Songwriter Interviews

Nick Hexum of 311

by Greg Prato

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One of the big career milestones a musical artist can receive is when a box set of their work is assembled - because in most cases, it confirms that you have enjoyed a long and successful career. Such is the case with 311, and their 2015 four-CD set, Archive, which is not your average, ordinary box. Instead of compiling hits, overlooked album tracks, live recordings, and sprinkling in a few rarities, the 311 lads have decided to focus solely on uncommon and/or unreleased material (81 tracks in all!).

Since forming in Omaha, Nebraska in 1988, the band - which includes Nick Hexum (vocals, guitar, programming), Doug "SA" Martinez (vocals, turntables, DJ), Tim Mahoney (lead guitar), Aaron "P-Nut" Wills (bass), and Chad Sexton (drums, percussion, programming) - has been incorporating elements of alternative, reggae, rap, funk, and hard rock into their sound, and in the process, have scored such radio hits as "Down," "All Mixed Up," and a cover of the Cure's "Love Song."

Hexum took time out to speak with Songfacts shortly before the release of Archive, during which he discussed how the box set came together, how the songwriting works in the band, and the stories behind some of 311's biggest hits.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea to do the Archive box set come up at this point?

Nick Hexum: A couple of years ago, we realized, "We've got a 25 year anniversary coming up, and that's not something a lot of bands make it to. And we have a lot of rarities and cool stuff in the vault that our fans would like to hear - let's do a box set."

For the first year, it was just kind of talking about a concept, and then we realized, "It's time to kick it into high gear." Chad Sexton, our drummer, is kind of the band archivist, and he really spearheaded getting everything together to be sorted through and remastered. It was a big job, but a labor of love, and I think it turned out really cool.

Songfacts: Which unreleased songs are you most happy to finally see the light of day?

Nick: "Week of Saturdays" was a cool, very unusual, funky, happy song, from the Uplifter sessions. And then there are cool B-sides from Transistor, which was already a 21-song album, and we actually recorded 30 songs for that. Those are going to be very interesting for the fans, as well.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in 311?

Nick: It can happen a lot of different ways. Sometimes, one guy will have a vision for the whole thing, and really make the demo from start to finish, with all of the bells and whistles in there. And other times, it will just be an idea that's passed around among band members. We've had jam sessions turn into songs. So sometimes, it's extremely collaborative, and other times, it's just one guy's vision. So it's kind of "anything goes" - all over the map.

Songfacts: What song would you say best represents the band?

Nick: When people ask me, "What's my favorite song?", I say, "That's like a dad picking his favorite child" - because they're all very important at the time. But a couple highlights that come to mind, I think "All Mixed Up" was a really innovative combination of styles that hadn't been tried before. And that one really had legs - it gets played on repeat over the years, but it never got obnoxiously overplayed.

I loved closing the shows with the song "Creatures (For a While)" - that was a song that came in the second half of our career so far, and a song that just drives the crowd completely crazy. It's a fairly long song, with a lot of different sections, and that's a big highlight in my mind.

And then there's brand new songs that we're putting together right now that to me feel like very much the future of rock, combining the latest production styles. They are heavy, they're melodic, they're funky - just everything. I think we're firing on all cylinders. It's fun to look back, but we're spending at least as much time looking forward.

Songfacts: What are the pros and cons of scoring a hit with a cover song, as was the case with 311's version of the Cure's "Love Song"?

Nick: Well, we were never big on covers. And that, we just sort of stumbled into, because for the 50 First Dates soundtrack, Adam Sandler loved our song "Amber," and wanted that to basically be the template of the whole movie. And he suggested, "Why don't you guys cover the Cure's 'Love Song'?"

Me and Tim [Mahoney], had a cover band back in high school, and we did a lot of Cure songs, but we kind of got away from that. By the time that particular one came out, we were more into the early stuff, but I was a big Cure fan.

Your question, the pros and cons, I mean, sometimes it can be an easy way to kick open the door to redo a familiar song to people. But then, it can also seem cheap if you don't do it right. But I think with that song, we really turned it on its side, to have the dreamy reggae and the half-time feel. It's actually the exact same tempo - beats-per-minutes wise - but it feels very different from the original, with the reggae.

We often talk like that: "We can do a cover EP." But then, we're more excited about our own tunes. We're not a huge cover band. But there have been some that have really floated to the top, like our song "Who's Got the Herb?" Well, it's not our song, it's HR from Bad Brains - it's one of his solo songs. And that has turned into one of our live staples. So, sometimes something just really resonates and you've just got to play it.

311 is not alone in scoring a hit with a cover of an '80s pop classic - over the past two decades or so, many other rock acts have followed suit. Examples:

Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm
George Michaels' "Faith" by Limp Bizkit
New Order's "Blue Monday" by Orgy
Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by Marilyn Manson
Men at Work's "Overkill" by Lazlo Bane (with a cameo by Men at Work's Colin Hay)
Songfacts: When 311 started consistently scoring radio hits in the '90s, was the band doing anything differently, or it just so happened that was the material the band came up with at that point?

Nick: We always just try to make music that excites us, and not worry about singles. And sometimes, we're actually not that good at picking singles. It was consistent during those times that our third single was "going to be the one to go." So it was almost like the first two were just kind of toss-offs.

But we try to just make music from the heart, and let whatever floats to the top go, because we realized trying to write a hit, it just doesn’t work. You have to just make something that you think is cool and interesting and exciting, and then sometimes it resonates, and sometimes it doesn't.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Down"?

Nick: It was the idea, "If I ever didn't thank you, then just let me do it now." It was both to our fans and me saying to the other band members, "What a trip it's been to come from Nebraska, with pretty much nothing but a dream, and then to see it come true, and the unity we have in the band - the all for one, one for all spirit."

I could feel at the time there was momentum swelling. Even though we really hadn't broken through yet - our second album [1994's Grassroots] didn't quite go gold - there was just such energy that it was almost like that third album [311] was a victory lap. We knew we were blowing up, and it was strictly from a grassroots basis, and not from being media darlings or anything like that. It's a "thank you" to both the band members and the fans.

Songfacts: And what about "Come Original"?

Nick: Me and SA [Doug Martinez] took a trip to Jamaica, to just really get into the sounds of the time and go to the non-touristy places - the dance halls. There was also a reggae festival going on at the time.

We were very inspired by the rhythms going on - that was in 1998, the one year that we didn't tour in the summer. That was our one summer off that we've ever taken in our entire career. So we did a lot of putting roots down and also just traveling for fun, and we came back from that Jamaica trip and that song came out real nice and easy. It's still a crowd favorite.

Songfacts: "Creatures (For a While)"?

Nick: It was an old punk rock poster that I saw. It said, "A few drinks, a few smokes, and then... creatures for a while," and it was this cartoon of a guy and a girl.

I have no idea if it was associated with a band or what, but I just loved that phrase, "creatures for a while." It's about blowing off steam, and just the outlet that music can provide - you can become an animal and totally lose your mind in a tribal dance, and that's what our shows have become.

Songfacts: "Beautiful Disaster"?

Nick: A lot of songs, I like to start with a title, and that title has a very cool juxtaposition. I think many times, people in general - and me, especially - find ourselves attracted to people who are not good for us. We know it, but we can't resist. That's what "Beautiful Disaster" is.

Songfacts: Is it ever difficult to perform the song "Amber," since it was written about your ex-fiancé [Nicole Scherzinger]?

Nick: There have been people who have speculated that, and I won't confirm nor deny, but to me, it was just a cool analogy, because I love soft lights and colors - like the color of a sunset. Blue light is harsh, and amber light doesn't hurt your eyes, so to say the color of someone's energy is amber is kind of a cool way to compliment.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Nick: Paul McCartney is the greatest rock musician to ever live. He's top of the list. To get to see him at Staples Center a few years ago in the second row was just a very, very moving experience for me.

He epitomizes an all-around great musician, and can play so many instruments so well. And he obviously just loves it - he doesn't need the money, but he just loves to play. Just a really good person. So he's top of the list.

Songfacts: And before, you mentioned HR. What about the Bad Brains?

Nick: Man, that was a band that just really blew our minds and really inspired us to make extremely high-energy and heavy music, but also, very melodic. It was unique and on the verge of chaos most of time, spilling over into chaos and disarray. So we've had many opportunities to meet those guys and just thank them.

June 29, 2015
For more 311, visit 311.com
Photos: Brian Bowen Smith (1), Stephen Lashbrook (2)

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Comments: 6

  • Jeff from GaVery cool article
  • Shawn from MarylandI love the energy from 311! Amber is such a mellow and cool song. They make some great, innovative music! Love it!
  • Cam Hatch Aka Endorphin Factory from Slc, UtahGreat interview! 311 for life!
  • Justin from New YorkNick - we love Creatures for a While!!! Nice interview, keep it coming :)
  • Matt Carter from Arlington,txNice interview. I've been 311 nation for 20 years now......my kids dance to it when they hear it.....Good stuff.
  • Nick from DenverNick told me one of his favorite 311 song's was "All Mixed Up" back in 96, and he's still holding true to that song today. Good s--t.
see more comments

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