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1040 Abroad

Stephen Kellogg Interview
August 26, 2013

Stephen KelloggPhoto: Suzanne Davis
The singer-songwriter, now without his band The Sixers, has a very personal new album, Blunderstone Rookery, and a UK tour. He tells The American about what inspired the record, and a whole lot more.

Stephen Kellogg...
...on being in Britain:

I guess the grass is always greener, but when I was there I was loving it. I went once as a teenager, then played some of the American and British military bases like Croughton with the gang, my band The Sixers. Last month was the first commercial shows I've played in Britain. We went up into the English countryside, and I played in Suffolk, in the pub in the village of Blunderstone which my album's named after. I had this vision of massive success flashing through my head, where I could buy a place to live in the English countryside.

...on giving back:
I like to think we're caring, conscientious people. We put off doing charitable work and causes for ages, then about five years into the band we said, 'Let's not wait til we're U2', and we started getting involved. We play to the armed forces, and also to children in hospital. For the last six years I've done fund drives, selling hand-written lyrics and calendars, but the biggest thing is going into Children's Hospitals – St. Jude or Boston or one in Hackensack – and playing for the kids. It's very rewarding. It improves my life, and hopefully does some good for somebody else too. For them it's a momentary diversion, but for me it's the stuff I carry around when I'm missing my family. When I'm touring around and getting grouchy, I can play for the troops and think what they have to do going into battle. Or there's some little girl who's been battling cancer for five years. It stops you complaining so much.

...on why he plays for the military:
My grandfather was my hero, I loved and looked up to him in every way. He was a German who immigrated to the US then a few years later went to fight in World War II. He talked to me a little about it, and it occurred to me at some point that I'd never had to fight in a war, they were something that happens on TV. I'm from the North East [Northampton, Massachusetts] and you don't get nearly so many people enlisting as you do down South. But I imagined what it would be like to fight, and in lieu of that I thought I could bring some of home over to the people on the bases who are giving their time and risking their lives.

...on The Sixers, and their 'hiatus':

Stephen Kellogg with The Sixers
Stephen Kellogg with The Sixers
The thing about our group is that we're very close friends. We still are right now. We haven't played music together in 10 months, because one or two of them wanted to do something else – one doesn't want to be on the road for a while, another wants to explore other areas of his career. It's a natural thing to happen. I miss their company, but for me, this is what I do – I write and I go out and play for people. I just have to keep moving forward. I would never push them and damage our friendships and our legacy. I look at bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band – my heroes – and they took pauses through their careers then came back together to play. No-one would be more thrilled than me if The Sixers decide they want to do some more. There's a beauty in working out how to communicate and how to play together, and still be friends. When you spend that time together, you see everything about each other. It's like being married. You see them at their worst, at their least flattering. There are other things – girlfriends, substances – and it's not hard to understand why so many bands don't make it. You've got all the dirty secrets and the question is, what are you going to do with them? Are you going to hold it against them, or be empathetic and say, these are good people.

...on the life changes that led to the new album:
The two main guys who were the original members of The Sixers with me needed a pause in 2012. My call with them came on the same week that I found out my mother-in-law had brain cancer, from which she's subsequently died. I also found out I was having a baby, which is a good thing, but I do have three other ones. Not that I don't know how these things happen, but it was a bit of a surprise! My grandmother passed away. Our house was undergoing a renovation – we're lucky to be able to have a renovation, but living in a house with no roof, felt like a giant metaphor... 'there's no roof, everything’s ripped apart, just like my life!' In my adult life it was by far the worst year I've ever had. It was in that context that I made the record. Everybody’s had moments in their life when you can't believe how everything is stacking up against you. But I knew that everything would stabilize and be OK. That's completely what the album is. A series of challenges, but I realized I was a lucky guy with a good life.

Stephen Kellogg
Stephen Kellogg at home: missing roof and horde of children not shown
...on family values:
I have four kids. The oldest is eight, then one is turning six this month, and a two-and-a-half year old who's driving me to drink, and now the ten month old. All girls! They surprise you. One night we decided to come up with a family mission statement, with our values, and make a coat of arms for the family. We sit down with pizza, I tape some paper to the wall and we decide what matters to the Kellogg family. To get us going, my wife says, 'We share'. And the five year old, as she was, says 'We look people in the eye when we shake their hand'. It shocked me – where did she get that from? I don't remember telling her that! But that's right, we do! We were prepared for some really basic stuff but they had some deep ideas.

...on losing his guitars:
It's not ideal! I was doing a solo tour before the record came out to introduce the new songs. I just packed my best acoustics and a bunch of microphones – I had this Gibson Southern Jumbo that I literally played 1,400 concerts on, and wrote most of these songs on. At the end of the first leg in Seattle, I flew home. My tour manager called when I landed and said the van got hit and everything was gone. Whenever I imagined it before, I thought it would be absolutely devastating but I'm tellin' you, something about 2012 has gotten into me and made me stronger. Surprisingly quickly I was able to say, 'You know what? It's just stuff'. They're my tools, to do my work, so we figured out a way to move on. It is a bummer, but it isn't a tragedy. Sometimes when I'm out playing, and my new guitar isn't staying in tune, I want to have a giant disclaimer saying you should see me with my real guitar!

Blunderstone Rookery
...on Blunderstone Rookery:
Blunderstone Rookery is David Copperfield's home when he's a kid, in the Charles Dickens novel – it's my favorite book. He loves it, his mom's there, then it becomes this super-unhappy place when his stepfather comes in and he's forced out. He goes back when he's a man and makes his peace with it. This record was me making peace with some challenging stuff. When things like that happen, you realize what's important in your life. I made it near my home, about eight minutes down the road. I thought, I'm not going to go to Los Angeles or New York. I wasn't on a label, I was making it for myself, the first time in eight years that had happened. To make this music for me, I had to stick close to home, not think about radio singles or what anybody else said. It was liberating as hell, to do things for – quote, unquote – the 'right reasons'.

...on lyrics like 'I don't want to die on the road':
Kit Carlson co-produced the record with me. He was in the Sixers and remains my best friend. There were times when I would say to him, 'This song means a lot to me but I don't know if it will mean anything to anybody else.' His response was usually, 'Let's not worry about that. Let's do it and see where that leads us.' I know it's not for everybody: the reviews run the gamut from 'this is great' to 'this is crap'. It's impossible to please everybody so we thought, why not please yourself? The lyrics of Men and Women is about how the world needs more compassionate men and strong women. It just came straight out, I didn't want to mince words on that one. But the most vitriolic review of the record so far picked up on just one line, 'If all the boys went missing there'd be a lot less war'. They called it 'gender conceit' but I'm confused by that. Is that not true? I'm not saying that there aren't women who like to fish, or work on cars, which are the next lines in the song. Maybe Mrs Thatcher was the exception that proved the rule. But when you look at the news, men are responsible for a lot of the aggression in life, which has something to do with testosterone, I would guess. I never hung out with girls in high school who started a fist fight! I know lots of compassionate men and brave women, but the song's just a general call to arms.

...on Thanksgiving, an epic song on the album:
I can gauge the years of my life by the Thanksgivings. It's the greatest day, because you don't have all the gifts and the hoopla and the hype. It's just about being grateful for your good fortune. I was meditating on where my life had been at various Thanksgivings.

...one final question: what's the best thing about being Stephen Kellogg?
The only answer is that I get to reside in a household of lovely little ladies!

Blunderstone Rookery is now available on Bread & Butter Music.

Stephen Kellogg will be playing the following UK shows with multi-instrumentalist Sam Getz (guitar/steel):
September 24th London, Borderline; 25th Glasgow, Broadcast; 26th Belfast, Black Box; 27th Manchester, Night & Day; 28th Gateshead, The Central.




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