Good Buds

On the road with the weed-lovin', record-sellin', good-timin' 311

October 2, 1997
Steve Eichner/WireImage

The door of their luxury bus closes, and 311 shuttle off on the 12-hour overnight drive from Los Angeles to Park City, Utah, where they will perform their second U.S. show in support of their new album, Transistor. Not two minutes after the journey begins, bassist P-Nut (a.k.a. Aaron Wills) pulls out a rainbow-colored bong and a large zip-lock bag that is swelling with more than an ounce of strong marijuana buds, and proceeds to pack himself a bowl.

Moments later, guitarist Tim Mahoney, 27, uncovers a second stash, this one in a jar embossed THC. For the next half-hour, the bong is lovingly passed among band members, and when they're not toking, P-Nut and Mahoney grip their containers of weed like infants clutching teddy bears.

The only ones who don't smoke are the group's two vocalists. Frontman Nick Hexum likes to wake and bake at home but doesn't partake much on the road, and rapper Doug "SA" Martinez, 26, doesn't smoke at all anymore, although you'd never know it from his obsession with UFOs.

311 Emerge 'Unscathed From the Craziness' for New Album

Between hits, P-Nut, so named because of the shape of his head, recounts events from his busy day: First he met his foxy girlfriend at a head shop and bought the aforementioned bong. Then he purchased a new laptop computer so he can fuck around on America Online while 311 are on the road. Oh, yeah, he also put a $15,000 lien on his home mortgage in order to bail his friend's assistant out of jail – it seems that they were busted with more than 4,000 potted marijuana plants.

"I'm just happy I got to help out, even though I don't know the [assistant]," reasons P-Nut. "Knowing that he was in jail for no reason besides the law made it worth the hassle."

As P-Nut, 23, relates the story, Hexum, 27, and SA nod appreciatively and sip cans of Guinness, while Mahoney gradually slides down a couch cushion, his face cemented into a goofy grin. "We like to smoke, but we're not endorsing marijuana," says the soft-spoken Hexum after three of his band mates have fallen into deep slumber. "We're saying, 'If you're gonna party, don't do coke, don't get drunk and smash your car, don't do heroin.' With pot, you could never get real stoned and then go beat your wife, because it doesn't deaden things. It makes you more sensitive."

Considering how much pot the members of 311 smoke, it's surprising that these boys from Omaha, Neb., can all make it to sound check on time, let alone shoot hoops and work out before tonight's gig. But in truth, the bales of herb the band has smoked during its 7-year career may be what has kept it balanced. Sure, 311 may have sold more than 2 million copies of their last album, and Transistor may have entered the Billboard album chart at No. 4, but the band has also endured fires, deceptive producers, and critical slings and arrows that would have torn apart a more uptight crew.

"We really try to keep a good attitude," says Hexum. "A lot of people say, 'Man, it's such a shitty time to be alive,' but I can't relate to that at all."

Hexum's optimism sparkles throughout Transistor. Many of the songs surge with propulsive raps and swaggering metal riffs, but the band never equates heaviness with hostility, and it thinks nothing of abruptly shifting from storming rock to billowing dub in midsong. Unlike 311's last three albums, which were built around a foundation of bruising volume and boundless energy, Transistor is an equal balance of noise and nuance. There's less hip-hop and more reggae, and the production is far more spacious, leaving plenty of room for airy vocals and galactic sound effects.

"We wanted to create songs that caress your ears rather than just slap them," says Hexum. "I've always been into the Smiths as much as Bad Brains."

Though occasionally sophomoric, Hexum's lyrics are refreshingly positive, relaying a message of hippie-trippy unity. "When I find myself singing about my problems, I think, 'Well, who am I to complain?' " he says. "Kurt Cobain should have felt that way. I have a big problem with the fact that someone could be given so much yet still see the negative side in everything."

If Hexum's lyrics are contemplative, rapper SA's are more often influenced by science fiction. Throughout Transistor, SA waxes prophetic about mysterious civilizations, space aliens and the coming of the millennium. He first became obsessed with the unknown after an out-of-body experience in college. "I wasn't on drugs," he insists. "I was lying in bed, and the next thing I knew, I couldn't move. All of a sudden, I'm hearing this loud buzz inside my head, and then there was a solid blue cord of light that was going berserk. Then I'm just drifting out of my body."

Like the rest of the guys in 311, Nick Hexum spent most of his youth in Omaha. His father is a pharmacologist who does experimentation on slaughterhouse tissue, and his mom is a practicing psychologist, but his folks weren't always so academic. In his swinging youth, Hexum's father played trumpet, and his missis was a singing pianist who cut a couple of jazz records. Hexum's first musical revelation came early, when his family was living in the Washington, D.C., area. "I was bused to a school that was only 30 percent white, and the kids used to sing Sugar Hill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight' on the way to school," he recalls. "That had a profound impact on me. I loved being around all the slang and the culture."

In high school, Hexum dug R.E.M., the Clash and the Beastie Boys, but his horizons were broadened after he picked up Bob Marley's Legend. "That record changed my life," he says. "I remember sneaking home from school to smoke weed and listen to [Marley's] Natty Dred. The sun was coming through the window, and I blew out the pot, and the sun shone on the smoke. I had this epiphany of the total enjoyment of music."

While in high school, Hexum met Mahoney, and the two formed a cover band called the Eds. At the same time, Hexum was playing guitar in the school jazz band with Chad Sexton, now 27, whose funk drumming propels 311's pulsing groove.

Unlike his band mates, Sexton's childhood was scarred with unpleasantness, the worst of which happened at the age of 7, when he was grazed in the face by a shotgun pellet after a local loony went postal inside a dinner theater. "That was really trippy," remembers Sexton. "My mom told me I slept with the lights on for a week after that."

Sexton, who has always vented his troubles on his kit, joined Hexum after the two graduated from high school. The Eds changed their name to Unity and took on a heavier, white-boy, funk-metal vibe. "I felt like I finally found my niche," says Hexum. "We never considered bullshit like, 'We're from Omaha, so we shouldn't play funk.' "

With their pockets filled with weed and their heads filled with rock & roll dreams, Hexum and Sexton headed for L.A., where they were met with disinterest from the thriving Hollywood hair-metal scene. Discouraged, Hexum started drinking and taking drugs. He figured that if he couldn't relate to L.A. rockers musically, maybe he could vibe with them chemically. In 1989, he started hanging out with homeless metalheads who were high on speed, and he partied with the Dead Boys' Stiv Bators.

"I can't believe I came out of it healthy and disease-free," marvels Hexum. "We'd be out at clubs, having the world's greatest time, but the next day I'd wake up and realize my band wasn't going anywhere and I had just blown all my money. So I decided to straighten out. I haven't touched cocaine or heroin for six years now." That same year, Sexton went back to Omaha, and Hexum moved to Germany.

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