After ten years in the business, many of which he spent touring more than two hundred nights a year, Stephen Kellogg takes his job seriously. He’s built his musical credibility over the past decade, self-distributing his first two full-length albums while touring the northeast tirelessly as a solo artist. He formed his band the Sixers in 2003 so he could put on full-band live shows. They quickly sold more than 10,000 copies of Bulletproof Heart, their debut, which caught Universal’s attention, giving the band a chance to release a major-label self-titled album in 2005.
Since then they’ve left their label, maintained a relentless tour schedule and managed to release their finest album, 2007’s Glassjaw Boxer, in the interim. The band recently returned to Indianapolis for a show at the Music Mill as part of their celebration of five years as a touring band. Kellogg took the time to sit down with Jonathan Sanders, of Stereo Subversion, to discuss his band’s upcoming album, the effects of five years’ touring on a band, and why he says artists don’t get paid to be guarded.
SSv: So let’s talk about Glassjaw Boxer. You said in an interview before the album came out that you meant it to be more introspective, like “a letter to our family and our friends … what we want our legacy to be.” Do you feel the album was successful?
Stephen Kellogg: I definitely feel that subject, what we see as our legacy, was accurately dealt with through the lyrics. I’m very satisfied with the way the album turned out lyrically, which was a big part of how the album came about in the first place.
SSv: “4th of July” seemed the most brutally confessional. “Suicide, I talked about it openly,” you wrote. Does it become difficult to play songs like this, punctuated by the fact that this is your life you’re singing about?
Kellogg: It really doesn’t get as hard as you might think. I feel it becomes more compelling when you’re singing about your life, becaue you have more skin in the game. We don’t get paid to be guarded. The goal is to be as truthful and real as you can without giving too much detail. When it comes to emotional content, I feel that more is better.
SSv: The album’s compositions were compared to many seventies-era artists. Early Springsteen came to mind often, as did comparisons to The Band on songs like “Big Easy.” Was there an element of nostalgia in the music as well as the lyrics?
Kellogg: I never think of it as nostalgia, because I grew up with this music and it’s what I listen to. I don’t really listen to a lot of the Coldplays and Belle and Sebastians out there, so it’s more that we play the kind of music I naturally gravitate to. It can become a bit of a problem when I find myself trying to modernize those sounds, when really I want to pay homage to them and recreate them in a modern studio. It gets to where we say hey, we can make this sound more “right” if we do this way. There are too many weapons in the studio.
SSv: It seems every time you and the band put out a new album, calls of “this is their breakout record” are issued, and yet radio success doesn’t come calling. How do you handle that as a band? Is that brand of success something we critics are searching for, while you guys are confident playing for the fans you already have?
Through this music I'm able to connect to other people. I see music as the greatest "connector" we have as humans. I don't know if there's a better way to reach out to others than through the world of music.
Kellogg: I think that’s an interesting question. Radio airplay is something that is useful and I feel anyone who writes that we should be poised for that kind of success simply want to see that we’ve grown and prospered, that we’re reaching for the American dream. Maybe people who want that success for us want it in the same way we do. We want to be able to reach a bigger audience, but how much of that radio success comes directly from what we do as a band and how much comes from what goes on behind the scenes? I’d rather focus on what we can affect as a band and not worry so much about what we can’t. We definitely appreciate when people say we should be reaching that wider audience, though.
Am I satisfied with where we are as a band? Yes … or maybe you should say I’m happy, not satisfied. I’m not resting on my laurels. We recently printed up a magazine celebrating our five years as a band, which we’ve been passing out at shows to fans. And when we couldn’t describe what we’re looking for in one word, we settled for three: “adventure without regret.” And I think that sums it up.
SSv: “Fame is only useful to get your music out there,” you once told Berkeley’s student newspaper. What would you hope fans could take from your music once it is out there?
Kellogg: I want fans to take from our shows what’s useful to them. Some simply want to be entertained, for the show to be enjoyable, and I like to think we give them that. Others want to know that they’re not alone in the problems they face, and we try to provide them that hope. A lot of artists want to be able to take that away from what we do.
SSv: Where do you go after something as confessional as Glassjaw Boxer? Any hints about what we can expect from future albums?
Kellogg: We’re actually working on the new album right now. We took most of the summer off from the studio, to be able to write songs on the road and purposely not record. We’ve booked time in December, January and February to work on recording those songs and develop the sound.
I felt we could have recorded a good album now, but if we took the time to work on the material, maybe we’d be able to push toward releasing something great. We’re taking it a step further than what we did on Glassjaw Boxer – rather than just focus on our relationships with family and friends, we’re wanting to develop music with a message. I’d rather write what we really believe, rather than just coming up with something that sounds good. The next record will continue on that road.
SSv: You and the Sixers are “celebrating five years” according to the name of your current tour. You’re known for spending hundreds of days each year on the road to keep your music out there. Is that a pace you guys want to keep up for another five years?
Kellogg: I don’t think we could keep it up for another five years at quite this level of touring. I think it’s important to tour, that’s something which is crucial to our success. But we would like to be able to have a bit more time to spend on family, to take time to live life while trimming down on our tours a little each year.
SSv: What motivates you as a songwriter after more than a decade recording?
Kellogg: I’m motivated by the desire to write great songs about what I believe in. It’s like the first time you get drunk, or have sex. In the beginning it’s passionate, fiery, and you don’t know what to do with it. So you focus on quantity over quality. Now I want to write a great song, which I see the same way as finding a fine bottle of wine rather than looking to simply get drunk. One great song can be better than eight uncrafted songs. It’s a matter of chasing excellence. I used to sit in my dorm room and write a song a day, so I could have something new to show off to my friends. Now I spend less time writing songs, which means when I take the time to write, I feel I need to make it count.
SSv: What effect has five years of touring had on you all as a band?
Kellogg: Well, we know a litle more about what we’re doing, so we approach things differently. But the constants have remained the same. We’ve had the same core membership, we have the same manager, and a lot of what we do is to attempt to simply make the music better every time we go out. There are songs we’re playing more because we grew into them, and there are others we may not play as much because we’ve grown out of them. We just want to keep things fun and fresh for our audiences every night.
SSv: What would you say is meaningful, for you, about music?
Kellogg: For me, it’s personal. This is what I do every day. Through this music I’m able to connect to other people. I see music as the greatest “connector” we have as humans. I don’t know if there’s a better way to reach out to others than through the world of music.
SSv: Are there artists you’ve heard recently, who you think we should be more aware of?
Kellogg: Well, Josh Ritter’s a heavy-hitter who I love as an artist, but I sometimes wonder if his music is reaching the wide audience it deserves. I also think Matt Nathanson is amazing as an artist. I think I’ll leave it at those two, since I respect them both tremendously.
SSv: The last time I spoke with you, back in 2005, you told me you don’t like to think too far ahead because things shift, you’d rather be ready to focus on things as they come. Do you still feel that way? Are there things you still hope to accomplish through music that you’ve yet to achieve?
Kellogg: The only thing I’d adjust is that I now realize not looking too far ahead can be a way of simply not confronting goals. I do see the value in examining goals, because otherwise how do you ever get to where you want to be? My goal as an artist remains to find that great anthem we haven’t written yet. And we’re working hard on that as we speak. I even spent time today on the plane writing new material.
SSv: For people who haven’t seen your band live, what should they expect from a Sixers show?
Kellogg: First, there’s no other band doing what we do. I don’t say that to be cocky. I just feel that our music entertains a wide audience. Anyone who sees us play and doesn’t have a good time, I’ll give you your money back. Even folks who normally don’t listen to our kind of music, I still feel they should be able to find some appeal in our show or we haven’t done our job. I hope more people will continue to take a chance on us. But it’s more compelling to hear that kind of thing coming from someone who’s not the lead singer of the band, I suppose.
SSv: What question do you wish no one would ask you again?
Kellogg: Well, I’d love not to hear the question about where we got the name “The Sixers.” Or who are my influences? I really don’t find those questions to be compelling these days, since I’ve heard them in almost every interview I’ve done since college. The answers should be out there by now, so it’s a bit painful to have to answer them constantly.
SSv: What question do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
Kellogg: First off, I love to talk about the band’s philosophy on why we play music. It’s strange – why does this band exist? What are you trying to do? We don’t often get to answer those questions. There’s always a motivation behind every band, but it gets overlooked much of the time when a band isn’t overtly political. That can be a real shame. We all want to feel like we affect people, that we’re not just paying the bills.
I also love when it’s clear someone actually took the time to research us before an interview. It makes answering questions a lot more fun. When you have no gold record, even the top magazines get lazy when interviewing you. They ask easy, boring questions. When people care enough to let you take it deeper, it means a lot.
To tell the truth, at this point in my career I don’t care about most interviews I do. I simply do them because as an artist that’s what you do. There’s no magazine out there that can wave a magic wand and suddenly make or break my career. I’m comfortable where I am, so if it seems I’m forcing someone to interview me, I’d rather they not waste my time. I, meanwhile, want to be able to learn from fans and critics alike what can I do to make this fun and interesting for everyone.