Wednesday, March 14, 2007

'Mixed' Emotions (Entertainment Weekly)

If you were one of the few to recognize the song Top 12-er Blake Lewis performed on American Idol last week, 311's 1995 modern rock hit ''All Mixed Up,'' then you were likely as surprised as we were by the choice. But what threw us for an even bigger loop was when Lewis casually mentioned, at the Top 12 party later that night, that 311 singer Nick Hexum was in the audience for the show. Naturally, we had to investigate this very important Idol development, and what we discovered after tracking Hexum down on 3/11 (a day he spent two hours chatting with fans online), was an even more interesting backstory to this tale of a fan and his favorite band...

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Nick, what did you think of Blake's rendition of ''All Mixed Up''?

NICK HEXUM: Well, dawg... [Laughs] I think he did it well. I was surprised when I first heard about it, because usually Idol is all about the big, cheesy Celine Dion stuff. So I wasn't imagining that a song like ''All Mixed Up,'' which doesn't have the big huge pop-ness to it, would go over too well, but Blake pulled it off. The opening part is really hard to sing. It's like an ascending half-step jazz chord, and he nailed it. He gave it a cool arrangement that had a little bit more of a straight groove than our version. He changed it around and had a lot of fun with it. I have only positive things to say.

What about the judges' comments? Were you offended that they didn't recognize the song?
No, I wasn't mad. Our fans think of 311 as a kind of secret society, so it made sense that these really pop-oriented people wouldn't be familiar with us. What I thought was funny were the judges' comments about what a contemporary song choice that was. Yeah, we wrote that song about 12 years ago.... [Plus,] all these industry suits were sitting around me, and they were like, ''Who was that, Sublime?''

Was your phone ringing off the hook?
Yeah, and the funny thing about is that everyone assumes that no one else is watching it among my friends. They're all texting me as if they're not. They'll start with the excuse of, ''Well, my girlfriend watches the show,'' or ''My kids,'' or whatever. So my phone was blowing up. It's a guilty pleasure. Why not cop to it?

Were you a fan of the show before?
I was familiar with it. I watched early on and kind of sat out the last couple of seasons. But in general, I think it's good TV. The fact that the emotions are so real... These people are really ecstatic or crushed right there before you; you can't deny it even if you don't care for the musical selection or format. I think the most brutal part is when they make them sing after they're eliminated. Like that girl [Alaina Alexander] who sang the Dixie Chicks — that was really brutal.

Do you have a favorite past Idol?
Fantasia. She can just sing her ass off. She's so right there with no pretenses. She was one person I really got behind, but I didn't vote or anything.

How did you hook up with Blake and end up in the audience?
Actually, my brother Zach [Hexum] is friends with [Blake's fellow top 12-er] Brandon Rogers, and Blake got in touch through Brandon asking if he could do the song. But I didn't get to meet Blake — we just texted.

How does your brother know Brandon?
Zach is a singer-songwriter and Brandon produced quite a bit of the vocals on his new album. There's a lot of cool layered harmonies and more R&B influences that Brandon brought to it. And he did it all without any sort of auto-tuning or digital editing. It's an awesome album, and, while he's working on it, I'm looking for a distributor for it.

So is your loyalty now divided between two contestants? Who do you root for?
They both want to make it to the top 10 so they can go on tour together. I'm pulling for both of them. And honestly, anything I do as far as an endorsement is not going to tip the scales at 30 to 40 million watchers. But my take on Brandon is, he's so versatile. No matter what they make him do in the next few weeks [as far as theme shows], I think he's going to surprise people as time goes on.

Were you happy Ryan didn't give you an on-air shoutout during the show?
I made sure that opportunity did not present itself.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

311 Interview (Buzzine)

God-forbid a band these days has a positive outlook: here’s one that has cranked out hits without threatening any police, any coast, and not even anyone’s bitch. They’re hard, melodic, multi-timbral, and don’t require a Special Forces advance team to clear the room prior to entry.

Pure talent, a constant connection with the fans, and a low profile seem to be key elements in the formula that keep SA Martinez, P-Nut, Chad Sexton, Tim Mahoney and Nick Hexum pumping out the evolving gems on album after album. On vocals, guitar and programming tidbits, the lanky Hexum sat down with me in their Southern California rehearsal/recording studio:

Aaron Stipkovich: Touring with Jay-Z must have been a bit of a “look over your shoulder” experience, no?
Nick Hexum: (Laughing) He had a real extensive security staff. Basically, in the top echelon of hip-hop it’s gone beyond your normal…you know, big black guy as a bodyguard. Now they have CIA-looking white guys in suits with the earpiece. It’s gone to a whole new “Secret Service” level.

AS: Definitely. And they’re usually not even big giant buff guys. They’re usually guys that can fit an Uzi or some other device to disembowel you…(laughs)
NH: (laughs)Yeah, trained killers.

AS: Let’s talk about that for a minute. What are your thoughts about how the entire planet has changed? Not necessarily the World Trade Center incident, but just from the days when you first started being a band and you guys were just hanging around, just thinking about music, chillin’. Now, with ten times more security, economic, financial, and promotional issues…the music is almost gone.
NH: Yeah, now a lot of musicians keep themselves so separated from their audience…like…in the early days, when we were doing our own little club tours, we were responsible for our own stage security. There was no barricade, and people were rolling onto the stage. We had one guy that would be there to point and the offender would jump back out, or he’d go push them back out in the crowd. It was like one collective thing. Now there’re people…I don’t want to name names, but people that aren’t that famous that they don’t even need bodyguards, and have bodyguards just to feel important. It’s like they want the, you know…intimidation factor. I mean, it’s like I see some of these people and I’m like…rent-a-posse. “Who wants to beat you up?” or “Who wants to kill you?” or like, “Are you really being mobbed?” like “‘Beatlemania’ around you just because you got a Top 20 modern-rock hit?” you know…right, right. It’s like, there’re a lot of bands that are smaller than us that have all full-time bodyguards. We’ve never had that because we don’t go around beefing with people and we don’t have anything to…we don’t want to keep ourselves separated. We like to mix with people and I really…you know, sometimes people look at me and they’re like, ” Oh, my God, that’s him,” and I know that they might be scared to talk to me, so I’ll just make the gesture and be like, “Hey, how’s it going,” because I want to be approachable. I want to have a lot of contact and let people know that we’re just like them and that we’re not trying to become aloof.

AS: Yeah. Why? That sounds like a really basic question, but why is it that you want to keep the contact and keep that interaction with your fan-base? Is there a specific reason, or you just don’t want to become something else?
NH: It’s just….to use a terrible phrase, “Keepin’ it real,” you know? We just want to be as normal as possible, because I believe that when you put on an air, some people might blow up real big because they’ve got an image like Pimp has, and they’re really, like, you know…putting on a character that’s going to become easily noticeable and definable, and it’s going to blow up, like, “Wow, there’s this new guy,” but then, after a while, you kind of start seeing through the facade and are like, “Okay…musically, maybe he can’t cut it,” so we just want to….we know if we’re keeping ourselves as honestly representing how we are as much as possible…then there’s not going to be some fa├žade that, at some point, people are going to see through. Like, we’re always just being ourselves–we’re never saying that we’re any more than just five friends, music fans…we work really hard at our music…we love to put on really high-energy shows, we work really hard at our making of the albums, but we’re not trying to glamorize our lifestyle beyond the fact that we talk about, you know, “Yeah, we like to smoke weed and hang out and have a good time”….but it’s not that we’re like, you know…banging super models and being something that we’re not, you know? I’m just…scooping up my dog’s shit this morning, and you know it’s like…(laughs)

AS: (Laughing) Yeah, shit…I remember the days when, you know, your van burned down and you were, like, scrambling for gear. You were still just like right on the verge of getting a ton of airplay. It doesn’t seem like you guys have changed much, personality-wise.
NH: Not much. We just always remind ourselves how grateful we are to have this position and to be able to make a career out of that. It’s hard to know how to reciprocate to the fans in just the right way. But we do things like taking requests, like being in touch with our fans through message boards. They’ll say, “We really want to hear this certain obscure song at this show; there’s going to be a ton of us there…it means a lot to us…can you please…?” We’ll be like, “Okay, but we’re going to have to re-learn it because we haven’t played it in years…” just being responsive to them like that, and we did a couple of free shows recently–one on UC San Diego campus and one in the middle of downtown San Francisco. It was kind of a corporate sponsorship thing because Nissan picked up the bill as far as putting on the staging and paying for the PA and anything like that. But you know, it wasn’t like there was a big Nissan poster behind the band or anything like that. It was just like there was a car on the site that you could check out to come. And so it was a modest, corporate thing, which, as long as it’s done tastefully, it’s okay. I mean, some bands do it more than others. There are some things that other bands do that we wouldn’t be comfortable with. This is actually the first time we’ve done this type of thing. The Liquid Mix Tour was the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, but we figured if it doesn’t say Sprite behind us on stage–and it doesn’t–it’s not all like, you know…whore-ish. If it’s just about the music, it’s okay, if they’re kind of connected because they were picking up the bill to put a lot of promotion behind it…get the big venues and pay to have Jay-Z, and who knows how expensive he was, you know…so some of that stuff can be okay.

AS: Yeah. Is there a point where you draw the line, or is it that kind of thing where you look like you’re “pimpin’ out”, you know, for some soda or something? I mean, have you been in the position where you said, “You know what? This is wrong–let’s not do this”?
NH: Yeah, Doritos commercial. Sorry, that’s just not…we don’t want our song….” They made one and showed it to us and said, “Look how cool this is–your music in a Doritos commercial.” They open the bag and a 311 song comes blazing out, and they close it and it’s like…what song was it? It was back when “Down” was…it was “Down”, and we were like, “Yeah, it’s a well-done commercial, but that’s not what we want our music to be associated with.” I mean, I’m not saying that we would never do it. I mean, as we were just discussing, I’m such a huge fan of Apple computers that if there could be a tasteful way to put one of our songs in an Apple commercial, maybe we’d do that because that’s something that we’re so into, you know? But we just go on a case-by-case basis.

AS: I was really impressed with the way you were able to pull off your previous album as such a polar opposite from the previous stuff. At first, everyone was kind of, “What? Where’s that (singing, ‘Don’t Stay Home’) feeling? What happened to you guys? What’s this ethereal, spacey bullshit?” But then, after it sank in a little bit, you can’t turn it off. Cheers to you.
NH: Yeah, and we’re even taking it a whole different leap forward this next joint, so… the one thing is to expect the unexpected with us. I’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles and a lot of punk, so, we’ve got a few songs that are like this “Beatle-esque-punk” with these huge soaring harmonies, driving guitar, up-beat, slammin’-like stuff that’s more English influenced than what you’re used to. It’s not rap-rock. And then, there are some other songs which are kind of exploring. We’re trying to make a hybrid of hard-ass rock dance hall.

AS: I don’t think that’s just recently for you guys, by the way. I mean, you said, “What I’m trying to do now is promote this positive,” I think. I mean, listen to your own damn music, man–you have been promoting positive! I mean, it’s just a feel-good sound since day one.
NH: And people say, “How did you get this way?” and I’m like, I don’t know—it’s just as blessed as we have been, besides being in 311, as blessed as we have been to live in such an affluent society with so much freedom and to be able to do whatever we want. I would feel embarrassed if the bulk of what was coming out of my mouth was negative and complaining because we have been really, really truly blessed, and I am always reminding myself of that because I get depressed and down like anybody else–or frustrated–but to say, “Hey, lets look at the bigger picture here. Most people in the world are oppressed or impoverished or oppressed,” you know, just like really, we should spend more time counting our blessings, and that’s been a thread running through the lyrics forever.

AS: Was your comfort level challenged a bit, touring with someone like Jay-Z or some of these other bands that don’t have quite that same attitude lyrically and lifestyle-wise?
NH: No, they were nice to us and said hi in the halls. We didn’t really hang out that much. Not with the Jay-Z camp. But, you know, it actually went by fairly quick. It was just a three-week tour. Everyone was really respectful and I actually made an appointment to meet Jay-Z and get my picture taken with him on the last day of the last show. But I can’t judge him–maybe he has stuff going on. You know Jam Master J got killed, so maybe there are needs for him to have that kind of security force, but all I know is that I am never going to give in to that kind of paranoia, and I am always going to want to be a man of the people and talk to the kids as much as possible.

AS: Lastly, after 311, what’s left for you?
NH: Well, I don’t see an end to 311, but I do see that I am really enjoying producing works for other people, such as my girlfriend is an amazing singer, and were kind of creating this sound for her that’s…she’s Hawaiian…and were creating this kind of Hawaiian, R&B, dance hall. It’s like its this tropical hip hop-reggae, So it’s all about murder then. Yeah, (laughs) its fun, and she’s got the voice of an angel. And then my brother is…
AS: Can we talk about your girlfriend then? What’s her name?
NH: My girlfriend’s name is Nicole. She’s a singer. And my brother, Zack, is eight years younger than me, so he is getting going, but he is an amazing singer/songwriter on his own. Kind of along the lines of The New Back, or maybe like Coldplay, John Mayer…just these intelligent singer/songwriter kind of guys. So I’m thinking, you know, got some deals in the works about maybe having my own label for these other projects, I’m working with producing them to get their demos ready to make some deals. I’ve got a lot of extra energy. I really enjoy working. I get up early in the morning, and work, to me, is fun. I don’t see 311 ending, but there are so many things that I would like to do that I will be able to do, even if I was too old to perform–even though The Rolling Stones are proving that you are never too old to perform.