With their new release The Bear, Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers have taken a raw approach to their music. The album features the country/folk songwriting of Stephen Kellogg with the tight instrumentation and raw vocal harmonies of the Sixers; all presented in a package of recordings that is simple and to the point. The band also recently released a recording of their 1,000th show entitled Live From The Heart. The narrative way in which the band enters the stage (one member at a time, one song at a time) pays homage to their ability to write songs that are cryptic yet present a clear story.
Check out what Kellogg had to say when we caught up with him to ask about his songwriting, the latest studio release and the Sixers’ live set.
OS: You’ve referred to your upbringing as one filled with “aristocrats and farmers”. What do you mean by this and did you take anything musical/lyrical from it?
SK: When I hear our music, it kind of makes total sense to me. You can point to the apple falling not too far from the tree. My dad’s side of the family—that’s the side that was from western Massachussetts—were all farmers. You know, there’d be like pig roasts. I distinctly remember my uncle breaking off a broomstick to make drumsticks. They’d play Grateful Dead songs and Eagles and Cat Stevens, etc. So on that side of the family, I was exposed to this really “of the people” approach to music. No one was professional, but that’s just how they were with music.
My mom’s side of the family was super educated. My grandfather had his PhD and my Grandma’s got her Masters. Everybody went to school. They brought me to the metropolitan opera once a season growing up. I got this more “intellectual” approach to music. It was still heart-felt though, just more thought-based. So I feel like when I look at our music, it’s very simple, but I think the lyrics skew more towards literary images and stuff. I think that makes sense when I look at my upbringing. The lyrics are definitely not always extremely overt. Sometimes there’s stuff going on that you have to kind of “dig in” to figure out what’s being said. I enjoy that in music, but at the same time I never think our music is very “elitest” or “high-minded”. I think it’s very much “for the people”.
OS: The band has been defined as everything from rock to country to indie. Where do you think your music actually falls in this spectrum?
SK: That’s a good question, and it kind of depends on what day you catch me on. Every time I draw a line in the sand about where I think we fit in, I end up feeling different a few days later. I think of it as Americana/Rock ‘n’ Roll or “songwriter rock”, if that’s easier.
OS: Coming from a solo career, how do you fit your songwriting in with band collaborations and arrangements?
SK: I kind of had my thing going—not on any grand scale, but I had definitely left all my jobs for it. So when I met Boots and Kit and we all really wanted to play together, I kind of had a pretty distinct idea of where I was wanting to go. I think originally, the guys came on and were like “alright, let’s just play with this songwriter.” So, there was never really any discussion of it being a total “democracy”. It was always just sort of my world view. Pretty rapidly, it became a band. It became a thing where what we were doing was about the three of us, not just me. That was when we started calling ourselves the “Sixers”.
Over the years, like most relationships, I think we started to collaborate more. Because we got to know each other better, there was more shared ground to work on. I think it’s important that if I’m going to sing most of the songs, I’ve got to believe what I’m singing, and the guys really supported that. That’s one of the reasons the Sixers worked. As we’ve grown together, we also share a lot of the same viewpoints now, so it’s easier to write together and do more things in conjunction.
OS: You guys played an armed forces tour including a show at the embassy in Israel. What made you want to bring your music to these settings?
SK: We had a band meeting a few years back. We said, “What do all of our heroes have that we don’t have?” It was a pretty small list. A lot of what we wanted with our lives—getting to play music, paying our bills that way—that was all there. One of the things we thought our heroes had that we didn’t was a little more purpose in the world. So, we started asking this question, “What are some things that we all care about?” One thing that we came up with was the fact that we’re really glad that none of us ever had to serve in the military. We appreciate that there are people that sign up to do that. The other thing is “kids”. We all agreed that it was a good thing to give back to the youth of the world. So what we did do was we took up some causes. Since we weren’t really in a position to contribute much financially, we were like “how can we give back to these organizations”?
So, at that point, we asked our manager to find a way that we could volunteer our services, and he did. He got us into some children’s hospitals to start doing some gigs, and he hooked us up with the Armed Forces Entertainment which is responsible for sending bands overseas. That was great. So it took a while to put it all together, but last year we got to spend about five weeks doing shows on the bases for the families there, and the soldiers. It was great.
OS: The Bear has an interesting sound as far as instrumentation and mixing. What was the studio process like for this release?
SK: This was complex. It was our first record in a long time, and we were on our third label, three records, etc. There was just so much staring us down. We were having a hard time making a decision about it. In the end, we opted to go record with a bunch of different producers. With one guy, Tom Schick, the process was like: come in, everyone set up in the same room, throw a whole bunch of microphones up and try and get a magical performance. A lot of records are made one instrument at a time. In this case, we would even invite guests so that we could all play at once. At times there were 5 or 6 other people playing with the Sixers. So we’d have 5 or 6 people tracking at once in a really small room. That’s how Tom works, and when we’d mix it, it wasn’t all digitally saved in there. If you mixed and you liked it, you kept it. In some of the cases, the rough mixes are what’s on the album, because we thought we had a better feeling or thought it was truer. I’m not sure that’s the perfect way to make a record, but that was the process. That’s what we did with the tracks with Tom.
The other tracks were done with Sam Kassirer. We worked with him because we like the way he plays piano, and we feel like he pushes the boundaries groove-wise. He did some of the odder tracks, like “Dying Wish of a Teenager”. That process was different. The house was freezing cold, and that’s almost all that I remember about how the songs were made. I was sitting on the woodstove, and would play and sing. We then put everything on around that. So, two really different styles, and it made for an eclectic feeling record. That record really felt like a necessary step—making a record in a way that we’d never tried before.
OS: Yeah I think that comes through really well on the record.
SK: Cool. I know there’s people who like some of our polished stuff more. It’s just one record. I think the great thing about our fan base is they’d support us doing whatever it is we need to do at the time to keep the “right blood” in the band.
OS: You just released Live From the Heart, a recording of your 1,000th show. What was the energy like during this set?
SK: Oh man, I’ll tell you. It was cool. We knew it was our 1,000th, but we didn’t necessarily think it was going to be a big deal. It was really cool building up to it. It’s so easy to be in pursuit of things, and try and advance your career, and get more people to hear your music. We’ve flown under the radar pretty much, in the broad sense, for 6 or 7 years now. But, you always want that opportunity for a wide audience to hear what you have to offer them.Leading up to this thing, with all the nice emails we got, and all the guests coming out to join us on the show. It just made us feel so good, like “Wow, we’ve been doing something right for the last few years. This is a worthwhile life experience.” That was the biggest thing getting ready to go onstage. We all felt a little emotional. It was special.
On the album, there’s no moment cut. There’s nothing shortened, no song cut because we screwed it up or something. There are times where I’m like “Oh man, shut up Kellogg.” Like, listening to myself talk. That’s how the band is. Listening back to it, we wanted to put it out for everybody who couldn’t be there. I know that night, being with the audience, it all felt magical. I figure this album’s mostly going to be listened to by fans of the band anyway, so let them experience how it was.
OS: With such a milestone as playing 1,000 shows, what is the best lesson you’ve learned for putting on a great live show?
SK: That’s a good question, a great question. I think the biggest thing is that you can’t ever give up on a show. You have to go out there and try to stay focused and keep giving it. Because this is such a good question, I’ve never answered it before, but I love it as a question. It’s important to remember that it might just be one person that needs what you have to give them that night. I have been guilty of letting a show go, because I didn’t think it was going to live up to an expectation or something. Amazingly when you don’t give up on a show—which is something we started to do in the last couple of years—it might just be that one song you play at the end of the night that can really impact someone’s life. They might end up being a fan for life. Shows are little mini microchosms of life. Things go great, and then things go totally crappy. It’s a living, breathing organism. It’s full of hope, disappointment, excitement, and humor. So the important thing is not to get it perfectly, but just simply don’t give up on it.
OS: Can concert-goers expect any surprises during your upcoming fall tour?
SK: Well, it’s our first time headlining in two years. It’s the first time with Sam Getz, and we really have our band together. We’ve planned an amazing show that’s got it all, in terms of highs and lows. I think this is going to be as good as any show that anybody is going to go to this fall. I don’t intend that in an arrogant way, because I’m not that way as a person. I just know that we have so much enthusiasm for this tour and what we’re doing and making sure that the whole show is everything that rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s got enough Bon Jovi to make you want to pump your fist, but enough heartbreak in the Ray Lamontagne and the songwriter way. That’s kind of the meld that we’re putting together. When people ask why they should go see the show, I tell them I’ll give them they’re money back if they don’t like it. “Tell me and I’ll send you a damn check. I think you’re going to like it”
OS: Has anyone ever taken you up on that?
SK: Nah. People tease me about it all the time, but nobody’s ever asked me for it. I know there have been a few people along the way that haven’t liked the show, because sometimes you can’t please everybody. But man, most people who come are glad they did.
Be sure to pick up Live From The Heart during the band’s tour this fall. Here are some of the upcoming dates:
9/07- Spokane, WA, The Seaside
9/08- Seattle, WA, The Triple Door
9/09- Seattle, WA, The Triple Door
9/10- Portland, OR, Aladdin Theater
9/11- San Francisco, CA, The Independent
9/12- Santa Cruz, CA, Moe’s Alley
9/14- San Luis Obispo, CA, Downtown Brewing Co
9/15- Solana Beach, CA, Bell Up Tavern
9/16- West Hollywood, CA, The Troubadour
9/17 – Salt Lake City, UT, The State Room
9/18- Denver, CO, Bluebird Theater