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311 Pounds Out 'Party Jams' to Its Own Beat : Pop music: Singer Nicholas Hexum credits the band's roots in Omaha--yes, Omaha--for its sound. They play at Huntington Beach's Club 5902 on Sunday.

July 29, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The members of 311 had been living in Los Angeles for a couple of months, sampling the local music scene, when a big-time record label expressed interest in signing them. But the neo funk-rock-rap-reggae quintet decided against doing the usual showcase in some prestigious Hollywood venue.

Instead, the band insisted on playing back home, in Omaha. "It's so much more of a moving experience there, with 500 or 1,000 teen-agers who know all the words, said singer Nicholas Hexum.

Here, it just wasn't the same. For one thing, many L.A. clubs don't admit people under 21, and besides, Hexum noted, "when you see any band around Hollywood, there's usually a distance between the band and the crowd, with people standing around, sipping their drinks, looking around at the booty. It's a totally different thing from a real concert with all ages."

He says 311 is rediscovering much of that real concert excitement on its first national tour, which lands Sunday night at Club 5902 in Huntington Beach. The band also has found time to record "Grassroots," its second album for Capricorn.

If listeners have been surprised by the pounding funk energy of this band, Hexum said, it is only due to ignorance of the "small but very cool scene" that exists in Omaha. Though the state's roster of famous natives includes Marlon Brando and William Jennings Bryan, Hexum acknowledged that musically "there hasn't been anybody really successful enough to put Omaha on the map" (though Matthew Sweet has been a critics' fave).

"There's a total diversity of music there," Hexum said.

"It's good party jams, man," added 311's co-vocalist, who goes by the name of SA.

311 developed its own hard rhythmic pulse over the course three independently released records before working on "Music," its Capricorn debut. Now, after all these nights on the road, "we're in the best shape we've ever been," Hexum said.

A goal of "Grassroots" was to capture the raw energy of 311's live gigs. Another was to assemble a collection of songs that fit together, with the aid of producer Eddie Offord (who did "Music" and whose resume also includes work with Yes).

The "Music" album, Hexum said, is "three years worth of music, kind of like a best of; we took all our best old songs. This new album all was written within two months. There is more similarity between the songs. We're more cohesive."

Hexum first came to Los Angeles when he was 17, after playing with 311 guitarist Timothy J. Mahoney in a high school band that leaned more toward the sounds of R.E.M. and the Cure. In L.A., Hexum was joined by drummer Chad Sexton, whom he brought back to Nebraska, where they and Mahoney formed a band called Unity.

*

Unity developed into 311 with the additions of SA and bassist P-Nut, who then was in the ninth grade. He is the youngest member, at 20; the others are all 24.

"We're sort of a self-contained group," Hexum said. "We don't have a lot of friends who are outside the band. We have our girlfriends and us."

And, he added, "We have really high expectations." He said the members of 311 never doubted that in L.A. they would continue the success they had found back home, and that they weren't really surprised when a record deal came so quickly. "In a way, we should have expected to slug it out and pay more dues and have to make ends meet. But we didn't have to."

Filling clubs around the country has further persuaded them to continue with the aggressive sound they've developed, without worrying about catering to commercial tastes.

"To me," Hexum said, "the coolest thing is to be a band that has a unique style, and that isn't trying to fit into the radio."

* 311 plays Sunday at Club 5902, 5902 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 840-6118.

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