Summer Music Preview: 311

311’s return to Omaha for Red Sky heads a sizzling season of music

“We were toiling away in the underground for so long, we were ready for the attention. It’s so different now with the Internet. Some viral video will happen so quickly that the group gets a bunch of attention, but they aren’t ready for it. They haven’t developed enough and people lose interest,” Nick Hexum says. “We used to stand down at Drastic Plastic to get any information on music we could. You had to work really hard to get the music back then. We were so hungry for it that I think our work ethic is something unique.“ Hexum is congenial and well-spoken on the telephone. He seems very accustomed to doing interviews. There’s a natural ease that oozes out as he speaks. As front man for Omaha music staple 311, he also knows something about breaking into the music industry and attaining longevity. Back in the early ’90s, it wasn’t as easy as throwing a video on YouTube or MySpace to achieve instant fame. You had to put in work. And 311 did. Their 20 years together as a band is a testament to their tenacity. Hexum started his own label, What Have You Records, while still attending Omaha’s Westside High School and put out two independent releases, Damnit! and Unity. Shortly after relocating to Los Angeles in 1992, 311 was signed to Capricorn Records and have been going strong since. Vocalist/guitarist Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, drummer Chad Sexton, vocalist Doug “S.A.” Martinez and bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills started playing together in the early ’90s when bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains were heavy influences on the impressionable teenagers. Punk and reggae have always been prevalent in their material. “The Clash was a huge inspiration to me,” Hexum says. “That was the band that totally blew my mind. They had the energy of punk with reggae mixed in there, and other kinds of music from all over the world. They had this attitude that anything goes. We’ve been influenced by that. I went through a huge Beatles phase, too. I listened to a lot of The Smiths and The Cure when alternative was truly alternative.” The word “alternative” carries a different connotation now than it did in the ’90s. “Indie” has taken its place, but overall, it’s still in the rock category. However, 311 almost transcends genres. With hints of reggae, rock, funk, hip-hop, ska and jazz, they are difficult to cram into a tidy little box. Their sound is too big for that. Record sales are inching towards 9 million sold for their career and Hexum, while extremely grateful, isn’t that surprised. “I believed it was definitely possible. In this business, you really have to believe in yourself. You go through disappointment and rejections all the time. People tell you it’s not going to work,” he says. “You have to believe in yourself. I was betting everything on it so I thought we were going to be successful. It has exceeded a lot of my expectations though. “We were on Capricorn for 15 years, on Jive Records for five years and Universal Pulse is our first album on 311 Records, our joint venture with ATO Records. We’re taking the reins this time and doing it for ourselves. You have to expect to have to work hard and not expect for things to come to you,“ he continues. “We’re doing remixes and videos for a handful of songs. We’re handling promotions for ourselves, too. You can’t just write a song and hand it off to management. You have to help.” Perhaps that relentless work ethic is behind the band’s substantial accomplishments. 1993’s Music and 1994’s Grassroots, while not commercially successful, are the two records that really captured their huge fan base, which came mostly from the college circuit. However, it was 1995’s self-titled album that was deemed a “hit,” reaching triple-platinum status a year later. Soon, 311 was headlining summer festivals and sharing the stage with notable acts such as No Doubt and Incubus. As their audiences grew, the mainstream media was essentially forced to take notice and the band began shooting up the charts, culminating with the single “Down” hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. Through the years, their positive outlook and uplifting messages they convey through their music seem to be the cohesive forces keeping them inspired. When asked what keeps them going, Hexum didn’t hesitate. “I guess it’s just that we’re music lovers first. We’re big fans of music and we’re always checking out new stuff. There are whole new frontiers waiting to be discovered. We’re constantly checking out different styles, lyrics and sounds to be inspired by. Some people sound like old fogies and say that they won‘t listen to this or that, but there is something I like in every genre,” he says. Martinez feels similarly about the luxury of being able to make music for a living, especially for so long. It’s rare these days to have a band around longer than a decade and 311 has been around for more than two. “When you’re from Nebraska, if you can’t be the best there, then where can you be?” Martinez says, laughing. “It was really hard to break out initially. But I honestly think patience was the key. It has to be engrained in you in order to be able to communicate with one another. We are so fortunate to be able to sustain our career. I’m just so grateful.” Unfortunately, as well as 311 has done, there are still plenty of people out there who negate their triumphs. A lot of people say the fact they come from Omaha was a disadvantage for them because, back in the 90’s, Omaha wasn’t the “indie mecca” that it is today. In fact, it was nearly impossible to name a single band out of Omaha that achieved any sort of world-wide recognition. Now, Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint are all practically industry household names. 311 is co-headlining the first Red Sky Music Festival, Omaha’s loose attempt at a Coachella or Lollapalooza. The backlash towards the 311 announcement on Red Sky’s Facebook page was almost jarring — as has much of the reaction to three-fourths of the festival’s bookings has been so far. People have posted comments that say things like “this festival is an embarrassment” and “this festival is terrible, you embarrass Omaha” but Hexum is having no part of it. “I don’t even respond,” he says. “There’s just a world of so many opinions. You can’t please everybody. No music is for everybody. Promoters do the best they can. I’ve met a lot of artists and actors since I moved to L.A. When they get into their zone, they figure, ‘Hey I m not for everybody.’ There’s other stuff to go listen to. I’m comfortable with it all. “Besides, I’m proud of Omaha. I’m glad to hear that Omaha music is getting the attention it deserves. I always say Omaha is a lot cooler than people might think. I think we’ll make a set list that is a nod to our longtime Omaha fans in honor of the festival.” Despite negativity spewing from some of the locals, 311 is one of Omaha’s biggest success stories. Period. Whether you love them or hate them, their catalog speaks volumes, as do the endless numbers of sold-out shows they’ve headlined. It just so happens their Red Sky Festival show, takes place on the same day, July 19, as Universal Pulse drops their 12th studio album. It appears as if 311 isn’t going anywhere. While the album is admittedly shorter than previous records, Hexum and Martinez are confident it’s their best to date. “It’s true this record is our shortest yet. We just decided to put quality over quantity. We did four tours last year and we were on the road so much. We figured our fans would want to hear something sooner. We just picked the best songs and pursued them to a certain level of quality. I feel like this is our most solid album,” Hexum concludes. “It’s true, piracy killed the record sales business so we moved the focus to the live show. We were about that anyway, so it hasn’t had that much of an effect on us. In fact, we probably got more fans that haven’t heard about us. You used to be able to have a career by staying home and just making albums, but that’s not possible anymore. I wouldn’t want it like that anyway.” 311 headlines the mainstage at the Red Sky Festival July 19. The festival, which features acts such as Journey, Kid Rock. Zack Brown Band and Jason Aldean, is July 18-23 in and around TD Ameritrade Park. For more information, visit redskyfestival.com.

posted at 05:09 pm
on Thursday, June 09th, 2011

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