American Football // Steve Lamos

21 March 2019 | 3:49 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

"We all sat down and said "if this is the last thing that we do, let's make it exactly what we want it to be." -Steve Lamos.

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A published author, a professor at the University of Colorado, and the drummer/trumpet player for American Football? Geez, is there anything that Steve Lamos cannot do? Well, probably. Yet the percussionist and trumpet player for the math-rock/emo legends puts his musical all into what could end up being the very last American Football record. Because when it comes to the Mid-west American outfit, nothing is completely for sure.

As Steve himself tells me, there was never a reason for them to do the second American Football album (LP2) back in 2016, 17 years after the release of their 1999 landmark debut LP that made them a house-hold name. So if the ethereal, atmospheric and shoegaze styles of LP3 come to be their last hurrah, then the four-piece will go out knowing they poured everything in; bowing out knowing that there's nothing they'd wish to change after the fact. Of course, if it's not their last album (fingers crossed), then it's yet another lush, dense and wonderful body of odd-time work from one of the most important bands in this twinkling, emo-jazz scene. 

Steve, it sounds to me that with LP3, yourself and the rest of American Football had a longer, more creative and perhaps more enjoyable process making this album as opposed to LP2. Which in all honestly, I wasn't that into; it feeling more like LP1 than something fresh.  

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[Laughs] Alex, I like that honesty, my man! That's great. Of course, I love LP2 myself but I do hear what you're saying: there is a different vibe on this one. There's a slightly different direction on it. I'm glad it was agreeable to you.

I think the album cover reflect the tone of each release. The cover for LP2 was from inside the same house as LP1, which was reflected in both albums feeling and sounding the same at times. Whereas LP3 has this moodier quality to it; the cool fog of an early morning. Which shows in the more atmospheric, shoegaze elements.  

Yeah, I think there is a coincidence aspect to it all. Chris Strong has done all of our artwork for the last 20 years, and we asked him to shoot some different things; just whatever caught his fancy. He went back to the same town, to the same rural area where that house is still at today [Urbana, Illinois], and he shot all kinds of stuff. That front cover really grabbed all of us, actually for all of the reasons that you just said. It's a little airier, more spaced out, and it fits the vibe of the record as it evolved. It made a lot of sense for us to go with that image.

That's cool! I love it when the music and the album art aren't disjointed, when they play off one another. 

Thank you! I agree with you. Sometimes album art today is just a function of "okay, well this has to get done", and I think in this case, it captured a certain mood that we were going for sonically. Chris really gets what's going on and he's also really integral to us. So I really appreciate you picking up on that.

Steve, what strikes me about this record is the guest features. Now, I can see how Rachel Goswell from Slowdive can work for American Football, but Hayley Williams of Paramore? When I saw that, I was like "Okay, sure, I'm on-board!" How did these collabs come together?

The only person that I have personally met out of those three is Elizabeth Powell [who guests on 'Every Wave to Ever Rise'], as she plays in this great indie band from Canada called Land Of Talk. We played with them on a stretch of shows once, and she's awesome, her band is awesome, and she's an amazing singer. We loved hanging out and she seemed like an obvious person to work with. Mike [Kinsella, guitar/vocals] knew Hayley or had some connection to her and went out on  a limb to get her on-board and try. As for Rachel, of course, we all knew from Slowdive back in the first iteration of this band. That one really was a shot in the dark. We just sent her the song and she happily said yes. We had some really good luck there, and I'm so happy with having all three of them on the album. They're all so cool!

Interesting! So in only personally knowing Elizabeth, when you first heard Hayley and Rachel's vocals on the songs when getting their parts back, what was your first take-away from hearing them sing in the realm of an American Football song? Personally, these three songs are some of my favourites from the new album too. 

Oh they sounded so good! They both brought different inflections to our sound. Hayley has some real studio background as she's a Nashville musician, and it was all so... pro, when I first heard it. The same goes for Rachel, which is actually one of my favourite songs ['I Can't Feel You'.] I just love that track, it was so special. I didn't know what to expect at first but they all blew me away. As for Elizabeth, when we were first recording it, I just kinda thought "whatever"; I was interested to see what it would turn out to be. And then when I heard the final version, with her vocal feature? I was so pleased! All three turned out so well. They all exceeded my expectations.

That's great to hear. Another two of my faves are 'Silhouettes', but also the final song, 'Life Support'. They're both big stand-outs for me. 

Oh, you like 'Life Support'? That's so interesting. Cause I didn't get it at first. When I first tracked the drums for that one, I didn't like what I was playing, and I thought "Oh boy, I hope this will make the cut". But when I heard it all finished, I finally got it. It was a real treat to be apart of that, to see it evolve into what it is now on the album.

I love that honesty, that at first you didn't like the song but once the final vision was revealed, you had that "a-ha!" moment. I think that's really interesting.

Yeah! I mean, we've known each other for so long, so I think there's a certain level of trust at play. To make this work, there's a certain level of trust from me to let the other guys make the songs what they need to be and how they need to sound. A lot of this stuff gets written differently now, too. We're sharing files back and forth and we kick around parts, then go to the studio to record. Sometimes there's a complete whole and other times not so much, so we get really into that production area then. But man, once Mike put his vocals on that track, it finally made sense to me. It's something!

2019 marks 20 years since LP1 came out. And what's interesting to me about this new American Football record is that if it was any other band that came out of the scene you were apart of - Tiny Moving Parts, Tangled Hair, This Town Needs Guns (all good bands) - and  they were releasing this album, it wouldn't be perceived the same. But because it's American Football, with your legacy, it's viewed differently.  

Thank you for saying that! Maybe we have earned that? We just wanted to do something that felt true to what we now wanted to do musically. We didn't originally set out to make a shoegaze record, but I do think we all sat down and said "if this is the last thing that we do, let's make it exactly what we want it to be". To make sure that when we turn in the damn thing, it's exactly what we want it to be. Nate [Kinsella, bass] and Mike spent so long really polishing every little detail. That way, as we're all middle-aged, if this is it, then at least we're going out how we want.

That even came down to choosing the singles. 'Silhouettes' is like, what, nearly eight minutes? From a record perspective, that's a stupid decision [laughs]. We were so insistent about it though, and I'm glad we did it that way. It's saying "hey, this is what this will be". If you want to come on-board, great, and if not, then that's on us. I'm really happy with that, just to have that 20 year track-record, to even earn the right to do it how we want to now.

For sure. You want to create an authentic release of where you're at, not re-do what was happening back two decades ago. Because if you write and create something that's honest, then who cares if someone doesn't like it? 

That's exactly right! And I think your comments about LP2 do have value, but that album was also where we were at that time in our band. It's what we had to make, at tat time. There are certain things that we would've done differently now, but I'm still proud of it. Cause there was no reason for us to do another record, so LP2 was another necessary step forward towards LP3. I don't think anyone of us is feeling "oh we should've done this"; we're all happy with it. So, I do take seriously about what you say about that honesty, as we aren't trying to reach a certain market. This is just what we're doing. It's empowering for us to say that at our age, anyone of these records could be the final one so why not!?

Well said, Steve. As final as that all sounds, that removal of any walls and barriers is great to hear. Like, sure, why not open your record with a seven and a half minute shoegaze/emo track? [Laughs]

[Laughs] And I think the only dumber way to open a record than that, is to put another eight minute song following it. We just wanted to make this big, odd-time assault, and the shorter songs follow that. It's a funny move, if nothing else, between those songs and us just calling this album 'American Football' yet again. I love that, anyway.

The album naming always reminded of some Billy Talent records or Led Zeppelin's albums.

Yes! I've joked about that heaps before too. Like it being some old Van Halen or Zeppelin albums. We'll just gonna keep being obnoxious about it.

As you do both drum and trumpet duties, and as we get two noticeable trumpet parts on this new record, will there always be horns from you on American Football albums? It's such a core element in my mind. 

I mostly have a love-hate relationship with that instrument. But mostly a hate one with the trumpet. It's a cruel instrument. I didn't play much trumpet during that long hiatus, but I definitely drummed quite a bit. It can just take a long time to get anything back from it. But at this point, it's a big voice in our band. Even live, I do a particular solo moment, a particular melody that bridges one song to the next, and I think it serves a purpose that way. Even on the song with Hayley, Uncomfortably Numb, there's horn in the background, almost deliberately. I wanted to do that melody that she was singing, as I heard that before there was even any vocals. I was watching Twin Peaks around that time, and I liked the way that that Julee Cruise woman did these cool, airy figures in the Twin Peaks songs. So I just wanted that melody in there, and they ended up using it. The other song, 'Doom in Full Bloom', is way more of a traditional American Football trumpet part. The long answer to a short question, yes, it serves it's purpose. But I'm not a trumpet player; I'm an ex-trumpet player who taught himself drums who now has to play the trumpet every once and a while.

[Laughs] Well, it works. I don't think many drummers have that duality between a rhythmic instrument and a melodic instrument, where they both inform one another; when writing, recording, and also playing live. 

Oh, I appreciate that so much. Thank you. See, my drum technique itself is atrocious, and I think that's always what real drummers say to me: how my posture is wrong, my grip is wrong, my rudiments are weird. Just basically asking me how do I even play!? [Laughs]. If nothing else, learning something like the trumpet, and even the violin as a kid - these single-note, melodic instruments - there's something about that that's all filtered into the drums. If there's a way for me to be "melodic" on the drums, then I'll try that. As I'm not a drummer in the traditional way, it holds me back in some ways but also allows me to do other things too.

That actually makes a lot of sense about American Football's music, your performances especially. That's a revelation for me!

Different traditions have different methods. I'd only been playing drums for a couple of years by the time we did the first American Football record. What that allowed me to do, was because I didn't know any better, like on 'Stay Home', the other guys would bring in all of these inter-locking parts and I'd go "cool", and just make up these parts. 20 years of the playing the drums now, I have a much better sense of what to do now. But I actually do miss that spark of creativity that comes from me not knowing that I can't do X, Y or Z. I watch a lot of orchestras, and those percussionists are all very melodic, and so that's really inspiring to me as a drummer.

[Header PC: Atiba Jefferson].

American Football's LP3 is out this Friday, March 22nd, 2019.