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Rock's in Their Genes

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

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.

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."

 

It's a sound far removed from the 3rd Degree's original bluesy stylings, which earned it a local audience but owed too much to Stevie Ray Vaughan. "The blues stuff was good when I was concentrating on learning guitar," Johnson says, "and it helped me get pretty good at it. But then I switched from wanting to play guitar to learning to write songs, so I went back to the music I listened to growing up: the Beatles, Queen, the Who." Playing the blues, he says, also tended to limit his songwriting. So Johnson traded his teenage addiction to Stevie Ray for the songwriting methods of artists such as Brion, whose work with Aimee Mann has yielded some of the best pop of the past few years. The change in style meant the loss of a few of the band's early fans and supporters, Johnson says, but they've won back more fans since the shift. Still, finding folks who are eager for smart, sticky rock songs has been tough in Denver.

"It's a weird market for this kind of stuff," Johnson says. "There are not a lot of pop-rock bands in Denver, and that stems from the fact that there's not a lot of people that go out to see it." Area live-music patrons, he says, are more into bands as background for weekend fun. "What the 3rd Degree does," he notes, "is show music. It's not dance music, it's not party music."

Long before he was concerned with such issues, Johnson and his kin were teens looking for something to do with their free time. Court Johnson, a musician when he was a teen, bought instruments for Jon Paul and Adam to see if they'd take to them. They did. To fuel the fires, Court converted the family's living room into a rehearsal room and jammed with Jon Paul and Adam. "I thought they'd do what my brothers and I did and be a garage band, playing today's version of the high school sock hop," Court Johnson recalls. "But pretty quickly, it seemed like they had a lot more going on than we ever had going on."

The Johnson kids' proclivity for music might have had something to do with the family's artistic gene pool. Cynthia Johnson's grandfather was the voice of Happy in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and her mother was a silent-movie actress. Both Johnson parents had parents who were musicians. Jon Paul and Adam started playing out as the 3rd Degree about five years ago; roughly three years later, cousin Aaron joined the band on guitar. Drummer Adam Blake cemented the group's current lineup when he joined in 1999.

"The family thing is pretty critical, both practically and philosophically," Jon Paul says. "The fact that Adam and I have lived together our whole lives -- for most of that time in the same room -- meant that we could play together virtually all the time. We were not good students, and aside from a few years playing hockey, we didn't play sports. So after school, while other kids were playing sports and studying, we went home and played music, night after night, hour after hour."

For Jon Paul and his mates, there are other benefits to being in a family band. Having the folks on board, he says, "is a big plus, to have someone you know you can trust, who's actually putting out for you. Court, he's our manager, road manager, handles some of the booking, drives. He does everything." Court downplays his efforts, which take him away from his job with a land-development firm. "The guys deserve a lot more than they're getting out of me. I'm just doing the best I can."

The Johnson parents may soon be able to turn some of their music-related responsibilities over to their kids and industry professionals. The band is looking to hire a full-time manager, publicist and booking agent in the next few weeks, a search that's coming along with help from Ebert. That should help Court Johnson keep his duties a little more streamlined. "I have to make sure I keep my hats straight," he says. "You really don't want to have your parent hat on when you're dealing with the band. When I'm on the road like I am right now, I don't do parenting stuff. It's just not appropriate."

 

For Cynthia Johnson, her run as band mom has been a good one. "When you see people doing what you believe they were born to do, it's a wonderful thing," she says. "It was just a natural growth of who we are as a family. It's been amazing, and I'm so grateful that I got to share it with them."

This week, the 3rd Degree will share its music with area listeners when it hosts a CD-release party at the Soiled Dove. After that, the group will head to California for a few shows and attempts at securing a larger audience and label interest. The band's potential for getting signed, says Jim Bush, is as large as that of any local act he's seen.

"I've talked to people around the country, and there's some indication that what these guys are doing is right on target," he says. Granted, he's not willing to try to predict what the industry will decide to push as its next trend. But if the move is to power pop, he says, "this is as good as any of it and is going to go national. It stacks up to anything on the radio." And while the band has some serious help from their family, he says the kids have worked hard to put together a debut that should quiet those who'd criticize them for it. "Yeah, they've had some opportunities that other struggling bands haven't had. But they're very talented, work hard and take their music very seriously. I'm biased, but this is the best product I've heard come out of this place."

Jon Paul and his mates certainly hope others come to share Bush's opinion.

"Right now we're pushing really hard, doing whatever it takes for the next few months," Jon Paul says. "Because we feel like after these next few months, we won't have to do it ourselves so much."


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