There's been a whole lot of farewell tours that I've been in attendance for, but oddly enough never a "hiatus" tour. It's my personal opinion that Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers are one of best live acts currently touring, and are extremely underrated. So with that in mind, I had mixed emotions when I heard the band was going on one last tour, at least for a good long while.
I talked with Stephen Kellogg inside Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR, a few hours before the band hit the stage and gave one of the most memorable performances I have witnessed all year.
First off, how are you? How was last night in Seattle?
Last night was great, we sort of worked out a few kinks here and there, but it was great. The funny thing is that you play these songs a million time, but you still screw them up.
What’s the reason for the hiatus tour, for those who don’t know?
Well, some of the guys in the band made a valid point this spring when we were talking, saying we’ve been doing tour after tour, record after record the past 10 years. It was nothing personal, but there was some other stuff they wanted to do, and so much of what our band is about is the brotherhood of it all. So you wouldn’t want to put that in jeopardy, but it didn’t feel like “let’s break the band up”, you know? Because I don’t know, maybe a year from now feelings may be different or maybe not - it was like “how do we navigate this?”. So the solution we came up with is if we went on hiatus, we could go on a national tour and we could have a good time, and give ourselves a little bit of time for the next time.
Have you filmed anything leading up to this or last night? Will you do it later this tour?
Film we haven’t done. We looked into it because I thought “gee, that’d be a lot of fun”. For a lot of reasons it hasn’t fallen into place, but we just haven’t found a film company or scene that really fits our budget. But we’re picking up a board in Denver, and we’re recording the last 20 shows.
Will a live album be a possibility?
I think so. I think with the way music has been changing with the way it’s consumed, I’ve been a little put off by the expectation that music should now be free and that records should be tools. Because the way I see it, it still costs 10’s of thousands of dollars to make. But I think the goal is to give people awesome music, and then to say “hey, this costs as much as an expensive latte and you get to keep it forever”. So I’m hoping to put together quite a bit of what we’ve done, as well as these live shows. And depending on what our contract says, I’d like to maybe put up a “Sixers Live” site where a lot of good material from the past can be thrown up, and people can pay for it for a really reasonable price and it can just be out there.
Well, you could even do it through Bandcamp, with the “pay what you want” option.
Yeah, and I’ve noticed a lot of people have been doing that. I think it’s really great when you’re a 16 year old kid on YouTube and you’re trying to make fans, sure give your music away, absolutely. But if you’re Radiohead, you’ve kind of have millions in the band. So if we want to protect the “middle class of music”, which is everybody from us up to bands much larger than us like The Swell Season or something like that, I think it’s really important...I mean, ”pay what you want”? Well, how about just pay the 7 bucks that the band’s asking for a digital copy, or you can pay a little bit extra for a physical copy if you’re into it. But I think it’s so cheap to buy a digital album these days, I don’t want to de-value the commodity, you know? I want people to hear it, and we have great fans that have supported us endlessly. And I dunno, I just started feeling this way, maybe because I just read that article about Grizzly Bear and how they’re selling out Radio City but they don’t have health insurance – it’s like, if music moves you, then be willing to pay a few bucks for it, you know? I just think it’s the right thing to do, and I’ve gotten out of that, I burn CD’s all the time. I’m not on a soapbox, I’m just realizing that it’s really important.
So if you like a band, then just get up and go support it.
Yeah, go out and buy the record. If someone’s got some ridiculous thing where they’re trying to sell their record for exorbitant prices, and you’re like “this is a lot”, then yeah. But most bands I know are selling their albums on Amazon for $7.99 – people will throw that money away on a sandwich or a beer, but an album you can listen to for the rest of your life. That might be an unpopular point of view with youthful folks, but it’s something that I feel strongly about.
Yeah, I think sometimes people need to tour and be out there for themselves to really understand how it works. Sometimes a band might not be able to eat for a night, or can’t afford gas to get to the next show, etc.
Yeah, this isn’t a complaint, but since you mention it, there’s one album in our catalogue after we buy off the album, pay off our management, and pay the venue, we’re making 80 cents every time we sell one. So we have to sell 5 records to get a gallon of gas, and people can have those forever. I’m not complaining, I love my job, but I am looking at this and going “no, records shouldn’t be tools”.
Merch rates are a huge detriment to live shows right now. Being hit for close to 25% of what you sell in a night, most fans won’t know about stuff like that.
Yeah, and that’s where ticket fees come in too. I feel terrible about it too. If we have a show where a ticket is $20, often times there’s an extra $10 in fees, so our fans are paying $30 for a ticket, and we’re only getting around $10 of that $30, and that’s if you’re lucky. You can do this for awhile, but at some point if we want the things that aren’t the million sellers and aren’t just beginners music and we want all the cool shit that exists in the middle then I think we be willing to support it.
How hard was it picking the setlist for this tour?
It took a little bit of thought, and I’m not totally there yet, I’m still tweaking it. I’m still trying to be brave and change some things. But we decided we don’t want this to be a retrospective, because that’s not what it’s about. We decided “let’s make this a setlist of what we want to play, where we’re at”, and in the days past we used to change the setlist all the time. And actually after that Needtobreathe tour (April/May 2010), I was so impressed with their show which never really changed, but their show was SO good that I thought If that show can be that good every night, and after conversations with Bear, we started to really hone in on our show and on our setlist. Now, we don’t play the same songs every night, but we keep the same heart – we might sub out this ballad for that ballad, but we keep more anchors in there.
Are you taking requests from fans throughout this tour?
Well, we do two requests at our fan club meeting before the show (“Sixertown”), so we do that for the people that want to hear that random deep song, rather than learn every song we’ve ever written. Certainly people will email me and tell me they love a certain song and I consider it, but right now I’m taking requests as long as they’re on the radar of play. There’s some stuff that folks want to hear that’s just not really in my heart right now, so we’re not really doing everything. It’s nothing personal, I’m still honored that people want to hear certain songs or whatever.
What’s the one or two songs that you really look forward to playing every night?
I love playing Milwaukee, it’s different every night and we expand on it. I love to play "My Favorite Place" off our last record, cause any of the songs that I really connect with…"4th of July" is a thrill to play, just the songs that feel like I’m singing to the people. But we also look to make a setlist full of songs that we’re looking forward to playing every night.
Can you tell me about the band that’s out with you right now, Miggs?
I don’t know them too well, I met them last night and they sounded really good. The truth is, I just lost my mother in law, I had a baby, and I just went through a huge renovation on my house. I’ve had such a crazy summer, they sounded good to me, and our management suggested them, and I said “Ok, great”. I look forward to getting to know them, and usually we’re super particular about our show, but we took a shot and they’ve all been great.
Gift Horse has been out for about a year, and it did pretty well commercially. It was on the front page of iTunes, etc.
It did alright, it had a really good first week, the biggest first week we’ve ever had as a band. But when you make music, you always wish for more people to hear it.
When you look back on the record though, what about it would you say you’re most proud of?
We worked really hard on that record, we grew a lot, and we went way out of our comfort zone. We worked with a producer that at the end of the day, we learned a lot from him. It’s not an experience I would ever repeat, but I think we learned who we were through the process of making this record – it was like “Nice song Kellogg, let’s write a real chorus and half as many lyrics, and how about you play nothing that you instinctually want to play”. At the end of it, we were really pleased because we made really tight good songs, and we had no regrets. And those songs because we worked so hard on them have been really fun to play live, I think it’s the only record we have where we play every song off it live at some point.
Have you noticed a particular song from the record that seems to really unanimously connect with everyone?
"My Favorite Place" would be that song, it was the one that came out and we didn’t realize that it was kind of the sleeper among all the other songs.
I think if most people look at your discography as a whole, they’d look at the lyrical content and say it talks a lot about the celebrations and the trials of the middle class. Do you agree with that? If not, how would you describe the overall theme of the lyrics?
Totally. There’s very little that I make up, not everything I write is autobiographical, but so much of it is me and the people around me. And I think…I dunno, if my first record that came out years ago on Universal had been a big hit, I don’t know if I would’ve written all the things that I’m glad I wrote. When you’ve felt the elations and disappointments of what it means to go through life without major bullets, just things that happen to everybody, you really start to appreciate the little victories and you start to understand that the sadness is a part of it, and so much of that is what our music became about because we’re such a middle class band. It’s just a weird thing, you’re a rock and roll singer and you dream of grand things, and your job is to be grand and connect with people on a nightly basis. But it’s such a humbling career – 9 out of 10 clubs you walk in there’s usually some guy that’s hell bent on showing you that you’re not that important, you know? So you start to realize that everyone’s out there doing what they’ve got to do, and nobody is better or worse than anybody, and that’s fun to sing about because there’s a whole lot of people that understand what that’s all about.
Since the band is taking a hiatus, are you going to continue writing and touring as a solo act?
I am, we all have been touched by some really nice feedback from our fans; a lot of folks assume since I have the kids that it was my idea, and it really wasn’t, and it wasn’t an idea that I disagree with either. But I’m currently feeling like I’m in the zone and where I want to be – I started making a record, and Kit from the band is co-producing it with me, and all the guys are involved with the record in one way or another, but it is a solo record. So I’m closing in on being done with that, and I’ll put it out next year and tour on it and so on.
Are you looking at a physical release or digital release for that?
We’ll do both. I love physical releases, I still love being able to hold something in my hands, and this record has too many lyrics, and a more stringent producer would be like “Kellogg, WAY too many lyrics”. But because of that, I want to put out a nice album. I may put it out on my own, or I may put it out with Vanguard – I haven’t figured that out, but it’s really important to me that it comes out in a nice package, for those people that want something they can hold.
What kind of songs have you been writing on this solo record?
When you’re in a band, even though it’s “Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers” and some cases I got to make the end of the day decision, we’ve been such a band and we always all weigh in, so you have to consider everybody’s desires to some degree. The nice thing about this record for me is at the end of the day, it’s really just my thing. One record that I’ve always wanted to that I haven’t gotten to yet is a record that sonically sounds like what I used to listen to growing up – I used to listen to Bob Segar, Cat Stephens, Jim Croce, Jackson Brown, and early 70’s songwriters. But there’s a lot of pressure especially when you’re on a label to make things that sound current, and I get it. And there’s a lot of pressure to write singles, and with this record, there’s absolutely no attempt to write any singles or to make it sound sonically current. I made it sound exactly the way I want it to sound, for my own listening pleasure, and we’ll see how that strikes other folks as well. But it’s super about the lyrics and the songs, there’s very little indie rock or what you consider to be a contemporary sound on it, and that to me is really exciting and thrilling.
What sort of lyrical content is on the album?
It’s similar because I’m writing about what I know and what’s happening in life, but this has been an intense record, I’m getting a little bit older– I’m a damn dad four times over. I’m trying to be brave about what it is that I’m thinking, and not worrying too much about whether someone is going to like it or not. You only live once, you have to stand for what you stand for. So there’s some chances on there too, where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable on a Sixers record to step out as far, because I don’t want to speak for all of the other guys and have it be on them. But when it’s just my name on the record, I can take a bit of a bolder stance on a thought I had or an issue, or say something a little bit edgy, and it’s only me that has to answer for it, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing that on this record. There’s some pretty sad songs, and there’s some really fun and uplifting ones too, because that’s where my life is at right now, a lot of highs and lows.
So it’ll still connect with people regardless then.
I hope so, it’s definitely not a drastic departure from the things I’ve always done. I think if you dig what I’ve done so far, you’ll probably like it, unless you only liked the party aspects of the band. I dunno, I’m excited about it.
Over the last 8 or 9 years that you’ve been touring, what have you learned about your band mates?
Man, I’ve learned so much about these guys, they’re such incredible people…I get choked up thinking about it, the idea of not traveling with them is crushing to me, they’re my brothers. You learn what pisses people off, what hurts them, what makes people happy. You’re in such a relationship that you learn that, and then you respect it and honor it, and try to be kind to each other. The men in this band are each in their own respect different, but quality human beings. I would play with these types of people over the best musicians in the world, there’s no substitute for character and integrity.
And following up, what have you learned about yourself over years?
That’s such a great question, and that’s nice of you to ask. I’ve learned that I’m really imperfect and that I’m going to screw things up regularly. But when you realize that you’ve screwed up, you make it right and you move on, and you don’t hate on yourself. And the people that do hate on you when you do something wrong can go their own way. I think it’s easy to beat up on ourselves as people because we’re not all who we want to be. I realize I’m not perfect, and It’s important to make things right and then move on with life, and that’s a great lesson because it’s super liberating, because you go through the world and you judge yourself on your intentions. And I’ve found that I judge others on who they’re trying to be a little bit more than who they sometimes are, and you can’t help but learn that just by living and being out on the road, and being the quarterback of a football team, which is what I sort of do.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Those are great questions, I appreciate you being interested to chat. I guess if anyone was reading and they were already hip to the music, my big hope is that while the band is taking a break from touring, we’re not hanging our heads and we don’t want to be out of people’s hearts and minds if we can help it. So we hope to stay in touch through my music and stuff the other guys will be a part of, and stuff we’ll be releasing as we dig through stuff.
this band really is fantastic. nicest down to earth people i've been lucky enough to talk to, even for 3 minutes. kellogg is a great songwriter and i just dont know how they didnt get much bigger. looking forward to his solo stuff.