Rock's in Their Genes

With a slick debut album and radio-ready sound, the 3rd Degree is ready to pop.

If it weren't for a trio of sibling bubblegum hitmakers from Oklahoma, Jon Paul Johnson would be more comfortable heading up a family-style rock-and-roll band. But since "MMMBop" has changed all that, Johnson needs to make one thing clear.

"We're not Hanson," he says.

Still, there's no denying the family-tree aspect of his band, the 3rd Degree. Johnson is joined in his group by his brother/bassist, Adam Johnson; cousin/guitarist, Aaron Johnson; and drummer Adam Blake, the only non-related member. As he conducts an interview by cell phone while heading for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania's Musikfest, his dad, Court Johnson, drives the band van; the elder Johnson, you see, is the group's road manager. Back in Denver, mother Cynthia Johnson works the phones on behalf of her little Partridge Family, as she's done for the past three years. She's booking shows and angling for publicity for Radio 7, her kids' first full-length disc, set for release this month.

Three degrees of separation (from left): The 3rd Degree's Jon Paul Johnson (center) with his brother Adam Johnson (left) and their cousin Aaron.
Three degrees of separation (from left): The 3rd Degree's Jon Paul Johnson (center) with his brother Adam Johnson (left) and their cousin Aaron.

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One spin of Radio 7 makes it clear that Jon Paul is correct in his Hanson-free assessment -- though his band's hooky rock and roll might appeal to young listeners who've outgrown bands like Hanson and are ready for smarter, more grown-up radio music. Radio 7 is an ambitious, big-budget-sounding collection that blends earnest pop with the brainy song structures and studio touches of acts such as Jellyfish, Third Eye Blind and Elvis Costello. It's packed with hook after hook, all wrapped in major-label-level production, and played by a group as ready for the airwaves as any local band's ever been.

That reality is especially impressive considering that Jon Paul, the author of the group's material and its frontman and guitarist, is twenty years old; his bandmates are just a year or two older. In addition to a kind of prodigal talent, the sound on their disc can be attributed to the work and expense the Johnsons invested in making it: They spent two months and roughly 400 hours in Jim Bush's Bedlam Studios in Denver. Bush engineered and produced the CD with help from Malcolm Bruce, who has recorded with Ozzy Osbourne and members of the Soft Machine and is recording his own album with Bush. Bruce has a little music in his own family tree: He's the eldest son of the legendary Cream bassist Jack Bruce.

The collective's weeks of recording were marked by hard work and equally hard arguments between Bush and the members of the 3rd Degree. "We fought nearly every night," Jon Paul recalls. "But it worked out. When people believe in what they're doing, there are going to be arguments. But we all knew the reason we were fighting was that we were trying to make the best record we could make. It wasn't personal."

Master tapes in hand, the band then had its disc mixed and mastered in Nashville's Quad Studios by Jim Ebert. Quad has hosted the finishing touches on a number of impressive platters, from Neil Young's Harvest to Coldplay's recent Parachutes. Aaron Johnson discovered Ebert's work via the liner notes of Jason Faulkner's Author Unknown, a favorite recording of the 3rd Degree's that Ebert produced.

"Knowing we would be in such company drove us even harder during tracking," Jon Paul says. "The clincher on Ebert was when the band learned that he had produced The Marvelous 3's first album for Elektra Records. Marvelous 3 is 3rd Degree's favorite band of all time." The disc was then mastered by Steven Marcussen, who had done similar work for REM, U2 and others.

While he doesn't reveal just how much Radio 7 cost to produce, Court Johnson says, "It didn't cost as much as you'd think to get the right people for the project. I see it as a good investment. But motivationally, it's best that I'm not in it for the money. In fact, I've already told the band I'll never make a dime on them. I wouldn't feel good about that."

Besides, Court adds, it took more than money to get Radio 7's production team on board.

"They don't take anybody that calls," he adds. "Their reputations are on the line, and they're pretty selective."

"We wanted to come out of the box full force, right off the bat," Jon Paul says. "We didn't want to do anything half-assed."

Radio 7 is certainly not that. It features complex, smartly written pop songs by Johnson, meticulously arranged by 3rd Degree, Bush and Bruce. The tunes are packed with heady chord structures and layers of cascading keyboard and guitar parts (some courtesy of Bruce), Johnson's metalesque guitar solos and sections of strings by Denver's Victorian Strings Quartet. The tunes go from richly grooved rockers to power ballads, all marked by Jon Paul's pitched-up, heartthrob vocals that call to mind a young Costello intent on being on the radio instead of railing against it. "We play pop rock with a retro influence," Jon Paul says of his music, which includes nods to "a smattering of well-knowns like the Marvelous 3, the Beatles, Fuel, Queen, Beck. And a dab of the not-so-well-knowns, like Jon Brion, Jason Faulkner, Jellyfish and the eels. They all make up Radio 7."

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