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311's Nick Hexum on Hitting the Road With Dirty Heads & Embracing Their Cult Status

311
Brian Bowen Smith

311

Regardless of whether they have a new album out, the five men in 311 always hit the road in summertime to reconnect with their fans. This year marks two decades of that time-honored ritual, which has been augmented in recent years by epic concerts and cruises to celebrate 311 day in March. When the band's frontman Nick Hexum sits down to chat with Billboard, it is just before they embark on their current Stateside trek -- and he is ready.

"Time to go to work and have fun," declares the singer and guitarist. "Work is play."

Getting to the point where he can casually proclaim that, Hexum and his bandmates – DJ/vocalist Doug "SA" Martinez, guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist Aaron "P-Nut" Wills and drummer Chad Sexton – have worked hard to hone their craft and keep propelling the group forward. Their 13th and latest album Voyager pulls from their successful template of rap, rock, funk and reggae sounds. As with recent 311 efforts, this album finds the cannabis-friendly rockers reinterpreting their influences in new ways. Some songs veer into trippy passages that are no doubt fueled by their affinity for lighting up.

Voyager's first single, "Good Feeling," offers such a variation. "I think that we've decided to test eclectic-ness and take it further with going from something that is just pure joy, like 'Good Feeling,' and then pairing that on an album with songs that are so heavy and unrepetitive," notes Hexum. "It's forcing our listeners to be open minded by putting both of those things on the same album together. 'Good Feeling,' for me, is a modern take on our very first single. The song 'Do You Right' was just this feel good song about friendship and love and joy. It's just a pure happy song, so on 'Good Feeling,' we uncork the positivity and let it go as far as it wants to go. Songs at their best can be a little vacation where it takes you out of any troubles you have. That's what 'Good Feeling' is."

There is also a greater degree of nuance and sophistication to the band's performances now that's far ahead of where they started. They read each other better musically, and that's not lost on them, particularly with their 30th anniversary approaching next year and their original roster still intact. "You're getting an experience that you can't find anywhere else with musicians that have communicated and grown together for that long," says Hexum. "We just know each other's style, we know each other's strengths. It's a strong bond, and I think you can hear that in the music. There's just no substitute for that kind of a foundation."

The colorful and slightly trippy cover of Voyager, a sci-fi inspired piece created by artist Sam Williams of U.K. studio MagicTorch, symbolizes looking forward to the future and expanding one's mind. "You know, we're searchers," muses Hexum. "I think there's a metaphor of space travel for personal growth, looking for truths, and finding our way in this world."

The guys in 311 previously learned some valuable creative and life advice from Bob Rock, who produced 2009's Uplifter and 2011's Universal Pulse. He had already gone through the experience of keeping a fractured Metallica together, as chronicled in the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster. "He would tell us to avoid trigger words," recalls Hexum. "Like, 'Don't say that part's boring because that can be like an insult' and 'don't point fingers.' It was stuff we intuitively knew, but it just firmed up positive communication."

Positivity is a term that gets tossed around a lot in reference to 311. But as Hexum has noted before, their lyrics do not simply espouse an upbeat, life-affirming or party-hearty vibe. A song like Voyager opener "Crossfire" has a darker vibe to it.

"We try and have the full range of emotion being expressed in our music," says Hexum. "I have demons and dark thoughts. The lyrics in 311 are about the struggle to stay positive and keep a good attitude, even know there are tough things both internally and externally. I think that humans in general have a negativity bias where we focus on what's wrong in the world. That makes us successful as a species because we're always trying to get better and you build bigger and improve all the time because we're focused on what's wrong. But that can also have a dark side to that where you can become depressed and feel bad about yourself in comparison to others. It has to be tempered where you say, 'Yes, we can improve, but let's also appreciate this current moment.' And by most measures of society, things are actually getting better as far as health and wealth and fulfillment and all the different things that you can measure. Those are all moving in the right direction even if people don't feel like it."

It can admittedly be tough for some people to maintain an upbeat viewpoint, not just because of political toxicity, but with social media fueling personal insecurities. 

"People can become depressed when they're looking at all these other people that are posting this Photoshopped view of their life," Hexum says. "They're hate liking people on social media, and then they're feeling bad about themselves. You do have to realize that everybody is going through highs and lows. There have been some illnesses in my family lately. My mom has fought cancer. It's part of life and we're all on a similar path, so don't believe that someone else has a way better life than you because everybody has their struggles." (Hexum's mother is now in remission from the cancer.)

For Hexum, the most lyrically personal song on Voyager is the reggae-laced "Dodging Raindrops." "I think everybody goes through phases of isolating, procrastinating, avoiding life, dodging raindrops," says the singer. "That was a title that I was just sitting on for years. Then I sat down with P-Nut and John Feldmann and cranked out this song that is just a great blend of lyrics, melody and performance that I'm just really excited about." The song itself has an atmospheric, downbeat chorus to contrast with the perkier vibe of the tune, sonically mirroring the lyrical conflict.

With regards to production on their new album, 311 maintained the approach from their last effort, Mosaic. "We have a split philosophy where some songs are gonna be old school 311 using Scotch Ralston who is our long-time producer and sound man," says Hexum. "And then other songs are going to have a much more modern, try new things vibe where we work with John Feldmann. That formula on Mosaic really, really worked, so we did it again on Voyager." The split this time is four songs with Feldmann and nine with Ralston.

New Voyager songs "Crossfire" and "Stainless" have a darker metal vibe to them, and rather than ping off their '90s influences, they step into classic metal territory with heavy riffing. "There's kind of a thrash element in those and maybe a nod to Bad Brains or some of our early influences," notes Hexum. "I was more of a punk rocker than a metaller, but I also loved every style of music. I think on Mosaic we kicked open a new door of finding a way to use EDM-style rhythms but having really heavy guitars with that. We opened that up with songs like 'Too Late' and 'Wildfire,' and I think we just keep going through that door on the current album."

Although techno was popular in the '90s when 311 first broke big and the EDM movement has been thriving for years, the SoCal-based group has never pushed the beats too hard in their music, even with DJ/singer SA Martinez manning the turntables.

"When you've got a drummer as good as Chad Sexton, you need to have natural drums in your music," says Hexum. "But we do also add in different samples and stuff. Whether it's island music or jazz, funk or EDM, we just like to take influence from all over the place. There is a really cool underground of extremely heavy music. Some of the heaviest new music I've heard is by electronic artists, like this post-dubstep stuff like Skrillex. It gets me pretty excited."

Hexum and his bandmates are certainly happy to be on the road this summer with Dirty Heads, a like-minded, genre-crossing group for whom 311's frontman made a guest appearance on the 2017 album Swim Team. "It's a definitely kindred spirit there," says Hexum. "We've become good friends with them. They're just a little younger than us, so they told us that they came up on our music and that there's an influence there. And then just a kindred spirit of a good time, summer party, barbecue vibe that just really works with ours."

The 311 frontman says he embraces the cult status of what his band of brothers does, even though that's funny to hear from a quintet that's racked up nine consecutive top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 (will this be the 10th?). Perhaps the best way to put it is that they are big like Phish, in that quiet way that jam bands dominate behind the mainstream curtain.

"It's great for me because I don't want to live any kind of celebrity lifestyle," says Hexum. "I like to be a musician and also just be a very regular person and blend [in]. I think these people that are famous for being famous are probably miserable because everything is based on how well they're doing in social media and so forth. For me, just knowing we've taken influence from jam bands that are a live band first. The studio stuff is important, but we're all about the live thing. We're going to tour every summer, whether we have a new album or not. We're going to keep that relationship going with our fans and everything else will just take care of itself."