“Wild. Kaleidoscopic. Everyday.”
When asked for three words to represent his band 311, turntablist Doug “SA” Martinez’s long, long pause was merited when he finally found the description.
Just those three words highlight the best component of 311: the ability to provoke exhilarating, electric, mellow and sensual feelings all at once. The band is a mosaic of genres layered on top of one another, spinning slowly and dappling the landscape with funk, reggae, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and even heavy metal.
Even though 311’s music hit airwaves almost a quarter of a century ago, each of the 11 studio albums has found a way to be relevant to the current musical landscape—but it’s also a variety of melodious comfort food. Old favorites include 1995’s triple platinum self-titled album with such songs as “Down” and “All Mixed Up,” 1999’s Soundsystem (“Come Original” and “Large in the Margin”), and 2001’s From Chaos (“Amber” and “Sick Tight”).
Now there’s Stereolithic, released in March 2014. It’s the band’s most collaborative album yet, with almost all the members contributing lyrics and songwriting. The sound includes a lot of retro harmonies, and strong guitar distortion and rock riffs tailor-made for rapping. The band’s experimentalism was also cranked up a notch, with a wide range of tempos that span psychedelic mellow moments, class rock jams, and danceable tracks.
And even if you’re a long-time fan, unless you follow the band’s social media closely, you might have even missed the album’s release. The band used Twitter to amp up the suspense more than 200 days in advance, and then it was released on the band’s own 311 Records. It was also the band’s first independent release since 1991’s Unity.
Now the band, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum, vocalist/DJ Martinez, lead guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, and drummer Chad Sexton, are heading to Talking Stick Resort for a poolside show on Sunday, June 29.
Lauren Wise spoke with SA Martinez about the new darker imagery on Stereolithic, the band's he's listening to now, and how it would be hard for a band like 311 to come out in 2014.
LW: Stereolithic is the band’s first independently released studio album since 1991's Unity, was released in March 2014. Why did you guys decide to go that route and release it on your own label?
SA: I mean really at this point in time for a band like us, there’s nothing you know, a big label can really offer us. We’ve got our fanbase, Sure you can reach these bands all the time and we do, but really, 20-something years into this people have made up their mind whether they like 311 or not. Laughter. We’ve got our core audience that we can grow, but, yeah, anymore these days the labels want more than we’re willing to offer. It’s not in either parties interest to work together. You know, I think we lucked out in the fact that we were able to utilize that label network back in the 90s that was still, in my opinion, viable and could really help a band. But anymore there’s just too much traffic it seems…too much, too many options…I’ll put it this way: it would be hard for a band like 311 to come out in 2014 and to carve the career that we have carved and been fortunate with in this climate. It’s just something that we were lucky to have come up in the year that we did.
LW: I’m guessing it’s much more rewarding to release the album on your own label, but do you feel the work is worth it when it comes to everything involved?
SA: For us we had a few partnerships with labels over the years that were really beneficial. We had some great people on our side for a good stretch of our career but…you’re right. Any more, labels want a piece of everything. It’s so hard to make money by selling records so they have to take over other revenue streams for their interest. So that’s cutting into the pockets of bands that used to expect their guarantees and merchandise. I’m not even too privy as to what labels are asking from bands nowadays. But you hear about the 360 deals where they want a cut of everything. You’re not going to make anything if you're a band then. Getting some promotion is great; but at what cost? It’s different for every scenario and every band; we all have unique situations. I don’t know if we would work with a label again unless they had ideas that could truly expand out audience.
LW: How was it working with Scott Ralston again?
SA: Oh it’s great. He’s basically a part of the 311 family. He’s worked and been with us; on most of our records actually. Usually in the engineering capacity. But he produced Transistor our fourth record, and now our 11th record Stereolithic. He just knows us so well… when you work with producers there’s an acclimation period when you’re feeling each other out. Granted we have worked with a few producers on multiple records, but Scott is just like a brother. He’s basically our age. Laughter. I think that has a lot of do with it too. We have so much in common with him, and he’s really smart. He’s grown as we’ve grown over the years. It was just the right time to let him take the wheel so to speak again.
LW: Would you say that Stereolithic is the band’s most collaborative album to date?
SA: Yes. Very much so. Very collaborative effort. You know, the past few records have been that way. We’re working on lyrics together more-so than we’ve done in the past. It started with the last record primarily but carried over. You know, with this record Scott added that dimension of character and was able to really capture the inner workings of the band and brought them to the record, and made that part of the album. I think there’s more layers to this record because of it. He put things on there that usually get left out. But he found ways to fit them in, and it adds to the character and dimension. The fans really dig stuff like that.
LW: How has the writing process changed in that respect? The lyrical imagery?
SA: I think compared to the last record it’s comparable. There’s tracks where you’re able to extend and stretch lyrically, and there’s tracks where you make it more concise and tight. And it’s always been that way on every record I think. There’s tracks where you’re painting more of a picture lyrically. Then there are tracks that are more musically pleasing. Sometimes there’s both. That’s always been a part of our tapestry if you will; part of our DNA. It’s within each record.
LW: What’s one or two of your favorite tracks?
SA: Oh man. I think if you’re talking lyrical imagery, “Existential Hero” would be one of my favorite tracks. If you’re talking musical vibe maybe, “Made in the Shade” or “Tranquility” would be one of those songs, where there’s more dimension musically. Soundsystem is one of our best records. And after 20 years to be able to do that….it’s pretty remarkable. I think it’s a testament to…long pause. Our level of dedication. I think we’re not just phoning it in. And the band realizes that too. I think a lot of bands that came out when we did are still…I get it. You can fall into those ruts where it just seems maybe, I don’t know, not as interesting anymore. I think when you have perspective or a bigger picture in mind that you envision, that’s when you create.
LW: Well some of the band’s biggest hits like “All Mixed Up”, “Amber” and “Beautiful Disaster” can attest to 311’s longevity. And you feel as if there are songs that compare to those on this new album?
SA: Right, right. We’ve been very fortunate like you’re saying. When radio even mattered, laughter, you know, it seems radio doesn’t even matter anymore. Kids are on YouTube, but in the day with bands radio was important. You needed repetition for people to understand where you are coming from and people tuning in “to get it” so to speak. Um, so now there are things like Spotify and what not, so it’s different. Getting off the subject a little bit but yeah; it’s an interesting atmosphere for music.
LW: Your role as a DJ exposes you to a lot of variations in music and new acts. Is there a current act out now that you think might be able to achieve longevity like 311?
SA: I’m sure there are bands that are connecting with audiences that I don’t really know about. I’m trying to think…hmm…you know, my nephew turned me onto a band Merchandise. They are out of Florida. Are you familiar with them?
LW: No I’m not actually. I'll check them out.
SA: I listened to them and it reminded me of some of the English groups I listened to in the 80s, like Echo and The Bunny Man, and the Smiths, sort of English alternative rock. I really actually started getting into this band. I think their discography of maybe two records, laughter, I hope a band like that can connect and is able to build and make more music and do what they love to do. Because I’m a fan. But yeah…so many things have to work to be able to have a career in music. And mostly things are against you. If anyone can do it that’s great. The world needs music and we all need it in our lives. Even going to shows…growing up I loved going to concerts. That’s what I looked forward to. That was a part of my adolescence. It just really inspired me and I connected with it. There’s so much negativity in things, and so many things that don’t really inspire people, so it’s important to have that positivity in music in our lives. To have an outlet to get that out there is great. I think music is alive and well and will always be around and bands will always.
LW: Describe 311 in three words.
SA: Long, long pause. Wild. Kaleidoscopic. Everyday.