311 bassist Aaron P-Nut Wills talks new album and first ever Pow Wow festival

In its 21-year existence, alternative band 311 has established its unique blend of heavy rock sounds and hip-hop wordplay with a laid-back, reggae state of mind. The band’s 10th studio album, “Universal Pulse,” was released Tuesday, coming at the midpoint of their 2011 Summer Unity Tour.

The tour takes an extended stop in Florida with 311’s first ever multi-day music festival, the 311 Pow Wow, Aug. 4-6.

Taking place in Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, the festival features two stages and multiple bands, including Sublime with Rome, Deftones, G-Love & Special Sauce and Reel Big Fish. The Oracle talked to 311 bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills about the new album, the 311 Pow Wow and life on the road.

The Oracle: You guys recorded the album in your own studio. How was the process of recording the album in the studio different from past albums?

P-Nut: This is the first time we’ve thrown away a whole batch of songs and really started from scratch while still in the writing and recording mode, separated by a tour. Everything got better, we were all more on the same page – more like the same paragraph – and just enjoying the process that much more. Though it was a long process, it just came out kind of fantastic. We’re really proud of it.

O: With the 311 Pow Wow, how did you come up with the idea for an extended show and why did you choose to do it at Live Oak?

P-Nut: We wanted to bring some friends along and make it a multi-day camping thing where we get to play a lot of songs. The venue just kind of showed itself to us through the genius of our booking agent. So we’re giving it a shot, seeing how good it can be. I think we’ve already surpassed the Allman Brothers on the first year of their festival – they started kind of small with a few thousand people and built it up from there. Should be a good time.

O: You’re playing back-to-back sets on two of the nights, while headliners just play right at the end. Why are you pushing yourselves so hard at this stage of your career?

P-Nut: Our fans kind of demand it, which is a good thing. They’ve always supported us so much that we’re continuing to be ambitious. We’re going to play a ton of songs and it’s so much fun for us as a band. We’re putting in the work by rehearsing the “Transistor” stuff because we’re going to play that whole album. We’ve never done that before – in fact, one of the songs, “Tune In,” we’ve never even played live before. It keeps us on our toes the more events we do like this, so I really welcome it.

O: 311 has been together for 21 years. Is it safe to say you guys are still enjoying yourselves?

P-Nut: It’s very satisfying being in a band for 21 years, playing with the same five guys, making all this music. Love playing the old stuff, really enjoying playing the new stuff, and I kind of can’t believe how good the response is with the new music. We’ll probably play a ton of “Universal Pulse” at the Pow Wow to balance out the old stuff.

O: If you don’t mind a personal question, how did you get the nickname “P-Nut?” P-Nut: I got the nickname from a friend of mine who thought my head looked like a peanut-shaped head, and ran with it.

O: So you embraced it? P-Nut: Yeah, I like the idea of taking on a different persona, and not taking myself too seriously. It’s just been perfect.

O: Well I know you’re a Los Angeles Lakers fan. One of your players recently changed his name to “Metta World Peace.” Would you ever consider changing your name to P-Nut?

P-Nut: No, no, if I would consider anything it would be dropping “P-Nut” and being Aaron. But I’ve really enjoyed the P-Nut side of things. It allows me to be just slightly different enough that I can let it all hang out on stage. I thought so as a kid, and I’m continuing to believe that as a 37-year-old.

O: What do you do on tour to stay sane?

P-Nut: We kind of mind our own business. At any given time, someone’s family will be out so that person will be disposed. S.A. (Martinez) goes record hunting, I’m on (World of) Warcraft and Chad (Sexton) and Tim (Mahoney) are listening to Brothers Johnson records on their newly acquired record player. Stress and tension and unneeded activity kind of all takes away from the show, so it’s nice to just be kind of chill.

O: What class and level is your Warcraft character?

P-Nut: I have an 85 warrior. I’m a tank – like most badasses. I like the responsibility of keeping the group alive, drawing all the attention to me and trying to take all the hits from the enemies.

O: The unsung hero of the group, kind of like the bassist?

P-Nut: Yeah, exactly. I have to hold it down in a big way. Except for last night’s show – we had a really nice train wreck. We can’t figure out who to point the finger at, but it was hilarious. It happens like every 100 shows for us and we were all looking at each other going, ‘What are you doing?’ Hopefully, someone was recording it on their smart, or not-so-smart, phone and it’s already on the Internet, but it’s the real deal. It’s not like Britney Spears – we are actually playing the show.

O: If you could play in any other band for one night, who would it be?

P-Nut: Oh, I don’t know. I look up to so many other bass players that are my heroes. I would never think to walk in their shoes. So I guess it would have to be someone I consider more like friends. I think I would have been a good member of Incubus, especially back when they were dropping more funk. I think I could have fit in with that incarnation of the band very easily.

O: What’s next for 311? Are you guys going to take a break after the tour?

P-Nut: No, we feel a lot of momentum. We’ve felt this before. Around the end of the “Transistor” tour in ’97, we just started saying no to all these really good opportunities. It was probably better for the band. There’s probably an alternate universe where we said yes to all those things and got burnt out. Now we can be smart about what we say yes to and continue the momentum. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever, so we’ve got to take advantage of something while we’ve got it.