‘Stealing Happy Hours’: A Fan’s Retrospective on 30 Years of 311
As the Omaha-bred rockers of alternative radio fame commemorate three decades of music making, this 311 Head reflects on growing up with the best band in the land
According to its etymology, which is the same as that of mission, a message is always composed of truths sent (missus) to a person, a group, a period in time, to satisfy an expectation and sometimes to answer a call for help. — Jean Leclerq, O.S.B. in the introduction to Thomas Merton’s Contemplation in a World of Action (1971)
Can you get with / a melding of two minds? / What’s the worst thing you could find? / A paper trail / that prevails / in demystification? / People / want to believe / in mysteries / Is the truth so bad? — Nick Hexum on “Mindspin,” Soundsystem (1999)
At the outset of its 1996 classic, Stakes is High, Long Island rap trio De La Soul launches into its fourth album with snippets of interview samples detailing the first time folks had heard Boogie Down Production’s 1987 hit, Criminal Minded. This was a way for hip-hop’s Golden Era proteges to give dap to the forebearers of the culture and to highlight how timeless music places a qualitative stamp on the most ordinary of moments — be it “smokin’ a blunt and drinkin’ a 40 down lower east side” with some cronies or the car ride to a family reunion on the Long Island Expressway. Perhaps this was De La Soul saying, “You’re listening to something you will never forget. Music that will place an indelible imprint on your read of the world and shape how you embody yourself in years to come.”
As the native-Nebraskan, hybrid rock group, 311, celebrates three decades as a band with its original line-up still intact — a feat shared with the likes of De La Soul — I cannot help but pause and acknowledge the personal impact of an act whose life-affirming gospel has saved more than a few lives, my own included. This story, a quarter century and counting, is tracked (and trekked) across 13 studio albums.
When I first heard 311, I was in the kitchen doing dishes with my oldest brother.
The year was 1996 and alternative rock was on regular rotation in my — at that time, five-member — white, working-class household. We didn’t have a dishwasher back then so it was up to me and my two older brothers to get the chore done. It was a thrice-daily ritual of wash and dry following every meal, fortunate though we were to have had three. My brothers and I shuffled through the job like well-trained line cooks. Whoever washed claimed the perk of curating a carefully selected playlist of songs spanning a consistently updated assortment of compact discs each of us bought with our own hard-earned lawn-cutting cash.
Either that or one of us would tune into a local radio station of our choosing. It was typically a toss-up between Baltimore’s premier rap radio option, 92Q, and its alternative rock offerings on the now-defunct 99.1 WHFS. Regardless, deejaying was the motivation to knock it out — a subterfuge for the pressures of being responsible to a system we didn’t create. It was also an excuse to exploit our budding individualism, linked as it is for every teenager to choice in music. The louder we broadcast it, the more our peers and adult neighbors would know who we were and what we stood for — or at least who we were attempting to be.
On this day, under the weight of Charm City’s characteristic late July balm, it was time to clean up after lunch and my brother had stereo privileges. As if by divine timing, he turned the dial to 99.1 just as the distorted blast of the chart-topping hit “Down” launches emcee Doug “S.A.” (i.e. “Spooky Apparition”) Martinez into a stream-of-consciousness rap about becoming a “funky child” with some words on his tongue.
For a minute time stopped.
A sonic barrier broke within me. I was suddenly teleported through “dark hallways,” surfing a “lightening strike” with “my head in the clouds” and “my feet on the ground.” I was “down” before knowing it and being thanked for listening to a band I had never heard of.
“Who is this?” I asked. Or was it more, “Who is this?”
My brother was surprised.
“You mean you haven’t heard these guys yet?”
I made a mental note: “311.” The simplicity of the band’s name, shrouded in numerological mystery, pulled me into the intrigue of unearthing a rare artifact — compressed onto a flat, four-inch disc and packaged tightly in a clear plastic jewel case my best friend bought me for my 13th birthday because I wouldn’t shut up about “311”!
My coveted copy of 311, released with little fanfare in 1995, was one of the three million units sold worldwide following a fortuitous “Buzzworthy” nod on MTV a year after the album dropped. Its leaflet cover art — featuring the iconic Pawn Shop Press-designed logo with the individual numbers shaped into a sleek, ovular decal — would become a staple notebook hieroglyphic of mine and many other post-punk Millennials around the globe. It marked a point in the evolution of rock n’ roll when the bland sonics of grunge gave way to a flavorful fusion of hip-hop beats, funky basslines and groovy guitars that acts like Faith No More, Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were honing before 311 got its start in 1990 in the least suspecting of places.
311’s sound exceeded my cognitive horizons. It embodied a style full of the swagger and cool to which my teenage self-esteem aspired in the level-up from middle to high school. Frontman Nick Hexum’s sultry croons cross stitched with S.A.’s otherworldly raps and lyrical intensity, Aaron “P-Nut” Wills’ whip-lashing slap bass, the chunky distortions and airy atmospherics of Tim Mahoney’s electric guitar and the signature trash-can pop of Chad Sexton’s snare provided the soundtrack to pre-race warm-ups during cross country season and the celebratory afterglow of acing a semester. It was all positive vibes in this mix — a philosophy of no regrets and all-in bets on the power of oneself.
The music prevailed. Unlike other suburban and “fringe urban” members of Gen Y, whose libraries included a copy of “Blue” that either collected dust or procured them trade-in cash or credit at the local used record store, I held on to what my Gen X siblings in 311 had to say. For my 14th birthday, my brothers went in on a two-disc package including Grassroots (1994) and Transistor (1997), 311’s second and fourth album respectively.
Transistor sealed the deal for me. A year after I caught the 311 wave, my new favorite band outdid themselves with a 21-track album challenging this late catcher-on with unconventional licks, riffs and rhymes about life after death, depression, sentient inter-connectivity, and straight-up happiness. Its motif was an explicit reiteration of the band’s live show credo: “Stay positive and love your life.” Precisely what every teenager needs to hear.
Precisely what this teenager needed to hear.
Fitting to that stage of my psycho-social development, I started questioning my sexual orientation. The problem: I did not have a language to name what I was feeling for other men. My conservative Roman Catholic upbringing nearly nixed the word “gay” from my lexicon — unless it was to denigrate someone else’s dignity or to label something “stupid” or “uncool.”
This was especially true of my adolescence. I attended an all-boys college prep school in suburban Baltimore. The school’s gendered myopia, of which I was not innocent, created an air of homophobic machismo which found implicit, if not explicit, license in some faculty behavior.
For instance, I can remember my freshman year math teacher, who moderated mixers and also coached football, advertising to my Algebra 1 class.
“This Friday is our first school dance,” he said. “There will be girls there.”
After a momentary pause, he added, “And if you don’t come, you’re probably gay.”
I laughed at the “joke,” self-consciously compensating for the perceived deficiency I was hiding.
To my high school’s credit, by the time I was ready to graduate the culture was changing. Administrators and faculty took notice of this need and conducted a school-wide assembly addressing the issue of bullying and homophobia for which I was interviewed as a student leader. I was still very much closeted and terrified of what skeleton was lurking behind closed doors. My fear reduced me to silence, even among an unconditionally loving peer group. But at 15, unconditional love was still an abstract concept that worked in theory if not in practice.
In that early stage of questioning, the only person with whom I shared my anxiety was our school’s campus minister whom I’d visit frequently for guidance. He was kind, but maybe too forthright, when he asked me about being attracted to other men. I could not give him a straight answer so I lied.
“No, no,” I said. “Nothing like that.”
I stopped seeing him afterward.
Instead, I kept up my heteronormative facade, dating young women and fomenting exclusive relationships with a few along the way through college. There was some element of otherness stewing beneath my “straight-acting” persona but I was not ready to accept it. I poured myself into academic, athletic and (what I considered to be) spiritual achievement, unconsciously making up for that feeling of not being enough. (Enough of what, I wonder? Of being a “man”?) I was in honors and advanced placement, I placed in cross country and track races, and I was a total church rat — from altar server to groundskeeper to sexton.
My life was tightly compartmentalized into a split between my public identity/ies and a private life to which only I was privy. And even then, I brought very little self-awareness to the same-sex desires I was experiencing. I was cut off from myself in a Manichean divorce of body and spirit. In archangelic fashion, I took it upon myself to slay the flesh with zealous contrition in the confessional even as I indulged it in masturbatory fantasy. This was enough to create a sense of generalized anxiety and depression that have coupled me throughout my life and to which I often respond with a compensatory perfectionism — at once paralyzing and provoking.
311 was (and remains) an outlet for these negative feelings, transforming moments of deflation into the kind of healing uplift one may find in prayer. Suddenly, I was learning lyrics which would flash before my mind’s eye when things got rough — that is, when those insidious feelings of shame, self-hatred, guilt and despair would arise.
Transistor was a mainstay with the reggae lullaby, “Inner Light Spectrum”; the bouncing “Jupiter”; the moody theatrics of “What Was I Thinking” and “Use of Time”; the dreamy ambiance of “The Continuous Life,” “Creature Feature,” “Rub a Dub,” “Running,” and “Starshines”; and the eerie echoes of trip-hop on “Light Years” all proffering glimpses into what a self-examined life looks, feels and sounds like. Again, the message was clear: “Look within and you will find that life is worth living.” This was sage advice relayed over a groove between “two perfect strangers.”
I stayed in that good vibration— popping Transistor into my stereo or Discman (remember those?) like it was an anti-depressant until the beat skipped with the scratches of wear and tear. I would listen with the attention of a religious devotee who stumbled upon an alien metaphysics in which out-of-body experiences become fully embodied expressions of human movement and music. Headphones on and my nose in the liner notes, I’d spend the entirety of the album deciphering lyrics and sounds as if petroglyphs. I’d give special attention to how P-Nut’s bass falls into pocket with the metronomic precision of Sexton’s percussion, how Nick and S.A. harmonize in sailing crescendos that give way to dramatic drops, how Mahoney hops up and down the fret board with the practiced dexterity of a gymnast. It was all magic to me. It still is. No illusions here, though. Just the sheer act and audacity of creating something out of nothing.
As may be the case for a lot of 311 fans who caught on after the band got its footing in the mainstream, I worked backward through the group’s catalog. Before I had ears to absorb the grittier offerings of Grassroots, it took albums like “Blue” and Transistor to open me up. Having cracked 311’s code with Transistor, I spun Grassroots with serious intention not long before the band’s fifth effort, Soundsystem, was released in 1999. By then I was famished for new 311 and found ready sustenance in the band’s earlier output.
The jazzy inflections tinged with a little blues and some reggae danceability over mid-90s boom-bap on Grassroots (cue “Lucky,” “Salsa,” “8:16 a.m.,” “Taiyed,” “Grassroots,” “Lose” to name a few) had me hook, line and sinker. Eddy Offord (Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Yes), who joined the band on Music (1993), is credited with some of the production. Though what we hear is the music of a band coming into its own finesse — fitting for a sophomore project. Everything sounds more robust on this effort with the bigness of tracks like “Homebrew,” “Omaha Stylee” and “Applied Science.”
The band preaches love — “a bigger banger” than anger (cue “Omaha Stylee”)— and takes aim at social ills like the War on Drugs and institutional racism with playful aplomb (cue “Silver”). Invoking the spirit of twentieth-century English occultist Aleister Crowley to put an esoteric spin on the Golden Rule, the album’s great moral as professed on “Offbeat Bare Ass”: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law / Until you violate the rights of another / Respect the space of your sister and your brother.”
I began to piece together 311’s influences in such a way as to expand my musical repertoire and personal library, relying on what I learned from band interviews as featured in its first documentary, Enlarged to Show Detail (1996). Gradually, a host of artists from diverse backgrounds accompanied 311 on my record shelf. I was a burgeoning archivist in my own right and, in that, a budding cross-genre music lover.
Soundsystem was the first album I made a special trip to purchase on release day. I was in it for the long haul and becoming a 311 Head, or one of the “Excitable Ones,” as the band has dubbed its diehards, known collectively as the 311 Nation. Transistor had weeded out the “fair weathers” and I was not one of them. Soundsystem felt like an invitation to excavate my own feelings of displacement. Its themes were an extension of the introspective turn 311 had taken on its previous effort and the music was tighter, sharper.
Throughout the album, Hexum and Martinez trade staccato raps and soaring refrains touching on insomnia, the incessant and disabling mental chatter of an anxious mind, the ethical pitfalls of technological development and the eternal fight to stay true to oneself amid competing claims on one’s agency. I was not alone in my spiritual quest to find a home within — one where even those “voices in the night” which tell me I’m not good enough are still a recognizable part of me that need some loving attention. I was not yet out of the closet but at least I had some fraternal reassurances of my own beauty and sentience telling me: “Don’t be afraid / Whatever you’ve got show / Flaunt your personality / Let ’em know your stylo.”
Music (1993), the band’s first proper album on a major record label (Capricorn Records), helped me bide time between Soundsystem and From Chaos (2001). In fact, Music may have been all I listened to my senior year of high school — that, the band’s Live! album (1998), and its compilation of songs from independent releases as a fledgling 311: Omaha Sessions ‘88-‘91 (1998).
Music is the band in rare, raw and rough form — a swinging 12-song anthem of fiery exuberance capturing 311 in the full sway of its expectant youth. It is an Emersonian call for nonconformity in a land ravished by consumer-driven hysteria where we can easily forget our connection to the earth (cue rap-rockers “Unity,” “Hydroponic,” “Plain”). It was my late immersion into the sounds of Music — its interplay of hip-hop and rock over the rollicking rhythms of fuzzy guitar, freaky slap bass and wicked drum work — that clarified the full scope and sequence of 311’s unique and stylistic mesh of multiple genres.
From Chaos brought that into fuller view and to some extent it has the sound of a post-millennial update on Music. The album marked a return to roots for the band as far as I could surmise from repeated listens and the buzz of the 311 message board to which I was a regular, if not obsessive, contributor — especially as I had joined the band’s official street team to promote the album.
Ron Saint Germain was back on the soundboard having produced 311’s breakout eponymous album. The spirit of experimentation pervading Grassroots, Transistor and Soundsystem (all of which include the masterful handiwork of producer and sound engineer Scott “Scotch” Ralston) was still present to be sure, but streamlined into radio-ready jams with crushing grooves (cue title track, “From Chaos”; lead radio single, “You Wouldn’t Believe”; slap bass rocker, “Wake Your Mind Up” [featuring lyrical contributions from Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas]; and b-side “We Do It Like This”). For me it outshined the flattened hybridity of angry nu-metal acts that blew up around that time. From Chaos was 311’s critique of heterosexual male aggro culture and calling its pseudo-masculine bluff — as on the head-nodding “Hostile Apostle” when Hexum sings: “You don’t have to be a prick just to be heavy.” It seemed only 311 Heads could get with this and I was cool with that, selfishly.
A peripheral dot on the mainstream radar at this point, 311 toured clubs large enough to make a crowd and small enough to feel like a frenzied gathering where the pit was an extension of the stage. My first live experience of 311 came with the newfound independence I obtained entering college — the summer before which From Chaos was released. My initiation took place inside Philadelphia’s Electric Factory (now the Franklin Music Hall) where, on occasion of my 18th birthday, I was swept up in what French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1912) would call “collective effervescence.” I felt a unified sense of belonging with the “Excitable Ones” in my midst and the fast friends I was making at school in people who shared my appreciation of the band— an appreciation I put on full display with a “Blue”-era subway poster I carried with me through senior year before passing it on to a mentee on my alma mater’s resident assistant staff.
I had waited five years for this moment to arrive and it came with bombast. I was not let down. From the moment the lights went low for the band’s entrance to the strong, flashing finale of the encore I was a ball of energy in motion — literally lifted off my feet by the enthusiasm of nearly 3,000 rabid fans packed like sardines in a venue rich in Philly history. I was elated to get my ticket stub signed by a gracious Hexum following the show. If it wasn’t for my college best friend inching through some fans, that never would have happened.
I saw 311 five more times in the course of my undergrad career. I caught the band in Philly or nearby New Jersey or Baltimore every time it came around. I recall making a special trip to Baltimore to see 311 with my cousin when the band played at Loyola University. I woke up at four the next morning to study for a Psych 101 test happening later that day, having to factor in time for the 90-minute drive back to Philly. 311 was incentive for slaying that one. And I did.
As with high school, I threw myself into extra-curriculars during college. I joined the rowing team my freshman year, later dropping out to pursue committed involvement in the student newspaper. I contributed news and entertainment features, eventually becoming advertising manager and later co-editor of news. This made room to write about the music I loved through album and concert reviews as well as band interviews including one with P-Nut just before Evolver dropped in the summer of 2003.
Evolver matched the progressive political awakening taking place in me after 9/11. Prior to that time, I maintained an unspoken pledge to social justice that burgeoned in high school with a religious studies unit on civil disobedience in the spirit of King. 311’s missus of peace, love and unity complemented my ethical stance, then as now. With the events leading up to and following the second Iraq War, the failure of which our country is still living down, the call to become a steward of nonviolence in my own creative output felt more prescient and increasingly urgent. My scholastic endeavors and contributions to the school paper came to reflect this. My senior capstone project unpacked the Iraq War through the lens of twentieth-century Catholic monk and activist Thomas Merton and my newspaper editorials lambasted government complicity in the moral negligence of U.S. foreign policy.
Evolver articulated much of this process for me with tracks like “Reconsider Everything,” “Seems Uncertain,” “Still Dreaming,” “Other Side of Things” and the serpentine “Sometimes Jacks Rule the Realm” — showcasing the band’s deepened commitment to its guiding principles and marking a maturity that grew out of its hippie apologetics on earlier releases. “Beyond the Gray Sky,” an album standout, struck a personal chord that drove home the band’s abiding philosophy: Against all odds, life is worth the struggle. This was an important insight at a point in American history when the ideological divides now threatening democracy were coming into greater relief, and one that has stayed with me in those occasional bouts of suicidal ideation I still entertain when especially anxious or depressed.
Thus enters Don’t Tread on Me (2005), Evolver’s follow-up with Ron Saint Germain returning again to help produce. DTOM captures the band on a sonic pivot. It features the standard mix of reggae, dancehall, rap and rock filtered into a poppier format highlighting S.A.’s vocal range in particular. The album continues in the spirit of Evolver with politically charged slow bangers like “Solar Flare” and introspective epics like rambling album closer, “There’s Always an Excuse.” It communicates the band’s characteristic defiance to comply with market trends in the music industry, as indicated by the album title, and highlights the tensions of sharing power in interpersonal relationship.
At this juncture, even with all of my schooled self-awareness, I had not yet come out as a gay man. I succeeded at sublimating my secret desires through entrance into a Catholic religious order. This congregation was formed in seventeenth-century France by a priest who was disillusioned with the clerical life and subsequently committed to serving the poor through gratuitous education under the leadership of non-ordained men. The order now operates educational missions for the under-served the world over. My high school and college are two of those, now staffed mostly be lay men and women.
DTOM accompanied me during my shift from college to the vowed life at a time when friend groups started to disperse in preparation for entering the workforce. True to 311 form, DTOM was a thoughtful reminder to be grateful for what remained in the wake of this step toward increased adult responsibility (cue “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and “It’s Getting Okay Now”). A part of me was dying to make room for new life in service of something greater than myself, and DTOM kept me in tune to my inner work — no excuses.
Upon joining the order, I befriended a now lifelong compadre who is and was openly gay. He was a fellow initiate into this institutional mode of Catholic religiosity. His friendship was enough to prod me into exploring more fully the depths of my seemingly “cursed consciousness”— in part because he was one of my first gay friends. I saw someone who was able to hold his sexual identity in creative coupling with his religious life. He opened me to understanding that one could still be gay and not simply a man, but a good man — one who was devoted to the Jesus message as professed in the Sermon on the Mount and who saw no contradiction between that devotion and his fundamental sense of self. In other words, his sense of the holy included the wholeness of who he was as a man who loves other men.
The four-year period between the release of DTOM and Uplifter (2009) was a time of internal wrestling as I grappled with all of the suppressed feelings of being gay: namely guilt and shame. I started seeing a therapist weekly to deal with my anxiety and depression in more proactive ways. As always, I kept 311 on play. In these years of experience, when I began experimenting with my sexuality and fell in love three times over, 311 signified a return to source — that innocence of the inner child who is the seat of all human wisdom. There was a 311 song for every occasion of overwhelm that arose in the complications of coming out within the confines of a religious group populated with other men like me — using every ounce of integrity to square their natures with an environment not wholly suited to nurture.
Once I realized the center could no longer hold and it was time for me to explore life outside the monastery, Uplifter was released.
I purchased it immediately with some stipend money I received upon exit from the religious order. There again, 311 delivered the score to yet another season of change. Uplifter is the sound of a band in love — with music and with life. A balm on the heartbreak I felt in my disillusionment with an institution I believed to have failed me, 311 admonished: “Hey, you! Yeah, you over there with your head down. The music is still here. It’s been here. It’s all around you. So why the sad look on your face?”
At 25, an uncertain road ahead of me, I walked away from a rich though short tenure as a high school religion and literature teacher with the album b-side “Get Down” playing loud and clear in my mind. It was time to get free. Yes, I hit a kind of bottom, but I was buoyant. The uptempo bounce of Uplifter, helmed by metal producer Bob Rock, kept me on my feet and in step to a grander scheme — one less focused on the future and more on the pregnancy of the present.
“It’s alright,” Hexum and Martinez assured me on the album’s second track, “You are where you’re supposed to be now.”
On the cusp of this newfound freedom, I returned home like a prodigal to my parents in Orange County, California. They had moved there after I graduated college to be close to my oldest sister and her three children, all boys. I came out to both of my parents and my sister. I was received with open arms but conditional acceptance. My sister was supportive but questioned the degree to which I was actually gay.
My mom and dad towed the doctrinal line. Paraphrased, my parents’ message was: “You can be gay as long as you remain a celibate Christian.”
This was in key with Catholic orthodoxy concerning the “three roads to heaven”: the vowed religious life, single life or married life. For folks like me, there is only room for two of those roads according to this train of thought.
“Remain celibate?” I thought. “That’s all you have to say?”
Not to mention I had tried that and it didn’t work.
I was let down, saddened by my parents’ learned unwillingness to see me in light of who I am — no longer living in the shadow of repression but in the full stature of my sexual selfhood. Where I had hoped for affirmation I had received warning: “Guard your soul.” To be gay is one thing, their thinking went, to live a gay lifestyle — which for old-school ideologues like my parents equates to the misinterpreted “sin of sodomy”— is another.
There was no room for nuance in this household and so, on some level, I retreated back into the closet, a pall of censorship hanging over my orientation just as palpable today as it was then. Aside from my second oldest brother in a birth-order lineup that puts me last of five, I cannot speak freely of myself as gay nor share my life as a gay man — in all of its queer shades — with anyone in my family.
My oldest sister is cautious concerning my particular preference for older men. This is in part because the age gap between me and my past partners (one of whom she was very hospitable to at family gatherings where I’d invite him in as “friend”), create seemingly irreconcilable incompatibilities — like physical health for one. She feels protective of her three children, now young adult men, around homosexuality in general and my embodiment of it in particular. In the years post coming out, she has asked me not to make mention of my identity in the presence of my nephews. She would prefer to field that conversation herself.
On one hand, I understand. It’s complex. On the other, I wonder why I cannot be trusted to speak on my own terms with her concerns in mind. It’s worth a revisit now that the boys are grown. We have not touched the subject in a couple years. Not after a vicious verbal bout I ended by uninviting her from my doctoral graduation, sadly. We have since reconciled, loving each other through our differences.
My other sister, also older, is estranged from the family due to her own issues with mental health and, likely, drug abuse. I have not spoken with her in decades — not since I was four years old when I watched her walk away from my childhood home and board a taxi cab without explanation. She was 18.
My oldest brother is an ordained monk living in a midwestern hermitage. His worldview refuses to condone anything that intimates “disordered sexuality.”
As for my parents: They are products of the “Silent Generation.” For them, if not for their peer group, being human is tied up, consciously or unconsciously, in (white) heterosexual and Christian (read Roman Catholic) selfhood and a gendered (and raced) god image reflecting that.
Fortunately, I have developed a chosen family in friends who accept me fully for who I am, keeping me grounded in much the same way 311 has: through encouragement and support. In this way, home and family have always felt elsewhere for me, keeping me on the move for a place to settle that would eventually lead north. After a year sabbatical — during which time I filled journal pages with metaphysical musings and gay-themed poetry, and attended my first (hopefully-not-last) 311 Day concert event in Las Vegas, Nevada — I discerned my next steps would be further theological study. There was more to explore in my relationship to organized religion and the spiritualities informing it.
But, first, some happy slam dancing was in order.
311 Day concerts are biennial cultural events the band puts on in addition to its Caribbean cruises, the latter of which happen on odd years. 311 Day hosts fans from around the world whose fervor borders on religious fanaticism. The festival began unofficially with a March 11 show in New Orleans in 2000 and has continued every other year since with extended setlists that include deep cuts for the hardcorest of the hardcore listeners to enjoy. Imagine a tribal dance populated by tens of thousands of people reciting the same chants and moving in the same direction through a multiple-hour stretch of percussive music. There is no ceiling for that level of spiritual contagion.
311 Day 2010 was a way to mark a moment of vocational clarity that came from the previous year’s inner chaos. I was celebrating the steps I was making toward the “next.” The aforementioned best friend from college, a fellow 311 loyalist, treated me to a ticket, flying out to California from New York for a road trip through the desert — one that could benefit both of us as his mother, a friend of mine as well, had recently passed. She was a music lover herself and, like Hexum, a Paul McCartney devotee. That 311 Day fortified an important friendship amid a sea of kindred spirits.
A summer later, I was back in the classroom with the purpose of pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, earning a master’s degree in theology along the way. The setting was Berkeley, California, where I enrolled in one of the most heterodox seminaries in the world with an interfaith emphasis on environmental stewardship and social justice. This is where I would sharpen my chops as an academic and writer. In the first years of my graduate program, I uncovered the mysteries of contemplative wisdom within the Catholic and Buddhist traditions, continuing work I had started as an undergrad on the life and writings of Thomas Merton.
Merton was a writer, himself, and a poet. He dedicated his life to deconstructing the absurdities of American social mores that smacked of racism and xenophobia. He was an ardent pacifist and an opponent of American exceptionalism who sought spiritual refuge in his hermitage on the grounds of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Louisville, Kentucky, where he would spin records by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He was a master of ecumenical dialogue, prompting a post-Vatican II turn in the Catholic Church toward an embrace of global contemplative traditions in Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Jewish mysticism, Sufism and Transcendentalism. Merton argued for heightened awareness of unity in diversity and diversity in unity — be it in the “concrete jungles” of the city or in the actual woods. I found a spiritual father in Merton in the same way I found a spiritual fraternity in the members of 311 whose own take on perennialism came into sharper focus with Universal Pulse (2011).
Universal Pulse, the band’s tenth full-length release, distills ancient insight about the inherent unity of all creation into eight, riff-heavy rockers that conclude with S.A.’s spaced-out dream recall in the high-spirited “And A Ways to Go.” There we are beckoned on a trek into the “primordial forest” where a shaman discloses the Hermetic adage, “As above, so below,” in a series of pointed gestures toward the earth, the sky and all cardinal directions. The destination of this search for “something” is everywhere and nowhere at once, as Hexum chants, signifying on the science of the Big Bang which states: Every point in the universe is the center of the universe. Realizing the fullness of divine life in creation, S.A. is led not just to the “wholeness within” but to “the men who had been me, the beasts I had been” on a “ride” from which there is no guarantee of return. Echoing the Transcendentalists, 311 urges each of its adherents to find ‘an original relation to the universe’ in nature.
It would be three years before 311 would release Stereolithic (2014), my most-listened-to of the band’s contemporary albums but one I slept on until 2017 when 311’s twelfth release, Mosaic, hit the shelves.
By the time the band released Stereolithic I was neck-deep in a doctoral program taking shape around questions of white racial identity and the theological legacies of whiteness in America — genocide, slavery, mass incarceration — and the ways in which hip-hop culture can work to wake white people up to the shadow history/ies their whiteness embodies. This led me to showing up for Black lives through active participation (and baptism) in the progressive, Black Pentecostal church I had joined in North Berkeley. There, I entered into a process of “racial conversion,” as theologian James Perkinson (2004) would call it. Through increased exposure to and communion with Black bodies the history of my own whiteness and the theologies (or god concepts) sustaining it crystallized.
I steeped myself in music produced by people of color whose lives cut at the heart of what it means to be a white American. 311 meanwhile faded into the background. In spite and because of my whiteness, I was becoming a bit of a Black culture purist.
Part of me dismissed the band as a goofy and color-blind bastardization of music rooted in non-white epistemologies — even as 311 had made its moral imperatives clear in both its music and its past partnership with the Museum of Tolerance (see Enlarged to Show Detail 2). (311 continues to show solidarity with the movement for racial justice, evidenced by its observation of “Blackout Tuesday” this summer in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.)
My disillusionment with the band was coupled with the arrogant sense that I had learned all the lessons I could from an object of adolescent obsession. It was time to move on, a critical inner voice said.
It wasn’t until I had a walk on the beach in Santa Monica, California, one afternoon the summer Mosaic came out that 311 reappeared in my purview. I was living in Long Beach City at the time where I was shacked up with my then-partner. I had moved back down to Southern California about a year before we started dating to complete my dissertation remotely. On this particular day, I had planned to meet up with a friend and former classmate living in Santa Barbara. Los Angeles seemed a fair halfway point for a rendez-vous and what better place to meet than on the expansive shoreline of the Pacific Ocean?
I caught vision of my buddy from a football field’s distance and plodded toward him through hot sand. There was a small inter-racial gathering between us. From the tiny speakers of a Bluetooth stereo I heard something vaguely familiar as I was passing by: the harmony of two male singing voices (one baritone; the other a high tenor) layered atop some rip-roaring guitar riffs that slam into a crashing, guttural finish (cue “Too Late”).
It wasn’t quite recognizable at first but once I heard the next song on what was a shuffled playlist — 311’s lead single off Mosaic, “Too Much to Think” — it was impossible to mistake the sound.
“Holy fuck,” I realized, “that’s 311.”
I was surprised by my own excitement — I had forgotten what it is like to sight (and be on site with) other 311 fans, one of whom was a young Black woman (cue the fourth bar of S.A.’s opening verse on “From Chaos”). I did not say anything because I was feeling too shy, caught off guard by this unexpected ebullience that came from deep within. Then, the strange synchronicity of it hit me.
I missed the music!
I missed the joy and wonder of unwrapping a 311 record, the childlike awe inspired by hearing ethereal hymns sung over mathematically exact chord changes. I missed having some distant relatives reminding me yesterday’s trials are today’s triumphs, of the importance of living in the moment, of the human family’s shared humanity despite and because of its diversity.
I Spotify’d Mosaic on the car ride back to LBC, taking the scenic route along the Pacific Coast Highway to give myself the time and ease required of imbibing an album in full.
Immediately, I was pressing the back button to replay songs that stood out: “Wildfire” for its unsuspecting twists and turns; “Extension” for its reggae danceability; “The Night is Young” for its head-nodding bounce and summons to courage; “Days of ‘88” for the way S.A.’s vocals sail over the crunch and pop of “Blue”-esque guitars and drums; and “One and the Same” for its hard-hitting variation on classic 311 themes — all capturing the urgency of our contemporary moment with prophetic fire.
I was sold, and so was a copy of Mosaic from LBC’s esteemed Fingerprints Music record store the next day. I was rediscovering my favorite band and the reasons I had started listening to 311 in the first place, summoning S.A.’s verse in “Perfect Mistake”: “We’ll make you feel like a child, again and again.”
At a time in my life wrought with the turmoil of caretaking a loved one recently diagnosed with HIV and of finalizing a dissertation for which a deadline was fast approaching, I remembered what it felt like to reconnect with my inner child. There was joy in the thick of grief as I watched a significant other suffer with the physical and psychological tumult of a violent immunological disease that had gone untreated for the near-entirety of our 18-month relationship. There was also peace of mind in the thick of a writing project with no end in sight. A hug from an old friend, to quote another fan, 311’s return brought with it a sense of renewed hope in what I was doing and why I was doing it.
But with these external pressures weighing me down came the slow realization that I was not where I needed or wanted to be inter-personally and professionally. After a painful breakup at the end of that summer, entailing an honest admission of what S.A. advises in the From Chaos radio single “You Wouldn’t Believe” — that is, “Can you find it in your heart to say he’s not what you sought?” — I was living with my parents in Orange County again. They were happy to have me back, grateful I had exited a relationship they believed anathema to the official dogmas of the Church. I, on the other hand, was depressed, disappointed by a chapter on which I had pinned expectations of happily ever after.
On top of that, I still had a dissertation to get done. It would turn into an ethnographic self-study of my involvement in the above-noted Black church. What emerged was a “gem,” as one of my dissertation advisors put it, that needed polishing after a rough-but-passing defense that December.
Relative to the work I was doing academically and reawakened to the genius of 311, I came to see the crew in a new light — “now enhanced with [my] crystal sight!” Here was a band, four of whose members are white, that found a medium of self-expression in an historically Black art form. I see myself in them and them in me. We are “one and the same”— hearing and interpreting the world through a non-white cultural register. One which speaks to the angst of being bound by artificial borders in a figurative Babylon, where profit is prioritized over people, especially people of color, with violent consequence. In this way, 311 touches on a spirit of protest that is the soul of Black cultural production and crucial to conscious white appropriations of it.
If Mosaic signified a renaissance of 311 and my place in the collage of the band’s followers, then Stereolithic was its deepening. I picked up a copy from a local record store in Costa Mesa, Second Spin, one solitary Friday afternoon on a break from my dissertation.
I was in need of some kind of company — newly separated from a long-term partner and hundreds of miles apart from colleagues who themselves had scattered after their coursework. It occurred to me 311 could once again provide the warmth of a good friend — like an old shirt, embedded with the memory of your body’s contours, that slips back on perfectly, maybe even better (or more comfortably) than it did before.
Produced by “Scotch” Ralston (Transistor, Soundsystem, Mosaic, Voyager) Stereolithic recapitulates the youthful edge of early recordings with the technical discipline of an aging band still bumping to the rhythm that made it unique in the first place. The lyrical content meanwhile speaks to the grind of being a 30-something (cue “Ebb and Flow”), of being bound to the clock while working to establish one’s place in a fast-paced, “Sand Dollar” chase.
“You gotta keep on climbin’ the hill” — Hexum chided me on the more somber but still uplifting “Made in the Shade” — “‘Cuz if you think you’ll make it you will.”
This was the simple and true mantra I needed during a time of sustained, focused effort to wrap up the biggest writing project on which I had ever worked. Yes, I’d have a spot “made in the shade” if I just answered “the call” to “stand up right now” and “keep pushing.” I would persist if it killed me, I thought. It was a mode of advocacy — a way to “pick it up now, brother, help another, pick it up” — and contribute to the important conversations happening around me the best way I know how: “with a pen and a pad.” Though I didn’t have to “make it rough” by thinking too far ahead, the thrust for survival was, remains, real. And the only way to it (survival) is through it (struggle), as Hexum intones on the heart-string tug of a song, “Tranquility” — the most beautiful of 311’s ballads.
Like Mosaic, Stereo infused my sense of purpose with love’s vibratory gusto.
I saw 311 for the first time in seven years when the band came to Orange County for the inaugural show of its fall 2017 tour: a radio festival curated by Jack FM. I had finally concluded my dissertation and was ready for the catharsis that only a 311 show could provide. A former student and friend accompanied me, generously covering the ticket (and tee shirt) cost on occasion of my new milestone. This one was a kind of family reunion. I was naively expecting deep cuts but it was enough to see 311 live and direct as headliners for a concert that included Cypress Hill and The Offspring.
I was back on the wagon officially.
I had albums to rediscover as I spent the next year securing myself for a future after academia. I left the community college where I was teaching English part time with my sights set on the far North Coast of California. One of my dear friends from graduate school was living in Humboldt County and I had visited him and his wife the summer following graduation in 2018. I fell in love with its pristine geography and mild climate. Footloose and fancy free, it was an easy decision to move back up the coast — way up the coast — where the redwoods meet the sea.
Leading up to the move, I was working as a Lyft driver (proudly playing 311 when the mood felt right) because gig work gave me the space to be creative — free of institutional accountability. My plan was to find a paying job in Humboldt County that involved telling peoples’ stories while keeping my fingers on the pulse of this rural community. Local journalism seemed the ticket.
I took a second trip up that fall and knocked on a few doors, catching the attention of the chief editor at the county’s primary news outlet. I got a job as content editor in December and moved up with a packed car and no place to live. Serendipity (and a frantic last-minute email blitz on Craigslist) led me to a secluded spot on a hill above the city of Arcata that I shared with a friendly woman my age.
I was also seeing someone whom I decided to pursue in the months before my departure from Orange County. Once in Humboldt, newly employed, I gave him provocation to follow me — proving my ability and willingness to share resources in a home that we could build together if he would just give this place a chance. But the long distance was too much. After six months absent of any shared experience, of waiting for a visit from him with no inkling of his enthusiasm to join me, I cut the cord. Not much later, because of corporate cutbacks, my job was deemed superfluous and I was let go.
Voyager (2019) arrived in the swirl of all this upheaval. 311’s injunction? “Just lean into it.” The album consoled me in Marleyian fashion: I didn’t have to worry because I was not alone. There was a benevolent presence to guide me, as there always has been, in the guise of five Nebraskans come to deliver a message of peace as good will ambassadors from another galaxy. Beset by the loss I felt in yet another failed relationship and the uncertainty that comes with unemployment, I was validated. No one in life gets through it unblemished, Hexum sings on the album’s outstanding third track: “You’ll take your licks and you’ll never come out stainless.” All the more reason to keep at it.
Which is what I did.
I had added impetus to do so in the unexpected friendship I fell into with the man I call partner today. We met early in my arrival to California’s North Coast at a mutual friend’s New Year party and struck up a conversation that had me wondering whether or not I was in the right relationship. By the spring, without any visits from my boyfriend in Southern California, I was feeling frustrated and lonely for a gay companion.
“Fuck it,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to make a new friend.”
I contacted my January acquaintance and he responded in kind.
What transpired over a sushi lunch and a hike in the nearby community forest that Memorial Day marks the first glimmer of what 311 sets to music in Voyager’s lead single, “Good Feeling”: “I want to go back to the days of the past when everything was easy,” S.A. sings, “But I’m holding you close and I’m letting it go because, baby, you’re the real thing.”
I listened to Voyager like an earnest student until its lyrics stuck. The album runs clear and crisp, thanks again to production credits that include both Ralston and, as with Mosaic, Goldfinger’s John Feldmann. Its jovial commentary on relational compromise in the far-out funk of “Space and Time”; the high of being with the ones you love on the jam-heavy stoner track, “What The?!”; and the exploratory thrill of treating each new day like a discovery on “Better Space” kept me in elevated spirits as I hustled to find a new job (two, actually) and get over an old love. This led me first to a brief stint providing instructional aid at the local community college and then to community outreach for a nonprofit serving the housing needs of Humboldt County’s homeless. In the process, Voyager was in fixed revolution on my turntable, making a new 311 fan of my man — a sure sign of compatibility in a partnership that for the first time in my life feels like the right one.
We are currently headed toward the end of 2020 amid a time of national self-reckoning and a global pandemic the likes of which the world has not seen for a little over a century. Once again, I am unemployed. But this time by choice: to pursue writing as a full-time passion in a leap of faith that has me humming, “Outlandish dreams can come to pass / It happens so fast / There’s no end to what you can achieve / But first you gotta believe.”
311 feels just as relevant now as ever — to me at least. The band has certainly helped me hold it down in these harrowing months since COVID came to America, particularly in my former role as an essential worker. Though an entire 50-state tour was shut down, the band was able to eek out a three-day festival in Las Vegas to commemorate this March 11 as the band’s 10th 311 Day event. I was lucky enough to catch the first night’s live stream.
In lieu of traditional performances in this time of physical distancing, 311 is offering a retrospective series of three virtual shows featuring each of the band’s first three albums in their entirety from its home studio, the Hive, in Los Angeles. If the band’s November 11 rendition of Music is any indication, no one in the crew shows any signs of wavering — lifeblood pumping through their instruments like fiery pistons revving an engine into full throttle.
311 is not simply a band but an organizing principle on the right side of history. In retrospect of my own journey with 311, I cannot say it is the reason I came out of the closet 14 years ago or that it is principally responsible for my racial awakening. But it has set me on a certain trajectory to self-acceptance that entails the racial and sexual self-grappling in which I find myself continually. At every stage of my personal evolution there has been a happy hour to steal with my fun-loving, hard-working “brodels” in 311. They have kept me attuned to my own capacity for growth — helping me to find the (im)perfection in being human and, in this, the gumption to seek mercy from the ones I’ve hurt, to forgive the ones who’ve hurt me, and to muster the wherewithal of empathy for others pushing to be who they are against the grain.
311 is message music for the ages and ageless at that. Its sincerity is what makes it truly authentic. And the humanist ethic informing it has found ready resonance with my own. I have grown up professing it — whether in a lickity-split verse or a lilting chorus — singing, “The deepest dream we have could be tomorrow’s song.” And as I make the transition into a life dedicated solely to my craft, I can hear Hexum now, giving me that big-brother pep talk on tapping the “nazz” within: “The goal is to be a poet / And a carpenter / To be one who loves / To be one who works.”