By now, 311 needs no introduction.
With thirteen albums under their belt, nine Top 10 radio hits, a countless amount of stellar live performances, and the priviledge of being early pioneers in the modern cannabis freedom movement, it’s obvious that few bands can do what 311 has done throughout their career, and do it as well as they have—especially without having to make artistic or personal sacrifices.
Recently, AQ sat down with singer and guitarist Nick Hexum to chat about the band’s latest release, Voyager, as well as their upcoming summer tour with special guests the Dirty Heads and The Interrupters.
Thirteen albums, Nick, that is quite an accomplishment. Did you ever think that could be a reality when the group started?
I’m not sure if I ever thought this far in advance, but I definitely felt like we had something really special and that we were going to make it. I think you have to really have a deep belief in yourself, because you’re going to face a lot of discouragement and a lot of people will be telling you ‘No,’ as you face a lot of rejection. I always just fought through that and believed we had something special, but I don’t know if I thought about having a 30-year anniversary… I think I always made bold pronouncements, but I don’t remember thinking this far in advance.
It’s worth noting that 10 of those albums made Billboard’s Top 10 chart consecutively. I’m not sure if that is a record of some sort, but regardless, it’s truly, truly impressive.
Yeah, it just speaks to the quality of our fan base, that they are that loyal. It also speaks to our cult status, you know? I had never really associated that word with us, but then a couple of years ago one of the big music magazines said, ‘311 is one of America’s Biggest Cult Bands,’ and I was like ‘Who wants to be in a big cult band?’ Well, everybody! It’s just the best thing to have because you can have that steady longevity, and not that up and down success that is based on your last single. It allows us to have creative freedom. We have a fan base that is truly interested in seeing where our hearts lead us and it’s not a fickle fan base. They are there for us solid, so we always appreciate that and want to make sure that we are delivering quality for them.
You know what else has always impressed me, perhaps even more than your longevity and success? It’s the fact that 311 has had the same core lineup practically since the band got its start. I was wondering what keeps the bond between all five of the members so tight?
Well, I think we appreciate each other, we listen, we speak in a non-triggering kind of way—sort of just stating our point of view without attacking. Of all of the things that you learn about great communication, whether it is in a business arrangement or in a creative arrangement or a marriage or whatever, you need to learn how to communicate positively. You also have to be ready to adhere to the will of the democracy and sometimes not get your way… but that is ok.
Absolutely. You know, I racked my brain for the longest time—even before you and I were going to have this chat—thinking of another band that has had that sort of lineup consistency, and I was hard pressed to come up with one.
Well, I’ll tell you. Someone looked into it. U2, Radiohead, and De La Soul have us beat for longer running bands with original lineups, but we’re in the top five.
That’s cool. You know—now that I think about it—U2 is right there in my face, so maybe didn’t rack my brain as hard as I thought [laughs].
Yeah, they’ve been through a lot and they keep going and I have a lot of respect.
Definitely, definitely. You know, Nick, 311 has never shied away from talking about what is going on in the world in their music, but typically the music always has an optimistic outlook. These are some pretty strange times that we are living in, so how do you guys keep that PMA going?
Well, first of all, I love that… I love that we’re hearing about PMA from back in the day. Really latching onto that, though, and now knowing the story of PMA, the Bad Brains, and watching the documentary (Finding Joseph I) about how HR and the boys got into some sort of encouraging speaker, that gave them the term PMA, I immediately absorbed that. So everything was about positive mental attitude for me back in the day.
You know, it’s something that I keep learning more about. There is a book that I read recently by Steven Pinker and he talks about how humans inherently have a negativity bias. We’re always focusing on what is wrong, which does make us successful as a species, because we are always trying to make things better, make things bigger, and are always wanting more. There is a dark side to that, though, that can make people depressed and people will compare themselves to others. I think humans have that negativity bias, so, yes, we do need to keep fighting to improve things, but then we also need to appreciate things, because by every measure, life is getting better—longevity, healthcare, happiness… all of these things (in the world) make it seem like life is going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s not. It really isn’t. It’s just that people have a negative attitude. I just always try to focus on gratitude and appreciation and being present in the moment because there is plenty to be grateful for.
Right! You almost have to stop yourself deliberately and look at the current moment and say ‘Wow, what is going on around me is beautiful,’ because if I hear what you are saying correctly, that constant focus on improving the future will actually weigh down your present.
Absolutely. Observation is like a portal to the present moment. A lot of times, we are up in our head and planning or thinking back on something that went wrong. But if you stop and really observe, you’re zapped into the moment, like ‘Let’s look at the leaves on the trees. Let’s look at the interaction that is going on between these two humans; they are smiling and loving each other.’ Just taking in the present moment takes you to the now and out of your head.
One of the tracks off Voyager that I think really encapsulates that positive vibe is one of the current singles, “Good Feeling.” Personally, it gave me all the feels. So much that I sent it to my wife with a note that said, ‘Have a great day.’ She’s also a big fan, so that meant a lot to her.
What does that track mean to you, though, on a personal level?
Well, I think that I have always been attracted to joy in music. I think that is something that 311 does well. Even looking back to our very first single, “Do You Right,” it was a very positive, uplifting song that was talking about love and friendship and celebrating life. So, I was like, ‘Let’s just have some unleashed positivity in a song,’ because we hadn’t done that in a while, so that is what became the song, “Good Feeling.” It’s a joyous romp and I can see how young people really react to it. As soon as it’s on my kids start dancing around to it. It’s something that is nice and that speaks to all generations.
Most definitely. Another track on Voyager that I have to mention is the current single, “What The?!”, that I heard you say is ‘311 in full-on jam band mode,’ and it definitely shows. Tim’s guitar work on that track is absolutely tasty, isn’t it?
Yeah, he really knocked it out of the park with that one. There is really a lot of different riffs in it, even though it seems to work. Normally you wouldn’t have a song that has five or six different riffs all in the same key, but they are different rhythms, different figures. It’s just like a hippie riff workout that is a blast to play live. We’ve been rehearsing for summer tour and that one has blown the roof off.
I’ve always felt that Tim’s playing is the perfect hybrid of two of his contemporaries, one being Adam Jones of Tool, and the other being Trey Anastasio of Phish. What do you think about that comparison?
Yeah! I think that is accurate. Tim really bloomed when we moved out to L.A. in ’92. The rest of us would be outside playing basketball and he would be in his room playing guitar for hours along to Grateful Dead music. I think he carries on the legacy of Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, but he still has a style that is all his own. He’s just a great collaborator, because I know that he’s going to make great choices and you don’t really have to talk to him much about what he is doing. Everything that he makes sounds good and he is super meticulous when it comes to guitar tone and his riffs. He shows up at rehearsal before anyone else tweaking his rig and warming up. He’s just a very professional person.
Just to switch gears a little bit, I wanted to talk to you about something, which is everybody’s favorite topic: marijuana.
I’m smoking it now!
Yes! Good for you, sir, good for you. The reason I wanted to talk to you about it is because, if I go back and look at cannabis activism in modern music, there are really only two groups that, early on, were sticking out their neck in support of cannabis: one being 311, and the other being Cypress Hill. I had an opportunity to ask Sen-Dog from Cypress Hill if he thought that their music and their activism really had an effect on what we see today in terms of legalization and decriminalization, as well as just attitudes changing. I was curious as to whether or not you believe 311 had a little bit of a hand in that, as well.
Yeah, I do. I think we were conscientious objectors to go out there on stage, in the nineties, when we were risking arrest, to smoke a joint. There was no reason for this to be illegal. I remember seeing cops on the side of the stage giving us dirty looks and they didn’t ever have the guts to go and throw us in handcuffs, but I really think that we were kind of putting it to the test, like ‘Are you really going to arrest me for this? Because that would be ridiculous.’ They didn’t, so I think that helped in some way to shine light on the absurdity of throwing people in jail for that, especially when there are other, much more dangerous substances that are legal. People are dropping dead from tobacco and alcohol all the time, and I think there’s no question that full legalization of cannabis will be nationwide soon. There is no middle ground. You either want it fully legal or you want your tax dollars going to arrests of cannabis users. Nobody is really going to say, ‘Yeah! I want to spend money to arrest some responsible cannabis smoking adult.’ That is just stupid.
Especially when a lot of the arrests—actually, a majority of the arrests—are very prejudicial.
Absolutely. It’s used as a harassment technique of people who say, ‘I smoke cannabis.’ Jerking people out of their cars and stuff. The truth is, maybe we would have been harassed more if we had been people of color, so there is a definite wish to have justice there. We’ve supported expungement programs for non-violent offenders and that type of thing to try and right the wrongs to some extent.
That’s cool, man. Just to have you guys out there—especially in the early nineties—as a band that was really flying the flag and not afraid to use it, it emboldened the rest of us who maybe felt like ‘You know, the attitudes about this is sort of ridiculous. It’s a plant.’ You know what I mean? You guys and maybe a handful of other bands were really there to say, ‘Don’t take any shit on this.’ It was really cool, and in a way, I wanted to thank you for that.
I think that cannabis has been an integral part of 311’s story, because we had this wide open wild creativity that was encouraged by cannabis. There were a few years there that I was just completely no-substances at all, and then when I got back into cannabis, I was like ‘Ok, this is helping me make more random connections in music and combining different things that I might not have thought of otherwise without this expanding property.’ It’s not just to zone out on your couch, it can be used as a true creativity tool.
I think that is a big part of the stigma. People have the attitude that cannabis is a “burnout drug” or a “dirtbag drug.” And it’s actually like, ‘No, I can be incredibly creative. I can write stories. I can write songs. I can paint anything I want. It’s just opening my mind. It’s not me sitting on my couch with a bag of chips.’
Yeah, absolutely. My actual preference is to take low dose edibles. I find that when I have maybe six milligrams of THC—and I like to have the same milligrams of CBD—in the morning, then I just get really excited about my ideas, excited about my day. It’s like a sweet spot for me. I get a different effect from edibles than I do from smoking or vaping, so I actually prefer the clarity from edibles. I like to just kind of be mildly feeling it.
Sort of like a micro-dosing, in a way.
Cool. That’s awesome, man. You mentioned CBD, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on that, now that it is really starting to immerge as a trend.
We’re big believers. The reason that I got into the formal cannabis business was because I started supplying things for my mom. She was going through stem cell therapy as a treatment for a type of bone marrow cancer, and she was in a lot of pain. Getting her CBD with just a tiny bit of THC, to just sort of activate the CBD, was a huge relief for her, so now we have actually developed some CBD products that have been out on a limited basis, and now we have finally found a really great, American hemp source that we are going to be releasing on 311CBD.com. It’s going to be going live there in just a few days.
Yeah, all different products with the best CBD sourcing that we could find. It basically started for personal use and for friends and family, but now it’s going to available for our fans, too.
That’s incredible, Nick. That’s really, really great and I’m glad to hear that.
I appreciate that.
No doubt… you know, 311 and summer tours are literally synonymous with each other, and you guys are going out again this summer. So, are you stoked to get back on the road?
Yeah. What is great about this summer tour is that it’s basically a rolling festival because we have so many bands that are perfect for our outdoor summer barbecue vibe. Dirty Heads have become good friends of ours and it’s an honor for me to have guested on their previous album. It’s just a lot of good music. It’s nice that we’re working with Live Nation to keep ticket prices down and that we’ve got really big crowds so that it is just a massive party.
You also have The Interrupters on tour with you for certain dates. They were just in town recently and basically tore the city upside down.
[Laughs] Yeah, they’re hot. They’re coming up really strong. I’m excited for them.
I think that even though they’re coming in with a harder ska vibe, I feel like they are sharing some of the same ideals and maybe the same vibes that you guys had early on. It’s great that you guys recognize that, too, which is my bigger point.
Yeah, there is a kindred spirit there. It’s a high energy show with lots of big, catchy melodies and stuff, which is exciting.
Most definitely. So, 311 is doing a lot of great charity collaborations while out on the road this summer. Can you talk about those a little bit and share as to why the band feels it is so important to get involved on that level?
Yeah, a portion of the ticket goes to Save the Music, because as a parent, it’s really important to me to share music and encourage learning an instrument with my kids. In fact, my daughter, today, is heading out to San Francisco to play in a piano convention, because she is nine-years-old and better than I was at that age—and I started playing piano when I was five. She is a whiz and I’m so impressed and proud of her. Having music programs in school had added so much to my life, and I met Chad, our drummer, though my school jazz band. So, there is a good chance that 311 would not exist in its current form without school music programs. It’s just so important for brain development and enjoyment of life to be exposed to music, so that is why we are supporting Save the Music. I believe that it is important to pay it forward and give each generation more opportunities than we had.
Be sure to catch 311 out on tour this summer when they come to The Met in Philadelphia on July 19, the PNC Bank Arts Center on July 24, and Jones Beach Theatre on July 26!
All live photos by Anthony Vito Cosentino