Thursday, November 25, 1999

311 on Fusing Styles, Dueling Leads, and Tag-Team Rythym (

311 may sound as if they're egging on an '80s metal revival, but the band makes their devotion to Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe easy to swallow by mixing in heaping spoonfuls of hip-hop, dashes of Santana- and Ernest Ranglin-influenced guitars, and even a pinch of dream pop reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins. But the dark side is never far off -- just as soon as a reverb-drenched tremolo line and a sweet melody drift from your speakers, you'll get hit head-on with a blazing metal assault. "I can't help it," admits 311's lead guitarist Tim Mahoney. "I'm a rocker."
The band -- Mahoney, DJ/rapper SA Martinez, singer/guitarist Nick Hexum, bassist P-Nut, and drummer Chad Sexton -- just released its fifth album, Soundsystem [Capricorn]. "On this album we focused on making all the songs rockin' enough that we'd really enjoy playing them live every night," says Mahoney. Before the band rolled the tour bus out of their adopted hometown of Los Angeles (the members are originally from Omaha, Nebraska), Mahoney and Hexum gave up the details about how they mixed the stylistic alloy of Soundsystem.


How do you typically record in the studio?

Lately, I've been into a simple, mono sound using a single stack. There are a couple of stereo guitar effects on Soundsystem, but the album is more about a basic "plug the guitar into the amp, mic the speaker" kind of thing. If I want an effect, I'll typically use an MXR Phase 90 or an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone. The Phase 90 is clear and sweeps nicely, so I use it for clean chordal parts -- like on the song "Sever" -- and it also works well with distortion. For reggae parts, I use the Small Stone. It's kind of hard to explain the difference between the two pedals, but they both have their own kind of sound.

The tones on the album don't sound all that basic, however.

Well, I'm mostly talking about my live rig as a mono sound. It's really hard to get stereo effects to reproduce live -- there's so much going on live that you really don't hear the stereo spectrum.
Also, my last touring rig had so many cables going in and out, and I'd think, "My sound goes through each one of those!" For this tour, I've cleaned up my signal path. Now I have loop switchers running off my MIDI controller pedal, so anytime I want to switch sounds, it's just one stomp and everything changes. I have maybe five stompboxes connected to the switcher, and when an effect isn't being used, my guitar signal isn't going through that particular effect -- there's way less tonal degradation. I can also set up presets with the MIDI controller that have several pedals running at once, or just one or two. It takes time to configure everything, but once it's done, it's easy.

You also have a Lexicon MPX-G2. Do you use it live?

Not yet, but I used it to record "Flowing" on the new album. The beginning of that song is an effect preset from the MPX -- a stereo panning, trippy guitar sound. We sat there until we got a take that sounded just right, because each time I'd play, the effect would react differently. It's a complex little unit. Typically, I'm thinking about effects when I write parts, because some parts will bring a certain effect to mind, like, "Oh, that would sound nice with a tremolo."

Did you tune down to get some of your heavier guitar sounds?

Chad wrote a couple of songs with this SG that he tunes down to low B. He keeps normal strings on the guitar, and they barely hang on -- the tone is almost like a "wooh wooh wooh" -- but, man, he gets it sounding so good. I just got a Schecter 7-string, but to play Chad's songs on the album, I put thicker strings on my PRS and tuned it [low to high] B, E, A, D, G, B.

What got you into PRS guitars?

I'd always gone back and forth between Fenders and Gibsons. But when we started recording our first album in 1993, I wanted a new guitar. I had a Charvel Strat copy at the time, but I wanted something with humbucking pickups. I wasn't really that familiar with Paul Reed Smith guitars, but I knew Santana played one. So I checked one out and fell in love with how it played and sounded. The PRS totally caters to the music we play, because I need to get both a good crunch distortion and a really nice clean sound.

How do you and Nick complement each other's guitar style?

I grew up listening to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, the Allman Brothers, and other bands that had dueling lead guitars. Both Nick and I are into that. But we'll also switch parts. For example, on "Leaving Babylon" -- which is a Bad Brains cover -- I play along with the bass and noodle the riff, while Nick plays the offbeats. If he's singing, maybe he'll noodle and I'll play the offbeats. Switching parts is almost a subconscious thing -- we're looking at each other and listening to each other play, so there's a little random magic involved as we react to what the other is doing.


Tim says that you guys play together like a tag-team.

Well, I don't actually play a lot of complex parts. If there's anything difficult to play, I leave it to Tim because I'm more of a jack-of-all-trades than a technical shredder. But there are three or four spots on the album where Tim and I do harmony leads. It's totally a throwback to Iron Maiden and Boston, when harmony lines were cool. We've taken it upon ourselves to single-handedly bring back dueling solos and harmony leads. It's fun, and it doesn't have to sound like cheesy metal.

What influenced you to bring reggae into the band's sound?

To me, Ernest Ranglin is the man -- the greatest Jamaican guitarist that ever lived. Although almost everything I play on the new record is with the Les Paul, I love to get a tone like Ranglin's with my ES-135 -- a reggae-jazz-hollowbody kind of sound -- and noodle away in his style.
Also, I feel there are good parts in every genre of music. It's best to be open-minded and not get locked into one style. There are many talented musicians who have original things to say, and it's just different languages that they speak. A new friend might sit you down and make you listen to Patsy Cline, and suddenly you get it and start appreciating country music.

Is the Boss Octave a signature 311 sound?

We do a lot of single-note riffs, and they'd sound weak without an octave divider, so that has always been a staple of our sound -- single-note riffs that are funky and fast through an octave box. I'm currently using an old Boss octave pedal.

What other effects do you rely on?

I use a Rocktron Replifex, which recreates vintage effects. And during the choruses of "Life's Not a Race" you'll hear a Hawaiian guitar that's processed through this really great Hawaiian chorus patch on my Rocktron Intellifex -- it sounds like I'm playing slide, but it's just the effect. I used the same patch for "Come Original." My rig is pretty much Gibson guitars, Rocktron effects, and Rivera amps -- that's all I need.

Are you still using guitar synths?

That was just a phase I was going through on Transistor. I haven't plugged in my guitar synth in about two years. I used it onstage to bust out sitar and weird organ sounds when we'd go into our dub breaks. But lately, I've stuck to a garage-rock style -- just distortion.

How do you get such an aggressive distorted tone?

I just put my guitar on the bridge pickup, open up the tone and volume knobs, and turn up the Bonehead. The Bonehead's tone controls are pretty simple -- bass, mid, treble, and presence -- but it also has this "Los Lobottom" knob that controls the amp's subwoofer. It's the heaviest sound you've ever heard in your life -- it just shakes the room. It's a really bad-ass sound, and I think a lot of people are going to be getting into it.
You've released five albums in only six years. How do you keep rejuvenating your songwriting?
I just get away from writing for a while and listen to new styles. I'm really into drum 'n' bass, jungle, and dance hall reggae right now. If you listen to other forms of music, you're going to get influenced by them. For example, SA and I went to Jamaica after doing preproduction for Soundsystem, and at that time, every song was straight rock. But we experienced these incredible Jamaican sound systems blasting the most interesting, futuristic beats. They don't go, "boom boom chick, boom boom chick." They go, "boom boom chick boom, boom chick boom boom." We were totally inspired by these different beats, and when we started working on the album again, we came up with some rhythms like that. Just to get away and be immersed in a new musical culture totally refreshed our music.

Monday, November 1, 1999

311 returns to its roots – blending rock, reggae, rap (GW Hachet)

Before Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit started selling millions of albums by rapping over alternative music, 311 had been doing the same thing for years.

And after what many might call a hiatus on its last effort, Transistor, 311 returned with a more solid performance on Soundsystem (Capricorn).

Perhaps the most prolific alternative band of the 1990s (the group has produced 10 albums), 311 became known more for its energetic live performances than its work in the studio. Part of that may be the aftermath of 311’s self-titled album, one of the masterpieces of the decade – it’s hard to top great work.

But on Soundsystem, 311 often blends the rap, rock and reggae flavors that brought the band to the top. One of the strengths of 311’s best music is the combination of several elements – solid reggae stylings by singer Nick Hexum, an equal hit of rap from SA (Douglas Martinez) and some driving guitar riffs from Timothy Mahoney.

And these things all come together in many songs on the album like Come Original. Inspired singing by Hexum and inspired rhyming by SA carry the song over some punk guitar parts and funk bass – combining four elements that normally wouldn’t go together. 311 throws shout-outs to bands who do come original and tells other bands how to come original in what amounts to the alternative equivalent to a rap boast. We do it non-stop and then we do it again Hexum brags in the song.

The band risks falling into the trap of going too soft with a few songs in the middle of the album. Large in the Margin is a good song, but it starts the descent. It has the interesting juxtaposition of some soft singing over a very heavy guitar part, while Flowing and Life’s Not a Race are more vibey songs that are not 311’s strong suit. Stuck in the middle of these songs is Can’t Fade Me, an energetic song that makes you want to throw yourself in to a mosh pit, even though you are sitting by yourself listening to the CD in your room.

The album picks up again with the eighth track, Sever. The song has the fast pace and hard edge on which 311 thrives. What works so well on this song is the movement back and forth between Hexum’s singing to SA’s raps. The lyrics on this album are also a little deeper than previous 311 efforts, with Sever being case and point. It seems like an odd idea for a half-rap, half-reggae song to relate the frustration and confusion that result from the end of a long relationship, but this song does it. Hexum laments that There’s no one that could cure you like she does, and SA sympathizes: Staring at the door thinking/about the mess your in/In your couch sinking deep/Over the girl that’s gone.

The staccato drum beats, guitar riffs and rapping all play off each other in Evolution to create a sound that is strange but works for 311. After taking a detour like the middle of the album did with Leaving Babylon, the album finishes strong with some hard rocking songs that are 311’s meat and potatoes.

311 is often at the top of its game on this album, with a few lapses that are not the group’s best work. But if you fell in love with the band because of songs like All Mixed Up and Down, you’ll find the fast-paced rap, reggae and rock sound on Soundsystem that 311 has mastered.

311 Review (People Magazine)

Rocking in LA with 311 (MIX)

Time should not be a luxury in the recording process, yet so often it is. Sometimes time is short due to budget, and other times it's because the band gets caught up in the merry-go-round of needing to be on the road to promote an album, which shortchanges them when another project comes due. According to 311's drummer Chad Sexton, time had been the missing piece of their musical puzzle, made particularly evident by the recording experience of their current project, Soundsystem.

"On our last record, Transistor, we would make a song, learn it, record it, and it was on the record," Sexton says. "With this album it was more like, 'Make a song, go away from it for two months, come back to it, see how you like it, something's not right so change the chorus, or add a part, or get rid of the song altogether.' We tried not to force anything with the attitude of, 'Oh, we can make this song great.' If we weren't feeling it, we didn't even mess with it. Time really gave us perspective, and we were able to make the right judgments."

In June 1998, 311 leased the building that housed L.A.'s Kendun Recorders in the '70s. They brought in their equipment and created a stable comfort zone in which to rehearse and then record. Back at the helm was Scotch Ralston, whom they had met as an assistant engineer on their Capricorn debut, Music.

As the "young 'uns" of the studio corps, 311 members and Ralston had bonded, so they called him up out of the blue in '93 during the recording of Grassroots. They had had a falling out with producer Eddy Offord and wanted to know if Ralston would finish the record with them.

"They had a whole bunch of tracks on ADAT, so we had to take all the ADATs and lock them to a tape," Ralston explains. "They had already done all the music-all the guitars, vocals, percussion, everything-and then they wanted to redo the drums. So we did the drums last on that record, which is kinda weird. But they had done everything to a click, and Chad is pretty much a rhythm machine, so we came in and knocked it out, and it turned out all right."

Ralston and the group then lost track of each other until the band parted ways with their live sound engineer and called Ralston to bail them out again. "They said, 'We just need you to finish this tour, it's only a couple of months,'" Ralston recalls. "And it turned out to be four years!"

311, or what they call "the Blue Album," followed. There was another tour, and then it came time to record again. "After the Blue Album I think we felt invincible," Ralston admits. "We came up with all these songs, and everyone had a little bit of affection for every song, so we didn't want to cut out any of them. We wrote and recorded 30 songs in three months, so it was every day, all day-a lot of work. It was a little hectic, and I think maybe we should have refined it a little. Transistor lacked focus, which is a lesson we learned for this album. On this album we really took the time to refine the songs, and we concentrated on a small number of songs so they could have our attention, which I think will benefit the album in the long run."

Ralston also considers producer Hugh Padgham's involvement in the initial sessions invaluable. "At the beginning of the project it was mostly Hugh, and we were consulting with each other to make sure we were consistent with the other albums and that we were getting good sounds. Hugh's approach to recording is that a sound really starts at the source. You can't polish a turd, so we really concentrated on getting the drum tuned right and made sure it sounded good without any mics before we put a mic on it. I think it was really a good thing to do because sometimes you put a mic up and start EQ'ing stuff right away to make it sound better. He listened to everything totally flat for the longest time, and at first I was going, 'Come on, EQ it a little.' But then he'd say, 'Okay, let's try moving the mic a little bit over this way,' and we would move it, and it would make so much of a difference.

"After he left, I continued that method of recording for the rest of the instruments and even the vocals. We'd put them in a room and if it didn't sound good, we'd try them somewhere else, and if that didn't sound right, we'd put them somewhere else. We had a little booth that we tried, which was pretty tight and dry, and it sounded good. Some songs sounded good out in the main room, which had a little more air, and then other songs we did in the control room," says Ralston, adding that for guitarist/vocalist Nick Hexum they used an AKG C-12 and for vocalist S.A. Martinez they favored the Neumann M49.

"The main concern about the vocals on this album was that the guys were comfortable with the mix in their surroundings," Ralston explains. "On Transistor, we had them out in the studio with the headphones and the whole deal, and I think they felt isolated, like they were far away from the music. They would do two or three takes, and then it would be, 'I don't want to sing anymore, that's it.' On this album we made sure they were feeling good with everything around them before they tried for takes. They put a lot of work into it and got good performances.

"Also, one of the comments about Transistor was that the vocals were a little too effected, so one thing Hugh mentioned after he had listened to the other albums was that maybe we should try to dry up the vocals a little more and present them more in front," Ralston continues. "I tried to do that on the mix and not double every vocal. I think it was a good idea, and the vocals sound really strong."

Padgham also insisted on recording the bass sans EQ, which raised some eyebrows. "I'd heard P-Nut's bass a million times so I knew the frequencies that sounded good to push and pull out," Ralston says with a laugh. "I was just going to say, 'Hugh, watch this,' and go boom, pow, there's the sound; thinking he'd be amazed. Instead it was, 'What's all this EQ on here, sonny boy? Let's experiment with the knobs.' So we tried the knobs and different pickups and active and non-active stuff that we never really thought about that much. We got the bass to sound really good with no EQ whatsoever, and I was totally amazed. When it came down to the amp sound, we decided to mike the amp. We went through a bunch of different mics and mic placements and different bass amps and cabinets and finally came up with the one we used throughout most of the album. It's just a DI and a mic signal. Hugh said, 'If you EQ the bass when you record it, when you go to mix it, you'll probably EQ it a little bit more and there's going to be a massive phase shift.' So just for a goof I decided to record the bass the old way on a couple of spare tracks. When we got to the mix, I had almost forgotten about it, but I put them on and EQ'd them and man, he was so right-I couldn't believe it. It sounded like it was in a beer can or something." The result of Padgham's production tactic was that they used very little EQ on the entire album, and, Ralston says, they even avoided going through the Yamaha O2R.

"Not because we don't love the O2R," he says with a laugh, "But we had a bunch of Neve modules and we went right from the mic into the module, right from the module XLR into the back of the machine. It was interesting. I haven't done that in a long time. So we really just monitored through the O2R, and it was cool."

On the drums, Ralston insisted on using a bottom snare mic, which at first Padgham resisted. "When Hugh first set up the drums, he didn't have one on there, and we had to poke him in the ribs a little to get him to put one on," Ralston says. "Even though he was reluctant, I think after a while he thought, 'This isn't too bad.' We used it a lot in the mix, so we were glad we had it.

"I think one of the best things you can do for drum recording is to get a good room sound. First you have to have a good kick and snare sound, then a good room sound. You just experiment with mic placement and move them around until it sounds good, which, of course, is subjective. This is going to sound amateur, but for some reason I've really gotten to like a Shure SM91 on a kick drum. It's a flat mic, kind of PZM style, and I just lay it in the bottom on a towel, and it sounds great. I use it live, and we ended up using it for many songs on this album after many mic comparisons." (Incidentally, Ralston has decided not to resume his road duties with 311 on their upcoming tour, so he can concentrate more on his recording career.)

Ralston mentions "Evolution" as one of his favorite songs on the new album, as well as "Leaving Babylon." "We had originally recorded 'Leaving Babylon' for a Bad Brains tribute album, and then we found out Bad Brains had nothing to do with the album. So we saved the track and put it on this album instead. I really think this is a strong album," he concludes. "The one song I didn't like got cut. I seriously like every single song, and that's a good sign."