311 frontman Nick Hexum is preparing for the October 1 release of My Shadow Pages, his debut solo album of rock, funk and jazz fusion billed as the Nick Hexum Quintet, featuring his brother Zach, among others. Fuse recently debuted album track "Sideways," and chatted with Nick about the birth of the solo LP, co-writing with longtime friends and confronting his fears in song. Also, Nick dishes on his favorite new TV show, Netflix's Orange Is the New Black: "I insist they put out the next season now!"
How did the new solo album, My Shadow Pages, come together? Why now after more than two decades in music?
My brother Zach and I had planned to have a just-for-fun jam band for getting together and playing with different musicians. We wrote a couple of instrumentals in this jazz-funk style of Medeski Martin & Wood. Then I was like, "Let's turn these jams into actual songs." It's a pretty cool style that we'd found. But it was very organic. We just started putting words to the songs and it suddenly picked up a lot of momentum. It was so much fun to write, so we were like, "Let's do more."
What's with the title?
Well, as the title My Shadow Pages indicates, this all took place in the background. No one knew it was happening. There were no expectations or deadlines. One step at a time. If it turns out cool, then we'll release the record. If it's well received, then we'll do shows. We're just taking it as it comes. No pressure.
So, that said, there's a possibility of second solo record?
Yeah. Another fun thing about the album is that I've opened up a distribution channel [What Have You Records] so I can release records as I see fit. So I predict that my output will increase. Maybe next time I'll want to do something more electronic, like combining sounds of My Shadow Pages with dubstep production—I have no idea where the process will take me. But now that I'm done with the whole major label system, I'll be able to put out records more frequently. It's been fun getting my label going again, which was a vehicle for 311 back in 1990 and '91, when we basically just sold CDs and tapes at local Omaha stores. But to have proper distribution is pretty cool.
Every song on My Shadow Pages is a collaboration...
Yep, all songs are co-written. There are no 100 percent Nick Hexum songs on there. It was fun to meet up with people and crank out songs. I just started going around town and hooking up with different co-writers, like Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult, Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin, who wrote two songs on the album, and Sam Hollander who does stuff with Gym Class Heroes. I made a lot of friends doing these collaborations. We had also been writing pop songs for outside artists—but that's a lame game.
I'm really not into doing that anymore. But we tried it out and got a couple of placements. But mostly it was a really good learning experience. But then I was like, "Let's just do this for me." Because trying to write a song for whatever pop guy flavor of the day is frustrating. At best you get an A&R guy blowing smoke, saying "This is great!," but stops calling.
Is this jazz-funk sound a style you've always been interested in?
Yeah. In high school I'd switch from Bad Brains to Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra. Those crooning vocals were just as big of an influence on me as anything modern. It's always been a love of mine. And I played in jazz band in high school. 311 touched [on that sound] on the earlier stuff, like a couple of songs on Grassroots and Transistor. With 311, our music tends to be custom-made for rocking arenas. These jazzier tunes are made for small clubs. There are intense chords that would be lost in big venues.
Any albums or artists in particular that really helped shape My Shadow Pages?
John Scofield's work with Medeski Martin & Wood. They made two albums together. And Scofield's A Go Go album is my bible, as far as guitar. He's my guy on the guitar. There are some modern yet retro sounding bands, too, like New Mastersounds. They're this very Meters-y sounding English band. And this band from Australia called the Bamboos, which is this James Brown-style funk band but with modern production. I was listening a lot to those artists.
Where was My Shadow Pages recorded?
It was with producer by Jim Scott, who has worked with Dixie Chicks, the Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and tons more. He has this amazing studio out in Valencia by Magic Mountain. It's got everything, every vintage instrument you could imagine. We went up there and recorded all the main instruments in five days, then I did overdubs and guitars at my house for a few weeks, then went back for three days. We did eight days total of studio time; I've never come near making a record in such little time. I wanted to keep costs down, too, since we have no idea if this will sell more than five copies to my parents [laughs].
Can you speak to the lyrical themes on the album? Perhaps reference a few tracks in particular ...
The opener, "Once in Your Life," is about the pursuit of doing this album itself, about creative freedom and taking a risk and going for something new even if some people won't like it. It's about just being true to yourself. There are a few love songs, too: "Give It to Me" and "Supernatural." Then "Song for Driving" is exactly what is sounds like. It's an instrumental written by the full quintet. It's kind of melancholy and reminded me of taking a long drive at night, so we made it into a song about driving and the stuff that goes through your head when you're doing that. "The Dreamer" is the most autobiographical and I had a little help from my wife, which is a first.
What's that song about?
It's about how I'm always this perpetual optimist. [Quotes lyrics] "I never think there's a rainy day ahead in my forecast / but the good times never last / and then I feel like an outcast." I'm excessively optimistic and I never expect rainy days, and sometimes things don't pan out. It's something that I'm recognizing about myself and it's something that I need to change.
How did your wife help out?
The bass player Andres [Rebellon] and I had written the instrumental with a guide vocal to the chorus. Then my wife and I were driving to the airport and listening to the demo, and I'm like, "I've got it! Take out your iPhone and write this down." She's a poem enthusiast, so she had some images to drop in there, too. It just came out on our way heading out on vacation.
Speaking of vacation, what are you doing for fun these days away from music?
I just devoured Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. I insist they put out the next season now! And I'm going to lots of concerts. I signed up for JamBase, which tells you when your favorite bands are coming to town, so I've got six concerts slated for the next few months. I just went to Phish and I'm going to Phish again in Denver. I'm seeing Dave Matthews, John Scofield, Gov't Mule, Pearl Jam and Gary Clark Jr. But mainly in my free time I do stuff with my two young daughters, Echo and Maxine. There's a pool at my new studio, so I bring them over here to splash about.
Do you worry what hardcore 311 fans will think of My Shadow Pages?
I just want to make sure everyone understands that 311 is my priority. It's my mainstay. It's such a wonderful blessing to have and it's all of our lives work, and this isn't a change to a different priority in my life. It's a side project. But, yeah, it's not rocking and I'm sure there are people that won't connect with it. But it's not gonna hurt anybody. If they don't like it they don't need to listen. As an artist you need to keep following your heart. You need to disregard worry about a vocal minority doesn't like something you're doing. Music doesn't hurt anybody.