There’s something unprecedented about working in one career for thirty years. Most of us can’t fathom it, especially when we’re younger — it seems daunting. One thing for thirty years, how do you do it? The old adage of “choose a job you love and you’ll never work again” seems more like a dream, at times. But yet, for some, they’re truly able to achieve this and serve as inspiration that it’s not unreachable. For 30 years, as of this year, 311 has been an example of what it’s like to do something you love, and do it successfully.
It hasn’t always been easy, as 311 spent years grinding it out in their local scene in Omaha, Nebraska before getting their first big break in 1993. Omaha isn’t necessarily considered a pipeline for upcoming music acts, and certainly wasn’t in the 90’s, but through their passion and hard work, 311 was able to truly turn what they loved into a career.
They’ve turned it into a career that has brought them multiple platinum and gold certified records. A career that has spawned multiple hit singles. A career that has spawned the cultural “311 Day” (which the band celebrate with a special occasion every other year). A career that, thirty years in, hasn’t slowed down one bit.
These are all things that Substream got the chance to chat with 311’s Aaron “P-Nut” Wills recently via phone interview, as well as their upcoming summer co-headlining run with Incubus. You can find all of their announced tour dates here, and find our conversation below.
:et’s just get into it, 30 years of 311. Thats pretty crazy.
Yeah, it’s nuts. It’s been coming, but it’s still hard to wrap my head around. I mean I think about a lot of things. I think about the fans and how it’s absolutely impossible to do this without them. And then I think of, and outside of that or within that, the stability that we’ve been able to manufacture in this, what is normally a topsy-turvy career choice, and we’ve made it almost, like, I don’t know, it’s reliable, unless there’s a pandemic going on, you can bet we’ll be out there playing shows.
Your first show ever was opening for Fugazi right?
Yeah, June 10, 1990, we opened up for Fugazi. It was like, there was a sheet that said, “looking for local bands to open up for…” and a girl friend of mine called the number and got us the spot right before Fugazi, and we were off to the races.
What do you remember most about the early days of 311, and then as you guys started to pick up some steam?
I remember it being — it was such a physical thing. We were so into making the audience move and sweat and jump and bounce, to kind of get out that teenage/early-20-year old energy out, and, I don’t know, put our stamp in the musical kind of reality in that way with positive aggressive kind of actions and little templates. We were going up against what was the hard rock of the time, it’s like, heroin and depression, and we’re like, “no! Let’s have a good time! It’s not so bad! It’s only as bad as you make it!” and we’ve been riding that wave and we’ve been kind of at that, whatever, misunderstood kind of square peg, and it’s actually allowed us to be totally independent and go through our own ups and downs and be reliant on the people that want to support us the best. We weren’t out to copy anybody, but there was lots of, we were trying to find our sound. In the beginning when you’re trying to find your own personality, your own musical personality, you are digging deep into the well of people that you look up to. So there was a lot of that.
We were definitely Red Hot Chili Pepper-ing, and Beastie Boy-ing, and Public Enemy-ing, you can hear it in the delivery of the lyrics where Nick was very into Chuck D’s delivery, that intensity, I don’t know, it like moves a crowd, and it’s what we really needed it to do. We needed to stand side by side with bands that were really out to rock super hard and kind of just play the vernacular gig where it’s dark and it’s tough and crowds are like “It is!” It’s like a rallying cry. We needed to stand next to those bands but with our popular kind of ethos. It’s a great band to be in. Full of challenges. I’m amazed we’ve made it this long. But the support we’ve had has been everlasting and we’ll be there for our fans to lean on for as long as we can stand it.
Then “Down” came and just shot you through the stratosphere, yeah?
Yeah, it was getting played on the radio left and right, there were national articles, there were local articles. In that sense, we were sort of that band that was our “everywhere” kind of moment. And since then we’ve been in peoples’ ears. We’re part of the wall paper in the room that you’ve got to walk through if you’re listening to music in these times. We’re on the endless output kind of trajectory, like lots of bands that we look up to, like De La Soul, they talk about it, they had early success as well and were groundbreaking in their way for sure, and also coming from the positive point of view, they were like, “this is great. life is tough, but we’re gonna spin it to the positive because that’s the way we want to live.” They talk about how the real groundbreakers are always making new stuff, and I like that point of view, although it’s not necessarily always true. It’s a nice little cape to hang on your shoulders, but…there’s something about bands that take long breaks. Like Tool, think about how much they went through the new music to make sure that it was ready for the fans that were waiting for 13 years. I look to film for a lot of inspiration. Stanley Kubrick was legendary for letting something go ten years for his last movies and they were all masterpieces. People work on different speeds. All is acceptable; nothing is not. It goes to the musical audience around the world. I want to say Americans, but it’s really a worldwide thing. You adapt to your favorite artist at the speech at which they create, and if it’s a long wait or a short wait, you’re excited, like this week, we need that the most. Find your favorite local artist and buy a T-shirt, even if you’re only wearing it at home.
As you look at everything’s that’s happened to 311 since, you see a lot of bands from that time that had great success in the 90’s fade away. But 311 has always been a mainstay, still putting out top ten records. Do you think that consistency has been a key to your success?
It’s, since we’re in our own kind of corner of, I think, in musician-ship and we’ve had the success in radio that’s allowed us to be in peoples’ ears for a long time but also put on a great show, it’s a lot of positives coming together and then, like I said, the support from the audience allows us to continue. We’re ready for the work. The audience keeps showing up. It’s still fun for all of us. It all works out.
You guys just celebrated another 311 day last week, something you started 20 years ago but now has become pretty important to your band and your fans. It’s also just a cultural thing, where people see March 11th and go “Oh, 311!” How do you keep them new and exciting every go round?
It is, it’s great. It’s smart branding. With releasing new music, there’s always world premiers to keep in our back pockets, and practice, practice, practice, practice so they sound as good as the rest of the songs. That’s always fun, and then a cover or two here and there. It’s just, it’s a challenge, but it also makes sense. Chad made the 311 day setlist and he must have been working on that for months and months. Where it comes easy for me, it is a lot of hard work. It was a ton of rehearsal for all of us, but Chad really sat down with the old 311 days setlist and looked at what we’d done before and created a great little musical adventure for people to kind of survive through last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, kind of to the end of Vegas; we were one of the last shows on the strip before everything got shut down.
It was crazy, people are still thanking me and the band for putting on the show even though, technically, everything’s up in the air, people are kind of leaning on us, and it’s great to know we put on an epic show and people were stoked. I’m looking forward to the next one in a couple years. It started to add up a lot and I wasn’t sore over the weekend, but yesterday I started to get really sore. My six year old got the rolling pin out and I laid down and he kinda rolled out my sore muscles which was hilarious. But that’s what it’s like, everyone gets kind of worn out and the energy is just so intense while it’s going on that it propels you to total exhaustion but you don’t feel it for a couple days afterward.
One of the things that’s so interesting about you guys is of course, like we’ve said, you’ve never really slowed down or stopped making music, aside from just a four year gap between Don’t Tread on Me and Uplifter. How important is it for you guys to keep making new music and not relying on your stuff that’s already out?
I think it’s really important, although we don’t really change the setlist that much to open up the gates for new music because we kind of think people expect us to play the oler things. But that’s kind of what the events are all about, kind of breaking those rusty old habits of ours and realizing that we can pretty much play whatever we want, especially in those situations, and that makes us kind of loosen up during summer tours. It’s a learning experience for us. We kind of get stuck in our ways. It works for us, but I’d love to see us be a little more experimental. From my point of view, I just want to put on a good show and there’s 500,000 ways to do that, and it’s not always obvious. You’re going to foster that kind of fanbase if you just give them softballs. I want it to be kind of difficult. It’s art. I don’t want it to be a Campbell’s Soup Can every time I go to the museum, I want it to be cut by something every once in a while, I want to have to get a tetinus shot because it’s so immersive. And that’s me, that’s kind of what I am in the group, and it’s good I have the guys around me that kind of keep me in check. We balance each other out, and that’s also why it’s worked out, the personalities in the band represent different kind of aspects of our band individuality. It all works out. It’s good to be patient about those frustrations that come up with setlists. It’s good to zoom out and look at the whole thing. When we did a larger show detail like three years ago or whatever that was, just looking at the fans and hearing their stories about falling in love either with somebody else or with the band, all of these trips we’ve been on together, favorite songs, all of these things we kind of carry the story into their every day lives is something on the legacy scale you can’t do unless you have decades in your past, and it’s so cool. That cools out a lot of tensions that may arise in the day to day. It’s something you’ve gotta look at the mile markers every once in a while, because sometimes it kind of is speeding by. That’s what keeps it moving, it’s not out of kind of losing perspective, but just focusing on the job at hand. Perspective is key, and the audience offers that in large doses, and we’re there to listen.
This summer you’re going on tour with Badflower and Incubus, doing 50 shows in 50 states. Who came up with the idea?
Our tour manager came up with that idea. The fact that he’s ten years–to the day–older than me and he’s willing to, wants to do that, it makes us all like, “Oh that’s gonna be tough! But if he wants to do it, let’s do it.”
It will be fun. We grew up in Nebraska, we’re those kids, we get it. We didn’t get all the good shows. We didn’t get half of them, so we want to give back to the fans, especially in the corners of America where we don’t go every summer, play a theatre gig, play a deep cut gig, and just get sweaty and loud for an evening.
Are there any shows in particular you are looking forward to?
I mean, Asheville, North Carolina pops in my mind, that’s a great community. A little magic center. I think about North Dakota, and Montana, and Idaho, which we were actually just in. I think about the kids that don’t get to see shows all the time and how excited I would be if I were in their Vans. The kids go crazy for the Vans. I look forward to those shows, hopefully we’ll be able to pull them off and we can flatten our curve and take care of each other, and get back to rocking and having sports on TV [and] be able to go to the gym. Such a trip. It’ll be cool. People are going to have a lot of pent up energy, and we’re gonna take advantage of it. Point them to the T-shrit stand — go that way!