Saturday, January 20, 1996

Confusion over 311 Line in Omaha (Omaha World Herald)

A headline appearing in The World Herald caught the attention of local music fans. It read: "Need for 311 in Omaha Is Doubted."
Apparently, followers of the former omaha band 311 (pronounced Three-Eleven) took a double when a story ran concerning the potential need for a non-emergency phone number to augment 911. The number being set aside by the U.S. government for that purpose is 311.
"I had a number of people comment on it," said Linda McDonald mother of 311 drummer Chad Sexton.
Confusion about the Feb. 20 headlin might have been caused in part by a television feature story about local bands that aired on WOWT-TV (Channel 6) the night before, Ms. McDonald said. Among the bands featured was 311, which has had its share of controversy since forming in 1990.
Last year, the band's name -- taken from a police code for indecent exposure -- was feared to be linked to the KKK by some local authorities and Westside High School Students.
Ms. McDonald said she talked by phone last week to her son, who wondered wether the new 311 emergency number -- currently being researched by Omaha officials -- might draw attention to the band, which has been living in the Los Angeles area since 1991.
"He said he didn't know if it's good or bad," said Ms. McDonald.

Monday, January 1, 1996

311's P-Nut (Bass Player)

MOST MULTI-PLATINUM BANDS ACHIEVE SUCCESS in one of two ways: either they make it big suddenly with a hit single or two-often falling into oblivion as quickly as they rose to the top-or they scratch and claw their way up the charts, leaving a string of high-quality but underappreciated records in their wake. The latter is the case with 311, a Nebraska-bred quintet raised on equal parts of sweet corn, hard rock, reggae, rap, and funk. This is no case of corporate image-mongering, aggressive marketing ploys, or heavy-handed A&R tactics. 311 has achieved success the old-fashioned way: they've earned it.

Anyone who's witnessed a 311 concert knows these guys are the real deal. There's drummer Chad Sexton, one of the most tasty, solid, and innovative stickmen in modern rock. There's guitarist Tim Mahoney, who's as likely to spin out a delicate Garcia or Santana lick as he is to pound out a highly syncopated power-chord riff-a man who's half Deadhead, half metal monster. There's Nick Hexum, who can wield a guitar with the best of 'em but who often unstraps his axe to concentrate on his sweet, always-dead-on vocals. There's SA Martinez, who at any time might be spinning a turntable, delivering a hard-hitting rap assault, singing in sublime harmony with Hexum, or just clowning it up with kooky dance moves. And there's P-Nut, whose rubbery, happy-go-lucky stage presence is as strong as his ultra-tight, ultra-syncopated, super-smooth bass lines. Together, they put on a show that's equally great for watching, listening, or moshing.

In 1991, after gathering an army of local fans in Omaha, 311 picked up and moved to Los Angeles. P-Nut-the band's youngest member, now 23-had to graduate from high school early to accommodate the relocation. Within months, the band signed a deal with Capricorn Records and recorded their first CD, Music; sales weren't great, but they expanded their fan base considerably during the extended tour that followed. In '94 they recorded Grassroots, and once again P-Nut had to put most of his possessions into storage for another long haul on the road. The next year, 311 recorded their eponymous "Blue Album" and toured some more. It wasn't until late '96 that radio and MTV began playing the record's second single, the aggressively rap-driven "Down." The more melodic third single, "All Mixed Up," was even bigger, giving the "Blue Album" legs that stretched well into 1997 and propelling sales to well over the two-million mark. 311 had arrived.

The ride isn't over. Not by a long shot. The band's most recent effort, Transistor, is their most musical and melodic to date. And P-Nut is playing with more creativity, taste, and depth than ever. "For the last album I wasn't necessarily 100% there, and I think it sounds like it," he said during our interview at his brand-new Hollywood Hills home, just before 311 kicked off its '97 tour with a month-long swing through Europe. "I definitely spent more time in the studio for this album, and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out."

Like their touring compatriots No Doubt before them, 311 is set to make some serious noise in '97 and '98. If they do, you can be sure P-Nut's bass style-now matured and enriched by the open-minded diversity of his listening tastes-will be a major contributing factor.

Since you became a professional musician, in what directions have you been trying to go with your bass style?

I've actually just been trying to maintain everything. When I was younger, I tried to be really inventive and made a big effort to do my own thing; now I shy away from that and just try to be more confident and lay into the pocket better. But I'm expanding, like every musician should. I'm going back to figuring out songs from records, like I used to do when I was a kid. I don't know why I got away from that for so long-but lately I've broken out records by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Curtis Mayfield and begun figuring out the bass lines. I think that's really good for my brain.

Any examples?

I figured out the Chili Peppers' "Knock Me Down" [Mothers Milk, EMI], which I love-that's a fun bass line to play. I also had to figure out the Clash song "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" [The Clash, CBS] for a Clash tribute album we played on. [Ed. Note: At press time, the Clash tribute was untitled and without a label.]

What kind of personal goals did you have when making Transistor?

I wanted to write more, and I did, so I feel better-but I still need to write even more, so I'm already thinking about the next album. That's good, because I never want to get stuck in one area.

I knew a lot of people would be listening to the new record, but I tried not to let that bother me too much. I didn't even think any of my songs were going to make it, because they were the first ones I wrote by myself-so I didn't have crazy high hopes. Plus, I didn't write the lyrics, so I couldn't tell how they would turn out until they were done. But I think "Creature Feature" [see music, page 49] ended up being one of the more musical tunes on the album.

Actually, most of the songs on Transistor are really musical. I knew that was going to be the dominant feel of this record, compared to the rock formula we used on the last album.

What are your earliest musical memories?

I remember hearing music around the house, but I couldn't tell you what it was. My parents didn't listen to a lot of music; it wasn't a part of their daily routine. I grew up wanting to have music playing all the time-probably because I didn't get to listen to it much when I was a kid.

Was your home environment liberal or conservative?

It was very liberal. The first album I bought was Motley Crue's Shout at the Devil [Elektra], and my mom was right there. I was 10 or 11 at the time. I can't say she approved, but . . . .

Did you play any instruments in school?

My first instrument was violin, which I took up in the second grade. I decided to take it up because my brother was playing the saxophone, and I wanted to do something different from him-so I picked a stringed instrument.

Can you still play violin?

I could bow some notes and they wouldn't squeak, but that's probably as far as I'd go. But I could probably remember everything if I sat down and worked at it for a couple of weeks-especially since I've kept my hands agile.

When I was in the fifth grade, I quit the violin and went right to bass. They wouldn't let me start on bass right away, so I had to take six weeks of guitar lessons, at a music store in a mall. The teacher was pretty cool; I learned [Deep Purple's] "Smoke on the Water" and [Yes's] "Owner of a Lonely Heart," along with some chords-three of which I still remember today. I did get an acoustic guitar later on in case I wanted to make up some more chords. Someday I'll get to that-but not right now. I'm still learning the bass.

What made you want to start playing bass?

Everyone who was musical in my neighborhood was playing either guitar or drums, and I wanted to be doing something else-and playing bass seemed like the natural thing. Plus, I was listening to a lot of Iron Maiden records back then, and I really liked the way Steve Harris made their music sound. He was definitely the first bass player who grabbed me. He's a monster.

When you were taking guitar lessons, did you have a bass?

No, just a guitar-a horrible Les Paul copy. But it was all wood, just like all of my basses are now. That, along with my violin experience, started my fascination with wood. I like wood instruments-that's the way it should be. I like wood furniture, too.

My first bass was a Precision copy called a Phantom. I didn't play it all that much, though, because my bass teacher was really structured; he prearranged what was going to happen and didn't let things happen. He had also kept the same set of strings on his bass for eight years. That's totally cool, and it does give a great sound-but it just wasn't very exciting for me. I'm sure he could have gotten some great dub sounds out of that bass, but I guarantee he wasn't! That's probably why I didn't play as much as I should have right when I started out.

When I was 14, I started taking lessons at a different shop-a place called Russo's-and they were just the best. The people there were a lot closer in age to my generation, and they listened to music that was more similar to what I was listening to. Plus, they were all fantastic musicians. That place was the only store in Omaha like that; all the others specialized in band instruments, because that's how they stayed in business.

My teacher at Russo's was totally mellow. All he wanted me to do was to bring in music; he'd figure it out, and by the end of the hour he'd have me playing it. That got me very motivated and got me to start figuring out stuff on my own. By that time I had moved up to a Fender Jazz Special, which I eventually put EMGs into. My teacher, though, had an early, Telecaster-style Precision, which I thought was the coolest thing. [Ed. Note: A similar instrument is featured in The Great Basses on page 88.] I remember bringing in the Chili Peppers' "If You Want Me to Stay" [Freaky Stylie, EMI], which of course is a Sly Stone song-and my teacher laughed so hard; he couldn't believe someone had covered that tune, because he liked it so much in the original form. But I stood up for the Chili Peppers, because they did a damn good job with that song-and also because they had a lot of balls trying to cover a Sly song.

My teacher had me listen to a lot of Level 42, because Mark King is such an amazing thumb-smith; I learned a great deal from that. That's actually how I started doing double-handed slaps, because it sounded so cool when Mark King did it. Later on, I heard Les Claypool using the same technique-but he was also adding extra thumbs, pulling different strings in different sequences, and strumming. He's an amazing musician, too.

Were you playing with other people at this point?

I was playing with the first 311 guitarist, Jimmy Watson, who's still doing stuff in Omaha. I was also playing with a drummer friend of ours. Later, when I was 15, I started playing with Chad-and he blew my mind the first time we jammed together.

Did you lock up instantly with Chad?

No question about it; I've never locked better with another musician. Even from that first time we played together, down in his basement, he had that same snare sound: so bright and sharp. I was almost deaf by the end of that day.

Chad had been in a drum corps-and when you're playing the snare with seven other people all doing the exact same thing, I'm sure you feel that connection with the other people. And even though Chad and I have a strong connection when we play together, it has to be even stronger when a bunch of guys are all playing exactly the same part.

Have you played on anyone else's records?

I've done things for local people in Omaha, but that's about it. I'd like to do other stuff-I'll take inquiries, although I'll be pretty busy for the next year! Actually, Chad and I have had little rumblings all through our career about someday doing something different-maybe even in the jazz vein. We'll probably do it in his home studio just for fun, but who knows?

What kind of theoretical background would you bring to a project like that?

Ignorance! [Laughs.] Complete and total ignorance. I'd just have fun with it; I'd feel no pressure, and I could just go off. A head shop in Los Angeles called the Galaxy has something called Acid Jazz Night, where people just show up and play-and I played bass on one of those nights a few weeks ago. It was really cool. That was the first time I'd played with any other musicians outside of 311 in any kind of public forum, which wasn't all that public. There were about 50 people there, and I don't think anyone knew who I was, which I liked even better. In Los Angeles, it's easy to blend in-even when you have a bass strapped on and you're playing with a band.

I'm playing bass for many, many reasons. I like the role that goes with it; I like feeling no pressure; and I like the way it lets me be very loose onstage-and just in general-because there are no confines. I think I was made to be a bass player.

It's interesting how popular you are among bassists, considering your lines tend not to be flashy or obvious. Why do you think people notice you so much?

Actually, when I started out, I was trying to play as much as I could-and it seems the older and more confident I get, the more relaxed I'm getting with just laying down a bass part. I still have the flashy stuff in me, but I'm trying to use it with more taste. I like being not too demanding on the ear; I like to mesh. But also, especially onstage, I like to freak a little and just enjoy myself. My role is completely different live from what it is in the studio, because on the records I try to blend in really well, whereas onstage I try to make the bass stand out more-even if it's not that much louder. I'm feelin' it, baby.

What do you consider the characteristics of the perfect bass line?

I don't know. The perfect bass line is impossible to get; it shouldn't even be attempted, because you'll always fail. Simply put, in any given bass line, there's either too much going on or too little going on. You couldn't give it a superlative like "perfect," because it would take so many different factors to make a musical part perfect. Also, one line can be good in one way and another can be good in another way, and yet the two can stand by each other. There are probably thousands of quintessentially perfect bass lines-but there is no one, for sure. Jaco got pretty close, though.

Are you a Jaco fan?

Yeah-not a very big one, though. I know his solo albums better than his work with Weather Report, although I have Heavy Weather [Columbia]. Chad listens to a lot more of that kind of music than I do; in fact, he exposed me to it.

Would you ever try to figure out one of Jaco's bass lines?

I'd try; I don't know if I'd succeed, though, because I'm really no good on fretless. It's really difficult for me, because I learned the violin through the Suzuki method-and I've definitely applied that kind of thinking to the bass, even though it was unintentional. I don't necessarily think of the notes all the time and where they fit with everything else. I play more by memory-with my right brain. I'm used to just remembering a sequence of hand positions. That's actually something I'm trying to get out of by writing music, because writing is listening as much as feeling where you are, which may be one reason why I find it so hard to write.

The bass isn't a super-difficult instrument, although it certainly isn't the easiest, either; it takes a lot of physical muscle compared to other instruments that require more finesse. Plus, there are very few people out in front of the bass world, so there's lots of room for expression; the bass hasn't been flogged until it's purple, like some instruments I know! That's another reason why I was attracted to the bass-especially in the beginning, when I couldn't really name any bass players who stuck out besides Steve Harris.

What kind of bassist do you think you'd be if you had received more formal training?

I might be less outgoing, I hate to say. I'd like to think that since I learned the bass with a looser, less educated, more rootsy and feel-oriented approach-one where I play music only because I love to play music-my playing style ended up being looser. I believe that's because I don't feel much pressure. I would like to be one of the better bass players out there, but I also know I'm young and have a lot to learn. I always think about all the people who can play every chord and name every scale and put together a song in their head without ever playing it.

Heavily trained bassists also tend to have more exacting tastes-and sometimes don't approve of Les Claypool's playing, for example.

That's so wrong-horribly wrong. It's probably equally wrong that I don't know as much jazz theory as I should, but the jazz players should recognize and accept Les as a modern pioneer. There's no question about that. In my mind, anyway.

How is he a pioneer to you?

He's playing bass as a lead instrument at all times; it just doesn't stop. The guitar and percussion are playing mostly rhythmic parts, but his bass runs the band-even more than his vocals. He's singing through his instrument and carrying the whole load. Jaco did that, too; he controlled the musical flow in his band in the same way Les runs Primus.

A lot of people accuse Claypool of being sloppy.

You can find mistakes in his playing, sure. But they're great mistakes! I mean, if you can't laugh at your bass lines, you're too serious. There's a time and place for all kinds of playing; you're not going to put on a Primus album to sit down and work on theory-you'll play it because you love to hear what that particular artist does on his instrument. I put Les in my personal hall of fame just for that reason; I think anyone who can make a unique piece of art deserves to be immortalized in some way. Les is one of a kind, and he doesn't give a fuck what people think. I love that about him-although I don't really feel the need to control the band with my bass playing the way he does. Not yet, anyway.

There aren't a lot of people who would listen to Primus, Jaco, and dub reggae records all in one day. Do you make a conscious effort to vary your listening?

Yes, but it also comes naturally. My brother had me listening to all kinds of crazy stuff when I was a kid; he's older and hung out with different people, so he brought different things to the table.

A lot of the younger bands are doing the same thing we are-trying to fuse styles-and I think it's a really good thing. I believe that if you listen to a lot of different types of music, you'll play different styles, unless you're deliberately limiting yourself to one. Screw that; you should be able to do anything you want. There are no limits, unless you put them on yourself.

What would you say to rockers who say, "Jazz sucks," or vice-versa?

Those people are missing out. You should feel sorry for them-and if you're one of those people, you should change yourself, because there really isn't anything to lose by listening to different types of music.

Do you see yourself ever losing your musical elasticity as you get older?

Oh, yeah. You get more set in your ways; you just get used to thinking a certain way. And that way of thinking only reinforces itself-you get more rigid because you've heard the same thing come out of your mouth so many times. That's even true of what I'm saying now.

Even in your flashier days, you've always been a highly supportive player. What is it about support that attracts you?

Support is necessary in the bass realm-but there's a time for everything. It shouldn't be overdone, and it shouldn't be underdone, but it's all up to the individual. As you mature as a bass player, you become more confident with just sitting in the pocket. Whether that's good or bad is hard to say-especially if you're coming from a more crazy, flamboyant attitude and heading in a direction that's more slower-paced and cerebral. I think if there's any musical area you don't know or haven't experienced, you should explore it. There's always room for growth.

Your recorded bass tone has changed over the years. Are you still searching for the ideal tone?

I think I got it on Transistor. I pretty much recorded the whole album using one Warwick Streamer Stage II 5-string with Seymour Duncan Basslines pickups in it. Those pickups are great. I didn't really want to change my tone that much; I adjusted the onboard EQ, but that's about it. My tones on our other records had been pretty bass-heavy, so this time I really wanted to brighten up things. I like a tone that's somewhere in between warm and midrangy, right in the nice, punchy area-extreme low end, but with punch on top. It helps that I use custom-gauge strings, which go .040, .060, .080, .100, .130. It makes sense numerically-I like the extra .010 going from the E string to the B, because I want the B to be that much lower. It also feels good to have the B string that thick.

Listening to so much dub and reggae music must have had an impact on the tone you want.

Probably. I love a good, over-bassy, '70s dub sound-although I've never really gotten one like that on record.

How did you get turned onto Warwick basses?

I saw and heard Norwood Fisher [of Fishbone] play them, and I was sold instantly. I didn't necessarily like the style of the Thumb Basses I had always seen him with, even though I do have one of those now-but I knew Warwick would have something I'd like. Those basses are just beautiful works of art. When I was looking at Warwicks, I asked what the company's best bass was; they showed me the Streamer Stage II, I liked it, and I took it home. I brought that particular bass out on the road after we recorded Grassroots, and now it has a lot of cool wear spots on it.

When you're not touring, how do you spend your free time?

I've been home for almost six months now-which is weird for us, because we've toured so much in recent years. I'm pretty spoiled, so it will be nice to get that road discipline back. When I'm home, I'm usually propped in front of the TV or the computer. I like to float around America Online and see who's talking about 311; I go into chat rooms and pretend to be nobody, which is great. I'm getting pressure from the band to get a public screen name, which I'll have to do someday. There are already five or six impostors out there claiming they're me-and some of them are even starting to fool my mom! On a couple of occasions she's had to call me up and ask if something I'd supposedly said was true, and I've had to say, "No-I'd tell you first." My mom is online all the time; she talks to everyone about 311.

Have you ever "met" one of your impostors online?

No-but if I did, I couldn't do anything; I'd have to just sit there and watch. If I tested one of them, which I definitely could, everyone would figure out it was me.

How do you spend your free time on the road?

During the day it's pretty slow. I do some reading, and I'm sure I'll be reading even more on this tour, because it takes even longer to set up our stuff these days. I used to be pretty lazy on the road, but this time I'm bringing out my bike, so I'll at least get exercise. I've taken out my skateboard before, but skateboard exercise isn't that great, and you can screw yourself up pretty easily if you fall. I'd hate to be crippled onstage-although I'd always find a way to play.

Are there any things that bother you in today's bass world?

I think there's a lot of low-end mediocrity, especially in pop music. Constant unison lines are a dead giveaway for that, as well as a lack of expression. I mean, even in a song with A sections and B sections that repeat, you can still play a different bass line during the different sections. Paul McCartney did that a lot. "With a Little Help from My Friends" [Sgt. Pepper's, EMI] is a prime example; it's so cool and tasty, and it's a very outgoing line, too.

What one thing helps you to avoid falling victim to "low-end mediocrity"?

Listening to as much different music as possible. That's the way I learn things and appreciate things the best, and I hope it comes out in my writing and my playing.

Are there certain traps bassists fall into that prevent their lines from being as good as they could be?

People often get lost in the mix by not playing lines that jump out-but then again, it's easy to play too much. With the bass, you're always balancing on that razor's edge between playing a percussive role and a melodic role. It has to be interesting for the musician, but you've still got to lay down the groove. Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke both have that down, which I think comes from playing with other fantastic musicians for years and years. But I'm in no hurry to get all the culture I need to become a better bass player; right now, I'm just enjoying what's going on with the band. I think if I tried too hard, my playing would come out false. I'm just trying to let it grow on its own.