The Heavy Positivity of Nick Hexum
The 311 frontman shares his life approach of acceptance and gratitude.
Posted Aug 08, 2019
“We all have a voice that we have to deny / That'll say I'm not enough and that I need not apply” —Charge It Up by 311
There are lots of reasons for Nick Hexum to be positive these days.
Hexum is the frontman of the band 311, which has now been together – original lineup still intact – for almost 30 years. During that period, they have released 13 studio albums, including their 2019 album Voyager, with many of those albums reaching the top 10 of the Billboard 200 charts. And 311 has toured the world several times, including their current U.S. tour with Dirty Heads. Hexum is also happily married and he and his wife have three daughters.
Life is good.
But from where I sit, Hexum and 311’s positivity could have been achieved by one lone accomplishment – their fantastic cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong.” This was no easy feat, as The Cure are beloved and “Lovesong” is considered an immortal and untouchable song.
This puts 311 in the elite company of bands that have produced a cover truly worthy of an immortal original, including 10,000 Maniacs’ cover of Patti Smith’s (and Bruce Springsteen’s) “Because The Night,” Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” and Nirvana’s cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
In anticipation of interviewing Hexum for this article, I found myself analyzing my affection for 311’s “Love Song.” I certainly enjoyed the slower, trippy, reggae vibe of 311’s version. But there was something else — The Cure’s original song sounded mournful, whereas 311’s version felt hopeful. Like somehow Robert Smith was going to put down his guitar and go die alone, whereas Nick Hexum was going to live happily ever after. And apparently it’s not just me — I mean for crying out loud, The Cure’s video for “Lovesong” had Smith singing in a cave, whereas 311’s video had Hexum and the band at a club surrounded by adoring women.
But the thing is, I actually enjoy The Cure precisely because they can make me feel melancholic and mournful. I mean Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” is bleak as hell and I love every second of it. And that’s because when I’m feeling like I’m the one who is going to die alone, it comforts me to know someone out there might feel the same. I don’t need light, bouncy songs at those moments – they feel empty and devoid of empathy.
The same goes for psychology and self-help. I’m not a big fan of anything that smacks of lighthearted “positive thinking.” It’s like walking by someone who’s sad and telling that person to “smile” or to keep their “chin up” — trite, flimsy and superficial advice that alienates rather than inspires. Worse, it can be a cheap substitute for real, meaningful change. People often need something more meaningful, something heavier.
So what was it about Hexum’s and 311’s brand of positivity in “Love Song” that felt compelling rather than off-putting? In talking with Hexum, what I discovered was that his positive outlook was not a light and dismissive approach, but rather the result of years of an ongoing and active discipline focused on deep and meaningful cognitive and behavioral change – a “heavy positivity.”
Hexum may have been destined for a positive and active approach to life. In fact, one might say it has been something of a family business.
“My grandpa, Dr. R. Lofton Hudson opened the first counseling center in the Midwest – Kansas City in the 50s. And he was actually a Southern Baptist minister who wrote an op-ed in the 60s called “Is Segregation Christian?” And of course, the answer was no. So he was drummed out of the church for challenging their values. Being a Southern Baptist preacher, that took crazy guts. That’s one of the reasons he’s my hero,” Hexum told me.
“My mom was the president of the AAMFT (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy) in Nebraska for years. And she wrote a book called Love is a Verb, which is about love being a form of service. It’s not just an ethereal thing. It’s how you treat people, and what you do for people. So that was a big influence on me.”
According to Hexum, a positive approach to life needs to be an active process in part because people tend to be naturally more negative and dissatisfied. “It’s about counteracting the negativity bias that I believe is in humans. We always want more — bigger, faster, stronger — nothing’s ever good enough,” Hexum explained. “And that’s made us thrive as a species. But there’s also a dark side to that where people can feel bad about what they have. They can focus on the negative and compare themselves to others. And I think it can lead to depression and isolation.”
Initially, one of the main ways that Hexum addressed his own feelings of sadness and isolation was through listening to music by bands such as The Clash, The Smiths, The Cure, and R.E.M. He appreciated those bands sharing darker, personal themes and felt validated that others struggled emotionally at times. And when it was his turn to share his experience as part of 311, he found that his fans were similarly grateful.
“When I was a teen and was listening to alternative music and people were showing their insecurities, I was like wow there’s somebody who feels the way I feel. To put that honesty and vulnerability in your music so people can relate and have that shared experience, to me that’s my calling. It’s really a great way to spend your life — being of service to share the human experience,” Hexum recalled. “There is a song off of Transistor called “Use of Time.” It came from a dark place when I was feeling very down. And after I put it out I got these letters from people that were like, ‘This song was so healing for me because it’s how I feel when I’m depressed. And to know somebody else has been in that same boat and has expressed it like that makes me feel a connection. And there’s hope because you’ve gotten through it.’ To me, that’s very rewarding.”
However, Hexum soon found that 311’s approach was at odds with the approach of many of their contemporaries. Specifically, he felt that there was pressure for 311 to explore only darker feelings and that expressing more positive emotions was somehow considered inauthentic.
“An artist should explore the full range of emotion. The 90s were marked by a lot of angry, aggressive music. Our difference was you could make heavy music but come from a place of joy. And we were kind of out of step with the culture at the time because we gave ourselves permission to have joy,” Hexum said. “Some of the goth artists who I liked would take it too far, where they were like, ‘I suck and I’m worthless.’ I don’t believe that. I do have self-doubt but I’m worthwhile.”
In fact, Hexum felt that it was actually more authentic and challenging to express both positive and negative emotions rather than restricting himself and the band to exclusively darker themes. And apparently, the fans agreed, sharing with Hexum that just as his darkness had felt validating, so did his hopefulness.
“Me and (311 bassist) P-Nut used to say, ‘Making teenagers depressed – that’s like shooting fish in a barrel.’ That’s not that hard. And I know people think that you’re deep if you’re only displaying your negative emotion, but to me, that’s kind of like low hanging fruit. That’s pretty easy,” Hexum described. “But having a full range of personality in your music – that took more guts. And then there was another song a couple of albums later called “Hostile Apostle,” where I was like, ‘You don’t have to be a prick just to be heavy.’ I love when I get fan communication where people would say, ‘I was going through a dark time and listening to dark music, and it kept kind of snowballing. And then I heard 311 and it was like a breath of fresh air where it’s alright to feel good.’”
Hexum did not feel totally alone in his approach and cites Scott Ian of Anthrax as an inspiration of someone whose music is heavy but hopeful. “In order to have heavy big guitar music, it doesn’t have to be tied to this sort of nihilism or despair,” he explained. “One of my good friends is Scott Ian from Anthrax. Our families are friends, our kids go to the same school. And even though his music is super heavy, thrash – he is like the most well-adjusted person who just loves his comic books and taking his kid to school every day. And that’s the kind of thing I relate to – having some mental health.”
In theory, being more positive and optimistic can be motivating, but one of the risks is that it may come at the expense of allowing oneself to experience negative emotion – as if one has to choose being “positive” or “negative.” This can often result in the suppression of negative emotions such as anxiety or depression, which tend to worsen rather than help a negative mood. But Hexum is quick to point out that he sees this as a false dichotomy, and that part of a positive outlook is actually accepting and sitting with negative feelings.
“It’s not about mindless positivity and denying negative feelings … We’re not going to pretend we’re smiling all the time. I’ve felt self-pity and those emotions that everybody has. And when regular emotions come up, you can’t just whitewash them like, ‘I can’t think impure thoughts,’” Hexum said. “For me it’s like, ‘I’m going through something right now and I have to sit in my feelings.’ Maybe at some point in my life, I was someone who pretended things didn’t bother me and ran from them. But there is hope. There is understanding. There is a solution.”
Hexum attributes his ability to accept and tolerate the negative emotions that result from our inherent negative bias to a daily practice of gratitude. The natural consequence of gratitude is an appreciation for life – both in terms of what oneself and others bring to the table. As a result, Hexum feels that he has been able to reduce his critical self-talk as well as his judgment of others.
“Gratitude … to me it’s almost like an action – having a mental gratitude list to focus on the things that are working. Because our minds are going to want to focus on the 10% of our life that we want to change even if 90% is positive. When my internal self-talk turns negative and I’m beating myself up, and have a thought like, “I’m an idiot,” I’ll catch myself and counter that by saying an affirmation like, “I’m worthwhile and contributing to the world. On the new album, I have a lyric, ‘We all have that voice that we need to deny. To say I’m not enough and need not apply,’” Hexum explained. “I think it also works with people. If we choose to focus on what we perceive as weakness or flaws, those things grow until the person becomes repellent. The positive application of that is consciously moving our focus to the strengths of that person. I work on my attitude by choosing to note the strengths of that person and let go of nitpicking criticisms.”
Hexum cited a recent example of how he avoided a conflict with his fellow bandmates by invoking a more grateful mindset. “I just got done with a setlist meeting, and we were debating whether to play a song or not. And we went the other way from where I would have it. And so for me, gratitude for me is, ‘I’m not going to focus on that song. I’m going to focus on how incredibly lucky and blessed I am to do this. And the show will still be really good with ‘not-my-first-choice’ in there,” he described. “So focusing on the gratitude of the bigger picture. I’m not going to let myself go down a really dark path on not getting your way. You have to be ready to not get your way if you want a relationship like a band to stay together for 29 years and counting.”
One technique that Hexum cites for operationalizing his gratitude is the use of “I” statements. He explained how this approach presents contrary ideas as differences of opinion and thus inherently limits criticism of others. Hexum shared how famed producer Bob Rock helped him utilize this technique.
“Learning positive tools about ‘I’ kind of statements instead of attacking statements … We had done a couple of albums with Bob Rock, he had just finished working with Metallica through their very difficult time that was documented in the movie Some Kind of Monster,” Hexum recalled. “I’d say, ‘That part’s really boring,’ and Bob would say, ‘You might just want to say that in a different way,’ because that’s very finger-pointy. Someone’s going to feel bad.’ That was somebody’s idea and to find a positive way to say, ‘I’m really into this.’ Because no one can argue with that … If you just started with an ‘I’ statement, it’s not going to be as controversial as if you say, ‘This part’s lame or this part’s boring, this part’s stupid.’”
Once we are not being critical of ourselves and others, and view our lives from a place of gratitude, we are freer to accept and explore ways that we can make changes in our own lives rather than focusing on the shortcomings of others. This has the dual effect of avoiding unnecessary arguments while perhaps making real-life changes that can positively influence one’s life. Hexum explained how he utilized this approach in his marriage to shift from more “nagging” interactions to more productive behavior.
“In an actual marriage, you have to learn how to turn the focus back on yourself. Because with my kind of control issues with my marriage, there was a time when I was like, ‘No you’re doing this wrong and doing this wrong,’ and I was kind of becoming a nag. And I realized that I needed to turn the focus back on myself,” Hexum said. “If I don’t have goals that I’m working towards, then I’m not as much fun to be around, because I might nitpick. So to me, I always need to keep some sort of self-improvement goal at hand, whether it’s my workouts or developing some skill like surfing. I have a really happy marriage because instead of picking on her, I’m working on myself, which is going to make me a better person to be around.”
Overall, Hexum feels that by being more grateful and accepting of himself and others, he has been in a position to be aware of and attend to his self-care. He cited how he and 311 took time off from touring to ground themselves in a “normal,” healthier lifestyle.
“I know the cycles in myself. Sometimes I’m just on and outgoing. I have tons of ideas and tons of energies … I go through these highs and feel everything’s easy and I’m very focus and energized. And then there are other times where I’ll be like, I’m going to watch a movie. I’m going to give myself permission to heal and hibernate a little bit because you don’t always need to be on. We need to be kind with ourselves,” he explained. “We took the year off from 1998 because we were really burnt out. In the early years, we were basically living on the road … we would just put our stuff on a storage unit, and live literally on the bus, and have nowhere to stay in between tours. And that really started to drain emotionally. And so we really needed to take that year off and put roots down. Get a home, get a dog, get some houseplants – to feel some connection to our normal pre-band life.”
And Hexum encourages people to take care of themselves by sharing their experiences – good and bad – with others. “We’re only as sick as our secrets. So we have to have confidants – whether it’s your wife or your best friend or your therapist,” Hexum described. “There are times when I realize I haven’t had a heart to heart with anybody for a while. So I’m going to schedule a lunch or talk to a trusted professional. Humans need to relate. We need to feel understood. That’s what we really crave – to have a shared experience.”
And for those who don’t have access to people they can trust, Hexum is thrilled that he gets to connect with his fans who may feel that there is no one who understands. “My real purpose which is to share my experience and help people feel understood by relating … a more basic human thing,” he explained. “Playing music live – it’s something that’s existed for a hundred thousand years, back when someone was beating on a drum and someone else was dancing to it. We are a continuation of that really important bonding for society.”
Hexum knows that things may not always be so rosy. But he is looking forward to a lifetime of practicing heavy positivity based on active acceptance and gratitude rather than suppression of experience. “It’s really a choice. And it’s not always easy,” Hexum said. “I’m definitely not looking through rose-colored glasses and pretending everything’s easy. But we do have some power over our lives.”
I think I’ll exercise that power and go enjoy the heavy positivity of 311’s “Love Song” again.