Last week, I chatted with singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg, best known for his work with his old band The Sixers. He's got a solo show upcoming at Club Cafe tomorrow, Dec. 11. Our talk was fun, and there wasn't room in the paper to run a whole lot of it, so for fans and interested parties, here's an uncut version. Have at it!
You’re in the middle of a PledgeMusic campaign; how long has that been going on?
It feels like it’s been a lot longer, but I guess it’s been about a month.
And how are you feeling about it right now?
It’s going very well! My whole thing is, I’m trying to have some real fun with it. For better or worse, I put records out on label for the past 10 years. There’s a part of me that loves this because it’s so much more personal and it’s so much more — we can tailor it, and it’s really exciting when a fan you don’t even know comes in and buys some big package to help you make music, or sends you a letter. The bad part is that you’re planning a record and you feel like you’re constantly NPR fundraising.
I noticed that you have some interesting incentive packages as part of the campaign. How do you come up with that stuff?
You have no idea about the money: what’s right, or how someone’s gonna take it. The two questions I asked myself, my manager and I sat there and I said, “What would I want to do with the bands that I dig? What would I actually think would be fun to do with Tom Petty or something like that?” And the other one is, “If we’re gonna do it, what’s gonna make it something we can do, and not feel remotely weird about?” Some of my friends were giving me shit like, “Oh, it’s $15,000 if we wanna go out with you in New York now?” No, of course not! But I’m trying to make a record here, and if we’re gonna fly people in and take them to a Broadway show and get babysitters and stuff — if there’s some wealthy fan who thinks that would be a kick, I think it would be too. But I’m not gonna throw it up there for four grand, or we’ll be doing it every weekend!
And you’re not going to make any money off of it that way.
Yeah — it’s about three or four thousand dollars just to make it actually happen.
You timed the campaign while you’re on tour, and it’s leading up to the holidays — was that all intentional?
It’s as intentional as we can be. We try to be intentional about things; right now, we’re out on tour, and we have this charitable thing we do with hand-written lyrics, we have that going, the tour going, actually planning the recording of the record, and to be doing [the crowdfunding campaign] — I’m not sure that’s any stroke of genius. I think we’re mining the same well pretty hard. But I think there is an element of, it’s a time of year when people are looking for presents, looking for unique things, and we’re certainly offering, some would say too many choices, if you’re a fan.
And it’s interesting doing it while you’re on tour, as opposed to just setting up the campaign and pushing it hard online. Is that paying off? Do you promote the online campaign in person?
I think it does. We do our best to distribute a little information. There are some people who know about this and do it all the time; for a lot of people, especially if you’re older than 25 or 30, you might not know about crowdfunding. So for us to have a little card we can put out, and maybe I talka bout it a little bit. I don’t want people to feel like they were brought to buy a timeshare when they come out to the show: “And since you’re here …” The fact of the matter is, for many of us, this is how records are going to be made for the moment, moving forward.
Anothing thing I’ve found to be handy: When you’re at home [and running a crowdfunding campaign] it’s like watching a pot boil. How are we doing? Are we getting there? You’re just kind of hammering away at people. Being on the road is such a huge distraction, you find — “We haven’t mentioned the Pledge campaign in a week, we better do something.” Every time you do get in there, you get new people. I think it’s been a really good thing to have a lot of balls in the air at once, because it keeps me from obsessing over one thing.
You mentioned the handwritten lyrics project you do for charity — how long has that been going on?
I guess I’ve been doing that for about six years now, which is why I didn’t want to abandon it this year. I started doing it because — a little before that, in 2006, the band stopped and played at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, in Memphis. And it was just like a light went off: Wow, you know, you don’t have to be, like, Bruce Springsteen to get involved in social causes that matter for you. And we kind of had this joke before that, “The charity we need is the Sixers charity,” stuff like that, because we were thinking we really weren’t making enough money yet. Then you go to a place like St. Jude’s and you have a moment like that where you’re like, you know what, we may or may not ever make as much money as we’d all love to make, but what do you want your life to be about? It really was that simple. It really adds meaning to your own life when you get to go and do good things. You’re doing things for a reason other than just the gratification of the ego. At that moment, I kind of sat down and picked some things that matter to me and doing some work. Through that I’ve been able to give quite a bit of money — I mean, on the scale of the money I make.
You have a new Christmas song you’re releasing. and your last album had a song called “Thanksgiving.” Is the holiday season a special time for you? What’s it like being on tour during those weeks?
Obviously, the holidays are really special, and I have four young kids; it’s strange to sometimes not be there. Last time I got home the day before Christmas Eve, and this year I was out of there right after the last piece of turkey got eaten. In that sense, I struggle just like everybody does, to balance all that stuff out. But one thing we’ve learned to do as a family is, rather than just make the day the big thing, we do make it up. When we have to celebrate a birthday a week early, we just do it. We don’t make a big deal about that. Thanksgiving is about having a day when you sit down with your family or friends, make a list of what you’re grateful for. It’s not really the fourth Thursday in November; it doesn’t have to be.
I never really intended to tour around the holidays, but as the market has become so saturated with touring acts in the past five years — I don’t wanna sound like a dinosaur, but there’s loads of bands that don’t even like touring that are like, “I gotta make money somehow!” So it becomes much more competitive. In Pittsburgh, my best friend, who I’ve played Pittsburgh with twice, Jon McLaughlin, is playing the next night or something. He’s in the same boat I am: You wanna tour, this is a slightly less competitive moment than October or November, so we both ended up on tour here. I bring the girls out on the road for a couple days after Christmas. I spend as much time at home as I can and still pay the bills.
The record you put out last year was your first solo record after years working with your old band, the Sixers, but I read somewhere that you actually worked with some of the guys from the band on this record anyway. Is that true, and how was it different?
Yeah! Two of the four other guys worked on it with me, but they all appeared on it, and actually in Pittsburgh, one of the Sixers is joining us. We have special guests in every city on the tour, and one of the Sixers is coming out for that show. So they’re very much in my life; the difference is, even though it was Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, it’s very much a band. When it’s functioning as a band, I’m the quarterback, but there’s running backs and wide receivers weighing in on everything. Making the solo record, without any sense of guilt that you’re being a tyrant, you can make the call on how you want something to go. And that’s not a douchey thing to do when you’re making a solo record, and nobody’s going to feel that way. There’s things like that song, “Thanksgiving” — I’m not sure if I would’ve felt comfortable bringing a 19-verse song to the band and saying “Figure it out, guys! I want to sing all these words!” I embrace the positive aspects. I miss the companionship, I miss having the great, steady band, but life goes the way it goes, and the positive side is, you can do much different things, step into some new roles. Even on this tour, where it’s me and a drummer, and we’re playing a totally different set list every night. And I wouldn’t say it’s the perfect show for the super casual fan, maybe, but we’re doing small rooms, and for anybody who’s invested in the band, it’s a ball: What random songs are gonna get played each night? I was really into Pearl Jam, I was into the Dead, bands that did that.
There’s a song, “The Brain is a Beautiful Thing,” on the last album, where you lay out something of a political philosophy. But it’s not really hard left or right; you almost come off like an outspoken moderate. How would you describe where you stand politically?
That’s awesome. An outspoken moderate! I wanna hold onto that; if anyone ever asks, I’ll tell them I’m an outspoken moderate. Here’s the thing: I do feel passionately about the things I care about, but I tend to read and try to give an opportunity to both sides of the traditional aisle. And when it comes to viewpoints, there’s things that I don’t really care a lot about, certain social issues, and I’m just always like, why are these in the political discussion? I don’t get it. And I feel like most of the people I hang out with fall in this middle ground. But unfortunately, for politicians to win elections, you’re not allowed to be moderate. People want to know: Are you pro-life or are you pro-choice? And they want you to make some huge declaration. So you have me, who — I landed on an aircraft carrier this summer to play for the troops, despite the fact that I hate flying and am totally queasy and all the rest of it, but I did that because I think it’s a great thing that we have a big military. To me, it’s important: Good fences make good neighbors, and it’s a dangerous world and I think the U.S., for all its mistakes, most of the time tries to do the right thing. So I have that viewpoint, but am I a big guns guy, a big Republican guy? Absolutely not. I probably fall further on the other side of things. But I just think, what’s wrong with having sort of a cross-section of views, and I think there are a lot of people who do have a cross-section of views, and for some reason you’re not allowed to express that, or if you do, you can’t get elected. It seems screwy to me.
Do you think there’s the same kind of pressure on entertainers to come down with strong views?
I think if you’re Kid Rock and you’re like “Blah, blah, blah, here’s what I think,” a lot of people go, “He understands me!” I’m adding a Southern accent that’s not really fair, but I’m doing it. But I think that goes back to the Bob Dylan thing where you gotta stand for something. People want to know what you believe; do you believe what I believe? And for better or worse, I think I probably attract moderate-thinking people, who maybe disagree with people but aren’t the ones who write you off and draw a line in the sand if they disagree with you. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is, every time I play Milwaukee, there’s an abortion clinic right outside, and there’s little kids outside with placards around their necks that say, you know, “You’re killing someone.” And these people are going through this awful experience and they have to show up and be judged by kids that can’t possibly understand what they’re doing there. That to me is so sad. But what does that have to do with — might we be able to find a moderate middle ground where you can say, “I certainly wouldn’t do it, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do, but I’m not gonna tell a girl that was raped she can’t get an abortion. Or someone who doesn’t want a kid! I can’t imagine bringing a kid that’s unwanted into the world. Ther’es plenty of those already. Why do it more? That’s how I see it, and it’s hard for me not to think of other people seeing it that way. But I have a lot of friends who are pro-life, and as long as you’re not hurting somebody — don’t go bombing clinics and don’t go judging anybody, because you don’t want to do that. But if you’re not hurting other people, go ahead and think that way.
There’s a novel concept behind the album that you’re funding through this PledgeMusic campaign — four different parts, called North, South, East and West. Explain the idea.
That was an idea I got from Marc Roberge, the lead singer from the band O.A.R., who I’ve actually done Pittsburgh with a couple of times. He and I were talking about where things are at in music now, and he said, “Kellogg, you ought to do an album of the seasons, and you could, every three months, put one out, and it’s a whole year’s work.” I felt like the seasons thing had kind of been done, but that’s what led to this idea of, I like that idea of having a record not just come out, the first week, then it’s over. What could you do that would be interesting? When I got to the regional thing, I thought, maybe we make each thing a section with a different producer and different musicians and a different flavor. That sounded so fun to me, to put out a four-part record. The music I’ve put out over the years has a little pop, has a little country, has a little folk, has plenty of rock. The idea that you could make little compartments of that, and have it not be the only thing you had to live with for the next two years, seems like a liberating way to do those different things.
That seems like one of the big challenges for a lot of artists: to vary it up within an album without varying it too much and ending up with a disjointed record.
Even, in hindsight, I can see where I’ve completely confused shit in the past. I can look at a record and say “If we took these two songs out, the album would’ve been much stronger.” But it’s so hard to filter yourself, because you go, “Oh, but I’ve got this great pop song,” and it’s like, yeah, but you stuck it in the middle of a country record. This is a real chance to not have any excuses for doing that.