For the better part of two decades, 311 has been cranking out album after album and trotting almost nonstop around the globe. Of the band's eight previous albums, four went gold, one went platinum, and one triple-platinum. And oh yeah, it had seven singles that hit the Top 10 on Billboard's Modern Rock charts.
So why isn't 311 a household name?
It doesn't seem like all that long ago that I was a hyper middle-schooler jamming to "Down" and "All Mixed Up" in a friend's garage. Now, as 311 releases a new album and sets off on a new tour, the older, wiser version of myself has to say... not much has changed.
311: Wednesday, April 29. SunFest, downtown West Palm Beach. $31 for a one-day pass. 800-SUN-FEST; sunfest.com
Fuck it. I'll come out and declare it: 311 is one of the greatest bands gigging today. Period. They pretty much define the word underrated.
The five-piece band was born of humble beginnings in 1990. Their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, had been a hub for black jazz musicians in the 1920s, but during the post-metal, pre-Conor Oberst era, before Bruce Springsteen had named an album after the Cornhusker State, the sonic landscape was bleak. 311's sound — a psychedelic rock/reggae/funk hybrid, full of crunchy guitars but embellished with positive lyrics, a neo-hippie vibe, and sounds from a DJ who is a core part of the band — didn't exactly set Nebraska on fire.
So in 1992, the band stored all of its belongings and pursued a life on the road, garnering... well, almost no recognition from media and the record industry. Not until nearly a year after putting out their third album — titled 311 — did guitarist/ singer Nick Hexum, DJ/singer SA Martinez, guitarist Tim Mahoney, drummer Chad Sexton, and bassist P-Nut finally see their band climb the sales and airplay charts.
Nowadays, that's ancient history. Once the band bit down on success with its self-titled chart topper, it didn't let go, following up with one album after another of mixed feel-good grooves and hard rockers. There was the '97 release, Transistor. There was the last studio album in 2005, Don't Tread on Me. And there were gems such as From Chaos and Evolver in the middle. So what if not all of them got played nonstop on the Buzz?
On June 2, 311 will release its ninth studio album, Uplifter, which comes after a four-year break in recording.
"It's been a few years since we've had any new material, but the time was right," says S.A. Martinez, checking in by phone from the road. "It was a decision to not put anything out for several reasons, but chiefly just to recharge the creative juices. And I think the result was that this release is packed with the best material we've come up with in a really long time."
That's a bold statement, considering that the band's last offering, Don't Tread, became the favorite record among many of the band's hard-core fans — even though it didn't go gold or platinum like earlier releases. Instant cult hits included the Top 10 title track, plus "Frolic Room," "Solar Flare," and "Thank Your Lucky Stars."
But Martinez says 311 won't disappoint fans with the new disc. In fact, as the title implies, it'll be an uplifter.
Sending a positive message is "something that we're known for," Martinez says proudly, explaining the name. "I think there's a little overcast on the American soul right now. And music is something very special that makes everything seem all right. Music is such an ethereal vibe. You can't hold it, it's just vibrations. But it touches our core and that's important. Music is that charge to our life."
Bob Rock, known for his work with acts such as Metallica, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Offspring, produced the album. It marks a departure for the group, which has long worked with producer Ron Saint Germain.
Rock "brought a new cohesion, I think, to the band," Martinez says. "He really got more ideas from everyone, more nuances, all the little things that make for that extra mojo. We've never worked with anyone quite like him."
But the influence of a new producer need not intimidate purists. The band's signature style is alive and well, Martinez promises. "It's got our 311 sound, without question, but they're new songs. It's hard to talk about what's different from the last [record] because inherently it's the same group of guys working together again. But just as every moment is different, so is every song you put out. They're new songs that I think are really going to appeal to our base and a wider audience as well."
The fan base is intact largely because the bandmates tour ridiculously. They venture on the road every summer, whether or not they have an album to promote. And although they might not have the noodly sound of, say, Widespread Panic or Phish, they do have a jam-band-style tendency to improvise onstage. Sometimes they launch into a cappella versions of their songs. Other times, they throw in some random covers. In the past, they've created a drum line — with each band member on steel drums. The surprises make every show a unique event. "Touring's been the bread and butter for our band," Martinez says. "That's where it counts. It's a natural extension of what we are."
Every other year, the touring culminates in "3-11 Day," held in New Orleans — when else? — March 11. Thousands of fans from around the country and the globe unite for a three-day celebration that emphasizes unity, positivity, and tearing up the stage. Last year's show turned into a five-hour event with a 63-song set list. Even the mayor officially proclaimed it 3-11 Day.
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This year, 311's spring tour has already kicked off and will keep the band members on the road until mid-May, when they take a two-week break before embarking on their legendary summer run. South Florida fans will get a chance to partake of some 311 goodness April 29, when the guys come to West Palm to headline the first day of SunFest.
The Summer Unity Tour then kicks off in June. In past years, the band's supporting acts have included the Wailers, the Roots, Papa Roach, O.A.R., Matisyahu, and Snoop Dogg. This year, Ziggy Marley is coming along.
"Our music, I think, lends itself to a wide variety of styles and genres," Martinez says. "The live show has always been something that people really got into once they experienced it. That's always kinda been our MO, you know — just a great live show."
In the end, it's all about that constant underlying message. As singer Nick Hexum is known for saying at the close of shows: "Stay positive and love your life."