The Unapologetic Apology of Stephen Kellogg: "The Last Man Standing"
This past May, in advance of his new concept album South, West, North, East, Stephen Kellogg played shows in Boston, New York, and Chicago, made up of "just songs [he'd] never played off an album that [wasn’t] out yet." Kellogg had already recorded the album, but following the three nights of shows, he still felt there was “something critical missing from the collection." On July 3 — two days before the album was being sent in for mastering — Kellogg recorded a song to fill that nagging void.
Whatever he recorded that night never made the album.
But on the drive home from the futile session, the words to “Last Man Standing” came, and Kellogg called his friend Ian McHugh to tell him, “If we can get this, I gotta sing it right now.” Armed with one microphone and a 12-pack of beer, the duo worked for the next 36 hours, and came out with the low-fi thesis statement of the new album.
“'Last Man Standing' is what I was trying to get to," says Kellogg. "It’s a song that is truly hopeful, a song that is unapologetically raw and fucked up, and [a song] that we clearly shouldn’t have been playing drums on,” says Kellogg. “But we did it, and that’s how I think about my career. It’s like, ‘I’m still here.’ The hurricane has gone by, and here’s the sunrise again. Thank goodness.”
For the first release off the album, Kellogg chose “Last Man Standing,” not because it's the catchiest song of the album's twenty tracks, but because it’s “the song that’s most indicative of what’s about to happen."
What’s about to happen — what already is happening — is largely unchartered, even for the well-seasoned Kellogg.
As a concept, South, West, North, East was meant to be ambitious: Kellogg decided to record each part of the album in a different part of the country with different producers and musicians, leaning on different regional influences. The project was crowd-funded on PledgeMusic, Kellogg’s first self-release in over a decade, his second solo album since the breakup of his band the Sixers in 2012. Over the process of recording, Kellogg circled Nashville, TN, Boulder, CO, Woodstock, NY and Washington, D.C., resulting in a compartmentalized work that’s a meld of smooth Southern slides, chunky Telecasters, sweetly sung Americana, melodic indie-folk, and Kellogg's version of pop, which his pop musician friends call “such cool roots music."
“My records have never been that cohesive," he says, "but I can make a Southern rock record and the pop stuff on East unapologetically at least one more time if I announce to the world that that's what I'm doing."
With his ambition on record, Kellogg and his team felt the need for a succinct explanation of what this project was, and per the suggestion of O.A.R.’s Marc Roberge, they hired filmmaker Peter Harding to make a two-minute promo video.
In the spring, Kellogg and Harding spent 72 hours together between Boston, New York, and Kellogg's Connecticut home. Kellogg expected the promo video shortly thereafter, but Harding kept asking for a little more time, a little more time.
“It still wasn’t done in my mind,” says Harding. “I wanted to build something more out of it.”
Harding was only getting paid for the two-minute promo, but sent Kellogg a 16-minute short film. In Stephen Kellogg, Harding found a story he didn't originally anticipate, and the film spiraled into a passion project, despite Harding never having heard Kellogg’s music before agreeing to shoot the promo. Still, there remained a need for the promotional video, so Harding cut a two-minute trailer out of the 16-minute film, and two screenings of the extended cut — Last Man Standing: The Story of South, West, North East — were scheduled.
Two-and-a-half weeks prior to the first screening, however, Kellogg got a phone call from Harding, who said he had good news and bad news.
The bad news: his apartment had been broken into the day before, and nearly all of his cameras, computers, and hard drives were stolen.
The good news: the sole-remaining hard drive had the raw footage of the film.
"I wasn't worried about the cameras or TV, but I knew that project wasn't backed up properly,” recalls Harding. “I was so grateful the raw footage was there, and I looked at it as a chance to start from scratch and retell this story.”
Citing Wilco’s documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (which tells the story of how Wilco was paid by Warner Music Group twice for their classic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), Harding says that he “loved making this movie so much that [he] made it twice.”
“The first telling was all Stephen's voice: it was his interviews, his music, his singing,” says Harding. “He's very well respected, and I really wanted to get that to come out for those of us, including myself, who weren't aware of his mastery of song. I went to some of his colleagues and got them to speak on Stephen, and they had a lot to contribute. They helped tell his story.”
Harding worked from the day of the robbery until 1 a.m. the day of the New York City screening, and when the film began to play that afternoon, Kellogg still hadn't seen it.
Three days later, in Northampton, Massachusetts — the day of our interview — the film had been recut again, the changes coming at Kellogg in real time, as he sat in the sparse screening room amongst the audience, drinking tea and watching the documentary he never knew was going to be made, even as they filmed.
That version of the film (it has been recut again since) was 35+ minutes, a more fully realized investigation of the singer-songwriter Harding had previously only heard about in passing, but of whom he speaks with obvious admiration.
"For me and for what I do, this was just pure fun," Harding says. "I wasn't hired to make [a film] and I wasn't a fan of his before. I do what I do cause I love this process of telling a story, [and this] was just cool and cinematic, it had such a vibe. As a filmmaker, something spoke to me. It was just like, ‘Let’s have fun here. Let’s let this breathe.’”
True to its initial aim, the film is a "making-of" story, where Harding scans the track list of South, West, North, East and uses his interviews with Kellogg to explain each song's conception and meaning, giving a behind-the-scenes look at how Kellogg's musical geography came to be. In that way, the film is round, not originating out of a specific plot or tension -- something of an indie VH1 Storytellers. It focuses on a man and his craft, where “the other characters are his songs and his lyrics,” says Harding.
“I got the final mixes [of South, West, North, East], I started dropping it into the footage we shot, and the lyrics just popped out with the visuals in a very organic way."
But while the “making-of” is a feature of the film, it isn't the entirety of it: from the first shot, where Kellogg flips through handwritten postcards for his daughters and drops them into a mailbox outside of a lifeless Post Office in the middle of anywhere (he jokes that the postcards will be something to prove he was making an effort when his daughters are eventually in therapy), Last Man Standing is a sweeping tour of Kellogg’s life, where Harding captures the totality of an artist in process — who he was and where he's been, what pushes him to the road, and what pulls him from it. It’s a snapshot of Kellogg 15 years into his professional music career, but it also tracks how he got there, and why he’ll continue to remain.
"Filming his family wasn't part of the plan, but for budgetary reasons, we stayed at his house to save money. I was there, and I saw the interaction, and he was cool enough to let me film it and trust in me that I was going to represent it in a good light," says Harding. "He's definitely a family man, that's part of his story, and the lyrics really popped out when I got to dive into his life for a few days and see his home, see his family, and see the road."
Last Man Standing is the romance of the road meeting the reality of it, which is the truth of Kellogg's career. Harding brings that to the forefront by using home movies to travel back in time, blending them with the voices of family and other musicians in interviews and testimonials. Like rock and roll's Ken Burns, he gives life to still photos as they pass by in succession, and he borrows Kellogg’s handheld tour of the studio to illuminate the building blocks of Kellogg's sonic tour of America. There are shots from the crowd and live performances, fan videos that get to the heart of who Kellogg is on stage, and what that means to his audience.
In an early scene, a teenage Kellogg in an oversized flannel and backwards hat says he plans on making a living out of music, that he and his band are "gonna start playing places and writing better songs." Some fifteen hundred shows later, Kellogg is a shadowed profile in the front seat of his van, pouring down a nameless interstate in some midnight hour, speaking frankly with his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head: he says that he's "utterly compelled" to make music, that any time he's tried to step away from it, he feels like he's selling himself out.
Marc Roberge, Serena Ryder, and Josh Ritter punctuate these different versions of Kellogg with praise for their friend and fellow songwriter. Roberge calls him "an artist's artist" and "one of [his] favorite lyricists in the world"; Ryder says Kellogg uses his talent "not to get forward, but to connect," and that he writes, "the most honest music [she's] ever listened to in [her] life."
"Stephen's music reminds me I'm supposed to find excitement and joy, and if I don't, I have to keep looking," says Ritter.
For all the praise, however, there's still a sense that Kellogg is an artist whose talent hasn’t always translated into recognition, and thus, the film is an admittedly vulnerable look at its protagonist.
But Kellogg is the source from which the story derives its strength, the reason that Harding's film allies with the conception of its titular song, which Harding calls "serendipitous."
"It's almost like he wrote 'Last Man Standing' for the film, even though he hadn't seen it yet," says Harding. "It was a perfect fit: he's been through a lot on his journey, and he's still standing very proudly."
"[Stephen] has no boundary when it comes to expressing himself," says Roberge. "When he's writing something, I don't think he's thinking 'Wow, this is really going to expose me, so I'm not going to write it.'"
Whether it's flattering or not, Kellogg prefers the truth, and South, West, North, East lives in that honesty. Even for the ever-introspective Kellogg, this album is raw and self-aware, lyrically potent on top of its genre-bending track list. It's a shift from earlier perspectives on his life. He turns away from the songs of falling in love and fidelity on the road, now taking inventory of the events of the last few years — the breakup of his band, a career that takes him away from a growing family, not playing the Beacon Theater by the time he was 30.
"Making your peace with [certain dreams not coming true], that's what's going on for me," says Kellogg. "Did I do something wrong that my band of brothers that stayed together for a decade went away? Did I fuck that up or is the just life doing what life does? And if I did fuck that up, is that okay? How do you deal with that? And with my first-born daughter, was I gone too much? Did I raise my voice too much?"
Kellogg ruminates on these questions in songs like "Open Heart," "Rich Man,” “Those Kids," and "We Say Goodbye." He owns potential mistakes and shortcomings, and celebrates the victories that have allowed him to make a living at music. In person or on the record, Kellogg is in a place of contentment, after spending two years afraid that his best work is behind him. With this album, and his previous Blunderstone Rookery, he's come to know that he "may do things as good or better moving forward," and it's because of this record that Kellogg says he can talk about these things, that he "finally feels okay with [the breakup of the Sixers]."
"I can't take anything back, I have to look at everything that is as it is, and then go 'Am I gonna sink into a dark place over mistakes that I made or am I gonna find a way to make peace with it?' I need to make peace with it, because I don't want to live the next 30-40 years with regrets. I don't want to beat myself up. I don't think any of us should. We shouldn't do that to ourselves because life is going to kick our ass anyways."
Of course, Kellogg is not on his own: as with each part of the new album, there’s a rotating backing band, the SouthWestNorthEast, which changes on each leg of the tour. Currently, the group is made up of Sam "Steamer" Getz and Brian "Boots" Factor, formerly of the Sixers, Zachariah Hickman from Josh Ritter's Royal City Band and Barnstar!, and Miranda Mullholand from the Great Lake Swimmers.
Despite changing regional backdrops, film screenings, and a revolving door of sidemen, this not a new Stephen Kellogg, just a new approach to Stephen Kellogg: the things fans have always loved about him — his ease of expression, the simple affirming power of his strums, his revelry in admitting imperfection, his quick wit and candid banter — remain. He still sings songs about his heart, despite his acknowledgement of overuse ("it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I sing it right," he says), and he is still a quote machine, even in between bites of taco before the screening. In conversation, without any effort, he uses stories about Mozart, metaphors about former lovers and harvesting seeds, and phrases like "indelibly printed on my heart.”
Thanks to a multimedia project that was both precisely planned and entirely unintentional, Stephen Kellogg lets an audience in, perhaps more than ever before, stamping the work with characteristic authenticity. The film is a new medium, a creative endeavor that belongs more to Harding than Kellogg, which could be unsettling, if it wasn't for the way his music persists. There's self-assurance about who's on screen. As an artist and indivdual, Kellogg knows who he is, especially after sampling four genres, and South, West, North, East is a vehicle into that, an album that resounds because of it.
“I don't try to filter things. If I disagree with something, I also try to look at it and ask 'Is there some truth to what's being said?,'" says Kellogg. "There are some really bad reviews of me, and usually they're dead on. They're like 'He's got a one octave range.' Yup. That sounds like me. 'It's too sentimental.' Yeah, okay, guilty. I get it. If that bothers you, you're not going to like what I do."
"Last Man Standing" -- Kellogg's 11th hour anthem and the album's finale -- is unadulterated and unstylized, existing as purely as any Kellogg song ever has. The loop around the country builds to the song, which feels free from concept, a statisfying end to a journey ambitious in scope. It's the title of a film Peter Harding calls "special," and captures the reality of a dream realized. It invokes the Glassjaw Boxer, but with a veteran’s steadfast knowledge.
“['Last Man Standing'] is me being completely me," Kellogg says. "I’m all over the map, but it ends with ‘I’m still here, even though I kinda dodged a bullet just to get be a professional musician right now.'”
Kellogg is still here: he's still a songwriter to be reckoned with, still a generational-type talent, still a voice compelled to shout and sing and celebrate.
Stephen Kellogg is still standing, where lesser men would fall.