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The more than two-decade path to stardom for Omaha rock combo 311 has taken the outfit down a circuitous path—from early grassroots fans, weed-loving frat guys, mainstream radio fodder-eaters and back to the grassroots set. For a band to survive this length of time, and keep its lineup wholly intact, is not only rare in this day and age, it may never happen again.
For better or worse, 311 are what the majority of up-and-comers should strive for. Yeah, their hipster indie cachet is probably almost as low as Good Charlotte's or whatever crap-slanger is penetrating the likes of KROQ these days, but their résumé thwarts any flash-in-the-pan argument at the door. The band started in garages, played parties, hit the road, struck radio gold and platinum multiple times, and now have a loyal following bent on hearing the old stuff and not buying the new stuff.
That's all any ambitious young outfit can hope for. In today's setting, playing the party circuit—or hell, even the garage—and slapping a catchy tune on YouTube can take a collection of unknowns directly into the public eye. Longevity is basically out of the picture. It's write a snappy tune or two—maybe—and then on to the next thing. That's just the facts of the current paradigm, under which record companies hardly make any money and just hope to rake in as much as they can while the iron is hot.
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"A lot of the bands that were around when we started, even 10 years after, aren't doing it anymore," 311 mouthpiece, guitar player and general overlord Nick Hexum said. "They fizzled for a number of reasons, but I think the reason we've been able to stay around is because we've always been a band that loves playing live and connecting with people."
The human connection takes time to hone. One song can penetrate the general consciousness but it takes time on the road and proving you can write other songs to really make an impact. 311 found their connective message in a place where a lot of their contemporaries refused to go. The late '90s, the band's apex of popularity, found them doing battle on the charts with the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach and myriad other rap-metal clones preaching messages of anger and frustration. 311 set themselves apart with their message of joy, nonstop partying and fun. After a while even the surliest of bastards gets tired of being angry. But joy? And fun? That never gets old.
"Everybody seems to be able to relate to something in our songs," Hexum said. "I think that's why people enjoy watching us play live. . . . We're able to help people have a good time because they can see that we're having a good time, too."
The instrumentally astute 311 have also become a de facto jam band in the same way that Pearl Jam have—with good reason. People follow them around, year after year, on the road, because fans love dancing to their good-time music. So the band have taken their live efforts to a new level. The group headlined their very own Pow Wow Festival in early August, where they were joined by multiple other acts such as the Deftones, G. Love & Special Sauce, Ozomatli, and plenty more. The three-day affair featured four sets from the headliner including a start-to-finish performance of its 1997 platinum breakthrough, Transistor.
"I think rock & roll tourism, actually making a concert into a destination event, is what people are looking for," Hexum said. "There is so much disposable music out there, but something like this with great bands and musicians playing live is something that fans of bands that have had real careers really appreciate."
This article appeared in print as "Dance, Motherfucker, Dance: The guys of 311 just want to spread the message of joy and fun."