Band: An Evening with 311
Date: Wednesday, Aug. 3, with doors at 8:30 p.m.
Venue: Soul Kitchen, 219 Dauphin St., www.soulkitchenmobile.com
Tickets: $49.50 in advance/$55 day of show/$80 riser seats, available at Soul Kitchen, its website, Mellow Mushroom (both locations) or by calling 1-866-468-7630
Surrounded by endless plains of relatively desolate farmland, Omaha, Nebraska, seems like the last city that would produce a band like 311. Its mix of rock, reggae and hip-hop stands in vast contrast to the agrarian vibe that runs deep in the band’s hometown. However, the group exploded out of the mid-’90s rock scene with what could be considered one of the most unique musical styles at the time.
The band’s first three albums earned it a dedicated listening audience that still flocks to its shows. Now the band is embarking on another Unity Tour as well as working on a new album. When Aaron “P-Nut” Willis spoke with Lagniappe, the new album was the subject of conversation, but not before this writer asked a question that has been on his mind for years.
Stephen Centanni: I visited Omaha about five years ago. During my time there, I was left with one question: How the hell did a band like 311 form in a town like Omaha? What was your attitude toward that city? Was it a base of operations or an actual jump-off point?
Aaron “P-Nut” Willis: [laughing] I mean, it’s kind of both. I like the way you separate the two, though. It’s got to be home, and you have to be there. You also have to fight it and rail against it a little bit like, “I’m not going to let this keep me down. I’m not just going to stay here.” That’s what I was thinking. I was like, “Get me out of here.” I wanted to see what the whole world has to offer. We had a great time in Omaha, and there’s nothing but cool people. It’s only getting to be a better city in our absence.
There’s something about wanting to leave whatever hometown you grew up in. Even if I grew up in Los Angeles or Birmingham, I’m going to use that teenage “me against the world” attitude to fire up my music. That’s how you figure out who you are, too. You throw yourself into the mix and do something uncomfortable, and you learn about yourself from the experience. That’s what it was all about. When we were writing those first songs, we were making the personality of the band and trying to be as musically eclectic as possible, and to talk about what was important to us at the time. Omaha gives us a lot of fuel to fire us up with in the strangest way.
Centanni: 311 celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. With the exception of a couple of side projects, it’s pretty much been nothing but 311 for you guys the whole time. What keeps you guys focused totally on 311?
Willis: I don’t know. There are the fans, for sure. There’s still that vein of ideas in our heads, but the band has a personality where we’re still trying to figure out who we are and what we want and what we want to say and who we want to say it to. It’s great that we’re not done figuring it out. If you got all the answers, then there’s nothing left to explore. We’re having fun still trying to dig deep and figure it out.
Centanni: You’re going back out on the Unity Tour. You’ve got a lot of big-venue shows, but you also have added some relatively smaller venues. Last time you guys rolled through Mobile, you played Soul Kitchen, which is a smaller stage than you’re used to. All of you seemed to have a blast onstage.
Willis: When we were doing 100 shows a year for three or four or five years, those are the kind of places [where] we got good at really working the crowd. You can reach out and grab people. They can feel you, and you can feel them, literally and figuratively. It’s a good thing. Playing the small venues are nothing but fun for us. It re-energizes the band, because there can be some disconnect through the largeness of some of the venues. It’s nice to play at Soul Kitchen and just destroy the place.
Centanni: The big news in the 311 camp is that you guys are working on a new album. What’s it like creating an album these days as compared to 25 years ago?
Willis: When we were first getting started, you couldn’t stop it. It was just coming out and coming out fast. Those first three albums happened in three years. It was ‘93, ‘94 and ‘95 for those first three albums. Then we took a year off and toured super hard. Now we’re doing the opposite.
We enjoy taking our time, especially with this 12th album. We got a batch of songs already. We could be done, but there’s more to be said … more songs to balance everything out. As we are right now, me and Nick [Hexum] are going to play basketball for a couple of hours, then we’re linking up with the rest of the band and practicing the two new songs that we’ve been working on for the last month or so.
Centanni: What kind of sounds are you coming up with for this album?
Willis: We’re trying to keep the momentum from “Stereolithic,” because we feel like it was a really good hammer strike in the forging of our steel. Ha! Listen to me!
We want to keep it going, but we don’t want to do the same thing twice. We never want to do the same thing twice. Nick, especially, is writing these gnarly, crazy “Release the kracken/I’m going to summon a demon or troll” evil riffs that are really fun to play and really outside of our songbook.
You’ll hear it in this next batch, when the album gets done. There’s some comprehensive darkness in the riffs that Nick is coming up with. He’s always been more rhythm oriented, but the chords that he’s used have been freaky-deaky jazz and metal style. If you play it, then you can hear those things in it better than hearing it on your car stereo. I’ve seen Nick grow rapidly, and it’s been super fun to play what he’s been coming up with. He’s digging deep.
Centanni: Is there a title and release date?
Willis: We’re trying to figure that out. For the first time, we’re trying to get the album release strategically placed for a good tour next summer. We’re trying to make sure that our booking agent is involved in the process of the release date and when people start getting the new album, so we can leverage it against the booking agent.
Centanni: Will we get to hear some of the new material at Soul Kitchen?
Willis: I hope so. We’ve played a couple of songs already at 311 Day. I can definitely see us continuing on our route. People should be excited about what’s coming up next. There’s no reason for them to be excited, unless we’re letting them be excited about it and hear what we’re doing. So, I think the more the better. It used to be such a hush-hush thing. You didn’t want any new music out. You wanted it to be as fresh as possible with no leakage at all.
Now, the band is its own promotion department. It’s the way that we’ve always been, but now it’s very real. So we’ve got to be smart about and get people excited as much as possible. Playing those small shows and writing new styles of music for our songbook and just being excited about playing shows and just setting everything up is all up to us. With the support of our fans, we’ll keep going for as long as we can physically take it.