311 vocalist Nick Hexum is no stranger to musical exploration. The next chapter in his musical story is the release for ‘My Shadow Pages,’ his first-ever solo album, which will be released on Hexum’s own label, What Have You Records via a partnership with INgrooves/Fontana. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Jason Mraz), the project—billed as The Nick Hexum Quintet—is a departure from Hexum’s work with the multi-platinum-selling 311, blending elements of funk, pop, jazz and classic rock to thrilling effect. My Shadow Pages’ sees Hexum joined by an amazing lineup of musicians, including drummer Gary Novak (Alanis Morissette, George Benson, Chick Corea), Andrés Rebellón (a Colombian native Hexum discovered at a Musicians Institute audition), keyboardist Luke Miller (Phunkelotopus, New Soul Underground) and Nick’s guitar/sax/keyboard-playing brother, Zack Hexum (who has toured with Fitz & the Tantrums, performed with Michael Buble and composes music for film & television).
Even while spreading his wings musical on this solo project, Hexum and his 311 bandmates are focused on the future of their band. 2013 marks 311’s 23rd anniversary as a band. Over the course of their amazing career, Hexum and the band have sold close to 10 million albums in the U.S. alone. Their last album, 2011’s “Universal Pulse,” entered Billboard’s Top 200 Albums Chart at No. 7, making it the band’s 8th straight top 10 debut. They’ve written and recorded 9 top 10 radio hits, including three No. 1’s. Their list of hits includes “Down,” “All Mixed Up,” “Amber,” “Love Song,” “Come Original,” “Beautiful Disaster,” “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Hey You” and “Sunset In July.” For 11 consecutive years, the band has headlined amphitheaters across the U.S. with their summer “Unity Tour.” They also host an annual Caribbean Cruise – a four-night trip from Miami to a private island in the Bahamas with 3,000 of their biggest fans from around the world. It is clearly an exciting time for Nick Hexum, as well as for fans of his work!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Nick Hexum to discuss the formation of The Nick Hexum Quintet, the challenges of creating ‘My Shadow Pages,’ the evolution of his songwriting process and what 311 has in store for fans with their upcoming return to the studio!
Before we get to your most recent work, I wanted to go back to the beginning. What are first musical memories?
My earliest musical memories are of me dancing around to my Dad’s 1950’s 45s, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. There was a punk rock energy to those early records like “Great Balls of Fire” and I was hooked! Around the age of five, I said I was going to be a musician and I have never really entertained any other task. I always said “If you have a backup plan, you might use it.” I was hooked on music at an early age. I started piano when I was five, took up guitar when I was twelve and I played bass in Unity, which was the precursor to 311. 311 started when I was twenty and it has been 23 great years!
When you first picked up the mic, did you have any idea that doing so would lead you to the heights it has?
You know, I always believed “Why not me?” I thought you had to believe in yourself, even if others don’t and you just have to go for it. I knew that it was going to take the kicking pen of some doors and whatnot. Being from Omaha, I definitely did have any sort of insider’s track or leg up at all. I always was hell-bent on doing it and never got to the point of considering that it wasn’t going to work. So in a way, I guess I always thought it was going to happen.
Did you ever have the “ah-ha moment,” where you felt you felt like you had finally made it?
It was a gradual ascent from having a really popular band in high school and then having the band Unity, where we had a lot of fun playing shows prior to 311. I guess that moment of “I think we made it!” was when 311 was on Late Night with David Letterman. I was a huge David Letterman fan and I still am. When we performed on his show in 1995 or 1996, I was like “Ok! This is it! This is something I always wanted to do, ever since I was sneaking around and staying up late to watch David Letterman when I was an early teenager. To be on his show and handing him a Cuban cigar was a pretty cool moment for me!
You are at the point in your career where you are branching out with a solo project. What makes now the time to spread your wings and pursue that aspect of your career?
I think SA Martinez putting out his Ghostwolf album inspired me. He had written some songs that were very melodic and a little softer that weren’t really clicking with 311, so opening put an outlet for him to do his side band was inspiring to me. I also had been really getting into guitar playing so much that I wanted to have a platform to be able to noodle away freely! [laughs]
Did you have any reservations about doing a solo album?
No. You know, my biggest concern was that it was done in a respectful way towards 311 and fit in nicely with our schedule because with 311, that is our life’s work for all of us. There are plenty of extra months in the year for people in the band to pursue side endeavors. I just wanted to make sure I did it wrong and didn’t push back what 311 is doing.
What can you tell us about the group of musicians you put together to form The Nick Hexum Quintet?
I met this kid, Andrés Rebellón, when he auditioned. He had such a touch on the bass. He brings so much enthusiasm to the project and he is also a really good engineer, so now as we are messing around with another Nick Hexum Quintet album, he has been a huge asset to me. He is a twenty five year old Columbian guy. who I kind of helped out with getting his visa situation squared away. He is such a good dude. Gary Novak plays drums on the album. He is incredible but he is super duper busy, so I have a different guy, Andy Sanesi who will be doing the upcoming shows with me. There is my brother Zack (Hexum), who I could spend fifteen minutes talking about how amazing he is. I have learned more from him than anybody else. Even though I am the older brother and I used to teach him stuff, he went away to college and became an amazing jazz musician. I usually end up asking him questions and he always has the answer. Then there is Luke Miller, who we call Chops, because of his huge sideburns as well as his amazing keyboard chops. He is a great Hammond B3, clarinet and Wurlitzer player. He has a very vintage touch and he can make the tastiest solos and comping parts that are building upon what the keyboard greats from The Meters to Booker T to Stevie Wonder. He is an amazing keyboardist. It is a much more keyboard oriented sound than anything I have ever been a part of, so that right there immediately makes it different from 311 because a lot of the songs are based on piano. There is no heaviness in it. I mean, there are heavy grooves but it is not distortion guitars. The different arrangements and ingredients make it something unique and something I have never been a part of before.
How did this new sound affect your writing process?
All of the songs are collaborations. I read a book about creativity and it analyzed the different parties that have been really creative like Apple, 3M or people who invent a lot of stuff. The similarity is that they really encourage cross collaborations with new people and they will make you get into a room with a new person. I realized that was a way to put some new juice into my own creativity by going out and collaborate with new people. I had made some friends in the songwriting circuit, so I called them up. I said “I don’t want to write for other people, so let’s write for me.” Then it was very fun and easy because you don’t have to wonder if someone is going to like it because I am the artist. I had been in this songwriting circuit where people would say “A certain pop artist of the moment is looking for songs.” Then we would try to write a song and it never worked out, not for me. I know a lot of people who have a lot of success with it but even though I have dabbled in it, I much prefer to write songs for myself. However, I made some great contacts like S*A*M and Sluggo, the producer/songwriter team (Sam Hollander and his partner Dave Katz), Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra and Tim Pagnotta from Sugar Cult. It was a lot of fun! Then of course, Zach and the others guys from the Nick Hexum Quintet have songwriting on there too. My wife even helped with lyrics to one song, so it was a true collaboration.
The title of the record is “My Shadow Pages.” How did you come up with the title and what does it mean to you personally?
I wanted it to be “My…” something because it felt like something I could steer in any direction I wanted. Being more from the tradition of old school jazz band leaders, where you hire the musicians and take the lead on everything, it was really my baby. I figured it was done in the shadows because no one knew I was doing it, so there were absolutely no expectations or pre-conceived notions. The record was done before I even let anyone know I was doing it. It was done in the shadows, so “My Shadow Pages” seemed like an appropriate title.
Looking back on the project, what do you consider the biggest challenge if putting it together?
There weren’t a lot of challenges. It was done so much with the spirit of doing it just for fun and there was no pressure or deadlines. In fact, since I was paying for everything myself and being the label, I did it really fast and cheap. We recorded all of the instruments in five days. I went back and did some vocals at my house after that. It was really fun and easy because those players can just jump on it and didn’t need a lot of punch-ins and whatnot, so it was record very quickly.
You mentioned preparing for a second Nick Hexum Quintet album. Where are you at in the process and do you see yourself branching out even further musically?
Yeah. I love the way the first record is very vintage. There is nothing on the album that didn’t exist by 1979. All of the instruments are vintage. I think on the next one, maybe it won’t have that as such a rule and I will have a more modern mixture of cool beats and whatnot. I really love funk and jazz, so I think it will be continuing in that vein. I also expect to see new people coming in. When I was creating “My Shadow Pages,” I didn’t have my own studio but now I do, so I can really take my time with the new album and it won’t have to be done in five days.
What do you have lined up as far as touring for this album? What are you looking forward to most and have you been able to play a lot of the material live?
We have our first show next month; right after the record comes out on October 1st. We have three Sundays in a row at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles. It is a venue my brother has played a lot and it is a really small space. The shows are sold out. I think the big challenge for me there is that I want to get people dancing. Jazz, in the early days was dance music. It was music for the masses, so I don’t want it to be this dinner club type of thing where you are sitting down. I want to get people up and moving! That is what is on my radar. We are just going to o those shows to see how it goes and if it is fun and successful, which I guess it probably will be we will add some additional dates. I am just taking one step at a time because I am right in the middle of beginning to track this new 311 album. It is a great group of songs and something I am very excited about. We are waiting for Chad [Sexton] to get down with the drums, so the rest of us can go do our parts. My plate is full and that’s how I like it!
311 has been together for 23 years at this point and you guys are still a tight unit. To what do you attribute the band’s longevity?
I think we have a real commitment to putting a lot of heart and soul into our shows and what we do. We never expected things to come to us easily and work really hard. I think people sense that and it comes through in the shows, which makes people want to come back year after year. A lot of it is that we are really fortunate to have really amazing fans, which are so supportive and excited enough to go on a cruise ship to the Caribbean with us or come down to New Orleans next March for 311 Day. That is asking a lot of our fans and they are stoked to do it, so we never want to miss a chance to thank them.
How do you feel you have evolved as a musician through the years, both with 311 and now as a solo artist?
A few years ago I decided to really step up my humility to become more teachable. Whether it is reaching out or taking guitar lessons, I was striving to open up my mind to remain as teachable as I can. That has been a bit of a shift for me. I was a self-taught guy before that but I realized I could improve and expand my horizons by learning from others and directly asking for help. I am on my sixth guitar teacher in as many years. I work with a guy for a few months, move along to another guy and each time I do, I learn a lot. The same goes for collaborating on songwriting with new people. It is definitely a change that occurred in me a few years ago.
You have been able to explore with 311 and The Nick Hexum Quintet. When it comes to those projects, is there still musical ground you are anxious to cover in the years to come?
The Quintet will be a lot of unscripted moments, which is a big thing for me. There will be a lot more improvisation. We are probably going to make up some songs on the spot at the upcoming shows. That is my next thing! I have been inspired by a lot of jam bands and I am really looking forward to doing it live on stage without a net.
Do you feel there are any misconceptions about yourself at this point in your career?
I don’t know. I guess I have always been pretty low key, so there is probably more mystery than misconception! [laughs] I always want to let the music speak for itself. I love doing interviews where we talk about music but I think I have been fortunate enough to be able to have had a band that is successful but I can still go around town and nobody know who I am. I am kind of glad for that!
So what you are saying is there will be no tell-all biography out of you anytime soon?
No! [laughs] You won’t see me on TMZ or doing anything crazy. I will probably just remain low key.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young musicians who want to make music their career?
Focus on your live show, getting it to be fun and building up a following through that because that is one thing that can never be taken away from you through piracy. It is really the core of what a musician can do. The climate of the music business hasn’t affected 311 much because we always focused on our live show and having a direct relationship with our fans. That is what we encourage young bands to do. I also am happy to hear a lot of young bands come up and tell me “We want to do it just like you guys did it! You guys did it right!” It’s true. We don’t really have to worry if our songs are on the radio or not because if you build up a direct relationship with your fans, it really doesn’t matter.
As a fan of 311, your albums serve as chapters in different points in life. Are you the type of artist who thinks about the legacy of your band and if so, what do you think it would be?
Yeah. I definitely take a lot of pride in staying together for 23 years. I know a lot of our fans say “It has been so cool to see you guys up there doing it better than ever after so many years.” That bond we have, we know we have stumbled onto a great chemistry and do the best work we could ever do on our own. We remain grateful for what we have. I guess the next thing to mention is that I am really excited about this new 311 album. There are some groundbreaking new sounds on there that I am excited for. That is the next thing, making an exciting album with the help of producer Scott Ralston, who is our sound man and produced the “Transistor” album as well as mixing and engineering quite a bit of our stuff over the years. To have him back, getting full producer credit, is terrific because he has been a real creative dynamo. He comes up with so many great ideas; he is truly like a sixth member of the band. We have had him involved with the writing process more than we have ever had a producer because we feel so comfortable with him. He has been down with us for 21 of our 23 years, so it is pretty cool!
As a fan we couldn’t be more excited about these projects, Nick! Thanks for your time today and we will be spreading the word!
I appreciate your time! Thanks so much and I will talk to you soon!
For all the latest information on Nick Hexum and The Nick Hexum Quintet, visit www.TheNickHexumQuintet.com, like them on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNickHexumQuintet and follow Nick on Twitter at @nickhexum.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.