For Years, American Football existed mostly as an enigma. Throughout the 2000s, they were a band who were increasingly and consistently being referred to as pioneers of “emo”, “math rock”, and indie in general with their blend of emotional, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, complex time signatures and song structures, and indie aesthetic. Their self-titled debut EP & album, released in ’98 and ’99 respectively – their only recorded output to date – was, however, received by an incredibly small catchment area of Urbana, Illinois, a college town just outside of Chicago. It had a surprisingly strong indie music scene, featuring the Polyvinyl Records label and American Football’s Mike and brother Tim Kinsella’s band Cap’n Jazz, as well as genre stalwarts Braid and The Promise Ring, who collectively are responsible for the phrase “Midwest Emo”.
The Kinsellas, along with their cousin Nate, slowly became notoriously talented and original musicians, and as the decade went on, their other projects – Owls, Joan of Arc, and Mike’s solo project Owen – steadily grew in reputation and reached a wider audience. And yet, American Football’s full-length record was the one music fans kept returning to and excitedly talking about as the jewel in the crown of an already very impressive roster. There was something about those nine songs that captured a fleeting moment of teenage summers loved and lost which really resonated with audiences, even those well outside of Illinois basements.
Eventually, fans started wanting to know more about this tiny studio project. The reputation of the album kept growing, and so eventually, 15 years after release, Polyvinyl re-issued and re-packaged the record into a deluxe edition in March 2014. Then, a month later, a mysterious stop-clock turned up, counting down the announcement that the band had finally reunited and were going to play some shows in Chicago and New York later in the year. After these date’s wild successes – they sold out New York’s Webster Hall three times over – a world tour followed in 2015, playing massive venues and festivals to huge amounts of people never once thought conceivable by the band members back in their tiny basement studio in the late 90’s.
Then, last week, something even more incredible happened. Shortly after playing the UK’S ArcTanGent festival, their final date of the world tour, they announced new music would be forthcoming in the form of American Football, 17 years after their last release. The track ‘I’ve Been Lost For So Long’ shortly was soon appeared on streaming sites, and despite some initial reservations and shock, the track has generally been received well, with a London date in the new year announced to support the band’s second, also self-titled, album. We caught up with Mike Kinsella, Nate Kinsella, Steve Lamos, and Steve Holmes from the band ahead of their ATG show to talk about their reunion, their legacy, and the pressure of following up a much-loved cult classic, a decade and a half after release.
DiS: You’re here for ArcTanGent festival, do you have any prior experience with it?
Mike Kinsella: Nope, don’t really know it, but have heard real good things from our friends TTNG.
It’s found a niche as a math and post-rock festival, been going around 5 years. Math-rock is a term that often gets attributed to you, how do you find it as a term?
Steve Lamos: I like it better than any of the other ones we get like “emo”! “Math” feels more natural to us, as there is an element of math that goes into our music, I suppose.
What made the reunion happen? Did you have any idea of the legacy that your debut album had taken on, and did that influence the decision to reform?
MK: No, we didn’t really have any idea of that, but we started getting ridiculous offers and saying “how much?!” (laughs). But no, there was never really an intention to re-unite necessarily, we just got increased loyalty checks from our label year on year until someone noticed it had been steadily snowballing, and I guess that’s when the offers we could no longer refuse came in.
And how is touring those songs 15 years later?
MK: Fun more than anything! It may surprise people to know that being in American Football is actually a lot more fun than people might expect. Certainly now we are older and getting the chance to do it properly now. People seemed to pick the record up so organically, from word of mouth I guess, and it still astounds us to this day that such a tiny basement project is where it is today.
You guys toured pretty extensively last year, including a lot of festivals. How did you find the festival circuit especially?
SL: We play as many shows as we want really, we haven’t done too long legs to keep it fresh and less daunting.
MK: It’s been surreal playing these big festivals with mainstream bands. I remember we were in Europe somewhere, and my amp blew out as we were setting up; when I asked about using another backstage, it turned out to be J [Mascis]’s of Dinosaur Jr.’s who were like: “Yeah…no.” It was a bit disappointing but also kind of amusing. Primavera was definitely the most fun; we’d love to play there again!
Steve Holmes: Also, Nate [Kinsella] playing with us is the only reason we’re any good live now.
And why do you think people connected, however slowly, to your debut record?
MK: I guess it’s relatable because the lyrics are the equivalent to every LiveJournal account that existed back then, they’re so vague they’re universal.
SL: They’re pop lyrics essentially, simple, catchy melodies which compliment the more technical aspects of the music really nicely.
MK: Well I’d contest that; there’s a track where I have to count to 13 in my head while I’m singing; it’s a nightmare! (Laughs)
So you guys have a new album coming out and, as a long time fan, personally I feel privileged to have listened to it. How was it writing as American Football for the first time in 15 years though? Was it all new material or was anything held over from the past?
MK: Yes, all new as we didn’t really plan for this, we just started playing the old songs and really enjoying it and realised we should probably write some more material as we were going on the road with only 13 songs. SH: It never felt like we were re-treading old ground either. In many ways this actually feels like our first proper album, because everything we did 15 years ago was so slapdash.
SL: It was nerve wracking at first, because we’re all based in different places now, so initially the majority of it was sending each other files between tour stops and discussing it when we could. It was completely different to the debut because for that we just spent over a year playing relentlessly until we were completely happy and then recorded it, played our only headline show, and then went our separate ways.
Did you know straight away you wanted to write another album or was it something that became apparent over time?
MK: It definitely wasn’t the original plan, but became more of a reality as the year went on that it was something we wanted to do. Basically it kept being fun, so we were like: “Hey, let’s keep doing this!”
SH: I remember though, we were playing a show in NYC, and we were discussing backstage whether it was “right” to do another album given the legacy of being a cult, one-album band from a previous time.
I was going to ask about that. Was it a concern to write another record given how passionate people were about your first one?
SL: We knew it wouldn’t define us; it’s not a crazy flash-in-the-pan thing. We knew it would only be worth it if we were all excited about writing new material, and as Mike mentioned, it was more fun than anything, so it was exciting to start writing new music tonight and put more thought into recording properly this time. The first album we just practiced and practiced until we had perfected a sound and then hit record. After one headline show in a basement, we were done with it, as we all moved away from college.
SH: Basically, we never rocked out the first time, we were “old when we were young” and vice versa, so now we got to really enjoy the experience.
MK: The whole thing has just been really crazy for us, but I think what was more important was that it sounded like us, without trying to repeat ourselves.
And do you think fans will respond to that?
MK: We certainly hope so, we’re very excited to finally play new material!
SH: We’re very aware there may be a few people who hate the new material, who will say: “They shouldn’t have done it and tarnished the legacy”. But I think in general people will appreciate we’re essentially a different band now.
I would agree that it still sounds like American Football, just 15 years older and, perhaps, wiser. You’ve touched on it already, but was it important for you to reflect that when writing new songs and lyrics?
MK: Absolutely, if we were still singing about our “teenage feelings” it would be ridiculous. The general themes of the album reflect our lives now. That was a big reason we stalled for so long on reuniting actually; for years I just felt embarrassed to be singing such heart-on-sleeve lyrics about when I was a teenager. Eventually, though, enough time passed for me to feel comfortable with it again, like it doesn’t really matter how I once felt – if people connected with it then that’s great, and I shouldn’t be stubborn with it.
You mention the lyrics, how was writing as American Football again and are there any lines you feel particularly summarise it?
MK: I can’t really think of any off-hand, but I certainly put a way more concerted effort into making the lyrics “good” this time.
SH: Personally, I love both the opening and closing tracks of the new album. I think the first track does everything it needs to do to re-introduce ourselves to the world. In general, I’m really proud of how that’s turned out, and I think the lyrics are much better.
Is it fair to judge your lyrics objectively, though? Like just because your earlier stuff is more earnest, it doesn’t necessarily make them “better” does it?
SL: I can’t speak for all of us, but yes, I would agree with that; the lyrics on both records suit the accompanying songs and us as musicians at the time. I think for me though, I was mostly just surprised by the lyrics from the first album because we barely heard any of them until the record came out.
Really, does that mean you practiced instrumentally?
MK: Yes mostly. I had a few lines here and there, but the majority I wrote on the spot after we had recorded the music. That was completely different this time.
So Mike, you also put out a record, The King of Whys, as Owen this year. It’s also a really great record, but I’m interested as to how you differentiated between the two projects this time around?
MK: There are definitely natural similarities between the two. I recorded the Owen album about a month before the American Football one, so both were being constructed at around the time. The Owen record especially was much more collaborative than previous ones, so that made it even more like an American Football record than before. The big difference really was that I went up to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to record the Owen record, with a bunch of very talented musicians I’d never worked with before, unlike American Football where it’s me, the Steves, and now Nate.
How did you choose songs for each record? I read somewhere that as Owen, you often write as characters rather than as yourself?
MK: Yeah, well, that’s what I tell my wife. (laughs) No, but seriously, I think the major difference is that American Football songs are much more sincere than Owen songs. Other than that, there weren't really any specific criteria, I just had a feeling as I was writing them which would be for which project.
SH: I remember though there was a song we poached from the Owen record, the one about the “ghost in the corner”.
SL: ‘Home is Where Your Haunt Is’?
SH: Right, I remember you [Mike] playing us that song and us saying: “We must have that song, it’s a deal-breaker”.
SL: I think as well the difference is that’s it not just Mike who writes for American Football. One of my favourite songs on the new album is ‘Inside the Enemy’, which Nate wrote.
This may be projecting a little, but what are your future plans? I assume a tour in support of the new album, but can you also picture yourselves writing another record?
MK: Tentatively yes, but really we don’t know about that yet.
SL: We all have kids and families now, so American Football is still pretty part-time for us. It’s not the be all and end all of us as musicians. But what I will say is, it’s been awesome to have something else to go to after all this time. Getting to make and play music again has been great, and for now we’re all into making that last as long as we can.
MK: In terms of this record, it’s out on 21 October, and we have some launch shows planned in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and London. Outside of that, nothing else is confirmed, but I’m sure there will be more.
American Football is released on 21 October on Wichita Recordings. Tickets for their London show at O2 Shepherd’s Bush on 11 February are on sale now. For more information, visit the band’s official website.