NORTH HOLLYWOOD, California — Nick Hexum was at a go-kart track recently when a 7-year-old approached him about his band.
"He was acting all cool and was like, '311, eh. Well, I like your old stuff,' " the singer recalled. "I'm thinking to myself, 'What? When you were like negative 1?"
Hexum and his bandmates of more than a decade — MC/turntablist S.A. Martinez, guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist P-Nut and drummer Chad Sexton — laugh about the incident, but they also see where the boy is coming from.
While putting the finishing touches on their seventh studio album last week at their own Hive studio, 311 frequently referred to the record as an evolution for the hip-hop- and reggae-influenced rock band, hence the title Evolver. At the same time, though, much was said about drawing from their past.
"We want to go into the future but have the same spirit of adventure that we had in the old days," Hexum said. "There's more new elements, various vintage keyboards and acoustic guitars and different tempos. It's just more experimental, [which is one of the] things that people liked about Transistor or Grassroots — we had the attitude on those albums about just going to the future rather than looking back."
The new release will feature a few melody-driven summer anthems similar to recent singles "Amber" and "I'll Be Here Awhile," but with more of an edge. "It's not like a ballad-y album at all, just a lot of different tempos," Hexum said.
"From Chaos was a great album, but it's time to do something different, and I think we did that really well," P-Nut added. "We really tried to not be afraid of kicking our own ass."
Along with summing up the motivation behind the album, the title Evolver is a play on Revolver, one of the many classic Beatles albums 311 kept in heavy rotation while recording. Two songs in particular are greatly influenced by the Fab Four: "Seems Uncertain," a Mellotron-driven tune Hexum likened to "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Sometimes Jacks Rule the Realm," which he compared to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."
"It's more like a little voyage, a little trip in sound," Mahoney said of the latter. "And it covers a lot of different feels. There's acoustic sections. It moves on to electric band sections. It's cool. It's really a unique departure, ... and there's mandolins on it and so much cool organic instruments on it."
"Seems Uncertain" also features acoustic guitars, but a hip-hop beat gives it a modern twist.
"Lyrically, it's just about all of this sort of uncertainty with all this friction and tension in the world and the sort of post-9-11 fear and everything," Hexum explained. "It's just kind of expressing that sort of doubt. It's like, 'What are we gonna do? How is the world gonna move on beyond the predicament that we've gotten in?' And it's definitely different lyrically and musically than any song of ours."
Hexum explores darker topics elsewhere on the album as well. "Beyond the Grey Sky" was written about his best friend in high school who took his own life a year ago. "It's very dynamic," Sexton said. "It starts really soft and then we build and we keep building till it's just, like, this huge orchestra of rock and beautiful harmonies."
Miami dancehall DJ Supa Dups contributed some beat programming and vocal drops on Evolver, primarily on "Crack the Code."
" 'Crack the Code' is like a love song saying that someone that cracks your code is someone that understands you," Hexum said, "like gets through the whole veneer that everyone has up. It's not like a totally happy love song, it's more about the ups and downs that come with and finding someone that gets through all of that stuff."
The group is leaning toward the heavier "Creatures (For a While)" as the first single.
"It's a perfect example of the whole album, just testing our audience just a little bit," P-Nut said. "It's something that you're going to have to get used to. And I think that's such a such a good thing. I think that's what kept us a little bit under the radar for a while, even though we've sold 6 million albums."
Evolver, produced by Ron Saint Germain, is not due until late July, but 311 will debut new songs on a summer tour beginning earlier that month.