Doubling Down on 311 

Veteran rockers reflect on 20 years and hunt for new label

The place isn't hard to find: Just look for the rainbow. Its spray-painted spectrum, weathered and sprawled along the length of a concrete building off 64th Avenue, has been known to lead certain musicians to gold records.

Beyond the music shop facade, down the hall of wall-to-wall guitars and past piles of drums, a modest setup of microphones and vintage equipment showcases an unsung Omaha, Neb., landmark. This back room at Rainbow Recording Studios once hosted Willie Nelson. American Idol winner Jordin Sparks cut a record here not long ago. And it was at this studio, in July 1991, that the guy in charge convinced local band 311 to put its songs to tape.

"I badgered them into recording at a real studio," remembers Nils Anders Erickson, Rainbow's founder. "I told them if they were going to press a thousand CDs they'd better keep the quality up, or it would haunt them the rest of their musical life." Erickson fronted the band $2,000 to cover the session.

Twenty years later, the funky reggae partiers known as 311 regularly sell out shows and have moved almost 10 million albums. The group's promotion of peace and positivity through live music culminates every two years on March 11--"311 Day"--an event that draws some 15,000 spectators from all 50 states. Next week, the band will play its biennial blowout at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay.

"The only way you can really screw yourself as a musician is to think you've got it all figured out," says 311 frontman Nick Hexum.

That's why he and his reggae-rap architects returned to the drawing board with a new mentor in 2008. Uplifter, the band's ninth album, finds longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock pushing 311 beyond its comfort zone. While the group hasn't left behind its trademark approach to songs, the rap-rock style isn't leading the charge this time around.

"Too Much Too Fast" emphasizes guitarist Tim Mahoney's soaring tropical riffs over a shuffling Beatlesque time signature. P-Nut's rich bass throbs in time with Chad Sexton's brilliantly precise backbeat on the textured ballads "Golden Sunlight" and "Two Drops in the Ocean." These softer gems highlight the harmonies between Hexum and 311 co-leader S.A. Martinez and allow a break from the band's more formulaic output of songs like "Hey You," a single suited for those content with the familiar, radio-friendly side of 311.

"There's plenty of 311 fans that say, 'Just do the heavy stuff,'" says Hexum. "The truth is that we have to make music that's just from the heart. You can't make music by a focus group."

"If we were just the same band every record, maybe we wouldn't even be a band anymore," admits drummer and songwriter Chad Sexton. "I think the last one is the most formulated musically on the songs, but in a good way, a way that 311 absolutely needed."

While Los Angeles bands Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers drew up the funk-metal blueprint in the early '80s, 311 pioneered and popularized the call-and-response, double-frontman concept of the '90s on early albums like Music and Grassroots.

"They had this ability to cross-pollinate all these different musical genres in a seamless kind of way," remembers former Capricorn Records executive Don Schmitzerle, who signed 311 in June 1992. Twenty years and nine albums later, the band plans to start recording again following the spring tour--with or without a label.

"We're free agents now, and so we've got a lot of options on the table," says Hexum. The band satisfied its contract with Volcano Records, their label since 2000, last year. Before the band moved out to L.A. two decades ago, 311's tradition meant Monday night gigs at the Ranch Bowl in Omaha. Now the guys have their own holiday. 311 Day, the band's five-hour display of continuous classic cuts, climaxes with a drum solo performed, in unison, by every member of the group. To watch it is to witness unity at work.

"311 really showed us how to be a band, how to tour, how to make it a business," says Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath. "They're really underestimated for what great musicians they are. They're working on another plane."

This year, that plane inevitably leads four of the band's five members to age 40, a time when, as the adage goes, life begins. If all his years of making music hadn't already convinced Hexum of this, the realization hit home six months ago when he and his wife welcomed their first child.

"It's just a very fulfilling thing," he says, "a sense of purpose that you can never really fully understand until you're in it."

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