Singer and guitarist Nick Hexum talks about the veteran genre-busting band’s new album
It’s been almost 30 years since 311 formed, and yet their rabid fan base only continues to grow. The band’s ability to mix genre and reach for new styles of composition has been appreciated for decades, and on their newest effort, Mosaic, the band continues to look towards innovation.
Mosaic is a collage of sound that is innovative and fun as we have seen from the Omaha-born band in recent years. Furthermore, they continue to look towards their fans when considering why and how to create everything, from their tunes to their album artwork.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with vocalist and guitarist Nick Hexum to discuss the band’s new album, learn about how touring life has changed over the years, and find out what keeps driving their innovative spirit.
Christopher Friedmann: So we’re talking because you’re about to release the new album, Mosaic. Just to start, how’s the mood?
Nick Hexum: A lot of excitement. It snowballs, because the band’s so excited, and the fans are so excited by the three tracks that we’ve previewed for the album – I feel we made a big step forward on Mosaic so therefore morale is very high. Within the band we’re just… stoked!
CF: It’s been three years since you last released a record. How does it feel this time around compared to when you released Stereolithic all that time ago?
NH: Well, Stereolithic was more of just a ‘for the fans’ album. I mean, this is for the fans too, but we didn’t have any singles on Stereolithic, and that wasn’t our focus whatsoever, so it was a bit more of a retro-album with the rap, rock and more analog-y sounding production. For this one we kinda stepped into the future.
It feels different because of the moderness of Mosaic.
CF: You also did something for your fans which was quite unique, in terms of the album cover. Can you speak a little on whose idea it was to use fan-photos, and why it was important for you to bring the fans into the cover design?
NH: You know, our manager gets the props on that. I think he’d seen a mosaic of pictures and was like “Well, hey, what if we just had a mosaic made of the history of 311, making a current photo of ourselves” and he had the idea of having the fans in there. It’s really just a nod to how awesome they are!
The fact that we’re able to not have the anxiety of worrying about “we’ve got to hurry up and get the record out, we’ve got to have a hit”. We tour every year, rain or shine in the summer, and that’s what we focus our world on – and we record our albums around that, that relationship with our fans. Having such loyal fans allows us to just be creative. It’s a big ‘thank you’ to them for that.
CF: The album sound is also somewhat of a mosaic. As a band it’s hard to pin you down into a single genre, can you speak a little on the writing process this time round?
NH: Y’know – I think in the early days of the band you have so much to say, so I would just sit down and fill up a whole lyric sheet. Many, many pages, just by myself. When you get to the twelfth album you don’t want to repeat yourself so for me I could not repeat myself was to collaborate with other people. That started on Stereolithic, with sitting down with Peanut, and co-writing some lyrics and just talking things out with band members and workshopping lyrics. We’ve expanded on that by inviting different contributors, different collaborators and songwriting friends around L.A. that I know, John Feldmann being the most notable. We’ve known him for twenty years now because Goldfinger opened for us back in ‘97 and we’ve been friends forever. We were getting ready to finish – we thought we had all the songs down, but then we ran into Feldmann and he was like “Hey, let’s write a song” and “Too much to think” came out in about thirty minutes of us being together. We just hammered it out super quickly.
Then we just decided to do four more songs, and so it was almost like an afterthought that turned out to make the album so much stronger because he had a super wide-ranging tool kit that he brings, as far as the production and the songwriting kit that be brings with him. He’s like a ball of energy, hyped up on six espressos (Laughs) just getting in there and cranking stuff out!
CF: Speaking of that complex tool kit that John brought along, even within each of the singles there’s been a large amount of varieties. What makes you want to continue blending these elements of genre?
NH: Well, I can have appreciation that have a purist approach and stay in one lane, but my favorite bands are the ones that just get all over the place. The Clash, that was my favorite band of all time, and they were not afraid to go anywhere. There was Reggae, Ska, Punk, Calypso, Blues… they got all over the place and I just loved that.
We always just felt like anything we like – anything goes. We always just keep our minds wide open and say ‘yes’ to stuff to keep things interesting. If you keep repeating yourself it’s going to get boring – so you have to have that balance of elements – mixing the things that people love from us but also the things that keep life interesting for us.
CF: So, your run-in with John was completely by surprise. You made most of the album with the producer that you’ve worked with on the past four albums, so I was wondering what John brought that made things so different to what you were planning?
NH: I think the method or really intensely workshopping something, and working quickly and cranking stuff out. We would go and maybe do the basic framework for two songs a day, and keep one and throw one away. And after we worked on them he’d get in there and be like “Man, Feldmann works crazy fast” So, we’d been working on the rest of the album where we’d write at our own pace, and have a rehearsal and try things out, it was a much more laid back pace, so to then have a very intensive session with him…. So that’s the main thing, was the pace that he worked at. He also has a couple of whizkid producers that work with him – so there’s these engineers that are in there chopping up beats and adding different production techniques that were new to us.
I love classic music, and I love current music – so to be able to have the 808s and the different editing techniques, to me it sounds pretty fresh and exciting.
CF: So you’re about to head out on tour again. You’re no stranger to life on the road, but how has touring changed for you since the late ‘80’s?
NH: This is our twenty-seventh anniversary as a band, so thinking back at how hard we hit it, back on the grass roots stuff – we’d actually just put our stuff in storage and lived – and we didn’t have much stuff back in those days, so we’d put it all together and live in this tiny little area, we lived on the road and said “We’ll live on the road until we hit gold” We didn’t quite make it to gold but we did play well, hundreds of shows in a year, and sometimes we’d do fifteen days in row without a day off. Now, that’s something your body can hang with when you’re 23 but now we pace ourselves. We make sure we get enough rest, and eat right, exercise. You have to really, really take care of yourself to keep it going for this long. We seem to have a ton of tours coming up so that’s exciting!
CF: Over this period of twenty seven years has there been any advice that you’ve picked up along the way that still sticks with you?
NH: I would just say, being influenced by people that have done it right. Whether it’s just seeing how the Grateful Dead focused more on the live show than the studio album – by doing that, that has allowed us to be less affected by the collapse of the record industry. We’ve always just focused on being a live band anyway.
Also, just seeing people like Paul Simon – he keeps going into new territory, and is able to reinvent his sound with going to new genres so many years into his career. Now, you might p**** people off a little bit by changing up your sound, but to me it’s necessary.
CF: So, over the course of your career it’s fair to say you’ve had a breadth of ‘rock n roll’ experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment you’ve had so far… the kind of moment that reminds you why you do all of this?
NH: Y’know, I get so many little comment of what 311 means to our fans. One guy said to me “Nick, 311 is to me what the Clash was to you”, I was like “wow – that’s really special” to be really such an important piece of people’s lives. There are so many bonds made through the 311 community – whether it’s people meeting their spouse or their new best friends, it’s something that’s more than a band. It started as a band, but now it’s more than that, it’s a community, it’s a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world and so those things mean more to me than record sales or anything tangible.