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311's freak flag still flies high 

click to enlarge With a dozen albums from which to pull, 311 creates a new set list every night.
  • With a dozen albums from which to pull, 311 creates a new set list every night.

Veteran rap-reggae-rock outfit 311 are excited about their new album, Mosaic, which was released by BMG last month. But the band would be touring this summer even if they didn't have any new music to bring to the fans.

"We tour in summer, rain or shine," says singer Nick Hexum. "That's just what we do. We decided we were a touring band and we want to stay connected with our fans. We just refuse to be caught in that album cycle that some bands get caught in. We put touring first and, fortunately, our fans are there for us, whether we have a new album or not. But there's more excitement when you have a new album."

Although the group is now a dozen albums into their career, Mosaic is a record that Hexum believes will catch the ears of some who might have ignored earlier 311 music.

"I would say it's a big step forward as far as modernizing our sound," Hexum explains. "We wanted to pursue ideas and sounds that felt fresh and new, but there's classic elements in there with hip-hop and reggae and rockin' riffs."

Those elements will also allow the Mosaic songs to easily fit into the 311 live show, even though Hexum says it's hard to say which of those songs, or any others from the band's quarter-century-long catalog, will be played on any given night.

"We custom make the set each night," he says. "After doing this for so long, you kind of have a vibe for each town — there will be a lot of new people here, or it will be filled with old fans, that kind of thing. After sound check, we have a set list meeting where we get on one bus and talk it out. I think it would become stale if we had the same set every night," he adds. "If it's new to us, it's new to them and it keeps it fresh for everybody."

311 was formed in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1988, taking its name from the police code for indecent exposure. When Doug "SA" Martinez joined in 1992 to sing and work the turntables, the band's lineup of Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist Aaron "P-Nut" Wills and drummer Chad Sexton was set, seemingly for good.

"We've always felt we stumbled into a special chemistry with the five of us and we've stayed together," Hexum says. "The five of us, in 1992, loaded up in a Volkswagen van and a Buick Monte Carlo, and drove out to a little house in Van Nuys, California. That right there was all-for-one, one-for-all. It's always been the five guys in 311 and, hopefully, it always will be."

311 honed their sound on the group's 1993 debut album Music and 1994's Grassroots, before making its popular breakthrough with 1995's triple-platinum, self-titled third album that yielded the hit singles "Down" and "All Mixed Up."

"We came up at a time when grunge was really big," Hexum says. "I respected that music. But for me, it wasn't funky enough; to only have a rock influence felt very limiting to me. There were bands in California — the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone — that had a funky sound and they inspired us. But we had a separate mix with the dancehall reggae."

"Growing up in Nebraska, geographically, we were in the middle," he said. "But it seemed like musically we were in the middle too, with very long arms to reach out and pull in reggae from Jamaica, hip-hop from New York, punk from L.A., grunge from Seattle, and then bring them together."

Colorado fans also appreciate that 311 have been preaching the pro-pot gospel for decades and are now seeing that effort pay off with marijuana legalization in states across the country.

"Bands like us and Cypress Hill, we were carrying the cannabis flag when it was really risky to do that," Hexum says. "We had instances where we had cops on the side of the stage. We were conscientious objectors. We were about cannabis and using it there, to show the absurdity of the laws.

"I guess I didn't feel like this was going to happen in my lifetime," the singer admits. "I always thought it would happen eventually. 'I'm happy it happened when I'm still here."

Now, 311 is in the cannabis product business, with a vape pen called Uplifter set to go to market when marijuana becomes legal for recreational use in California. That's just one of the products Hexum is helping to design.

"It's fun to split up my time between making music and developing cannabis products, which is creative too," he says. "With recreational use in California starting next year, it's kind of like the Wild West where everybody's getting their piece of the pie. It's fun to be an entrepreneur and in a band that's been there all the way."

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