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Q&A: Guitarist Tim Mahoney on 311’s New Album ‘Mosaic,’ Career Longevity, the Dead, and More
On June 23, 311 released Mosaic, the twelfth full-length album for the long-running alt/rock band. This time around, the band — vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum, vocalist S.A. Martinez, bassist Aaron ‘P-Nut’ Wills, guitarist Tim Mahoney and drummer Chad Sexton — worked with producers John Feldmann and Scott “Scotch” Ralston, as well as a host of co-songwriters.
The result is a rich, layered listen that truly is a mosaic of sounds from the band, now veterans of the rock realm responsible for hits including “All Mixed Up,” “Amber,” “Beautiful Disaster” and more.
Near the start of their 2017 Summer Unity Tour launch, guitarist Tim Mahoney called up Rock Cellar for an expansive and candid chat about the new album and much more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: 311 is in Columbus, Ohio tonight on your Summer Unity Tour. Since tonight’s a show night, what’s your normal pre-show routine?
Tim Mahoney: Well, right now…it seems like, the start of a tour there’s always a lot of work regarding my gear. That’s what I was doing right before I called you. But that usually gets done…hopefully. Seems like it’s an always-evolving process with the gear.
We’re fortunate, we just had two days off between shows, which for us is rare. I actually feel pretty rested, but normally I’d sleep in about as long as I could and then get my day started.
But we’re up quite a bit later when we’re on tour. So you have the show, and then by the time you unwind and the energy settles it’s pretty late. I’m starting to get converted into tour mode, as we’re about a week into it now.
Typically, maybe two hours before things get started I like to get some food in me, so I’m able to digest it by the show. We soundcheck around 3 every day, more or less, so that’s where more of a schedule starts to work for me.
Then we get together again and put a setlist together for the night, and we talk about which songs we’ll use at the next soundcheck.
Make a setlist, then try and eat some food, stretching is part of the routine, warming up on guitar. It’s changed over the years, now it seems, being older, that I have to spend a little more time getting loosened up (laughs). When I was a young punk I could just go out there and keep doin’ it, but there’s definitely a focus on hydration throughout the day, for everybody. You kind of get in the groove of touring — the venues change, and you travel, but on show days we typically travel at night and sleep on the bus, wake up in some city, and it repeats over and over. Cycles within cycles, I guess.
Speaking of setlists, 311’s already played about half of the songs from your new album Mosaic on the first few stops on this tour. Normally, it might take a few weeks of a tour to see so many new songs premiered. Does that speak to how excited you guys are to play the new material?
Tim Mahoney: Yes, I think it does stem from being excited to play the new material. All the songs are fun to play and they’ll translate live. I think tonight, each night we’ll probably keep getting at ’em, since there are so many. There are 17, (laughs). And then the ones we have been playing, it’s fun to have these new songs to be able to play for folks.
I’m pretty good about the memory that goes along with it — it’s a lot of information, a lot of notes and parts — but I feel pretty confident personally. And we’ve been rehearsing the record, so I think they’re pretty much all good to go. Some of them are a bit more challenging, but they’re going to come trickling out each night, I’d imagine.
A song like “Til the City’s On Fire” has a very…different approach for you guys, obviously. It’s intriguing to imagine how that one might sound once you play it live.
Tim Mahoney: There’s some really cool electronic parts on that one, so we’ll try to get those out in the live setting as well. That one we haven’t played yet, but I think we’ll probably play at soundcheck tonight and see how it goes.
But you’re right, there are some different vibes, we have “Places That the Mind Goes,” which is a pretty chill song, that one’s going to have to get developed as far as us playing it live. It’ll come eventually, but that one might take a little bit longer.
You’re credited as the principal songwriter for “Face in the Wind,” off Mosaic. That song, your riff and guitar tone and S.A. Martinez’s rap, the song sounds like it’s straight out of 1997, really.
Tim Mahoney: Nice!
How’d that song and its overall feel come about?
Tim Mahoney: It’s come a long way. The music, its first existence was kind of in a much longer, spaced-out kind of vibe, the riffs and stuff. When Nick and S.A. started getting at the vocals, the arrangement changes a little bit and we try and turn it into a 311 song that makes sense. When it first came to me, everything came at once, all these things. It was one of the first things I’d written within the past couple of years, probably. So it just kinda came and the riffs…for me, a lot of times it’s like sculpting, sitting there with it and allowing certain aspects and melodies to come out. So I work on it like that, and when the vocals come in on it…to me, it’s very obvious that the riff works as something S.A.’s going to rap over, and the melodic chord change is something I know Nick would be happy finding a vocal melody for.
I always think about those guys, and if it’s something they can apply their vocal styles to, you know? So it’s something they want to be singing over. And S.A.’s good at singing over chord changes, so for me this song particularly felt right. There are two guitar solos on it, so if that goes down on a song it’s typically a song I wrote (laughs).
I always have a lot of stuff that I work on, but a lot of it might be too spacey. I do a lot of stuff with looping, and to try and get that into context for a 311 song…but for “Face in the Wind,” all those parts came together at one time and I was happy they felt comfortable taking it and applying vocals to it.
Is that process the typical way one of your songs ends up as a 311 song, compositionally?
Tim Mahoney: Yeah. The main elements of it sometimes on those extended looping things, they can just be too long and self-indulgent, but I’d agree. “Beyond the Gray Sky” was definitely one of those where when Nick heard it, he helped me edit it. Sometimes it’s a bit different, sometimes there are focused attempts to, “Hey, I like these two parts but it needs a bridge, needs a verse riff so let me think about it.”
But a lot of times for me things come out for me when I’m just playing.
Have you ever thought about releasing any of that spacey looping material on your own, separate from the band?
Tim Mahoney: Eventually I think I will. There’s a lot there, and it’d be fun to finally get some of it out. I’d have to set time aside to focus down and see what people might enjoy the most. Yeah, someday! I’ve got to.
Adding 17 more songs to your catalog, is it harder to then put together a 20-25 setlist for the summer tour, when you might be more compelled to play a lot of the hits as opposed to more obscure tracks?
Tim Mahoney: Yes, that’s exactly right. We always have to try and find the balance between a song like “Amber” and a song like “Offbeat Bareass,” a deep track that we really enjoy, and we know fans of the Grassroots album enjoy, so between that and the songs that people might know more from us on the radio, this influx of 17 more new songs…personally I’d like to play more of the new songs to get them out there while they’re exciting to us, but yeah. We’ve been trying to figure out the balance for fitting these new songs in, and then also balancing the deep tracks in there too, in order to keep it interesting and rotating for us.
Over the years, 311 has gone back to previous leftover material and turned parts of it into new songs. Did that happen with any of the new songs on Mosaic, or was that all fresh material you guys came up with in the past few years?
Tim Mahoney: I’m pretty sure it’s all new stuff. Stereolithic had some older ones but this one is all brand-new stuff, material-wise. And there’s a wide variety of…from John Feldmann to Scott Ralston, producers and their influences. It’s kind of almost a mosaic on that tip too. I was sitting there looking at the songs and the credits, and a lot of people went into the creative process of this record. We’ve been talking a lot about the fans and how big a part of our lives they are, from the photos on the album cover and that aspect, but also there’s a lot of creative people involved in the making of this record. And Chad (Sexton, drums) mixed it, he and Ralston, and Feldmann mixed a bit of it but it’s nice. Together the whole thing seems to work.
What was it like working with John Feldmann from the production side, and all the additional songwriters? That’s somewhat unusual of a process for a 311 album, right?
Tim Mahoney: Right, and you know, I enjoyed all of those songs. For me, we did most of our recording at our studio, the Hive, as his was being worked on. But the guys he has working with him are awesome dudes, it’s always a learning experience for me but it’s fun to see how other people work. And you know, Nick works pretty fast but Feldmann works faster, so it took me a bit to get used to the pace. I just try and help, do what I can to help make things sound good or whatever, and just trust in, “Hey man, we decided we’re going to work with John on these five songs so let’s let John steer it.”
It was good, he’s a cool guy, we’ve known him from the Goldfinger days. But yeah, they have their whole thing going on, too, so it was fun. Me and Scott (Ralston), being the stoners we are, we get into a super-slow rhythm sometimes (laughs), so we can be in the studio in the middle of the night or something trying out different effects…we sometimes go down these long tangent paths, which usually yields usable material, but it’s funny. It’s a contrast, especially with those two guys, in how I fit in working with them. But the guys that Feldmann works with, and Scott and Nick and the people they write with…for me, I just try to be transparent and help transfer some good energy in there and add to it however I can. But yeah, the whole thing was a lot of fun.
And with 17 new songs coming out of it, you guys seem to have had plenty of creative inspiration this time. Was it always the goal to work with both Ralston and Feldmann, or did that just sort of happen?
Tim Mahoney: We could have kept going, actually, so we had to sort of cut it off at a certain point, you know? Nick had been writing with John Feldmann, and then John figured he might as well produce those songs, which is how John works anyway. So it basically developed out of Nick and John’s writing relationship, and it worked out. It felt natural, wasn’t uncomfortable or anything like that. I think the biggest thing, as I said earlier, was the pace at which he and his guys work. But the proof is in our accuracy, it wasn’t sloppy or anything.
It was fun, and something different.
Considering 311’s history, the song “One and the Same” is…well, very different. What’s that one all about, and how did that happen?
Tim Mahoney: Well, I’m going to agree with you there, because when I first heard it I was like, “What? What is this, Iron Maiden?” (laughs) But now it’s normal to me. Out of all the new songs, that one was one of the most…not a left-turn, maybe, but I didn’t see that one coming from P-Nut or Nick, whichever of them wrote the riff. But I loved it.
And the same goes for “Too Late,” which came out a few months earlier. It was pretty surprising at first, too.
Tim Mahoney: Yeah, I’m used to it since I’ve spent so much time with the songs at this point but yeah, there’s a slight metal edge to it, a little darkness in there.
But then you guys have songs like “Forever Now,” “Days of ’88” and “Syntax Error,” which are themselves pretty reminiscent of past albums like Soundsystem and Transistor. How did those ones come about in comparison to some of the other new songs?
Tim Mahoney: “Syntax Error” is a Scott Ralston and Chad song. Scotch was a really big part of the vocals. There are other songs like that over the years, but “Syntax Error” is more of a classic style song for us, one that Scott Ralston stepped up to help out with. We have so much material, and I don’t write the lyrics, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. Maybe they’d like that, I don’t know (laughs).
And for “Days of ’88,” for contrast, the music was written by Chad, but Nick and S.A. and I’m not quite sure who else worked on the lyrics for that one. And it’s pretty obviously one meant for their vocal styles. For me, it’s been so long, as soon as I hear somebody’s demo I can tell, “OK that’s a Nick riff,” or “that’s P-Nut,” so it’s usually pretty obvious but with the vocals, there’s a totally different approach there between those two songs. More of a group effort on “Days of ’88,” where everybody’s basically got their own thing going on. Whereas with “Syntax Error,” I think that’s just a Scott Ralston-penned vocal, unless I’m mistaken. But yeah, those two and then “Forever Now,” Zack Hexum, Nick’s brother, was a writer on that.
That’s a good one, the one thing about it that was really funny was that me and Scott tried every amp and all of my guitars, and we tried to record the intro but could never really beat the sound of what Nick got on his demo guitar. So the very first intro for the song, that’s Nick’s old-school demo guitar before everything kicks in. It was funny because it hung over us the whole session, we kept trying and trying to find that sound but couldn’t, so we figured, “Let’s just use Nick’s demo guitar.”
Always being open to possibilities is good (laughs).
With all your studio work on 311 albums, do you ever look back on older records and think, “Man, that record or song could have sounded so much better!”?
Tim Mahoney: All of them are like that, probably (laughs). Even something like “Beautiful Disaster,” I’m just like, “Man, we could’ve beaten those guitars.” So things like that. But at the same time, it’s a signpost as to where we were and who we were as a band at that day and time of making the record, so it’s more important like that, I think. Looking back, every album there’s something, but that’s part of…for bands that I like, I would never want them to go back and change anything, whether a guitar tone change or anything like that, really.
And working with John Feldmann, Ron Saint Germain, Scotch, Bob Rock, Eddie Offord and all these guys, it’s been really great over the years to work with these people and learn with them and that’s kind of what I see when I look at the record. Where we’re at, our age, there’s a lot to it. So it’s trippy getting older, I guess. (laughs)
Are there any particular really obscure fan favorite b-sides that you personally like playing the most?
Tim Mahoney: Yeah, totally. P-Nut brought up “Bomb the Town” yesterday, which is a song we always forget about. It’s not intentional, but yeah there are…Chad was listening to “How Long Has It Been” (a b-side from Uplifter), that song I had voted for it to be on the album, but that’s one that we kind of forget. But I love that one. There are definitely songs like that, so yeah, we’re always trying to stay aware of those songs that can otherwise slip through the cracks.
Will there be a 311 Day in 2018?
Tim Mahoney: Yes, yeah there is. I would imagine that as soon as we get it all hammered out, there’ll be an announcement. But yeah, it’s going down!
You’re friends with Danny Carey of Tool, right?
Tim Mahoney: Yeah, I haven’t actually talked to him in a while, but we had a really good mutual friend who passed away. I moved out of L.A., too. I love him, he’s a great guy. I’ve been watching some of these Danny Carey drum videos on YouTube, they’re just epic.
Do you think we’ll ever see another Tool album? The rumors just never stop.
Tim Mahoney: I don’t think they can deny it! I know, I’m ready for it, they’re one of my favorites, man. I know they’re out playing this past month, and knowing they’re out there and such it just seems…re-energized. I would imagine they’re going to take that momentum and apply it to an album, but I don’t know. This is just me speculating, but I’m hopeful. We need it, we need that record.
311’s commercial peak was the late ’90s, early 2000s, or so. Is it a pull, or a goal, for you guys to still seem relevant in today’s music scene, or are you content where you are?
Tim Mahoney: Right, it’s more of all of it. For us, the influences are always the same, really. You want to make a better record, you want to take the experience of the previous record and apply it to the next one, and so on. And as individuals, too, that’s one of the growing pains of being an older band — trying to stay relevant. So we want to be relevant in the sense that we’re still doing our best to make good records that we enjoy and that hopefully our fans will enjoy. Because that’s where we’re at right now. We’ll never be young bucks again, or whatever. So it’s kind of being mature and embracing that aspect. And that we’re enjoying playing live together, putting records out together, and enjoying each other’s company.
So you hope you’re relevant to your fans, you hope that this record will have songs they like, and with Mosaic there’s a lot to digest. There’s a lot of different stuff that we maybe haven’t done before, so hopefully as it gets digested, people are happy. And so yeah, it’s a trip — it’s like a science experiment after all this time. Just keeping it going, and being happy to just still be making new music together.
And you still have the fans who go to 311 Day, go to the 311 Cruise, go to multiple shows on a single tour, and all that. How special has that been?
Tim Mahoney: We’re so thankful for that, and really never lose sight of it. We take it to heart, that’s who supports us, and that’s who allows us to keep playing music. That’s always a consideration in everything we do. For me, you hope fans like the record, and people that like our band love the record, and for us we’re always growing and hoping to reach new, younger fans, just people who haven’t heard us since we have a lot of room to grow. But the most important thing we’re thankful for is the folks who support our music and the band.
311 was on the Eric Andre Show for a particularly…silly video a few months back, a gesture that probably earned you some new attention given Adult Swim’s younger audience.
Tim Mahoney: It was funny. Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be as brutal as it ended, (laughs), but his whole style of humor is…very weird, so it was good. They couldn’t have been nicer, and it was really funny. I’m glad that worked out. I hadn’t realized Eric Andre is such a good bass player, too!
Have you had a chance to catch a Dead and Company show yet?
Tim Mahoney: No, but I might go this Saturday, actually. That’s so funny that came up. My guitar tech is friends with somebody, maybe somebody in the Bob Weir camp, and we never have Saturday nights off on tour except in rare occasions. And this Saturday I have off in Chicago and they’re playing Wrigley Field.
So there’s no excuse for you not to go, then.
Tim Mahoney: I know, dude! I have to go. I haven’t, I’ve heard a lot of good things about John Mayer with them but I haven’t seen any of it yet. I don’t know if you’ve read Bill Kreutzmann’s book yet, but I just did and that’s a really good read.
I’m just such a Deadhead.
Other than Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, then, if you could go back in time and catch one live act you hadn’t ever been able to see, who’d it be?
Tim Mahoney: It’s cliche, but I gotta say Jimi Hendrix. To be able to take acid and go see Jimi Hendrix, that’s what I’d do. (laughs)
311 Unity Tour 2017 dates:
6/29 – St. Louis, MO Pageant Theatre
6/30 – Lincoln, NE Lincoln on the Streets Party
7/2 – Chicago, IL Northerly Island Pavilion
7/3 – Kansas City, MO Crossroads
7/4 – Indianapolis, IN Pavilion at Pan Am Plaza
7/6 – Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE
7/7 – Hampton Beach, NH HB Casino
7/8 – Portland, ME Maine State Pier
7/10 – Buffalo, NY Artpark
7/11 – New York City, NY Hammerstein Ballroom
7/14 – Long Island, NY Great South Bay Music Festival
7/15 – Asbury Park, NJ Stone Pony Summerstage
7/16 – Boston, MA Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
7/19 – Glen Allen, VA Innsbrook After Hours
7/21 – Philadelphia, PA Penns Landing at Festival Pier
7/22 – Hartford, CT CT Convention Center
7/24 – Washington, D.C. Fillmore Silver Spring
7/25 – Washington, D.C. Fillmore Silver Spring
7/26 – Charlotte, NC Metro Credit Union Amphitheater
7/28 – Atlanta, GA Tabernacle
7/29 – Atlanta, GA Tabernacle
7/30 – Myrtle Beach, SC House of Blues
8/1 – Boca Raton, FL Sunset Cove Amphitheater
8/2 – St Augustine, FL St Augustine Amphitheater
8/4 – New Orleans, LA Bold Sphere Amphitheater
8/5 – Houston, TX Revention Music Center
8/6 – New Braunfels, TX Whitewater Amp
8/8 – Dallas, TX Southside Ballroom
8/10 – Albuquerque, NM Sandia Casino
8/11 – Denver, CO Levitt Pavilion
8/12 – Salt Lake City, UT USANA Amphitheater
8/14 – Boise, ID Revolution Concert House
8/15 – Eugene, OR Cuthbert Amphitheater
8/16 – San Jose, CA City National Civic
8/18 – Las Vegas, NV Mandalay Bay Beach
8/19 – Los Angeles, CA Hollywood Palladium
8/20 – San Diego, CA Cal Coast Credit Union OAT
9/1 – Virginia Beach, VA American Music Festival
April 1, 2021