Q&A Interview With Aaron "P-Nut" Wills - A 311 Concert Preview (Sunday, July 2, 2017 at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island)

Q&A Interview With Aaron "P-Nut" Wills - A 311 Concert Preview (Sunday, July 2, 2017 at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island)

Bringing the “Unity” tour back to Chicago’s Northerly Island Sunday night, I spoke with 311 bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills about the group’s unique relationship with its fans, their twelfth studio album Mosaic and a fond memory of performing, as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, at United Center (during a dominant 90s run of Chicago Bulls basketball)… 

Longevity is an idea you can’t avoid when looking at the career of 311.

With roots that stretch back nearly thirty years, the band has defied rock and roll odds keeping the same lineup intact for the last twenty-five. And the tour that brings the band back to Northerly Island on Sunday (the “Unity” tour) is their eighteenth straight.

Unlike many of their 90s peers, 311 hasn’t had to resort to gimmicks like a full album performance to fill large outdoor venues each summer. Most bands make the claim but 311’s relationship with its fans is unique. The band has covered diverse musical terrain on each of their studio albums, tackling anything from alternative and rock to reggae, rap and more. It’s a journey their fans continue to follow them on following the release last week of their twelfth studio album Mosaic.

Working for the first time with producer John Feldmann had a profound impact on the new album. “He just brings forth a complete skill set. He’s a songsmith,” says 311 bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills.

Feldmann came up alongside 311 in the mid-90s as guitarist and vocalist of L.A. punks Goldfinger. But, since, he’s written for or produced a wide array of artists including Blink 182, Disturbed, Avicii and Neon Trees as one of music’s most sought after writer/producers. “If you want to see what’s interesting in rock, follow him around for the next few years and see what he does next. He’s on fire,” continued the bassist. 

I spoke over the phone with P-Nut about a fond Chicago memory (which, incidentally, also involves Duran Duran), John Feldmann’s impact on Mosaic and 311’s ability to look ahead at the big picture as fame struck in the 90s. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below…

Q. Let’s start with the tour. For the eighteenth consecutive summer, you guys are bringing the “Unity” tour to Chicago. What does that concept of “Unity” mean to you after all these years now?

Aaron “P-Nut” Wills: It’s a lot. It’s hard to say. Chicago has kind of been so good to us. And it’s amazing that we get to come back all the time and appreciate your everything: your beautiful days and your fantastic food and your just incredible people.

But, to me, “Unity,” in the summer tour context, is exactly that – it’s just travelling and experiencing where we’re at and looking down at the faces. Bringing everybody together is really the point.

It’s amazing we’ve been able to do it so consistently and for so long – it’s been just great.

Q. You guys have played just about everywhere in Chicago now over the course of the last twenty-five years – from the clubs, to the arenas, to the radio station fests and everything in between. Any fond Chicago memory that sticks out?

P-Nut: We played the United Center – gosh, what year was it? The Bulls were still really, really kicking a ton of ass. It was sometime in the 90s I’m going to suppose. And the Bulls kicked us down a bunch of warm ups – like super, heavy duty, on-court warm ups.

And I was already in the throes of being a gigantic Lakers fan (seeing the greatness in our future with a very young Kobe Bryant at the time).

And I just hated the Bulls!

But playing the United Center, and then watching those games, you’re like, “I’ve played there! I rocked that house!” How cool is that?

And I kind of warmed up to the Bulls a little bit but, god, what a fun team to hate. You guys will always be my favorite team to hate. Because just… incredible dominance.

So that hit home on a lot of different levels. It was like, “Well, these guys are really nice to us…” and “God, I hate this team so much…” And then the people are so great! And the United Center is just incredible. I think we played there with Duran Duran. It was just a big mega fest and it was so much fun.

Yeah, we’ve played everywhere from the Metro to the United Center. We love playing outside. There’s nothing like playing outside. And that’s what Chicago offers every summer.

(*** Editor’s note: The United Center concert in question took place on Thursday, December 11, 1997. It was the fourth installment of then alternative radio station Q101’s annual holiday “Twisted” offering. Twisted 4 featured The Cure, Duran Duran, Sarah McLachlan, 311, Everclear, Sugar Ray… and Chumbawamba. That’s right, Chumbawamba.)

Q. Well, we’ve already kind of hit on the idea of longevity twice. And 311 is nearly thirty years in with the same lineup intact for the last twenty-five. I know you get asked it all the time (because I saw it in every interview I read preparing for this) but I’m fascinated by what a rare thing it is – you guys don’t seem to hate each other. What’s the key to keeping that lineup intact after all these years? 

P-Nut: I can legitimately say that we do not hate each other. That’s a very easy thing to say. We like each other.

Me and [vocalist/guitarist] Nick [Hexum] are going to play basketball in about an hour together. And we’ve been doing that for the last maybe year or so ever since he’s gotten interested in the sport. It’s super fun. It’s fun to battle with him. God, I can’t believe how good he’s gotten so fast. I guess that’s what you get when you work out every day of your life for forty years. He’s just taken to it like a fish to water. It’s incredible. And the guys that I play with are like, “Quit taking it easy on Nick!” And I’m like, “I’m not taking it easy on Nick! He’s a monster!” So it’s really fun. We love each other.

[Guitarist] Tim [Mahoney] and [vocalist] S.A. [Martinez] live in the same town a little north of Los Angeles and [drummer] Chad [Sexton] just got married. Life is good.

We’re thrilled to be doing it this long and we’re thrilled to be doing it together with each other.

Q. Something I find unique about 311 is that, while you do the full album celebrations from time to time, you’ve never been forced to rely solely on them to tour and fill big venues (unlike a lot of bands that came up around you in the 90s). How important is it to you to keep pushing things forward?

P-Nut: We think we still have to play a lot of hits to keep people interested and I’m really pushing us to back away from some of it.

There’s songs that people have heard at every concert. And if we take away a few of those and replace those with new ones…

I saw Iron Maiden about a year ago and they played a dozen songs that I had never heard before. And it was an incredible show. I was like, “Gosh, I need to listen to their new album!” That was my take away from that. And I want the 311 faithful to be able to do the same. I don’t want to just keep looking back at our past victories in our present ability to convey those past triumphs. We’re going to continue having new ideas.

I think, professionally, we feel like we’re in a really interesting position where we could break through and potentially have these new glories – or sink down and be a heritage band. I’m up for whatever. But I’m not going to just give up and rely on what used to be and the fact that we can still put on a good show.

There’s a lot more for us to explain in our way.

311 - Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Q. You guys have a unique relationship with your fanbase in that they’re willing to continually follow you on these new journeys, even twelve studio albums in. Every band claims to have that but it does seem different for your band. What’s that relationship with your fans like?

P-Nut: I know other bands feel the same way, and it’s probably true at different points on the map, but our relationship with our fans and how much they give back – to me, they’re up for anything (to answer your question). They know us to a certain degree. What we let out, and what we’ve hinted to in the lyrics, and what we’re saying right out front – it’s a puzzle for people to be involved with as much as they want to.

I love Coheed and Cambria. And you can just like their songs. But there’s a comic book you can read if you want to know more about the songs. You can follow the story in such a creative way. And I think, with our longevity, we do the same thing. Nick’s grown up a ton and we’ve all changed a bunch (as the song “Down” goes and that was twenty-two years ago). We’ve changed a billion years since then. So it’s just great to come along for the ride. I love not knowing what’s coming up next.

It’s just like, just live long enough and be creative and be open – say, “yes.” All these things add to it. It’s a really, really interesting time for the band and the audience, I believe (they just don’t know it yet).

Q. Mosaic was co-produced by John Feldmann (of Goldfinger) and it was your first time working with him. What was that experience like and what new elements did he bring to the record?

P-Nut: He just brings forth a complete skill set. He’s a songsmith. He’ll write a great bed and then be like, “Ok, what do you want to do with it?” And it’s like, “Well, I don’t know what to do with it.” And he’s like, “Let’s try this. Let’s try that.” It’s right in between improv and composition. It’s very much in the moment, flying by the seat of your pants in, like, a caffeine hurricane – and getting the best results you could ever imagine. It’s amazing.

His process should be filmed. The camera always changes the subject but if you could really capture a legitimate moment of Feldmann being creative… It’s almost all good ideas. He’s got chord variations. He’s got great lyrics. He’s got the bands figured out. It’s pretty amazing.

There’s no luck for him being in the position he’s in. If you want to see what’s interesting in rock, follow him around for the next few years and see what he does next. He’s on fire. He’s smoldering when he’s resting but when he’s working, he’s completely on fire.

It’s something I’ve never experienced before. But it’s totally the way I love working.

Q. The word “mosaic” itself indicates the bringing together of a lot of a smaller, different ideas or styles to create a unique piece of art. Does that idea kind of inform the new album?

P-Nut: It’s an ongoing theme. We’ve always been like that. Our music is hybrid from the get go. We’re really aware of the elements we’re bringing in now.

I love that we didn’t edit ourselves at all. These were all the demos we had. Anything that made it to lyric writing – out of these seventeen songs, these were the seventeen things we were working on, really. It’s really fun to do that.

It’s cool because it will reflect on the audience where there’s these burners that are like rock songs that are like the Blue Album and there’s some “out there” stuff like Transistor and there’s some future rock where there’ll be a new genre of 311 subculture that will relate to Mosaic more than anything else.

And then onto the future.

Q. In prepping for this, I saw you mention in an interview that following up the Blue Album with Transistor was crucial because it was so different – that you knew you weren’t always going to be a triple platinum band so you didn’t want to just churn out the same album again for the sake of trying to prolong that moment in time. You embraced that idea where, I think, a fear of that situation stifles or ruins a lot of other bands going into the second album. Even that early on in 311’s existence were you guys thinking that far ahead in terms of longevity and creating something sustainable?

P-Nut: Definitely. For me, it was like, “I can see where this is going…” And I think for everybody else in the band too.

When we were listening to it, it reflected so much of what we were hearing in our own stereos and in our heads, those sounds – that spacey, dub with rock sound – that we knew we’d be able to kind of push onto people because of the Blue Album’s straight forward kind of success.

And then, releasing Soundsystem after that, was us kind of reeling in the wild creative and showing that we’re not ever going to do the same thing twice.

And sometimes we’ll fall on our face. I love it. I’d rather have that, and have a long career, than just those first four albums. As legendary as that may be, I’d be hating knowing that there was this possible presence where we’re still figuring it out and we still have a great audience and we’re still finding new people to work with. It’s great.

So we planned on being around for a long time from the first steps. It was like, “This will be a long ride. Let’s get comfortable.”

– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )

(Details on Sunday’s 311 show at Northerly Island below)

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311
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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island

7PM
All ages

Also performing: New Politics, The Skints

Tickets: $30 – $45

Click HERE to purchase tickets
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