Remember the Southern California sound of 1997 when it was all about Sublime, No Doubt, 311, and Rancid? It was the verge of a rock steady revolution. Those other bands went on their own paths, but 311 continued to hold a major stake in the mini-movement’s promise of nonstop bliss and maybe even spiritual betterment.
With its crunchy guitars, lilting melodies, and dub-like pulse floating on the positive juju of vocalist Nick Hexum, Uplifter, the band’s new release, sounds like the album 311 wanted to make a dozen years ago. That’s an especially welcome development for drummer Chad Sexton. “I’ve done the tricky thing and I’ve done the other experimental thing,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “So now I just wanted to try and make it like, ‘Hey, this is my style. If you’ve never heard of me this is the style I got — obviously it’s a rock-reggae sort of groove with a snappy snare.’ And just start from there and let it flow.”
Working in the second half of 2008 with iconic producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith) was an ego boost and, not surprisingly, brought out the band’s metal edge. Critical, however, was the decision to break up the recording session by going out on the road for eight weeks. Interrupting the creative momentum would sabotage the creative process of most bands, but Sexton swears by the method. “We had about ten songs when we went on tour. When we came back we had eight [more] songs. And actually almost all eight of those songs made the record. So that means that the second half of the record that we wrote was better than the first half.”
When asked about Uplifter’s most challenging track to play, there is a long pause before the native Nebraskan throws us a bone. “‘Never Ending Summer’ is pretty hard,’ he concedes. “At the end of the turn-arounds we got sixteenth-note hits, and in between I have thirty-second-note fills between there, so it’s like, ‘duh-duh-duh-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-doom-TCHAK-boom-boom.’ You can sing that really relaxed and everything, but when you try to play that I think it’s a little faster and more difficult than you would think when you’re listening to it.”
Discussing this particular track, he suddenly remembers a tom flam he threw in there for the drummers. The first one happens at the end of the fourth measure, where you’d expect it, but then there it is again two measures later. “It’s such unique phrasing that I think guys will be like, ‘What possessed him to hit that a second time?’”
There’s also this corn-fed towhead’s agile ankle, which he says grew out of listening to Dennis Chambers back in the ’80s, practicing his butt off to those kinds of patterns. But in the end, Sexton’s fast foot is as mysterious to him as it is to the listener. “I never broke it down when I was younger: ‘Hey, why am I doing this? How am I playing the bass drum?’ I have no idea because I just sat down and played. But the way I might get some of those notes out now is by relaxing. I know if you over-try, if you force it, you might get the notes out that way but it’s not going to be in the sense of a groove happening.”
311’s whole raison d’être is to keep those mega-sized crowds bouncing, but it can be a fairly lonely job. Half the time Sexton’s got the other bandmembers in his in-ears at low volume, but the rest of the time it’s just him and a wedge so he can hear the bass drum better. When you play arenas you have to streamline the process. “Because now all of a sudden your guitar player is 40 feet away from you instead of just right next to you, so all of this space opens up around you. Your ears try and adjust, and you can get really confused, and you can all of a sudden start slowing down or speeding up. So basically I’m just tuning in to myself. I hate to say that, but it’s kind of how 311 is lined up really. I kind of tune in to myself through my hi-hat. Everyone’s kind of probably locking in with my hi-hat, basically, and that’s kind of how we do it, and it seems to work for us.”
The rock-reggae formula 311 perfected so long ago has evolved into a broad pop sound that now draws jam-band hippies, hip-hop kids, rock dudes, and punkers to their shows. No one knows better than Sexton that being overly drummy can kill the buzz of this crossover heaven: “People might think, ‘Hey, that’s kind of the same beat he did on whatever past song.’ And I’ll agree, ‘Hey, yeah, you know what? It is.’ But that’s not the end-all. The end-all will be if that song is released as a single, how well will it do?”
A corollary of this philosophy is to deliver on stage precisely what is heard on the album, which means you won’t hear Sexton change his parts throughout the tour. “When you have someone who has bought your record and listened to it over and over and over, and they go to your concert and they’re expecting to hear that, they don’t want to hear you solo over it.”
But what about challenging oneself? Pushing boundaries? Staving off boredom? Sexton will have none of it. “Musicians are there to serve. And if you’re in rock music where egos are probably mandatory, you need to serve the music at some point.
“Not serve people,” he clarifies, “but serve the music. People don’t think of it like that anymore, but we sure do.”