31 August 2010

(More than) 10 questions with...Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree

Living in New Jersey has more than its share of perks as a prog fan.

For one, you’re smack dab in the middle of the main hotbed for progressive rock in the US. Historically speaking, prog bands did incredibly well along a corridor that ran from Washington Dc up through to Boston…New Jersey happens to be right in line. You’ve got Philly to the southwest (from where I am, at least), NYC to the east, and all the venues each city offers up. There’s (today at least) the NJ Proghouse series of concerts. NEARfest in Bethlehem PA, ROSfest in central PA, Marprog in Connecticut, and dozens of smaller one off shows all over the place.

To add to all of this, there’s a slew of great bands, both new and old, that call the area home. The 1970’s gave us Fireballet and Mirthrandir. Advent calls the state home. And so does 3RDegree. Formed in 1990, the band has, like so many prog bands, had its share of ups and downs, but they came back with a vengeance at the end of 2005. A series of reunion concerts (2 of which are available on DVD), a highly regarded reunion album (Narrow-Caster), and the first ever independent band BluRay video release are just the tip of the iceberg for this New Jersey band, now finding themselves in the studio beginning work on their next full length release.

I caught up recently with founder member Robert James Pashman, who kindly agreed to sit down and discuss the band’s history as well as what the future holds for 3RDegree. We touch on a bunch of other subjects as well, including that famous BluRay release, the trials and travails of surviving as an independent band in a time when music has become more of a commodity than ever, and much more.

1) Tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in music?

RJP: My parents always had music playing when I'd be on the floor playing with toys. Probably mostly off 8-tracks would be music by The Beatles, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Billy Joel and other "hits of the 70's". Nothing too strange. It would be a car trip with my uncle where he played some Rush that would really be my gateway drug into progressive rock. I had viewed them as a heavy metal band when I saw their MTV video for "Tom Sawyer" and I wasn't buying what all my friends were loving but my uncle played "The Spirit Of Radio" and "Freewill" and I just didn't know who it was but was blown away by the musicianship. When he told me who it was I thought "but I really don't like them"-basing my decision on what I had seen and probably wasn't listening to.

2) What bands or musicians were among your first influences?

RJP: Well just before Rush I was really into Pat Benatar, Billy Squire, Asia and other big albums of 1980-82. I was starting to like my own music, buying LPs and selling all my toys in a garage sale-Star Wars figures-should have held on to them! After Rush opened my ears, I delved into Genesis, Yes and other well-known prog bands. I was also into other 80's bands like Tears For Fears. With the prog, I got the well-known albums and then would move on into more obscure stuff. So I might have heard Yes's FRAGILE when I was 12 but RELAYER when I was 19! I started taking piano lessons at 14 and would then adapt that knowledge to the bass when I was 17. I played a lot of Billy Joel but it was probably Rush's foray into a more keyboard heavy sound that got me into keyboards. I then formed a band called Unreal right after senior year of high school with my two best friends. It was a power trio where I played bass, keys and lead vocals.

3) Are your influences today any different? Are there any newer bands or musicians you look to for inspiration?

RJP: Today I'm a bit insulated where I'm not really up to date on "the hits of the day" and I don't peruse all that much prog because I'd like to keep my approach in 3RDegree uninfluenced by our peers. That said, our guitarist Pat is a voracious consumer of new and interesting music and has turned me onto some of it. I did have a phase throughout the 90's where I was into mostly female singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Jonatha Brooke then some trip-hop like Portishead, Bjork and Esthero.

4) How did 3RDegree first come together?

RJP: My former band Unreal ended in the fall of 1990 and I found a guitarist soon after to continue with. In December of 1990 I found a drummer named Rob Durham. Since Rob stayed with the band up until December of 2008 this was the actual beginning of 3RDegree. Pat Kliesch would join as our guitarist in the summer of 1991. Leading up to our first album I had 4 songs left over from my previous band, I then wrote 3 songs before Pat and then Pat worked on the remaining tracks with Rob and I.

5) What things led to the band adding a lead vocalist (and changing the line-up so much) in 1995?

RJP: It was just a matter of improving the band in two ways. Our producer and all of us in the band thought we would definitely benefit from a really great singer. Singing is one of the things you can improve upon but only to a certain degree. It's not like I was singing off-key. We just needed someone really world class and I think a good singer automatically brings the entirety of a band's sound up a whole lot. Many people listen to bands and just cannot get past listening when a singer is not particularly good. I think George can stand toe to toe with any pro singers out there let alone prog ones. The other thing that improved was that he played bass when I played keyboards and I played bass when he played keyboards so the live sound filled out quite a bit. I was also a former lead vocalist now singing backup and I was quite happy about it. I really don't miss singing lead. We used to use a sequencer for the keyboards with my drummer playing to a click track in his headphones. When we got George and stopped doing that, it freed us up and we got a much better groove going live.

6) How are things different for 3RDegree now versus the first period of active service?

RJP: When we broke up in 1997 it was from frustration with the lack of a scene and support for original music in NJ and the NYC area. We really weren't aware of anything going on in prog except for Echolyn getting signed to Sony in ‘95, which really surprised us. Besides Progression Magazine we didn't know there was any community or any festivals going on. It was then that I tried to round up prog bands to play "prog themed" evenings that I would present to club owners as a bundle. We played in NYC and NJ with Curious Works, Braindance, Love & Death (later Emotive) and You Were Spiraling (later Spiraling). The only thing I really got from these shows was a great friendship with Tom Brislin of Spiraling, Yes's 2001 Symphonic Tour, Renaissance and others. We also tried playing with a Rush tribute band but we went on stage well before anyone was showing up so this really led to a lot of battles within the band over what we should be doing. We had no reliable fan base to speak of and you could look at our website to see all the places we played at. It wasn't like we weren't putting ourselves out there.

We had left a bunch of what were probably our best songs undone when we broke up. After rummaging through my box of tapes I found all the recordings and put them on CD and sent the mp3's to Pat (guitarist). We then thought why not record them at our leisure? In December of 2005 (15 years almost to the day that I first met with Rob) we asked Rob if he would join us to record the songs we didn't finish. He told us to find George and through a mutual friend and a little internet searching we found him in the summer of '06. What's different now? In a word: the internet. We are now totally aware of the festivals and the discussion boards and the cliques of prog lovers out there. While it seemed that we weren't "prog enough" for the 90's proggers who we saw from time to time, we are now embraced by many and not chastised for not having very long songs and some of the other conventions of the genre.

7) 3RDegree is, I think, the first independent band to release a BluRay concert DVD. How did you guys decide to do that? Has it been a successful release for you?

RJP: To be frightfully honest. Umm, no it hasn't been a "successful release" per se. I think the amount of people we can get to support us with a purchase of a studio album dwindles a bit too much once it's a question of a live album or live concert DVD. We wanted to do eco-wallets again like we did with Narrow-Caster-even though they're DVD/Blu-rays. I think with downloading and everything, people have gotten less precious with a DVD having to be in the big Amray (standard black) case. So that was a bit of cost in addition to the camera rentals and other costs although I did a lot myself. I find it fun to edit video so it was fun to do but what we thought was the pinnacle of our live concert career (it was) didn't translate into sales. I think it will over time but it didn't catch fire right away. Even I tell people if there's one thing they should get it's the new studio album. Once you really like us, then you get videos. But a lot of people just don't buy concert videos. I don't really either BUT I do for bands that don't play in the USA like Level 42, Marillion and others. I've stressed to the half of our fanbase that reside in Europe that chances are we will never ever play in Europe and that they should check out the DVDs. As for Blu-rays, I'm a bit of a video nerd and love them. It is astronomically expensive to make "real/replicated" Blu-rays but I have the ability to burn them and print on them quite nicely as I need them. We've sold more than you would think. The quality is night and day and only $4 more.

8) It's been 2 years since the release of Narrow-Caster. How has the band grown or changed since that release?

RJP: Well, right as we were getting the most attention and our fan base probably quadrupled, our drummer informed me that he was just too busy to carry on with the band. When you think of what we were doing pre-Narrow-Caster it kind of makes sense. I'm not sure he signed on for what happened to us. We were recording at our leisure, did two live concerts in 2 days (as featured on our DVD/Blu-ray THE REUNION CONCERTS) at NJ Proghouse electrically and at my house acoustically and then finished the album and started making them ourselves as CDRs albeit nicely printed upon. We then got an email from Germany and they wanted 100 but they had to be "real/replicated" CDs. I had a decision to make whether I wanted to take it to the next level and do this CD the right way. I did and I'm glad because it sort of legitimized our album as not being just a carefree hobby. We weren't so sure how serious Rob was about leaving the band so we didn't look for a replacement right away. But then 5 months later ProgDay called! This evented in us needing a new drummer and a live guitarist as well although Pat played ProgDay. We've now added Aaron Nobel on drums and Eric Pseja on guitar. Eric will play on the studio material as well. He and Pat are old friends and will work out who plays what between them with some production input from George and I.

9) What would you say has been the biggest moment for 3RDegree, either before or since the reformation?

RJP: I cannot think what our biggest moment was from the 90's. I guess adding George and actually recording and manufacturing our 1996 CD HUMAN INTEREST STORY. As for now, I suppose the overall well received Narrow-Caster experience which led to the ultimate stamp of approval in my eyes and that was getting to play ProgDay. We did set the goal of getting on a festival after the album and it was achieved.

10) The band is currently preparing to start recording sessions for their fourth album. Can you offer any clues about what the new material may offer?

RJP: Well we did two days of drum recording just 3 days ago-which is the start of a new album in the way we record and most bands for that matter. We got down 8 songs so it probably represents 2/3rds of the next albums songs. We do a lot of homework and don't meet to rehearse as much as we would like to due to "life" just standing in the way of our ability to be more prolific. There are a few songs where we all write a part of the song but most songs have been written separately and then shared and refined. George and Pat got writing right after Narrow-Caster while I was dealing with the business of the band. I've only starting writing lately although I'm always leaving "notes to self" for song ideas, song titles, etc. There will be 3 songs that are longer than any song we've ever done so there's been a bit of embracing our audience there! But I think it will be around 13 songs so it should be much longer than Narrow-Caster's 47 minute total time but not as long as the zany HUMAN INTEREST STORY length of 72 minutes! I can also tell you it will sound (audio quality-wise) even better than the last album.

11) How did the band hook up with new drummer Aaron Nobel, and how is he working out for you so far?

RJP: He's working out fine. The only downside is that he is far away from the rest of us up in Connecticut. So we never have casual rehearsals anymore. They are planned well in advance and are full days so as to make the most of his presence. He was referred to me by Tom Brislin. I think he and I both tried out for Spiraling back in the day! I wanted Tom to produce our new album but then he upped and moved to Nashville!

11) What do you think the future holds for the independent progressive rock band?

RJP: It holds a lot of frustration if you're not on the internet joining in the conversation and getting your music to reviewers and getting a buzz going. Ultimately just make a great album that you're happy with. If you do not want to do any interaction and promotion I suggest trying to get a prog record deal and they can do some of that for you providing they like your album.

12) How much would you say illegal downloading has hurt your band?

RJP: It's impossible to know. No one is going to come to me and say "I downloaded your album illegally but now I'd like to buy your t-shirt or the CD". If everyone who really likes what they heard from an illegal download eventually buys a shirt or CD then OK. I myself have borrowed/taken music from someone because they thought I'd like it. If I do I often end up buying the next CD or the one I got from a friend. This happens to many of us I think. Industry people say give away your music for free and people will come and see your band and buy a shirt. Problem with us is, we rarely play live and when we do, it's the CD I'm going to actually make money from. Shirts are much more expensive to make. So basically for us to continue to keep even keel monetarily and to keep in the good graces of our significant others, we need to sell CDs and DVDs. Simple as that. I actually define that as success sadly. If you have an original band and you're not losing money, I'm patting you on the back.

13) What would you like to see 3RDegree doing in the future?

RJP: Doing the laundry. I kid. If we can continue to make good music and bring it to stages from time to time with audiences that enjoy it and the numbers of people interested continuing to grow, that would be great. It is very challenging to write music that sounds interesting and possibly even a bit adventurous but still continuing with the accessibility I think we're known for. That's something I'd like to see us doing.

14) Do you have any final words for our readers today?

RJP: Well, if you've read this far I assume you like the music 3RDegree makes. We really appreciate that you're listening to what we're doing. We would love you to come to a show some time and say "hi" in person. Thanks Bill!

Find out more about 3RDegree at:


No comments: