311 - Biography
By Brad Austin
To a 13-year old in 1996, 311 were irrefutably cool. In retrospect they seem kind of silly. After all, this is essentially rap/rock we're talking about, a genre that was only taken seriously by teenagers and slightly older gentlemen who confused it for metal. Still, with a closer look at the band, it's impossible not to at least respect 311. For one thing, they are one of the few bands who peaked in the mid-‘90s that are still playing and still drawing massive crowds. And, unlike many of their one-time contemporaries, 311 were never buffoons. Although their music didn't necessarily sound smart and the lyrics were a tad undercooked, singer/guitarist Nick Hexum and rapper S.A. Martinez were trying to say something positive and uplifting, which is certainly more than Fred Durst, Jonathan Davis, or even Zack de la Rocha can say. If Hexum and Martinez are guilty of anything it’s an unshakable optimism that could be misconstrued as ignorance. But don't we really wish more bands had this ignorance instead of a misplaced, poorly communicated sense of rage? Musically, the band never really gave into the rap/rock tag, incorporating heavy doses of reggae, funk and even some jazz fusion on each album, giving them their own style. It's safe to assume the band won't change up that style much on releases to come, which is fine, as their diehard fans would never want them to and the rest of the world probably isn't aware that they're still around.
Despite frequent comparisons to California bands like No Doubt, Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers; 311 actually hail from Omaha, Nebraska. Along with Hexum, the band began in 1990 with bassist P-Nut, guitarist Jim Watson and drummer Chad Sexton. The name was taken from the local police code for indecent exposure, a charge Watson faced after skinny-dipping in a pool. Watson was later dismissed from the group and they asked friend Tim Mahoney to replace him. By 1992, Doug “SA” Martinez (who’d been a frequent collaborator with the group) was asked to join as a full-time member. This lineup has not changed, validating the band's claim that they are “friends for life.” Based on a strong local following and a couple of successful indie releases (Dammit! and Unity, both released on Hexum's own label), the band was signed to Capricorn Records.
311's Music (1993 Capricorn), an accessible funk-metal outing that scored a hit with the number 27 modern rock single “Do You Right.” The song was highly indicative of what was to come on future 311 releases; the heavy funk opening, the impossibly tight crack of Sexton's snare, the melodic and catchy chorus followed by a joyous reggae breakdown. These elements can be found on any subsequent 311 album. Although the song charted, the album did not. On their second release, 1994's Grassroots (Capricorn), it was the opposite; the album actually did crack the Billboard 200, but failed to produce a single. However, Grassroots, though poorly produced, makes for one of the band's more accomplished and worthwhile listens.
Just one year later, 311 issued their most popular album to date, a self-titled collection that has widely come to be known as “The Blue Album” (1995 Capricorn). It wasn’t until more than a year after its release, however, that it would make them superstars. In hindsight, it might have been an ill-advised decision to release “Don't Stay Home” as the first single, especially when “Down” was such an obvious candidate. What is even more inexplicable is that “Down” wasn't released until 14 months after the album came out. Once it was released, however, the reaction was unlike anything the band could have expected and it reached number one on the modern rock charts. Along with the subsequent release, “All Mixed Up,” (which reached number four) the album was propelled to number twelve on the Billboard 200, a remarkable leap from their previous effort.
Following up such unexpected success would be a difficult task for anyone and 311 certainly stumbled on their fourth album, Transistor (1997 Capricorn). Packing 21 songs and 74 minutes onto a single disc was a mistake and the situation was worsened by the fact that the most of these songs were filler. Although things paled for the group from a critical perspective, they did not suffer as much commercially. The album reached number four, their highest position yet, and the singles “Transistor” and “Beautiful Disaster” placed decently on the charts as well. Still, it would have been interesting to see the band capitalize on their success with a more compelling LP.
After a 1998 live album, the ever-prolific 311 returned to the studio and released Soundsytem in 1999. A much more focused and concise effort than Transistor, the album produced the feel-good single, “Come Original,” which reached number six on the modern rock charts. The album went to number nine on the charts. The band left Capricorn shortly thereafter and signed with Volcano. In late 2001, they released From Chaos, an album widely viewed as their best work since Grassroots. The LP hit number six on the strength of singles “You Wouldn't Believe” and “Amber,” the latter a gentle reggae number that is probably the prettiest 311 song to date.
311 provided few surprises for fans or critics at that point. Upon the release of album number seven, Evolver (2003 Volcano), they had earned tags like “consistent” and “reliable.” And yet their sales remained as strong as ever. The single, “Creatures (For a While),” was a number three modern rock track and the album went to number seven. Don't Tread On Me (Volcano) followed in 2005 and became 311's fifth consecutive top ten studio album, placing at number five. Currently, the band is at work on their ninth album and have received one of the highest honors a band could have hoped to achieve in the year 2008: one of their songs (“Beautiful Disaster”) was included as a playable track on the video game Guitar Hero: World Tour.