Nick Hexum on 30 Years with 311, Anniversary Tour

There are a number of bands from the ’90s that called it quits, or embarked on indefinite hiatuses and released two or three albums within the past three decades. That’s never been the circumstance for 311. Releasing material from the earlier ’90s through the early aughts, and their most recent Voyager in 2019, 311 survived the decades — and then some. To commemorate the Omaha-bred band’s 30 years together, 311 went back to the beginning, to their 1993 debut, Music, with a 30th anniversary edition of the album.

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“When I hear the Music album, I can hear the excitement,” Hexum tells American Songwriter. “I can hear the wide-eyed kid in the candy store, being freshly out of Omaha [Nebraska] and in a big-time studio.” He adds, “It was like riding a bucking bronco with how much energy was exploding out of us at that time.”

Still feeding that energy, the remastered reissue, which also features the band’s 1992 demos of “Welcome,” “Visit,” “Feels So Good,” and “Paradise,” will accompany an anniversary tour in late 2023, and a forthcoming album.

Along with the band’s continuing cruises, 311—vocalist Nick Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist P-Nut, drummer Chad Sexton, and DJ SA Martinez—recently released a new beer called Come Original India Pale Ale from El Segundo Brewing and saw a resurgence of their 2001 hit “Amber” on TikTok.

To celebrate the band’s three decades, Hexum took a trip back in time, to the early days of 311 with memories from Music, the resurgence of the band’s songs over the years, and how they still manage to get “props” for their older songs from 14-year-olds.

American Songwriter: It’s crazy that it’s been 30 years since Music. How does that compute? 

Nick Hexum: In the early years of the band, time was kind of slowed down, because I have lots of memories of the first five years. I don’t have near as many memories of the last five years of the band as I do have of the first five years of the band. I ran into someone from school, and she was like, “We were in kindergarten together. This is the school yearbook,” and I could name every single person because I had met a lot of people. It was like a blank hard drive. If I think back to five years ago, I would have trouble remembering people. It’s like an algorithm where you just have lots more memories of the first few years, but time does seem to gradually speed up. It’s just the nature of time progression.

AS: So many bands have split since 1993, or they’ve had lengthy hiatuses with only two or three albums in 30 years, but 311 stayed consistent. What’s the band’s secret sauce?

NH: I think it’s keeping, as I like to say, an attitude of gratitude. We know that we’re very fortunate to be able to do what we do. We know that we stumbled onto something very special—the chemistry of the five of us and that we do better together than we could do separately. It’s the definition of a symbiotic relationship. So we take care of it—practice, good communication, trying to be flexible, be ready to not get your way at times, respect the democracy, and be able to go with the flow and not insist too much.

AS: Whether it’s “All Mixed Up” and “Down,” or deeper cuts that people want to hear live, listeners have their own personal link to 311’s music. What’s your connection to some of the band’s older songs now?

NH: I remember a time when “All Mixed Up” was having its own sort of resurgence. Somehow it was clicking with people because of the dancehall reggae stuff, and now I feel like “Amber” is on its fifth wind because it’s being discovered by my oldest daughter’s friends. They’ll just tell me out of nowhere when I’m picking up carpool: “I love your song ‘Amber.” It’s cool getting props from 14-year-olds. A song like “Beautiful Disaster” is also seeming to have its moment. It’s always fun to see these connections with people’s lives.

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AS: How does Music resonate with you now?

NH: When I hear the Music album, I can hear the excitement. I can hear the wide-eyed kid in the candy store, being freshly out of Omaha [Nebraska] and in a big-time studio, where our producer was rattling off the records that had been recorded at Cherokee Studios, where we did our first recording when we got to LA. It was like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson—so much history. We were just so excited, and you can really hear the explosive energy. It was like riding a bucking bronco with how much energy was exploding out of us at that time. I can also hear a certain … I don’t want to say sloppiness, because people are always telling us “You’re very tight.” I don’t know if we’re as tight then as we were just super energetic, but people describe that as being tight. 

I just remember a lot of energy. It was something that was kind of new in music at that time, to have that kind of punk rock explosiveness mixed with funk and reggae and hip-hop, and stuff like that. Then you would go to the shows, and people would just go buck wild. The entire place was a mosh pit.

AS: You say people mistook your energy for being tight. When do you think 311 actually got tight as a band?

NH: I was doing a piece where I talked about five albums I can’t live without. I mentioned London Calling [The Clash] because they had that perfect convergence of all this youthful energy and they also got their chops down and were able to competently go in a lot of different directions at once. For 311, I think that was our “Blue” album, the 311 self-titled one, because that’s when I thought “We’ve got it down guys. We are in the zone.” Now we have done hundreds of hundreds of shows on tour, so this is kind of like our re-debut, because now we’re entering our middle period, where we really have our stride. I do think there was something to that album [311], and that ultimately turned out to be our big breakthrough.

AS: If someone’s listening to Music for the first time, how do you think they would absorb it now, compared to ’93?

NH: Music was remarkably musical. That’s why we called it Music. Even though we were doing hip-hop and things like that at the time, there was a lot of sampling. It’s hard to believe that at the time, there was still a lot of debate about the musicality of hip-hop music. We were like “Well, this is distinctly musical, what we’re doing, and we’re gonna have to call it Music because this is our definition as a time capsule. This is everything we like in music.”

A debut album is kind of like the greatest hits of your youth. Our teenage years all culminated in this one thing. Maybe that’s why a lot of artists have a sophomore slump, because we had our whole lives to write that first album, and now we’ve got a year or less to write the second one.

AS: Whether it’s Music or 311, and something later on like Uplifter, how has songwriting shifted for you over this time?

NH: I definitely have expanded my tool belt since then. If you take the opening chords of “All Mixed Up,” I think “Where did that come from?” It’s just this ascending half-step thing that would have never occurred to me now because it doesn’t make any sense. I think there was more trial and error then, and more just inadvertent rule-breaking.

Now, I do believe that the more knowledge and influence I have, the better. I’m not one of those people that says “I’m never going to learn about music theory because that’s going to ruin my style.” I feel like it’s a continuing world that you can explore by learning about how music works, and how other artists do things, and studying the greats. But sometimes I do look back like, and it didn’t make any sense, like “How did I stumble upon that?”

AS: Sonically, what kind of space are you in with the new album?

NH: Chad [Sexton] and I each put forth a few songs. The first two songs that I had, and the first two songs that he put forth all had drop D, which means heavy riffs, so that’s where we started. At the same time, I also want to do some really pretty songs as well and explore some lighter moments. I always want to make the hard stuff harder, and the soft stuff prettier, if possible, and just keep going in multiple directions, and not lose either side of our band.

I think there are some lyrics about connection versus disconnection. People have been through a lot since our last album — culturally and with the pandemic — so it’s trying to make sense of it and look more for our similarities with our fellow humans, instead of focusing on the differences, and just kind of making sense of it all and realizing the importance of feeling connected. 

I always say that people need to relate. That’s why we seek relationships. We need to feel understood and feel like we’re having a shared experience. It’s just kind of getting down to the philosophy and the core of why we have friendships and relationships and how to make sense of it all, even though there’s been like a time of division where everything seemed so confusing. We’re moving on from that.

AS: What’s in store for 311, in the next 30 years?
I think we’re going strong. We have some really exciting new music, and everybody seems to be communicating really well and excited to play. We also don’t have too much of a breakneck pace. Usually, by late June, we would be on tour by now, but now we’ve decided that we’re going to have more time at home with the family.

We’re also working on some new music in July and August, and we’re in full swing. I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

Photos by Brian Bowen Smith / Big Picture Media

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