311 knows a thing or two on how to stay connected with their close-knit fan base of 'excitable ones'. The band hosts destination cruises, bi-annual 311 Day extravaganzas (complete with a five-hour show setlist of rarities), and offers numerous opportunities to receive exclusive offers from the band.
We sat down with lead vocalist Nick Hexum in his private studio to discuss Stereolithic, 311's eleventh studio album, and the band's first fully independent release since Omaha Sessions. The new album will unironically be released on 3/11 (311 Day). Here's what he had to say about the new album, his musical inspirations, fans, and fatherhood.
OC Weekly (Jena Ardell): How does Stereolithic compare to previous 311 albums?
Nick Hexum: I think it's been more of a creative flow with this album than our previous album. With Universal Pulse, I think we had eight really good songs, but you can kind of see when you only have eight songs, it's not really as productive of a time. This time, we have 15 songs. "It's just exciting when a band has little creative re-births over and over again. I feel we're in one now. We have a handful of songs that feel very ground-breaking to me and that–to me–is the most exciting; when you're getting into new territory.
What was it like to work with producer Scotch Ralston again?
One thing that's been cool about having Scotch Ralston back is that he has just become so immersed in this album, where he would be at The Hive going through the hard drives and finding old demos that had just not really panned out for whatever reason, and was like, 'You guys have to do this one'! So there's a few dusting off some old–I guess you would call them C-sides; they're not B-sides because they never were finished. They were just something that got started.
From how long ago?
Well, one of them was once known as "Stealing My Girl", which was a Don't Tread on Me outtake. I think that one is the furthest back. Maybe there are a couple others from that era. A couple of them are from Universal Pulse, but they've gotten completely re-worked, so they're only somewhat recognizable from the older versions. Then of course, the majority of the songs on [Stereolithic] are just brand-new ideas.
What makes working with Ralston so different from other producers?
We've had great experiences working with super established hundred-million selling producers like Hugh Padgham and, of course, Bob Rock; but you've got those guys for the month or two that you have hired them and then they're off doing something else. Scotch has been working on nothing but our album for a year solid. He's one of us. He has our similar level of experience; he's our same age; he started in this business as being an assistant [to Eddie Offord] working on [the album] Music. He's a really super talented guy and he's really diplomatic and delightfully eccentric and weird. (Laughs). He's just a funny dude, so he's a lot of fun to have around.
He's like the sixth band member of 311.
Yeah, he really is; more than there's ever been one.
Did you purposely craft the new songs to translate well live, since live shows are what 311 is most known for?
Yeah. I'd say we've shifted to realizing that the core of what we do is playing live. Seven or eight years ago, we were like, 'We're going to tour and when we can make albums, we'll do that; but it's not like living and dying by the album cycle like some bands are forced into who are in a major label system and that also kind of influences how the music is written, and it is intended to be exciting to play live and have big moments.
There's one particular song [on Stereolithic] that goes through a lot of peaks and valleys. There's been a few–what we call–'epics' over the years like "Sometimes Jacks Rule the Realm" and "There's Always an Excuse When You Need One" and there's one ["Friday Afternoon" on Stereolithic] that goes through even crazier peaks and valleys. I'll let you listen to it later, if you turn off the recorder.
SIDE NOTE: The word 'epic' is totally fitting. . .
Overall, are the tracks from Stereolithic harder or more melodic? what is the general encompassing feel of the album?
Definitely fairly hard. I can't think of any super chill songs. We kind of just, as a band, drifted away from doing the more chill stuff and that was something where I was kind of missing that outlet, which motivated me to do my [Nick Hexum Quintet] record. On Universal Pulse, it was pretty much all distortion guitar and uptempo and this album has more eclectic variations, but I'd say the heavy riff rock thing is the core of what 311 wants to do as a whole.
And it seems you guys were pretty set on releasing Stereolithic on 3-11 Day (March 11th) this year…
Y'know, I said, it's either ballsy or stupid that we announced the release date before the album was even recorded, but I guess it was kind of good to have a deadline because so often we didn't and that's why certain albums, like Uplifter, took a long time. [This time], we kind of deliberately created a bit of urgency, which made it exciting.
Whose decision was it to return to New Orleans for 3-11 Day?
We wanted to do that for the previous 3-11 Day, but it was just not feasible because of logistics. This time we planned far enough ahead and were able to make it happen. It is the birthplace where 3-11 Day started. Vegas is fun, but New Orleans has more soul.
Who's your favorite live act?
Well, Phish at the Hollywood Bowl [this past summer] was a really powerful experience for me and it was coming right before I was getting ready to do my fist Quintet shows. Just to see what real improv can be was a perspective-changing moment for me. And I went to see them in Denver a few weeks later. That show was good, but it was not like the Hollywood Bowl experience, for me. That's the thing with an improv band: you'll get such a wildly different show from one night to the next.
I went to see John Scofield–who is my personal guitar hero–and met him and hung out with him backstage a little bit a couple [months] ago at UCLA. Even though I live kind of outside of the city, it's good to stay up on culture. I have some L.A. Kings tickets; I'm going to go to some hockey games this year. My wife surprised me with that.
Name one famous person fans would be surprised to know you're friends with…
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blues great. He's a good friend; our kids go to school together. He's someone I'd like to work with sometime.
I feel like you absorb a lot of different genres, even within your own music.
Yeah. A song on the Quintet album, "You'll Do It Again" is a slow blues; and I've never done that before, so that was fun to get into new areas. It would be cool to do a song like that with someone like [Shepherd].
What is the last album you purchased?
I bought the third Vampire Weekend album a month and half ago. I use Spotify, it's not the perfection solution, but it is a fairly fair business model. I guess when you have kids, you get into finding music that everyone can enjoy and we've got a playlist of kid-friendly stuff that I would not want anybody to know that I am listening to, but I can always just say 'it's for the kids'. (Laughs).
Who are some lesser-known artists whose work recently blew your mind?
There's an Australian funk band called The Bamboos who are definitely an influence on me and another English one called The New Mastersounds, who are just as funky as can be. And then I've been getting into–what do they call it—Jawaiian, like Jamaican/Hawaiian Reggae. They have such a strong vocal tradition.
Are there any songs on the new album with heavy reggae influence?
One of my favorite songs on the album is reggae, but it's hard and danceable and then it gets heavy. So there isn't any chill-reggae, but there is uptempo danceable reggae–kind of like how the song "Don't Tread on Me" really gets the crowd moving–it's a faster, reggae beat. This one [on Stereolithic] is even more rocking than that one.
And you've recorded all of your vocals here, in your home studio?
Yeah, all here. The Hive has kind of become obsolete. The only thing recorded at The Hive this time was bass because Chad recorded drums at his house; I recorded all of my parts here; and S.A. has a studio and Tim recorded at S.A.'s; and S.A. comes here to sing.
You're constantly trying to grow and improve as a guitarist, but what in your personal life are you trying to improve?
I always just want to be as compassionate and patient as possible, especially in the family setting. Y'know, [having] a little two and four-year-old; they wanna do what they wanna do, and just being able to be patient when you're in a hurry, and things like that, are never-ending things that everybody can work on. I've gotten pretty good at it. Just learning how to communicate well with all people, whether you're in a band with them or in marriage, that's a life-long journey.
What musical goals do you have left as an artist?
That's the great thing about music: it's a never-ending journey. There's always new stuff. I want to get better at jazz-leaning improv. Someone like my brother, [Zack Hexum], went to school for that and can blow [saxophone] like Charlie Parker, etc. [Jazz improv] is something that I've only really been working on in the past six or seven years, so that's something I want to become better at, and I guess I have new ideas of how I want future albums to sound. Maybe another Quintet album that would actually be more of a studio-oriented production–instead of live–using more modern and more current production techniques.
Why do you feel there hasn't been much growth in the contemporary alternative rock genre?
Things are cyclical, maybe we're just in a bit of a rut. What's that old song, "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Stay"? It's morphing and every few years there's something the media gets into, like, 'Techno is the only thing that matters now'. That's going to come and go, but you'll never take away the joy of real instruments being played spontaneously, creating something right in front of people. I guess it's up to bands like us to keep it alive. Of course there are good bands going on now, but it does seem like a bit of a lull now.
Super random question: did you ever find that missing photo of you onstage, dressed like Courtney Love [during a Halloween show in 1995 in Baton Rouge]?
No. No pictures ever surfaced. But I remember we did start with [performing Hole's] "I'm Miss World" and I was wearing a light blue baby-doll dress… and a wig… and makeup.
Is it weird to have fans follow you so closely, or is it refreshing to feel like they're so involved?
I'm just so glad that there's such an interest and that there are  historians. We're definitely glad when we see stuff like that. There's 311paradise.com, which is just an endless archive of odds and ends, and it's as cool for me to go look at, as it is for fans, and we definitely are grateful for those kinds of people.
You guys are definitely one of the most approachable bands in the industry…
We like to blend and be the regular people that we are. So many bands believe in their own press and then it just becomes top-heavy and then they fall over.
You can catch 311 in L.A. before they head to New Orleans for 3-11 Day. For a full list of tour dates, visit 311's website. You can pre-order the new 311 album and get exclusive updates, merchandise, experiences and a bonus prize drawing here.