It was a warm, romantic summer in 2004 and I was surrounded by red bricks and poetry. The city of Northampton engulfed me, feeding me coffee and used books, to the tune of Stephen Kellogg morning, noo and night. On an album where love and matters of the heart (exquisite pain and severe attraction) filled up my speakers, Bulletproof Heart became the prelude to many more words and stories to come. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers have evolved into a band that is more than just love songs or catchy tunes. It is music that can fill a room with a story that you feel like could be yours. He doesn’t try to distract you with fancy instrumentation or highly-produced vocalization. He is that guest at your dinner table that causes you to forget about your meal because he has the perfect things to say in the most eloquent ways, and he was kind enough to grant us an interview.

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So, you come from my second favorite state, which is Massachusetts.

What’s your favorite state?

New York. Where you live, right?

Yeah, it’s a great place. New York, Massachusetts, New England’s like–

Gorgeous.

So fun.

When I was first introduced to your music, I was spending much of my time in Northampton (Massachusetts) for a summer writing program at Smith College. I met someone who insisted I listen to your music and he gave me your first album, Bulletproof Heart. I spent the rest of that summer engulfed in your songs. The word heart appears 20 times on that album.

Is that how many? I know it says it on the album.

So, what’s the meaning behind that?

Well, I think in that case, I recorded the album and realized how much I was writing about matters of the heart and rather than have that be this pink elephant like, jeez [can] this guy think about anything but the condition of his heart, I think I decided to put that in here like, yeah, I know that I’m singing about these same sort of themes. A lot of times I try to do that with our records because most of what I do is intentional.

How are you different now than when you were writing that album?

That album was written and came out in 2003, so its been half a decade. In that half- decade, we spent most of it on the road really working hard. Having some great wins and some big disappointments too. A lot has changed. I’ve also had two kids so I’m very much in this middle phase of like, I still rely on my parents and call them for advice all the time. But I’m also somebody’s dad now. I think that through all these experiences, we know why we’re doing what we’re doing now. In the beginning, you just write and you want to be cool. You think well, this would be a kick if I could make a living at this. Now we’re in it. We’ve been doing it, we’re old enough to be like, all right we’ve got to make this count every night. I think when we play music now, we play it with a lot more intention and when I write music, I’m writing because I think of this as my legacy. This is what my life’s gonna be about. Whereas I might have stumbled on insights in the past, I’m sort of actively trying to make sure that I’m writing about them. I want our songs to be something my family can be proud of and that I can be proud of. I think that’s true of all the guys in the Sixers. We’re still having a good time, we’re still lighthearted people, but we’re playing like, high-stakes poker now.

Do you feel like you write differently as a dad?

The biggest thing about being a dad–and I know this from people who don’t have kids–I don’t want to alienate them but–the access to love that happens when you have kids is so overwhelming and awesome that it can’t help but affect the way you write. And I’d see my friends–jeez, I used to be cool and now they have kids and they only want to talk about is bowel movements and stuff and I’m right there with them now, but it’s all this love. It’s like your whole world explodes and becomes much more vivid, I think. So, I do think I write a lot differently now as a dad and I think I’m also kinder probably because I have suffered a certain amount of disappointment in my life, like everybody. You kind of start to be like, well, I really want to be that person that I’m striving to be. It’s time to get to it and be somebody you can be really proud of.

When did music become a part of your life when you knew that this was it. When did it become serious for you?

I keep asking myself this question. I’m like, how did I wind up here? It was always a big thing. It was always a big deal when I look back on it now. When my sister was giving me tapes when I was eight and nine years old, I was so into it. It was such a huge thing. But, you know, I grew up in the suburbs and I was born with a sort of average amount of talent for music and it kind of made me wonder all the time, what am I really going to do? What’s my fall-back job gonna be? And it wasn’t until I got out of school–you know, I played in college and it was serious enough then but then I felt like, oh, I better find a real job.

Isn’t that interesting? A “real job” as though this isn’t real.

This isn’t real, yeah. Well, and I used to tell my friends, I don’t want to commute to work and now it’s like, I have to wake up at six tomorrow to drive to Lincoln, Nebraska. Talk about commute. So, I bought into that thinking a lot and when we meet with young people now I’m always really trying to really encourage them if you have something you want to do and you’re lucky enough to know what that is, don’t ever get intimidated by the hype of–because it’s no easier to become a lawyer or a doctor or accountant or anything. You’re gonna do well at whatever you want to do. So, after two or three years of being out of school and working other jobs, in music but not performing music, I really started thinking I should make a run at this because even on its worst nights it’s more fun than most of the other things I was doing. And that was true for Boots [Brian Factor] and Kit [Karlson] too and our band, The Sixers, kind of came out of guys that all did that. That all kind of thought, well, maybe I don’t have to play music for a living, maybe everybody’s right, maybe it is too hard. But then when you do these other jobs and be miserable at them and then next thing you know you’re doing these gigs–and in the beginning some of the gigs are really modest, you know? Playing to like, ten kids in a commuter lounge and you still feel great about yourself. So, you’re like, this is way more the route to go. That was about six, seven years ago when I realized, okay, I’m gonna do this as a job. At the time, I started saying, okay, let me see how long I can do this for. But now that it’s been seven years, I do have a sense of like, this job will always be available to me and if I wasn’t gonna do it, it would only be because I chose to do something else.

Did you study music in college?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t at all. Kit majored in tuba.

He majored in tuba?

Yeah, yeah. Which we didn’t know until we’d been on the road for four years and then I’m like, what’d you major in and he’s like tuba. So, now he plays a little tuba in the show. We just shot a video with the UMass marching band like two weeks ago. All four-hundred of them doing a synchronized dance that we choreographed. It was really fun and it was so fun to be back at UMass and we went to Antonio’s and Bueno and walked around Northampton after the shoot. It was really fun, yeah.

Any jobs you want to mention that you had before this gig?

Well, I sold advertising for a–I watched the ad base for a small magazine steadily decline under my watchful eye. I learned some really valuable lessons. I stage managed, hung fliers and sold tickets. I don’t regret any of it because the music I was making a long time ago probably started out being about girls and a little about family. What it’s kind of become is about working and being in the middle of, you know, middle-class American person who just has to go to work and wishes they could see their family a bit more than they could. Has a good time on Friday and Saturday nights. You know, there’s just a sort of–through living this life and through going through all that experiences, I think our music is way more interesting and meaningful. It’s not like cool-people music, it’s like music for real people.

You put a lot of yourself into it. A lot of your life and your bandmates–their lives. How much would you say you are affected by the economy and the things that are going on politically?

Economically, I feel like we’re right in there because when the economy took a dive last year, we totally felt that. People bought less CDs and tickets, all the things that pay our bills. So we were like, right in the hunt and I think that’s good because that’s what we write about. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to make a lot more money because I think I could do a lot of good things with more money. But, it keeps us very in touch with what I think a lot of people–even though our life is different as a musician than many people–we are kind of feeling what’s going on. We’re always driving around the country, so you see in certain areas of the country, how they are affected. We were scheduled to play in Houston and New Orleans right around Katrina, so you’re not just seeing it on the news. You’re like, whoa, this gig is canceled and when you go through Louisiana, you see what’s going on. So, in that way, I’m very thankful that we have that. Politically, I feel like a lot of the age group that comes to see us and it’s pretty wide but you know, there is sort of a–your average Sixers fan might fall in an age group that starts in the beginning of college and goes up through young professionals and a little beyond. Politically, I feel like there is a lot of cynicism in our audiences. You know, they’re smart, educated people who feel disillusioned because it’s so hard to achieve things in politics. Where I think that we get involved in with that is we try to say, everybody, remember, as bad as it gets, this is still a really good–a great country. We just spent five weeks traveling other parts of the world. We were in the Middle East for the troops. We were in Europe. I’ve seen these countries and it’s so easy to be cynical but I think it’s a very hard job. It’s hard to run our little company with seven people in it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the government and run millions and millions of people and yes, there are slimy politicians and people who do bad things, but most of these folks are out there working hard. Trying to achieve things. Trying to get things done and I think it’s really important to go back to Kennedy’s thing, what can you do to help the situation. Instead of just like, tearing it down–

It’s so easy to complain and say, this country sucks. But, where’s the action?

Yeah, so us going out and saying, vote, make a difference–we do that, but the best thing we can do is actually, in one of my little spiels that I end up talking about is in the form of some kind of joke, like, hey, don’t forget we’re all here at a rock n’ roll show. And you can do this any night you want. So, I really try to urge people to not be cynical and to try to help wherever they can. And be as patient as you can while trying to make a difference. Beyond that, we don’t get too involved in politics because even within our own band and families, I want to focus on the big picture and the little picture sometimes–you end up debating these things and most of the time, none of us really know what’s going on with the politicians. You know, someone’s watching FOX and someone’s watching CNN and you’re getting the same story through two really different lenses. I don’t want to like, sit around and debate that. Let’s kind of like, take the overall picture and see if there is anything we can be doing to make this better and how can we be better citizens and really appreciate how great this country is.

What was it like playing for the troops?

It was really cool. I think in our head, we had kind of a Bob Hope picture like, oh, you know, we’ll get there and let them know they’re doing a good job. For a band at our level and a lot of what you’re doing is at a much smaller scale. We’re flying into base in England playing for the communications base. It’s really small and you’re playing a mess hall to a couple of families and some kids and we did a fair amount of those sorts of gigs so it was great because you really have to take your ego out of it. It’s not about like, I’m your big rock-n-roll savior here. I’m Kid Rock or something. It’s actually about going up to people and saying thanks for your service. These are your kids. Where are you from? Oh, you’re from Missouri? We were there, we’ll tell them you said hi. Just giving them a slice of home. When we got to the Middle East, there was more of the traditional, you know, you picture everybody in fatigues, dust, escorts and guns. And that was neat because those were the folks that really needed some entertainment. And that’s all we were, is like, a slice of home and for us, it was a great opportunity to go meet a lot of interesting people, learn a little more about the military, you know, do some cool stuff, and see places in the world we never would have seen, and get their perspective. So few troops ever had anything to say about politics. They’re doing their job, this was just an option, this was their thing. We came back and we’re playing this tour, I think, more from the inside out than we ever have. With minimal amounts of ego, you know? Where it’s not like, oh, that last night sucked because people weren’t all singing aloud loud enough. We’ve been able to really, like, put all those things in perspective better because of having done that trip.

Is that different in comparison from when you first started out performing?

I think so. You know, I think in the beginning it’s never easy. There’s always professional envy. You’re always looking, what else can I do? I wish I had more fans. I wish more people knew my music. I wish I was–you know, you want to do these things because every opportunity is exciting. But what happens is, you start to play from the outside in. You start to base how well you’re doing on the propaganda and what people are writing and the reviews. Things like that.

Do you pay attention to that? Do you read those?

I stopped because they weren’t always favorable or even worse, they were just in the middle. They were just so average that you’re like, man, I almost wish you said I sucked because that would be more interesting. Who’s gonna go see a band that, you know, [got] two and a half stars. But sometimes when you see something that’s one star or zero stars, you’re like, wow, what did they hate so much? I’ve gotta check this record out. We just were kinda in the middle and I never felt that was who we were as a band, so I stopped paying attention completely. But that didn’t always feel good either because then you kind of stumble on things or you miss some really special things. Someone writes something and you know that they got you. Some people get you and some people don’t and we’re more at peace at that than we’ve ever been. By the time we got overseas and we were doing that, and we were like, wow, we’re getting to make another record and we’re still in this game and there are more people coming out. Once we focused on let’s make a difference with our fans, we got involved with more charities, we just started being more like the people we want to be in our lives and that made it feel so important to be playing music. That wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, it was more of a fight for ourselves. It wasn’t that we were bad people or anything like that. We were still relatively nice guys, but now I feel like we are really trying. So now when people write reviews or stories, I don’t take it personal at all. If they didn’t like it or they have something bad to say, I might read it and go, Wow, I completely disagree with this person. Sometimes I read something that someone writes, a criticism, and I’m like, well, they got me there! I sing in the same octave most of the time. Yeah, my melodies are pretty straight ahead. Those sorts of things I can’t argue with and I don’t fault people if that’s what they’re looking for in music. In being open to that, I feel like when people are say really great things too, we’re really open to that. Now we’re like, cool, that’s one person right there whose life we made a difference in, who really got our music. It’s a nicer way to be. I’ve been enjoying this year.

The Bear
, your new album, what can you say about it? If you had to personify it, would you say it’s moody, indecisive, flirty?

Let me think for a second how I would personify The Bear. Let me try to answer your exact question and then I’ll try to elaborate on it. I think that The Bear is a joyful and cathartic record. So those would be the adjectives I’d throw out. The album goes in a chronology. It starts with a teenage couple in the beginning. The first song on the album, “The Bear” is actually like a prelude and then it starts with this teenage couple and it goes through about middle age. So this is a loosely based concept throughout the album of which I stand right in the middle, our whole band is right in the middle. If the album starts at 17 and it goes to 41, then we are all like, in about the middle of that. It’s really like a time line of a life or a lot of these lives of these characters who are on this record. As a result, you have these super up moments and then these expenditures dealing with stuff. I think that we’ve made some interesting records before but I felt like a lot of the times our performances we kind of rushed them onto the record and we didn’t take as long as we should have. On this record, we tried to really be diligent about going back to–if we didn’t feel like we had a recording that captured the real essence of the song, we were pretty disciplined about like, okay, we’re gonna have to go back into the studio. If we’re gonna have to find more money, then let’s go back in and do it. If we need to make more time, if we need to put off the release–which we did a couple of times–and our label, Vanguard, was very supportive of that. As a result, I think we have something that is closer to who we are right now than anything else we’ve put out previously. I mean, Bulletproof Heart was pretty close to who we were at that time, but this is just closer, I think.

Well, you’re always changing, so your albums should reflect that. It’s like when fans say, “Oh, this doesn’t sound like your previous album.” It’s not supposed to, right?

No, I don’t think so. Most of the fan feedback, which I do care about to a degree, because I want our fans to like it. But I couldn’t possibly know what they’re gonna like. I think there were a few folks that felt like it was unfocused but I think they’re focusing on the micro. Like, oh, this song has a horn in it and this song is solo and what’s going on. But, if you look at the macro picture, I think it is focused and I hope people like it as much as we do.

Are there any songs that didn’t make the album?

Yeah, that’s the other thing. We never over-recorded. Our song “Milwaukee” on the last record, Glassjaw Boxer, we loved the song. We knew it hit a chord with the people at our shows. It hit a chord with us. I don’t think any of us believed we recorded it. There was no way we were gonna leave that off that record, so we put it out. On this record, we over-recorded so there would be songs, that if we didn’t get them or feel like we weren’t sure, we could leave them off and save them for a later date. So, we recorded six extra songs and four of them ended up coming out as b-sides. For the vinyl edition, they couldn’t fit all the songs on the album, so what they did was we took two off of it and put one bonus track that’s only on the vinyl and that included a digital download so you don’t miss any songs. Amazon has been very supportive, so I think they did a thing where you can go on Amazon and get these bonus tracks when you buy the album on Amazon. But one of the things that Vanguard did, that I didn’t always see in other records, was they made it like you could just buy the bonus b-sides too. So, if you bought the album in a store, you weren’t penalized for it. Then we have a couple that nobody’s heard yet that are–two of those are ones that just didn’t fit thematically on the record. But I can’t wait for people to hear them, They’re both really up-tempo, fun tracks.

So, that will go on your next album?

That will go somewhere. I don’t know if we’ll wait until the next record. Maybe it’s a soundtrack.

Do you bring them to your shows? Would you play them live?

I would play it live, if we were inclined to. Right now, this tour we’re doing, we’re only doing about seventy-five minutes a night, so I’m trying to fit so much of the old and new material in that I haven’t really gone there yet. But if I’m feeling it–we did an in-store yesterday in Boulder and they were selling the vinyl there at that record store, so we played that b-side because I felt like this was a great opportunity for people to hear this song that they wouldn’t otherwise hear. Right now, we’re so stimulated–the new record is thirteen songs, so it’s a pretty long record. Longer than what I’d normally go with, but when I realized it was taking two years to get records out, I was like, well, let’s make it a bit longer. Give people more music to hold onto.

I was excited to read that you put out a vinyl. Do you own a record player?

Yeah, I have two. I have one in my office and one in the living room.

An old fashioned, real record player?

Yeah, I mean, I’d like a nicer one because I realized when we got ours, that one of my record players was playing a bit fast. We sound like Alvin. What’s going on? And I’d been listening to Tom Petty and Elton John at that speed for all this time.

Do you have a favorite record that you like to listen to?

I do. The Band. The brown album. The one that has “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I love the way that sounds on vinyl.

The crackle.

It’s so cool. And our music is so–because it’s so imperfect, you know–it’s like our heroes are all Neil Young and all these people who were making music back then where it was sort of about playing in a room. When I heard our music on vinyl, I just had this sigh of relief because in a way, [I said], oh, cool, it sounds really good. Sometimes when it’s hyped up and it’s on a CD, you’re so aware of all the little cracks in your voice and all the imperfections in the rhythm section and those things that get airbrushed out of a lot of recordings. When I hear CDs of us in the mix of other CDs–especially new music–I sometimes feel really self-conscious of our music. But when I heard it on the vinyl–I can’t quite describe it, but it’s a little mellower and it came to life in the way that we intended it to be. Yeah, I’d be excited for you to hear it. Do you have a record player?

I did have a record player, which I found. I got for free. It was beat-up, it only had one speaker and I just recently got rid of it. I don’t even know why. I regret it so much. I still have my records–Jackson Five. I need to get a new one.

You know, Target sells them for like, 40 bucks.

But see, I don’t classify that as a record player. Well, it is a record player, but I want an old-school, gritty, it’s dirty, it smells bad. I want it to look like New York caught up inside a record player.

Luckily, you’re in a pretty hip section of the country where you should be able to locate that.

I’ll have my eye on that.

Well, I want you to have that because I want you to hear The Bear on it.

by Aimee Herman
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