jim Watson (replaced by Tim Mahoney soon thereafter), and bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, were ready. In 1992, Doug “SA” Martinez officially jumped in on vocals and turntables after he made several spot appearances and has been with the band since.

“We just kind of had a feeling that, ‘alright, let’s break it down to the very basics of, we gotta’ get our music recorded, we gotta’ get it on tape, we gotta sell those tapes on consignment at the local record store… at the shows,’” he says. “And then it just started picking up momentum, and we just kind of kept that do-it-yourself philosophy once we started to have the help of managers and the record company.”

Grassroots and DIY from the beginning, the band did everything on their own, down to their first, homegrown independent releases, including the band’s debut EP, 1989’s Downstairs, recorded in Hexum’s basement.

“It was very do-it-yourself, very grassroots, [and] inspired by the punk ethic and small labels like Sub Pop that were happening in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” says Hexum. “I don’t know if I thought that far ahead, but I felt like we had something really special and that we had to get it out there.”

Now 30 years later, Hexum feels grateful and fortunate that they’ve managed to keep a family vibe and brotherhood within the unit for so long. “It now extends to having kids, and wives, and a big crew and organization, and our fan base, and how they bond with each other, especially in this weird crisis time,” says Hexum. “It’s nice to know that there are people pulling for you and are there for you if need be, and so we need to be there for our loved ones.”

Still pending COVID-19 lockdown, the band’s 50 Dates tour also follows the release of the band’s 13th studio album, Voyager (2019), which Hexum says helped them get the creative juices flowing again. Voyager is harder, mixing in some synthy psychedelic beats and riffs, and while it only subtly departs from the band’s rap-and-reggae-roots, is authentic 311 at its core.

Mosaic, the band’s 2017 release is one Hexum considered a breakthrough, and directly segued into the more experimental sound of Voyager. “I got a lot more excited by the creativity in Mosaic and Voyager, so it just felt like, ‘okay, I see where we need to go,’” says Hexum.  “I try and write what I like, because that’s the only way an artist can really reach people—to follow their own muse.”

Writing 311 tracks goes through a variation of processes. First, Hexum wants a good catchy, sing-a-long melody, but they typically work out the parts of a track together.

“Sometimes you take a song like ‘Charge It Up,’ and that was where Chad just went down an instrumental rabbit hole and writes a series of riffs, and then we kind of put some trippy vocals over it,” says Hexum. “Then other songs, we would sit down and hammer it out with me and P-Nut sitting down with a producer and writing [something like] ‘Born to Live’— just putting up a beat and P-Nut improvising on that bass line—and one thing led to another.”

At the band’s recent show in Vegas, they opened with “Freak Out” from debut album Music with a backdrop of four screens, one screening their current performance and the three others showing recordings of the band performing the song, synching four different eras. 

“It’s overload,” says Hexum. “You need to probably watch it three or four times, like, ‘okay, this time I’m gonna watch this screen to see what they were doing in this or that year. It just kind of brings a lot of reminiscing into it.”

He adds, “I just hope the concert business is ready to reopen. We don’t want to put everybody in danger, so everything is just kind of on hold right now.”

Moving ahead, 311 is as ready as they’ve always been, for 30 years. Hexum has even modified his on-to-road recording set up to a laptop, guitar, and a mic. There’s more in the works beyond Voyager and the pending 50 Dates in 50 States tour.

“For me, days off are usually gonna be like take a cannabis edible, and write some songs, and just trip out on different ideas and keep the creativity flowing,” says Hexum. “You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

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