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Gone Phishin' 

311's still searching for that jam-band vibe

Long before sensitive indie singer-songwriters like Conor Oberst turned Omaha into "Emoha," a group of funky white kids were trying to put the Nebraska city on the musical map. Formed in 1990, 311 didn't stay in Cornhusker territory long before moving to Los Angeles — a change of scenery that kinda made sense, given that the band's reggae/punk/funk sound had a soaked-in-the-sun vibe to it.

"We moved out here in January of 1992," says guitarist Tim Mahoney via phone from his North Hollywood home, which is a mere five miles from the rehearsal space and studio where the band recorded its last four albums. "At the time, it was hard to get any kind of attention. Before we moved out and started playing together in this band, Nick [Hexum, vocals and guitar] and Chad [Sexton, drums] had moved out and then moved back to Nebraska, and we started playing together. We were thinking of moving to Chicago and New York too, but we went where the sun shines the most."

The group made an impact with its very first show, an opening slot for the hardcore act Fugazi. The experience undoubtedly inspired 311's DIY spirit: After numerous self-released albums, 1993's Music received wider distribution that exposed them to a skate/surf/punk audience that relied upon the defunct Warp magazine as its musical bible. The fact the guys financed their own shoestring-budget tour only fueled their appeal among beach brats and skate punks.

"We connected with skateboarders or other kids through word of mouth," says Mahoney. "I grew up skateboarding and stuff, and music was always a huge part of that. It's that way with surfing too."

Crossover success came with the arrival of 311's 1995 self-titled album, which yielded radio hits like "Don't Stay Home" and "Down." The band started playing larger venues and hasn't looked back, thanks in part to its ability to connect so strongly with fans. Every other year on March 11 — that's 3-11 — the group plays a fan appreciation concert; this year's installment was an epic set in Las Vegas.

"We did three sets," says Mahoney. "We try to fit as much as we can in there. It's nice for us because it's a convention where our fans can get together and hang out. Our fans are like-minded people. It's a cool atmosphere. Just to go through and play all those songs in one evening and touch on songs we hadn't played in a while. Last summer, we got in a rut with the set list, and we're going to try to get out of that and mix up the songs a lot more. We have more than 150 songs. We like them all; it's just that we sometimes forget about certain ones. We're trying to get back into the habit of mixing it up."

The band's latest album, last year's Uplifter, mixes things up quite well on its own. From shimmering ballads like "Golden Sunlight" to funk workouts like "Hey You!" and the hip-hop-heavy "Jackpot," the album is an accurate representation of the band's arsenal. Some of the credit belongs to veteran producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith), who is best known for his bombastic tendencies.

"We were skeptical, but he really knows how to make it sound good," says Mahoney. "The way he had it dialed in was really great. He's great about helping us. It was a good experience, but it felt like we're just getting into it. The next record will be a step up for us; we want it to be a notch above what we just did."

As much as the band has refined its approach in the studio, onstage it continues to venture into jam-band territory, experimenting with improv and stretching some tunes out into jams.

"I'm a huge Phish fan, and [singer-guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] is one of my all-time favorites," says Mahoney, adding that Bob Marley is his "all-time favorite songwriter." "I'm a Phish student, and I study a lot of what they do. They're so smart. Being able to do multiple shows and not repeat songs really caters to your fan base. We're trying to learn from jam-band stuff like that. We try at least once a night to get to a space where it's all improvisational. Our fans might want to come to the shows more if we got in the groove of playing different set lists. I love fusion and stuff like that. As we get older, we're more interested in everyone getting into the groove and taking off from there."

Send feedback to jniesel@clevescene.com.

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