Q&A: Aaron "P-Nut" Wills of 311
The vibe for the forthcoming 311 album "Universal Pulse" is a little different than past albums, according to bassist Aaron "P-Nut" Wills. Things are positive in the 311 camp; radio stations have jumped on the first single, "Sunset in July." But the process leading up to the July 19 release of the collection wasn't always easy.
"We had a batch of songs that we got rid of before we started finding our way [with 'Universal Pulse']," Wills told SoundSpike.
"We did a second batch of songs that we started pre-producing with Bob [Rock] and realized how much better the second batch was; the second batch is 'Universal Pulse.' We were a little lost in the first batch. We could have turned them into songs but it would have been a mediocre album. We all saw that coming, and we didn't feel any pressure because we didn't have a label while we were recording and just kind of made the music we wanted to make. It's a good place we're excited about what's coming next."
The multi-platinum band will release "Universal Pulse" on July 19. Produced by Rock (Aerosmith, Metallica) and mixed by 311 drummer Chad Sexton at the band's Hive Studio in North Hollywood, "Universal Pulse" is the seminal act's 10th studio album and the first to be released via its imprint 311 Records through an exclusive partnership with ATO Records.
The quintet (Sexton, Wills,vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney and vocalist SA Martinez) will celebrate the album's release -- and its 21st year together as a band -- with a headlining amphitheater tour set to kick off July 8 at the Capitol Federal Park at Sandstone in Bonner Springs, KS. The Unity Tour 2011 will run through Aug. 26 (see itinerary below) and includes Sublime with Rome and special guests DJ Soulman and DJ Trichrome.
This year, the band will also launch 311 Pow Wow Festival, a three-day, two-stage music extravaganza taking place Aug. 4-6 at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL. The 500-acre park and campground will be home to the 311's first multi-day camping and music festival. Confirmed artists include Deftones, Ozomatli, Sublime with Rome, The Dirty Heads, G. Love and more. Festivalgoers can look forward to a four-set performance from 311, which will include 1997's acclaimed album "Transistor" in its entirety.
Wills spoke to SoundSpike about "Universal Pulse," the 311 Pow Wow Festival and his love of the Pixies.
SoundSpike: Congratulations on the release today of the single "Sunset in July.
Wills: Thanks. It's even more exciting that a bunch of radio stations went on it early. Here and there I'm a little used to that, just because that has happened before. This time it totally feels different. There's something in the air, momentum-wise for us that feels like it hasn't felt in a good bit.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know. I think the songs are strong enough to support that kind of emotional parade and the summer is our time -- especially for our diehard fans. Us going out with Sublime with Rome, us having done the cruise, another 311 day coming up. There's a lot going on in 311-land. It seems like more people have their ear to what we're doing in the present tense than maybe the last 10 years.
It feels like it. It could all be an illusion. I'm really good at convincing myself of things. But it feels pretty real.
I read in a press release that Nick said that everyone stepped up during the making of this record. Would you agree with that?
We try every time, but there's something really special about these songs and where we are as men in the band. Three of us are fathers now and [that's] just something really cool. Maybe it's our chance to look forward and look back in this quiet before the storm, before the album hits, on the day the single attacks radio. It's really nice. It's a good feeling. It feels like we worked our asses off and we've gotten even more than what we've deserved. Because our fans are so generous with their emotional let-loosedness, we're really thankful about the position we're in. At the same time, we feel we have a lot of work to do. We feel like we're at full strength, too, like physically and emotionally and spiritually. Just kind of ready to chop heads off, I like to say.
I'm looking forward to hearing "Universal Pulse." What can you tell me about the direction.
The direction is kind of like -- it's always like this - make the rock songs rock harder. Make the reggae more intricate, not so simple. Play as good as possible. You can't be in 311 and not know how to play your instruments. We like to show that off. We like the songs to translate to the stage, since that's how we've continued for as long as we have. That's always the umbrella under with which we work. This time we really did it. This time it really feels special. But I'm sure you can go back into some interviews a couple years ago and have me say the exact same thing. I'm the biggest 311 fan I know. And I'm always entertained by our positive steps and our misgivings. I'm just enjoying the journey. I like how imperfect we are. Even though we've sold eight-and-a-half million albums, how many more people we have to turn on especially worldwide. But even in the States, too, even though we tour every year, every summer, sometimes three times a year, there's still so many people that need to hear what we're talking about and feel what we're sending.
How was it to work with Bob Rock again?
It was great. He's like the cool dad, the really cool dad you didn't have that knows everything about gear. He knows too much about gear, and started out in the kind of lackey stage when he was moving tapes around for people and doing transfers and overdubs up in Canada. He started a band and started recording with them, started getting on the studio on his own, producing early Loverboy and all kinds of crazy things from Motley Crue to Cher. He's fun to be around, for one, which I'm sure doesn't hurt his career. He's also great to work with musically. His idea about when songs should change, how they could change, how they could change better, to enhance the stronger parts of the songs, he's just smart and he's that great combination of smart and technical with the gear and terribly creative and such a good communicator. That might be his greatest gift to us, is keeping an open door policy about what everyone adds to the songs. If it is lyrics, "How does this line sound?" "What would you say? How could we say it better." "How do you like this guitar solo?" It's more like a committee than just him and whoever he was working with, whether it was SA, Nick or Tim or Chad, he was working with all of us the whole time. Pretty special. Pretty unique. Definitely looking forward to working with him again. He's a sweetheart and he's really easy to work with. On [2009's] "Uplifter," he was really difficult to work with and I'm thankful for that, too. "If you're OK with 'good,' then we can live with that. You're not a good bass player. You're a great bass player. I want to hear it. Play something great." I'm like, "Wow, you're a dick." [Laughs] I'm a better bass player because of it. I'm listening more than I am just blindly reacting. It's a nice combination of using my instincts and, like, playing the game that I'm playing. The game that I'm playing is the game of the kick drum with Chad. So I need to either play right with him, or right opposite of him, in between the notes that he's playing on the kick drums. It's a little dance that all rhythm sections do that I find fascinating, that I think I'm just now getting good at.
It's amazing to see that it's 311's 10th studio album. It doesn't seem like it's been that long.
It's both for me. It could be the 20th album or it could be the second album. It's been quite a ride. I love that we've gotten to the 10-album milestone. I can only see good things in the future. We're just excited about being who we are, helping other people through problems with the lyrics, if that's what our job is to do, for whoever needs it. And just playing great shows. The great thing about the demise of the recording industry is that live shows are still just as much fun to go to if not funner to go to. If there's a band that you love, whether you heard it on the radio or print or even especially if you heard it from a friend, there's something exciting about seeing that band play the songs you want to hear. It's a good time to let go of everything that's troubling you.
What do you consider to be 311's greatest success?
I think that helping people out where people attach themselves to the lyrics and the meaning of the lyrics and find solace and repose from their own lives. What I always say when I hear, "You helped me out through the tough times" is "We're just a mirror. You had the answers inside of you and we helped you see that. … you would have solved that problem -- maybe we helped you get to it, maybe we helped you see it. We were honest enough that you could open up." But that's the greatest thing -- to touch people and have them truly feel it way, way deep inside of them and foreverlasting. I don't think there's any greater compliment besides maybe inspiring people to pick up an instrument. I think that's another great thing we've done on a smaller scale. But I think it's great. I think about that probably every night. Maybe there's someone in the audience that's going to play the drums after seeing Chad, or want to sing that song because they see SA having the time of his life. I love being on stage and playing in front of people. There's only a few things that can match that. Just the inner kind of confidence that you can get from playing your favorite song and learning them and writing new ones that people like to listen to.
Tell me about the Pow Wow Festival.
It's going to be great. We heard about the campgrounds. We were talking about doing a multi-date festival. It seemed like a perfect fit. Allman Brothers started out there a few years ago and kind of laid down the blueprint of how to do a festival in this specific place. We're kind of following that blueprint, except we're doing it on the rock side of things. It's just going to be great. I think we're going to show how powerful rock still is, and how they're all of these great bands that have been around for awhile. Most of the bands on the bill have been around for a good bit, still kicking ass and writing great song and putting on fantastic shows. I couldn't be more thrilled about having the Deftones on the bill. That's when it really, really got interesting for me. That's when it felt like the line up was very solid. It makes us look better and it makes all the other bands look great. It'll be three days, four days that people will never forget.
I understand you grew up listening to Kim Deal as an inspiration?
Everyone's a Pixies fan, I think, at least in my world. It's certainly not technical bass playing. It's not listening to Flea or Les Claypool or the technique kind of slapping kind of thing which I love as well, probably was even a bigger influence on me. The way Frank Black and the rest of the guys in the band wrote music, it was tricky in a really under the table kind of way. It wasn't like tricky right in front of you, like "I'm going to make something appear out of my hand." It's more like my hand would change color over time. You would wake up and say, "Wow, that's something I've never heard before, especially if you're trying to play along with it." The changes that they decide to use are so unique that to play them and learn how they create their songs is really smart for musicians to know how to do, because Frank Black does it as good as anybody -- especially in that simplicity. There's a simplicity to it where other bands would do kind of a cheesy pop change, Frank Black would do a classical fall down like a half step and make everything feel a little slower. Something about the way Frank Black writes has always turned me on. Even with his solo stuff and especially the Pixies stuff. I love the guy. I think he's about as underrated as they come and still a legend. Still a total legend. Seeing them live a couple times has been one of the best concert experiences ever besides seeing Ween.
8 - Bonner Springs, KS - Capitol Federal Park at Sandstone (with Sublime with Rome)
9 - Maryland Heights, MO - Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
10 - Milwaukee, WI - Summerfest (311 only)
12 - Pittsburgh, PA - Stage AE (with Sublime with Rome)
13 - Clarkston, MI - DTE Energy Music Theatre (with Sublime with Rome)
14 - Chicago, IL - Charter One Pavilion at Northerly Island (with Sublime with Rome)
16 - Cincinnati, OH - Riverbend Music Center (with Sublime with Rome)
17 - Columbus, OH - Lifestyle Communities Pavilion (with Sublime with Rome)
19 - Omaha, NE - TD Ameritrade Park (Red Sky Music Festival)
21 - Holmdel, NJ - PNC Bank Arts Center (with Sublime with Rome)
22 - Wantagh, NY - Nikon at Jones Beach Theater (with Sublime with Rome)
23 - Mansfield, MA - Comcast Center (with Sublime with Rome)
25 - Bethel, NY - Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (with Sublime with Rome)
26 - Philadelphia, PA - Festival Pier (with Sublime with Rome)
28 - Virginia Beach, VA - Farm Bureau Live at Virginia Beach (with Sublime with Rome)
29 - Bristow, VA - Jiffy Lube Live (with Sublime with Rome)
30 - Atlanta, GA - Aaron's Amphitheatre at Lakewood (with Sublime with Rome)
1 - Charlotte, NC - Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
2 - Raleigh, NC - Time Warner Cable Pavilion (with Sublime with Rome)
5, 6 - Live Oak, FL - Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (311 Pow Wow Festival)
11 - Lake Charles, LA - L'Auberge du Lac Casino Resort (with Sublime with Rome)
12 - The Woodlands, TX - The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (with Sublime with Rome)
13 - Dallas, TX - Gexa Energy Pavilion (with Sublime with Rome)
14 - Bee Cave, TX - The Backyard at Bee Cave (with Sublime with Rome)
16 - Morrison, CO - Red Rock Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
17 - Salt Lake City, UT - Usana Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
19 - Chula Vista, CA - Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
20 - Irvine, CA - Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (with Sublime with Rome)
21 - Santa Barbara, CA - Santa Barbara Bowl (with Sublime with Rome)
23 - Mountain View, CA - Shoreline Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)
25 - Eugene, OR - Cuthbert Amphitheater (with Sublime with Rome)
26 - Redmond, WA - Marymoor Amphitheatre (with Sublime with Rome)