For the past 10 summers, fans had gotten accustomed to seeing 311 bringing its multi-act Unity tour to outdoor amphitheaters across the country.
With past bills that have paired headliner 311 with such notable support acts as Michael Franti and Spearhead, Cypress Hill and Ziggy Marley, the Unity tour has been a great occasion to soak up positive vibes and enjoy the music of a host of acts that bring different blends of rock, reggae and hip-hop to the concert stage.
This summer, though, 311 is breaking with tradition. The band is touring extensively, as it has in previous summers. But this time, there’s no Unity tour. Instead, 311 is playing a few “evening-with” shows in which it will be the only act on the bill, as well as a good number of dates with a single opening act – with local reggae rockers Treehouse! opening for the hugely popular Nebraska-born act on Wednesday.
Singer Nick Hexum explained recently why 311 decided to take a break from what had been a highly popular touring format with the Unity tour.
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“We were just looking forward to mixing it up and playing some different venues and a few festivals and giving the Unity tour moniker a break for one year because we were just kind of, we had a myriad of support people (opening shows this summer),” he said in a recent phone interview. “Usually the Unity tour is when we have one band doing most of the summer. We’re just trying something different and playing a lot of different venues.”
For the Myrtle Beach trio Treehouse!, Wednesday’s gig is a huge opportunity.
"TreeHouse! is honored to represent our hometown while sharing the stage with one of our biggest influences,” said Treehouse! singer-guitarist Jeremy Anderson in an e-mail. “This opportunity is a milestone in the blessings we have experienced through our perseverance. We are excited to return to Myrtle Beach to share an epic evening with 311 and all our local fans, friends, and family."
For 311, this summer’s tour represents the first significant touring in the United States behind the band’s latest album, “Stereolithic,” which was released on 311 Day (March 11).
Hexum said the group tried to avoid setting any specific objectives for the album when it began work on the project before its 2013 Unity tour.
“Our manager was trying to get us to sit down and talk about what kind of an album we wanted to make,” Hexum said. “I remember (drummer) Chad (Sexton) saying ‘Don’t try and do that. We’re going to get in there and we’re going to write songs. It’s best if there are no rules and we just let it come out.’ So I wouldn’t say there was any real like mission statement except to do the best album that we can.”
But the band knew one thing that would make “Stereolithic” a different kind of album project was its choice of a producer. Instead of bringing in a big name to produce, the group chose Scotch Ralston, who for most of 311’s three-decade career had served as the band’s live sound engineer. Hexum and his bandmates – Sexton, SA Martinez (vocals/deejay), Tim Mahoney (guitar) and P-Nut (bass) – got more than they bargained for with Ralston, who in addition to producing the album became closely involved in the songwriting for “Stereolithic.”
Having a new person in the songwriting mix brought some new dimensions to the songs, particularly in the lyrics to some songs.
“One characteristic I can pinpoint of Scotch’s is he has some clever wordplay that I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it’s interesting wordplay,” Hexum said. “A song like ‘Made In The Shade,’ he wrote more than half of the lyrics on that. And to me, it’s a lot of imagery, and then you have to kind of look further into it to even glean a message from it, where my stuff might be a little more obvious.”
Ralston also helped add to the number of songs being written by band members by doing something the group calls “gold mining.”
“He would go through the hard drives of old demos that we had and be like ‘You guys really have something here,’” Hexum said. “Then he would suggest a melody. I think that really helped us have a bigger output. Having 15 songs (instead of 10 or 12) was because of having that extra voice.”
The music that emerged on “Stereolithic” continues the recent trend of 311 weighting its albums toward rocking – yet melodic -- material.
Songs like “Five of Everything,” “First Dimension,” “The Great Divide” and “Ebb and Flow” are driven by gritty guitar riffs and hard-hitting drums.
The album gets some variety from tunes such as “Sand Dollars” (with its quirky guitar tone and grooving rhythm), “Friday Afternoon” (a tranquil ballad that segues into an edgier finish) and “Tranquility” (a ballad with a soothing melody balanced by just a bit of guitar grit).
Hexum said it’s hard to say which band members favor certain types of songs because each member’s musical leanings can change and the band members tend to influence each other musically. But in general, Hexum said he’s usually the band member pushing for, as he put it, the “more melodic, chill moments.”
“Coming up with the departures (from the rocking songs) is probably, for me, the most freeing and fun part,” he said. “To come up with songs like ‘Friday Afternoon,’ this really trippy epic journey, or something like ‘Tranquility,’ which feels like a real new sound for us, that for me is the most exciting.”