Right now, most alternative musicians seem to think that it's hip to be depressed. But according to Nicholas Hexum, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the funky, danceable group 311, happiness is the best policy.
"It seems like you could get caught up in the drama of lamenting about your problems and almost creating trauma for yourself by being one of those angst-monger-type artists," he says. "Our band's not going to live for some rock-and-roll drama."
Indeed, 311 (Hexum, guitarist Timothy J. Mahoney, bassist P-Nut, drummer Chad Sexton and DJ/backup vocalist SA Martinez) is adamantly positive and upbeat. The performers met in Nebraska; they played their first gig as 311 (pronounced "three-eleven") in Omaha in June 1990, opening for Fugazi. Two years later they relocated to Los Angeles. "There weren't any big labels in Omaha," Hexum explains, "so we figured we had to get out into a bigger city. We moved out west in 1992, then got signed a month later." He adds, "I had always been attracted to L.A. I had lived there before, because it's the center of so much entertainment and because of the ocean."
Appropriately, the Pacific makes a cameo appearance in the act's first video, for the song "Do You Right" (from 311's Capricorn Records debut disc, 1992's Music). The clip intersperses footage of Hexum sitting on a beach singing "To be alive is lovin'/Where the shore meets the sea/Man I'm hummin'" with shots of Martinez dancing against a graffiti-splattered wall. There's not a frown in sight.
"It's kind of different," Hexum says, "that we came along with our first single as being real cheerful and not with the overwhelming trend of negativity or punk-rockism. We have roots in punk, but we take the positive side of the attitude."
The group also finds inspiration in practically every style of music that's been developed since cavemen first banged rocks together. Although they are most often compared to the Beastie Boys or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bandmembers claim influences as disparate as classical music, Thirties- and Forties-era jazz, reggae, dancehall and Latin grooves. What makes the hodgepodge work is the group's ability to switch from genre to genre midsong while remaining a smooth, tight unit.
"We listen to a wide variety of music," Hexum points out. "That's where our tastes lie, so it's what we end up playing. We try to be indulgent and go with the flow of whatever seems to grab us and not calculate it too much. I think country music is boring, so we don't ever seem to play that. But everything else is, in some fragmentary way, represented in our music."
In spite of their eclecticism, the vocal approach of Martinez and Hexum (who alternate syncopated cadences with lyrical strings often delivered at toasting speed) has led many listeners to label them white-boy rappers. Hexum refutes this: "We're not really a rap band, but it's one of the things we use. I try and make the lines sound like a song, because music without melody gets old real quick.
"Just like you know what notes to play on the guitar," he continues, "the same skill [helps you decide] what sounds you need to make with your mouth. Sometimes when I'm playing live, I'm using my voice as a musical instrument and just making sounds."
Even when Hexum puts some thought into the words he writes, he admits that the lyrics don't always turn out the way he expected. For example, "Do You Right" started its life as what he calls "a really sappy love song. [But] I didn't like the words, so we changed the verses into a party lyric and basically changed the whole meaning to a good-time song."
Grassroots, 311's sophomore effort (released in the summer of 1994), features exuberant celebrations of hedonism and controlled substances. Most notable among them is the hit "Homebrew," which Hexum confesses is about a hallucinogenic experience.
"It wasn't my first acid trip," he says, "but it was one of my hardest. I did multiple hits to the point I don't even remember it, but it was between five and ten. It was on the Fourth of July in 1989, and we went to the beach at Santa Barbara, California. They had this huge festival there with 15,000 college students, where everybody digs these big pits and puts kegs in the ground. It was a crazy scene, and I wanted to document it in a song."
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The rest of Grassroots is just as pro-fun: Highlights include "Lucky," "Applied Science," "8:16 A.M." (which actually is a love song) and the catchy title track. In spite of the recording's surplus of potential singles, however, the players plan to spend the winter writing new songs for their next album in anticipation of hitting the road for most of 1995.
"From a commercial standpoint, sometimes the best thing to do is keep working a record," Hexum concedes. "We could keep promoting our two albums, but we would rather forge on into new musical territory. Maybe it's not the smartest business thing to do, but we are going to make another record in the spring and tour again next summer and keep up the yearly pace.
"I don't think we'll be able to do it forever," he concludes, "but we're gonna try."
311, with the Urge. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 5, Glenn Miller Ballroom, CU-Boulder, $12.50, 290-TIXS or 492-7473.