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Interview: Stephen Kellogg

Intro: Forget G.I. Joe when looking at this summer’s Real American Hero. Look no further than singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg, who fights villainous poison ivy plants and performs his tunes for soldiers and foreign heads of state alike. Kellogg even takes on bears, at least in metaphorical terms, with his band The Sixers’ new album, The Bear, out September 8th. And when not conquering his ursine foes, Kellogg and The Sixers will tour the country with folk heroine Dar Williams and later Carbon Leaf later this fall. He’s a busy guy, but he still had time to chat up CMP’s Lindsay Eanet about his victory over poison ivy, how to fend from sharks and the stories behind his new album.

Country Music Pride: So Stephen, where are you now?

Stephen Kellogg: We’re in St. Louis today.

CMP: And how do you like the city so far?

SK: I haven’t seen too much outside the Marriott walls. But from previous experiences, I do love St. Louis. It’s a great city.

CMP: You recently had a bout with poison ivy. All recovered?

Yes. I am happily recovered. I got it really bad, I don’t know. Have you had poison ivy recently?

CMP: Nope, thankfully we haven’t.

It’s so worse than I remember it being as a kid. I moved a tree and walked through some of the stuff and figured, ‘When you get it, you get it.’ I happened to catch it when we were overseas and had to get a steroid shot. It was a drag, but I’m all better now.

CMP: Tell us a little bit about your new album, The Bear. What can listeners expect from the new disc?

SK: The Bear is a story about family and life and the highs and the lows of it all. So thematically, they can expect some highs and some lows, you know? Some songs about what it feels like to hurt and some songs about what it feels like to win. Sonically, it’s the “livest”—that’s not a word probably, but I’m making it one—the performances really happened. They’re not put together or a computerized sort of thing. It’s the band playing all together in the studio, which is ironically isn’t how must records are made but that’s how we made this one.

CMP: We hear Kit Karlson plays a mean tuba.

SK: Yes. Kit is a cool tuba guy. But he’s flown with his tuba and checked it, and it looks like a piece of scrap metal now. But it still sounds really cool.

CMP: You say the album is “66 percent autobiographical.” Can you talk a little bit about the storyline?

I’ve always drawn inspiration from things that move me. So there’s always gonna be some of me in every song, because that’s where I’m getting my lyrics from. But sometimes I’m moved by a glimpse into someone else’s life and I throw myself into their world. So the storyline of The Bear is about different people at different stages of their life, but it goes in chronological order. It starts with a young couple having a baby at a really young age and there’s a lot of me in that because I’m sort of in between that right now. Some of it’s really me right now and some of it’s me projecting a little bit and some of it’s me looking back.

CMP: Is “My Old Man” actually about your old man or is it more of a composite?

SK: That one I wrote with Boots and Kit and the three of us wrote that about all of our dads. It’s a composite, but not a broad-based composite. It’s of the fathers in our particular group. But that felt like a fair test for singing about one’s dad.

CMP: One of the highlights of your summer tour was playing for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How did you land that gig and can you comment at all on the experience?

SK: This past spring, we did a month of dates overseas playing military bases in Europe and the Middle East and it’s something we wanted to do for ages. And when we did it, it went so well that they called us and said, ‘We this big 4th of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy and we’d love for you to come out and do it.’ It’s always an honor to be asked back anywhere, but especially for something like this. So we found ourselves on the 4th of July at the Embassy and the Sixers went on and there were fireworks. It was a neat thing to be a part of.

CMP: So is Prime Minister Netanyahu a big fan of your music?

SK: I don’t think so. I think they cut our set a little short because he wanted to see the fireworks. I wouldn’t consider him a fan, but I have no idea what he thinks of our msic. I must be honest, I prefer playing for the military and that particular gig was mostly politicos. There were some nice people there, but I prefer playing for the troops. It’s more fulfilling than playing for dignitaries and that’s not really the scene our music speaks to. But it was still cool to be there.

CMP: Equally as significant, how was recording “Oh Adeline” with the legend himself, former Journey frontman Steve Perry?

SK: Oh my God. Well, I should clarify the version we released doesn’t have any Steve Perry on it but here’s what happened. We’re at this studio in L.A. and this song, “Oh Adeline,” really I wasn’t sure if the first version we cut of it was right. Steve Perry is friends with the guy who’s producing The Bear and he brings Steve in and I’m blown away. And like most people in America, I own Journey’s Greatest Hits and love it. And he comes up with this countermelody and says, ‘Oh you gotta do this.’ So we have this little recording of me and him and the producer, and of course we didn’t end up using it. His part never did get recorded. So all I have is a Dictaphone of me and Steve Perry singing this song. I called my wife later that night and she asked me, ‘Where have you been?’ I was given a solid pass when I told her I’d been working on a song with Steve Perry, for sure.

CMP: Do you think that version will ever be released?

SK: I do. I think they’re going to put it out as a B-Side on Amazon.com. It’s called “Oh Adeline #2” and it will come as a free track with the album.

CMP: Your band formed at UMass Amherst and is a popular “college” band. Tell us a crazy story from your college years.

SK: The band wasn’t together when we were at UMass – we all had different bands – but we were kind of crazy. There’s the romantic Stephen. I would miss my girlfriend so much that I would drive 2 ½ hours to her college and throw pebbles at her window and she’d come downstairs and I’d say hello and then turn around and drive back to go to my 9 o’clock class. It’s embarrassing now, but I did that all the time. Then there’s the guy that drank too much, like the time I got out of Physics and threw up in front of a building in front of about 300 people, which was a humbling reminder you shouldn’t drink too much.

CMP: Your band is oft-referred to as the “SK6ERS,” with the number six. How do you distinguish yourself from other popular bands with numbers in the name?

SK: I’ve never thought about it, so I don’t know, I guess just the fact that we’re different.

CMP: What can folks who come to see your fall tour expect?

SK: I think folks should come with a high expectation and watch us beat it. I think we’ll be putting on a show of rootsy, Americana rock ‘n’ roll music but I think it’s gonna be wrapped in a whole lot of entertainment and fun. The band has a great lineup, we’re invigorated and inspired and it’s going to be a really entertaining, musical sort of show. I hope a lot of folks come out and give it a chance.

CMP: And in honor of your newest album, any advice on dealing with actual bears?

SK: I’m hoping you can give me advice on dealing with actual bears. With sharks, you’re supposed to punch them in the nose, but for bears, I don’t know. You have any advice on dealing with bears, Lindsay?

CMP: I’ve heard you’re supposed to play dead, but I don’t know. I’ve never actually been in a situation where I need to be ready for a bear attack.

SK: If you’re right about that, that you’re supposed to play dead, then we’ve been sending people the wrong message. Our whole album is ‘life is the bear, sometimes it gets you and sometimes you get it.’ But you’ve got to keep moving ahead. And it may call into question that whole thing and really you’re supposed to play dead. Kind of a cool metaphor. Could be interesting.

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