Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rock Candy Interview: Nick Hexum of 311

311 is, from left, Chad Sexton, SA Martinez, Nick Hexum, P-Nut and Tim Mahoney.

311's celebrating the release of its 10th album, "Universal Pulse," with a trip back home.

After forming in Omaha 21 years ago to open for Fugazi, the band will play the main stage at Red Sky Music Festival on July 19, the day the album drops.

They'll also be doing a midnight record signing at Homer's Music, the same place that sold their local albums and tapes back in the '90s.

As for "Universal Pulse," it's the best thing the band has done in several years. Only eight songs long, the album's more like an EP, but it's lean and without all the filler. (Listen to "Sunset In July.")

Old fans of the band will be satisfied, especially since this record recalls older material that was more rock in its focus and less like the reggaeish stuff featured in some later efforts.

Last week, Nick Hexum called from Los Angeles to talk Omaha and the band's formation, "Universal Pulse," fans and the band's upcoming Pow Wow Festival.

Q. You’re releasing “Universal Pulse” the same day you’re in Omaha. Were you excited when you found out about that?

A. It was a great fortune that that happened. We saw that the routing was going to happen to be in Omaha and we were like, “What a perfect serendipity that that’s how it happened to be scheduled to go back to our home.”

Plus my dad’s 70th birthday, I’ll be home for. It all happens at that same (time). We’re really excited for it.

Q. Is there anywhere you feel like you have to go in Omaha?

A. I just like to walk aroudn the old neighborhood where I grew up because it just really brings me back to walking to school each day and the smells and the sights and to see how everything has changed. I really get a kick out of walking the neighborhood around Swanson Elementary.

Q. It sounds like you guys set up “Universal Pulse” for the live performances?

A. I think there’s been a general revelation within the band that the core of what we do is the live setting. That’s kind of what we prefer because live music — as far as one person performing an instrument and other people listening to it and dancing to it — that’s existed for 30- 40,000 years where recorded music has only been around for maybe 100.

It’s kind of like the core of this non-verbal communciation that we realize, that’s where our heart’s really at. The album’s meant to support and serve the live setting rather than being a studio-focused band.

Q. “Universal Pulse” is also a shorter album, but you took a shorter time in between albums.

A. We realized we wanted to have more of an immediacy — the album’s show what we’ve been doing recently instead of  what we’ve been doing over three or four years. We figured that we’d rather have more frequent releases (and) they’re going to have be shorter because it takes a long time to record the songs properly and to the level of quality that we want.

We just placed quality over quantity and that’s what we came up with.

Q. Some other artists have told me they’d prefer to put out shorter albums or EPs frequently instead of a full album every few years. What do you think?

A. I think that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter anyway with iPods and playlists. If I get a new album, I’ll pick my favorite six or seven songs off there anyway and put it on a playlist and listen to it in the car, you know what I mean? To me, we’re kind of doing that for you when we do a shorter album — just picking the very best stuff.

Q. The album doesn’t seem to have any throway songs.

A. That’s a thing that Chad kept saying: “Let’s just make it so you want to listen to it again.” There were a couple songs that we were on the fence about and we said, “If we’re not sure then let’s leave them out.”

Q. You guys went through a few different phases and threw out a whole bunch of songs before you decided on this group of songs.

A. There were some more kind of half-baked ideas that we had played live and there wasn’t vocals to them yet — we rehearsed, rather. It just wasn’t really working so that’s another big part of the album process is to just play through stuff to see what is gelling and what isn’t. Definitely, there were some clunkers in there that never got off the ground.

Q. Do you throw those out and never think of them again or do you hold onto those songs?

A. A little piece of a song will be revisited but to me, there’s no point in — you probably can’t print this — but we say “There’s no point in trying to polish a turd.” (laughs)

You just have to let certain things go and basically if there’s a good little idea in there it will float back to the surface later.

Q. Where did producer Bob Rock come in on the process?

A. In our process, what Bob does that’s the most important is the pre-production. We’ll get in there and put a new song together and he’ll say, “Well, this part gets a little long,” or “This part doesn’t happen enough. It’s the best part, you need to do it more” — rearranging the road maps of the songs.

That really is the magic of the creativity (of Rock). He’ll get in there like a sixth member and grab a guitar and suggest little arrangment things or even  a chord. He really was very active in the preproduction.

We worked with other producers that were more of an engineer focus that would just really work on recording whatever we did really well. That, to me, wasn’t as satisfying as having somebody that would help you pick it apart and put it together again. That’s where we worked most with Bob.

He was actually able to leave while we were doing the overdubs and recording the voclas and guitars and stuff. He would just set us up with good micing and getting a good tone and then he would go work on another project, which was fine with us because we’ve already recorded so much that we know how to do that part of it. Then he would come back in and kinda check our work.

It was cool that we could build that kind of trust where he could let us run the show and just kinda check on us.

Q. Everyone always tells me being in a band is like being married to five people at once.

A. You have to be ready to not get your way and put your own interests aside to what serves the band as a whole the best. There’s plenty of times that ego will destroy a band because when a band gets successful and people start telling you you’re great and it can play tricks on your head. We’ve just worked pretty hard to stay out of that whole fame game and just be musicians.

And so far so good.

Q. Do you think that’s one of the things that’s contributed to you being successful?

A. I think that we just always keep the focus on the msuic itself rather than the trappings of the music business.

P-Nut’s fond of saying, “I’m not a rockstar, I’m a musician.” I think that’s kinda the crux of where we keep our heads at. Keep our feet on the ground.

Q. The band just celebrated its 21st anniversary. You guys opened for Fugazi for your first show?

A. At Sokol Hall on June 10, 1990.

Q. That’s a pretty awesome band to open for on your first time ever.

A. Yeah. We were kind of floating around. Tim and me and Chad had a band called Unity before that. And we were all kind of doing different things for a couple months. I talked to Chad on the phone — I was actually in Europe kind of bumming around. He said, “You know, we’ve got an opportunity to open for Fugazi.”

I was like, “OK, I’m coming home. Let’s get the band back together.” (laughs)

Then we hooked up with P-Nut on bass. And P-Nut had the name 311 lying around. I guess he performed in a talent show with that as the band name based on the indecent exposure story.

So, it was a good reason to start the band to get prepared for that show and it was a really great launching point because it was like 1,000 people there and they were moshing. It was like, “Wow, this is really what we’ve been hoping for.” And then we just kept building from there.

Q. The album feels a bit of a throwback to some of the older 311 material. “Rock On,” in particular” feels like it could be on “Grassroots.”

A. Yeah, it’s a very Chad Sexton-style — big, heavy and has sort of a majesticness to it. He’s got a bit more of a heavier background in his background. It is a bit reminiscent of “Hydroponic” or something from our older days.

That song actually had been sitting around. That’s the only song that wasn’t brand new. That song had been available for “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Uplifter” and for some reason didn’t make the cut.

I did take a stab at the vocals on “Uplifter” and it didn’t pan out. I was trying to sing too much, so now we redid it with more of a rap and realized it was something that had been missing that our fans would enjoy.

Q. It sounds like you can pick out everyone’s playing in each song. Is that something that came out from the mixing?

A. That is part of the way we did it — a raw, natural mix. These days, most bands are going for more sizzle and more compression and everything’s loud and you don’t really hear the personality as much. We were like, “That’s not what we would like to listen to” even though that’s what it seems like the trend is going toward.”

When you make it more natural and uncompressed then you can hear the personality. You can hear the wood of the instruments and the fingers and more of the nuance. Even though it might not sound as hard-hitting as a super-modern mix. We just wanted it to be more natural, but it’s still pretty loud and heavy.

Q. Chad Sexton actually mixed it, right?

A. Right. Bob had done a couple mixes and then Scotch (Ralston), our live sound man, took a stab at some mixing. Chad was like, “Let me take a stab at it, too,” and those ended up being really what we wanted to sound like.

Q. With stuff like that, is it nice keeping it in-house?

A. Yep. We realized we don’t necesarilly need to turn things over. We have our own label now and we realized we can design our own promotion. We’ve got videos that are being made for a bunch of songs. We’ve got remixes.

Stuff like that that we know our fans will enjoy that can be sued as a promotional tool. Instead of waiting for some big company to do it for you, we’re doing stuff for ourselves and that feels kind of empowering.

Q. Does the band still have a pretty good relationship with its fans?

A. We do have a direct one-to-one relationship with our fans, and because of the Internet and soforth we keep really in close touch with them.

That makes some of the marketing easier where we keep fostering that relationship. Instead of trying to appeal to everybody, we just keep working on our core.

Q. What’s different about your live show this time?

A. The injection of new material will certainly make it a different show. When we do a setlist ... we know some people are seeing us for the first time and others are seeing us for the 50th time so we try to keep all the points of view in mind.

There’s a new drum part that’s being planned for the new tour as far as the drum line solo. And we’ve been really working hard on getting the new songs ready. We’ve been playing through the whole new album three or four times a week for the past few works. We’re making sure we’re really fluid and as good with the new songs as we are with the old ones.

Q. Is that hard to do now that you have 10 albums?

A. There are some songs that we haven’t played in a really long time. That’s why it’s cool to go and play an album in its entirety like we did with “Music” at the Halloween show and we’re gonna to “Transistor” in its entirety at Pow Wow.

If people want to hear something really rare, they can travel to that show. It’s kind of fun to combine destinations and music, like rock ‘n’ roll tourism.

Generally, we do evolve toward certain songs. The song “Jackpot” off of “Uplifter” turned out to be just amazing live, so we play that almost every night. Other songs, I don’t think we ever played, like “Too Much Too Fast,” I don’t think we ever played that once.

Q. What’s that like to play one for the first time?

A. It’s a slightly nerve-wracking experience to play a song for the first time. We’re going without a net.

Q. Are you guys excited for Pow Wow Festival? Nervous?

A. Yeah. You know, we’ve always wanted to do our own festival and it just seems like the time is right. Doing the different destination-oriented events whether it was 311 Day or the cruise — which was a huge success — or the Halloween show, they’ve all been going really well so far. Now, to combine camping and music and have that be like a really special experience. Picking all the bands, like bands we know we’d really want to see live — Deftones, Ozomatli, G. Love, Sublime With Rome, Dirty Heads, Reel Big Fish.

It’s going to be an amazing lot of music that’s going to be played over that weekend. We also know that we’re asking a lot for people to travel that far and the camping thing — I haven’t been camping in awhile (laughs) — I know it definitely takes some preparation to get geared up for that. We wanted to give them something special to play “Transistor” in its entirety.

Q. How do you get prepared for that?

A. Since we have six weeks to go before Pow Wow, I wouldn’t say we’re completely ready for “Transistor” yet. (laughs) Yesterday, we played four or five “Transistor” songs that we hadn’t played in awhile. I think there’s one song, “Tune In,” that we’ve never played live.

Q. Will you play the secret track that plays before the first song?

A. You know, I think we should. We definitely should play that intro. That’s a pretty fun way to start the show.

Q. The band makes time for a lot of fan meet-and-greets and such. Is that important to you?

A. I enjoy it. You can sometimes be too isolated if you don’t do those kind of things. A lot of times they’ll have something prepared that they want to say or a letter that they’ll shove in our hands that says what our music means to them. You can get a real boost of energy to hear the impact that you’ve had on somebody. I always really look forward to them.

When we were on the cruise, we took a photo with every person that came on the cruise. That was two photo shoots that were two and a half, three hours apiece. It seems like it would be really grueling, but it was so much excitement coming from them that it was kind of like a real high, all the love of all these people that would travel so far to come to the shows.

We loved it.

Q. What do you consider the band’s greatest success?

A. I guess it’s kinda what I’m talking about in the chorus of “Sunset In July” of I look out at the crowd and I would see people so lost in the music with a big smile on their face and with eyes closed — the power of music to take people to another dimension that we really feed off of.

I wouldn’t say there was any one big event, like a platinum album or something, that would define success. I think it’s a lot of little moments of looking out and when you’re really locked in a groove with someone that who you probably don’t even know at all with and that sort of connection you have there.

What an amazing way to make a living. We’re real grateful.

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