Nothing like the threat of airplay on MTV or radio to spoil a perfectly good music career. That's a real consideration these days for the band 311, whose high-energy hybrid of punk, hip-hop, jazz and reggae has found a growing national audience through relentless touring--despite little airplay and virtually no press attention.
"We see this as a really good place to be, and we don't want to mess it up by becoming overexposed," singer-guitarist Nicholas Hexum said. "We just want to be careful to keep an underground approach."
If that sounds strange coming from a band that remains little-known beyond its hard-core fan base, the five members of 311 have at least learned the rewards of self-sufficiency. Their success on the road has landed the Los Angeles-based quintet a slot on today's KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows, followed by their own headlining gig June 22 at the Hollywood Palladium.
"It's really cool because we feel like we've done it without any favors," Hexum, 26, said from the road in Ohio. "We did it just through word of mouth."
The attraction is the charged, cross-cultural mix found on the band's three albums on Nashville-based Capricorn Records, including last year's "311," which weaves delicate shades of jazz and reggae into their high-impact groove. The new single "Down" is only now finding its way onto radio playlists.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that Hexum, guitarist Timothy J. Mahoney, bassist P-Nut, singer SA Martinez and drummer Chad Sexton emerged from the minuscule alternative scene of Omaha before migrating to Los Angeles in 1992.
"We probably picked the most difficult course to take as far as hip-hop coming out of Nebraska," said Hexum, who now shares a house in the Hollywood Hills with Mahoney and Sexton. "It's the most unlikely thing you would want to hear. You would think that it would suck just from that description.
"If we would have been making poppy, alternative rock, we would have had an easier time getting over, but that's boring to us. We're just naturally drawn to unusual music, hybrid stuff that's in between styles."
311's multi-genre blend has led to invitations this summer to play on both the punk-themed Warped Tour and H.O.R.D.E., the traveling festival epitomized by Blues Traveler's brand of groove rock. And this comes shortly after finishing a rap tour with Cypress Hill.
"It's going to be weird," said P-Nut, 22, anticipating the contrast. "It's going to be like being dipped in hot oil or something. I can't wait to see how we react to it."
The members of 311 found their earliest inspiration in the records of Bob Marley, Bad Brains, the Beastie Boys, the Clash and Prince. From there, they followed their musical tastes all over the place. Said Hexum: "We just tried to be as unlimited as possible."
Their first gig came in 1990, opening for punk-rock demigods Fugazi, and they were soon putting out their own CDs. "The fans were open-minded enough to want to come to a lot of shows," Hexum said. "It was a good place to start. But it got to a point where we were the biggest thing in Omaha. So what? Now we need to expand."
Their answer was 1992's move to Los Angeles and into a house in suburban Van Nuys. It was there that the band rehearsed endlessly while hunting for a record deal, but when Capricorn asked to see them live, the 311 members insisted on performing in front of the hometown fans of Omaha, which they did.
"We were real optimistic and hopeful," Hexum remembers. "We figured we already sold thousands of records on our own here in one city. Somebody has got to look at this and want to sign us, even if they hate our music. There is a fan base there somewhere."
The band expects to be back in the studio this winter to record an album for release next June. Certain to be included will be more of what they consider positive, celebratory messages that go against alternative rock's anguished grain--the single "Down," for instance, is an expression of long-term solidarity with friends.
"We're just expressing how we feel naturally," Hexum said. "If there's some angst that you have, you should express it through your music. But I think that's become something that people hide behind. It's more difficult to say, 'Hey, I like this.' "
* 311 plays today at the KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, 2 p.m. Sold out. (714) 855-4515. Also June 22 at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., 7:30 p.m. $18. (213) 962-7600.