311 is less of a band and more of an institution. Throughout its career, this pioneering musical act has incorporated elements of rock, funk, rap and reggae into a style that’s instantly recognizable. Oh, and did we mention they’ve been able to do that regardless of what musical trend was popular at the time?

On June 2, 311 will release its ninth studio full-length, Uplifter, which was produced by Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi) and is its first collection of new songs since 2005’s Don’t Tread On Me. Gibson.com caught up with the band’s frontman Nick Hexum to get an exclusive preview of the disc, find out how his band has managed to remain relevant and get advice on how your band can experience the same longevity that 311 have enjoyed for nearly two decades.

Nick Hexum with his Gibson ES-137What are your favorite Gibson guitars?
Oh, there are so many. I’ve always been a Les Paul guy but over the past four years the ES-137 has become my guitar of choice. There’s just something about its versatility, tone and the look of it. I’ve got a Sunburst one and a Blueburst one and I remember talking to one of the guys at Gibson once and I was like, “This is in my opinion the best Gibson there is” and he said, “You know what? No one else has embraced it is as much as you have — and it’s an underappreciated guitar for how great it is.” I took that as a big compliment.

It’s been four years between albums for you, which isn’t a long time for most bands but is the largest gap in 311’s history. Why was there a longer break this time around?
We felt like we turned around our previous album Don’t Tread On Me really fast because we wanted to get the record ready for the next touring season — and once it was out we realized we didn't spend enough time at the drawing board to make sure we were taking a big step forward. So on this record we really wanted to get rid of our old ways and bring in Bob Rock to shake things up. That’s really what he’s known for as a producer.

311 Uplifter album coverHad you ever worked with a producer as hands-on as Bob Rock? 
No, we hadn’t worked with a producer that had been so hands-on and now we’d never go back. I kind of crave that kind of involvement in the roadmaps of the songs and the vocals and tone. We’ve had good engineers that captured what we were doing on our own but Bob was like, “Okay, that was pretty cool but let’s try it this way.” He became a sixth member of the band. He’s a total gentleman and through all the weird stuff that went down with Metallica he learned how to communicate really well in a constructive kind of way. I can’t wait to work with him again; he’s just a total badass.

Are there any songs on Uplifter that you think might surprise hardcore 311 fans?
Yes, there’s so much diversity. One of the styles that we coined was “danceable rock”: music that has a heavy groove that could be right for the dance floor and right for the mosh pit — and there are three or four songs that have that style. There’s a dancey Britpop song I’m really proud of and there’s also that traditional romantic reggae that I think is taken to a whole new level with ambient production. The guitar solos are sick and I think me and [Tim] Mahoney really raised the bar in that department. The first single is called “Hey You,” and it’s a love song to music itself. It’s about music’s power to take you to different places and be source of solace. I’ve had my life saved by music and I think a lot of people can relate to that.

How do you think that 311 has managed to remain relevant for the past two decades?
There’s always been a grassroots attitude about us, even though we’ve been on a major label. We make the focus of our career the musicianship; it’s not some stunt that we pull. We’re musicians and we put our energy into putting on great performances and making really good albums and that work ethic and dedication shows in our live shows. We’re also very grateful; a lot of bands when they get a certain amount of success they get a sense of entitlement and ego and they break up because they think they can do better on their own. We still think we have an amazing lineup of five guys; it’s not about how many records you sell, it’s about how many years you get to do something you love — so now that we’re at 19 years we feel like we’re living the dream and we couldn’t be happier about it.

Nick Hexum with his Les Paul What would you say to younger bands who aspire to have that kind of a longevity?
I would tell them to practice their instruments because if you base your career on more superficial things it’s a shaky foundation and you end up getting top heavy and falling over. I think that’s what happened to a lot of the other rap rock bands who we probably paved the way for in the mid-’90s. They got bigger than us and then they fell apart because they didn’t have enough focus on their musicianship. I’m 38-years-old and I still take guitar lessons; people need to understand that music is a never-ending journey and you never stop being teachable. 

Like you just said, 311 paved your way for a lot of rap rock bands but it seems like you’ve transcended that scene. Where do you feel like 311 fit in these days?
I think we fall under the umbrella of modern rock music, but we don’t put it squarely into any kind of scene because we started our own unique way and just stuck to it. If you look at any innovative band that’s what they did: When R.E.M. or U2 came out they toiled in the underground until the mainstream came to them — and that’s what happened to us in the nineties. It’s funny, you’ll see ads for people in the newspaper who want to get bands together and they’re like, “I like rock, metal, hip hop and 311” as if we’re a category. I think that’s something that’s really cool.

311Could you tell us a little bit about the Unity Tour this year?
Unity is the coolest word and it’s something our fans associated with us because it’s the name of one of our independent albums and it’s a song that’s kind of a live anthem — and that’s what 311 is about, people coming together who share a more positive outlook. The tour definitely a party atmosphere and we’ve had everyone from Snoop Dogg to OAR join us in the past. This year we have Ziggy Marley, which will be awesome. We’re also looking to turn it into more of a festival and expand it even more by 2010. Our fans tell us that it’s like a holiday when 311 comes to town and the Unity Tour is an event, so people are going to come every year no matter who’s on the lineup. It just happened to evolve in a really cool way.

Is it weird to see your fans growing up and bringing their kids to shows or is that validating for you as  musician? 
I think it’s the coolest thing when people bring their children — and I think our music lends ourselves to that because we’re not like “nobody understands us.” What I mean is that there isn’t necessarily a huge generation gap between our listeners. Every generation from here on out will love the Beatles, so there’s no reason that your music has to be something your parents hate. 311 has always been unifying. So when I hear that people say “Amber” was their wedding song or that families are being built around our music, that’s cooler than selling records. It’s an amazing feeling.