Genre-defying road warriors celebrate 27 years together on 12th studio album
311 always have been all about their fans.
The label-defying, genre-blending band famous for ‘90s alternative rock hits like “Down,” “All Mixed Up” and “Beautiful Disaster” and early-aughts reggae rock hits “Amber” and “Love Song” have built a reputation based on their storied live show that is at once physical, upbeat and engaging.
They tour constantly, often changing their setlists. They play hits, fan favorites and rare and obscure songs while also creating new jams and solo sections for songs. Even the lyrics to the chorus of breakout hit “Down” contain a specific message of gratitude to the band’s fans: “Changed a lot and then some, some/But you know we’ve always been down, down/If I ever didn’t thank you, you/Then just let me do it now.”
And that’s just the beginning. “Tribute,” an outtake from that same self-titled album, calls itself “a tribute to the ‘Excitable Ones,’” the name the band has given to their rabidly loyal fan base. Several other times scattered throughout the band’s catalogue, different colleagues, collaborators, fans or bands they respect are shouted out or thanked in their lyrics.
Some Excitables – like Brett Travis of Knoxville, recently featured on 311 mega-fan blog runtrant.com – claim to have attended 100+ shows. 311 also is known for mega-fan events (or fan mega-events, depending on how one looks at it). Also, alternating locations for several years have been events commemorating 311 Day (March 11th). On this date, the band will play in either New Orleans or Las Vegas, sometimes for multiple nights and for three to four hours a night. On off years for 311 Day, 311 Caribbean Cruises pick up the slack, offering fans the chance to be enveloped by all the 311 music, merch, trivia, fellow superfans and activities they can handle for days on end.
The cover art of 311’s recently released 12th studio album “Mosaic” is, appropriately, a mosaic picture of the band composed of 10,000 smaller photos submitted by fans, and their “City on Fire” music video is largely crowdsourced from videos the fans took of themselves partying, dancing and lip-syncing to the song.
“The cover is a thank you to the support network that we have,” says vocalist S.A. Martinez. “We had some hits back in the day, but it’s not like the hits have always been there for us. But the support network always has, and they are what comprise 311. 311 as an entity has gone far beyond what any of us ever envisioned and makes all of us really happy. We have been fortunate enough to live a life doing that, and it is breathtaking when you think about doing that.”
The fans will definitely be out in full force when 311 hits the Mill and Mine on Tuesday. But in talking to excited 311 fans around town, many got wistful reminiscing about the halcyon days of yore when they discovered 311 in their youth. The group has been touring for roughly 25 years now, but they usually hit Nashville or Atlanta. Knoxville fans who saw them on their first few times through town have special memories of those shows.
“We don’t get to these places all the time,” Martinez says of the smaller tour stops.” We get to reignite these people and recharge their batteries. I met my wife in Knoxville. I love Tennessee. It’s a great place. People are open and friendly and welcoming. Grainger County tomatoes – I love it! I like to talk football with my brother-in-law, and let’s put it this way: Nebraskans and Tennesseans probably both want the ‘90s back. I can’t wait to get to Knoxville.”
The next-to-last time 311 stopped through the city, the International was the Valarium, and the Mill and Mine likely wasn’t even a twinkle in David Dewhirst or Ashley Capps’ eyes yet.
It was April 21, 2009. Barack Obama was still in the first 100 days of his first term. Folks were rocking the iPhone 3. “Uplifter,” 311’s ninth studio album, was the band’s most recent release. They already had been a band for 20 years and had been famous for 15 of those ever since the breakout success of 1995’s “Blue Album,” which saw “Down,” “All Mixed Up” and “Don’t Stay Home” all break into the Billboard Top 10 singles chart and land the band’s videos on regular rotation on MTV’s Total Request Live.
Bobby Castille drove down from Kingsport to see the show with friends. He’d been a fan of the band since middle/high school, when he would ride BMX bikes and play in a local band that performed punk originals and covers of Sublime, Rancid and – yep – 311. “Visit,” from “Music,” 311’s first studio album released in 1993, was their go-to cover song.
“It was pre-smartphones, so we just sat on bus trips listening [to 311] and watching the lines on the road pass through the bus window. Formative times,” Castille says. “Hugely important to my learning and development,” he says, then quoting his favorite lines by Martinez from the song “Galaxy” off the 1997 “Transistor” album. “Free energy has been harnessed/We don’t use it, why? Because the technique’s been suppressed.” He wanted to ask 311 how they learned to think so well outside the box so early and how they came from such humble beginnings to question authority and then become the authority in their line of music. On the 2009 Valarium show: “Amazing!”
“The human element,” Martinez says when Castille’s story was shared with him. “Numbers never mean anything because they’re abstract, but it’s those that you truly affect.”
Before that, 311’s last appearance in Knoxville was at Moose’s Music Hall on Cumberland Avenue on September 21, 1999, when they were just coming off the fame of the “Blue Album,” touring behind 1997’s wildly innovative, psychedelic and somewhat indulgent 21-track “Transistor” and previewing songs from the then soon-to-be-released “Soundsystem” LP.
311 has long been known in alternative rock circles for helping break bands that later became huge. For example, 311’s ‘90s tour openers included Deftones, Sugar Ray, Korn and (in September 1995, their first time through Knoxville), playing in the Electric Ballroom (what later became the Valarium), they brought along energetic SoCal ska outfit No Doubt, who would not release their breakout album “Tragic Kingdom” until October of that year.
Travis Watson was at that show. He was a junior at the University of Tennessee at the time. “It introduced me and several of my friends to Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, and it kind of blew our minds,” he says. “It was one of those surprises that was above expectations and really got it kicked off. It was pre-internet or early internet, and it was challenging to hear about some of these smaller groups, and it was a nice surprise.”
Two of his friends, a set of brothers who had turned him onto 311, were at the show and one ran up to him with a broken wrist, saying he’d tried to crowd surf. “Why’d you do that?” they asked. “It’s just the opening act!” “Yeah, but they’re so good!” he said. “Well, I guess we have to go to the hospital,” the other brother said. “Well, YOU can do that,” Travis says he had replied, “but I am gonna stay for 311!” And for No Doubt, he says, because they were rocking it. He also says 311 even came out and asked the crowd if they minded if No Doubt played a little longer; the response was more than enthusiastic.
“Those tours, they were forces,” Martinez adds after hearing this story, sounding pleased by the memory. “Those all were amazing bands. It was an amazing time. We were all in sort of the same genre, so to speak, and all those tours kind of came together in a real natural way.”
“They hooked me in with that show,” Watson says. “I was dedicated to listening to their music for the next several years. I changed genres and groups of friends over the years, but you always pull that out in certain situations for that little boost. Several of my friends from that original group will be coming to the show coming up, including the two brothers. We’ll see if the one breaks his wrist again this time.”
Presently. “Mosaic” is getting favorable early reviews, and 311 seems to be doing more press and promotion for it than any of their last three albums put together. In some respects, where they’ve been ignored by some older mainstream journalists in the past, writers who grew up with their music age have aged into those roles, yearn for ‘90s nostalgia and are finding themselves to be at the right place at the right time to listen to the band’s music again.
It was particularly interesting to listen to Nick Hexum make an appearance on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” to discuss the band’s trajectory with Lakshmi Singh. A generation of fans who once tuned out their parents’ NPR broadcasts in order to listen to 311 through their Discman headphones but who now listen to NPR as adults must’ve found some fun irony in that. Anyway, in that interview, Singh said that some had speculated “On a Roll,” the ebullient final track on “Mosaic,” could be interpreted as a swan song. Hexum laughed and said that was probably the farthest thing from the truth and that, if anything, the song was declaring that 311 was on a roll and that this could even be the midpoint of the band’s career.
“That album just really reignited our fan base,” Martinez says. “It is amazing that a band from Omaha could last so long.”
311 will be at the Mill and Mine on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. with opener Special Guest. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $40. “Mosaic” is available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, 311.com and all participating online and physical retailers.
BLANK’s recommended tracks from “Mosaic:” “Wildfire” and “Extension”