A Conversation with 311's Nick Hexum
Mike Ragogna: Nick, 311's new album Universal Pulse is all set for release with "Sunset In July" its premier single.
Nick Hexum: Yes it is. We're super excited about it. It's kind of like the ultimate Summer jam, and about the experience of touring. If it's July, we're always on tour. Sometimes, the tour is June/July, sometimes the tour is July/August. But July is our time to go out and play the shows. We play the amphitheaters every Summer, and we love it.
MR: So, the cast of characters is still P-Nut on bass, Tim Mahoney on guitar, Martinez on vocals and DJ-ing, and Chad Sexton on drums?
NH: Yep, same line-up for twenty years. Same guys.
MR: And this record, like Uplifter, was produced by Bob Rock?
MR: How did you guys originally get together?
NH: We just took a bunch of meetings and we really clicked with him. He was a really wide-ranging producer, some producers are more like engineers. We've worked with guys before that have said, "Just so you know, I'm really just going to record you guys the best I can, but I don't really get in there and work on the songs." That's not what we wanted. We really wanted someone who was going to help us with all the different things we wanted, which was arrangements, performances, the tones, and everything. We've really developed a good groove with Bob.
MR: For the longest time, groups went the engineer as producer route thinking, "Oh, he must be great because he's also an engineer." But in a lot of cases, it's almost like you want that other objective ear in the mix, someone who brings an additional, sometimes more musical skill set.
NH: Yeah, you do. When you're on your tenth album, you need someone who's going to get in there and help you shake things up. He's known for heavy music--he's kind of a pop guy--but he takes it and makes it a little bit more simple and enjoyable for the masses. That's the way he describes what he did for Metallica, and I guess that's what I hope he'll do for us. We've always liked catchy kind of stuff, but he helps us bring the best of what we do out.
MR: There is a very big difference between someone helping out with the music end of it as opposed to just helping with the sonics. Now, this album was done at your studio, right?
NH: We've had our own studio for a little over ten years. This is the first time that everything, from beginning to end, was recorded at our own studio. In the past, we'd done overdubs, but we didn't really feel like we could get good drum sounds, and Bob helped us get great drum sounds at our own studio, and then even did the mix at our own studio. So, that was kind of a cool and empowering thing, that we realized we don't ever need to block out a studio for a day, ever.
MR: And this is also where you guys create, so it's sort of like your clubhouse.
NH: Yeah. It's like you do everything there. We go out and have barbecues, work on our instruments, do side projects, we have a little work out room...it's pretty cool to have a clubhouse.
MR: What's the creative process like when you guys gather?
NH: Well, sometimes, it'll be barely developed ideas, though I try to make my demos fairly "album sounding." Sometimes, it'll be just a sliver, where we'll have to sit down and hash it out together. We'll jam on parts just to see what evolves, and other times, the demo is so complete that we'll just play it as is, and then everyone will just add their own stamp because each person has such a distinct flavor of how their hands are going to do it. It's really a cool process, to start something kind of at home, then bring it to the band, hear it be recorded, hear the fan's reaction to it when it's released, and then to play it on stage. You see the gestation process, from just a little seed to a full production.
MR: So, by the time Bob comes into the mix, you already have your creative vision. What is his process of guidance?
NH: He'll get in there and set up a little guitar stand, and make suggestions like, "Let's repeat this part" or "Cut this part down." He'll come up with little guitar arrangement ideas and play along with us. It's really cool--we've never had somebody in the room with us that was actually a player. He has really wide ranging ideas that we would have never thought about. Usually, it's just a little key idea like, "Why don't you take the little verse vocal and reprise it for this outro section?" Then, he helps us get really good tones, but then he actually leaves during the recording because we've developed such a trust and rapport with him on the previous album that we just did. So, he can just leave us to do overdubs on our own, while he goes back and works with another band in Hawaii at his place. Then, he'll come back a few weeks later and listen.
MR: Plus, after all these years, you guys have your own solid hooks by this point.
NH: Yeah, I always gravitated towards catchy stuff, and to me, if it wasn't stuck in my head, then I'd just let it go on the cutting room floor. He'll definitely comment on that kind of thing and be like, "Wow, this one's been kind of stuck in my head since we worked on it yesterday." There's one particular song called, "Weightless," on the new record that Bob really reacted to strongly. We ended up going with "Sunset In July" as the first single because we feel that it's perfect for Summer, but "Weightless" was another strong contender that he really reacted to.
MR: I want to go through a little bit of your history. You've had a number of studio and live albums plus a couple EPs, and you "broke" in '95 with the album 311, which went triple platinum. I guess it was on the strength of some of your singles, "Down" in particular. That was your first number one record?
NH: It was, yeah.
MR: That was during your Capricorn years, and after 311, you have Transistor and Soundsystem, all of which were platinum or gold, then you moved over to Volcano, where you released the From Chaos album. The music video for "You Wouldn't Believe" featured Shaquille O'Neal. How did you score that?
NH: Oh man, we had a mutual friend--he had been doing the kind of fun rap career, so we made kind of a metal track from him to rap over on this song called, "Psycho." Then, he returned the favor by appearing in our video. Also, Weenie Roast is the big alt-rock show out here, and he came and performed with us right after the Lakers had won one of their titles, so the place just went crazy. That was a cool milestone in our career, to work with Shaq a little bit.
MR: Then, you move from Volcano to ATO for Uplifter that also releases Universal Pulse. What is the reason for the all the label switches?
NH: Well, actually, we have only been in one record contract ever, and it kind of got passed around. We say we're kind of like label sluts because they sold our contract and different companies have merged together, but we've been with everybody. It started with Warner Brothers, then it was Mercury, then Universal, then Jive--I mean, we were passed around a lot. We were signed to Capricorn, but then Capricorn was sold to different people. We did extend the contract with Jive one record, and that was Uplifter. So, this is actually our first record on our second contract that we've signed, and it's just a one record deal. It's actually 311 Records/ATO, where we're in on a lot of the shots and deciding how to promote our band ourselves. We're doing a bunch of videos--YouTube is such a big tool for promotion. We're doing remixes and we're kind of deciding how to promote our band in a way that we feel comfortable with. It's nice to finally have that control and it's been a lot of fun playing it all out.
MR: Since we're talking about the band's history, how did you guys get together?
NH: You know, we're kind of a garage band in our roots. The very early roots were that I had a cover band back in high school, in the '80s, and we would cover bands' songs from some of our favorite bands of that time. Then, we started doing some originals. But the 311 sound was kind of born right after high school, when we linked up with Chad and discovered the combination of punk, funk, and hip-hop in a band called Unity that we had for a couple of years. I was playing bass at the time, but I wanted to focus on singing more, so we hooked up with P-Nut, who was maybe fourteen at the time. Then, we started gigging around Omaha as 311 in about '91. So, we just had our twenty-one year anniversary of our first show. The rest is history--we added S.A. as a second vocalist and it just keeps going. We really feel like we've settled on the perfect mix of guys, and if any one was changed, it would really kind of ruin the special chemistry that we have. So, we take good care of the bond that we have.
MR: Nice. And you only had one switch-out this whole time, a guitar player from way back.
NH: Right, but he was only with us for a really short time, so it really feels like this is the original lineup.
MR: Nice. When did you first start touring?
NH: The first tour was back in '93, right after Music came out. We were touring first by van, and then by RV, then we had an RV fire and everything burned up including all of our instruments. So, we borrowed instruments and money to buy another RV, this one a little more fire safe than the previous one. You know, we had some really lean times, when we didn't have any money and just barely scraped through, but it was totally worth it.
MR: Nice. So, what is your advice for new artists?
NH: I tell people that you really have to focus on your craft. Practice your instrument, and don't expect anything to come to you with any shortcuts. There's the book that says that ten-thousand hours is what you need to be great at any field, whether it's music, sports, science, or whatever--it all comes from hard work. I think that's what sets our band apart. We just focus on working on our craft, whether it's preparing for live shows or rehearsing for a new album. I just tell people to be prepared to do a lot of work.
MR: Smart. By the way, having originally started out in Omaha, did your paths ever cross with Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes?
NH: No, I think he was a little younger than us, but I'm glad that Omaha is getting some recognition.
MR: Alright. Nick, all the best with the new album. It was terrific that you had some time to talk with me today. Where is the tour taking you this year?
NH: For the Summer tour, we always go around the country and play all the major markets. We'll be in all the amphitheatres, and we didn't leave any major cities out this time. We've got Sublime With Rome as our opener, and it's just going to be an awesome way to spend a Summer evening.
MR: Well, all the best, and thanks for giving me some of your time.
NH: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
1. Time Bomb
2. Wild Nights
3. Sunset in July
5. Count Me In
6. Rock On
8. And a Ways to Go
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Thomas Dolby
Mike Ragogna: Thomas, your new project is the transmedia game, The Floating City, that also connects to your music in a unique way. Can you go into a bit?
Thomas Dolby: The setting for the game is a sort of an alternative '40s--sort of a dystopian vision of what Europe might have turned into had World War II ended differently. The game really combines all of the characters, storylines and places that have been in my songs right back to 1980. During the ten or twelve years that I was away from music, down in Silicon Valley, these news groups and forums started to flourish where people would analyze my songs and lyrics. They would take on the roles of characters in my songs in their handles and write this collaborative fiction based around the characters in those songs. I thought this was a great thing, but it was kind of limited to a hardcore audience of just a few hundred people. So, I thought that if I could expand this to thousands or tens of thousands of people, it might be an interesting and different way to set my music apart, and to introduce a new and younger audience to my music.
MR: Yeah, and once somebody gets into the topics and what you've done on your albums, they're hooked. From album to album, you've always been very creative and detailed with your characters, images and storylines. Now, this game is online and free?
TD: Yeah, it's free. You can do it with your browser--you don't need to download software--you just go to floatingcity.com, and you can play in your regular browser. In fact, you can win cool prizes like MP3 downloads, and the ultimate prize of the entire game, which goes to the winning tribe, is a private concert by myself and my band, at which we will perform the album, A Map Of The Floating City in its entirety.
MR: A Map Of The Floating City being your next album. When's it coming?
TD: It's going to be a little bit later in the Summer, at the conclusion of the game. So, late Summer, early Fall.
MR: What a great idea. What has the response been so far?
TD: Well, amazing, actually. Thousands of people have signed up. The level of writing and role-playing is very, very high...very literate. It's viewed by some as kind of steampunk-inspired civilization because there's been some sort of terrible catastrophe on the planet, and we don't know what it is. All that's really left to the survivors are the relics of a former civilization, so they pretty much have to invent new technology themselves from the bits and pieces that they find. Because the temperature levels on the planet have risen so high, the only cool place to be that will sustain life is at the North Pole. So, what the survivors do is form into tribes, and they push out in the hulls of abandoned ships out into the seas and they raft up to each other until they eventually reach the North Pole.
MR: Thus, The Floating City.
TD: Thus, The Floating City. It's a strange kind of barter community, somewhat based on medieval times in Tokyo Harbor, Japan. All the merchants used to bring their barges there to trade, and eventually there was gridlock. So, they just rafted up and it became this strange den of iniquity where you could buy silk and spices by day, and by night, you could buy almost anything you can imagine.
MR: So, does this floating city run into other floating cities, or other people that have had similar ideas along the way?
TD: Yeah, absolutely. There are three major landmasses left over called, Americana, Urbanoia and Oceanea. The survivors from each coast push north and eventually converge at The North Pole. One of the objectives of the game is to figure out what happened--everybody's memory is kind of blurred as to what happened before the catastrophe. So, you have to piece together, with your tribe's people, what happened that made the world go so terribly wrong.
MR: Are there clues that you're wanting the players to pick up from the songs?
TD: Yeah. Going back to the first EP that I released from the album, which is called Americana, I've been laying clues. So, there was a clue in Americana, and then another clue in the second EP, Oceanea, which you need to go back and find. As I mentioned, it's barter society, so you're trading items from your cargo, and some of those items have special qualities to them. For example, you might find a page torn out of a scientific notebook with some equations and notes scribbled on it, and you have to figure out with the other people in your tribe what this means.
MR: It seems like a first of its kind. Have you seen anything like this on the internet at all?
TD: I've never seen anything quite like this. I mean, I'm not a gamer--I found a great team of game building engineers and designers, most of whom I've never met. In fact, I've never met any of them besides the main game designer, Andrea Phillips, who I met once in New York, but the rest of them I've only met on Skype.
MR: Wow, how does that work?
TD: We've been developing this thing for five months, and we just meet on Skype every day at the same time. We have what's called a "scrum," and we just set our objectives for the next twenty-four hours, the next week, or whatever it is, and we gradually developed the thing over time.
MR: So, there are about four or five of you working on this?
TD: Yeah, I think six, including the art director.
MR: Would they send just a screen to you with specifics or would they actually demonstrate how it worked for you?
TD: Well, it was always an online game, so we started building it online. I was able, while we were chatting on Skype, to go in there and actually play with what they'd done and make my comments. You know, I was pretty much doing it by the seat of my pants. I had a concept for it and with the game designer, we figured out a spec, but as time went on, certain things turned out to work really well, and other things just weren't happening, so we had to be selective about what things we included. What Andrea kept stressing to me was that the players are incredibly intelligent and imaginative, and sure enough, as soon as we launched the game, I was just blown away by how into roles players got, the kind of storylines they were coming up with and how perceptive they were about the clues left for them. I probably underestimated their intelligence and their ability to be creative writers in their own right.
MR: When you look at, for instance, the Magic community, the level of character development and where they go with the stories is incredibly detailed. It must be satisfying to know that this is now being applied to something that you've created.
TD: Absolutely. I'll give you an idea of one of the features we came up with. With the license that you have in your cargo, you're able to combine them and file for a patent and you can use your patents, for example, to protect yourself from one of the weird, freak events that happens. Just the other day, there was an attack of rabid gulls, and you had to come up with a way to protect your vessel from rabid gulls and file a patent for it. Well, I put the button in there, and my plan was to announce how people should use this, but without any help from me at all, people started coming up with the most amazing inventions, using the items that they had. Not only that, they were also adding support in the documentation, such as graphics that they've done at deviantart.com or flickr.com--little diagrams or even Photoshop'd images of their inventions.
MR: Do players have to choose avatars?
TD: Yeah, you have an avatar and a screen name, and you get in your vessel, which is not a vessel you can go anywhere in--it's basically an engineless vessel because there's not fuel. The way you get around is by trading with other vessels. So, you hail another vessel, send them a raft-up request, and if they agree, then you end up alongside them. So, this is the way that the vessels gradually make their way north. If you work as a tribe, you can collaboratively move quite fast, but there are certain advantages to making alliances and doing inter-tribe trading because the other tribes have different items and different information.
MR: So, you're playing with other partners online, much in the same way as Xbox?
TD: Yeah, and you can invite your own friends into your tribe. But when you initially sign up, you're sorted into a tribe based on your geographic location. So, we divided the world up into nine tribes, and the reason behind that is that the winning tribe will get a concert in their general geographic area, and I didn't want people to have to travel across continents to get to it. On the other hand, if you have friends in another country or continent and you want them to be a part of your tribe, you can invite them into the game. Most of what you do in the game, you have the ability to Tweet or put up on your Facebook wall, just by having a button checked within the game.
MR: Thomas, when you look at your body of work before this new record, are there songs that are full of clues? Is it good to know what goes on in your back catalog?
TD: Absolutely. The game involves all of my previous album, plus my brand new album. The way I started it, for example, is I made a database of every place and every character that I've ever mentioned in my lyrics. Then, we started to divide them up and figure out how we can combine them into tradable sets. A friend commented to me the other day that it's as if every song I've ever written, going back to '80, was a part of this big, grand scheme that I had up my sleeve. Of course, it wasn't that way, but it certainly does fold together into a single timeline and brings a continuity to my body of work.
MR: Would you look at this as a closing volume of a big story arc then?
TD: I'm not sure that it's a closing volume because, in fact, we're going to sort of lay some groundwork for a sequel. I think that however successful The Floating City game is, a lot of people will only hear about it when it's already over. So, we're trying to create some kind of artifact that will remain afterward so it's just not gone forever. This is something that is a slightly different discipline from somebody who is in the music world because if you make an album, then it has the potential to last forever. But with a game, it's often a very transient thing and that's kind of hard to stomach in some ways. I've tried to lay the groundwork for some continuing work in this area. So, no, I wouldn't say it's the close of a story arc, but it's certainly a summary of my entire body of work to date.
MR: And it's all self-released.
TD: It's a self-release. In fact, to release this album, I'm revitalizing the label I formed in '80, which is called Venice In Peril--aka VIP. So, A Map Of The Floating City is going to be self-released, and it'll come out on my own label. I flirted with record companies, and I think I've really dodged a bullet in some ways because I think the record industry is in a terrible state at this point in time. I think when you weigh up all the pros and cons for somebody in my position, I think I'm going to be better off doing it myself.
MR: Yeah, that's the whole DIY approach that everybody is resorting to. It seems like the days of the big record label and what they ultimately can do are more romantic than practical now.
TD: Well, I think they are. The flip side of it is that doing it myself has given me a slightly better appreciation of what record labels actually do from day to day. There are just a dozen different things you have to juggle at the same time, and nobody gets back to you promptly, there are deadlines, and it messes up your whole project's schedule. It's very easy for things to go off the rail. So, it's given me slightly more respect for record labels now that I'm finding myself filling their shoes.
MR: (laughs) Do you have any advice for new artists?
TD: Well, I think you need a wider variety of skills than you did when I started out. You're going to be competing with fifty-thousand other artists just like you, and in order to do that, you're going to have to be very creative and think of new ways to promote yourself as I have done. I think on the plus side, I'd rather be competing with other artists on a level playing field than competing to get a cassette tape listened to by an A&R man, which was just the beginning in my day. That was just the beginning of the whole mountain you would have to climb before the public would ever hear your music. At least now, you can put a video up on YouTube of you singing into your laptop in your bedroom, and if you're brilliant like Jessie J, for example, then you're going to wake up the next morning and be a global superstar. I think that's a much healthier state of affairs than when I first started out.
MR: Yes, the business definitely has changed, including the payoff.
TD: Yeah, the new payoff, I think, comes faster for some people because they don't rely on the star-making machinery of the industry, which was so intangible. By the same token, there may not be billionaire rock stars living in villas anymore. I think that a much larger number of people will be able to make a living from music, and I think that is a healthier thing for the music itself. The stranglehold that was on music by a handful of companies is no longer there anymore. It's really wide open, and it's very inspiring to young kids starting out, and very conducive to a great new era of popular music.
MR: Plus you don't have to rely on a handful of stations making or breaking you or your record.
TD: Yeah, it's definitely a brand new age, and I think that I'm one of the lucky ones, in a way, because I've a leg up. I was very fortunate that I established a name for myself during that previous era and then I took some time off, and now I've come back and there are all these new tools available to do the stuff that I like to do, so it's very exciting.
MR: Looking back at your career, how has the artist, Thomas Dolby, grown?
TD: I think the fact that I wasn't out there treading the boards night after night, going straight from album to tour, and then back to album...I mean, I've had an amazingly varied career, given the people I've worked with, the variety of different adventures that I've had. Included in that, I would say the adventure of actually quitting in the early '90s and spending time away from the business has enabled me to approach it with a freshness now that I've come back to it, which is something that I don't think is shared by many of my contemporaries.
MR: Yeah, that's true. Thomas, I don't know if I mentioned this the last time we talked, but how I discovered your music was through New York's big FM station, WNEW that played "Airwaves" often. That was the first thing I ever heard from you, and I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk--"Oh my God. If that's out there, I wonder what else is out there?"
TD: That was a blessing, really. A song like "Airwaves," which was very moody, atmospheric, personal and cinematic, was so different from "She Blinded Me With Science" or "New Toy," which I wrote for Lene Lovich, or "Magic's Wand," which I wrote for Whodini. Those were all quite extroverted, dance-y, accessible, sort of fun pop songs. I think because of the way the record industry worked, when they knew I was capable of that, there was no way they were going to get behind something as moody as "Airwaves." They'd say, "Oh, come on Thomas. You can tune us out after more 'She Blinded Me With Sciences'." (But) people got into songs like "Airwaves," "Screen Kiss," "Budapest By Blimp," "I Love You Goodbye"--those were the songs that they rave about on a daily basis on those internet forums. They don't really talk about "...Science," Hyperactive," and the more poppy songs. I'm very glad that because I got mass exposure with those hits, it enabled people to get past that and into the meatier and more personal aspects of my music. What makes me sad is that because I made the label some money with something poppy, they were never really able to put their full support behind the more moody, personal stuff. So, one of the great things about today is that I'm only accountable to my audience and my fans, and if I want to put my weight behind those songs and not be entirely poppy and extroverted, then that's entirely up to me.
MR: It's a great creative freedom to make your own artistic choices.
TD: Yeah. Again, I'm feeling it and I think that artists all over the world are feeling it. They're rocky times, for sure, in the music industry. But, ultimately, I think it's going to be good for the music, good for musicians, and good for the fans.
MR: Any plans to tour when A Map Of The Floating City actually comes out?
TD: Plans? Yes. Fixed dates? No. Because I'm based in the U.K. now and I don't have a label or manager or anything, it's hard to pull these things together. I'm hoping to tour the U.S. in the Fall, I've got some U.K. dates set up in the Fall already--those are in November--and either the month before or after that, I hope to be touring the U.S. as well.
MR: Do you have distribution already set up in the United States?
TD: Yeah, I can't go too far into that. As I mentioned, it'll come out on my own label. I can get help from distribution companies, but certainly, I won't be going the label route.
MR: This was really a pleasure talking to you, as always. By the way, like last time, I'm talking to you from solar-powered KRUU-FM, and you're probably talking to us from your solar-powered studio, right?
TD: Yeah, you know all about my solar and wind powered studio. One of the gigs I'm doing in November in the U.K. is at The Big Green Gathering, on a stage which is entirely powered by renewable energy, so that will be a first.
MR: Beautiful. Congratulations on that. Thank you for your time, Thomas.
TD: Alright Mike, nice talking to you.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney