The scope will fool you.
Stephen Kellogg‘s newest project, South, West, North, East, isn’t as ambitious as it sounds, a four-part, 20-song project featuring four genres, recorded in four different places with four different producers. Okay, maybe it is. It’s just that, instead of a grandiose idea with epic themes, SWNE is really about a veteran artist exploring spaces old and new, searching for his voice. Even after two decades of releases.
It’s personal, not prodigious. Intimate, not inflated. Other artists might create a grand narrative around such a project, but Kellogg is disarmingly casual about the whole thing. It’s here his veteran status can be seen, even as he continues to root around like an artist just finding his way.
Stereo Subversion: How are you in this space before a release? Nervous? Relaxed?
Stephen: You haven’t read any shitty reviews yet, so it’s just like a happy moment. You’re prepping for the tour. You’re getting ready to harvest all the planting that you did, so right now, there are a lot of stuff like this. There are rehearsals and getting a shipment of CDs put on your doorstep and having to sign them and planning like, ‘Hey, what’s the house music going to be?’ Today my manager said, ‘Hey, can you write a post for this movie?’ There’s a short film about the making of the record that we’re doing a couple screenings for this month, and she said, ‘Can you just write the fans and let them know what this is all about?’
I’m always surprised by how much there is yet to learn. If I’m honest, I’m a little disappointed that some of this stuff has taken me this long to really absorb.
So jobs like that don’t feel like work at all. It’s really cool stuff. You feel like, ‘Wow, I’m really signing a CD or writing about a movie that I’m in.’ These are fun things to do. You’re not stressed thinking, ‘What if this isn’t good enough?’ You just know it’s going to be alright. So I’m doing a lot of that stuff right now and planning, you know, coordinating schedules for the first leg of the tour which starts in a few weeks.
I think this little period, this tiny little period, is a lot of what people envision when they think of being a musician. I woke up this morning and I’m like, ‘I have an interview.’ [Laughs] I mean that’s just not a bad way to start your day, you know?
SSv: [Laughs] I suppose not! You used the term ‘harvesting’ when you were talking just now — to harvest your planting. Are agricultural metaphors a common theme for you? Do you think of gardening when it comes to all of this?
Stephen: You know, it’s not. When it just came up just now, I was like, ‘Man, that’s exactly what it feels like.’ And this record more than ever, too, because this is the first record in more than 10 years where I’m the record label. I was sort of part of every part of the process in trying to pull it together, and that was hard. So the analogy just sort of popped into my head when I was thinking about it now as things are arriving. We’re getting the vinyl and we’re getting the new t-shirts and we’re getting the edits to the film and we’re getting to see what we’ve been doing for the last year. And it’s fun. So it’s not an analogy I’ve used before, but it’s one I really like. I’ll have to use it again.
SSv: [Laughs] I was just asking because it conjures a beautiful metaphor of the good, hard work of labor and then sort of the reaping of the rewards of that. Maybe that came out because it feels accurate, that maybe your hands are dirtier on this than they have been, closer to the soil than you have been, the fruit sweeter.
Stephen: Yeah, I think it is. I think, since we’re running with it… [Laughs]I’m not even sure that I’d say that the fruit tastes sweeter, but you’re more thankful that it’s there. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’m more sure of this record than others or anything like that. But what I am sure of is that whatever we’re pulling out of the ground here, it’s like, ‘All right, cool, I put in everything I could to grow this thing and so it is what it is now and I’m happy with that.’ I’m happy with the process, you know?
You always wanna pull up the sweetest, most epic whatever. You know, you want to get the giant pumpkin out of the ground or something. [Laughs] But even if it’s a kind of messed up potato, it’s like, ‘All right, I grew this freaking thing so it’s mine.’ [Laughs]
SSv: [Laughs] You were so casual just now when describing the new album. Most artists are in the mode of telling you how this new album is the best album yet.
Stephen: It would be stressful to have to go out and say this is the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve found time and again you don’t always know when you’ve done your good work. I’ve certainly done work I thought was really good that, for whatever reason, doesn’t hold up as well or didn’t connect as much as I thought it would. You know, I’ve been pleasantly surprised on occasion, too. It’s like, ‘Wow, I guess this was really solid.’
With something this long and as involved as it was, I think it would be unrealistic to expect that it was all hits. There’s a lot of material here, and so much of it was about the process. There was a part of me towards the end that was like, ‘I don’t know if I should release all this,’ because it felt like you’re sending off these digital folders to people and they have 20 songs in them, and these people aren’t necessarily fans. They’re not enemies, they don’t dislike your music, they’re just busy people and 20 songs, if you’re not a big fan of something, is a lot. It just started feeling really oppressive.
Pretty early on with this record, I had to make my peace with like, ‘Okay, part of this whole thing is the process and the experience and doing the four different parts and the four different genres.’ So yeah, 20 tunes. You’re just not going to hit them all. They’re not all going to be perfect or amazing or whatever, but what you hope for is that nothing is bad or a waste of time or anything. I’m just trying to have a more balanced perspective going into this. I’m not aiming for, ‘I’m going to blow you all away with this record that I’m doing.’ I’m just trying to do really good work, that’s the focus.
SSv: You brought up the scope of this. Has this idea been developing over time? Was there an “aha!” sort of moment?
Stephen: I’ve been sort of searching, asking, ‘Man, what is my voice about?’ and how I want that to all feel and whatever. I was having this conversation one day, I ran into my friend, there’s this band called OAR, and the lead singer of that band, Mark Roberge, is a good friend of mine. On this flight, our seats were next to each other amazingly. You know, there’s something about when you’re tired and you’re open, you know you’re too tired to put on any airs or anything. We’re just having this conversation and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t even know who the hell I am these days, so I keep writing but what the hell?’
Mark had this idea to do this four part thing, and it was a little different. I had known a couple people that had done seasonal things and it didn’t feel quite right, but it did feel interesting to me. Alright, I’m going to make music in the different genres, and that’s when I got this idea of recording it in four places. Then I suddenly felt like I had something to do, you know? This is the next thing for me. It was easy to explain, and people got really excited about it when I told them about it.
When people got excited about it, I got excited about it too. You get swept up in it, and it was really fun to just only have five songs at a time. As much as I really hope that lots of these songs connect with lots of people, in a way, I already got the good stuff because I did just need to make all this music to get a little more direction. At the end of the day, I came out feeling like I just feel a little bit clearer on what I want to sound like and be writing about now. It was a good process; it was good for the soul.
SSv: So it was a good interior exercise as well as sort of for the fans?
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely.
SSv: Can you put some tangible language around that? Like when you said now I know what I want to sound like and move toward, like what is that?
Stephen: Picture going into the record, it was like going through a, what do you call it, a sandblast, shotblast, have you ever seen to clean metal, they put it through this thing and they shoot other metal at it and it cleans it? It’s called shotblasting or something.
Stephen: [Laughs] Give me technical language and I’m going to use words that I’m not actually sure what they mean, but there you go. [Laughs] So it’s this really industrial, crazy process, and they use it to clean heavy metal machinery, but when it comes out the other end, this shit is shining, you know? When I’m talking to you about it, I feel like that’s what happened. I went through this process, and I came out so much clearer than I was going in. I don’t really want to go on record and say, ‘This is what I’m into, and this is what I’m not into,’ but I definitely, at the end of the record, was content to feel like the music I’ll be making moving forward is probably going to be of a more organic nature. You’re probably not going to hear a lot of the drum machines in my music, and that’s just going to be how it’s going to be.
SSv: Did you find that process partly into it all, or did the clarity only come at the end?
Stephen: Well I felt things that weren’t as thrilling or exciting to me along the way, and I felt things that made a lot of sense to me along the way. Playing, like really working your ass off until you get the take, that still feels like the best way to make a record to me. And that’s still, when I listen back to it, the stuff that I am the most proud of. More than hiring a great band and just taking what you get or building a track.
I learned so much making this record. Everybody that I worked with taught me a ton, but at the end of the day, you can’t change how you feel about what you think is a better representation of your soul and your art and things like that. There were certain times on that record when I worked so hard for something so small and simple, but the gratifying feeling of that is awesome. I mean you hope you don’t always have to work incredibly hard for a guitar track or something like that, but it just feels so much better than making a bit of music and saying, ‘We’ll fix it. We’ll make it work in some weird way. We’ll use the computers to do it.’
The thing is, I respond to a lot of music that’s made that way that I’m talking about, so that’s why I’ve always thought maybe I haven’t done it enough or something. But doing all four processes so close to each other, there were definitely things that I did that were like, ‘This feels right to me. This feels like who Stephen Kellogg is and this is what Stephen Kellogg can do better than some other people.’ And then there were parts of the process I thought, ‘Stephen Kellogg isn’t good at this.’ [Laughs]
SSv: You’ve been at this a long time, certainly longer than most, I mean longevity in this industry is rare anyway. Are you surprised that you’re still learning as much about yourself and your craft at this point as maybe earlier?
Stephen: Yeah, I’m always surprised by how much there is yet to learn. If I’m honest, I’m a little disappointed that some of this stuff has taken me this long to really absorb. I wouldn’t go as far to say I have regrets, but there’s some great stuff that I’m picking up now that I just think like, ‘Gah, I could have used that 10 years ago.’ In so many ways, it would have been a positive thing but I gotta believe a lot of people feel that way when they look at their life at 38 versus 28.