Since its first stirrings in Omaha, Nebraska more than ten years ago, 311 has skirted the fringes of various trends and subcultures, yet staunchly maintained its own identity -- even after relocating to Los Angeles in 1992. The quintet began touring its way to success before Korn, and unlike Korn, pack as much hippie appeal as punk aplomb. A fair number of rock outfits have lurched between the Warped and Ozzfest circuits, but not many can boast a stint on H.O.R.D.E. as well. And, long before Orange County spewed forth scores of lightweight variations on ska-punk-pop, singer/guitarist Nick Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, DJ SA Martinez, drummer Chad Sexton and bassist P-Nut were dabbling with high-octane mixtures of reggae, ska, punk, metal and pop.
The glue that keeps 311 together, and the fuel that keeps it going, is friendship and mutual belief in the music it makes. There's little drama in this band -- it's simply made up of five guys who are in sync with each other personally and professionally.
With its latest effort, Soundsystem, 311 has reeled in some of the rampant dub tendencies that gave 1997's Transistor its heady sprawl, and created a tight batch of tunes that should fit right in with the band's live shows. The album title was inspired by a trip to Jamaica that Martinez and Hexum made last year. The two musicians were struck by the vital role that music plays in the communities they visited. Most Jamaican towns have a community soundsystem that is the heart of social activities. The idea of the soundsystem held a natural appeal for 311 which has been igniting its own block parties for droves of faithful fans since its inception. The block parties have gotten bigger over the years, but the spirit behind them hasn't changed.
Guitar.com: You still seem as fiercely independent now as when you started out even though you're an 'established act' at this point.
Nick Hexum: We were pretty much left to our own devices to promote our band and set our destiny for many years until we had a record label come to bat for us and hooked up with our manager who has worked his ass off, and really kicked ass for us. There were so many ups and downs and we figured, "We'll just go out and play concerts and we're gonna put on such a good show that those few people that are there are gonna tell their friends." And we played a lot of horrible shows -- we played stupid bars where no one was there, we played a country bar, we got booked in some of the stupidest places. I'm glad to be past that. Now we only have to do stuff that we want to.
Guitar.com: Do you have any special preparations you go through before you hit the road?
Tim Mahoney: Mostly trying to stay in shape aerobically 'cause by the time we play our first live show it'll be like a year-and-a-half since the last time we played. Even if you're not jumping around the whole time it's an aerobic kind of physical thing.
Guitar.com: Do you jog?
Mahoney: I used to. I had a basketball injury actually while we were mixing and wrecked my ankle so I just go out for a little walk each morning, listen to music while I walk just to get the blood flowing.
Guitar.com: What's in your Walkman these days?
Mahoney: Soundsystem, actually. I've just been listening to it every morning because so much of it is mental, too. So when we start rehearsing, I have it in my head mentally. And I've gotta remember also physically how to play the notes. If I'm confident mentally then it makes it a lot easier.
Guitar.com: They did a basketball study years ago to see if positive visualization had any effect on performance and found that it had at least as much of an effect as physical practice.
Mahoney: Wow. Interesting. You create your own reality.
Guitar.com: Exactly. So the reality of Soundsystem is much more rocking than Transistor.
Mahoney: Yeah. We kinda did whatever we felt on Transistor and that was just where we were at the time, but when we were getting together to start writing, rehearsing and pre-production for this, we talked about faster tempos and more rockin' songs, and that's just what everyone was into playing. We have a couple slow tempo songs but they're with tuned down guitars and heavier. It's a more rock album. Definitely.
Guitar.com: Are you self-taught or did you have lessons?
Mahoney: Most of the structured music stuff I learned in band in like grade school and junior high. I played trombone all the way through junior high, but during junior high is when I started playing guitar too, and then by high school I just dropped the trombone. I really wish I wouldn't have, but I learned about music a little bit like that, and then most every thing else is self-taught. I had a good friend who showed me a lot of things, too, on the guitar. I took, I think, two guitar lessons, but just the guitar instructor that I had was more geared towards learning to sight read, and I was into heavy metal and punk rock. I wanted to learn bar chords and punk rock.
Hexum: Since I played guitar I got away with not having to be in the marching band and all that, so I played in just the jazz combo and that's how I met Chad. People would think in Omaha you'd listen to classic rock or something, but the truth is, in junior high and high school I was listening to the Clash and the Smiths and the Cure and REM and Bob Marley -- what was really underground at the time. You couldn't hear it on the radio yet. There was a punk scene, and we were listening to Minor Threat and stuff like that. People wouldn't think we could be exposed to cool music, but actually you can get any music in any city. Prince proved that when he came out of Minneapolis, 'cause before him there hadn't been anyone from there, and I guess really before us in Omaha there really hadn't been anyone to really bust out. Well, Marlon Brando is from Omaha, and Johnny Carson is from Omaha and Malcolm X was from Omaha, but musically there has been very little out of Omaha.
Guitar.com: Tim, did playing trombone as a kid have any influence on your guitar playing in terms of sound or tone?
Mahoney: I hadn't thought about that. But I'm a big fan of envelope filters and T-wahs and it was kind of like the equivalent of a trumpet or a trombone. I have a guitar synth and the tones I'm partial to are always, like, flutes and trumpets and trombones and stuff like that. One thing that I hadn't though of until Nick and I were just talking about it the other day is that, on this record there's like three songs ["Come Original," "Life's Not a Race," "Strong All Along"] that have guitar dueling leads, and the reason it came up is we were talking about Iron Maiden and they do a lot of harmonizing leads. Nick had a good point that ours are more like horn leads -- or horn lines.
Guitar.com: When you were growing up did you have one experience that made you want to become a musician?
Mahoney: I did have one experience that kind of solidified my need to play music for the rest of my life. I saw the Grateful Dead. I never really listened to them and I had a couple friends who were huge Grateful Dead fans that were like, "You've gotta just come!" This is when I was living in Omaha, and we went up and saw them play right outside Lake Geneva [near Chicago] at this huge crazy place. They were like "Everyone will be camped out -- you'll have a good time." And I was like, "Okay, I'll just go to see what it's all about." We got there and there was like 40,000 people maybe camped out and I was like, "What the hell is this?!" I had no idea. I was thinking it was some reunion tour or something. Some band from the '60s and I was like "Holy shit!" The next day we went to the show and the place held 40,000 people and then there was like another 20,000 people outside who couldn't get in, but were there for the next night or whatever. And I had some mind-altering drugs in me and we went in there and there's like beach balls and it was sunny and there was this great music. It totally changed my reality for the rest of my life.
Guitar.com: Have you been able to generate that kind of vibe as 311?
Hexum: We played this amphitheater [once] near Branson, Missouri. That's that little town where all the country stars have theaters -- like Conway Twitty has his own theater and it's just this crazy Americana place. Anyway, we played in an amphitheater that was probably 50 miles from there, and all these people drove there from all around the midwest and we just had this huge outdoor party and the whole place was rocking so hard and we were out in the middle of nowhere and I was like, "What if an extraterrestrial person is watching this, thinking what the hell are these people doing?" It's so crazy but there's something in humans -- they love to get together and release their energy together. It's what we do.