An Interview with 3rDegree

The band members, 3RDegree

In a perfect world I would just travel to New Jersey and buy the guys numerous “rounds” of their favorite adult beverages as we talk music.  I want everyone not just talking about this band but buying their current album, back catalog, and next release.  Full disclosure dictates that I confess: I love this band and named their 2015 album “Ones & Zeros: Vol. 1” as my favorite prog album of the year.  In that perfect world I would interview Robert & company face to face.  But second best (e-mail/cyber interview) with 3rDegree is still first degree cool!  My “fan-boy” questions (I’m JW for Jay Watson) were graciously answered by most of the band: RJP (Robert James Pashman), PK (Patrick Kliesch), GD (George Dobbs), EP (Eric Pseja), Bryan Zeigler (BZ).

By the way, every true-blue East Coast prog fan needs to know that 3rDegree is playing live in 2016:

May 5: 10th Street Live, Kenilworth, New Jersey (with Circuline and Ryche Chlanda)

May 6: Aspire Hotel, Gettysburg, PA, (RoSfest)

May 19: Drom, New York, NY (with District 97, IZZ, and Tiles)

Jay Watson: 2015 seemed to be a very good year for the band, what with having “Ones and Zeros” appearing on several “best of/top ten” type lists, and going overseas. What have been some of the hi-lights of the last 12 to 16 months?

Robert James Pashman: I got the idea of doing a European tour only if we were able to play the Summer’s End Festival because it would have guaranteed a substantially sized audience. I thought about this right around Fall 2014–a whole year before the edition we would eventually feature at. Co-creator Stephen Lambe had written a short but positive review of The Long Division (our previous album) so I thought he might be interested in having an international flavor for 2015 having noticed they hadn’t had many American bands in their previous 10 editions. He agreed and I then ventured to find more dates in the UK and Western Europe. But for losing a few minor items, it went off well as far as our travels and our playing. I found that the UK prog scene is similar to the US one. In the US we get this inkling that the UK is a prog heaven with humongous numbers of prog lovers but it’s pretty comparable methinks. During the entire year of planning these shows, we knew full well we had to finish Ones and Zeros. By the beginning of 2015 we were really just mixing and figuring out the album cover, and packaging, so we were on schedule. Besides of course appearing on 3 Progarchists’ Top Album lists of 2015, the big thing that happened was not only a 3rd place finish on albums of the year at (only bested by Steven Wilson & Anekdoten) but amazingly, only 8 other prog albums in 2015 were more rated/reviewed on that site. That shows our awareness with the fans is way up and/or those who like us already are enthusiastic enough to go and weigh in on the album’s quality.

Brian Zeigler: For me the highlight had to be the European trip. I do enjoy writing and recording, but ultimately for me that’s a process that one goes through in order to have something original to perform live. I’ve played one-offs in Europe before, but this is the first time I’ve done any extended touring outside the U.S., and to have people from halfway around the world come out and see us perform is incredibly gratifying. And I finally got to see Paris!

Eric Pseja: For me, the main goal of it all is to simply create music that connects with someone on some level that adds a net positive to that person’s day. It’s incredibly gratifying to know that 3rDegree’s music is beginning to resonate more with those who may have either dismissed us in the past, or just found out about us recently. There is a giant pool of listeners out there, and every person putting out music is jockeying  for a piece of those people’s limited listening time. As so eloquently put by King’s X on their latest album: ‘If you like what you hear than go tell somebody!’  Word of mouth is incredibly important, and our placement on these ranked lists is evidence that our reach is improving. We’re thankful to everyone that’s taken the time to help us spread the word.

George Dobbs: Well, call me the “half-empty cup guy,” but 2015 sucked for us. In January, we were poised to release something that was really going to stand out–I mean, this sh*t was going to break us, right? This is what I was thinking (dreaming)…and what happens, we become Deep Impact to the Armageddon being released by several high-profile quality prog bands. It’s like we can’t catch a break.

JW:  I know the bands genesis, and how you came to be, is outlined pretty thoroughly  on your 10t band page, but how did you come up with the  band name 3rDegree?

RJP: I remember it well. Quite simply I was in line to see a concert in Hoboken, NJ and my girlfriend at the time and I were thinking of words that would describe the music  and the number of players in our power trio. Third Degree came about in the brainstorming and the spelling was worked out later.

GD: I believe Robert wanted a band name that evoked the same kind of imagery that a band-name like “Night Ranger” evoked–only he wanted something more likely to be misspelled or or misattributed to one of the many other bands who chose some “quirky” spelling of the same band name.

JW: When did you guys first become interested in music and what prompted you to pick up an instrument and start playing and writing your own songs?

RJP: I started playing keyboards around 12, borrowing my Uncle’s organ. I  later bought a tiny Casio. Piano teachers told my parents that I should get a piano. I taught myself bass when I was 16 from the piano knowledge, and took recording studio lessons in lieu of piano from my piano teacher. I was dividing my interests evenly between playing, writing, and recording–which is sort of where I am today.

BZ: I’ve been writing songs ever since “The Twelve Days of Science Class” was accepted for my eighth grade talent show. Early on I started the tradition of writing things I couldn’t play in order to push myself. Some of these ideas were ultimately successful , while others (“hey, if you play something in 11 and I play something in 17, we’ll meet up in 187 beats!”) not so much. But it was always about creation for me. I’ve tried to be happy in cover band situations, and I’ve been in some for a while, but it never felt true for me. It didn’t have to me my music necessarily, but it had to be from someone in the room at the time. That was what always excited me.

EP: As far back as I can remember, music has always been a part of my life. It all started when my parents parked the playpen in front of my Dad’s stereo as it pumped out doo-wop, big band, and soul  when I was a toddler. I sang for 10 years in my old church choir. In high school I sang in the performance and madrigal choirs and took leads in musicals all four years. After my brother went off to college, he brought me back a second hand guitar from a pawn shop in Valparaiso, IN.  That’s when the real creativity began as it allowed me to take everything I learned  and translate it into rock n’ roll. Being entirely self-taught, there were no restrictions or boundaries.

GD: John Lennon’s death was oddly inspiring. I got into music right around that time. There were all these musical tributes on the radio, and re-releases in the record stores–and it was an awakening of sorts–for me, who was just starting to become friends with musicians in my school. I just had to be an active part of that “dialogue,” and soon, thanks to a friend who had a few years of experience ahead of me, I was trying to write songs to share with peers, whose opinions were helpful and encouraging. And of course, Brian Zeigler’s “12 Days of Science Class” was a big influence on my designs as a musician (legendary in this part of the country).

JW: What did you do musically and professionally between 1997 and the reassembly in 2005 when 3rDegree went moribund?

RJP: I took some of the songs I had written for 3rDegree  and started recording them in my new recording studio; and, started writing new stuff for a female vocalist to sing that I really never found. By 2000, Patrick and I were working with a female vocalist and did a few songs in the “trip hop” style that we were really happy with. This was short lived, and in 2001 I released my solo album Recovering Dreamer.

PK: I had my one and only solo album released in 1999, which included the 3rDegree songs Free for All, and Done it Again. Right after that in 2000, Rob and I started our Trip Hop band, Portal, which we were very proud of. We had a two song demo finished, with 2 or 3 other songs in the works at the time that our lead singer moved to San Francisco. Had she stayed in New York, things could have turned out very differently and 3rDegree might not have reformed! Then in 2003, I worked on a project with Eric Pseja called Liquid 56. We released a 6 song EP in early 2004, right before I moved to Los Angeles. That album “FOIL,” has the very first incarnation of the song More Life, in which Eric sings lead.

BZ: I was performing in the Zappa-esque fusion bands Electric Sheepdog and Progressive Dementia, but of course I didn’t know 3rDegree at the time, so I didn’t know I was supposed to be in mourning!

EP: I was in a New Jersey cover band called Sick Nellie at the time, and, although I was friends with the boys in 3rDegree (and spent some time in studio during the creation of Human Interest Story), I wasn’t actually part of the band. Once the band split, Pat approached me the idea of working out some of the material he’d been working on that never got realized. During this time, Pat and I released a CD of some of Pat’s more personal solo stuff called Dysfunctional Family Album, and then another more collaborative EP under the moniker Liquid 56. Interestingly enough, neither of us knew at the time that the song More Life from that EP would wind up being a huge factor in the overall development of Ones & Zeros, Vol 1, eleven years later.

GD: I honed my skills as a performing musician, taking on various journeyman positions in cover bands and occasional session-work at small studios. I continued to write music the whole time, but didn’t have much impetus to get it out there until getting back with these guys.

JW: How long have you been with 10t Records? What are your thoughts on big labels, small labels, and self-released projects?

RJP: We signed with 10t in early 2013 but didn’t but didn’t really fulfill our contract per se until over 2 years later. They did re-release our 1996 album remastered in digital-only format at the end of 2013 but we didn’t get the full “force” of the label until last summer upon release of Ones & Zeros: Vol. 1, and it was great having them in our corner. For bands that don’t really want to “do much,” I’d say a label is a good idea. For those bands you know whose Facebook pages look like they haven’t been updated in 2 years, rarely send e-mails out to their fan base, and just literally are too busy to “tend the pasture” of their fan base, I’d say it wouldn’t hurt to have a label doing a lot for them. In our case, I was on top of a lot of the business side of the band and just thought it couldn’t hurt to share the responsibility and double our efforts so to speak. The reality is that most prog bands (unless they’re really young bands)  have day jobs and are doing band stuff in their free time. This does not allow them to stay on top of much of what’s going on so they have to pick their battles. In our band we try to have different band members do different things and some of us have unique abilities and interests that help us do things somewhat quickly and effectively.

GD: Wow, Robert, talk about burying the lede.

JW: The band’s “mug shot” on the 10t web site has the 6 of you that are listed on the credits of Ones & Zeros: Vol. 1,is this still the current line-up?  Do you all live on the East Coast with regular access to one another for jamming/practice and mini-regional tours?

RJP: Our original drummer Rob Durham who had left the band at then end of 2008 has returned full time. Patrick has lived in Los Angeles the entire time we’ve been reformed despite his being very involved in the construction of the songs and the recording of the album. He cannot play with us live.

GD: I flatly deny being in any of those pictures. That could not be me in there.

JW: Not wanting to slight any of the guys that make up the band, you’ve been blessed by a great vocalist in George Dobbs.

RJP: You are correct  😉

PK: And that’s part of the reason I think we stand out from the other prog rock bands. George’s voice is more soulful than the typical progressive rock singer, which adds to our unique sound.

EP: Another lesser known fact about George is that he’s a very talented tactical arranger. Sometimes we’ll develop a song together that sounds pretty good, and George is the one that feels if its not quite hitting its potential…stuff like “Let’s start the song off with the bridge and go right into a solo section…then we’ll hit verse one and two in succession before we get to the first chorus…”  He’ll even tweak the live versions of some of our songs as well to give some extra performance edge.

JW: When can we expect to see Ones & Zeros: Vol. 2, and will that be the actual title?

PK: We’re shooting for early to mid 2017 at this point. The working title is ‘Ones & Zeros: Vol. 0.”

GD: “Ones & Zeros:The Quest for Curly’s Gold.”

JW: Will the story lines and themes from Vol. 1 continue?

PK: Since Vol. 1 didn’t have a linear story line, we’re not writing Vol. 0 as a sequel, but rather as a companion piece. We had too many ideas and songs to include all in one album, so we felt that we could break up the futurist-themed concept into two separate albums. However, there will be recurring musical motifs. We’ll also be incorporating the interstitials and segues that were in Vol. 1, as well as our patented 3rDegree tongue-in-cheek humor.

JW: Will you be using the beautiful (almost impressionistic/psychedelic) artwork of Aleksandr V. Kouznetsov on the new release?

PK: That’s a great question! I want to know the answer to that as well 😉  I think Rob is going to contact Aleksandr and have him create a similar piece for Vol. 0.

EP: I also hope that Aleksandr will entertain the idea of creating a new piece of art for the second album. In the event that doesn’t come to pass however, I fed the Vol. 1 artwork to Google Deep Dream to use as a base for a possible variant. It came out pretty cool, actually. It’s got tons of eyes, seal faces, a deformed GEICO gecko head, a mole-manatee, an octopus head, and a pretty badass double-headed dog-eel.

JW: As an old guy I still cling (pretty exclusively) to physical media in an industry that knows its younger fan base wants streaming and downloads more and more to the exclusion of the whole album in solid form format. What’s the band’s take on keeping us Boomers in CD heaven? 

RJP: Interesting question. With each album we’ve made the same amount of CDs and have the same amount left of our 2015 album right now as we do our 2012 album and twice as many left of our 2008 album; so you may recognize a pattern. Our 1996 album is finally virtually sold out and we had to make a new version (remastered and in new packaging with a different running order and augmented song list). While at the same time we are selling more CDs due to our raised “profile,”  I get the feeling more of our fans are moving to downloads instead, so it may level off where more people are finding out about us at the same speed people are stopping their purchase of CDs.

EP: It’s the new paradigm of quality vs. convenience, with the latter currently winning the fight in the marketplace, However, with the advent of FLAC, it’s now possible to listen to your music wherever you wish without the need to carry the physical disc, and at the same fidelity. Given that, I know many people who opt to download albums knowing they can go online to see the art, read the lyrics, and peruse the liner notes later (something I plan to do soon with the entire 3rDegree catalog).  To me personally, physical CDs represent not much more than a more “tangible” receipt of your support of an artist, unless that CD comes with a multi-page professionally printed insert–something that most indie artists can’t afford to include. Vinyl and Surround are the only two exceptions to that notion, dictated by the fact that listening to those formats require making it into an “active” pastime (i.e. you are listening to the music as your primary goal) instead of a “passive” one (i.e. the music is playing in the background as you’re doing something else like driving or cooking). While it would be great to press some 3rDegree onto vinyl, it would be nothing more than a vanity project since we don’t record in analog, thus the resulting sound would be only as good as the digital version.  Mixing the music into 5.1  Surround to listen with your home theater system however, is something I’m very keen to explore.

JW: Who are some of your musical influences/heroes? Have you always been “prog-guys” and do you follow the current scene?

RJP: I follow the scene more in a “business sense”just keeping myself abreast of what bands are having what kinds of success, and making friendships with bands so we can play concerts together, etc.  Personally I don’t consume all that much music next to most (thank goodness!) but my favorite bands out there that are sort of “peers” are IZZ, District 97, and Big Big Train.

BZ: A lot of what I listen to straddles genre lines. When my Father gave me vinyl copies of Close to the Edge and Tarkus my brain exploded.  But I also love Joe Walsh and The Fixx, and still do. We could have drawn out arguments about whether Steely Dan or 90125 or Abacab or The Tubes are in any way “prog,” but I think that’s beside the point. I try to spend more time listening and enjoying and less time justifying and categorizing.  I do listen to Spock’s Beard and Riverside and to whatever Steven Wilson happens to be doing at the time, but I also own everything Casiopea ever did, and more straight ahead hard rock than you might expect. Three Days Grace can write a hook that eats your brain, and I really enjoy that. And while my compositional heroes are Yes, Zappa, and Mr. Bungle, my guitar playing is more traditional classic rock, touching on Gilmour and Ty Tabor.

PK: I never went much deeper than listening to the prog gods–Rush, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, a bit of King Crimson and Gentle Giant, and that’s about it. In my formative years, the Beatles and Zeppelin were just as much of an influence for me as those other bands. Now, I try listening to the current prog albums that are getting good reviews each year, but I mostly listen to college and indie rock.  Stuff like Mew, Empire of the Sun, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, M83, And So I Watch You From Afar, Sigur Ros…

EP: As far as musical heroes go, recently for me it’s been all about Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson. Between the two of them there is an ocean of things to study and learn, not all of it even dealing with the music itself but the philosophy behind the why of the music. I’m likely on any given day to pull out some classic prog like ELP, Yes, or Genesis. I’m always on the lookout for something new even if “new” turns out to be something old I just discovered (regardless of genre). On the older music front I’ve recently been getting into a bit of Arthur Lyman, Astrud Gilberto, Necromandus, and Coven. On the newer music front, I have to thank Mike Potter from Orion Studios for turning me on to Pixel (and subsequently to Ellen Andrea Wang’s solo material). Along with that there’s quite a mixed bag, but I’ll rattle off a few...Janelle Monae, Mike Errico, Willy Porter, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Baby Metal, Steel Panther, Royal Blood, and (much to my kids’ happiness) the unarguably talented Taylor Swift. Yes, you read that right.

GD: Older artists: Genesis, Yes, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, XTC, Self, Jellyfish, Q-tip. More current bands that I have an interest in: Jack O’ the Clock, North Atlantic Oscillation, Tea Club, Hiatus Kaiyote, Bird and the Bee.

JW: How would you define 3rDegree’s “sound” to someone not yet familiar with your stuff?

RJP: I like to think we use prog as an element of our sound rather than the full 100% of it. Coming out in the early 90’s we held on to some of the keyboard-laden production values of the 80’s at the same time grunge was hitting. We then got a soulful lead singer and started sounding more like something else than our influences.

PK: Pour in 1 cup prog rock, add a half cup of grunge/hard rock, 2 ounces of Beatles-esque harmonies, a tsp. each of power pop, soul/funk, classical, and acoustic rock. Mix in a blender for about 4 to 6 minutes. Pour into a Belgian beer glass and serve.

EP: This is always the million dollar question. Since there is virtually no corner of the musical universe that’s not enjoyed by at least one member of the band, you are going to hear many different influences creeping in from album to album and song to song. The one thing that does pervade our music, regardless the “style,” is the fact that we’re very song-oriented. We like to create good hooks, singable melodies, well-developed lyrics, and relatable themes. :You won’t find many extended instrumental breaks or musical calisthenics in our songs, which is why many “prog purists” sometimes have a hard time with us. We aren’t very easy to compartmentalize, and we’ve become quite comfortable with that trait.

JW: American independent prog (small label or self-released) seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance what with podcasts, websites, Prog Magazine, and several important festivals. But it all seems more European/UK based. Do you have hopes for the American scene/market? It seems that economics and changing models make cross-country tours impossible for small acts.

RJP: We are fortunate to be in New Jersey where we have the NJ Proghouse and Orion in Baltimore, both of which we play at every album cycle. We have also driven to Quebec to play Terra Incognita Festival (2014), ProgDay (2009 & 2013) in North Carolina, a DC-SOAR (Washington DC prog group) show in 2010, and in a few weeks, RoSfest in Gettysburg. Sadly, with few exceptions on the West Coast and Chicago (sometimes) , that is just about the total extent of our live playing opportunities. I often find 3-4 other prog bands to play “low key” concerts in Manhattan sometimes, but that isn’t  really a reliable “prog scene” contribution.  Because of these opportunities we continue to play live concerts even though we often think it would be easier and perhaps even more “fruitful” for us to just write and record. We would have more albums and could give our families’ ears a break. We could also stop worrying about the excessive promotion and total heartbreak that most concert ventures start and end with 😉  In prog, there are a lot of studio projects, and bands that don’t play live, so somehow we still think it’s worth it for us to assemble a live show as is tradition to do after completing an album.

PK: I’ve been telling Rob that somebody needs to do an expose and break the current prog scene in the tri-state area. Kinda the same way that grunge broke out in the early 90’s in Seattle. I’m sure I’m missing a bunch, but in addition to 3rDegree, there’s IZZ, The Tea Club, Circuline, Thank You Scientist, Advent, and obviously Dream Theater.

EP: As the consummate band realist (pessimist?), I can’t help but feel the diminishing value of playing live shows a way to advance our band. A few years back we physically had the plug pulled on us because the bar owner decided to close up early.  A few months ago we had a show canceled in Philly because the owner just decided a few days before that it wasn’t worth it to do live music anymore. Don’t get me wrong–I do enjoy playing live and I don’t expect to be paid in briefcases of cash for playing, but look at the list of local music venues that have recently closed and you’ll see the new reality that is bar/club owners who think they’re doing bands a favor by letting them play at their establishments “for the exposure.”  Couple that with the fact that they expect the bands to do all the promotion themselves and will often refuse to pay a band if they don’t bring in enough attendees and you’ve got a recipe for a dying music scene.  For me, in order to break through the gloom that surrounds all that, I am always looking forward to the next stretch of writing and recording. Knowing that the chances of getting that “big break” which will allow me to do music full time are infinitesimal, the creation of new music is where the real satisfaction lies.

GD: (sobbing quietly…)

JW: If I was Richard Branson you guys would be set for life, but alas, with your “day jobs” your music has to fit your work and family schedules…which makes its stunning quality all the more phenomenal.

RJP: I’m glad you think that! I marvel at how professional and top notch albums from people I see mostly on Facebook, but often have a beer at NJ Proghouse with, are. Both the recording quality and the musicianship on albums from people who put in 40 hours doing something completely non-musical is ridiculous. At the same time I do take my hat off to my friends who DO music as their living. People like Tom Brislin (Meat Loaf, Yes, Renaissance, Spiraling), Geoffrey Langley (The Twenty Committee, Renaissance), and Jason Hart (Duncan Sheik, Renaissance, Camel).

PK: Throughout our college years Rob and I both worked at the same recording studio, where we still record and mix to this day! Working there gave us a great base of knowledge on to properly record vocals and instruments. George came along with a great knowledge of recording as well.

EP: Yeah, it’s the dad life for me. Full time family man, part time rock god. 9-5 at the office on weekdays. House and yard work on the weekends. Sprinkle in gymnastics, soccer, and soft ball for my daughters. Add some extended family obligations and events. What’s left? That’s my ME time. It’s not much, but I do my best to distill it.

GD: I’d like to add that you cannot achieve the level of sophistication we of 3rDegree aim for without proper hydration, and for that, you could do far worse for your thirst needs than with the one and only original CrocoSplash, just as seen on televised sports events (now available in 2 new flavors: Novocaine Withdrawal and Musk). And I take my hat off to my representatives at faithfully serving its musical clientele over the internet for over 75 years.

JW: Thank you guys for your time, and George, you are “quite the card.” 🙂  I’ll let you go so that I can get back to my Kickstarter campaign to bring the band to Kansas City…it’s gonna be a long wait for 2017 and your next magnum opus: Ones & Zeros: Vol. 0.  Set your mellotrons to 11 my friends.

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