photo by Matt Lambert
Talking Voyager, doing what you feel and making it real with Nick Hexum
“No doubt it’s about staying true (Nothing gonna stop us). Always know that you gotta grow.”
As 311 goes “Rolling Through” to the Voyager phase of their 29-year career, they know exactly who they are – (still got that drive, still got that gear). They know your password and the groove you want them to master. Yet, their 13th record also felt like another day and a chance for discovery – moving towards the uncharted ground, exploring every domain ‘cross the musical sea.
For frontman Nick Hexum, the here and now is all about being….well, here and now. During our interview, he subtly references his own “Crossfire” lyrics about no man being an island even when you think you can be while we are talking about the song “Stainless”. It’s a theme that can also be applied to the record’s lead single, “Don’t You Worry”.
But the leaders of the Excitable Crew are also very much realists and not afraid to acknowledge the challenges one must go through in order to get to the good feeling of a better space. Through their mission of unity, 311’s music helps you see beyond the black (and gray sky), and beyond the limits of your mind even when the raindrops are simply all in your head.
“There’s no limit to what you can achieve, but first you gotta believe,” sings Hexum on “Stainless”. And during our conversation, we dig deep on bridging the gap between chasing the unknown and “Lucid Dreams”. It’s a contagious attitude that allows Hexum and his bandmates to voyage on and seize the day, while having a blast amassing a movement. This is an epitome, a philosophy of music exploration. Thank you for tripping with me.
photo by: Matt Lambert
Your 13th record, Voyager is out and the Unity Tour is in full swing, how are you? What’s the vibe within the band right now?
We feel good. We’ve found ways to keep improving the albums and keep improving the live shows. We’ve got some really cool new production for this tour – with our video screens and the way the content interacts with the music. It makes it a very immersive experience.
When you first announced the new album and that the title was Voyager, my initial reaction was – of course that’s a 311 record. It just seemed so fitting. Nowadays, with so much being about singles and streaming, I’m not sure record titles always resonate as much, but this just made so much sense before I ever heard any of the new songs.
Yeah, thank you. We are kind of throwbacks in a way. We grew up on the complete album experience and we still like to do that. We are aware we can just put out a new single or a couple songs, but I think that having this time capsule of a complete album, composed of where the artist is during the two years it takes to make it is still the way we feel the most comfortable.
As far as Voyager, we are searchers, so we feel we are voyagers in that we are always looking for something. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the process. We base our enjoyment off of how much we enjoy the process- there’s no finish line or no sales number that make us feel complete. What makes us feel complete is that we got to do this again and for another year on the road, we get to keep exploring.
One of the things that I have always been inspired by and have admired about 311 is how self-aware you are as a collective group. You know what works for you as a band very well and what works for your fans. But at the same time, you’re not afraid to try new things and challenge yourselves.
Thanks, that’s an important part to us. The one thing we can control is how hard we work. There’s a midwestern work ethic instilled in the band where we don’t expect anything to come to us, we expect that if we work really hard, we’ll keep making forward progress. A long time ago we switched the focus and realized we are a live band first. We were inspired by bands like the Grateful Dead where the core of what they do is the live performance. It’s the most important thing and the albums will work themselves around that. We rehearse a lot and make sure we make a better show this year than we did last year.
It makes me think back to the 311 week we did two years ago around MOSIAC, and a feature that was written by the fans about how 311 changed their lives. With that authenticity, that’s what happens – it makes a significant impact amongst the community.
That’s awesome, I love to hear that. I remember those stories and that to me is so cool. We always been about being grassroots and fan-centric. That’s why the MOSAIC album cover of having our band photo being made up of thousands of photos of the fans really worked. Yes, it started with us five, but now it has turned into a community. Hearing the stories about people that used to listen to angry music and were lost or depressed and now they listen to 311 and found a new attitude, means a lot to me. That’s something bigger than music and bigger than business. It’s a cultural thing that I’m very blessed to be a part of.
photo by: Brian Bowen Smith
You’ve mentioned that on Voyager, many of the songs are in your signature guitar-driven style, and then there’s about half that are exploratory. Was it intentional to approach the record that way or is that just what ending up happening?
It helped us channel the debate of – do we make a classic album, or do we take a big step forward? The fact is we found a way to do both. We started that on MOSAIC. It felt right because we love the sound we coined a long time ago, but we also don’t want to repeat. It feels good to test the limits of eclectic-ness where we were wondering if we could really put this disparage of sounds together on the same album? We discovered that we can, and we do. Our fans have learned to accept and expect that from us.
You introduced the record with “Don’t You Worry” and “Good Feeling”, two songs that are full of positive vibes, and there’s a ton of inspiring lyrics throughout Voyager. Was there ever a point in the band’s history where you decided this theme needed to always be there?
I think it was always there. I always gravitated towards positive sounds and positive thoughts, but it’s important to have a full spectrum of emotions expressed. There are some doubtful moments, if you take the album closer “Lucid Dreams” for example – there’s a melancholy deep in there. Our experience isn’t always up and positive. A lot of bands, especially in the 90’s were so angry. We didn’t relate to that so we stuck to doing our own thing.
With “Don’t You Worry”, everyone goes through hard times where it takes a village and you need to be able to rely on your friends. Everybody takes turns being the strong one. We need to be there for our friends when they are going through a period – whether that’s inside our band, in the family or outside of that, you have to make a conscious choice to be a good friend.
Given your decisions come in-house, what was your process in deciding what song fans should hear first off Voyager?
We were a little torn – do we go with the pure joy of “Good Feeling” or the more emotionally heavy “Don’t You Worry”? Our management suggested we could do a dual A-Side and we said, “Perfect, let’s do that.”
I have to thank you because you wrote a song for me on this record. You’re talking about holding onto a dream even when it feels like 1,000 miles to the next station in “Stainless”. It’s crazy how many parallels I can pull from that song. I’m sure there are a lot of fans who are able to pick their songs off this record where it matches what’s happening in their lives.
That to me is a home run. When you stumble upon something that somebody completely relates to, that’s really what we are trying to do. In all of music and in all of art, it’s about the effort to relate. Human beings crave relating and that’s why we seek relationships. It’s the core word where we want to share experiences where someone else understands. No man is an island even when you think you can be. I went through a period of isolation and then realized I needed my friends and my community. It’s a feeling of recommitment to what is important, and that is other people.
photo by: Matt Lambert
When you and S.A. are writing lyrics within the same song, what’s the process in aligning with what you are writing about? If you wrote the first verse and S.A. is going to write the second, do you tell him what your theme is?
Yes. That’s mostly our way. In the early days, like on the album Grassroots, there was absolutely no cohesive line between what we were talking about. We would just divide up 16 bars and then jam the words in.
It was cool to be that random at that phase of our career, but now we try to make it more on point. Often it starts with a title, we will pick the subject matter based on that and then put down some notes of what to talk about. Other times we will sit in the studio, let the instrumental play, see what it conjures and then just talk it out. It’s a two heads are better than one approach. There’s been more collaboration lately.
You mentioned after you saw ETSD3 how special it was to be amongst the community and really get to “feel” as opposed to being so focused on the performance. Has that carried over to the tour where you now have that experience on stage?
Yeah, I’ve known for awhile that observation is the gateway to the current moment. If you’re up in your head – thinking about the future or the past, the way to get into the current moment is to stop and really take it in. It can be as simple as looking at the leaves on the tree. I always try to be as present as possible. Ever since that moment you mention, I have made an effort to look around and notice what a long strange trip this has been. On stage, I can’t just dwell in observing because we’ll be changing songs and I know I need to change my pick-ups or get ready for the next section. When I was watching the movie, I didn’t have anything to do so I could just sit there and completely take it in. I got overwhelmed and tripped up a few times just from the summary of what the movie represented. I didn’t have to worry about keeping it together.
Coming full circle here, what does this Voyager chapter mean to you?
It’s another link in the chain and it’s a very strong link. As a band, we can thrive off the inspiration, work and love we put into it. It’s further strengthening our foundation to continue. For a lot of bands, approaching their 30th anniversary is a trip down memory lane. The throwback element will be a part of it for us, but we are happy we have something to look forward to so that we can look into the now and not just look back.
“On the right side of history
When we first came with the unity
Give us what we came for
This is what we came to say
It’s what we came for”