Look no further than the title track of their new Vanguard debut album The Bear to understand Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers. As the band sings passionately, "Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. Sometimes you´re gonna win, sometimes you´re gonna lose…but you know in the end – there´s no apologies!"
"SK6ERS," as they´re also affectionately known, have carved a determined, inspiring path since forming in Western Massachusetts in 2003. An exceptional live act given to high-energy showmanship, The Sixers are closing in on their 1000th show with a newfound grit and gratitude. Stephen and core Sixers – Kit "Goose" Karlson (keys, bass, tuba, accordion) and Brian "Boots" Factor (drums, mandolin, banjo) -- are friends who act like brothers and switch off on their instruments to keep it fresh; much in the tradition of their collective heroes, The Band. "We´ve all opted to approach our life in the same way – trying to put integrity ahead of ambitions of fame and fortune, though we´d like that too... at least the fortune part," Stephen says with a laugh.
Many bands talk about "keeping it real," but in The Sixers´ case, they mean it. "We´re not up there projecting a personality we can´t believe in. I think it´s important to go with the feel of each moment and take chances. If that means we get out of synch or sing out of key once in a while, so be it. The crags are cool because they´re interesting."
That explains why producer Tom Schick (Norah Jones, Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright) signed up for the new record. "Each person in The Sixers really adds a lot," he says. "They´re so locked in with each other. Stephen is definitely the leader of the gang, but everybody has their say," he adds of the roles played by Boots Factor and Kit Karlson. "They rise and fall together. It´s amazing to watch them work."
Schick now understands why the group has a growing legion of loyal fans. "They´re a ‘classic rock´ band in the best sense of the phrase," he says. "You can hear Neil Young, Tom Petty and John Cougar in there. It brings back a lot of good feelings about growing up and listening to great people who can really play their instruments. It´s not pieced together on a computer. It´s very refreshing."
The Bear is their rawest and most collaborative album yet. With alternating tracks between producers Tom Schick and Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Erin McKeown) the album was recorded in an apartment studio in NYC and a big old house in Maine respectively. The duality of these settings fits perfectly with Kellogg´s description of his family upbringing as, "aristocrats and farmers." Ditto the musical diet he was raised on, a strange bedfellow mix of his dad´s 70´s records and his sister´s taking him to 80´s metal concerts. Kellogg explains, "I´m as much a product of Whitesnake as I am of Jackson Browne. The beauty of The Sixers is that they don´t have a problem with that."
Out of that deep understanding of each other, several of the new songs were co-written by the group including "My Old Man," an aching personal track about an aging father; "Dying Wish of a Teenager," a song about wrestling hopelessness; "The Bear" and "Do," both brighter tracks about making it through life amidst the highs and lows that exist for everyone. It all builds up to the climactic "Born in the Spring," a song about rebirth from the "what-fors, flames and trap doors through which all of us fell.´´ The album is a heartfelt odyssey that also rocks with an explosive touch at times, as the band continues to push the boundaries of what they´ve done before. Of the recording process itself, Boots elaborates, "Most of the record was recorded in a room with us spilling all the guts we could muster into the mics. It wasn´t always pretty but that´s... well that´s the bear."
Other stand out collaborations comes in the form of those who lent their time and talents to the making of The Bear. Canadian stand out Serena Ryder on "See Yourself," Josh Ritter on "All Part of the Show," label mates The Alternate Routes and Whiskeytown alumnus Mike Daly. Also appearing on guitar and pedal steel is the newest Sixer, Sam Getz, who joins the touring line up in the Fall of 2009.
Having released four independent records as a solo artist, Stephen formed the band in Northampton, MA after meeting Kit and Boots at UMass – Amherst, looking not just for talented musicians, but for true comrades. "I used to play 60 songs a night at this steakhouse. I was supposed to play only covers, but I would slide my own material in by introducing it as ´an old Jefferson Airplane B-side´ or something. The guys brought me out of that and into the realm of making records and touring the whole country over the course of one great year. "
The skill and camaraderie of the band, along with its growing popularity, was noted by the major label Universal Records, which signed them off of their 2004 debut album, Bulletproof Heart. Says an animated Kit Karlson: "The fact that we got signed to a major label was surreal. We had said if we ever got signed we would go skydiving because that meant anything was possible. Next thing we knew we were jumping out of a plane together. Needless to say, since then we don´t make deals with ourselves too lightly."
After the eponymous release in 2005 and several hundred shows (the band changes it´s setlist every night) the Sixers issued Glassjaw Boxer (Everfine Records, owned by rock tour buddies O.A.R.) and saw it make the ‘Top Five of the year´ list by USA Today critic Brian Mansfield. They accepted an invitation to tour military bases this past spring in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Germany (with Sugarland) and NATO bases in England and the Netherlands. "We wanted to give back in the way we know how, which is playing music," Kellogg told CNN. "It was just an honor to get to say hello to those folks." Most recently, The Sixers played for the American Embassy in Israel as part of a July 4th celebration.
These days, Kellogg and his wife (his high school sweetheart) have two daughters and live just outside of New York City. Growing up and in step with his fellow band mates, The Bear looks at generations from two sides, both the vantage point of the child and the adult. Although The Bear is not a concept record, there is a conscious time line that the characters on the record follow and Kellogg even goes so far as to say that it´s "66 percent autobiographical." Of course, he will only elaborate on it a little, "If I explained the entire story to you, it wouldn´t be as fun to dive in and figure it out for yourself", he says grinning. "I´m sorry, but I just can´t take apart every aspect of the music without taking something out of the soul of it... you´ll have to experience it yourself and find meaning there."
No apologies needed.