The eternal appeal of 311, the '90s bro-band that never burned out
I remember the jacket: a wide-lapeled, three-quarter length brown leather “pimp” coat which, in the mid-’90s, when I saw frosted-tipped 311 frontman Nick Hexum wearing it onstage, represented the ne plus ultra of vintage-store finds. At that time I wore my own statement piece, one perhaps even more emblematic of the era—a 311 t-shirt that hijacked a famous corporate logo (I don’t recall which one). Or maybe my older brother owned the logo shirt. It’s him who, before we went with his friends to see 311 play that night in Providence, wondered whether he should start wearing his wallet chain again.
I describe these fleeting fashions and fugitive memories because 311—the Omaha fivesome who moved to L.A. in 1991 and strung together rap-rock, reggae-pop, and allusions to Aleister Crowley for a stoned-romantic brand of Californication—have a new single, “Five of Everything,” and their 11th album, Stereolithic, coming on March 11. Which will also mark the fourteenth annual concert event known as “311 Day.” Add to these evocative figures the PR data on their last album—it entered the album chart at number 7, becoming their eighth straight top 10 debut—and you see that instead of receding with the ’90s in a haze of hydroponic smoke, the band have taken the “do what thou wilt” credo deep into the new age of carry-out cannabis.
Of course, 311 remain deeply, deeply ’90s. They broke through in 1995 with their self-titled third album, a sleek and even sweet rap-rock fusion unburdened by Limp Bizkit’s rage and Sublime’s heartache. (Not to mention the “urban” image of, say, Shootyz Groove.) As other bros fell away, with Bradley Nowell dying in 1996 and Fred Durst burning up along with Woodstock ’99, Nick Hexum kept singing about weed, women, and the mystical journey, S.A. Martinez kept rapping about whatever it was he was rapping about (surely something, but I have no idea what), and baby Ras Trents continued to discover them both. In retrospect, 311 seem less like mooks and more like guys who inherited a bit of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, paid a little forward to Jason Mraz, and otherwise contented themselves with smothering power chords and smidges of slap bass.
In the new song, “Five of Everything,” Hexum sings in his rather limited though soothing voice about, essentially, eternal recurrence: “We said it all/the story never ends/in search of something, but once we arrive, it all starts again.” It’s not just happy hookum. He’s concerned that the “state of things aren’t improving,” that we should be “reaching for higher ground.” “Gone is the golden age and the golden goose,” notes Martinez. Eternal recurrence is an idea 311 have, well, returned to since at least their second album, Grassroots. (Hexum on the title track: “Nothing brings it all together, the journey’s never done/I’d be in ‘Stormy Weather’ but it’s been sung/So, let’s have some fun.”) This goes beyond the lyrics. Their music never really changed with the times. “Five of Everything” would slot right in on 311, the 19-year-old album where the band tightened their rhythms, fattened their guitar tone, and connected with the millions of alternative kids who just wanted to take the edge off. This fringe? It’s a mighty comfortable place to be.