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311 get sensitive

When I get 311 singer SA on the phone for an interview, he’s hanging out on the shores of Lake Michigan on a nice summer day in Milwaukee, gearing up to play a show later that night. The LA-via-Omaha band’s seventh and latest album, Evolver (Volcano), has just hit stores, and he can’t stop gushing about it. "It’s my favorite 311 record by far. It’s our best songs, and it’s probably the best sound we’ve gotten since our debut, Music." It’s also a hit: Evolver is the fourth consecutive 311 studio album to debut in the Billboard album-chart Top 10, and the single "Creatures (For a While)" is getting plenty of airplay on modern-rock radio.

It’s been eight years since 311 released their homonymous third album, which went triple platinum on the strength of the raucous funk-metal smashes "Down" and "All Mixed Up." They weren’t able to maintain that level of popularity for long, but the profound influence they’ve had on some of today’s most popular rock groups is hard to deny; Linkin Park, in particular, sound as if they’d spent more than a little time studying 311’s deft combination of hip-hop, melody, and heavy guitars. Always a feverish live band, they’ll perform this Wednesday at FleetBoston Pavilion with fellow college-rock faves G. Love & Special Sauce and Something Corporate.

Evolver is the latest result of 311’s fruitful collaboration with producer Ron Saint Germain, who previously worked with them on 311 and 2001’s From Chaos (Volcano). It’s also the first album they’ve made at the Hive, the Hollywood recording studio they bought two years ago and have been refurbishing ever since. "I really can’t say how much it’s helped us, in so many ways," SA raves about the studio. "We get to rehearse, write, demo, and record there. It played a huge part in the structure of the songs and the sound that we got. Prior to making the record, we revamped the control room and brought in a new recording console, and I think that made a world of difference."

"Creatures" is a classic 311 party jam that finds singer Nicholas Hexum blowing off stress after a tough day at the, uh, office. SA sings harmony and provides his trademark rap counterpoint; the rest of the band thump along as playfully as ever. " ‘Creatures’ is really just a reaction to demands that are placed on us individually and how we deal with them. We’re fortunate that we’re in a position to do something we love. At the same time, you’re trying to make everybody in your life happy, and sometimes you might not want to do certain things, but you do. It’s about being who you are and letting go."

Although the single covers familiar territory for 311, Evolver takes off in enough interesting new directions to justify its title. "Sometimes Jacks Rule the Realm" is a moody unplugged epic that deals with the frustration the group felt recently when, after deciding to test the European market, they found themselves touring as an opening act for the first time in ages. "Crack the Code" rides a mean dancehall groove, but its sentiment is unabashedly romantic: "You are the first to crack my code." "The bulk of the songs on Evolver are about relationships," admits SA, who counts notorious softies Coldplay among his favorite new bands. "On ‘Crack the Code,’ we’re opening up more and being more honest with who we are. It might be uncomfortable, but the best lyrics are the most uncomfortable ones."

One of the disc’s most memorable choruses (along with some smokin’ Jerry Garcia licks from guitarist Tim Mahoney) comes on the reggae-metal power ballad "Beyond the Gray Sky," which addresses the recent suicide of Hexum’s best friend from high school. "Suicide is always something that’s so unexpected and tragic and sad," SA acknowledges. "But if it’s in you and you’re creative, you can make something beautiful out of it. It’s about taking something that’s so wrong and understanding it a little more. That’s what the song does for others as well. If somebody’s pondering suicide, maybe it can help them."

As someone who does a lot of rapping in a rock band, SA is the kind of guy hipsters love to hate. But 311 have been playing down their hip-hop influence in recent years, and the new album continues in that direction. "When the band started out, we were heavily into Public Enemy, Urban Dance Squad, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bad Brains. The energy behind all that was a big influence, but we’ve always been into melody. Evolver is the least rap we’ve ever had; there’s a lot more melody and harmony. I would say we’re more in that vein now. That will always be a part of what we’re all about — maybe even a larger part in the future."

311 play FleetBoston Pavilion in Boston, with G. Love & Special Sauce and Something Corporate, this Wednesday, August 13; call (617) 728-1600.

Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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