I typically don’t write in first person. I typically don’t want to read what sounds like someone’s journal entry either. But because this particular subject matter has an especially personal connection, I figured in this case, ‘Why not?’ I grew up in Omaha, the same Nebraska city where 311 got their start. Although they were a few years older than me, I had a neighbor who was already in high school and had gotten her hands on a copy of 311’s first cassette, 1991’s Unity. I’ll never forget popping in the tape (yes, we used boomboxes back then) and being immediately immersed in the perceived magic that was blaring through the speakers. It’s been 28 years since I discovered 311’s music and nearly a lifetime of supporting their impressive evolution into the massive band they are today.
So naturally, my reaction to 311 playing the modest Aggie Theatre was probably similar to other locals. ‘What!? How!? It’s so small. These guys sell out Red Rocks and have their own 311 cruise for god’s sake.’ But after thinking about it, I quickly remembered the same people who book the Mishawaka Amphitheater took over the Aggie’s booking in March, so maybe they really wanted to kick off the concert season with a bang. Who knows? But once I spoke to Doug “S.A.” Martinez — the vocalist and sole MC of the band — there was a much more logical reason for the platinum-selling group’s Fort Collins stop. They already played Red Rocks Amphitheater the night before as part of the annual 420 On The Rocks show alongside two of hip-hop’s most prolific weed connoisseurs, Method Man and Redman.
“It’s amazing,” Martinez says. “You can do Red Rocks and do several other spots in close proximity. It all works out in the end. Dude, our Colorado fan base is super strong. Red Rocks is like its own thing, too. There’s nothing like it. It’s so funny because we’ve played that place so many times and always have really great shows, even though it’s hard to play it — the elements, the fans are basically right on top of you. The wind there can be problematic for a singer, especially when you’re trying to spit the words out and the wind slaps them back in your face. Again, it’s Red Rocks. It’s a bucket list show for people. We’ve played it countless times. It’s always been amazing.”
Granted, 311 hasn’t been accustomed to playing smaller venues since their proverbial “big break” in mid-90s. Nick Hexum, Martinez, Tim Mahoney, Chad Sexton and Aaron “P-Nut” Wills honed their skills playing small house parties and the now-defunct Omaha venue, The Ranch Bowl, a tiny hole-in-the-wall located inside a bowling alley. As a teenager, I saw so many incredible shows there — from Mudhoney and Bad Brains to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and, yes, 311. To us Omaha kids, they were already famous. They had actual albums and played actual shows. But it turns out that was just the beginning. Shortly after the release of Unity, they signed with Capricorn Records and unleashed their first proper debut in 1993 — the aptly titled Music.
A documentary about The Ranch Bowl has been made, but it’s unclear how big of a role 311 will play in it despite being arguably the biggest band to come out of that bygone Omaha era. They were asked to participate, but Martinez isn’t sure if anyone agreed to it.
“I think it’s a great idea, but I want there to actually be The Ranch Bowl,” he admits. “It’s hard to get across what that place was to people who weren’t there. Every scene had its spot — its epicenter where everything was happening. Just for a little window, we had The Ranch Bowl. It’s cool somebody wants to cover it, but for one thing, it’s not there anymore and two, it was so long ago. It was its own thing in its own space and time. It’s hard to get across how special those things are because when it’s happening in the moment, you don’t realize it’s even happening.”
And he’s right. 311 has lived what feels like several lifetimes since then. They have a “311 Day.” They’ve hosted six 311 cruises. They’ve put out a dozen albums and are currently working on number 13 — although Martinez confesses coming up with a title isn’t as instantaneous as it used to be.
“Oh my god,” he says with a laugh. “We have a list and nobody even talks about it. We’re at that point. Back in the day, it was easy. As years go on, naming an album and finding the artwork is like going to the dentist. Nobody wants to do it at this point. Nobody wants to have those conversations.”
I suggest a fan contest. “That’s not a bad idea,” he replies. “We don’t really get them involved on that sort of level. But that’s a great idea to get the ball rolling. It could work. You never know.”
311 with Jesse Royal, The Aggie Theatre, April 20. Doors are at 8 p.m. Show starts at 9 pm. SOLD OUT.