Interview 3RDegree

"Ones & Zeros contains a strong concept without necessarily forcing the listener into a narrative"

(August 2015, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures provided by the band)

3RDegree is an American prog rock band formed in 1990. In June 2010 Background Magazine already had an interview with them (see interview), but since the band have just a new album out with Ones & Zeros: Volume 1 (see review) and are just about to give their first concerts in Europe, it's fair to give them again some exposure. Founder member Robert James Pashman, Bryan Zeigler and George Dobbs were willing to tell a bit about the new album, the band and the upcoming European tour.

For those who don't know all band members yet, would you please introduce the current line-up to our readers?
Robert James Pashman (RJP): “Of course we will. I'm Robert James Pashman and I play the bass, additional keyboards and backing vocals. I'm in the band since 1990 and one of the founding members. Patrick Kliesch plays the electric and acoustic six-string guitars and backing vocals. He's in the band since 1991. George Dobbs is the lead singer, but he also does the backing vocals and he plays the keyboards and percussion. He's in the band since 1995. Eric Pseja plays the electric guitars and acoustic twelve-string guitars. He's in the band since 2007. Aaron Nobel plays the drums and percussion; he's in the band since 2009, and finally Bryan Zeigler who plays the electric guitars in 3RDegree since 2013.”

From left to right: Bryan Zeigler, George Dobbs, Aaron Nobel and Robert James Pashman

When did you start working on Ones & Zeros, Volume 1 and how long did it take to finish it?
George Dobbs (GD): “The new album already begun to take shape while we were recording The Long Division (2012, see review), in particular the songs The Gravity and What It Means To Be Human. We even tracked the drums for those two tracks during the final drum session for The Long Division. But I don't think we really began working on the album until 2013. By then we had written and chosen all the songs.”

Why did you decide to split the recordings in two volumes? When can we expect the second part?
RJP: “Some of the band members feel that, no matter how amazing an album may be, the average listener starts to grow weary or tune out at an hour or even less of straight listening. So since we are − and the bands in the prog rock genre in general − an 'album band' and want to have albums out as much as possible, we thought: why should we put out 74 minutes of music on one CD? I think no one takes offense at a fifty-minute album as being too short, and I neither think that a person looks at a 74-minute CD and thinks: “Wow, I'm getting my money's worth!” It's more the experience and keeping it digestible length-wise. Business-wise it's smart too, so we can't be out of the 'public eye' for such a long time between albums. Volume 2 should be out by late 2016, but if it's early 2017 we can live with that.”

Does the album has a story line and if it has, would you tell me what the story of Ones & Zeros is all about?
GD: “It's not so much a story as it is a series of 'scenes' from a world of the near future. It may help
George Dobbs and Robert James Pashman (r)
to think of it like a sci-fi anthology, where each song is a different short story, but the album itself forms a kind of mockumentary, one that holds a lens to the great hopes and the tragic hubris of mankind at its technological apex.”

Bryan Zeigler (BZ): “One of the things I like about this album is that it has a strong concept without necessarily forcing the listener into a narrative. There's a story going on, but it's more about ideas. Technology has recently forced us to deal with some questions that until recently were only talked about by nerds, philosophers and religious folks. What is life? Can we create it? And should we? We watched movies about technology coming to life, and it was scary and fun, but not real. Now that The Matrix is being talked about as a potential part of our future, you have to say: be careful what you wish for.”

Between most of the tracks I heard spoken parts by some announcers. What do they mean?
GD: “There are four different narrators who help to expand and clarify the lyrical content: a commercial announcer at the end of Life, a lecturer in The Best And Brightest, a newsperson in Life At Any Cost, and of course, there's the official voice of the enigmatic and ubiquitous Valhalla Corporation, who opens the album with the Valhalla's trademark tagline. That's the one you might imagine hearing when you turn on one of their devices or when you first land on their homepage or get assaulted with as you browse a shopping mall. 'She' is also the official voice for Valhalla's call-centre and voicemail system. At one point she seems to be selling someone on a product while they're waiting, possibly even as they go under the knife, and on two other occasions, to cheerily deliver bad news to a customer.”

Patrick Kliesch
While listening to the album I noticed how well it was recorded. Did you do it yourselves?
RJP: “We start with demos that we all add ideas to after the initial writer. Sometimes those songs are already arranged, sometimes a new part is needed and another writer will pitch in. We then rehearse the songs with drummer Aaron and add a few more ideas. We then book studio time at a proper recording studio like the Panetta Studios, the same place where we mix many of the songs over a weekend, recording all or most of the song's drums for an album. However, there always seems to be some overlap when we're recording something that will make it to a future album at some point. Then George, Patrick and I go back and record the vocals, guitar, bass and keyboards in our project studios. I record Bryan's and Eric's guitars and vocals in my studio where I also do the bass and my vocals. George and Patrick record themselves. We painstakingly produce each other being totally honest with our critiques. For instance, I'll send an MP3 of a bass line I came up with to George and Patrick and they will encourage and discourage at will. A guitar recording with three guitarists could become a 'free for all', but the guitarists keep things under control pretty well considering the vying for space. On each album, we get a little better with our engineering and arrangement skills so I think you're noticing that incremental quality improvement. You have good ears!”

Bryan Zeigler
GD: “I will chime in that the mixing is a large part of what delivers that perception. As usual, Mr. Panetta delivered the same expert engineering that helped bring all of our previous albums to life, but he wasn't always available this time. Therefore Rave Tesar,who some readers may know as the keyboardist for Renaissance for the past six years, mixed several songs for us as well. “

The album reveals a lot of details in the musical parts. Especially the vocals were done very well! Who was responsible for the vocal parts? Did you often overdub them?
GD: “Let's just say that we're not proud to overdub, but sometimes we are proud to not overdub. This may come from me and my own pre-punk philosophy to rock albums as a heightened reality - not a replication of a live performance. We want the music to really come alive during a headphone listen as much as when you have the stereo speakers dialled to 11, with the sound flying into the air, bouncing off the walls and so forth.”

Were you influenced by bands as Steely Dan and Rush for this album?
BZ: “From a guitar perspective, I've always been influenced by Alex Lifeson's approach. I don't think you hear much of him in what I actually play, but I love how many of his solos are something of a surprise. So much of his work fits the song perfectly, yet makes you say 'wow, I didn't see that coming.' He's often also quite playful and I like to incorporate both the element of surprise and fun into what I do as well. There's one solo on the album in which I actually asked myself what Steve Howe (Yes) would have played had he been in Steely Dan. But I'll let you figure that one out for yourself!”

Who was responsible for the fine artwork and in particular the picture on the cover?
RJP: “Aleksandr Kouznetsov did the artwork. We were getting close to needing an album cover and I went on vacation with my wife to Newport, Rhode Island. In a coffee shop I saw this painting on the wall. It sort of represented to me a lot of what George's and Patrick's lyrics were hinting at. Everyone loved the picture I took of the painting and I called the coffee shop when I got home and tracked down the artist. He was very happy to be involved.”

Your earlier CDs were independent releases. Now 10T Records has taken over this role. Did the label approach you or were you looking for distributors yourselves?
RJP: “Eric started a dialogue with Steve Carroll from 10T Records, but based on us being mentioned with his band Man On Fire in an album review. We were doing as well as can be expected of a 'do it yourself' prog band, but thought a little help would be welcome to get us heard by more people. Steve and I have been in contact with each other every step of the way with this new release and have become fast friends despite my having never met him! 'Thank God for the internet', as Steve Hogarth of Marillion sang!”

In September you will embark on a European tour for the first time. What made you decide to do this and how difficult was it to find venues to perform?
Eric Pseja
RJP: “I first e-mailed Brett Kull of Echolyn asking him about their tour in 2005. He mentioned contacting someone, but I thought we didn't have it in our budget to add a middleman to the process. I then was just sort of poking around the Internet and trying to figure out when our album would be ready. The Summer's End Festival in the UK was just wrapping up and I thought about how Stephen Lambe, the organizer, had written a short review about us that was very positive in the CRS-magazine. I reached out to him and secured a spot for us at the festival almost a year away from its start. I then figured we would backtrack from there adding more dates in the UK and maybe even in The Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium, places I had perceived from mailing lists and sales. We had a decent following similar to the one we have in the North East of America. I then became aware of Marcel Mertens and the ProgFrog Shows in The Netherlands and had been familiar with Oliver Wenzler's Das Rind shows and festivals. He has been an admirer of our music since 2009. I then reached out to some other bands we were slated to play the festival with and Mike Morton of The Gift set up a few shows with Credo (UK) and Introitus (Sweden). Along the way we were almost added to a 'proper' tour, we had people looking for us in Italy and Poland, tried to get a concert in Paris or nearby, but to no avail, and other things. We have not used a booking agent. I just did research seeing where similar bands had played over the years. So the short answer is The Summer's End Festival made it worthwhile to come over and then we just figured how much vacation time we had and booked as many shows as we could.”

Are you going to record any of these shows for a possible live CD or DVD since you started a crowd funding program to finance the upcoming tour?
Aaron Nobel
RJP: “We privately crowd funded our 2012 album's final stages adding all sorts of items to the prize list, but since we're on a label this time, we kept the album release separate from a short crowd funding of the tour not involving our new studio release, but just a download of the live concert, a DVD/Blu-ray of one of the shows or a mix of many, and a shirt. We kept it simple. We promised to keep the concert exclusive to crowd funders for a year, but I think we may repurpose what we shoot over there for a different sort of release. We're bringing one pro camera and 5 GoPros and welcome video from anyone in the audience who wants to help. We will also try to record the audio from the shows in multitrack, but we may end up with just camera audio or a stereo from the board at some shows. We'll see.”

What do you want to say to the people who don't know the band yet, but are willing to come to the upcoming concerts?
BZ: “Thanks so much for coming! It's truly gratifying to think that people from across the Atlantic Ocean will come out to see us play. So above all thanks! By the way, what's the best local beer?”

GD: “We have a free four-song sampler available to download on the website mentioned below. It's a great way to get to know the band and we still play all of these songs live. We really look forward to entertain you!”

Thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions!
RJP: “Your welcome; hope to see you soon.”

3RDegree live

More info about 3RDegree on the Internet:
       Website for free sampler

       review album 'The Long Division'
       review album 'Ones & Zeros, Volume 1'

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