Sunday, September 28, 2003

311 (Rock Express)

With little or no respect from the rock media, 311 stormed out of Nebraska with its self-proclaimed "Omaha style"--a mix of Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk, metallic thrash, alternative-rock anthems, fluid rapping and Grateful Dead-inspired space jamming--and the group slowly but surely built a rabid, devoted following for its diverse recordings and high-energy live shows.

311 has its roots in another band formed by key players Nick Hexum (vocals, guitar) and Chad Sexton (drums) in the late '80s. The two made their first stab at the big time when they moved to L.A. and tried to land a deal with a band called Unity, but it was too much too soon, and they returned to Omaha broke and beaten. They regrouped with bassist P-Nut (Aaron Charles Wills), guitarist Tim Mahoney (who replaced Jimi Watson) and rapper/scratcher S.A. (Doug Martinez) and played their first show as 311 in 1990 opening for Fugazi; the name is Omaha police code for indecent exposure, and it came from a skinny-dipping incident involving Watson.

Three self-released albums followed. Dammit! (1990), Unity (1991) and Hydroponic (1992) are all valued collectibles now, though band members insist they aren't very good, and some of the tunes were subsequently re-recorded on later releases. In early 1992, the group moved to L.A. again, and this time success followed in the form of a record deal with Nashville-based Capricorn Records (home of theAllman Brothers). The Southern label related to the group's strong work ethic, which was eventually rewarded with the self-titled Capricorn album known to fans as "The Blue Album." 311 scored major MTV and alternative radio hits with "Down" and "All Mixed Up," enabling the group to explore a more expansive sound on the follow-up albums Transistor and Soundsystem, and ensuring that its cult will continue to grow.

Following the release of Soundsystem 311's relationship with Capricorn went south, prompting the band to sue to get off the label. In 2001, 311 emerged with the aptly titled From Chaos on a new label, Volcano. The album proved that there was still plenty of interest in the band--it debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and eventually spawned the easy-going crossover hit "Amber."

In summer 2003, 311 returned with Evolver, an album that reunited the band with producer Ron Saint Germain, who last worked with 311 on its 1995 self-titled third album.