As promised, here is part one of my recent interview with roots rocker Stephen Kellogg (see picture, middle) as he checked in with the Northeast Underground on the eve of his first-ever solo headlining tour.
Underground: So, what have you been up to lately? I know the last time you were in town we caught up via e-mail, but I understand you recently got back from playing down at SXSW.
Kellogg: Yep, I did that. And I took the redeye in last night from LA actually.
We are about 70 percent of the way done with a new Sixers record. So, that’s been a lot of what I have been doing actually. We did some of that in Conn. and we’ve been doing a lot of it in Calif., just making those trips. And we had a super-dramatic beginning to that because the night before we started the record, the whole band and the producer got hit by a snowplow. The guy was drunk, and he just crossed over the lines and smashed right into them. So, we were starting the record the next day, the drummer had two broken ribs, and we were in the ER all night. The fact that no one was seriously injured though was like we said, ‘The fates have shined upon us. We better make a worthy record.’
That’s pretty miraculous that everyone turned out mostly okay.
They did, they did. The car was smashed to smithereens, but everyone was okay.
That’s been the big thing. We did a little bit of playing, but mostly just lots of recording and a few gigs and things like that along the way.
Speaking of recording, I happened to check your Twitter feed recently and noticed that it mentioned how you and Goose had been recording while a little “intoxicated,” or what have you.
*Laughs* Yeah, tweeting and drinking you know. I feel like with Twitter it’s like there’s this tendency to want to be like Chuck Klosterman or Nick Hornby about everything, all your witty observations throughout the day. But, I try to use it for two purposes. One is if something inspires me throughout the day, and I feel like would say it to a friend you know? Like, ‘Hey this really inspired me.’ I try to use Twitter that way, so I’ll end up putting up a lot of quotes and things like that from people that I stumble upon. The other thing I think is just like, what would I think is cool if the bands I listened to wrote about what’s going on a little bit. And that [drunk tweeting] was just one of those incidences where we were having a ball, we had a couple bottles of wine, and we’re actually just working on some singing for the new Nield’s record. So that’s what we were working on that night, and somebody got a computer in front of me and next thing you know we had tweeted. I got like four texts the next day, including one from my wife, that were like ‘How we feeling this morning little drunken tweeter?’
That sounds awesome. I can understand how there may be side-effects to the power of social media. I have only recently been dabbling in Twitter myself, but I still don’t use it as much as I could or should for that matter. I haven’t really gotten into it that much.
Yeah. For the longest time I have been a sort of old school guy and I don’t like computers much and stuff. But, at some point you know I’ve opted to be in an industry where part of your goal is to make this art and then you want to serve it out to the world. You don’t want it to languish in obscurity necessarily. You’re an entertainer. So, I try not to be too curmudgeonly about modern technology.
Following up on you being an entertainer, what are some of the challenges you are seeing now as part of launching a solo tour instead of playing with a full group?
Well, the Iron Horse show will be the first one. I did a couple of warm-up dates in L.A. last month, and I did one little thing up in Maine in February. But I’ve never done a headline solo tour, so I can only really guess what the challenges will be. I have played plenty of shows by myself, but I’ve never really had the situation where I got to go out and play as the headliner. It was usually more here’s a taste of things. So, I don’t know what the challenges are. I know that it’s been really fun to create something that’s based on much different dynamics.
In the Sixers, there’s all kind of neat tools that you have. You have a couple of multi-instrumentalists, you’ve got the several voices and the different beats, so a lot of the dynamics are just kind of built in to what you can do with a band. I definitely have been going out to see more solo shows and figuring what makes a good solo show. And it’s been really fun to conceive of putting on something that’s as entertaining but just in a different way. I imagine it may take me a few shows to figure out that dynamic a little bit, but it’s something I have really enjoyed doing. I feel good going in.
It’s kind of like building a house. I think my blueprint plan for this one is really good and I’m excited to do it and share it, but I’m sure when we get in there and realize the doors bump into each other with the plan we have or whatever, there will be a couple of those moments. I really don’t have a lot of experience with it, but I guess that’s the super longwinded way of telling you that that’s the challenge. It’s just not something I have done a lot, and anytime you haven’t done things a lot you just never quite know how it’s going to go.
How did the decision come about to do the solo tour in the first place? Did you just have some downtime between tours?
Yeah. We did put out a live record last year, but we were basically still supporting our last studio record, which came out in September of 2009. So we’ve done a few tours on that, and with the new record coming out in the fall we’re probably going to go out and tour again in the fall. It’s kind of in the blood to go out and play and be around people. I do love putting on a show. So, I wanted to do something but it didn’t really make sense to do a forced trip around the country with the band. That was the practical reason, and the artistic reason is, honestly, as we go my material has always sort of been divided between straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll and more lyric-based sort of folk stuff. And, I would notice that in the listening rooms I had just such a great time playing ballads. It was just so much fun when we would be in an environment where that was a great feeling, and I would love to do more of that in the Sixers’ show but sometimes it just doesn’t feel totally right for the environment. It wasn’t like I said, ‘Hey, you guys, I’m sick of you. Good luck. I’ll see you later’ you know? It was more like, ‘Hey this might make sense,’ to go for more certain fans who enjoy that side of what we do more and to get a chance to really hear the songs at their core. That sounded like a fun thing to do artistically too. Some crazy part of me just loves challenges, and loves like ‘What’s the new thing that will be terrifying to do’ you know? And also there’s just going and playing a full set by yourself and making sure everybody feels good about the money they spent on their ticket.
Would you say the solo show is a little more ballad based, or is there some more upbeat stuff in there as well?
It’s definitely the same thing, I mean, I’m me. I’m playing plenty of the same material, but I think it is I don’t play a lot of instruments. I just play guitar, so I think as such, one of the things I’ve seen in a lot of solo shows that I’ve really enjoyed is that everything’s a little more intimate.
It’s not ballads in the sense that I would certainly ever want to put together a snooze-fest of ‘Here’s another depressing love song,’ or something like that. But some of the material that is more introspective, I’m definitely going to be doing a bit more of that stuff because that stuff doesn’t always get the chance to come out in the rock ‘n’ roll setting, and when it does come out it can be tough to take it in when you’re in a big rock room and you can’t always hear the words quite as well. With almost no exceptions, every room we’re doing on this tour around the country is a great listening type room like the Iron Horse, where people go and you can hear the words and all that.
What are some of the differences you would say there are between playing at the Iron Horse and at the Calvin Theatre, where you have also had shows?
The Calvin is a neat experience because the gestures of a grander show are just, well, grander. I think when you’re in the Iron Horse there is just something about being able to see that the guy in the front row is eating his nachos and there you are singing saying, ‘Well, I wrote this when my grandfather passed away.’ When you share that kind of intimacy, it can make for some really fun, funny, and poignant moments because you can really see when people are feeling the music. At the Calvin or any large beautiful venue, I mean don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it, but you are sort of limited by what you see in the first couple of rows and you don’t see really beyond that at all. While at a place like the Iron Horse and most of the other venues we are doing on this tour, you can really feel every part of the room.
What can you share about your tour mate Tift Merritt?
She seems totally awesome. I’ve dug her music for a really long time and we’ve e-mailed, but I’ll be meeting her for the first time next week in person. I’ll know her a lot better a month from now, but I think she’s a tremendous singer and songwriter and everything I hear, read, and see about her leads me to believe we’ll get on just great. I’m excited and really looking forward to getting to hear her sing every night.
Have you discussed doing any collaboration since it will be just the two of you on tour?
Yes, we have. We have a bunch of tunes kicking around and hopefully since the Iron Horse is the first night we’ll see. I don’t know if we’ll have something up on its feet by then, but I think definitely we’re planning on singing some stuff together. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to miss that.
In that same spirit of collaboration, I understand during your time at SXSW you spent some time with some other artists as part of a project to aid the victims impacted by the recent tragedy in Japan. What was that experience like?
Well I read this thing some years ago, I’m not sure if it was Dave Matthews’ manager, but someone was questioning Dave’s credibility as an artist and his manager said something like, ‘All the credibility he needs is in his bank account right now,’ which I actually thought was awesome. I totally got that that wasn’t just like bragging about money, but it was like look he’s connecting to people. I just kind of think of that because I know we were just a really small piece of that [SXSW Livestream for Japan], we went in and played a song because we happen to be friends with the guys in Hanson and they had called us up and said, ‘Hey, can you come down and be part of this,’ and, of course, we were thrilled to be a part of it. But, the great thing is I think that that event raised $125,000 or something. So in terms of how things went, I’d say that’s great, that someone can conceive of an idea and a day later, well a long day, especially for those guys who were kind of overseeing the whole thing, but you got $125,000 that wouldn’t have existed going to people that really need it. So, in that sense I think it was a success. You can always do more, and it certainly would’ve been easy to do a lot less.
Watch video of Stephen Kellogg and other artists performing as part of SXSW4Japan here:
Did you get a chance to watch any of the other performers during their sessions?
I did. I think Anna Nalick was down there while we were there. It was a neat scene, minus everybody being mega-famous it was almost like a ‘We Are the World’ scene. Boots [Sixers drummer] was excited because the guy from Blind Melon, obviously Shannon Hoon is not alive, but whoever the next most well-known guy in Blind Melon is was there, going in after us, and Boots is a big Blind Melon fan, who got to chat with him for a minute and was excited. It’s still one of the very neatest things about this job, just some of the people that you get to meet, whose work you admire a lot. Just being around people who you think are cool and getting to have conversations or ask questions, I think that’s one of my favorite parts of this job.
Check back tomorrow for part two of the interview and for more information on Stephen Kellogg or to see future tour dates please visit www.stephenkellogg.com.