Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers' Intoxicating Energy

Still dedicated to their cause after 5 years together, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, average almost 300 shows annually. Their current tour, “Celebrating 5 Years” consists of over 90 dates nationally and internationally; 2 of those evenings were spent in Chicago at the Subterranean. After a little PG-13 nudity, some insight into their personal lives and a double encore, they proved to be, not only great musicians, but talented performers as well. Kellogg explained that they try to give their fans an entirely unique experience each night but they break a few rules when writing their set list, “We never play a song just because we’re supposed to and this might make me sound like a dick, but because people want to hear it, we try and give people a really honest, real experience and that helps keep it fresh every night.”

And not only do they perform almost nightly, but there’s the time spent pre-show talking to press and post-show signing autographs and greeting loyal fans; it could leave one wondering where this super-trio finds the energy or time to write fresh material. But with a new album, American Standard, set to be released the early part of 2009 its clear they have tapped into their subhuman powers. Stephen Kellogg took a moment on his way to St. Louis, MO to explain, the fears that accompany being on the road for such extended periods of time, the process of producing another set of boldly personal ballads and to clear the record, he claims, “really, no I’m not a pothead. Even though I have a regular arsenal of guys who are like ‘Kellogg you wanna go get baked’ and I appreciate their generosity, but I’m not.”

Stephen (skunk) Kellogg the self-proclaimed “most worthless” member of the band, plays guitar and sings; he’s also the one responsible for the rich dialogue that keeps the crowd entertained between songs. Although not formally considered an instrument, it surely takes some fine-tuning and a great deal of talent to get this one just right. Keith (kit) Karlson plays accordion, bass, tuba and piano while Brian (boots) Factor plays drums, mandolin and banjo. They clearly have more instruments than arms, but don’t expect to see them using looping devices or pre-recorded music. “I’m just playing guitar pretty much, but we switch it up a lot, we switch instruments. The songs, sometimes they sound the way the sound on the record and sometimes we decide to play them in a really different way and that’s just part of it. I think its part of the fun of coming to see our band. You don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s not for everybody but I think its cool.” They give you real music in real time; no bells and whistles, just honesty.

They sing about love and pain with an inspiringly candid expression of fear and doubt; but they paint their narratives on a canvas of hope. Although Stephen, who is married, explains, “those particular fears [of never finding love] are not mine but I have fears that my family will feel that I’ve abandoned them or that I didn’t care. So, I think the way I reconcile that is, that your born with this desire, this predisposition to do this job and if I didn’t go out and play all these shows and do all this stuff I wouldn’t be any good to anybody because its what I do, its what gives me my sense of self. So you have to follow your dream and sometimes life is challenging and that’s one of the challenges that we meet. But it also inspires me to want to do better and better at my job and get to spend more and more time at home and be around them. The better we can do and the more [people] we can connect with in shorter amounts of time then the more time well have to be at home.”

“Its one of the old rock and roll clich├ęs because you dream about doing this when your little. You love playing music and then your lucky enough to do it and make a living doing it; then after a couple of years of doing it, your like wow there’s a price tag on the amount of time you don’t spend on traditional day to day life with the majority of your friends and family.” Kellogg also adds that it’s much easier to trace the lines to connect to your friends and family in a digital world; they are always a phone call or an email away.

But, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers didn’t begin traveling cross-country playing sold out shows to hundreds of enthusiastic fans each night. The group of friends formed the SK6ERS in 2003 to begin what they call, “an adventure without regret.” They started out humbly playing coffee shops and college dives and endured a few unflattering reviews. But in July of 2007 the tides turned when they released their 4th album, “Glassjaw Boxer.” Described as “a letter to the world about family and friendships,” it was hailed as one of the top 5 albums of 2007 by USA Today. They have since shared the stage with an impressive list of peers: Guster, James Brown, Jason Mraz, Kathleen Edwards, Josh Ritter, Ani Difranco and Hanson and their song, “Hearts in Pain” was recently featured on the show “One Tree Hill.”

And although these are the things that make headlines and expose the SK6ERS to the masses they are not necessarily the most fulfilling moments, nor are they the moments that define the band. Kellogg explains the moment he felt most accomplished, it “was when we went into New York on Thanksgiving weekend, we played on my birthday last year and the show was sold out at this room that I had gone to see concerts in when I was a teenager, and there it was sold out, and we ended up playing for two hours. We did four encores…it’s a fairly large venue and we finished not plugged in, acoustic, singing Glass Jaw Boxer. Nobody had left and everybody was sitting there singing the song with us and I just thought, this is what I dreamt about when I was a kid; this is it right here, its just, it made me, I cant remember feeling more proud with what we’ve done with our lives than I did that night.”

In December the SK6ERS will begin a new chapter when they head back to the studio to record “American Standard.” Their previous release “Glassjaw Boxer” may have hints of spontaneous prose, having been recorded in only 9 days. And while Kellogg describes the gratifying effect of producing an album as raw as “Glassjaw Boxer,” he looks forward to the time they will spend on “American Standard.” “On the last record I think we thought it would be really interesting to go out and just make a record really fast and not try to edit it all up and that was an experience, but it was a short one and I think that we’re ready for something pretty different. And we just get so much less time generally speaking to work on the different ways of making records so right now we’re really excited to spend a bit more time making this new record and I think it will be, its like everything we do, we’ve never made a record taking as long as we’re about to take on making this record and that’s exciting to me. Its fun to try new things….I just don’t want to rush it, I think we’ll make a more kick ass record if we just wait and make sure the songs are [ready]. We have some really good songs written and I wanted to write some better ones and I think in waiting we have gotten even stronger material.”

The band has only continued to improve and grow stronger over the past 5 years and although one can only speculate, I believe its safe to say, the SK6ERS have yet to reach their peak. As far as their future, Kellogg remarks, “, its hard to speculate what the future holds I know that our litmus test has always been, are these six months more fun and is the music better than it was six months ago, and are there more people listening to it. As long as these questions all come out in the affirmative, I think we will continue doing what were doing as long as it feels right.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Songs You Own Make Your Heart Beat

Sometimes you have to visit the past to remember why you love music. Why you breathe artistic.... Why that needle hitting that vinyl is your saving grace.... There are a few albums that do that for me. And this is one of them.

Give Up The Ghost's We’re Down Til We’re Underground is the fourth release from the influential Boston hardcore band previously known as American Nightmare. And, simply put, it is mosh worthy with so much finger point action I can barely contain myself.

The album lasts a mere 31minutes, but it is a half hour of genius. Every song serves a purpose. The record begins with an instrumental intro that includes…. an acoustic guitar? in a hardcore album? It continues until singer/songwriter Wes Eisold screams a punkrockesque “1,2,3,4!” and leads the band into the adrenaline-pumping hardcore anthem “Love American.” WDTWU culminates with an outro (similar to the intro), bringing the record full circle. This is uncommon in hardcore albums, but gives the listener a sense of closure, especially since (unfortunately) this was GUTG’s last studio release.

GUTG veers away from traditional hardcore song formulation by stripping down the noise and increasing song length while retaining intensity and abrasiveness. WDTWU is organized musical chaos. The desperation of its words are exemplified in the cavernous bass lines propelled forward by taut drums in “Crimescene”. The guitars frenetically claw to the surface from the deep end, moments away from doom or salvation, screaming for survival in “Since Always.” The songs are frantic and fraught but refuse to surrender. WDTWU showcases the maturity of the band with its polished and cleaned-up tracks. It allows for the star of the album to shine through: the lyrics.

Lyrically, Eisold surpasses himself and has created material for the tattoos of many generations to come. His phrasing is simple yet poignant, independent yet needy, cold yet vulnerable. You scream along in “Bluem” as he confesses “My head is red, my bones black and blue. Fever burns; choke on words at the thought of you.” You feel his frustration as he cries “My legs barely hold all of my heart and soul” in “AEIOU.”

This is an album for kids with broken hearts who know themselves too well for their own good. For the kids who love Salinger. For the kids obsessed with metaphors, similes, and allegories. Vocally, Eisold says it best “We Killed It” “[his] voice isn’t great, but at least it’s sincere.” Eisold screams with a passion rivaled by none and gets his point across clearly: I hurt, this sucks, and I hate you.

Since the release of the album that holds my candy heart, Eisold has started the bands XO Skeletons and Some Girls. Additionally, Eisold has opened his old publishing company Heartworm Press and releases not only his works but the works of other amazing artist. All are worth looking into.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Two-Part Evening with Rachael Yamagata

Pt. 1: Riddle Me This (The Interview)

Rachael Yamagata emerged on the music scene as the vocalist for the funk fusion band Bumpus, in Chicago, IL. She spent 6 years with the band and recorded 3 albums but in 2001 left the band to pursue a solo career. It wasn’t long after this that she received a two record deal with Arista. With the release of her second album Elephant….Teeth Sinking Into Heart less than a week away this self-taught pianist stopped by Chicago for a few shows. Between performing and teasing her brain with riddles, I was lucky enough to spend some time with her, talking about her new record ETSIH.

You may remember her as the shamefully honest artist who spoke nakedly about love on her first album, Happenstance. And if you don’t know her by name, you probably know her by the sound of her tune. Her songs have appeared on the OC, the L Word, One Tree Hill and in an impressive list of films, including, Elizabethtown and the Last Kiss. She has collaborated with a slew of other musicians including, Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, Rhett Miller, Jason Mraz and plenty of others. As the list continues to grow, she says she would, “love to have the opportunity to somehow work with Bruce Springsteen someday. I think he’s a fabulous everything. David Bowie, Tom Waits, Babs (Barbra Streisand). She would never do it but I love her to death; I worship her.” And the two I was most surprised to hear make the list, Jay Z and Kanye West. “Kanye would be insane. It would be amazing. I would love it.” Her upcoming release features appearances by Ray Lamontagne, Maria Taylor, and Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine.

Elephants….Teeth Sinking Into Heart is a slightly unconventional record: it is an album in two parts. When asked the obvious question of why she made this two part decision, Yamagata responded, it was a “totally unplanned, yet organically formed concept that happened very near late mixing stages of the record…and it started to take shape literally during mixing and it was a while after that, that I got the right sequence that I felt worked. But it just kind of came about that way; it wasn’t planned.” She says, the “two halves present a complete timeline of the emotions that revolve complicated relationships and the accompanying fallout.” Elephants is “taking a risk even if its not going to end well [and Teeth Sinking Into Heart] is rediscovering your backbone.”

Rachael recently celebrated her 31st birthday and she gained more than just another year. She accumulated that much more love, maturity and experience to purge into ETSIH. Once released, it will have been almost 4 years since the release of her first album and you will find a level of maturity not found on Happenstance. “The ballads got darker and more lush and the lyrics were kind of poetic so we could go the distance with cinematic production and the guitar driven songs are kind of a new territory for me in terms of putting them on a record…but because they were up-tempo and it seemed like it was a grittier lyric more kind of defiant and anthemic…it felt like it deserved kind of a gutsier more raw in your face production as well.”

In the title track of Elephants, she contemplates the animalistic relationship between humans and love, “you can flee with your wounds just in time or lie there as he feeds/watching yourself ripped to shreds and laughing as you bleed/so for those of you falling in love/keep it kind/keep it good/keep it right/throw yourself in the midst of danger but keep one eye open at night.”

While on the second half of the album, in ‘Sidedish Friend,’ she presents courage and its clear she’s not obsessed with the anguish that love might inevitably bring; she sings, “we can stay together till the very end of time/if its understood/I don’t want you hanging out with me/but I want you when I call/we stay together separately/and we wont be lonely at all.”

With Happenstance she found her voice; with ETSIH she refined it. “Its darker than Happenstance. Happenstance has kind of a mixture of things [where you] can be communal with your friends and talk about the songs. And I almost feel like Elephants goes even darker to the point where you don’t really want anyone to invade your space when you’re dealing with it. I think it would be kind of a cool listening experience, only speaking because I’ve done it, headphones, by yourself, once a year.” But, it’s highly unlikely that a singular listening session will be possible; the sounds are too sweet, too elegant, and too gorgeous to only be enjoyed annually.

ETSIH is more robust and composed than previous releases. Rachael naturally went to extremes on this record, “the first side is a very personal, intimate, kind of solo experience. Its not background party music by any means. But its maybe the headphones, rainstorm, your walking by yourself contemplating something your going through experience. I think that’s how it would be very magical. The second half feels more collaborative if you’re sharing it with other people. Driving in your car with a bunch of friends. It feels like it invites rallying of sorts. The first one is so tender in a way.”

She calls her songs “autobiographical interpretative. They are not always me as the central character even if I make myself the central character in the song. In terms of personal experience inspiring each one, they do, but its sometimes my personal observation of something or a close friend or several relationships rolled right into one song coming from my point of view.” But Rachael is not exclusively inspired by relationships and love. Apparently, ghosts can be just as helpful as a broken heart when composing music. The studio in the mountains where Yamagata and her band spent their time recording ETSIH was believed to be haunted. “A lot of the guys in the band, who were staying in this house that was a part of the studio area. When they would do laundry, their clothes would be piled up on the washer then when they would come back, they would literally be curled up into balls and thrown into different corners of the room. Our drummer woke up wearing sunglasses the first morning he was there and he had not unpacked. His sunglasses were in his bag…’Over and Over’ is actually a song that I did kind of inspired by what I thought was a ghost playing trumpet. I heard this trumpet horn in the studio in the middle of the night. So I sat down and traced it on the piano and that became the instrumental part on ‘Over and Over.’ So just random things, but absolutely haunted.”

Unsurprisingly, Rachael believes in ghosts and admits prayer is not one of her nightly pre-show rituals but you may be amazed to hear she’s “extremely and totally, absolutely” stage fright. “I kind of try to forget that I’m performing them live. It’s a real delicate balance of not psyching yourself out in those respects but that’s why I have a drink every now and then.”

Pt. 2: Conversations and Love Songs

The show opened with singer songwriter Kevin Devine from Brooklyn, NY. His songs are stories backed by guitar and set to tune; it was a conversational performance. In ‘Love Me I’m A Liberal’ he openly sings about his democratic party affiliation, “oh I cant get enough of Obama/his message of change speaks to me/sure Naders right about most things but he caused Gore that election you see/so love me love me love me I’m a liberal”. In his Concrete Blond cover, Joey, he sings softly about love, “oh Joey if you hurting so am I/and if I seem to be confused/I didn’t mean to be with you and when you said I scare you well I guess you scare me too/but we got lucky once before and I don’t wanna close the door/so if your somewhere out there passed out on the floor/oh Joey/I’m not angry anymore.” Varying the distance from mouth to microphone, he exhibits complete control over his vocal range. It’s the sort of music that might be enjoyed while tangeled up in a lover or at a Palin protest rally.

Yamagata’s performance was equally as conversational. When I met with her earlier in the night she was drinking whiskey, pineapple and honey as a soothing remedy for her sore throat; it became immediately apparent as she stepped onto stage, she had consumed a few more whiskey’s (sans pineapple and honey) since I had spoken with her hours ago. She admitted to being “totally drunk” multiple times throughout the night. And although I have nothing to juxtapose the evenings performance with, the alcohol seemed to positively affect every ounce of the show. Although she claims to be stage fright, it was not obvious in her demeanor. She alternated between playing piano and guitar while presenting the audience with works from ETSIH and Happenstance.

She entertained by speaking uncensored about love, having conversations with the crowd and freestying on her piano. When a man named Dean called out for her to stop telling stories and play a song, she retorted with, “come up here and I’ll give you a kiss.” And instead of playing a classic, Dean became the character of her affection. She remained playful while reminding the audience, this was her show. She gave some attendees’ hugs and kisses and joked about being single because she always misinterprets what guys say; during her hour and a half set she was witty, charismatic and an explosion of emotions. Seating less than 330 at a sold out show, it was a uniquely intimate experience that is often lost when the crowd gets any larger. If doubt existed, Yamagata proved herself as a musician as well as a performer.

photos courtsey of Jim Kopeny at