Although it seems like just yesterday that “Down” and “All Mixed Up” were blowing up modern-rock radio, 311 (improbably) celebrated their 20th birthday on June 10th of this year. Back in 1990, 311 played their first show under that moniker, opening for Fugazi at the Ranch Bowl in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. 10 albums and three DVDs later, 311 is preparing to kick off their ninth summer tour, dubbed the “Unity Tour,” on June 29th in Chicago with the Offspring (another band who achieved mainstream success on alt-rock radio in the ‘90s) and Hawaii’s Pepper in tow.
I first saw 311 in June 1996 when they were part of the H.O.A.R.D.E. tour, and sharing the bill with artists like Lenny Kravitz and Blues Traveler. In ’96 there wasn’t anything like 311 on the radio, which led to an unfair typecasting of the quintet in the now-dreaded rap-rock genre, grouped in with overly agro-leaning bands such as Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Linkin Park. To diehard fans (and they are legion) this has long been an unfair comparison. Let Linkin Park and their brethren have their flying bullets and bulging neck veins; the magic of 311 successfully combines a lofty of hybrid rap, rock, punk, dance hall, reggae, funk and ska with lyrics based in celebrating positivity, honoring unity across all barriers, and promoting good times. Seems to me like this is the perfect recipe for pop-rock radio in a down-tempo economy.
As a longtime 311 fan, I’m disappointed in the state of the industry today. The radio airwaves are clogged, as always, with the same six songs played in heavy rotation. No disrespect to Drake, Paramore, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but as a former touring musician, I know that the playlists are ruled by the latest acts the record labels want to push and that it’s all about business (see iTunes). And while I have no desire to start a referendum on popular artists and various tastes and tastemakers alike, 311’s own hybrid theory still matters, even if alt-rock radio has long since moved on, and on the eve of a major tour, the lack of decent exposure in the necessary markets can be deadly to ticket sales.
The Unity Tour is a little over two weeks away from its kick off here in Chicago. What’s interesting about that is that in the last 24 hours the local alternative radio station, Q101, played one 311 song, “Down,” and one song by the Offspring, “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated),” while playing a handful of cuts from other popular, difficult-to-label ‘90s bands: five from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, six by Rage Against the Machine, five by the Smashing Pumpkins (well, this isn’t surprising, it is Chicago) and four by Tool. That tally of plays doesn’t count the fact that “Here We Are Juggernaut,” the new single from Coheed and Cambria, was spun six times in the last 24 hours as well. The latter is a little more acceptable because it is the latest single of theirs, Columbia Records is pushing [it] and Year of the Black Rainbow pretty hard, and they are a tremendously successful touring act. But given how close 311 and the Offspring are to the kick off of a huge summer tour, I figured we would hear more than one track from the headliners. Again, given the business of selling tickets you’d think playing more of the acts coming to town would be good (quid pro quo) business but, hey, c’est la vie.
The fact of the matter is that most 311 fans don’t care, and other than those of us who still pay attention to terrestrial radio, the fans aren’t cynical about airplay beyond a passing curiosity. We love the music, the message and the vibe and we really don’t care if they get play or not. 311 have had three blockbuster #1 singles over the years: “Down,” “Love Song” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” They have sold over eight million units over their 20-year career and even had six albums break the top 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 sales charts. But again, I don’t think 311 fans really care about hard numbers either. #1 singles and platinum albums aren’t important to 311 fans, going to the shows, watching the DVDs and maybe getting the chance to go to a 311 day festival are what’s important to us. Well, that, and seeing our favorite Nebraskan quintet get the respect and exposure they rightfully deserve. I’m sure fans of the Zac Brown Band might agree with me there. Hello, Bonnaroo!
To wit, on March 11th (3/11), the 311 day show was held in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. The boys played five sets, some 60 songs, for over 12,000 fans. The annual event is usually held in New Orleans where March 11th is officially recognized by the State ofLouisiana as “311 Day.” Their fan page on MySpace has over 340,000 fans while their Facebook page has over 365,000. The official 311 page (311.com) even features over 500 pictures of fans tattoos! There is a kindred spirit among devout 311 fans, and by devout, I mean those that know there were two albums before “Down” came out, that know what “the hive” is and who can tell you what singer Nick Hexum says at the end of every show. (But to get factual, 1993’s Music and 1994’s Grassroots preceded the self-titled 311 (1995) that had their first #1 single, “Down.” The Hive is the name of their fan club as well as their studio, and Hexum closes every show with “Be positive and love your life.”)
Long story short, 311 fans are a special breed. We are more like roving Deadheads than your normal rock fans, even if normal, by current trends, equates to rainbow-painted MGMT fans and screaming Vampire Weekend bandwagoneers. We value and observe the experience as a community (much like U2 fans do). Fans will brag about how many shows they’ve been to, what rarely played songs they’ve gotten to hear live like “Visit” or “8:16am,” they’ll show off their 311 tats and exchange stories of which band members they’ve met and how cool they were to chat with. The crowds are purposefully very mellow and if a pit breaks out, fans help each other up and look out for each other’s safety. (Right Mastodon and EyeHateGod fans?) We won’t complain about a lack of radio play because chances are the radio won’t play anything good anyway; just another spin of “All Mixed Up,” and not the superior “Beautiful Disaster” or their latest single “Hey You.” We don’t care if the show ends early because of noise curfews, like the last show in Chicago in 2009, when seven songs were cut from the set list so as to comply with the local noise laws, no thanks to the Kottonmouth Kings.
This summer, the boys aren’t going to let us down. Set against the backdrop of one of the greatest city skylines in the world, the Unity Tour 2010 will take flight in Chicago. I’ll be in the front row (hopefully) proudly wearing my 311-themed Cubs jersey, screaming every word to every song, staying positive and loving my life.
Seems like the perfect atmosphere to get lost in, doesn’t it? So, where are you, radio radio?
–Dennis McLennand, Photo 1 by Allison Dyer, Photo 2 by Mark Owens