Interview:311 Phat Boys
Yo! Nick Hexum and Tim Mahoney, two of the dopest brovas ever to represent Omaha, Nebraska, drop da bomb on Transistor, the dub-heavy follow-up to their double Platinum "blue" album.
by Jim Derogatis
Photos by Roger Erickson
Concealed inside an unobtrusive concrete building on an industrial block of seedy West L.A. is NRG, one of the city's top-flight recording studios. As such it boasts all of the latest digital mix-down gear, as well as such rock-star amenities as a lounge with a bar and a cappuccino maker, a couple of plush-but-stylish couches and a massive wall-sized home theater unit, complete with 100 channels of satellite TV and Nintendo. Recent clients have included Rage Against the Machine and Dave Navarro of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but for the month or so before my visit in mid-April, Studio B has been occupied by the members of 311, who are almost exactly halfway through making their fourth and most ambitious album for Capricorn.
The working title of the new record is Illuminations (it will later be changed to Transistor), and that seems to fit the psychedelic vibe of much of the music quite nicely. "We felt like we were moving really quickly through our development towards what we saw as a frontier of music," says guitarist/vocalist Nick Hexum. "On the blue album [1995's 311], we just wanted to keep it straightforward. We kind of thought we were developing too fast for people to digest, and they had to catch up. Now that we've done that and toured for two years, it's time to take an artistic step forward and try to experiment." The key to understanding 311's new music can be found at opposite ends of the control room's massive mixing desk. In an effort to keep it "all in the family," the album is being produced by the band's live sound engineer, Scott "Scotch" Ralston. To his far left is an impressive stack containing virtually every echo and delay unit known to man, from ancient analog boxes to the newest rack effects. The group has nicknamed it "the tower of dub." To Ralston's right, and within easy reach of all of the band members, is what may be the largest bong I have ever seen and what is definitely the largest bud I've ever seen.
During the weeks of pre-production rehearsals, 311 learned some 30 new tunes, all of which are being recorded. When all of the recording is done, the band will choose the best tunes to fill up the entire 74 minutes available on a single CD. "It's going to be a double album on one disc," Hexum says. "We're going to jam-pack it."
But fear not, 311 fans: The band hasn't gone off the deep end into wretched self-indulgence. When I ask Hexum if this is going to be the quintet's answer to the Smashing Pumpkins' double-disc, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, he laughs heartily. "No, and it's not going to be like that travesty where Guns N' Roses put out two full-priced albums at once [Use Your Illusion I & II, (Geffen, 1991)]," he says. When Hexum moves into a jerry-rigged vocal booth set up in the middle of the recording room to overdub a line on "Transistor," the tune has hints of all of the varied sounds in 311's mix: dancehall and dub reggae, Chili Peppers-style funk, street-wise hip-hop, and churning, hard-edged guitar rock.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a rock critic anywhere who likes 311, but the band members couldn't care less: they have the kids on their side. Since 1990, when they started playing in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, they've been building a rabidly loyal and ever-increasing audience for their distinctive blend of high-energy sounds. Their last album, 311, climbed to No. 12 on the Billboard chart, and to date has sold more than two million copies. If they sound a bit pleased with themselves these days, they've earned the right, because they got where they are through hard work, and they've never been anybody's hip new flavor of the day.
"Where we grew up, there was no alternative radio, and there was certainly no rap radio," says Hexum, 27. "In high school, we listened to what was actually the alternative music of the time-stuff like R.E.M. and the Cure-but there was still no radio station playing that, because there wasn't even a college there. I think that was good in a way, because I didn't have anyone telling me what was good or bad. It was just whatever music I got my hands on."
"The thing about Omaha is that you can just absorb everything," adds lead guitarist Tim Mahoney, 28. "It's hard to get exposed to things, but when you do find a record you like, it means even more to you. It wasn't like there was a hard-rock scene and a punk-rock scene. There were just people who liked music and were hungry for it, whatever style it was. My two favorite concerts ever were Pantera and Jerry Garcia. I just love all kinds of music. We all do." Last year, the band became the center of a minor controversy that got some major press attention when its old alma mater, Omaha's Westside High, banned its T-shirts because school administrators were under the mistaken impression that 311 stood for the eleventh letter of the alphabet three times-or "KKK"-and that therefore the group was a bunch of racists. It was an absurd charge: In addition to heavily incorporating African-American sounds in their music, 311 has a member who's Hispanic-second vocalist and scratcher S.A. (Doug Martinez). And when Hexum and S.A. aren't bragging, rapping good-time party nonsense, or asking "who's got the herb," they're delivering rather earnest sermons about all people living together in peace, harmony, and unity.
It turns out that 311 is Omaha police code for indecent exposure. According to band lore, original lead guitarist Jimi Watson was caught skinny dipping one day at the age of 16 or 17, and the cops arrested him, cuffed him, and brought him naked and dripping wet to his parents' front door. The cops rang the bell and Watson's dad answered. He took one look at his son and called for his wife in the other room: "Honey, it's for you."
With Watson still in the fold, the group played its first show, opening for Fugazi, in 1990. "I was friends with [bassist] P-Nut, and that's how I came to play with the band," Mahoney says. "I saw them play a couple times with Jimi, and I really don't know what happened between them. But they had some songs they wanted to record, and they called me. S.A. was the last one on board; he came after me. He was a friend who would come on stage and guest rap." The band released three albums on its own while still in Omaha: 1990's Dammit!, `91's Unity, and `92's Hydroponic. All of them are out of print, so of course they are objects of considerable curiosity among the faithful. Hexum laughs. "They're just not that great," he says. "There are a few songs that I can listen to without cringing in embarrassment. But we redid a lot of those songs, and the originals are just low-budget versions.
"Unity was the one that we got enough money for to put it on a CD," Hexum says. "We sold like 1,000 of them, and that was the biggest success story of any local band in Omaha in a while. Then we were like, `Okay, we're ready. Let's move on out.' And we moved to L.A."
The band played a big farewell show in February `92, and then the five members relocated to Van Nuys, California, moving in together in a rented house, sleeping two to a bedroom. "When we first moved out here, I didn't really know anyone," Mahoney says. "We were all living in one house, and we were like a little commune."
While the band's move to a city that is home to much of the music industry certainly didn't hurt their career, the members of 311 say that the trek to L.A. was more important in the sense that it brought them closer together. They were suddenly five people united in common purpose and with no one to rely on but each other. Now that they're all living separately with their respective girlfriends in relative privacy and comfort, they sometimes look back and wonder how they coped when they were eating, sleeping, working, and hanging together 24-7.
"It forced us to really learn to get along," Mahoney says, laughing. "It was weird: I'm an only child, but it was like having four brothers all of a sudden."
By early `92, the band's savings were depleted, the debts were mounting, and things were "just about to disintegrate into chaos," according to Hexum. That's when the group met former Yes producer Eddie Offord, whose credits included Fragile (Atlantic, 1971) and Close to the Edge (Atlantic, 1972). He recognized the quintet's potential and recorded a demo tape, which attracted the attention of Nashville-based Capricorn Records, a label best known as the former home of the Allman Brothers and other no-nonsense Southern rockers. Offord engineered and produced the first two Capricorn albums: 1994's Grassroots and `95's Music. After acrimoniously parting ways with him, the group wound up working with former Bad Brains producer Ron Saint Germain on the so-called blue album, and that's when things really took off. Fueled by its kicking hip-hop/metal verses and anthemic sing-along choruses, "Down" became a major modern-rock hit and an MTV Buzz Clip. "All Mixed Up" followed, and 311 played on both the H.O.R.D.E. and Warped tours last summer. It was all capped off with a gig opening for Kiss at Madison Square Garden. These five self-proclaimed "regular guys from Nebraska" were left wondering how things could possibly get any better.
"Sometimes it trips me out, but mostly I feel fortunate that I am able to play music for a living," Mahoney says. "The last five, six, seven years that we've been playing have been a time of slow, steady growth. Maybe if we would have sold millions on our first record and been thrust into the spotlight, we wouldn't have grown the way we did. But all the years of playing on the road have really made me improve and work towards becoming a better guitarist. And I'm still working on it."
Indeed, Mahoney's playing has become more impressive with each album. He's such a solid and spot-on rhythm guitarist, as well as a reliably heavy riff-rocker, that you almost forget he's there-until he steps out to take a solo. Then, his playing evokes the fluid, cascading style of Jerry Garcia, with maybe a bit of David Gilmour and a little Carlos Santana thrown in.
With only half the album completed-and those songs still in the rough-mix stage-it's understandable that 311 wants to keep its new music somewhat under wraps. But on the second day of my visit to NRG, I talk Mahoney into playing me a couple of tunes on DAT over the nifty sound system in his brand-new GMC 4X4, and once we start listening, it sounds damn good. "Running" features a breathtaking Garcia-style guitar solo; "Light Years" could be a reggae-tinged update on the Rolling Stones' "2,000 Light Years From Home." There's also a rocker with the tentative title of "Clone Me"; "Beautiful Disaster," which features some impressive Judas Priest-style dual lead guitars; the trippy hip-hop groove, "Starshines," and the bound-to-be-a-hit "Transistor."
The album is set for an August 5th release. The only question that really remains is whether 311's audience is ready to follow the group down this new road.
"I would imagine so," Hexum says confidently. "Our hard-core fans are like, `Get back to that funky stuff,' because our last album was really rockin', and in the early days we did all kinds of funk and reggae stuff, and there was more experimentation. I would think that maybe some of the mainstream fans won't be able to understand it because it's going to be a style they have never even heard. But I think our real fans will be really excited. Some bands look at it like, `Okay, this last album sold two million and the next album has to sell three million in order to be a success.' Well, to me, the fact that we sold two million records means that we don't have to worry about money for a while. That means we can be completely artistic and we can just say, `.... commerce.' We don't have to worry about anything besides what 311 really wants to do."