Prog Rock In a Pop World
An Interview with Dean Katona of Ashland

At first listen, Ashland might bear a strange resemblance to classic prog-rockers Rush. The music of this Washington state-based quartet centers on the complex percussion patterns of Dean Katona, the high nasal vocal quality of singer/bassist Chad McMurray, and the chorus-drenched guitar runs of Kevin Brooks and Wayne Tapia. It's hard not to conjure up images of Peart, Lee, and Lifeson. But, to simply dismiss Ashland as an imitation would be doing the band an injustice. Their deft musical skills are complemented by their talent for incredible songwriting and creative arrangements, leaving no doubt that they can hold their own.

After a while, you forget about the Rush connections and see other influences at work under the surface. There are very subtle hints of modern rock, indie rock, emo, 80's new wave, even snatches of Metallica and Alice In Chains. Ashland's latest album, Real Time is a musical melting pot where just about anything is game, even though you might not notice right away. Every song hits the mark, each one a perfect fit in the puzzle. The guys show off their chops in the high-brow rock of Time Piece or the intricate rhythms of Time For A Change. The aural assault of the herky-jerky Yin And Yang lets them cut loose and have some cynical & quirky fun, while Channel 9900 twists and turns with serious intent.

Yet the question remains: can a band with prog-rock leanings make it in our pop-eat-pop world? Drummer Dean Katona sheds some light on the ties to Rush and where Ashland stands in the world of modern music.

There's a lot of musical talent in this band. How did you get your start?

Well, Kevin and I grew up together in the same neighborhood and played in bands together. Wayne and Kevin played in a progressive band together in the early 90's called Sirius while I was in a band called Jupiter. His band disbanded after a couple years together and towards the end of my time with Jupiter we had a bass player transition period, and Chad had answered an ad in a local musician's newspaper called the "Rocket". He auditioned for Jupiter but didn't make it in the band, but I thought he was a good bass player and contacted him about a year later when Kevin and I formed Ashland. Wayne joined the band a month later, and we were officially a band in Spring of 93'.

What about the name, it's rather unique.

The name came from a bitmap of Ashland Oregon that I had as a screen saver on my computer. I liked the way the name could have dual meanings in my opinion. From one aspect it could look as Ash land as desolate, nothing left and then the other meaning of how a town grows and changes so does our band and the music and the way we play. We want to keep growing as a band and always try and stay as current and up on new music and styles as a town has changes and parts of it stay current. But we also have our historical influences as well same as a town keeps some history as well.

You've had a lot of comparisons to Rush and Geddy Lee, how much of an influence have they actually been? Do you get tired of the comparisons?

Rush is an influence to us in their unique way of song creativity. The way they can write both a progressive song and a pop song and mix the two well together, the way they take music of today and can make it both popular music and creative/progressive music at the same time. It used to be very flattering to be compared to such a great band, but yes it did get tiring. There really aren't very many bands that sound like Rush, so it's very easy to get looped into a band that most other bands don't sound like than to have a band compared to say Blink 182, Green Day, etc. It does take time to develop your own style and everyone has been spawned from their own influences musically, so it is not uncommon. Though on this latest album we have heard less Rush comparison and more comments of our own style being developed as opposed to our past two albums.

Your songs avoid the "standard" pop structure. What's your songwriting process?

We don't really have a set songwriting process. Usually someone will have an idea that is thrown out and we jam on it and see what we can do with it. Other times it's a random seed that is planted by one of us and we all jam on it.....which is usually how we have worked in the past on songs. We will get a basic verse chorus idea, then add the lyrics, changes then happen after that again, then we add little colors, rhythmical changes etc. Though we do like to keep the songs from getting too out there. Sometimes we will allow some over-eccentric idea come along and take over, but we also want the audience to relate to the song and get a reaction. That's why personally I'm really not a true progressive rock fan at heart. I actually listen to more pop music then I do progressive music.

There are some unusual songs on the disc, like the frantic Yin and Yang--what's the story behind that one?

Yin and Yang was a title one of the other guys threw out there and it seemed to stick, so I ran with it lyrically. It's just a satirical song that plays off of opposites and what would happen if some things were reversed. There really isn't any deep meaning to it, it's just fun and the music was so hokey and kooky that is seemed to need a humorous approach.

Do you approach your songs differently in a live setting, or do you stick with the studio versions?

Yes, we definitely change some things in our songs for live. We have to for some songs that fade out, or we extend solo sections, or create new intro's for songs for live. I will change some of my drum parts, take a few more chances. You want to put your best effort in a live performance since you are there to entertain people. Wayne does an excellent extended bluesy solo in an instrumental song we have called Pandora's Box.

It's nice to see a band with inventive and interesting cover art, something you don't see much of anymore. I like the way you've incorporated it into everything---who came up with it?

It was a picture idea off of a print/post card a friend I used to work with had. I scanned it and brought it to the other guys and they thought it would be a great idea for the title that Wayne came up with. I used photoshop to modify the cover a little and did all the rest of the work on the other panels, of course always taking what I've done to the other guys for proof reading and ideas etc. It was a collaboration.

What's your opinion of the state of popular music today? Is there room for a prog-rock band?

I think there always is room for other music. Progressive music has never been the most popular style in the music industry or a top seller with fans. I love music of today more so than the majority of bands of the 70's and 80's. I think with a lot of bands today there is more concentration on songwriting rather than which guitarist can do the fastest solo...or which is the sappiest love song. I love alternative music and I know both Kevin and Chad listen to a lot of alternative music as well. I don't really consider ourselves a progressive rock band though. When I think of progressive rock bands I think of Yes, ELP, old Rush, old Genesis etc. Music with lots of keyboards and extra long instrumental sections. Most of our songs are shorter then 4 to 5 minutes and even Mysteries was solicited by MTV to be used on a show they had called Undressed.

Check out Ashland's latest CD, Real Time

Ashland Website

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