3 decades in, the genre-bending band remains indecently exposed. In a good way.
by Rachel Reeves
The name of a band known all over the world began with a naked man.
A bass player named P-Nut and some high school friends growing up in Omaha, Nebraska were out goofing around one day, as teenage boys are wont to do. Except this day someone had a particularly goofy idea: to go skinny dipping in the public pool. And, of course, that’s what they did, but it didn’t go so well. They got caught by the cops. One of the guys, Jim Watson, was even handcuffed, while naked, and delivered, still naked, to his parents.
The number on the ticket Watson got was 311, Omaha police code for indecent exposure. And so quite naturally a few years later, when Aaron “P-Nut” Wills and Watson, who played guitar, joined forces with drummer Chad Sexton and vocalist Nick Hexum, their band name was just waiting for them, naked as a teenage moon. Thus was born 311.
Soon guitarist Tim Mahoney replaced Watson and singer Douglas “SA” Martinez came aboard.
The band opened for Fugazi in 1990 and quickly earned a devoted local following. Their music defied genre – it spanned punk, hip-hop, jazz, and reggae – and their influences ranged from Bob Marley to Prince to The Clash to NWA. 311 was doing something different in its city and it sounded good. Fans wrote to thank the band for being the best thing to come out of Nebraska.
But broader fame remained a pipe dream.
In 1992, after the local success of three independent records released on its own label, 311 set out for Los Angeles. Just before poverty dissolved the dream, the band was signed by Warner Bros. label Capricorn Records.
As they began a self-financed tour for their first album on the label, their RV caught on fire and exploded on the highway. Their equipment and all their possessions were lost to the flames.
Still they persevered. Their goal, as Hexum told a reporter, was to be “as unlimited as possible.”
In July of 1995, the band released the album “311,” which would go triple platinum. Fame occurred rather abruptly. An L.A. Times story published the following year noted the band’s “relentless touring – despite little airplay and virtually no press attention at all.” The reporter quoted Hexum as saying the band didn’t want to “mess it up by becoming overexposed.”
Hexum wrote in a letter to fans that fall: “I would like to address the concern of our long-time fans about our new popularity. A band needs to ‘break’ in order to insure [sic] the availability of [its] CDs. Any fan that wants us to be touring in a van playing small clubs is making an unreasonable request. Those were hard times that we look back on fondly, but we are so grateful to have reached a level where we can make unusual music from the heart without worrying about getting dropped from our label, or going broke, or our rickety-ass RV blowing up. In the early days of 311 I was agent, manager, promoter, publicist, and musician. Now, finally, I have delegated all of these jobs to others except the one I love most – musician.”
Today, more than three decades later, 311 has a quiver of studio albums, videos, and DVDs that went platinum. Until the present, the band has endeavored to do what Hexum told a reporter decades ago they’d do: “be as unlimited as possible.” Their biggest hits – “I’ll Be Here Awhile” and “Amber” – are mellow and catchy, featuring the smoothly harmonized vocals of Hexum and SA; Hexum has described tracks like this as “island sounds.” The band has released various flavors of music, from rock-rap-reggae hybrids to ska tunes to rap-metal tracks featuring heavy electric guitar. A Billboard critic called 311 “ultimately a complicated band.”
Ten of the band’s albums reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 Sales Chart and nine 311 singles have reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Alternative Radio Chart. The band’s cover of “Love Song” by The Cure, which was featured in Adam Sandler’s movie “50 First Dates,” reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks Chart.
The band has played in all 50 states and in South America, Asia, Europe, Oceania, the Caribbean, and on cruise ships. Overexposure doesn’t seem to have diminished the range of its sound, nor the devotion of its fan base. In fact, 311 has some of the world’s most fervent followers. Recently a fan posted on the band’s social media that 311 was her favorite band “ever of all music that exists period.”
311 plays BeachLife Festival on Friday, May 13.