311 is a hard-working band that cites touring as a key ingredient to its longevity in this fickle commercial market. After a decade of togetherness, these Omaha expatriates continue to hone in on the quirky rap-rock hybrid that they helped push from novelty status to standard fare on the alternative airwaves.
LAUNCH executive editor Dave DiMartino interviewed the band's Nicholas Hexum and P-Nut just as they unveiled Soundsystem, the new disc that follows the 1997 release of Transistor. The band recently acquainted itself with some sophisticated recording equipment and production techniques, the results of which "come original" on Soundsystem. "It's more fulfilling than trying to get someone else to realize your vision," Hexum said of the creative freedom that comes with studio know-how.
And while 311 continues to advance technically, the band hasn't abandoned the optimistic outlook that informs its melodies. "You go around this world one time and you have to make the best of it," Hexum noted of his millennial "mission of positivity" through music. His pal P-Nut was typically offbeat when chatting with DiMartino: the dreadlocked and horn-rimmed bass player mused about bad lyrics ("just deliver them with confidence"), the finer points of Backstreet Boys-ness ("being No. 1 ain't sh-t if you don't have a future"), and being trapped on a desert island with Shaquille O'Neal ("at least if you had to resort to cannibalism, there'd be some good eatin' on Shaq.") Now that's positive thinking.
Video excerpts of the conversation can be viewed in Issue No. 34 of LAUNCH on CD-ROM; an exclusive live performance "Come Original" can also be viewed on the same disc.
LAUNCH: What's the major difference between this record and all the others you've done?
NICHOLAS: The difference between this record and past records is that we really waited for the songs to grow up organically. We took our time, built our own recording studio, brought in our own gear and learned how to use ProTools. We have an old-school 24-track tape machine, as well as all the computer hard drive recording equipment. Just learning to run that was a big learning experience. We were writing songs gradually throughout the recording process, so it really was a more organic experience. Whereas on Transistor, we recorded 30 songs in two months, and this time we did 13 songs in 18 months. We just kind of slowed down.
P-NUT: With the last album, we were coming off a big success and lots of attention and lots of eyes coming our way, and we wanted to do an album that excited our creative spirit and do something different because that's what we always do. Especially after getting all that attention, we wanted to follow a different route. I'm sure we lost some of the younger fans that caught on because of the singles, but that's just how the band is, and if we're not excited about the music we're playing, we won't have fun onstage and it all boils over. On this album we went more for the rock side and we were looking forward to playing all the songs live. On Transistor, we were spending a lot of time in the studio and just kind of making ourselves happy and making music like we were listening to--a lot of dub, more chilled-out. This time we wanted to play every song live and we wanted to make sure people understood that and could understand that when we did play the songs live.
LAUNCH: Why did you choose to work with producer Hugh Padgham?
NICHOLAS: We just wanted to have a producer who was an impartial sort of referee who isn't really connected with the band. We worked with Scott Ralston, our longtime soundman, but this time we wanted someone who would come in with a fresh palette and fresh ears; someone who wasn't the standard Orange County punk/ hip-hop guy. We wanted to expand our horizons. We thought if we could make an album that he really dug we would make more of a musical statement--not just something that was straight for our core audience. We wanted it to be a longer-lasting thing that would reach out to many different people.
P-NUT: When Hugh came along, we pretty much had all the songs and delivered the project. He helped us record everything correctly and worked on melody ideas, and just added an extra opinion to the whole project so it wouldn't just be the same album again. It's always good to bring in extra people, especially a good English lad. It was fun. We concentrated on the recording process a lot. We recorded the album before Hugh showed up once, maybe one-and-a-half times went through everything exactly as how we would. Hugh fine-tuned everything. We made it easy on each other. It was a really good thing.
LAUNCH: You were one of the first hybrid rap-rock bands. It seems that lately, that genre of music is really blowing up with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit on the scene. Tell me what it has been like to be one of the purveyors of the rap-rock genre.
NICHOLAS: I think it's really cool to see all the hybrid rap-rock groups. I remember when we were on 120 Minutes in 1993 and they were talking about us like we were some new animal that never existed before--it's really cool to see all the hybrid bands finally getting their props. It's great.
P-NUT: Before us there was lots of groundwork laid for this to happen with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 24-7 Spyz, Fishbone, etc.--everybody knows that those are the guys who started it. We in 311 never claimed to be the originators of rock-rap and if we were, we'd be drinking too much. Now with everybody actually listening to rock-rap bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, it will just be easier to come out with this album and do the same thing we've been doing all along. And people will be refreshed that we're coming across in a positive way. Not to bad-mouth others, but it 's just so much better to live your life being positive instead of negative and breaking sh-t. And I'll tell that to Fred Durst's face. I look forward to doing so because having a difference in philosophy is good. And it's good to have perspective, to meet in the middle, or at least talk about it; you'll be able to understand where everybody's coming from. And I don't look down on anyone, I'm just happy to be in 311.
LAUNCH: Do you think there is a downside to making it big so fast?
NICHOLAS: I think that most of our fans that we really want to be associated with don't mind if we sell a lot of records. There's a certain elitism that goes with punk that we don't want to be a part of. There are a lot of fans who've been with us through the long haul. I'm sure we've lost a few, but we're most interested in dealing with regular, everyday people, people who are like we were when we were growing up in Nebraska. We were not part of the super elite--any sort of musical scene. Some people say, "You used to be great when you played tiny clubs and nobody ever heard of you." But it's the same spirit; the same music and we're still making music from the heart. And as long as our approach doesn't change, people can say what they want.
P-NUT: We're taken care of, but we're not so well-off that we don't have a lot of hunger still. Even though we're successful we're even hungrier, especially with the trends now and people coming out with music like us. More people are listening to the type of music we've been doing for 10 years now. People are more aware of the styles that are being flexed all around. It's a good thing. It's going to happen more and more. People are demanding it. It's rare that you run into a person that only likes one style of music. It goes along with the short attention span. You want to play every style of music in one song. I think the fans can relate to that.
LAUNCH: With all that happened at Woodstock '99 with the rioting and such, are you glad you weren't one of the performing acts?
NICHOLAS: With the stuff that happened at Woodstock, it gives me more of a motivation and a sense of purpose that there needs to be a band that represents more of a positive attitude and collective spirit than a testosterone rockfest. I think we're viewing our tour as a mission of positivity to offset all the bad news and bad vibes and anger, and all the tension that's going on with the millennium. We want to be something that's hopeful for people. We see it as a mission to be positive.
P-NUT: I'm really happy we didn't play [Woodstock] because I would have felt that on my shoulders too much. And we wouldn't have incited a riot. There's just too many bad vibes going around and I think concerts on that level are played-out anyway. It's been done, and it's not interesting for the people in the crowd because it's like 20,000 bands, 200,000 people. It's too big. That's why we're going out on the road doing clubs--no opening band and we're in control, a lot more downplayed instead of all hyped-up with people turning over cars and sh-t. We don't need any of that.
LAUNCH: After listening to Soundsystem, I picked up on a lot of live elements on the record. How did you achieve that?
NICHOLAS: I think one of our goals that we may have wrestled with was to have songs that were more geared toward the moshpit and were really high-energy. On Transistor we got into more psychedelic stuff with dub styles, etc. [This time] we made sure the songs would really cut it live, and when we rehearsed the songs they were totally rocking, and we'd say, "Okay, that can stay." We wanted faster tempos and songs that were more pumping.
LAUNCH: Who do you look to for advice?
NICHOLAS: One of my oldest friends from first grade has a band called Grasshopper Takeover. He moved out to L.A. recently and we bounce our songs off each other. He gave me helpful compliments and comments as far as pre-production, stuff like, "I hear harmony here, etc.," and that was cool. Also my little brother Zach, he's 22 and an amazing jazz virtuoso. He can play circles around me on any instrument, so I really value his opinion. But he's not into rock. He's into jazz and more intellectual music, so I always want to get his opinion on everything.
P-NUT: That person would be my girlfriend. She'd see me come home everyday from the studio and we'd listen to it. But not being there while it was going on, but listening to it showed me a lot of perspective. She kept me going: "Just keep doing what you're doing, you're on the right track." And that's what I need to hear.
LAUNCH: What do you do in your down time between recording and touring?
NICHOLAS: A lot of my free time was spent learning computer software and digital editing. I make a lot of continuous hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, and jungle mixes that go from one song to the next. And learning how to do fades and remixing other people's music. We've been working hard and learning how to do things for ourselves. We're learning recording skills, whereas in the past, we'd go into the studio and ask others to do it for us. Now we can do the EQs for ourselves and learn the plug-ins for the trippy effects. It's more fulfilling to do it ourselves instead of trying to get someone else to realize your vision.
P-NUT: We were writing the music with the time off that we had. Just rehearsing and taking time off. We took a good four months off before we started this project, just to get our heads straight. We had been out on the road for almost six years straight working our asses off. We toured to get where we are, put out albums every year. It was time to take a break from everything, really concentrate on what we're doing and make it as timeless as possible.
LAUNCH: Tell me about the band's working dynamic. How well do you get along as a band?
NICHOLAS: I'm always amazed by how well we get along. Luckily, since we have five people, we can vote on anything and it will be three-to-two at worst. Sometimes people will say, "I don't care," and we say, "No, you have to vote." I'm always shocked at how well we get along. We've played like a thousand shows.
P-NUT: The thing that impresses me most about 311 is the fact that we constantly change. And that we are as hard as we are on each other as far as writing and performing the songs, gelling with the instrumentalists and vocalists, and making it as tight a package as possible. It's not just a bunch of riffs with some words we thought of at the last minute. It's really thought-out and really solid. We have a lot of fun in the studio even though it sounds like a lot of work. This experience in the studio was great because we took a lot of time. We knew it would come up when it was ready and not to push ourselves. And that was a first in the studio because it's always stress-filled.
LAUNCH: What is more important to you, having a hit single or being a successful touring band?
NICHOLAS: I think that it's not vital for us to have hit singles because we were making a good living before "Down" blew up. We'll be able to tour on catalog and on our albums and the core audience we've built up through touring. It's not crucial, but I've always thought radio was free music for the people. I back that, and there's nothing wrong with that. It can only ruin a band when they try to hard to fit into a certain format. We've always done rap-style rock, which wasn't a format when we started out. We're in a comfortable place where we don't receive a lot of pressure, but we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always feel like we're going forward and putting in a lot of work.
P-NUT: Hit singles are not important to us. It's nice, and I'd be crazy to say it hasn't elevated us--because it has. Touring as extensively as we have makes it easier for us to exist without radio or MTV. That's the bonus for all you bands out there. Just go out there and tour your asses off and the kids will follow. Then radio and MTV will follow. Make the kids No. 1. Make that connection with people when they're two feet in front of you feeling your heat. That's the connection. Go out there and pound the music into that kid and then it will be real. It can't be any more real. Radio and MTV are fickle, more fickle than anything. Just know that live is where it's at.
LAUNCH: Which scenario would you prefer: to achieve overnight success or a slow gradual rise to the top?
NICHOLAS: I think that if the band gets a hit on its first album and gets accustomed to a certain lifestyle and doesn't get it on the second album, they may fall into a frustrated spiral and not recover from that. We didn't really have any blow-up hits on our last record, but we had the biggest tour we've ever had. I think it depends--maybe if we'd blown up on our first album there would be more of a risk. But we can tour, and so there's not a time question.
P-NUT: It's something Hollywood has been doing for years and years. Jim Carrey comes out on the scene, has the little show he did doing stand-up, and they eat him alive. You have to reinvent yourself constantly or you'll be here today and gone today, like Chris Rock said. It's totally true. That's how fast things are moving, how short people's attention spans are. Keep learning from the mistakes and the right things. Just grow, adapt, and be yourself!
LAUNCH: What is the biggest career mistake you think you could make?
NICHOLAS: The biggest mistake we could make would be to do choreographed dance moves--like the Britney Spears/ Backstreet Boys dance moves. We won't be doing that anytime soon!
P-NUT: The biggest mistake we could make right now would be to believe our own press. If you don't have someone from your past or someone who's not in the biz telling you what's going on, you will start living in a dream and you will lose it. That's no way to be. There's an interview with James Brown on CNN from the '80s. He's wearing yellow glasses that he thinks are blocking his eyes and they're closed, and he's not making any sense. And it just seems like--don't get me wrong, James, I love you--you've been living in your head too long and it seems like you don't know what's going on. Everyone's just telling you how great you are, and you are great. But you can't be an entertainer all the time. You've got to be a human being. You've got to be yourself. And if that is who you are, I'm totally wrong, and I apologize, and have a great day.
LAUNCH: How literate are you when it comes to computers and the Internet?
NICHOLAS: I am the one in the band who is known as the one who really embraces the technology. I've become accustomed to taking in information by having two computers running and flicking through my satellite system. I just really love technology and don't think it's anything to fear. It's an amazing communicative tool and I want to keep expanding our website. We just launched a new, much cooler website with motion and 3-D pictures, so you can get in and see the room from different points of view. There's sound on there; I wanted to make remixes of our songs and put them on there for free, and there will be ways to vote for your favorite one. As things get quicker, it will really revolutionize what people do in their spare time. I'm excited about stuff like that and it's a healthy, natural pastime. I'm always into technology.
P-NUT: I think like everybody, the Internet and the computer industry has become a really big part of everybody's life--unless you're traveling so much, or writing a book on an island somewhere. Being able to retrieve info at the speed of telephone cable is pretty fast, and you have access to worlds and worlds of information. But again, you need to be yourself, you can't live in a box--that what you see on that screen isn't necessarily true, and that you have to take everything you see with a grain of salt, especially national news. I do not believe that the MP3 format or the Real Audio or any digital music transference will take over the record companies anytime soon. There's money being lost somewhere. Those freaks that have the time to download our entire album over the Internet are the same people that will be first in line to get the album when it comes out. Those freaks are the same freaks who are our diehard fans who will go out and buy the album. But our manager is ripping his hair out. When it comes down to us, it's not going to bother us, I guarantee it.
LAUNCH: If 311 had a message, what would it be?
NICHOLAS: If 311 had a message it would be the lyric I had on Transistor, which is "One thing I've got to say before sales dive is stay positive and love your life," because that's the core of what we believe. You go around this world one time and you have to make the best of it, see all the beauty you can, and embrace it while you're here.
P-NUT: I would say it would just be a positive thing. We're not running through the daisies and we're not total hippies--even though I have dreads. We're more on the positive tip, having fun; we're definitely into the live show thing. I think we could have existed really well, not in the musical form, but more in the philosophy, in the '70s. We tour our asses off. The reason we took such a big break was so that we could tour as long as we wanted and give it to people in just the way that we wrote the songs.
LAUNCH: What song are you most likely to sing in the shower?
NICHOLAS: That would probably be "All Of Me." That song does something to me.
P-NUT: The song I'm most likely to be singing in the shower could be anything on any given day, but it would probably be a Tom Waits song. Something that is easily sung when you have gravel in your throat, which I often do in the morning. Or something by the Smiths. I caught myself recently singing some Smiths this morning and I was embarrassed by it. But it has to be someone in my range. A baritone. Or there's no use.
LAUNCH: What kind of music do you listen to on long road trips?
NICHOLAS: Currently it would have to be [one of] the new drum 'n' bass bands called Breakbeat Era, a new Roni Size project. I just got an advance tape.
P-NUT: Well, Curtis Mayfield would maybe be the first thing I put on to smooth everyone out before I put on the Melvins to shake everyone up and get them ready for the show. Something like that, something bipolar, something smooth and then something real hectic.
LAUNCH: What kind of music do you listen to during sex?
NICHOLAS: The best song to do it to would be the Adult Favorites station I get on my satellite network. It's a horrible-sounding station, but it's Perry Como, the cheesier side of Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Mel Tormé. That's my vibe.
P-NUT: I'm very fond of having sex in silence. In high school I was really into listening to music and hiding some of the uncomfortable noises. I'm much more of a man now and I want to hear those sounds now. It's much more romantic. I think silence is a good thing. I knew a couple in high school who would sing to each other while having sex and that freaked me out. I'd much rather hear breathing.
LAUNCH: What's the strangest thing that's ever happened to you onstage?
NICHOLAS: The strangest thing that I can remember happening to me onstage is looking over and seeing P-Nut throwing up. He got so worked-up, he just barfed and kept playing. He didn't miss a beat. He was so wound-up with energy. This was back in '92 or '91.
P-NUT: I was in New Orleans at a very famous club where I met my girlfriend, who I live with now. There was a girl in front of me rocking out. She was standing in front of me for what felt like a couple minutes, but it was probably only a few seconds; I gave her a swift kick right in the gut. I didn't wound her too bad, but I was full of adrenaline and kicked her down and the whole rest of the show she was just giving me the double fingers. I felt so bad. I went back to the bus and sulked. I felt bad, but I wanted my space back.
LAUNCH: Before you were in 311, what was the best regular job you ever had?
NICHOLAS: I was a waiter in downtown L.A. and I was on the breakfast shift and there was nobody there, and people would pay cash and I could work the tickets a little bit and pocket the money...that was the old days.
P-NUT: One of the best things about my life is that I haven't had too many jobs. The only other job I had was at a Shoney's washing dishes for two weeks. I just wanted a rack case for one of my amps. I knew the manager there and I could do things at my own pace. I saved up my money and quit. Beyond that, I cleaned houses for my mom. She was a real estate agent. I couldn't complain about any of the jobs I had. They weren't that bad and they all were temporary.
LAUNCH: If you weren't in a successful rock band, what would you be doing professionally?
NICHOLAS: What would I be doing if I weren't a rock star? I would be the new leader of the Branch Davidians.
P-NUT: I'd be teaching bass. I was teaching bass in Omaha at age of 15. I had a lot of fun doing that. I would be in music no matter what. I played violin from six to nine. I picked up guitar at 10, then picked up bass at 11. It's a part of my life, I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
LAUNCH: What's the worst thing that's ever happened to the band?
NICHOLAS: The worst thing that's happened to us has got to be the RV fire that we had in '93. Everything burned up; we barely escaped with our lives. We lost our equipment, our clothes, and our cash. But we borrowed some gear and played a show the next night. We tried to turn it into a milestone, like, "If we can get through this, we can get through anything."
P-NUT: Since I don't really brood too much on things like that, I have to pull something out. I don't know...Not too many bad things have happened. There was the RV fire; that wasn't bad, just a roadblock, and that made us stronger as a unit. That would be over for us or the beginning. We just kept on truckin'. It was all we could do and was all we ever had a choice to do. Just jump over it. It's either going to stop you or not.
LAUNCH: Who is your favorite Backstreet Boy?
NICHOLAS: My favorite Backstreet Boy? Probably the one with facial hair.
P-NUT: My favorite Backstreet Boy would be the lack of Backstreet Boys. But I do think it's really cool that there is an onslaught of boy bands out there that totally legitimize 311. They're writing the songs you've heard before. You never go, "Wow, what a great part of the song!" You should stretch yourselves. If I was in the band that's what I'd be telling them. That's why I like being in 311, a musicians-controlled band vs. a manager-controlled band.
LAUNCH: If you were to become a Spice Girl, which one would you like to be?
NICHOLAS: If I had to be a Spice Girl, I would be Scary Spice. She most embodies the spirit.
P-NUT: All those bands were thrown together, including Spice Girls--people will get sick of it, for one. If you don't write original music, people will get sick of it faster. Being No. 1 ain't sh-t if you don't have a future, and if you don't have a future, you're not a musician, you're just a puppet, and that's bullsh-t. I think I dress a little more like Sporty Spice than any of the other ones. Since I don't know very much about them at all, I'd have to say that, as far as attire goes. She's the only one who can sing too, I've heard.
LAUNCH: In your own words, what would you say your life most resembles?
NICHOLAS: Sometimes I feel like the son, Ben, on that show Dr. Katz. Sometimes I'm sitting in my house, I don't know what to do with myself and I relate to the loser son on Dr. Katz.
P-NUT: My life most resembles a cartoon. Whereas anything can happen, a lot of times the shapes don't look normal, the colors are a little off, and the characters are totally absurd.
LAUNCH: In your mind, what is the most stupid lyric you've ever heard?
NICHOLAS: The stupidest song lyric? That would be, "I believe the children are our future" [from Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love Of All"]. That's the stupidest song. It couldn't be any more obvious or redundant.
P-NUT: That's so hard, because there's a billion dumb lines in a song. If you deliver a bad line without confidence, people will laugh. But if you deliver a bad line with confidence, it will slip by. But who am I to say? I don't have the balls to put myself out in that way. I hide behind my instrument, my hands, and the music I create. I really look up to lyricists because that is being naked in front of millions and millions of people. That would be hard to answer. I'll cop out.
LAUNCH: Which trend or person is on the way out?
NICHOLAS: Hopefully it's George W. Bush. Who's on their way out? Probably the Backstreet Boys.
P-NUT: Management bands. Bands that don't have control. Bands that are non-original. You've got to surprise people even a little, even in the slightest. Do something for yourself--make yourself happy and others will understand. Otherwise you're moving backwards in this universe and you'll be forgotten really quickly.
LAUNCH: Who would make the perfect celebrity love match?
P-NUT: Me and Les Claypool. We're going to make a bass album, a double bass album, and it will be nasty. Really, really nasty and no one will understand it but him and me.
NICHOLAS: Carmen Electra immediately comes to mind. You can't think of a crazier match than Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman. They need to get back together. They belong together. We're rooting for you, guys!
LAUNCH: If you could push anyone off a cliff, who would it be?
P-NUT: That's a mean question. But I don't know. Just the philosophy behind the boy bands needs to be pushed off a cliff. It's not for me to say if it's good or bad music--that's someone's art, and it could mean the world to someone else. And just because I'm in a different creative realm, it's hard for me to have perspective on that. I think people can see through it, people know they were pushed together: "Hi, this is the guy you're going to be in a band with." And that's bullsh-t. You have to go through stuff with each other to truly bond. I don't see a real bond there, and that bond has been what's kept 311 together through the ups and downs we've been through.
NICHOLAS: I think all boy bands should be pushed off a cliff. We're getting away from bands that play their own songs, and there are so many bands that write good music. There's a weird resurgence in manufactured music, but eventually that makes room for good bands. There will be a backlash. It's just weird that there's all this money being put into this teen thing. But there will be a punk backlash.
LAUNCH: What song are you tired of hearing?
P-NUT: Well, I don't submit myself to too much radio play. I have been lately, because I've been listening for our song to come on because I'm greedy. But I don't know. That's so hard. I don't immerse myself in that kind of music so I don't get to that level of wanting to hate them or not wanting to listen to that song anymore. That's inevitably going to happen if you listen to that music too much, because it has no curves--it's just a straight line. I would lump them all together and tell them to originate next time.
NICHOLAS: I don't want to bust on anyone too much. Pick someone dead...um. Nothing good's coming to mind.
LAUNCH: If you were stranded on a desert island and you had to resort to cannibalism, who would you want to be trapped with that you would eventually have to eat?
P-NUT: I'd want them to be big so I could eat for a while. That's tough. I keep thinking of basketball players. I'd like to meet Shaq. That would be cool. And there's a lot of good eating on Shaq. You could have Jerk Shaq. Thai Shaq. You could work out the whole menu just on his legs alone. I'd like to really get down with Shaq.
NICHOLAS: I like someone large. I like a real rich steak, like a Monica Lewinsky cut, perhaps. If I had to resort to cannibalism, it would probably be her.