Nick Hexum sure does have a lot of labels. Singer. Guitarist. Frontman. Trailblazer. Environmentalist. Entrepreneur. Midwesterner. Transplant. Los Angeleno (once removed). The list is long. But, perhaps, the most important thing you could call the 48-year-old Madison, Wisconsin, native is “family man.”
You see, when Hexum isn’t hard at work with his literal band of figurative brothers — brothers of band? — in the genre-blending rock mainstay 311, he’s at home with his lovely wife, Nikki, and three adorable daughters: Echo, Maxine and Harlow.
While the affable performer and musician can speak at length about many things with a great deal of earnest passion, there’s just something extra in his voice, a special lightheartedness — call it the vocal equivalent of a twinkle in his eye — when he’s talking about his little ones.
It’s sweet to hear Nick step outside the California-cool vibe one programmatically expects when talking to him. Unlike some of the band’s contemporaries, 311 has always been more about the feel-good flow than the angst of grunge or the aggro posturing of rap-rock, which is completely apparent when talking to its longtime vocalist.
Over the course of nearly three decades, Hexum — along with bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, drummer Chad Sexton, guitarist Tim Mahoney and fellow mic-man and turntablist Doug “S.A.” Martinez — has been doing his thing with 311. The results? Fourteen studio albums (with one in the chamber), five EPs, a live album and a few dozen singles.
In the last 10 years or so, he’s added one spouse, three little girls and family that sounds pretty great to the catalog of his life (too cheesy? too bad, I’m leaving it).
But don’t take it from me; he’ll tell you all about it himself below.
Kevin Tall: Hey Nick, how are we doing today?
Nick Hexum: Is this Kevin? I’m doing just fine
KT: This is Kevin. So, gearing up for a summer tour, some people might not realize 311 has been around, in some form, for 30 years and you’re pushing the 28th Bandiversary on social media right now. Looking back on three decades of making music under this moniker, and looking forward to touring, how does that feel? Three decades of 311.
NH: Man, what a long, strange trip it’s been. It’s something that started out as a hobby, and if you get to make a career out of your hobby, that is just such a blessing. So we don’t take anything for granted. There’s often talk in the band about ‘how awesome is this?’ you know? Some bands might get a sense of entitlement and stuff, but we work really hard to keep an attitude of gratitude.
KT: Your lineup has been a constant for 26 years. Looking around the industry, in which other bands’ lineups change, things don’t work out, fistfights happen and egos get in the way, what does being a part of these same five guys working together for so long mean to you?
NH: It makes it more special to have that family aspect. We’ve realized that we stumbled on a special chemistry and that we’re better together than we could ever be apart. I’m grateful that [the band] has stayed with the original members. There are very few bands that have us beat as far as longevity of the original lineup; I think Radiohead and U2 are a couple that have had their original lineups longer than us, but not many [more]. It makes it a lot of fun. If you could imagine how many inside jokes we have, how many references we can have like ‘Remember this crazy person or this weird situation?’ The reminiscing is a lot of fun and if you have a revolving door of sidemen or whatever, you don’t have that kind of rapport.
KT: To what do you accredit the band’s success and longevity?
NH: I think we have a Midwestern work ethic that we keep with us. We just don’t expect anything to come easy; we expect to work hard. We make sure that we’re having constant improvement in all areas of the band. So whether it’s rehearsing a lot for a tour, or coming up with new ideas to make the show special with production, or working really hard on new music, keeping our bodies and brains healthy — it’s work, but it’s a labor of love.
KT: Bear with me on this next question, because I’m going to hate myself forever if I don’t just ask it: Have you ever made out in a dark hallway?
NH: And displayed a kiss that made my day or say? I think SA [Doug Martinez] has, but no, not me. I’m like, ‘I like to make out, but I’m scared of the dark, so please turn the lights on.’
KT: I’d promise that’ll be the last stupid joke I make, but ‘Today seems like a good day to burn a bridge or two.’
KT: What can I say? ‘Some people really suck.’ OK, I’m done! Back to serious, real actual questions. You’re gearing up for a few dozen dates with the Offspring starting at the end of July. Some people would say that’s the hottest ticket of the summer, 15 years ago. I think that’s still the case and I’m hoping you can tell me why.
NH: Y’know, great music is timeless. As far as bands that really have great songs and great energy, there aren’t that many left. It’s a special pairing, so we’re doing it again. It’s just going to be the party of the summer.
KT: Do you have a favorite band to tour with over the span of your career?
NH: Man, we’ve had so many good pairings and made a lot of good friends. We used to have some really fun tours with Incubus, back in the day, that would be a fun thing to rekindle. There have been so many of them. Just a lot of like-minded… the reggae bands of the world. Pepper, Dirty Heads, Rebelution, all those kinds of groups are a lot fun to tour with because there’s a family vibe.
KT: 311’s kind of transcended or blurred lines all over the genre map. What kind of band do you think 311 is or aims to be?
NH: I would say ‘rock’ would have to be the first word because of the energy and the distortion guitars. I would say reggae and hip-hop are probably the second and third ingredients, but mostly a rock band, just in our approach and starting in the basement or the garage.
KT: The band hasn’t gone more than 4 years in between albums since you began. I assume that means we can expect something new by around 2020, with Mosaic coming out last year. But it sounds like you guys are putting out fresh content and making new music all the time.
NH: Yeah, you know, I would say, even if I don’t have a project to write for, if I have a free day, I’m going to just start tinkering with ideas. I’ve learned that you have to get them down, so I have this massive glut of demos and files and stuff that I can go through at any time and so do the rest of the guys. We feel like we’re on a roll right now so we were thinking we might get an album out this year, because we have a bunch of good songs that we’ve been working on. And then we were feeling a little burnt out, so we could slow down a little bit.
So now, when the next release is coming is a bit up in the air, but there’s a slight chance it could be in 2018, which would be crazy. In the early days, we were coming out with a record every year. Now, these days, if we keep it within two years, that’s awesome.
I feel like with ‘Mosaic,’ we kind of kicked open a new door stylistically, production-wise, so that just kind of opened the floodgates to a lot of new ideas that we wanted to pursue, so I think morale and momentum feel pretty high right now.
KT: A lot of bands write while on tour and do the Pro-Tools thing. Do you prefer that or kind of organically tooling around at home or more of a traditional, studio-based writing and recording process?
NH: I bring a little mobile rig, so If I have a day off… I don’t want to be, like, ‘All work and no play,’ but after maybe I go spend some time at the pool or whatever on a day off, I’ll set up a studio and play with some ideas. If it’s a rainy day, I might just write music all day long. And then sometimes we’ll have some collaboration sessions, where Scotch [Ralston], our producer and also sound man, and P-nut will come and we’ll just talk out some lyrics. It’s fun, we keep the creativity fun, and I think we move more and more toward a collaboration thing so there’s also kind of a social aspect to it, whereas, maybe once upon a time, I’d like to just write songs by myself. You find new things when you talk it out amongst friends.
Click through to the next page to see what Nick had to say about working with a talented young group of girls.
KT: Switching gears for a second, I hear you’re actually working with a young and talented, all-girl group these days. You apparently produced their demo ‘We Be Lookin’ Like Yeah!’ What was the name of that group…. the …. Hexum Sisters?
NH: Yeah, I think you’re pronouncing it right…
KT: How did you come to work with them?
NH: Oh, there were just so many producers in line, I just got lucky to get the gig.
KT: But seriously, what was it like for you, as a father, to work with your three girls?
NH: It really just started from ‘Daddy, can we come to the studio with you?’ And they would come and just start playing with the instruments. So I’ve always just encouraged that, because my dad encouraged my… well, both of my parents encouraged my music so much, but my father even more so by getting me the musical instruments that I dreamed of, so I just keep that going because it’s something that we can do together.
And then, one day, me and Maxine were…. It started out that I was wearing a shirt, this weird, orange workout shirt that I got for when I ran up the Empire State Building, and I had another one and she put it on and it’s, like, as big as a dress on her. And she goes ‘People are gonna look at us like ‘Whaaat?” and I was like, ‘And we’ll be lookin’ like ‘Yeaaaaah.” So the chorus of the song just kinda came out of this little exchange me and Maxine had, and I was like, ‘Max, that could be a song! ‘We be lookin’ like yeah. They be lookin’ like what? We be lookin’ like yeah.”
And we just started saying it, I was like, ‘We gotta record that.’ So I sang it into my phone, we did it together and then, on Sunday funday, just a family day, I was like, ‘Let’s go record that song, what do you say?’ They were so excited. It started out with just a quick little verse that we wrote together, and just a 50-second version, was just a verse and chorus. And then after we had that for a while, they were like ‘Can we please make it into a complete song?’ I was like, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ And the song was born.
They’re so into watching kids on YouTube and stuff. We limit the amount of time they do that, but they see other kids rap and sing on YouTube and they wanted to do that so I figured that would be something I’d be asking for at their age, and my parents encouraged me, so I might as well facilitate that for them. It turned out to be a lot of fun.
KT: These days, careers are launched on YouTube.
NH: Yeah, y’know, when 311 started out in the early ’90s, going viral took a heck of a lot longer because it was just people passing cassettes around, but that was still what we did. And I’m sure, if YouTube had existed at the time, we would have been using that as a medium.
So it’s all just part of the evolution of technology and music. I think it’s great that there’s so much democratization of culture, whereas, before, you really had to get a major label deal and for certain outsiders…
We got passed up on by various labels in the early days and then we just took a grassroots approach. ‘We’re like, We’re gonna sell our cassettes at shows, we’re going to peddle them to the record stores on consignment and our fans will go in there and look for them.’ So we took matters into our own hands, because this kind-of hybrid music band out of Omaha was not, you know… there were no bidding wars going on for us.
It wasn’t until we proved that we could have sales on our own, through our own hard work, that a record label was like ‘Wow, you guys are doing all this on your own.’
When they signed us, it maybe wasn’t because they loved our music, maybe it was because of the business we had already achieved on our own. So it’s great to see that, now, anybody can… there are no more gatekeepers like there once were, so that’s one of the big pluses of technology. Of course there’s piracy, but I would say there are more pros than cons surrounding the technology.
KT: Did that have something to do with the endurance of your lineup? These five guys, sweating it out, grinding away, doing all the hard work before this YouTube/online career jump was ever possible?
NH: I think so. And also, just a couple pivotal moments. We decided to load up our meager possessions and move to Los Angeles together in 1992 and that was just that, sort of, big test of everybody’s commitment.
And then, a year later when we were on our first tour, we had an RV fire and we lost all of our possessions, our instruments, our clothes — everything — and had to completely start over, that was another [moment]; ‘You know what? All we really need is the songs in our head and each other and we can make it through anything.’
So those were, kind of, those ultimate bonding moments that may have led to our longevity.
KT: Another comment on the differing eras is that if a young band went through that now, they could just go on GoFundMe and probably have everything back within the next couple of hours.
NH: As far as studio work, you served as a producer on a couple of Seal albums and the ’50 First Dates’ soundtrack. Contrast that with working with your girls. Do they play?
NH: My oldest daughter, Echo, is just a prodigy on a bunch of instruments. Her main thing is piano and she does recitals and takes it seriously. But she also can play a pretty mean drumbeat and plays in the school rock band program, which, that’s so cool that there’s a school rock band program and they’re out there playing songs from Imagine Dragons. Actually they just won a battle of the bands where they performed an original song and now they get to go record the song — like, this coming weekend — at the Village Recording Studio, which is a very famous old-school studio in West L.A. And then Maxine, my middle daughter, is more of the hip-hop culture. She has just such a gift — the gift of gab — and just says the craziest things and has that kind-of rapper delivery, even though she’s 7-years-old. And then there’s Harlow, the baby of the bunch. She’s 3 and just ridiculously cute.
I don’t know if they’re interested in music as a career, or whatever, because I think I was pretty well set on it, my parents tell me by the time of the first grade, I was always set on what I was going to do. I just always try to put no pressure and just keep it fun, and just kinda say yes to what they want to do. But, at the same time, if they don’t feel like it, then that’s cool too.
Y’know, this morning, somebody had commented on one of the ‘making of’ the song I did with my daughters, and that’s been… getting to do this, do a song with them, it wasn’t just the output of it, it was the process of it, and getting home videos of it.
My favorite thing is watching the ‘making of’ thing that we did, where I just set up my phone and recorded me recording them doing the vocals. The way Harlow is just so excited being there, it’s very heartwarming. That was one of the funnest, most pleasurable things out of it, me getting those home videos to always be able to look back on
KT: That’s something you’ll have forever. It’ll be interesting to see if they decide to take that same journey in the industry, and that’ll be something you can show off at award shows and embarrass them in the way that only a really good dad can do.
NH: Exactly, we’ll see.
Nick talks about jamming with a legendary performer on the next page.
KT: You said Maxine is the hip-hop fan?
KT: Is SA her godfather?
NH: Well, he has daughters too and they’re really close friends with my daughter.
KT: Okay, that’s making a little sense. Do you ever look past 311, as far as things you want to do in your career? I know there’s the Nick Hexum Quintet, and you’ve done some work behind the board in the studio. Is that something you aspire to, long-term?
NH: Um, I don’t love doing… I’ve done that in the past, to be a producer or writing songs for other people, or doing some kind of film soundtrack kind of stuff. But you really have to deal with a lot of opinions of the industry people giving you notes, ‘Can you change this or change that?’ That isn’t.. I don’t know, it isn’t a true artist, a pure artist playing, like being in a band. So I don’t really see myself gravitating toward that any time soon.
But I do enjoy business. I love working in the cannabis business, as kind of a side gig. That’s been fun, to do up different products and grow my own buds and stuff like that. There’s just something about working with my hands and mind and making deals like that. It’s a lot of fun for me.
So I think I’ll continue to work on the 311 Grassroots Uplifter products and we just put out a CBD-only item that available nationwide and we’re coming out with new CBD products soon because I’ve seen how it can really help people like my mom, as she was going through stem-cell treatment for her bone marrow cancer. Fortunately she’s in full remission right now but helping her through that process with CBD… made me feel really good. So that’s just something I do for fun. I think I’ll keep doing that.
KT: You’d actually talked with a local outlet — I’m in Tampa and I was reading the ‘Tampa Bay Times’ — and you had discussed that very topic, funny enough.
NH: I see 311 as a lifestyle, so it of course starts with the music and that’s the most important, but having our cruise — which goes out of Tampa, of course — having our own vacation, having our own beer — Amber Ale and Beautiful Disaster [an IPA] — the Tampa connection, coming out of Rock Brothers, but having different lifestyle products that go with the 311 experience is just kind of a natural progression. It started, probably, with 311 day and having kind of our own convention, and just keeps expanding from there.
KT: The beer is more P-nut’s thing, right?
NH: Yeah, he’s, like, fairly obsessed.
KT: I can relate, as a homebrewer myself. Talking about your core lineup, and how you’ve been together so long, I wouldn’t want to ask you about joining or forming a supergroup. But if you could do a draft of your contemporaries, which guys would you add to 311, as touring musicians or people to jam with?
NH: Well Paul McCartney is our era’s greatest musician, so if he calls and wants to jam, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.
KT: I was lucky enough to see him last year. It was incredible.
NH: He’s just the whole package, as far as a great vocalist and instrumentalist and he might be the greatest rock songwriter of all time. Just such an incredible catalog, and a humanitarian as well. He’s a definite role model.
KT: I’d loved his music for decades before seeing him live — it was kind of a must, bucket list kind of thing. I’d actually never realized what an amazing showman he is, how good he is at engaging and working the crowd.
NH: Yeah, I got to see him at the Staples Center in L.A. a few years back and just got to have that Beatlemania experience of being weak in the knees when he came out. ‘You say yes…’ Just blazing into ‘Hello Goodbye,’ it was just… tears rolling down the face, it’s just the power of the music that he’s been a part of.
KT: I recorded on my phone the entire duration of 20,000 people at Amalie Arena in Tampa singing along to ‘Hey Jude’ and being a part of that was just amazing.
KT: Are there any other guys that you would supplement the 311 lineup with, given the opportunity to just hang out and jam?
NH: Man, I love to collaborate. There’s this guy I just did a song with called Mat Zo and he’s just a really talented and original, quirky, kind of more of an EDM-leaning dude, but has grown up on 311. That would be a cool thing, to have an older musician, a younger musician, together; me in the middle, somewhere between Paul McCartney and Mat Zo, so we’ll leave it at that.
KT: Alright thanks, Nick, I appreciate it, man.
NH: Have a good one.