New Jersey band 3RDegree have been around for close to two decades, but only in recent years have they come to the attention of the progressive rock community. The 2008 release of their third studio album, Narrow-Caster, followed by their appearance at ProgDay 2009, paved the way for the extremely positive feedback garnered by their fourth recording effort, The Long Division, definitely one of the strongest releases of 2012. With their distinctive sound, effortlessly blending catchy hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies with elaborate arrangements and plenty of technical fireworks in a song-based context, 3RDegree offer a refreshingly modern take on the old prog warhorse that may appeal even to those who find the genre too pretentious for its own good. The band members – Robert James Pashman, George Dobbs, Patrick Kliesch, Eric Pseja and Aaron Nobel – have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.
Your biography is exhaustively detailed on your website, so I will limit myself to a couple of questions on the subject. What led you to disbanding after Human Interest Story, and why did you decide to give it another go (which, by the way, seems to have become increasingly common among prog bands)?
George: We saw our differences more than we saw our similarities. As for the re-formation, Rob had a vision, which expanded as time went on. I didn’t have anything going on to speak of at the time, and I liked the new songs Rob and Pat were writing, so that’s how I ended up back in the fold.
Robert: We got frustrated with “the scene” and we were in the New York City area! It feels funny complaining about the lack of our ability to create a fan base when there’s such a population center surrounding us, but getting the sort of music we were doing in front of the people who like it was killing us. The Internet hadn’t taken hold yet as a music marketplace, and the festival scene was not known to us, so we were playing aimlessly all over NJ and NY. The only thing we did that was a bit inventive was that we befriended a few other prog bands, and I would present a group of us to bookers and club owners. All those bands are now gone, although one of them was You Were Spiraling, fronted by Tom Brislin, who went on to play with Yes, Renaissance and Camel, and is now a solo artist.
Now something about your individual background as musicians. How did you start playing music, and what other experiences did you have prior to joining 3RDegree?
Eric: I’ve been singing since I was about eight, first in my church choir, then in my high school madrigal choir. I also landed singing leads in my high school musicals for all four years, which helped me to get comfortable with performance. Also in high school, I taught myself to play guitar. In college, I learned bass guitar and pursued a music minor.
George: When I was 14, I had these cool friends who had all been playing music for years. It was sort of contagious, and eye-opening. As for everything else leading up to and inclusive of my first round with 3RDegree, I have wished it to the corn-field (reference: Twilight Zone).
Patrick: I started in fourth grade playing clarinet for the school band and then I took up guitar in seventh grade. I had a couple of high school bands where we did mostly Rush and Yes covers. 3RDegree was the first “real” band that I had joined.
Robert: I took piano lessons when I was 12 and continued to 17. I then got a portable recording studio and got lessons on that instead of piano from my piano teacher Angelo Panetta, whom I then started working as Assistant Engineer for, followed by Pat when I left college. Angelo now mixes all our albums. In junior year of high school I taught myself bass and started a power trio where I sang, played keys and bass doing Rush, Genesis and other things like that. 3RDegree was started out of the ashes of that band in 1990 with my meeting with Rob Durham, our drummer until 2008.
Aaron: I started playing drums when I was nine and did the usual routine of playing in the school orchestra. I had an aunt that had great taste in music and made me tapes I used to play along to-along with the rock radio du jour: Dixie Dregs, Permanent Waves/Signals-era Rush, Abacab-era Genesis, Van Halen, Men At Work, The Police. In high school I played in basement bands with classmates and was a bit more advanced than the guys I was playing with… We’d end up playing crude Metallica and Slayer covers. After graduating I started taking private lessons mostly focusing on technique, jazz, funk, reading. Around that time I tried out for a locally successful metal band, Know Idea, and ended up landing the gig. I was the very green 18-year old among semi-seasoned mid-20’s guys, we had full lights, pyro, professional sound system, box truck, roadies. We were very briefly signed to a subsidiary of Warner. The week after the band broke up I got a call from my step brother, who was a professional musician, to join his keyboard based funk project. Best thing about that was he was the engineer at Star Castle studios so we had a wicked rehearsal space there and free recording. I also played in a progressive rock trio a la Rush called Showcase with two local prodigies – my recordings with them happen to be among my favorite. I was restless and decided to take a stab at music school, auditioned for Miami U and New School – decided it wasn’t worth the money. I ended up doing studio work for a local rock band and playing in a desert rock band a la Kyuss called Amnesty Underground . Things were great music wise, but, still restless, I moved to Orlando, did some convention band work, some original music, tried out for some Disney stuff (serious competition down there). When I came back a few years later the two guys I was in Showcase with had another project going and enlisted me. Called Selfmadesoul, the music contained a lot of electronic elements and orchestrations so I played a hybrid acoustic/electronic kit with an octapad, foot pedals, and electronic pads. Everything was automated, so I played to a click which was great training. Incidentally it was while I was in Selfmadesoul that I became friends with the guys in Spiraling, which is my link to 3RDegree.
Are any of you professional musicians, or with a day job related to the music industry? If not, how do you juggle your day jobs with your musical activity?
George: None of us presently make “a living” playing music. Balancing a day job with music, easy – balancing personal life with music is the tricky thing. My solution so far: personal life centered around music.
Patrick: I work as a writer/director/editor, so some times I write music for the things I produce. My brother is a professional musician. He is the composer for the new Disney series Sophia The First.
Robert: It’s tough. I work odd hours and have kids like 2 other band members as well, but with my trusty laptop I eke out band work whenever I can. My difficulty comes in with the many hats I wear in the band and when I should take off one and put on another. It’s very unartistic promoting a new album and tending the social networks. When to stop doing that and start writing is like restarting a computer rather than just minimizing one window and opening another – to use a computer metaphor.
Aaron: I’m in a 9-5 as a senior tech support for one of the largest manufacturers of HVAC actuators in the world. It doesn’t get in the way too much- it’s the other bands, quality time with my girlfriend, and fitness endeavors that get in the way!
Are any of you involved in any other projects besides 3RDegree?
Eric: In college, I joined my fraternity house band CRUST, where I took on bass guitar and vocal duties. Our music is very tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Spinal Tap. After we graduated and moved apart (to New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan), we’ve still made it a point to get together every year to write and record. We’ve been doing this for over twenty years. It’s a great outlet for the “less technical” side of my musical personality. As a matter of fact, we’re on the verge of releasing a new album this winter!
George: I’ve been recording a few tracks with some friends, at Rave Tesar’s Studio X (where the last Renaissance album was recorded). I keep my chops up with bar band gigs every few weeks.
Aaron: I’m in a progressive rock instrumental trio in my hometown. I do a bit of jazz gigs around the New Haven, CT area. I play with the Lyric Hall Silent Movie Orchestra providing the live sound track to silent movies. I sub for a couple local cover bands and a Celtic rock band called The Ruffians. I always complain about how busy I am, but I rarely say no to an offer.
3RDegree do not sound like “traditional” prog, and, rather than going for lengthy, elaborate compositions like many of the iconic Seventies bands, are undeniably a song-oriented band. What is your relationship to the genre, and your opinion on its future developments?
Eric: We’re all very well-versed in rock history, and progressive rock’s important contributions to the development of modern music, but I believe the true essence of being progressive is allowing your band’s natural chemistry to dictate the direction of the music regardless of current commercial trends. We don’t have a “formula” for our music. As technical and meticulous as it sounds at times, our music is developed very organically, which is why people find it hard to define. Every song we write has a varying degree of each band member’s personality within, and our personalities are quite diverse.
George: We come out of a “crossover prog.” tradition. Even Yes, with their Awaken/Delirium/CTTE/Tales epics, had shorter songs, often with very well defined refrains – (and I’m talking pre-90125… hell, even pre- Tormato). I think those other efforts are to be cherished and emulated -not to be merely tolerated. The future of prog, ehh, what do I know? I think it involves nanobots.
Patrick: I’ve always approached songwriting as melody first and arrangement second. The melody is the foundation, and, with a good foundation, you can play around and have fun with arrangements. Rob and I never were into the esoteric prog stuff that ventured into long solos and experimentation. Then when George came along, his writing meshed with ours and defined our song-based prog rock even more so. I can’t speak for the future of prog as a whole – I can only say that we as 3RDegree are going to keep pushing new limits. I never want our listeners to think they know what the next album is going to sound like. I always want to surprise and challenge our fan base.
Robert: For 3RDegree to pursue a song idea, I think there has to be an element of one or more of the hallmarks of what is generally considered prog mixed with just good songwriting a la XTC, Todd Rundgren and other songsmiths that aren’t particularly considered prog artists. We don’t run into any huge arguments over which of our songs are to be included in our repertoire, but we sometimes have a slight crisis over it. I’d say on any given album of ours, there is a song or two that may be far from the prog tradition but, when tucked into the running order of an album, fits just fine.
What music do you usually listen to, and what are your biggest influences – prog and otherwise?
Eric: My musical tastes are all over the map, so there really is nothing usual about what I listen to. For instance, the other day I listened to The Doors’ Strange Days, followed by Opeth’s Blackwater Park, then AOMusic and Miriam Stockley (I absolutely love her voice)! Prog-wise, I’m a fan of the usual suspects: Yes, Genesis, ELP, etc. More recently however, I’ve grown to be a huge fan of Porcupine Tree and Devin Townsend as well.
Aaron: It depends on my mood. I actually listen to a lot of jazz – Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Louie Armstrong. My formative years I listened to A LOT of Rush, Living Colour, ings X, The Police, Dixie Dregs. I dig anything that Ty Tabor has a part in. I love old school hip-hop, funk, French house. I had a Dream Theater phase, but lately in prog-world I’m really digging Gavin Harrison & 05RIC. Gavin’s linear playing boggles the mind. I’ve spent entire commutes to work over going over one section of song trying to figure out his licks.
George: No regular listening habits. 4 albums I bought in the past few months: Broken Bells, Ambrosia’s 1st album, Walter Becker (Circus Money), and IZZ (Crush of Night). Artists that have probably left their greatest mark on me are are Genesis, Floyd, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and XTC. More current artists that I admire and keep my eye on are Mutemath, Beardfish, Self (Matt Mahaffey) and Bird and The Bee.
Patrick: Let’s refer to my starred files in Spotify: And So I Watch You From Afar, Cut Copy, Grizzly Bear, Holy Fuck, M83, Amanda Palmer. They’ve all released my favorite albums of the past year or so. Biggest influences in prog – Yes, Rush, Genesis. Non-prog biggest influences – Beatles, Zeppelin, Radiohead.
Robert: Prog favs are Rush, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Marillion, Ambrosia, David Sylvian, Kevin Gilbert, etc. Songwriting favs are XTC, Jellyfish, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell….Pop favs include Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Tears For Fears. Love Cocteau Twins, Björk, Radiohead. Newer prog favs are Echolyn and Izz.
One of your founding members resides on the West Coast, thousands of miles from the rest of you. How do you negotiate the physical distance during the songwriting and the recording stage?
George: It’s really not that difficult, if and when we are motivated. FTP and the universal “WAV” file make it somewhat negotiable.
Patrick: Yeah, it’s really not too tough. A month ago we all FaceBook chatted for several hours and spoke about the direction of the next album. Additionally, I can FaceTime as the rest of the band rehearses. Soon there will be a way where I can play along real time with them. JamHub is close to that right now – I think there is a 200-mile distance for real time playing.
Robert: JamHub is enabling us to play at decent volumes and to hear each other better. Whether we will be able to integrate Pat into that in real time 3000 miles away – and cheaply – remains to be seen.
Your songs are clearly the work of people who put a lot of attention in every detail. How do you handle the songwriting process? Would you call yourselves perfectionists?
Eric: Our recording process is a balancing act; making sure the music is well-produced without sounding too sterile. While we take great care to make sure the complexities of our music are clearly defined, we also believe there’s something to an album that’s got some live-band feel as well.
George: Robert always keeps us to a pretty strict time line, so there’s only so much room for perfectionism. He’s like Roger Corman in that regard …He’s also a bit like Harvey Corman, only shorter.
Patrick: It’s hard to define the songwriting process, because every song takes on a life of its own and each one dictates the way that the song will be sculpted. But generally, the principal songwriter will present his song idea to the band with his initial arrangements and flourishes, and then the rest of us will add keys, guitars and other touches on top of that.
Robert: Or that song that’s presented isn’t finished (just a chorus or verse), and another band member is encouraged to run with it. We’re good like that. We never have an argument over who is writing too much or too little. Members get busy in their lives in different times and slack is picked up when needed. We also have a pretty harsh song filter -a built-in quality control within the band that ensures that we all feel good about everything that gets to the recording phase. We’re not going to spend time on a song getting it ready for the drum recording sessions that start off the process and not see it through. That would be too much wasted time. I – as band “leader” – do my utmost to not waste anyone’s time, be it at a rehearsal or whatever else. The reason for this is because we’re not in our 20’s with a short list of commitments. Quite the opposite.
What is your relationship to the other prog bands in the NJ/NYC area? Do you have any ongoing form of collaboration with other musicians, especially as regards finding opportunities for playing live?
Robert: There’s a camaraderie between the band leaders of a bunch of bands out there – mostly aided by Facebook. I’m in the same “boat” as a lot of these guys and, while we’re sort of “in competition” for the prog fans’ hard-earned dollar, so to speak, we seem to have empathy for each other’s rough road. Shadow Circus, Edensong, IZZ, Pinnacle – just a few names of bands near us who are fighting the good fight.
Talking of what, what have been your experiences as a live band? Do you think that releasing albums is more important than treading the boards of a stage, or the other way round?
Eric: It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to simply jam a weekend away. Both Rob and I have two little kids at home, and all of us have full-time jobs that require most of our time. While we strive to get out on stage if at all possible, we’re beginning to accept that it’s becoming more difficult to do so, especially on short notice. For me personally, I am simply grateful that I’m able to be creative even when I can’t “tour” to support the music I’ve helped create. Playing live is a wonderful thing, but to me, I don’t find it as important or gratifying as the creative process.
George: Live music means never having to say you had a sound check. Writing is absolutely more important to me, in terms of 3RDegree; and what are we going to play if we aren’t building and perfecting the oeuvre?
Robert: It’s such a double edged sword. We have had a difficult relationship with “the stage” since it always had seemed we have to drop everything to ready ourselves for a particular gig. Problem is, there’s only so many places you can play and you can only play them so many times SO, what happens is you find an album done, maybe a few shows and then the rust sets in again. When The Long Division was done back in June, I had spent so much time getting it ready to get out there (mastering, final mixes, pre-funding, pre-orders, album cover-concept, finding the artist, going back and forth with him until final draft, music video shooting and editing, advertising, mailing to press and radio and more) that we couldn’t get a live show together in time for the proper “tour”, and found out in the process that we really need two guitarists live since Pat cannot join us in the flesh. Good thing about playing live is the ability to move some merch. It’s very, very hard to sell shirts and non-musical gear from a website, no matter how much you take pictures or video of it. Same thing with our new beer glasses. After someone sees a band live, they often feel like a “souvenir” and that’s where it starts to make sense to get on stage again from a monetary point of view. Even the positive energy from playing a live gig can be squashed by a host of issues. I will say that, since our regrouping, the quality of the audience at our shows is better tenfold. We do not set up shows willy-nilly like the old days.
Since its release, The Long Division has garnered a lot of critical praise. Has this positive feedback translated into sales?
George: Not as much as some airplay would. But it’s nice to know that someone gets us. And the fanbase does grow in no small part due to this acknowledgement.
Robert: It seems to be selling better than Narrow-Caster so far, given its short time frame and word of mouth seems to be better and reviews and buzz have been exponentially more positive. We were surprised by how well things went with Narrow-Caster, so to say press is noticeably better is a pretty good place to be in. The only downside is the expectation going forward, but we just do what we do and hopefully everyone comes along for the ride. Although there are a handful of people who like our last album better.
You are one of the very few bands on the modern prog scene whose lyrics are based on current affairs rather than on more abstract topics. Why is it so, and has it always been that way?
George: It’s always been that way. Right back to the 1st album, current affairs seems to be Robert’s passion, when he was writing about Wall Street, the Cold War, AIDS. Well, you certainly run less of a chance of turning someone off if you stay away from “social commentary.” But this is true of all music, not just the prog scene – hardcore punk excepting. My M.O. is that all subjects are fair game for lyrics, just as long as you are making art and not propagandart.
Robert: We released our last album as the world was falling apart – the fall of 2008. While I was busy getting the 3RDegree name out there in various ways, Pat and George started on two of the pieces that would define The Long Division almost four years later – “You’re Fooling Yourselves”, started by Pat, and “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish”, started and almost entirely written by George.
How has the album been received outside the US, seen as its lyrical content is firmly rooted in the US socio-political situation? Do you think that its plea towards mutual understanding and cooperation may find an echo in other parts of the world?
George: If anything, the salient political topics may have helped us to finally reach a wider audience in the USA. Prior to The Long Division, we seem to have historically gone over best in “Germanic” countries.
Robert: I think we’ve been lucky that it’s been doing quite well in Europe as I was concerned not that people outside the US wouldn’t know about the subject matter, but that they wouldn’t particularly be interested in it. Many of the reviews point out that we spend quite a bit of time on the general subject of divisions in the American political system, and that it’s done well. We certainly labored a bit making sure the songs weren’t taking a hard political stance, but rather coming at it all from an apolitical angle. We all have our leanings, but I think none of the band are in love with the personalities or politicians we tend to agree with.
Now that the new album is finally out, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any new material ready, or is another long wait on the horizon for your fans?
George: Less of a wait this time, but we’re still looking at 2014, at best.
Patrick: Yeah, I’d concur that 2014 would be the release for the next album. It’s already half recorded. We’re shooting for another half dozen songs to be recorded in the next studio session. And, speaking of the future, that’s exactly what this next album is going to concentrate on – futurist themes.
Robert: I’d say we may play a few shows in the spring if our rehearsals go that way and we find a lead guitarist. If not, we will focus squarely on writing a few more songs and fleshing out the ones we’ve recorded already. Four songs are recorded on drums from The Long Division sessions. I’d say roughly six more need to be done in a final drum session hopefully this coming summer. Four songs are written-at least in part-but not recorded. One of the upcoming songs is the longest we have ever recorded. The Long Division has 4 of the longest songs we have ever recorded up to that time, so you can see the trend towards song length, but we still keep to our solemn pledge: “Gnome-Free Since ‘93”!
Thank you for your answers, and all the best for a great 2013!