American Football was born in a dorm room on University of Illinois' campus in Urbana-Champaign and ended in 2000 on friendly terms as the members graduated or went on to pursue other things. Surprisingly, delayed success came for the band 15 years later when their original label reissued their first and only album and found that in the band's absence, they had developed a very large following.
Hailed as one of the earliest and most influential bands for "emo" or "soft-grunge" rock still inspiring music today, the unexpected fame still baffles Mike Kinsella, guitarist and vocalist for American Football. RedEye talked to Kinsella about the "new" American Football, what the band was up to in those 15 years off and their upcoming performance at Pitchfork music festival in Chicago.
Can you tell me a little about the origin of American Football?
I was living with Steve Holmes, the guitar player, and I had played in a band with the drummer, Steve Lamos. I joined the band he was in. They were writing instrumentals, so I said I would try singing; it was the first time I had ever tried singing—it went poorly.
The band broke up, not because of my singing, but for other reasons, and then he and Steve started playing together. So Steve Holmes would come home and just put on the tapes of what they were writing and I thought it sounded cool. It sounded sort of instrumental; it was catchy and interesting. So I was like, "Cool, can I join your band?" and they let me start practicing with them. It all happened very organically.
Were you all studying at U of I? Did you study music?
None of us were studying music. I think Steve Lamos was studying English and he stayed there a long time after we broke up to get like a master's and a doctorate in English. Steve Holmes was studying English, too, I think. I was studying anthropology. Music was just our part-time hobby thing.
Where did the name "American Football" come from?
I think Lamos' wife, girlfriend at the time, was traveling abroad and saw the words "American Football" written on a flyer for a football game and we thought it was funny—how from a different perspective or a different place words can mean something else.
Why did you disband?
We weren't popular or good—the fun part was just challenging ourselves to make the right songs at the time that were interesting to us. It wasn't like we were playing shows out often or getting any rewards for playing. Steve Holmes and I were graduating and about to move back to Chicago, so we just decided to call it. There wasn't much point in doing it anymore.
Why did you decide to get back together 15 years later?
We all really needed the money—no, I'm just kidding. Somehow, the record just had some leg. We hadn't played any shows since (the record) came out, but people still seemed to care about it. The label was going to reissue the record and we found out that maybe more people than any of us had ever thought cared about it, so it just seemed fun like, "OK, let's try and play these songs and try and play them good this time in front of a lot of people. Sounds a lot better than playing them poorly in front of nobody." It was just like a chance to do it all over again. It worked out and it turned out to be a lot more fun than we thought.
What were all of you up to in the time that you were broken up?
We didn't keep up too much. I think the Steves kept up more than I did. I played in some other bands and toured a bunch and then I met a girl and got married. I played less in other bands, but still kept doing that, then I had kids. Steve Lamos is a professor now in Denver and he's got kids and Steve Holmes has got a bunch of jobs and a bunch of kids and a wife. We all just went on living. None of us thought that we would ever play again. There was never one second of, "What are we going to do now that the band is over?" It was just like, "OK, what's next?" and we all just went on to the next thing.
Did the success and the sold-out shows 15 years later surprise you?
It still is totally ridiculous. The fact that you even have interest in interviewing us about it is still ridiculous and surprising, just because we know how small these songs were. It's funny that people ever even heard them, let alone are playing them 15 to 20 years later. It's really mind blowing.
How does it feel to have taken that much time off from the band, after producing only one album, to be seen as such a big inspiration for that specific wave of angsty, soft-grunge music?
We joke that it's very cool the way this worked out because if we were 20 or 21 and had any sort of success, we would have handled it different. We could have done a bunch of dumb stuff. But, coming back to it after having years and years—I mean personally—of very little musical success, and then all of a sudden being in a band that's kind of popular, it's cool. I still don't believe it, and I still don't think it matters—in a good way—I think a younger version of us might have put a lot more value on it than it actually has, but now that we're all just dads getting by, we appreciate more and I think we are better about it.
You use the same Urbana house, though different views of it, for the cover of both of your albums. Can you give me a backstory on that house?
The photographer, Chris Strong, lived there in college and we just liked the photo. We had been over there and been to parties there, but no one lived there.
For the second record we wanted to use the same house but from a different perspective, which is sort of like where we ended up deciding what we wanted to do with the record. We wanted it to have some of the same elements of American Football, but from a different, grown-up perspective.
Was there a family living there? Did you just say "Hey, can we come in to your house and take a picture?"
It's still full of college kids every year. We finished the record and we sent Chris down to go take some pictures and I think he shot a couple thousand photos of inside, outside, around the house, and we settled on the one that's looking out of the house.
The first (album cover) is looking in, wondering what's going on in there, and the new picture is looking out like, "I wonder what's out there now."
In a previous interview you said that you don't like when people chase fame; what's it like to be well-known in the music world while not liking the idea of fame as a whole?
Well, we're not famous—it's not like we're in tabloids or people know who we are unless you're sort of a music nerd in this specific scene. In the scene it's more successful than we thought it could be, but it's still not really a thing in the real world. It just happened so organically and I feel like it's a different thing than someone that's trying to get people to like them.
It's like asking someone to go around and show everyone a picture of themselves from their high school yearbook and try to get people to like you for it; it's this thing that, honestly, for a while as an adult, I was embarrassed of. It was just this little snapshot of my youth—all of our collective youths—and then all of a sudden having everyone be aware of it, and trying to promote it, is this very crazy thing. It's like, "Hey, so this thing I did when I was 20 is really cool, guys, trust me." It's different than someone making a new thing and trying to sell it as cool. There's no way I can (lie to) people, like, "I was really cool when I was 20," because I wasn't.
Your first album was focused a lot on teenage feelings and youth in general. How do you balance staying true to your musical roots while taking into account the maturity of yourself and the band as a whole?
While recording new music, it was a discussion. I'm still sort of a corny, emotional guy, I'm just more grown up. Maybe I'm not getting upset over break-ups, but I can still sort of project or translate that into grown-up life which is just the frustrations of existing in general.
Was there a worry that fans wouldn't take into account the years gone by and maybe expect that you would sound exactly the same and talk about the same things?
I don't know if it was a worry, but we were aware of it for sure. This is all … not supposed to have happened. So we are just appreciating what we get to do and recording new music and being supported. If it all goes away, it will all be fine, so it isn't really a worry but we are definitely aware of it.
The early reviews from when the record first leaked were definitely like, "Oh my God! They sound different! Mike sounds different!" But that's to be expected, I'm a different person; physically my voice is different and we all have different musical interests now, too. We didn't want to alienate anyone that liked the old music, but we wanted to be honest to what we are into now.
What were some of your original musical influences and who inspires you today?
When we were writing our first record, I remember many nights in a dorm room or an apartment listening to Stereolab and Ida and The Sundays. Nowadays I mostly just listen to Taylor Swift with my kids. I've come full circle and regressed somehow.
Is there a difference in the Chicago music scene versus what you've seen in other major U.S. cities? What's the best part about playing in Chicago?
Eat. Watch. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life ... now.
I've said this for a while—there's something about the bands and the people that make music in Chicago, it seems like they are just making it for the right reasons. It's almost like they have to make it, like maybe they aren't making it to some next level and maybe they aren't achieving notoriety or fame or whatever it is, but they keep doing it. They keep hauling their gear out of practice spaces in the winter and it seems like just such a good work ethic.
In New York, people move there just for the hopes of immediate attention and in L.A., it's sort of the same thing, they're just doing it to get to the next level. I think in Chicago, everyone seems to be doing it for the right reasons which is really inspiring; I like when I get the chance to go out and see some bands here.
What are you most looking forward to with your performance at Pitchfork?
I have this fear because it's like a hometown show. I have this fear of (messing) up in front of my mom. I just want to get through the show and play well. I've never been to Pitchfork, but it should be fun.
American Football has proven that the future is pretty unpredictable, but do you have any idea of where the band will be in a few—or 15—years?
Statistically, in 15 years one of us will probably be dead according to the U.S. government age consensus. In a few years, I don't know. We're having more fun then we ever thought we could, and it's been three or four years now. It was a reunion at first, and then we wrote new stuff, and now we're like, "Well, maybe we're like a real band now." Maybe we just aren't this old cover band. We are excited to write new stuff, but who knows if the people that stuck around with us for the second record will stick around with us for a third. The idea of it is fun, so we're looking forward to trying it.
See American Football at Pitchfork Sunday, July 16. Tickets: pitchfork.com