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By: Michael D. Vogel

© September 20, 1999. Michael D. Vogel.  All Rights Reserved.  

Published in:   

Virtually Alternative magazine  – October 1999

 

Here’s an anecdote straight out of suburban youth culture (yes, it’s a true story–we have all lived this scenario in some way shape or form!).  Jake–who at 13 years of age believes he resembles nobody, much less a pre-pubescent Eddie Vedder–is being shuttled by one of his parents to a Thursday afternoon guitar lesson.  This week, he’s decided to take something of a break; he’ll grapple with no items from The Beatles songbook, nor will he try to master any of the requisite Jimi Hendrix solos.  Instead, he plans to exchange the 15 hard-earned dollars crammed into the left pocket of his baggy black shorts for instructions on covering The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”  At the moment, though, he’s staring out the car window, listening to 311′s Soundsystem CD.

Older ears–the kind that pay for historical consciousness with stray hairs that sprout around the edges–might be able to categorize 311′s music.  The pounding bass and drums recall the furious attack of Elvis Costello’s Attractions.  The guitar is at times reminiscent of Santana, and at others pounding out a ferocious sound along the lines of The Clash’s Mick Jones.  And the dual-vocal attack of SA Martinez and Nick Hexum follows trails blazed by hip-hop and rap.  Combined, these five Los Angeles transplants have helped to carve out their immediately recognizable Omaha-stylee sound.   More rigorously than most other new rockers, 311 has embraced, as well as developed, new music-making strategies–combining funk with rock as originally trumpeted by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone–and adding some rock-steady reggae with hip-hop flava.  And miracle of miracles, they do so without being fey, arch or ironic.  For nearly nine years now, 311 has successfully melded the conventional rock/alternative form to rap’s collage aesthetic.  “Do You Right”–a 1993 hit–formulated the potential of this fusion.  Einstein said E=MC(2): Energy derives by expanding the MC’s role by the power of two.  And as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would say, “This one goes to 11!”

But the kid on his way to his guitar lesson has young ears.  He knows little of the history behind the music that fills his family’s car.  “You know,” Jake declares, and it’s already clear that he intends to congratulate himself as much as issue a judgment, “this is pretty cool!”  He doesn’t realize that the samples, aural citations, electro beats, riffs and motifs that pattern 311′s highly potent musical cocktail can be traced back to pioneers like Malcolm McClaren and Peter Tosh.  He’s probably doubly unaware that at this point in time, listeners are having a hard time discerning the various genres of music.

Or at least one would hope so.  311′s bassist extraordinaire, P-Nut, is a model for civility.  He clearly enjoys the give and take of conversation, as well as the burden of elaboration.  “I think that’s just the way music is going.  It’s pretty obvious that music is in that state now, because so many bands are crossing over and achieving huge levels of success.  It’s just going to be more and more evident as time goes on that if you stay in one place, you’re moving backwards, but if you’re moving forward then you’re obviously on the right track.”

One thing is for sure: when it comes to band business, these guys are as serious as a Pixie Stick with a triple-espresso chaser.  311 is known for a relentless touring schedule of 200+ shows annually, as well as averaging nearly an album release per year.  P-Nut helps to put 311′s impressive work ethic into perspective: “A lot of bands think that once they’ve gotten their record deal, they’ve made it.  They get big egos and become complacent.  But in truth, all a record deal means is that now you have a chance to make it.  It’s a job, and you’ve got to work.

“Everyone is looking for diversity.  People are shying away from strictly one thing or the other.  Everything is not so cut-and-dried or black-and-white anymore.  The crossovers are going to occur and ultimately the genres are going to bleed together.”

It’s obvious that P-Nut, as well as the rest of 311, is well versed in the ways of the music business–and why not?  311 cut its teeth in the music scene that spreads across the Midwest.  In addition, shortly after hitting the road in support of their debut CD, Music, on Capricorn Records, their tour was briefly sidelined when their RV caught fire and exploded, destroying all their equipment and personal possessions.  Unwilling to concede defeat, 311 canceled only one show before returning to the stage with gear donated by sympathetic friends and fans.

“Looking back, I think we all worried way too much,” P-Nut says.  “I know that’s easy to say now, but if you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ll get the break you deserve.  You should do what comes from the heart or everything will ring hollow.  At the end of the day, all we want to be able to say is that we did something honest.”

311′s personal philosophy, the power-of-positive-thinking mindset, is reiterated over and again within the group’s lyrical and musical content.  “Even if it’s not truly a conscious thing we think about, it is definitely a subconscious thing, definitely affecting all of us.  It’s a good place to be,” muses P-Nut.  “We don’t see it as a bad thing.  Everyone is up for new challenges and that’s what it’s always been about.  We always make new hurdles to overcome.  So, even at this pinnacle we’re at right now, we’re always looking to push the envelope by outdoing ourselves.  That’s the great thing about being in a band: always trying to reinvent yourself and not trying to recreate what we’ve already done.

“I’m not saying we’ve reached the pinnacle of positivity, but we’re definitely keeping things on that side,” P-Nut continues.  “We know that having a good philosophy allows us to get the most out of life, rather than being cloudy and bringing everyone else down.  Being able to do what you want for a living is such a joy that there’s really no reason to ever complain about it.  So, as a result, we sing about good things.  And if a problem does arise, then deal with it.”

This may explain why 311 isn’t preoccupied with achieving a preconceived level of success.  “We know that radio support is important.  We know that when it’s kind, radio can help make a band, whereas when it’s cruel it can also serve to help break up a band.”  The music business can be very unapologetically cutthroat–where you’re only as good as your last single.  And yet, even in the face of this, 311′s convictions are absolute. “Even after a Platinum album and #1 songs,” continues P-Nut, “we still did not see much support for our last album, Transistor; yet we’re still here doing what we’ve always done.”

But living up to the expectations of a Platinum record isn’t easy, and many bands don’t cope with it well.  Fortunately, P-Nut cites strong ties with their label: “One thing we all like about Capricorn is that they never really try and tell us what the content of the album should be.  Of course, it will be discussed, but they’ve never tried to push us into a corner and force us to do something that’s musically non-representative of 311′s sound.”

311 has no problem with helping to push this new album to Platinum the old-fashioned way, either–by touring.  Remember, this is a band that sold thousands of CDs on their own before signing with Capricorn, as well as issuing two new CDs dedicated to their loyal fans (these CDs are available exclusively on their own official Web site, www.311.com.  “First and foremost, we are a live band.  The music we write is intended to be heard live.  There’s nothing like it when the band is just ripping it up and the crowd is jumping.  Everyone’s just feeding off the same intense energy.

“We really put a lot of time into how these songs would come off live, and then wrote them accordingly.”  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the men of 311 should be feeling pretty good right about now.  “There are several bands out there right now that are doing it just like we did it years ago–go out on the road and rock the people.  Boom!  That’s what it’s all about, straight and simple.

“I think that was the motivation behind writing Soundsystem. We wanted an album that was a little bit more in our field of play.  Transistor was great for a studio album, and we all think it will age really well, but we’re a band that needs to be in front of an audience.

“Besides, you can’t be a real judge of the band until you see us live.  Even though we’ve put years’ worth of work into recording, we’re still a live band.  The emotion that comes during a live show is so different than during the making of albums, which becomes a very personal thing.  But a live show is this collective experience that we share with everybody.”

P-Nut continues: “For this album, we really want to play the majority of it live, because that was what we had in mind when it was written–to be played in front of a live audience.  It can’t be ethereal and dubby; it has to be powerful and straightforward.

“Comparing these last two albums, Transistor was written almost entirely on an individual basis, with not much collaboration going on.  This was an important step for all of us, because it allowed us each to grow as songwriters, which in turn, helped to create a much tighter, cohesive songwriting unit when crafting Soundsystem.  We worked on these songs for over a year.  We haven’t had this much time in the studio since we worked on the Music album.”

What makes a good band is the intangible chemistry that exists in the songwriting processes of the band members.  Sometimes, when a songwriter is left to his own devices, there’s suddenly no one there to temper his/her tendencies.  “There is always going to be a little reflection of the last album, because we’re not going to completely abandon what we’ve already done–that would be foolish,” states the very self-assured P-Nut.  “There’s always going to be a little residue left over, especially from something as different and diverse as Transistor.  It was really a fun album to write and record.  We are all very proud of it.  We even plan on incorporating some of the songs into our live set, as well.  But unlike the last tour, where we had a basic set list, we plan on playing a variety of songs, because we know there will be diehard fans attending show after show and we don’t want them listening to the same set every night.  Furthermore, it was with this in mind that we structured a small venue/club tour before going out on the full-blown world tour.  We’re just going to try and keep everyone happy, including us.”

And happy they are.  “There’s always going to be stuff on a smaller scale that goes wrong, but you really can’t get hung-up on that.  We are not going to sacrifice the content of the music.  We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing; making sure that everyone in the band is happy and work out any differences democratically.  We try and keep everything as positive as possible.

“It really is the only way to be.  Being in a different town, in front of a different group of people every night and dealing with different problems, is just a fact of life for musicians.  The laundry is going to get messed up, the salmon isn’t going to be ready on time, someone is running a half-hour behind schedule and soundcheck is a disaster.  With these kinds of things you realize that this is life–you don’t always have to push the envelope–sometimes you just have to deal with the way things are.”

This philosophy can best described by the track “Life Is Not A Race”:

“The world whirls around your mind in a golden spiral/

The natural way that things organize/

You can’t stop entropy, so why even try/

Observe the conscious flow and don’t mystify/

Life’s not a race”

Soundsystem also marks a studio maturation for 311, thanks somewhat to the contribution of veteran producer Hugh Padgham (XTC, Phil Collins, Sting, The Police), in addition to 311′s long-time producer and live sound engineer, Scotch Ralston.  The hooks throughout Soundsystem are more subtle; yet still in your face, with tighter changes and a more diverse sonic range.  “We wanted someone that we knew had a good record of people to work with, as well as artists that we admire and respect.  We were looking for someone who’d give us an objective opinion on melodies and harmonies and bring that old-school element of recording back into the studio.”

“Come Original,” the first single released from Soundsystem, shows that 311 can keep current with its dancehall rock attack.  Combining Nick Hexum’s melodies with P-Nut’s quirkiness, this first offering is “really just a hard-hitting song that you want to hear over and over again,” declares the very proud bassist.  “And that’s only the first track from the new album!”

For now and on into the foreseeable future, 311 will be radiating their brand of positivity to help erase the anger, bad news and unpleasant vibes in the world. ^m^

 

Line-Up:                                                                            Origin:

Nicholas Hexum – Vocals & Guitar                         Originally from Omaha, the boys of 311

Count SA Martinez – Vocals & Scratches             now reside in Southern California

Timothy J. Mahoney – Guitar                                         

P-Nut – Bass

Chad Sexton – Drums & Percussion

How Label Deal Came About:

After independently releasing three albums and touring aggressively throughout the Midwest, 311 began to earn a dedicated regional following.  In 1992, 311 moved to Los Angeles and, through massive word of mouth, quickly captured the attention of Capricorn Records.

About The Current CD:

After two certified Gold albums, followed by two certified Platinum-plus albums as well as a certified Platinum video package, Soundsystem is the fifth studio release from 311 and their sixth album overall for Capricorn Records.

Discography:

Soundsystem (Capricorn, 1999)                                Music (Capricorn, 1993) 

Live (Capricorn, 1998)                                                   Hydroponic (self-released, 1992)

Transistor (Capricorn, 1997)                                      Unity (self-released, 1991)

311 (Capricorn, 1995)                                                    Dammit! (self-released, 1990)

Grassroots (Capricorn, 1994)  

Produced By:

Hugh Padgham and Scott ‘Scotch’ Ralston

Label:

Capricorn

Website:

www.311.com

  

© September 20, 1999. Michael D. Vogel.  All Rights Reserved. This originally appeared on the Vogelism blog at http://www.vogelism.com, authored by Michael D. Vogel. This article may be shared or reprinted as long as this entire copyright message, including the source location of this article, accompanies it.

 

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