Nick Hexum on The Origins of 311, Keys to Success and Two-Month Tour

Certain types of people just love the spotlight and Nick Hexum is admittedly one of those people. He enjoys the attention. It’s what he tells fans who come up to the frontman and co-founder of the genre-bending band, 311, when they ask for autographs or selfies. “I’m so sorry to bother you, do you mind?” they say, timidly. He replies, “If I didn’t like the attention, I would have picked a different career.” In other words, he digs the whole kit-and-caboodle of being a well-known musician. Hexum has been doing just that since 1995 when 311 broke through mainstream culture with its self-titled LP and hits like “Down” and “All Mixed Up.” Today, some 30 years after the band formed, they’re on tour spreading the good 311 word.

“It’s great to get back into amphitheaters,” says Hexum, three days into a 36-show two-month tour that concludes October 17.

During the pandemic, Hexum connected with fans digitally. Months into quarantine, he thought about a new way to both interact with and teach people about music.

“The last Monday of each month,” Hexum tells American Songwriter, “I recorded a cover song from scratch on camera, sharing my Pro Tools screen. So, it was like a recording class. I’d start with a guitar riff and add stuff until I mixed it, and I’d send it out to fans that day.”

While Hexum enjoys the immediacy of this regular interaction, to be back on the road now and feel the engagement with fans in a real live setting is admittedly better. Playing live, Hexum can get closer to what he loves most about music in the first place: its ability to weave together lives and experiences, interactions and memories, neighbors and strangers, alike.

“Music has an almost inexplicable capacity,” Hexum says, “to help people relate through evoking emotions. Because if you were just to write the word ‘sad’ on a piece of paper, okay you know what that means. But if you play a piece of music you wrote while you were sad, people can really feel that.”

For Hexum, this relationship and the constant potential for it through music is an essential experience. Human beings need to be social —if anything, 2020 taught the world that. And music is one of those things that glue people together in literal and figurative harmony.

“Such a crucial part of the human experience is to share,” Hexum says. “People need to relate, that’s why we seek relationships. We have to share our experiences and music is probably the most effective way to share experiences—that’s why people love it. Yes, there’s cinema and books. But for me, nothing is as good as music.”

Hexum is quick to note that his life as a professional musician is a “dream come true.” And that dream began with an 8-track player in his childhood home. His parents were big music fans, so the stuff was always on in the house and it comprises some of Hexum’s earliest memories. The 8-track, specifically, was an easy device for toddlers to negotiate; he could just slide the cartridges in.

Hexum’s family listened to Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. He was obsessed from the age of five and he got his first guitar at 12. But something important happened for Hexum a few years before that. In 1979 when he was nine years old, he and his family moved from Omaha to Washington D.C. for a year while he was in fourth grade.

“I was exposed to urban culture,” he says. “I would rap the entire 15-minute version of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the bus. I went from this total white-bread Omaha world to a super mixed world that blew my mind. I fell in love with all that funky music.”

Later, in the mid-‘90s, after forming 311, the band was in Los Angeles to pursue bigger things. The members appreciated the other hybrid bands of the time, many of which were in L.A., like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Fishbone. After releasing two LPs—Music (1993) and Grassroots (1994)—311 blew up in 1995 with its self-titled album rich with rock, rap, and reggae that eventually went triple platinum.

“I’ve always loved all kinds of music,” Hexum says.

The crowds got bigger and younger. The band continued on and, in 2001, they released their other smash hit, “Amber,” a significantly more mellow track that brought even more fans under the tent. To date, countless folks have told Hexum and the band that they got married to the song “Amber” or it’s their relationship’s official song. For Hexum, a lot of hard work paid off.

“We felt like we had put in those 10,000 hours,” he says.

As a songwriter, Hexum pays attention to many things, but a song’s hook and melody might be at the top of the list. While he’s always open to experiment with different aspects of the genre—7th chords and odd key signatures—when it comes to a new song, the hook and melody line must carry water. That’s always been the key. That’s what people recognized and keep on recognizing still.

“It was a slow build,” Hexum says. “We didn’t really have industry support until after the underground was demanding us so much. We had street teams sending out letters saying please request our song. Finally, MTV put us in a Buzz Clip and everything changed.”

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