Even after 22 years, 10 studio albums and several thousand shows, 311 doesn't show any signs of slowing down. These rockers from Omaha, Neb. are getting ready to embark on their annual Unity Tour covering venues from Southern California to New York City and everywhere in between. The last two years have been a non-stop ride for the band including the release of its latest album, "Universal Pulse," 311 Day in Las Vegas, two cruises, multiple tours, and its very own Pow Wow Festival in Live Oak, Fla..
P-Nut, 311's bass player, was kind enough to allow me to pick his brain about what keeps a band going after two decades on the road, what to expect from their summer tour, and why Tenacious D and a little bit of positivity are important in life.
Q: The Unity Tour kicks off a little over a month from today. What are you doing to finish preparing for all the shows you guys are doing this summer?
A: We rehearse for a couple of weeks for a tour like this, maybe three days the first week, then five days the second week, and we get kind of warmed up, but there's nothing like being on stage. You can rehearse all you want and you'll be more ready because of it but there's nothing like the real experience of being in front of an audience and everything being bigger and louder like it should be. There's nothing like touring to get you ready for touring.
Q: Is there any venue that you're really looking forward to playing on the summer tour this year?
A: We're spoiled so much with the amphitheater shows. There's so much space to spread out and we have our own catering and a wait room and a massage room, so it's just ridiculous. All of those venues are just great. To be able to do shows on this large of a scale since the '97 "Transistor" tour, it's kind of hard to believe that we've been allowed to be this consistent and that our audience has allowed us to be touring as hard as we can and they ask us to come back every year.
I remember seeing bands tour through Omaha and seeing them come through a couple of times in a year and being like, "That's got to be tough, who's going to see that, they already saw that show."
I don't know what it is, but it must be something with the extensive catalog and the fact that we can kind of play our instruments, but people want to see it. Of course the unspoken thing is the philosophy behind the meaning in the songs and the general credo of the band. That's as strong as anything. We can play and write good songs, but the way it feels when everyone is together and listening to our songs, that's what kind of takes us over the top and allows us to do what we want to do. We don't need huge press to move along the ideas that we're putting out there. Our audience carries that torch for us and that's what we've always wanted, what we've always kind of hoped for.
We knew from the beginning, as kids that were born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s, we saw that meteoric rise and tragic fall and we'd so much rather just be around for a long time and learn and grow along the way and see how far we can take it instead of seeing how famous we can get for as short a time as possible. That's just not in the cards for us.
Q: You've played with Slightly Stoopid and the Aggrolites in the past, and SOJA was at the Pow Wow Festival. What are the biggest reasons for choosing bands to tour with?
A: It's an ever-expanding slash ever-shortening list. There are new bands that pop out of the woodwork that we appreciate and we know our fans love, and there are legends that we know we want to tour with that when the opportunity arises we snap them up and bring them out on the road with us and we learn from them and they learn from us.
Oingo Boingo took us under their wing in '93 or '94 and we still use a lot of their ideas that they had about touring because they toured so much and it's just so cool to pass the torch along. I'm sure they were wondering who we were, and their audience certainly was, but after a few shows they were like, "God this is great. I don't really know what you're doing, but it's awesome and we're having a really good time with you out on the road," and we like to reciprocate that. There's no real originality. It's just if you've captured the philosophy and are doing it right. One band's "right" isn't another band's "right," but we can play with anybody and we like having almost anybody come out and play with us because it's just great for the show.
Q: Are there any bands that you would like to tour with that you haven't had the chance to share the stage with yet?
A: It's kind of endless, but I'd love to see what MGMT would do with our audience or what we'd do with their audience since they're humongous, and there's this Danish band, Mew, that I love that just kills it. There's nothing really brand new, but that's how it goes. I'm 37, I'll catch up eventually.
Q: This year marks two decades since SA (311's DJ and vocalist) officially joined the band and the lineup was completed. What has it been like performing on stage with the same group of people for more than 20 years now?
A: I don't know anything different, honestly, so it's impossible to step all of the way outside of the bubble. From what I hear from studio legends and bands that were even more successful than we were, but didn't last as long as we have, I know I'm in a very enviable position to have such a long term relationship with the people that I'm creative with.
The rhythm section with Chad (311's drummer) and I is probably the best part of that. We can rely on the fact that Chad and I are going to hold it down better than anyone can, will, or would expect us to and hopefully with that everyone else can feel completely creative and completely open to what's next, knowing that the support system is there. It's just great, long-term relationships are worth it.
Q: Is there anything that keeps it new and exciting after playing together for so long?
A: It's mainly just keeping the set list moving along. We've got 150, 170, who's counting, songs and we need to play them all because they're all worth playing. Just because a few of them got played on the radio doesn't mean that it cancels out the validity of the other songs and the passion and everything that we put in them, because we know the fans listen to everything and they want to hear it when we go on stage. We don't want to deny them that experience just because we're stuck in a rut or something.
Q: Are there any songs that you love to play live, but don't get the chance to regularly? I was at the Pow Wow festival so I heard a quite a few songs live that hadn't been played in a while, and I think it was the first time that you had ever played "Tune In" from "Transistor."
A: It's the little gems like that make me very motivated and excited about what's next, because when we dig back a little bit and we see how open we've been and how open we can be towards the next step, and we're just waiting for that inspiration to hit or making it happen. It's good to reflect on what you've done and what you're capable of.
Dreaming big is the best, and there are a lot of songs that I think we should play that we don't that often. More and more the newer albums get played less and less. There'll be two or three songs off new albums. The reason that we play everything from "Grassroots" is because when we were touring at that time we had to play those songs because we only had two albums, so we would play "Salsa" every other night, if not every night, and we got really good at it. We won't play it every night now, but when we do, we play it really well because we kind of pounded it into that early audience, and we were forced to convince them that what we were doing was the right thing to be doing on stage, even if it was a little confusing with all of the genre swapping that we do.
We really learned who were were by confusing the audience like that, and we never really let it change the way we felt about what we were doing. We always knew people would come around to it, and we talk about it in those early songs. It's like, "We know this is cool and if you don't get it now, you'll probably get it later, and if you don't it's not a big deal. There will be an audience for what we do because we're having fun doing it, so there has to be something in it for other people."
Q: With all of your families growing, has it changed the way that you approach touring?
A: It makes it more complicated that's for sure, emotionally more than anything, but we've been doing it for so long, the support system is there to make sure that if the home needs any help from us or if we need any help from the home, we can find out a way to make that happen. It's only easier with Skype and these Internet tubes that are helping us with communicating.
I remember touring with a telephone card and having to dial 20 numbers before i could make my slightly discounted long-distance call from a telephone booth in the middle of the Northwest. It's so much easier now; it's great. (Touring) is tough, but I need to do it. It's like biking for my brother. He needs to do that and his family understands that he'll disappear for a couple days while he rides the distance of Iowa out on dirt roads in the rain. He's an adventuring sort in that way, and I see a bunch of different countries and rock crowds. We all need to have these passions that are individualistic so that when we get back to our families we're even more present than we were before because we get to check in with ourselves. I think that's a very important thing to do. Instead of just distracting ourselves we need to really fall in love with cooking or writing or playing music or even driving. There's something about being on a beautiful road with a great scene with the perfect music playing that can clear your head. You come back to the situation and you're all the way back. It's an important thing to do, and I like that the band can offer that to people, little mini vacations, and we can speak to their troubles and they can reflect those with the lyrics and sometimes find some kind of solace or understanding. The people are always doing their own work. They just attach themselves to the philosophy of the music that rings true to them and then they give us credit for it, which works.
Q: If you had to pick one song from 311's catalog that best describes your life, what would it be?
A: That's tough. It makes me think. "Never Ending Summer" is a part of it, like the live show, and then "The Continuous Life," with the same kind of idea, but a broader stroke. It's not just about the fact that we can kind of stay in arrested development, forever staying 21 and playing music on stage. In "The Continuous Life," SA tackles what happens when we're dead. He doesn't talk about it specifically, but you can feel it in the title and the attitude of the music. It's kind of down-tempo dub, and it's just about how we should be enjoying ourselves as much as possible because we don't know what's next.
Energy can't be destroyed. It can only change forms and I think the spirit is the same way. Hopefully we'll move up and there will be something even more complex and satisfying in another dimension and another life or however your philosophy lets you accept that death model. It's such a great thing that people avoid talking about that should actually give people peace, knowing that chances are there's something else. If there isn't, then they should enjoy every second of it while they can because of course it's not a promise; it's only a hope that there's something else. It's too good not to enjoy and you might as well look forward to another ride after this one is over.
Q: Since the release of "Universal Pulse," has the band been working on any new material, or has your energy been focused mainly on touring?
A: It's almost always focused on touring. I wish we could stay in a consistent writing mode because I think you can see it on the first three albums that we recorded and toured like mad those first three years. Of course it has the power of youth, too. We were kind of on a tear. Speaking of how long it will last, we were just happy to be doing what we were doing, so we were kicking out as much music as fast as possible and staying in writing mode and then doing like 120 shows a year and it was just madness. We were really eating, sleeping, living, drinking and smoking this music life, and I think it made our art really powerful.
Hopefully we'll be coming up with stuff out on the road starting in July. Nick will probably come out with a little mobile recording studio. I was writing stuff at the studio yesterday, but I've got like 1,000 riffs that never find a home so I need to work on my discipline as far as making my demos more interesting for people to hear. All it is is a mish-mosh of ideas, but that's how I roll. I don't make any complaints about it, I just know with a little more discipline, I could be a more effective writer for the band.
Q: What kind of new music are you listening to lately? Is there anything that has really blown you away?
A: I'm really liking the new Tenacious D album. I've got to say, I'm kind of tearing that up.
I knew something was missing in my musical life, and it's just humor like Ween, and the way that they blended genres. You don't know if they're serious or not about what they're doing when they take on these characters and these roles and these stories come out of it. It's just way more interesting than bands that take themselves way to seriously. It's nice to take a break like that and hear a song like "Death Star" from Tenacious D's new album, "Rize of the Fenix." It's just absolutely the perfect music for me right now. It kills. I'd love for them to come on tour with us, but if the Foo Fighters are around I think they'll always be touring with them.
Q: The band recently started 311 Records through ATO Records. Has that given you more creative control over your music and touring?
A: We've really never had any problem with creative control. Every once in a while you'll hear from a label that they couldn't hear the single or something like that, but that's always balanced off by, "Oh this is going to be the biggest song of the summer," and no one ever hears it.
Everyone thinks they know what they're doing in these creative arts, especially in the business side of it, but there's no rhyme or reason. If you look at any successful artist, they worked their butt off hopefully and they're definitely as lucky as they are famous and if they're not thankful for that aspect of it, they're not going to last that long and their rewards are kind of ill gotten.
It's so many factors, we all could have been dead 1,000 times in this life. We could have never met the people that satisfy us the deepest, much less have a career in a creative art which is more like being struck by lightning than anything else as far as luck goes, and it's just great. I like that side of it. I love the fact that we have as much control as we do and that has a lot to do with how big we are. We're self contained. We're not too big for our own self management and our audience supports us and no one could have ever seen five guys coming from Omaha making hybrid music with a drum corp major on the drum kit and all the pieces that make us unique. If you looked at it on paper, you would've never thought that we'd have sold 8.5 million albums and been together for coming up on 22 years. It's nuts. There are cover bands in Indonesia, fans in South America, fans in Europe that haven't seen us in 10 years that are begging us to come back, and I'm standing right by my pomegranate tree, so all things are good.
Q: You're the reason that I started playing bass in the first place, and 311 is what drove me to go to college for music business, so I know what kind of impact your music can have on a person's life. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring musicians who want to see the kind of longevity in a career that you've seen?
A: I mean, don't expect it, that's for sure. You can't go into it expecting to wind up in what is a very unique situation. You just have to do it. You can go in as true and strong and armored as you can with knowledge and passion and these great unique ideas and you could still be the guy in Nashville in his garage that no one is ever going to hear, and you have to kind of accept that. I know a ton of musicians, killer musicians, that are so good that they can't really play with other people because they've got this dead set idea of how, why, who and all these things, and it's like, "You're screwing yourself with your bad attitude," because they focus so much on the inside part of it.
The interactions with other musicians on stage and how every show can be a unique event every night and the conversations that go along with different personalities, that's where it's at. I'd say learn as much as you can, play with as many people as you can, don't expect a career in it, and at the same time, don't take "no" for an answer. You have to balance out those inconsistencies and be ready for whatever comes because you can plan for 40 years and it'll still slap you upside the head with, "You're not ready for this."
You hear from some people, "Don't even try, just do something else." I would never say that, but I kind of get that point. It's whatever works for you. If you have to be a musician and you have to be in the business, you'll find a way. It may not be exactly what you thought it would be, but maybe if you look back and you see that you've tried really hard, it can still be satisfying in a way that you couldn't have planned. Just watch out, anyone hearing or reading this, opining on the possibility of being in the music business and having a career, it happens. It happens to the strangest people. I'm talking to one of them and you're talking to one of them. The ability for someone to go from idea to profit at this point in time, it's absolutely the most exciting time to be alive. If kids out there can tie this new wave of technology into entertainment, then that's going to be the future. There will be huge industries based on live shows, being able to broadcast live shows to any phone at any time. I know it's going on here and there, but it's going to everywhere soon, and it'll be amazing. Then the only thing that'll be left is time travel, and then we can go see Led Zeppelin in 1971.
Q: As far as future plans go, are there any plans to release another live DVD, CD or anything like that?
A: We're putting together a live website that'll have a ton of music on it. We've got 30-some-odd shows pretty much ready to go for the fans. These are for the fans that come see us every summer, that came to the Pow Wow, that came to the cruise, that came to 311 Day and travel the world to see different shows in different places. We're doing what Chad has found is the best of the best from our live vault. There'll be some free stuff on there and there'll be some recommendations, like "You've got to hear us in Denver in '94 just absolutely wreck this place!" It's going to be really fun. I think that'll satisfy the fans more than new music will even, and that'll give us time to write as well as we can and make sure that the next release is as powerful as it can be while opening up the vaults.
We've been recording literally everything since 1999 and we have a handful of stuff from before that in varying degrees of quality. Right around 2004 we started doing multi-track recordings. You can't even imagine how many hard drives we have just full of shows. It's just a really good feeling because we always expected to, not necessarily last this long, but to stick around for as long as possible, so we just kept a good attitude and surrounded ourselves with people that take care of us and it's worked out very well. It's going to be great, and a lot to take in, but hopefully it'll open up a whole new door of urges for our fans because they'll be able to find shows that they were at and re-live it that way. It'll be like 36 live albums going out all at once. We've got multiple 311 days on tape that haven't really been released, this last one in March and 2010, so we have to find a way to release those, and it might be on the live website as well.
We're finding a way, following the Phish model. Tim (311's lead guitarist) is a huge Phish nerd and buys live shows off of their site all the time. Red Light Management and ATO Records manage Phish, so we have direct access to how and why and who, so we're going to make it as good quality as we possibly can by following their lead because that's a good model to follow. I mean, they play football stadiums even though they never got played on the radio.
The whole thing just makes me think of Ween and how they're done, speaking of unlikely success stories. Looking at how great of a career they had for more than 20 years and to see them pack up kind of tears me up, but I guess that happens and you have to move on. There will be an end for 311, but it's nowhere in sight. I think we're all happy about how consistent we are and how fun it still is to play shows and how good it is to motivate people into whatever kind of positive lifestyle we can shine the light on. Hearing about Ween break up makes me even more determined to grasp onto this career even harder because it's such a rare thing. There are so many different personalities and directions we're all going individually and we have to keep the collective game plan in our sights while we're also being the individuals we are and always have been. We found a balance and it's like driving, it's a constant adjustment. You don't just go straight, you move the wheel a little bit to react to the little inconsistencies in the road, and life is like that, you've got to always be adjusting.
Q: You seem like you've got a really good outlook on life.
A: I'm a big optimist, I'll even hear it from Nick (311's lead singer and guitarist). I'll hear him be frustrated about whatnot and he'll say, 'What do you feel?' and it's like, "Who cares, lets just keep going." Pat him on the back, give him a lunch and here we go. That's one of the reasons I've been kept around for so long and why I'm so active on Twitter. I like communicating and being positive and solving problems when they come, because you know that they're going to. It's just fun. It's a great time to be alive. Just make yourself happy and follow your heart.