15 Years On From Their Debut, The Band Are Reinterpreting Their Music

1 July 2015 | 2:35 pm | Kane Sutton

"I’m picturing different scenarios, different people, different everything, and it’s totally working.”

More American Football More American Football

It may have been almost ten years after the album was released, but this scribe remembers stumbling across American Football by accident in 2008 at the age of 16 and instantly becoming absorbed by a coming-of-age record that bore all too many relatable lyrics surrounding failed relationships and wistfulness, complete with smooth math-rock tones. American Football played a grand total of 12 shows, all of which took place between 1997 and 2000, with consensus being that their biggest show was performed in front of no more than 40 people.

It was an abrupt end to the group, who decided to split up on graduating from college, never looking back until recently. Vocalist Mike Kinsella insists there was never any regret, with each member going on to work on other projects. “That’s what’s so funny, that this band was the one that turned out known. It’s just, at the time it was cool, we recorded the album, the full-length, the last days me and Steve Holmes, the guitar player, were in town, before we moved away after graduation. It was like, ok, we’re leaving, the band’s gonna break up, let’s just record these songs — a lot of them were half done at the time of going into the studio — let’s just document what we got, and Polyvinyl put them up. We did it just to do it, it wasn’t like it was a band we were trying to do and failed, or ever something we intended to come back to. We put the record out, we never played any shows after the record came out, and then we never looked back until a long time later, and we can really enjoy it now.”

"We never played any shows after the record came out, and then we never looked back until a long time later."

Fast forward to 2014, when the group’s label Polyvinyl reissued the band’s seminal and only self-titled full-length album. “The label, Polyvinyl, it was their idea, and this was before, way before, like a year or two before there was any talk of playing shows or anything, they were just like, ‘This record sells pretty consistently, let’s do a reissue, I think people will like that, do you have any demos or anything?’” 

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

It was a strange feeling for Kinsella, who got to listen to demo recordings the band had made for the first time in years. “It was the guitar player Steve Holmes, a friend of his maybe, who had some cassettes lying around for 15 years, and after asking around, he just dug some up. Some of it you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember that thing!’ or that part, that drum beat, whatever. To be honest, to be very honest, the whole reissue thing, I wasn’t that excited about it. At the time I wasn’t aware that how many people had been doing stuff, so it felt like rehashing shit for the sake of rehashing it. Turns out I was totally wrong; people seem to like it and it’s cool that they like it and, you know, if I like a band I guess I’d like to hear unaltered snippets or the process or whatever. But before I knew people cared, it just seemed like, you know, this band’s been dead for so long… but no, it’s great.”

It wasn’t long after that that the band announced they were playing a show in New York, and another near Chicago. “We had kind of just been saying no for so many years, and for whatever reason, we decided…. One of them was in Champaign where we went to college and where we were originally a band, and there was New York, and we thought, ‘Yeah, this could be fun, maybe we could do this.’ Those two shows sold out in minutes, and all of a sudden it felt incredibly real. We decided that night, let’s play another show, and that one sold out too, so that was the moment where I realised, ‘Oh man, I’ve made a huge mistake. I have to learn how to sing these songs that I physically can’t sing anymore.’ So I’ve been working on that ever since.”

"Those two shows sold out in minutes, and all of a sudden it felt incredibly real."

And so came the process of actually getting the band together again to rehearse for the first time in 15 years. “It was easier than I thought. Me and the guitar player Steve, he lives in the southern suburbs and I live in the city, so we don’t live too far apart, and a couple of weeks later we were like, ‘Let’s get together, you learn what you can and I’ll learn what I can and we’ll see how far we can get.’ He had his original tunings written down, so he had a head start. I had to literally listen to the record and just fooled around with it in whatever tuning I could until it sounded like the part. I didn’t really remember a lot of the parts. So we sat down together and it sounded pretty close. I got my cousin Nate, who does a solo project called Birthmark, we knew we could get him to play bass, and yeah, we started playing the songs.” Needless to say, a few adjustments did have to be made. “I couldn’t hit the notes so we lowered it a half-step, and you know, we got Steve Lamos [drummer] to fly out, and it sounded pretty good pretty quickly. Steve Lamos has been playing consistently with different bands in Colorado since we broke up, so he’s great.”

As Kinsella, guitarist Holmes and Lamos were all in their early 20s and college students when they performed as American Football back in the late ‘90s, there was undoubtedly a bit of uncertainty about how the band would tackle these shows. Do the songs still resonate at all? How does it work? Kinsella admits it was tricky. “I was sort of dreading, like I couldn’t fathom singing these songs about these things that I just can’t relate to any more, but most of it, I mean, there’s a couple of lines where every night I laugh to myself, like, ‘Oh man, this is awful,’ but most of it is kinda cool! I wasn’t aware at the time, but a lot of it is very vague, sort of, so I find myself reinterpreting it to fit into whatever’s going on now, and enjoying it. It’s definitely like, I’m picturing different scenarios, different people, different everything, and it’s totally working.”

"There’s a couple of lines where every night I laugh to myself, like, ‘Oh man, this is awful,’"

Talk naturally progresses towards influences — American Football had a relatively unique sound, despite many groups over the years taking influences from them, and that, in part, is due to the oft-times polarising tastes of the individual members. “Lamos was into a bunch of jazz and it totally comes across with the way he plays and the melody on his trumpet. I was into this band called The Sundays, who had a girl singer, and she has a great voice, and I have whatever the opposite of what a great voice is, but all my inflections were just like, ‘How would Harriet Wheeler sing these songs?’ or like, kind of reaching for it. We were into punk and hardcore, but we were at that age where we were discovering other stuff. There was a bunch of post-rock around Chicago like Tortoise and The Sea & Cake, they were influential, it was like, ‘Oh these guys can play their instruments, we should try do that!’ instead of putting as much energy into something and playing as fast as we can because like, I was in Cap’n Jazz, a rock band or whatever, playing drums and Steve Holmes was in screamo bands who didn’t bother playing well, just jumping into each other. So it was sort of us finding out, figuring out how to play other kinds of music, and we ended up documenting it.”

Kinsella is also playing shows in the country under his Owen moniker, a solo project of his since 2001. He also plays in math rock-influenced Their/There/They’re. He enjoys the different perspectives and emphasises that while it’s easier to draw from your influences when you’re younger, it’s not something he gives much thought to these days. “When I write now, I know what I hear now. I write my own style now. Mostly I’m writing Owen stuff these days, but I’m also [drumming in Their/There/They’re] and the other guys are fantastic — Evan Weiss from Into It. Over It. is playing bass and singing. They’re so good at rockin’, my whole role in the band is just to keep up. There’s definitely math-y elements, but I have less interest in the math stuff, but I think it’s sort of ingrained in me, like I naturally just write parts in five or seven, or  I think it’s cool to play something in half time, whatever. It’s not like I’m trying to do stuff anymore, it’s just what I’m naturally doing and into, and it just comes out. It’s not like I don’t edit myself anymore, but it’s been years since I’ve tried to write a song that sounds like other stuff. I just write whatever comes out.”

American Football is still considered the most influential album in the self-identifying emo genre, to the point where bands explicitly ode to songs like album opener, Never Meant in their own music. Does Kinsella consider there to be a sense of legacy? “I think it’s cool, and I can scoff at it. We never planned to play again so it’s not like we’re accomplishing this thing we set out to accomplish, we’re not high-fiving each other going, ‘We did it!’ It’s just super cool. All these insane things are happening and I can’t wait to tell my kids when they’re older and can appreciate it, you know, telling them I played at the same festival as Metallica and Jane’s Addiction, and there’s kids around the world excited to see my band. It’s all cool. We totally appreciate it.”