an interview w/ American Football, whose first album in 17 years is streaming
A reunion album for any band is a big deal. You've waited so long for it, and probably didn't even think it'd ever exist, that it feels nearly impossible to live up to the unrealistic expectations you've set. Sometimes (like Swans or Dinosaur Jr), it's so naturally great that you forget the band ever broke up in the first place. Others (like Pixies or The Stooges) have you writing the new albums' existence out of your memory. There's also a tendency to quickly overrate or underrate these albums. At the risk of doing that, I'm gonna go ahead and say that American Football's first album in seventeen years is not only as good as their now-legendary self-titled debut; it might be better.
Before you bring this hot take to the emo revival police, hear me out (and hear the album). American Football are a pretty unique case. They hardly played any shows after releasing the first album and hardly got any praise for it before breaking up. In the time since, frontman Mike Kinsella worked on what's become his most prolific project, Owen, and against all odds, American Football became an influential, legendary band. They were punks but they were also into jazz and Steve Reich, and after cutting their teeth in a few other bands (like Mike's also-now-influential Cap'n Jazz), American Football set out to make music that was heartfelt but ignored typical song structures and time signatures. While Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were bringing emo to the masses, American Football's pre-existing, less commercial version of the genre was connecting strongly with smaller batches of kids all around the world. Unlike other cult '90s indie rock records like Loveless or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the importance of American Football hadn't really been canonized and reinforced over and over. These kids weren't told it was important before they heard it; they just kinda decided it was.
Some of those kids formed bands, like The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, You Blew It!, Prawn, Tiny Moving Parts, Algernon Cadwallader, Snowing, Glocca Morra, TTNG, Signals Midwest, Crash of Rhinos, Sport, Into It. Over It. (who, okay, weren't kids), and that's just naming a few. Mike and his brother (and Cap'n Jazz frontman) Tim Kinsella were so influential on them, that sometimes people just describe these bands as "Kinsella-style." And American Football is the album people seem to latch on to most.
A lot of what people love about American Football is contextual. Knowing about them at all felt like being in on a well-kept secret. The fact that an infamous 2006 video where Owen almost played "Never Meant" was the closest most people felt they'd ever be to seeing American Football added to the band's legend. The pressure to write an album that lives up to something like that has got to be through the roof. American Football succeeded with LP2 by just... ignoring the pressure entirely.
"We didn't really set out to make another first record... we just set out to make a record," Mike says. "It just feels like a new band." It's actually literally a new band -- Mike and Tim's cousin Nate Kinsella, who played in several bands including the Tim Kinsella-fronted Joan of Arc and Make Believe (and is a solo artist as Birthmark), is now a full time member. "It's a whole quarter of the band that wasn't there before," Mike says, and it really makes for some new perspective. Mike and Nate have been writing songs and changing up their style for years, while AF guitarist Steve Holmes is closer to the mindset that American Football were in while writing the first album. It gives the new record a good push and pull between where the band is at now and where they came from.
The new album actually often sounds pretty similar to the excellent Owen album Mike put out this year, The King of Whys, and that shouldn't come as a surprise at all. Songs from both albums came from the same writing sessions, and some weren't even originally intended for the albums they ended up on.
"'Home Is Where the Haunt Is' was an Owen song in my head, but Steve Holmes liked it so we got together and he had whole parts written for it, and I was like "okay cool that sounds good!" and then it became an American Football song," Mike says. "I wrote 'Lovers Come And Go,' which is on the Owen album, and I had that one fleshed out with a couple guitar parts written and drum ideas thinking American Football could probably use it, but they didn't get attached to it so I just took it."
It also shouldn't be a surprise that the two albums sound similar, because the Owen albums pretty much show the progression of Mike's songwriting between American Football and now anyway. Owen's self-titled debut, which came out two years after American Football's, isn't a million miles away from that band. Over time he got better production quality, trained his voice a little better and put his vocals more in the forefront, but the songwriting approach only subtly changed. American Football may be more legendary than Owen, but there's a good argument to be made that Mike Kinsella wrote his best songs after AF broke up. Considering The King of Whys is the best Owen album in a decade, it's even less of a shock that American Football LP2 is so naturally strong.
Lyrically, this is the Mike Kinsella we know and love. In his own words, Owen lyrics are "maybe a little more blunt or sarcastic" and American Football's are "a little more heartfelt or sincere," but otherwise he's addressing topics that fit either project: love, lust, alcohol, and the dark sides of all of those things. Moments like the tricky timing of "My Instincts Are the Enemy" or "Born to Lose" are classic American Football, but the boldly melodic chorus of "Where Are We Now" is the kind of songcraft that Mike didn't perfect until a few albums into Owen's career. The mathy, kinda shouty "Desire Gets in the Way" almost sounds more like the American Football/Cap'n Jazz blend that Mike Kinsella's many disciples make, than anything he himself wrote previously. And since it wouldn't be an American Football album without melancholic trumpets, there are plenty of those.
The world may see American Football as musical gods, but LP2 is a triumph because the band is able to distance itself from that title entirely. "We kinda believe it, like, who we are now. But it doesn't really register because we know who we were. We were just like these quiet dudes sitting in a living room writing weird music."
The album drops October 21 via Polyvinyl (pre-order). Listen to it in full right now via NPR:
American Football have a few tour dates coming up in support of the new album, including a hometown-area show in Chicago this month with Joan of Arc (who also have a new LP coming) and Low. They play their biggest NYC show yet on January 28 at Terminal 5. Tickets for the NYC show are still available. All dates are listed below.
American Football were also covered by The Dodos for the upcoming Polyvinyl 20th anniversary covers compilation, which also has Tancred covering Owen, Owen covering Rainer Maria, and Rainer Maria covering Birthmark. We also talked to Mike Kinsella about that compilation, the 2010 Cap'n Jazz reunion (which likely won't happen again), and people requesting "Never Meant" at Owen shows. Read on for more of that interview...
You've been working with Polyvinyl Records forever, and that label just keeps growing and growing. How's it been having a close relationship with those guys this whole time?
I've said before that Matt and Darcy, who started Polyvinyl, are like my other set of parents sort of, that you don't talk to too often but they're always looking out for me. It's amazing what they've done. They grew the label from nothing, and all the other labels of their size couldn't keep up, couldn't figure out that things were changing or sell any records... they were the only ones who could do it. I'm just like proud of them. I'm proud of the roster. I'm proud to call them friends. They're the best.
The label has that 20th anniversary covers compilation coming out that you're doing Rainer Maria's "Ears Ring" for. Why that song?
That song always kills me traveling, like the line "You need contact daily / Your conscience is failing." I found myself just listening to it a bunch, so when they asked me to do the compilation I was like "I know which song!" I can't remember, I think maybe Braid was gonna do that one too so there was some back and forth like "Oh nooo! You guys are gonna do it? I wanna do it," and then they settled on something else. I love [Rainer Maria], I used to sell march for them. When I finished college I had nothing to do so I'd jump in the car with them and sell merch for them on tours. Eventually they were like 'if you wanna open the show and write some songs...' so it's sort of the reason I'm playing music, because of Rainer Maria.
Speaking of those early Rainer Maria shows, and Braid, when that whole scene was taking shape in the late '90s, could you feel that it was going to be something special?
I don't think anybody thought anyone would care 15 or 20 years later, but at the time it was the most fun way to be a teenager. When we were in college, Braid would play like, the house party every Friday night. Maybe The Promise Ring was the first band I knew who got a manager, and it was just like their good friend, but it was before the whole business part was involved. It was really like an actual underground scene. You'd show up at someone's house on tour and just assume that these are people you'd be friends with because they even know about these bands, you know? It was great. It was a cool little scene. It's funny that years later anybody cares. There's always been kids going to shows and forming bands, so it's funny that for whatever reason this scene caught on.
A few years ago Cap'n'Jazz reunited and that was pretty brief and you guys didn't do a record. Was there a different feeling for this reunion vs that one?
Yeah, there's a lot of reasons. Cap'n'Jazz was very physical, to play it is very physical with me playing drums and Tim singing or like, yelling, so that one seems further away from... like we've changed with what we want to do musically [since American Football's breakup], and Cap 'n' Jazz seems even further away from that. It was fun to do for the reunions... I mean it was really fun, way more fun than I thought. Doing that and having so much fun was kind of the impetus for [reuniting American Football]. But after those Cap'n Jazz shows my back would hurt for two weeks (laughs). It was like I'm not 14 and the emotions I want to express don't involve me screaming anymore.
People like to yell out "Never Meant" at Owen shows. Now that you actually tour with American Football and play that song, how do you react hearing that at Owen shows?
I've actually been playing it. Like if it's a town that American Football hasn't been to... I just played it a couple weeks ago in Boston or something. I'm too old to act cool or something -- not that I was acting cool all those years, I'm not like above it or anything. I'm like, oh that's another song that I wrote that people like.
Enter to win a pair of tickets to American Football's 1/28 show at Terminal 5 with Joan of Arc and Mothers.
American Football — 2016/2017 Tour Dates
Oct 29, 2016 – Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre w/ Joan of Arc and Low
Jan 28, 2017 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
Feb 11, 2017 – London, UK @ O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Feb 25, 2017 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Ace Hotel Theatre
photos in the gallery above of American Football at Atlanta's Wrecking Ball festival