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Off his island, with a purpose

After the current tour, 311's Nick Hexum is taking time off to fight global warming.

September 07, 2006|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

NICK HEXUM can hear the storms coming again. He is singer-guitarist with the band 311 and is calling from his island home in the Florida Keys, where he owns a six-acre plot of land about a mile off the southeast coast, a place he calls "this most beautiful island that I love with all my heart." And he remembers what happened in 2005.

That was a year of big destructive hurricanes, labeled with the otherwise innocent names of Wilma, Rita, Dennis and Katrina. Hexum's house was battered but survived, and he realizes that others obviously had it much, much worse. Thousands across the region lost homes, jobs, lives. The devastation led Hexum to delve into researching climatological issues and take up global warming as a cause.

"Hurricanes are going to get worse," Hexum says grimly. "We are on an upward trend of hurricane strength because we're on an upward trend of global temperatures. We really felt it hard-core last year."

That experience was enough to further inflame Hexum's existing environmental concerns. He bought a hybrid car (a 2007 Lexus), founded a nonprofit organization, LiberalHexum.org, and is having solar panels installed at his Laurel Canyon home.

This year, he raised $15,000 in pledges for LiberalHexum.org by running the Los Angeles Marathon (his first). He also has a solo project in the works, a collection of ancient pop standards ("Sweet Lorraine," "Smile," etc.), rendered as reggae songs, that he hopes can be used to raise more funds. Its working title: "Too Darn Hot."

"I love 311, but those things are very important," says Hexum, 36. "So I'm going to take a little time off and work on those other things."

That means an indefinite band hiatus will begin at the end of 311's current tour, which closes this weekend with shows at the Greek Theatre and the Santa Barbara Bowl. Hexum isn't sure how long it will last.

"I'm leaving it open-ended," he says, "because if there is any kind of deadline, that will ruin it."

The hiatus comes just as 311 is experiencing one of its most successful tours, playing bigger rooms and with more sell-out crowds than when 311 albums were going triple-platinum. Hexum can't explain the surge in numbers, but says many new fans seem to be in their late teens.

The band's reggae-pop-metal groove was once filed into the lucrative rap-metal genre, but the band had little in common with the likes of Limp Bizkit or Korn and was never comfortable there. The radio hits, such as "All Mixed Up" and "Down," were always loud but relaxed, tough but infinitely positive. Now, 311 seems to have outlived that category.

"Something freakish happened with our band while we were away," Hexum says. "There are all these new 311 fans and we don't know why. It's just wonderful."

311's most recent album, last year's "Don't Tread on Me," rolls along a rhythm of heavy guitars and a classic reggae groove, though the ambitious track "There's Always an Excuse" seems to echo the pocket pop symphonies of XTC or the Beatles.

Hexum says that his voice is stronger now than it has sometimes been in the past because he's no longer indulging in smoke or drink on the road. He can now hit all the old high notes of the band's earliest records.

"I don't drink before or during shows," he says. "I don't think it's a good idea. I don't believe in doing drugs before or during shows. If your band has to have that, then your days are numbered."

HE first began to sing in a serious way while growing up in Omaha, crooning along to the Smiths and the Cure in the 1980s. But at his core is a love for the roots reggae he discovered after his grandfather took him to the local Tower Records to buy a copy of Bob Marley's "Legend." He was 8.

By the time he was in high school, reggae had become an obsession. "We would sneak out of study hall and go to my house and smoke up and listen to [Marley's] 'Natty Dread,' " Hexum says. "Those experiences changed my life and influenced me forever."

On the road now with 311 is Marley's former band, the Wailers, and in Atlanta, Hexum joined them to sing the obscure "Soul Rebel." He hopes to do the same at the Los Angeles show.

"It's an underappreciated art," Hexum says of reggae. "And it's something I feel comfortable expressing myself in, and I don't [care] if people say that some white boy has no right to be playing reggae, because I'm playing reggae with the Wailers. I love it."

Reggae emerged from the small island nation of Jamaica. Now Hexum owns his own tiny island, not unlike the late Marlon Brando, another Omaha kid, who bought his own island paradise in French Polynesia. (It is now destined to become a luxury resort.)

But expecting more hurricanes in his immediate future, Hexum has put his island up for sale, asking $10 million. And during recent visits back to landlocked Omaha, where his father still lives, the singer has had some new ideas about home.

"I go back there all the time," Hexum says. "I thought: 'Well, this place isn't going to be affected by global warming, so even if the rest of the country has its head [in the sand], I just might want to move back here.' "

Steve Appleford may be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.

*

311

Where: Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, L.A.

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday

Price: $38.50

Info: (213) 480-3232; www.greektheatrela.com

Also: 6 p.m. Saturday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara. $24.50 to $36. (805) 962-7411.

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