Behind The Song: “Amber,” Nick Hexum of 311

In 2001, when the Omaha, Nebraska-born band, 311, released its newest single, “Amber,” from the album, From Chaos, it likely came as a surprise to most fans of the raucous group. In 1995, when 311 released its massively popular self-titled album, the band rocketed to fame with rock-rap-reggae hybrid songs that shook the paint off the walls like, “Down” and “All Mixed Up.”

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Throughout the band’s subsequent years, 311 has experimented with tones, moods, and sounds while still trading in the hybrid sonic space they helped establish in the mid-‘90s. But when “Amber” came out, it seemed like the most docile track from a band known for knocking the fillings out of your teeth.

But a mellow vibe was exactly the point, which 311 frontman Nick Hexum describes below about “Amber,” which hit No. 13 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts and was certified Gold. Here we catch up with Hexum to ask him about the track’s origins, impact, and feeling.

American Songwriter: What was the genesis of the hit song, “Amber”?

Nick Hexum: I was wanting to write the most gentle sounds that I could come up with. When you use an Envelope Filter [pedal], there’s nothing hard-hitting because all you’re hearing is the midrange: wah-wah-wah-wahhh, wah-wah-WAH-wah. It’s just the midrange, so it’s very easy on the ear, which to me matches the color amber.

If you look at the color of a sunset, you can stare right at it because it’s the least harsh color on the color scale. Blue is a lot harder on the eyes than amber. So, I was just imagining all this working together. It wasn’t really intended necessarily for 311. When I wrote it, I was hung-over and I smoked a few bong hits and I just got into making this—kind of like a painting.

There’s a lot of debate in the band about let’s be heavy or no let’s be more diverse. So, I felt like it wasn’t going to fly with my bandmates. But then it did, especially because the label was like, “This is such a special song.” Then it just really had legs. It was the third single we’d done on that album. So that kind of shows we didn’t know what was going to be successful. But I’m glad it came out.

So many people got married to it and it’s their song for their relationship. So, it’s nice to have that.

AS: Usually, with the third single, you have to twist the arm of the record company. What was that release process like for you and the song?

NH: Well, they don’t even do third singles anymore. Now, it’s just one and out. If the first one’s successful, you can get another one. But this was a different time back then when you still could. But, yeah, I guess it was just different enough that it caught on. But it was such a slow burn.

It took a long time for that to hit its peak, which was great because we could go out for the next—what, did it come out in 2001 or 2002? And up until 2006, it was just fueling shows. I remember in 2006, we were playing amphitheaters and they were turning people away from huge amphitheaters like PNC in New Jersey.

We had never dreamed that we would sell it out because it’s a huge amphitheater but we did during that time and it’s pretty cool.

AS: How did you find that riff? Did it just pop in your head?

NH: I’m trying to remember—I have this modified synth and I think I might have played it on there first. If you listen to the album version, there’s a warm synth mixed in with the guitar and I think that’s what came first. From our fourth album [1997’s Transistor] on, I’d gotten very into lush Hawaiian guitars with cool reverb and just cool island sounds, so I think that’s all over that song, “Amber.”

That surf guitar, dub styles, the Rolland Space Echo [pedal] that creates the unique dub sound that you hear all over the song. But it was written in one day, one morning. So, it’s nice when the concept comes so completely formed that you don’t have to sit there and bang your head on the piano. Just keep it and let it flow.

AS: What do you love most about the song today?

NH: I just love the way it’s become part of people’s lives and part of people’s history and their family and being their wedding song and stuff like that. It’s quite an honor.

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