"'Why go back? Why risk the track record?' It was just that it was so much fun. We knew there was new territory to be discovered." How did American Football make a second record when they were never supposed to follow up the first?
There aren’t many records as singular and self-contained as the original by American Football. There’s plenty of albums that evoke a sense of time and place in the same way or that are scored through with a particularly indelible atmosphere, or that speak to love, loss, anxiety and confusion in a way that feels exclusive to that particular set of songs.
It’s just that American Football, released back in 1999 but belatedly discovered by many, brings all of those things together with disarming clarity. For vocalist/guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos, it’s a record that very much belongs to a specific moment within their own lives.
To everybody else, American Football is timeless. The lyrics are a study in post-collegiate anxiety, running the gamut from gut-punching heartbreak (“Never Meant”) to social avoidance (“Stay Home”). The themes flicker, but the honesty is steadfast.
That’s something that careened over into the sound of the album, too, which plays like nothing quite like anything that’s followed it. Melodic guitars and minimalist compositions hardly represent wheel-reinventing territory but it’s the unusual time signatures, courtesy mainly of Lamos’ work behind the kit, that lends a sense of awkwardness to the album’s sound that’s entirely in step with its subject matter. It’s pretty and nervy at the same time, and all the more endearing for it.
It’s one of those albums, too, where for reasons that never feel entirely tangible, the artwork does a perfect job of representing precisely what lies behind it. That shot of a college house in the student town of Champaign, Illinois, cast in a green hue that robs the night sky of its usual oppression, is all at once quintessentially symbolic of youth, introspection and America. It’s one of those records that you can’t really hear without the front cover floating into view of your mind’s eye. American Football, in general, is one of those rare lightning bolts of an album in which everything seems to fall neatly into its right place. Lightning, of course, very seldom strikes twice.
In actual fact, it almost didn’t happen. With graduation looming, Kinsella, Holmes and Lamos were gearing up to move out of Champaign. Their friend Matt Lunsford, founder of local label Polyvinyl, implored them to commit the songs they’d been playing together to tape before they went their separate ways.
Lunsford’s offer to put out the resulting LP twisted the trio’s collective arm, and they laid down the nine tracks that would go on to form an emo cornerstone. It was at such short notice that Kinsella hurriedly threw together lyrics off-the-cuff in the studio. The band left town shortly after recording finished and played a handful of local shows in the process.
That was that. Kinsella continued as a musician under the solo moniker Owen and has released eight proper full-lengths since, the most recent July’s The King of Whys. Holmes went on to work desk jobs, as remains the case today. Lamos would eventually become an English professor.
American Football was now just another college band that had met its natural conclusion when its members graduated, with music firmly in the rear view mirror for two thirds of the group. That remained the state of play for over a decade before things began to change. Not suddenly, not overnight, but slowly, gradually and - eventually - inescapably.
“It was nothing to do with us,” says Lunsford. “Something really seemed to turn about five or six years ago, when we noticed just how often we were having to repress the record, vinyl run after vinyl run.
"We knew it had to be natural, that it had to be word of mouth. It wasn’t because we were talking about it, or trying to market it again. We always knew it was influential, but now the sales figures were starting to follow that trend.”
The band hadn’t just endured - it was, anomalously, becoming more popular with every year that went by. Serendipitously, it was around the time that Polyvinyl picked up on this that Holmes - in the thick of a spring clean at home - emailed the label to let them know that he’d stumbled upon a forgotten box of tapes. It was a treasure trove of demos, unsteady live recordings and even a couple of unheard new ideas.
Polyvinyl decided that a reissue was the best way to release that material and worked painstakingly on a comprehensive physical release for nearly two years. Preservation of the original album’s symbolism was also paramount, as Lunsford puts it: “we tried to be really true to that era, because that record was such a snapshot in time, and we didn’t want it to feel as if it’d been completely brought 15 years into the future.”
It was pure coincidence that the new version of the album arrived right around the 15-year anniversary mark but by this point the idea of playing shows had already been floated and then agreed to. Kinsella, Holmes and Lamos all felt the time was right to take the stage together again. In doing so, they were finally becoming a proper band, travelling the globe and performing in front of committed, paying fans, rather than friends in somebody’s basement or loft on campus.
A clutch of shows in the U.S. became a U.K. tour, then an appearance at Primavera, and then gigs in Tokyo and Australia. The ball kept rolling and the trio - joined now by Mike’s cousin Nate on bass - was happy to accommodate it, as and where it could. By the summer of 2015, the band was quite preposterously playing at Reading and Leeds. No longer was American Football the preserve of indie rock history. It was a band again - a genuine going concern.
“We’re at a point in our grown-up lives where we’ve thought, 'this seems reasonable, to go off and do something that’s fun for three or four days at a time.' The task is making sure it’s sustainable.”
Roughly a year later, the four of them are huddled around a laptop in the offices of their London PR firm doing press for a record that at that point was yet to be announced. They’d booked the trip initially because they were headlining Bristol’s ArcTanGent festival. By now, they’ve been all around the world together, even if day jobs commanded that it would only be in fits and starts.
They’re comfortable again in each other’s company however differently their individual lives have unfolded. They’ve crossed the Atlantic to talk about less a difficult second album than a nigh-on impossible one - this is a sequel nobody ever expected to see, to an original that’s taken on a veritable sanctity.
Not that they sound worried.
“We were just having a discussion,” says Lamos by way of introduction. “Would we rather sleep with a young Mick Jagger or a young David Bowie?”
Holmes makes clear that the ‘young’ part is particularly important. Peals of laughter punctuate the conversation and it’s immediately clear that the passing of time has done nothing to diminish the group's rapport. Reinforced, too, is the fact that - however enigmatic they might have seemed for so long - these are not the sadboy caricatures you may have had in mind.
The elder Kinsella, Mike, has long been testament to that anyway by way of his irreverent social media presence. It was via Instagram last October that he posted some rough, hand-written notes that were captioned: “this is what a new American Football song looks like.”
“Last summer, Holmes had started sending some demos around the four of us,” explains Mike. “The rest of us were just ready to wait and see what happened, but around the time we played Reading and Leeds last year we realised that we wanted to keep doing this and that, in the end, that would involve writing new music. So we picked a day when we could all get together to decide on something, and when we sat down, we all wanted to move forward.”
You can understand how the reunion might have come as a surprise to Mike, just as it did to Polyvinyl and the band’s burgeoning fanbase. That would have been truer still of Nate who’d never been involved the first time around. Ultimately, though, those two are career musicians; for Holmes and Lamos, the band’s renaissance - seemingly from nowhere - must have involved a different level of shock entirely.
“I personally hadn’t been in a band for ten years before the reunion stuff started,” offers Holmes. “And I haven’t really looked at everything that’s happened since as being anything other than a creative outlet. The nice thing is that it’s not the most important thing going on in our lives. Three out of the four of us have kids, and the other has one on the way.”
“We’re at a point in our grown-up lives,” Lamos adds, “where we’ve thought, 'this seems reasonable, to go off and do something that’s fun for three or four days at a time.' The task is making sure it’s sustainable.”
So far, it has been. Lack of demand hasn’t been an issue; when they announced their U.K. shows back in November 2014, demand was sufficient for extra shows to be added.
The sense of momentum was palpable and perhaps, in retrospect, new music was inevitable. American Football - we’ll call it American Football II henceforth (to differentiate it from the debut with which it shares the same name) feels like the culmination of everything that led up to it, from the slow burn of the first record’s influence to Holmes’ tape discovery and the tours that followed thereafter.
"It has a reputation as a sad record, but I can hear the optimism in there, the 'your whole life’s ahead of you' thing."
The uncanny thing about the record is that it really does seem imbued with a similar atmosphere to the first. The sound should be easy enough to replicate and it’s all there: melodic guitars with sometimes dissonant tunings, unusual time signatures; Mike's wry way with words. But even with the fidelity taken up a notch and Mike's vocals sporting the best part of two decades’ worth of extra wear, this is still American Football, and not just because they sound like they used to.
“From my perspective, it was easy,” says Holmes. “It just felt like, in the context of this band, when we’re all playing together, it’s going to sound like American Football.
"I get that from the outside looking in there might have seemed as if there was a lot of pressure to make a follow-up to something that’s seen as, like, an iconic one-off. But really, it was just, 'here’s a cool riff, let’s mess around with it. Let’s see if it comes to anything.'”
Having got this far thanks to a succession of snatched long weekends rather than weeks-long road schedules, the recording of a new album was always going to follow suit.
Over the course of a couple of writing sessions in Chicago, roughly 25 song ideas were whittled down between Holmes and Mike to around 12. With arrangements in place, the four decamped for a week to Mike Mogis’ studio in Omaha, Nebraska to begin tracking proper.
“At the end of that week, I thought, “oh yeah, this is gonna go,” Lamos remembers. “We’d written towards the goal of having a record, but there were still questions being asked in the studio. What should this part be? How should this transition work?”
Mike interrupts. “Have you ever seen Naked and Afraid? You know, that kind of question.”
“And just like the first record, Mike wrote the lyrics in the studio. The melodies were open, just skeletons for him to hang ideas on,” presses Holmes.
"It kind of felt like the original album in that we were being driven by necessity; we had to get the drums during that session, because Steve wasn’t available much outside of that week. It was a case of dividing things up in order of importance over 9 days. We did a bunch of writing, and then a bunch of tracking...”
“And a bunch of dancing, too,” offers Lamos.
“Lamos killed it, that’s true,” Holmes concedes. “And then we did a bunch of tuning, too. Holy fuck, so much tuning. That was very much in keeping with the American Football vibe - none of the new songs are in the same tuning as each other. Just like last time!”
It was a matter of needs must when Mike penned the words to American Football in the studio back in 1999 and the same ended up being true again here. The added pressure on his own part was one that didn’t affect Holmes or Lamos. He needed to find a way to differentiate his writing for Owen from that for American Football, and the challenge was obvious; the last time he wrote for this band, he was leaving university in his early twenties.
With Owen, he’s grown from that point all the way up to where he is now - a stay-at-home dad-of-two, about to turn 40. Lunsford mentioned not wanting to drag American Football kicking and screaming into the present day, but Mike never had any choice in the matter.
“In the end, it wasn’t a case of how I wrote,” Mike explains. “It was a case of how I edited. I’ll go through everything I write, and there’ll be lines that are obviously tongue-in-cheek, and those are the ones that suit Owen.
"We talked about how the first American Football album was so sincere, and to me, it just seems so fucking young. It has a reputation as a sad record, but I can hear the optimism in there, the 'your whole life’s ahead of you' thing."
He continues: "I wanted to keep that same voice, and whenever there was something funny or a bit cynical, I kept it for the Owen record. I didn’t want to be clever with American Football. I wasn’t trying to be the first time around - it was just so straightforward. I think I’ve been a little smarter here, but the people who loved it, loved it because it was genuine.”
In turn, that raises the legacy issue. For many fans there was plenty to tarnish by revisiting American Football in any form whatsoever let alone making a direct follow-up all these years later.
It’s something all three original members seem conscious of but when the conversation touches upon it, Mike is keen to turn to his younger cousin. “I like hearing Nate talk about this," he says. "Because he had an outsider’s perspective. He was just a fan of the record.”
Nate’s happy to indulge. “I remember Mike emailing me to ask me to play bass and honestly my first reaction was, 'that’s going to ruin American Football!' Why would you need a bass? The band’s all about guitars!
"From a selfish perspective, I knew in the back of my mind it’d be amazing to play those songs but I also got why people might think that it was a really precious thing. I understood that thing of, you know, 'why go back? Why risk the track record?' You start thinking of terrible, terrible movie sequels, that kind of thing.
"It was just that it was so much fun, and we seemed to have such a good thing going, that it would have been such a shame to walk away from it. We knew there was new territory to be discovered.”
And there’s no real disputing that. American Football II has broken new ground for the band, even if much of the basic instrumental template and the lyrical approach has remained.
This is a record that feels like exactly what it is: a big brother to the original, the sound of three old friends reflecting on the both the joys and the anxieties of their youth as they approach middle age. It might not have been an obvious comeback but it certainly feels like a natural one, and the purity of intention from the band helps to account for that.
"We’re having fun, and as much as we were aware of the idea that we might tarnish the legacy [...] if anything, it really made me more inclined to make another album."
“We’re way much more of a real band than we ever were originally,” reflects Lamos.
“We’ve played way more shows, to way more people, and we’re much more accomplished, as musicians and as people. We’re having fun, and as much as we were aware of the idea that we might tarnish the legacy, it just felt stupid. If anything, it really made me more inclined to make another album.”
Mike pounces. “That’s because you used to be punk, Steve. Now you’re the punk CEO!”
More giggles all round. It does feel more like old acquaintances propping up a bar than four musicians cajoled into plugging their new release.
Lunsford says there was something that resonated about how “mind-blowing” the band's initial three-night comeback at New York’s Webster Hall was. "The only thing I can point to is that it was truly and completely down to the music. Nobody sold them. Nobody ever said they were a legacy band. People just stumbled across them, in increasingly greater numbers, all the time.”
American Football isn't a legacy band. It's just a band, and an active one at that, even if its members are in thrall to normality these days.
Holmes reinforces the point: “we’re grown-ups, now, and that means that whatever’s next, we’ll build things around when we can get vacation time, or whether or not we can talk our moms or our mothers-in-law into babysitting for a few days. Those are different concerns than we used to have, and that means you get a different kind of band. Until we really make the big bucks. Then all bets are off.”