Brendan Benson and bluegrass? Cult tunesmith Jon Brion and the new Robert Plant & Alison Krauss collaboration?
These are the makings of the next album from the blunted groove merchants who gave us “Down” and “All Mixed Up” and “Amber”?
Well, they’re at least one element, anyway, says Nick Hexum, lead singer and chief songwriter for the rap-rock-reggae-etc. outfit 311.
“Those harmonies on the Plant & Krauss record are just beautiful,” he gushes. “I’m more into stuff that people might not associate with our band - like power-pop, these bands that are pretty much sons of the Beatles. There’s one down-speed song we’ve done for the new album that I think is closer to 10cc or Supertramp.
“We like to keep the ingredients that influence us very eclectic - that’s what keeps our music changing. Some people think they can master music, but that’s when you know you’re lost. We know that we really know only a little, and that we’ll never be done.”
It has been three years since 311 put out its last album, however, and it’ll be close to four by the time its next one arrives. Which may explain why, even as the Omaha-born band prepares to head out on its largest tour ever, in a co-headlining stint with Snoop Dogg, Hexum is brimming with talk about where the group’s nearly two-decade evolution is leading these days.
For starters, this ninth studio set (which he hopes will be remixed in winter and released in spring) is bound to be a big booming thing - that’s what you get when you enlist longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock, who most recently revitalized another survivor of the ‘90s alternative boom, the Offspring.
“He’s such the master of arena-rock and singalong choruses,” Hexum says, “so he’s got our minds thinking of that already.” Production has been deliberately halved, the summer outing with Snoop serving as a breather. “It gives us a chance to step away from what we’ve already done, and remind ourselves of what’s working live, so we can get a dose of that energy.”
Feeding off that would seem obvious - for as many hits as 311 has coughed up, the quintet (including vocalist Doug “SA” Martinez, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, guitarist Tim Mahoney and drummer Chad Sexton) remains first and foremost a touring force, one of few acts of its era to still be expanding its live audience regardless of how its records fare.
Perhaps that accounts for the increased eclecticism in the studio: When you’ve got nothing to lose, what’s the harm in throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks? Especially when you don’t think very highly of the last record you put out.
“I don’t feel ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ (2005) is quite up to the standard that we hold,” Hexum admits. “Certainly there have been times in 18 years together when our attention has slightly drifted. But there’s a renewed hunger and excitement now - we’re not anywhere near done. We look at bands like U2 that have this sort of renaissance, when they find their groove again, like on “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa” - and we think, ‘Why not us?’”
Still, Hexum says the band doesn’t harbor illusions that the next disc will be an instant smash.
“It’s pretty nuts: If you had two charts side by side, one of them would be how well we were doing with radio, and that would be up and down and up and down. But then the other one would be touring - and it’d just be a steady line going up.
“When you consider that our record sales have fallen off at least as much as the industry as a whole has, people would assume that we’d be back playing clubs. So the fact that we’re doing this tour, and each one seems to get bigger than the last, it kinda leaves us stumped in a way. It’s some sort of magic that we have been us and the fans, and between the five of us. I’ve had a lot of failed relationships over these past 18 years, and to have this one with the same guys is amazing.
“It’s the goose that keeps laying golden eggs, and we’re not gonna kill it anytime soon.”