311 Returning to its Independent Roots

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve missed a lot of 311’s recent musical output. They’ve been around since those early formative years for me, though, that span in the 90’s when alternative was still fresh and new and actually, legitimately meant something. There were more days than I can count spent listening to their early catalog - along with bands like Nirvana, Glassjaw, Jawbox, and Pearl Jam -  with my brother. He’d play his drum set, I’d sing along and strum fake guitars. We were terrific performers.

So when the opportunity came up to chat with someone from the band, I jumped at the chance, thinking that if nothing else, it would make for a cool story to tell, you know, that one time I interviewed 311. I had hoped it would be a good conversation, and expected my time chatting with bassist P-Nut would be brief, just a quick rundown of what’s going on in the 311 camp. What I wasn’t expecting was a 20 minute long conversation about their entire career, how they started out and how they got to where they are today, and how their new found freedom has been so long in the making. It’s an earnest conversation, and P-Nut answered my questions with the intelligence, positivity, and insight that almost 25 years as a band like 311 can bestow. Below you’ll find a transcription of our interview – which, if you’ve read my interviews before, are meant to be more conversational – where we cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Thanks to P-Nut for being so gracious with his time.

JB: First off, thanks for talking with me. I’m sure you guys are busy getting ready for tour. So I appreciate it.

PN: Oh, we’re not busy doing that. We’re busy raising kids.

JB: Oh, there’s that, too. Actually, I just had my first kid a month ago, so I’m right there with you.

PN: Yeah, you know what that’s like. Tour’s going to be more vacation than it’s been in a long time. (laughs)


JB: Okay, well let’s dive right in so you can get back to it! Looking back at the band’s history – it’s varied and lengthy. One thing is obvious – it’s a career that’s been the result of a lot of hard work, and an understanding of music as an art form and a business. Can you talk a bit about how the last decade has helped shaped the band, maybe in relation to how things started out, and where you thought you would be at this point?

PN: Well we reached this really great plateau, where we’re self-sustainable, where we’re just as successful with an album – and without a new album, where some bands really need to have their PR machine really working for them. It feels like we’ve always done the heavy lifting for ourselves, and that our fans aren’t going to be swayed if a trend comes and goes. So with the band, they’re going to be endlessly supportive of us.

The last ten years have been have been us kind of still riding this wave that we created in the 90’s, back when the PR machine was really working for us, and having fun just… just living the dream. Every summer… we’re just about to get started. We’ve only taken one summer off, in 1999. And we still regret it.

So it’s just fun. A lot people say it’s not a summer without 311. And we love that. That’s what keeps us going. It’s just unbelievable.

I remember Camper Van Beethoven coming through Omaha 2 or 3 times in the span of 9 months or something when I was a kid. I’m like, no one’s… Who’s gonna see this band? And now we’re doing the same thing! (laughs) We’re always showing up again, we’ll be back. And there’s people who complain that we can’t make it everywhere every summer. So maybe you’re blessed, maybe you’re cursed. Depends on your perspective.

JB: Absolutely. Can you think of any major differences now, compared to the musical landscape of the 90’s?

PN: It’s just for us, as a business, as 311 Touring Incorporated, and the name implies, it’s always been about the show for us. We love writing new music. As I’ve been rehearsing for these shows coming up this summer, I’ve just been putting what comes up on iTunes on my computer, and its 46 different 311 album, 400 songs, and you know, a lot of those are demos. It’s just funny what pops out. And I’m holding on to all these riffs, and I’m realizing that we write a lot. We love to write, and we’ve got a lot to say musically. It’s still fun to be in this band and still uncovering the potential, and exposing the weaknesses here and there and then trying to fight that off, trying to learn from our ups-and-downs. And putting that best “Now everybody in the band’s over 40” foot forward (laughs), and loving that. And then us being dads, being so thankful to be able to do what we do for this long… It could end today, at this moment, and I wouldn’t regret a minute and I’d be thankful for everything. I think we’ve been, if anything, overexposed in one way or the other. [And I think about] How we would have been a great garage band (laughs), stuck in Omaha and wondering about the potential. We’ve had this halfway golden road to success, and all this support… It’s just… It’s amazing. It’s a lot to wrap your head around – 24 years! – but it’s fun to try (laughs).

JB: Right on, yeah. That’s great! So a lot of bands that started out around the same time that you did, and even a little bit later, they seem to give in to the worst parts of nostalgia and slip in to this weird kind of self-parody. But 311 has continued to evolve musically, artistically, and business-wise. How much of that do you consider sheer luck, and how much has been a concerted effort?

PN: It’s something within the work ethic, something in the “we never thought we’d get this far,” something in the “if you own everything, then they can’t take you down” kind of mentality, and we’ve always been a part of that. That’s the whole grassroots mentality for us. Let’s just own it. And if we can’t manipulate the machine to be the popular kid in school, or on the radio (laughs), then we’re going to be best friends with this select group of people, and they’re going to die for us, and/or set fires. And it’s great. It’s the perfect place to be, because we get to expand at our own rate, or contract at our own rate, with the support from the fans… that does come and go. But for the most part it’s like these people have grown up with us, they love what we do, they love the personalities within. It’s just crazy.

The best part for me, on this new album, Stereolithic, is writing as many lyrics as I got an opportunity to do. I wrote on 7 out of 15 songs, and that’s never happened. That’s like 2-3 albums worth of my intellectual input (laughs). And I love it. It’s a lot of fun. I still like writing music. But most of the time it’s hard to compete with the minds at work in 311. And I’ll get ideas in there somewhere musically, but I’m better at thoughts and philosophies.

JB: In talking about Stereolithic, this is a return to your independent roots, basically completing this 25 year circle. It’s your first independently released album since Unity, so what prompted the decision to do that? How does it feel to finally be able to do that this far down the line in your career to be able to do that for yourselves?

PN: Well, it feels like it should have been 10 years ago. I was quietly praying that we didn’t need to sign with whomever, whenever, within the last 10 years because all we’ve been doing is making money for other people who don’t really understand what we do and how we do it. We should have just owned it.

But, we’re here now, and I’m excited about it, and it’s the way it should be. We’ve got a studio, we’ve got the work ethic, we’ve got the ideas to say and play, and we should just own it. I mean, we can release it like we did with Pledge, and print some vinyl, and just run the show. It’s great. It feels fantastic. And then at the same time it really doesn’t feel that different at all, it feels like this is how it’s felt for a long time. It’s just good to actualize it.

JB: Yeah, absolutely. How are you feeling about the response to the album so far?

PN: I love it. I think the fan response has been perfect. I think it’s exactly how we crafted the album, too. I mean, this is like another direct injection to what should be the fan’s favorite mega-mix of a hundred songs. These 15 should fit in just perfectly from our perspective.

From what I’ve heard from the fans, with social media being a one-to-one subject now, and people can ask, or say, and do pretty much whatever they want directly with the people they want to contact, what I’ve heard and felt and seen has been perfect. It’s all I could ask for. Really, it’s great.

And I love playing them live. I’m sad that my wife hasn’t been able to see any of these new songs live. But, we’ve got a seven month old at home, and a 3 and a ½ year old at home. So it’s kind of hard to get out to shows that start at 9 o’clock (laughs).

JB: As the band has progressed, both when touring on an album, and touring off-cycle, there’s a consistent, and even consistently growing number of fans that attend your annual shows each year. And with that, you’ve managed to tour with a good variety of bands. What do you think owes to such consistent turnout? Is it good to have these annual tours, where you can have a bit more control over things? Do you miss the smaller, more intimate, maybe even desperate shows from when you were first starting out?

PN: (Laughs) I like it all. I like the whole perspective. I think it’s amazing to have done just a dozen shows, or these over 2,000. I can see good in both. And I like both, I really do. There’s something about being able to play this kind of music in front of an amphitheater audience almost every summer. And then what it will be like this summer to scale it back maybe 1 or 2 degrees to theaters in some cities, so we’ll kind of get the best of both worlds in this area. Hopefully we’ll pack the theaters up like the promoters want us to, and do as well, if not better, in some of the amphitheaters.

But it’s kind of a weird time, even in live music, which is an unstoppable beast, but it’s going to grow and shrink here and there. And rock music is in kind of a strange place, too, and I consider us in that world, right or wrong.

There will always be a consistent group of people, college age, right in front of us, watching the show, as a right of passage they got from an older brother or whatever. And they’ll experience that, and they’ll share that, and that audience will come to repeat themselves. They’ll come in groups, and then they’ll bring their families, and then they’ll show each other which tour shirts they got, and they’ll talk about which opening bands they saw. Did they see that Papa Roach show? Or did they see The Roots open up for us? Any of it feels very storied to me, as I’m so inside the bubble that I’ll never be able to get out. But it’s so fun to talk about.

The only thing I can kind of see missing in our kind of do it “yourself” attitude is that we’re so mono-continental, like we need to get the fuck out of the United States (laughs). We have all these shows, and we can travel fairly compactly now. I think we’re going to get better and better at it. And maybe that’ll help this band.

But I miss going to Europe. I’ve seen some videos from some of these summer festivals and it’s just crazy, people just going fucking nuts for live music. We fit in there somewhere, in someone’s palette. We just need to show up two or three years in a row and build up an audience, and then just have more places to play and more places to be influenced by, and more happy faces… hopefully (laughs). That’s the only thing I kind of miss. But I love traveling around the states, and it’s amazing that we live in this country that can sustain what I think is a pretty strange with the grand total of our songs, and how many places we can see, how many different types of people we can see just within the country. So, it’s a testament to how diverse we really are. It’s pretty great to be a part of.

JB: With these annual tours, and these types of shows, you definitely do hit a lot of the same places on a regular basis, and those crowds grow. What keeps you coming back to Cincinnati in particular?

PN: It just works. There’s just the right amount of people, give or take a couple thousand people (laughs) in some cases that will come out and want to see the show and they’ll know the music. They’ve heard about it and it’s their 30th show, or they’ve heard about it and it’s their first time. We’ve been around so long that there’s so many ways of hitting it, that there’s a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub culture of people that love it, you know? They love because it is idiosyncratic, and not a private club… but once you’ve seen us live and you get what we’re doing and you appreciate it, it’s hard to miss the show because it does have a unique feel.

And I’ve seen every band ever, so I know (laughs). We hit on this particular Neopolitan ice cream thing that’s just perfection to the right people and we’re thankful for that. Couldn’t have asked for it.

JB: Can you talk a little bit about the current tour? You’re going out with Ballyhoo! and you’re kind of scaling back a little. Was that a conscious choice? You wanted to mix it up a little bit?

PN: It’s just time to do that. I think it’s time to make some walls sweaty and enjoy the inside as much as we enjoy the outside.

Pennywise opened up for us over the summer, one of the last shows with Sublime with Rome and Pennywise, and they were like “What’s going on here? After the show and go to a club and let’s rock out!” and they seemed so confused. There wasn’t that confinement with the audience, and how fun that pressure cooker is and how used to it they are. So I’m looking forward to pulling out that Pennywise card on some of these shows. Then being comfy as pie as if were Dave Matthews Band on an amphitheater stage with 50,000 people every night. So we’re somewhere in between the two. And we’ll play wherever, whenever, with whoever. I mean, we played a reggae festival and a metal festival this summer. We can do everything.

JB: You have this annual tour, you’ve started this cruise. You’re pretty significantly ingrained in the public consciousness, musically speaking. So what’s next? What challenges you? Where do you go from here?

PN: It’s just writing as well as we can, like I think we did on Stereolithic, where the ideas were just coming together great and working Scott Ralston (??) who produced the 4th album and has done countless live shows for us. Having him dig up old demos, and write lyrics and write melodies, and really kick us in the ass about how these songs could turn out, and their potential. Then all of us coming together and making it work, and how fun it’s been to keep working over these years.

We’ve had a massage therapist for over 15 years and he talked about how unprecedented it is for a body worker to work on the same people for this long, how well he knows us, and how well we know him. And then on the creative side of writing music with the same guys for over 20 years, how fun that is. Not that that’s unprecedented, but it’s just… you liken it to athletics and those guys have such a short career comparatively. So I think how lucky actors and musicians are because we get to – usually, or not, however you want to look at it – age gracefully, add to your career and add to your depth. It’s fun to ride that wave.

I can’t wait to bring my sons to shows. My oldest, my 3 ½ year old, Duncan, he’s so funny. He asked, “Does everybody’s dad play bass in 311?” (laughs). Yeah, yeah… when I’m not doing it, there’s other people… It’s so fun! He’s been to shows, but it still hasn’t really clicked. I can’t wait. The more he goes to school, I think the more he’ll get that perspective from seeing the other dads. It’s great.

JB: Alright, well, that’s all I have for you. Anything else you want to add or mention?

PN: No, no. It was fun talking to you.

JB: Yeah, right on. I really appreciate your time. Looking forward to the show.

PN: Yeah, can’t wait to get on the road and come back!

JB: Well, safe travels and have fun with your kids in the meantime!

PN: Great, thank you very much, and congratulations on fatherhood!

You can catch 311 on tour with Ballyhoo! at Riverbend Music Center in the PNC Pavillion on Thursday, July 10. Their new self-released album, Stereolithic, is out now and available at your local independent record store.