311's Nick Hexum: After 3 Decades, It's All About The Fans

Jul 9, 2017

You'd be forgiven if it's been a while since you thought about the band 311; it was the mid-1990s when the Omaha, Neb., quintet's biggest hits, like "Down" and "All Mixed Up," came out. But after 27 years of 311's hard-to-peg sound — a meld of rock, reggae, metal, funk, rap and ska — hordes of fans are as in love with the band as ever. Billboard recently called 311 "one of the biggest cult bands in America, whether you love or hate them."

That's no exaggeration. 311 has its own Caribbean cruise, where fans can revel in a sea of fellow die-hards. It's got its own cannabis product, a vape pen aptly called the Grassroots Uplifter. And the band even has an unofficial holiday: Legions of devout followers celebrate March 11 (yes, that's 3/11) every two years by making a pilgrimage to a designated site for a special 311 concert that can go on for hours.

On 311's 12th studio album, Mosaic, those devoted fans are front-and-center — literally. The album's cover art features an image of the band made up of close to 10,000 photos taken with and submitted by fans. Frontman Nick Hexum has said the cover and album title speak to the "collective nature" of 311 and "the bond between the band members and our fans."

Hexum joined NPR for a conversation about navigating the challenges of longevity, the experimental attitude the band adopted in creating Mosaic and the positive message it's tried to spread over nearly three decades of making music. Hear the conversation at the audio link and read on for an edited transcript.

Lakshmi Singh: Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, whose music tapped into youth angst, helped define the 1990s — but your music seemed to sway in a different direction. Tell me about that.

Nick Hexum: I addressed it on [the] "Blue Album" in a song called "Misdirected Hostility," where I just felt that I didn't really relate with all the anger. I felt it was a time of prosperity, and we didn't have the Soviets getting ready to blow us up like we did in the '80s ... And these were a lot of suburban kids that were pretty angry about something, and so we felt we were gonna be the antidote for that ... We see the glass as more than half full. And that's the seeds of what turned us into a bit of a cult band, because we had our own unique attitude, and people see it as a way of looking at the world, a lifestyle.

How have the five of you in 311 — the same members for the better part of three decades — managed to stay together all this time?

Well, you have to be ready to not get your way, and know that what the group conscience decides is gonna be the rule. We know that we're better together than we could ever be apart ... It's like a marriage, and you have to be willing to do things you don't exactly wanna do, and keep the egos in check.

We were happy to find out the other day that we are the fourth-longest-running band of original members out today, with U2 being the first, Radiohead being the second, De La Soul being the third, and we're the fourth. So that's really cool company to be in. And I feel like, who knows, we could just be at the halfway point of our band. We always feel that success is measured in longevity and enjoying the process — how long can we get to do something we really love — instead of basing it on any sort of sales metric.

You've said that there's always a risk of repeating yourself when you get to album 12. What did it take to keep that from happening on Mosaic?

Really, it was just keeping an eye towards [the idea that] anything that was weird is good. Anything that is new, anything that is fresh — those are the ideas that we pursued. And also just mixing up the process: Instead of being in our own little bubble, we asked other people into the room with us to record. ... I think that's an exercise in remaining teachable and being humble — to realize that you can learn from others. And I think that's the biggest block that an artist of our age can have, is when you don't reach out, you don't keep mixing it up and bringing new people in, because your ego makes you feel like you can't accept help.

Everything you've just told me makes me think of the track "Wildfire," which sounds a little different than the others.

"Wildfire" was the first song written for Mosaic. ... I wanted something that started big and then had this real trip in the middle. And it goes through this sort of cinematic thing where there's even like beach sounds and waves and seagulls and stuff, because it represents what I'm talking about in the song — the calmness of knowing that you have people that will be there for you — singing about my family, singing about the band. So it's a very emotional song. And then it ends in a big guitar-shredding, almost classic-rock kind of thing, because at some point there's no words that can express, and you just need to express through music. ... I've had some fans on Twitter say, "You don't need to do epics, just keep it simple." But for me, that's where real creativity lies — to just let yourself go.

You decided to end Mosaic with a song called "On A Roll." It seems to be an intimate message to fans — what are you telling them?

It's about our longevity, it's a nod — to the fans — of gratitude. ... You know, the fact that we were able to have 10 top-10 albums [with] sporadic radio support, made us just feel really grateful. And this song, "On A Roll," it's kind of about that feeling of, like — we don't have to have anxiety because we have this support of the bandmates, of our fans, and you know, we're on a roll.

Still, some fans have wondered if this is sort of a goodbye letter. Is this it for 311?

No, I don't see that at all. I'm saying, on a roll, here we go, we keep going, this feels good, we've got momentum. I've said before that we could be at our halfway point of our career. And some people say, "Well, you don't wanna be rolling out there in wheelchairs," but who knows? We could still be a good band to see in wheelchairs — why not? All we know is that we're gonna do our best today, keep it going and take good care of what we've been so fortunate to find.

Radio producer Dustin DeSoto and web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

And finally today, we're going to hear from a band - 311. They've never been easy to peg, and they sort of like it that way. Their concoction of rock, reggae, metal, funk, hip-hop and ska has been the undercurrent of 311's distinct sound for 27 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMBER")

311: (Singing) Whoa, amber is the color of your energy. Whoa, shades of gold display naturally.

SINGH: Billboard has called them one of the biggest cult bands in America. And to the delight of legions of diehard fans, 311 is out with a new album called "Mosaic." 311's vocalist and guitarist Nick Hexum joins us from Hampton Beach, N.H., one of the many stops on 311's summer tour across the U.S. Thanks for spending some time with us, Nick.

NICK HEXUM: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SINGH: For those who aren't quite as familiar with 311 or sort of need a little reminder, I want to go back to the mid-1990s to 311's breakout hit "Down." Let's play a little of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN")

311: (Singing) We've changed a lot and then some, some. Know that we have always been down, down. If I didn't ever thank you, you, then just let me do it now.

SINGH: Nick, tell us what it was like to have "Down" come out at that particular moment in the alternative music scene.

HEXUM: Well, writing "The Blue Album" that "Down" was on was kind of the culmination of a lot of hard work of building it up through a grassroots means because we really didn't have press or radio support at all. So we just said, we're going to go out and live on the road. And we put our meager possessions in a storage unit and just lived on the road and just built it up through word of mouth. It was, I guess, viral before that was what it means today.

And then it just started a kind of a whirlwind, where first we got an MTV Buzz Clip. And that really changed everything. And then just things started happening. We felt like we had already made it because we were packing clubs just through our grassroots following. And then it just really blew up. And it was fairly overwhelming.

SINGH: This was at a time in the 1990s when bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana helped define that decade. While some artists were tapping into the youth angst, I guess your music seemed to sway in a different direction. Tell me about that.

HEXUM: Yeah. I addressed it on that same "Blue Album" in a song called "Misdirected Hostility," where I just felt that I didn't really relate with all the anger. I felt it was a time of prosperity. And we didn't have the Soviets getting ready to blow us up like we did in the '80s that everyone was worried about. And these were a lot of suburban kids that were pretty angry about something. And so we felt we were going to be the antidote for that. And, you know, we just didn't relate with the anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISDIRECTED HOSTILITY")

311: (Rapping) Or else, please, I cannot handle all the negative vibe merchants. Is that all you have in you per chance? So much angst and pain, it's so whack. You should take a tip from the one...

HEXUM: And that's, I guess, the kind of - the seeds of what turned us into a bit of a cult band because we had our own unique attitude. And people see it as a way of looking at the world, a lifestyle. So it just kind of took a life of its own from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISDIRECTED HOSTILITY")

311: (Singing) Misdirected hostility, that's what you got to see. Misdirected hostility, that's what you got to see. Misdirected hostility, that's what you got.

SINGH: "Mosaic" is the 12th album for 311. You had said, I believe, that there's always a risk of repeating yourself when you get to album 12. What did it take to keep that from happening?

HEXUM: Really it was just keeping an eye towards anything that was weird is good. Anything that is new, anything that is fresh, those are the ideas that we pursued. And also just mixing up the process, where instead of being in our own little bubble, we asked other people into the room with us to record.

And I think that's the biggest block that an artist of our age can have is when you don't - you don't reach out. You don't keep mixing it up and bringing new people in. That, to me, is like the psychological thing is - of trying to keep keep grounded and open-minded to new styles and new people.

SINGH: Everything you've just told me makes me think of one particular track on that album, which is "Wildfire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILDFIRE")

311: (Singing) Just let them all burn in the wildfire.

HEXUM: "Wildfire" was the first song written for "Mosiac." And that just kind of - because it is so - such a weird song that goes through so many different movements, that kind of shows how we were really placing an emphasis on being different and being being weird and being - having some new styles in our music.

And over the years, there's usually been, like, one what we call an epic on each record, where it's a five-minute-plus song that goes through a lot of different movements, doesn't have much repetition. It usually ends with a big finish.

But for this one, I wanted something that started big and had this real trip in the middle. And it goes through this sort of cinematic thing where there's even like beach sounds and waves and seagulls and stuff because it represents what I'm talking about in the song and the calmness of knowing that you have people that will be there for you. So it's a very emotional song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILDFIRE")

311: (Singing) One thing you should not fear, whatever things that come through the rain and the sunshine and the pain. We'll look back and smile.

HEXUM: And then it ends in a big guitar-shredding-almost-kind-of-classic-rock kind of thing because at some point there's no words that it can express. And you just need to express through music. It's a fun one to play for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF 311 SONG, "WILDFIRE")

SINGH: Nick, you decide, 311 decide to end "Mosaic" with a song called "On A Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON A ROLL")

311: (Singing) What a trip this has been, what a change in my friend. Instead of just skipping time, we had a stop and no end. We're still here. It's so clear, written down on our skin for a long, long time now. Here's an ode to the road. We're together as one.

SINGH: It seems to be an intimate message to fans. What are you telling them?

HEXUM: You know, it's about our longevity. It's a nod to the fans of gratitude. And it's just - there was a certain momentum that we we felt the fact that we were able to have 10 top-10 albums without necessarily any radio support and sporadic radio support made us just feel really, really grateful. And the song "On A Roll" is kind of about that feeling of, like, we don't have to have anxiety because we have this support of the band mates, of our fans. And, you know, we're on a roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON A ROLL")

311: (Singing) On a roll. Here we go. All as one. Here we go. On a roll. Here we go. All as one. Here we go.

SINGH: We can't ignore though that, you know, on social media, some fans have wondered if this was sort of a goodbye letter. So we got to ask, what's going on here? Is this it for 311?

HEXUM: No, I don't see that at all. I'm saying on a roll here, we go we. We keep going. This feels good. We've got momentum. I've said before this - we could be at our halfway point of our career. All we know is that we're going to do our best today and keep it going and take good care of what we've been so fortunate to find.

SINGH: Nick Hexum, frontman for 311, speaking to us from Hampton Beach, N.H. They've just released their 12th album, "Mosaic." Nick, thanks so much for joining us.

HEXUM: I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON A ROLL")

311: (Singing) On a roll. Here we go. All as one. Here we go. On a roll. Here we go. All as one. Here we go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.