Nick Hexum, Chad Sexton and Aaron “P-Nut” Wills started playing music together in 1988 in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Two years later, they invited their classmate, guitarist Tim Mahoney, to come on board.
“It’s so funny to think that it’s been that long,” Mahoney says ahead of the band’s upcoming show at Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory on Sept. 29. “Well, I guess a lot’s happened in 30 years, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been 30 years, that’s for sure.”
Long before their song taught us that "amber was the color of our energy," the band members were just kids who didn’t always play by the rules. They dubbed themselves “311” after the late-night skinny dipping adventures of a young P-Nut Wills went awry. The group's bassist was apprehended by police at a local pool and escorted home, with a citation that Omaha law enforcement labeled a 3-1-1, aka indecent exposure.
“The cops took him home, and I don’t even know if he had his clothes. But they knocked on the door in the middle of the night,” Mahoney recalls. “He was so young, too, like a young high school kid when that happened. So I can only imagine, now that I have children, being woken up in the middle of the night, having your kid show up with a cop, naked. That would be funny, but a little unsettling.”
After high school, the four young men went their separate ways before reuniting. Drummer Sexton attended college for a year, where he met Doug “SA” Martinez, who would soon join the group as their vocalist/DJ.
“We played once a week at this bowling alley that had concerts too, the Ranch Bowl,” Mahoney says. “Because Chad was friends with SA, he would come up and rap on a couple songs, and it just grew from there until he joined the band as a permanent member.”
It wasn’t long before 311 moved to California, hoping to catch the eye of a record label.
“In Omaha, where we’re from, there’s no record company attention there. So we were like all right, we gotta move to the city,” Mahoney says. “We ended up moving out to Van Nuys and renting a house. All of us lived there, and we rehearsed in the living room”
That’s when the hard work really began. Looking back, Mahoney says there wasn’t one single "ah-ha" moment when they knew they were going to be successful and that 311 would “make it.”
“When you’re first able to actually make a living off the money you generate from playing music, that’s kind of like the ‘big time,’" he says. "It had always been a dream to make a living from playing music and being able to focus our full time on that. When we moved out to California, we had saved up money from doing gigs to pay for rent, but we were just barely getting by. And then as time goes on, you’re just able to keep building.”
Mahoney remembers the time the band spent living together in that small house in Van Nuys fondly. Although they were in close quarters, it brought them closer together as a band and strengthened their bond as friends.
“It was a little house, and the pool took up most of the backyard, but it was fun, and we had a lot of good times there,” he says. “Mostly just the camaraderie and friendship-building. That helped translate to when we were first going out doing shows and were in even tighter quarters, like a van. We already knew each other pretty good and how to get along. We were just loving playing music and living in California.”
“There was a period of time back in the day where pot — like, the really good weed — was more expensive per ounce than gold. So maybe I should’ve alternated between buying reefer and investing some money.” – Tim Mahoney
Knowing what he knows now, there is one thing that Mahoney might have done differently.
“We did pretty good, as far as getting by, but I might’ve said [to myself], ‘Hey man, put some money aside and spend it on gold or some sort of investment rather than so much weed,’” he says with a big laugh. “There was a period of time back in the day where pot — like, the really good weed — was more expensive per ounce than gold. So maybe I should’ve alternated between buying reefer and investing some money.”
In those days, 311 was on an incremental trajectory toward success, which Mahoney says continues to this day, even after they’ve released 13 studio albums, performed thousands of shows in 27 countries and have amassed hordes of diehard fans.
“Even today, we’re just still trying to write good music and trying to write a better groove or a harder-rocking riff or better melodies,” he says. “It continues on. We’re just trying to keep ‘making it.’”
The group's humility and positive attitude has almost certainly contributed to 311’s longevity and wide appeal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band with a more dedicated fan base than 311. (Well, possibly the Insane Clown Posse's "Juggalos," but that’s a different level of dedication.)
“Music is one of these things that can get people together and make them kind of forget about whatever's going on and all the other strangeness of the world," Mahoney says. "We’ve got a really, really good night of music in store with Iya Terra and Iration, both just really excellent bands. We’re hoping that people will come out and enjoy the moment … We’ve just been trying to push out some positivity and some love out there in the world.”