Doug “SA” Martinez of Omaha’s 311 answers the phone from his home in Ojai, California, while attending to one of his young daughters. Throughout the conversation, he routinely stops mid-sentence and calls to his daughter, “Hold on Nova, Daddy’s on a phone call,” and spells out any bad words. It’s a blatant reminder of how much time has passed since 311’s first opening gig for Fugazi in 1990.
So much has changed since the members of 311 were wide-eyed high school students at Westside and Bryan. With a successful career spanning over two decades, most of the members are husbands and fathers, but the group has never lost its loyalty to their hometown. As 311 approaches the 20th anniversary of 1994’s Grassroots, vocalist Nick Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, drummer Chad Sexton, emcee Martinez, and bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Willis have embarked on an extensive nationwide tour, which kicked off in Albuquerque, New Mexico last Thursday, June 27. On July 12, 2014, the official anniversary date of Grassroots, the boys headline Omaha’s first annual Grassroots Festival.
“I think we first heard of it from Jake Gardner, who runs the Hive Lounge,” Martinez explains. “He’s friends with this promoter and I guess this promoter has never done a show before, but they have this idea for what they hope to be an annual thing and they’re calling it the Grassroots Festival. They asked us to do the show. It just so happens to coincide with the anniversary of our album, Grassroots. As it is, the festival date is the day it came out 20 years ago.”
The lineup also includes The Wailers, featuring Bob Marley’s former right-hand man and bass player Family Man Barrett, Slang 5, The Kris Lager Band, Satchel Grande and other local bands. 311 has performed with The Wailers in the past so Martinez is accustomed to playing with them.
“We did a tour with them six or seven years ago,” he recalls. “They are really nice people. Al Anderson was the guitarist in that line up, but he was also around in the Bob Marley days. When I first met him, oh my god, he was so bitter. He kept saying what an A-S-S-H-O-L-E Bob was [laughs]. The very first day I walked into catering, he was talking loud enough for everyone to hear him. He was a really bitter dude. I don’t think he’s with that lineup now. In fact, he might be out of with another Wailers. Family Man doesn’t have the chip on his shoulder like Al did.”
It’s hard to believe 311 almost did make it. In 1990 and 1991, the band released three independent records on their own label, What Have You Records: Dammit, Hydroponic and Unity. With these records and their solid live show, the band quickly established a following in the Midwest. Eventually, they rented a small house in Van Nuys, California, and moved in together. These were very tough times for the band. Just before disintegrating into total poverty, they were signed to Capricorn Records. Without that deal, 311 would probably not exist. After 1993’s debut, Music, they returned with Grassroots, which is now certified gold. By this time, they were touring the United Stated and had moved out of the house in Van Nuys, put their stuff into a storage space and lived on the road. They put all their energy into their live show and steadily amassed an incredibly large fan base. Over 20 years later, they are still highly in demand and at the beginning of a two-month nationwide tour.
“Don’t remind me,” he jokes. “We just put out the new record in the beginning of the year, had 311 Day [in New Orleans], and went out for some dates in May, which we haven’t done in a long time. We haven’t done that since we were touring nine months out of the year. So we just did all of that. That basically helped keep our chops up and kept us prepped for just playing a show any time. For this run, we’ve just had a handful of rehearsals. Any more, it seems like we’re always keeping tabs on a practice schedule so to speak because we have shows on the immediate horizon. It’s unusual. We have it planned differently. Usually it’s a summer run, but this time it’s vastly different. We’re playing different venues in most markets because we have been playing the same venues for years. That becomes a bit like Groundhog Day. It always seems like we were just there.”
With such a long career, that’s bound to happen. Their endurance is a testament to the group’s unrelenting work ethic, but also the die-hard fans, something Martinez is extremely grateful for.
“I don’t know of any group that strategizes and plans out the arc of their career,” he says. “We were just fortunate there was interest in the band and we were able to make records and tour, and to keep doing it for so long. That’s the key to having longevity in the music business. It’s a misnomer. It’s not supposed to happen [laughs].”
In March 2011, 311 began hosting an annual Caribbean Cruise. The 2011 Caribbean Cruise featured three shows over four days leaving from Miami to Turks and Caicos. On August 5, 2012, 311 announced the launch of Live311, a site where live concerts would be made available for download in MP3, FLAC, and ALAC formats, as well as some shows being released on DVD. To date, 311 have made twenty-four of their live concerts available via Live311. Touring, however, is something that’s getting increasingly hard, even though it goes with the territory.
“That’s the thing that’s going to get tougher as the years go by,” he admits. “Now that they’re getting older and more mature, they understand it now. It just makes it harder. It’s not easy, but they’ll come out for a little bit. We’ve got a day off schedule somewhere so we’re going to meet up. We try to make contact while the tour is in process.”
While returning to Omaha to perform sounds like a breeze, it’s harder on the band, although they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s the perfect place to test the new songs off their latest album, Stereolithic. After all, it’s the city where it all began.
“Ah! Doing a hometown show is more work,” he says, laughing. “I hate to say it, but it’s true. You’ve got friends and family that want your time, but at this point my family doesn’t bother me. After the show, you’re done, but for a hometown show, your night is just beginning because all of these people want your energy. It’s exhausting.
“But touring is what we do,” he concludes. “On one hand, it’s your job and on the other hand, it’s everything else. At this point, it’s all we know [laughs]. Any band at this level has to do it. The fans are there and they support you, which make it all possible. What you do is deliver entertainment. It’s important for people. A lot of people base their year around it. That’s really cool; to be a part of something like that. It takes a lot of energy and you have to get your mind in touring mind. These past few days, I’ve been preparing for it. That’s just part of it. It’s what it is. We’re so lucky.”
The Grassroots Festival with 311 and The Wailers, July 12, at River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs, 3:11 p.m. Tickets are $20-$30. Visit www.grassrootsmusicfest.com for more information.