Kings Of All Alone: American Football
As the emo heroes were lining up the release of their third record, Nate Kinsella suggested burning the house down.
In the university town of Champaign, Illinois, just off campus at 704 W. High Street, sits an unassuming college rental that most passers-by wouldn’t look twice at. To avowed followers of American Football, though, it’s Mecca - not just a house, but The House. Its appearance on the cover of the band’s 1999 debut album has bestowed upon it totemic importance among emo fans, for two reasons. The first is that they spent fifteen years shrouded in mystery, with the only the album cover and a single, babyfaced press shot lending listeners to the twelve recorded songs that they had any frame of visual reference. There’s also the fact that, like Loveless, Unknown Pleasures or The Downward Spiral, it is one of those covers that uncannily captures the record’s sound. The camera gazes up at the highest bedroom window of this most identifiably American of houses, framed by the night sky; it’s an image that, somehow, suggests longing, some kind of quiet emotional tumult. If ever a record sounded as if it was intended to soundtrack that kind of collegiate angst, that kind of introverted yearning, it’s American Football.
Still, Kinsella wanted to burn it down. Not literally; warm and softly-spoken, he sounds like the world’s least obvious pyromaniac and besides, were he to commit arson at 704, the response from the Football faithful would surely be less ‘Letters and Packages’ than it would pitchforks and flaming torches. Instead, he came up with the idea as the band were discussing the artwork for their third self-titled LP. When they made the unlikeliest of studio comebacks three years ago, they returned to the house - still populated, as it had been ever since, by students - and photographed the cover for their second record: this time, from the inside.
Between that and a belated video for ‘Never Meant’, fans were finally afforded a glimpse inside a building that was for so long such an enigma. It did mean, though, that there was no longer much pictorial mileage left in the house. “That was why I had the idea to maybe have a house that was burnt-out, but I suggested it to Corey Bracken, our vibraphone player, and he said, “what are you making, a doom metal record?” laughs Kinsella on a call with his older cousin, Mike, the band’s singer. “And I guess he was right, it was a little over-the-top. It would have looked as if we were burning everything we’d built down to the ground.”
The thing is, that’s kind of what American Football actually have done with this third album. It’s a reinvention in the proper sense of the word, the sound of a band clearly set on a sharp break with their past. For one, you didn’t read that wrong a second ago - they really have got a vibraphone player now, with Bracken set to accompany them on tour purely in that role. In fact, at the points in their set when they’re in full flow, there’s six musicians onstage - meaning that American Football, technically speaking, have twice as many members as they did back in 1999, when they made their debut album whilst still students in Champaign. To say it was released to minimal fanfare would probably still be generous, and almost immediately after handing the masters to their friend Matt Lunsford, at the then-fledgling Polyvinyl Records, the original lineup - comprised of Mike, guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos - went their separate ways.
“We just wanted to open up a whole big box of toys and play with all of them.”
— Mike Kinsella
Had it not been for how profoundly the internet has expanded the concept of word of mouth in the years since, it might all have ended there - with one album, one EP, and a clutch of house and bar shows around Champaign and Chicago to their name. Mike continued as a musician, recording solo albums under the name Owen and chipping in towards a raft of other projects, like Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc and Owls, all of which were masterminded by his similarly prolific older brother, Tim. Holmes went into IT, making use of his degree in computer science. Lamos moved out west, to Colorado; he’s now a professor of English at the university there (and has a page on my RateMyProfessors.com with a comments section that’s littered with American Football puns from students).
It was only when Holmes found some old live recordings, fifteen years later, that it became clear that LP1 had morphed glacially from obscurity to sleeper hit. Polyvinyl took the unreleased tracks and packaged them with the record for a fifteenth anniversary reissue - the demand crashed their website when it went on sale. The reissue led to a smattering of sold-out shows, which then became a sporadic world tour built around their existing commitments. Against all the odds, in April of 2016, Mike, Nate, Holmes and Lamos walked through the doors of ARC Studios in Omaha, Nebraska to commence work on one of the most improbable sequels in history. They approached the making of it in a manner that had them approximating the sound of the first - by asking themselves the question, “what do people expect from American Football?” and then doing their best to construct something to that blueprint. This time around, they’ve taken the opposite approach, rearranging their sonic fabric by tossing out the familiar and throwing caution to the wind.
“We just wanted to open up a whole big box of toys and play with all of them,” says Mike of their new, anything-goes mindset. “Making the second album, we were surprised to have an audience at all, so we just tried to make what we thought they wanted to hear. We reacted to that this time by letting the songs breathe, whether that meant fewer guitars to leave some open space, or adding things into that space that just weren’t guitars. We kind of planned it that way - fleshing out the demos, so when somebody sent something to somebody else, it wasn’t clean, there was a real indicator of how we were hearing the finished song. Nate took a much more prominent writing role, too, which was a big asset, because he went to school for composition.”
Nate’s increased involvement on LP3 marks a major turning point, not just for the band but for himself as an individual; his eagerness to raze the proverbial house to the ground is telling, because that kind of bold thinking couldn’t be any further from how he felt when he first joined the reunited lineup in 2014, as a live bassist. He was in two minds about doing so. The first American Football record doesn’t have much bass on it, and to tamper with something that so many - himself included - considered perfect seemed risky. After all, if the bass parts were deemed to spoil the songs, then he’d be the one up there doing the spoiling.
“I absolutely felt like, ‘oh, man, I’m just going to try to be invisible,’” he says with a chuckle. “I’ll stay as close to the low end as I can, and just fill out the sound. But once the first shows went well, it opened me up to the idea of playing bass more often, because I didn’t do much of it before I joined. I came to really love the space it takes up, and how I can write around what Mike and Steve are doing to shift how their parts appear. It fits my personality, too, because I’m not really one to be out front and centre.”
“It’s shifted, and we’ve all settled into new roles.”
— Nate Kinsells
You might beg to differ on the evidence of LP3; his influence is huge, both in terms of the sheer textural heft his bass lines provide - the complexity of his playing on ‘I Can’t Feel You’ makes the song, as does his ominous turn on opener ‘Silhouettes’ - and on the structure of the tracks; according to Mike, more of the record’s eight songs began with Nate’s ideas than any other member. “I contributed a couple of songs to the second album,” says Nate, “but I wasn’t a writer on the first one, obviously, so I was pretty timid, and happy to be in a supporting capacity. With this new one, I became a lot more confident with the idea of trying to write things for what I thought American Football could be now. It’s shifted, and we’ve all settled into new roles.”
The new sonic ideas are myriad, and they aren’t mere accoutrements - they’re the ballasts around which these songs are built. ‘Heir Apparent’ goes up an emotional gear at the climax, when the Omaha Children’s Choir step in handle the outro. On ‘I Can’t Feel You’, the arpeggiated, melodic guitars that comprise the band’s calling card are accompanied by fizzing reverb and a chiming twelve-string. Violins flutter in and out, with a friend of the band, Kristina Dutton, given carte blanche to write her own parts rather than any that the group outlined for her. As Mike relates, the conviction throughout seems to have been that more is more. “On the last tour, it felt like the highlight of every show was when all the bells and whistles were going.”
Still, the essence of what earned American Football this second life all these years on remains; the eccentric time signatures, the melancholy brass work and, perhaps most crucially, those oscillating, harmonic guitars. Mike acknowledges that, even as they were pushing as hard as they could in a different direction to before, there were always going to be certain parameters that were immovable - which, going by the example he cites, is probably for the best. “We weren’t going to start writing Anthrax songs all of a sudden,” he deadpans. “I can’t project my voice that way, and there are natural boundaries to what I can do with that - certain keys I’m never going to be able to reach.
“Plus, Steve went so many years without picking up a guitar that it’s almost like it’s stunted his playing, somehow. When he plays something now, it just comes out sounding like American Football, so that tethered us to the original sound of the band. You can get past environmental things, like explaining to the two Steves how recording works now, because they hadn’t been into a studio for seventeen years - but there’s certain other factors that lock us in, in a lot of ways. Which is a nice foundation to have, actually.”
They did find a way around those vocal limitations that Mike talks about, though - one that likely represents LP3’s the most dramatic alteration to the American Football DNA. On his Owen records, Mike has routinely featured female singers as a foil for his own vocals, but until now had taken on the responsibilities for American Football alone. With the group in such adventurous mood, though, they chose first to tap up Elizabeth Powell of tourmates Land of Talk, who sings in French on ‘Every Wave to Ever Rise’; “I wrote the lyrics, but I don’t speak French, so she did some surgery on them, which was fun.”
“We weren’t going to start writing Anthrax songs all of a sudden.”
— Mike Kinsella
Buoyed by how easily that first collaboration went, they set their sights high when they decided that ‘I Can’t Feel You’ - the closest the band have ever come to shoegaze - needed an experienced hand in the field. “It had that sound to it that reminded me of Slowdive, who I loved growing up,” Mike recalls. “You know, that repetitive kind of groove that you just get lost in. So, we reached out to Rachel Goswell. I don’t think she’d ever heard of us before, but she liked the song and said yes, which was pretty incredible.”
Around the same time, it came to the band’s attention that Hayley Williams of Paramore was a fan; it’ll have done their ever-burgeoning fanbase no harm, either, that she was announcing as such to her five million Twitter followers. Increasingly, ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ was developing into a track that crystallised the album’s themes; of ageing and parenthood, and the insecurities that plague both. Just Mike’s voice wasn’t going to be enough; the song would be better served, he reasoned, if it morphed into a sort of almost-duet. “That one was turning into more of a dialogue, especially on the chorus, and we thought about Hayley as somebody who could handle the kind of theatrical treatment we knew it needed. We were still shocked she said yes, though. We were really very, very lucky on all three, especially because, listening back, I can’t imagine anybody else singing those songs now.”
‘Uncomfortably Numb’, in particular, feels like the one track that the band really needed to nail; if the panoramic mid-life crisis of ‘Doom in Full Bloom’ serves as the album’s musical axis, then ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ is the cut around which its emotional weight revolves. If there’s perhaps a reason why American Football, however belatedly, have found the sort of audience that Mike’s Owen albums have yet to, it’s because the words he penned for LP1 were imbued with universal appeal. Lost love, late-collegiate regret, vicious arguments, the wistful glow of the summer twilight - most of us can empathise. As Owen, on the other hand, there’s a hyper-specificity to his writing; in that respect, if you wanted to compare and contrast, The King of Whys makes a great companion piece to LP2 - they were released within three months of each other in 2016.
The little things add up on albums like that one. The direct references to his kids, the name checking of people, records and places, the general sense that he is describing the actual events, rather than being abstract; it all ends up feeling a long way from the old American Football. He lands somewhere in between the two on LP3, and tracks like ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ capture the balance perfectly; that approaching middle age has yet to bring answers to the anxious questions of his youth, or that parenthood can sometimes amplify his feelings of being adrift, is both personal to him and relatable to many.
“What I found with this record is that if you let your ideas sit for a while, you can come back to them a month later and see them from a whole different perspective.”
— Mike Kinsella
“For a long time, with the Owen stuff, I’d just go with my first instinct,” he explains. “And I’d justify it by saying, “well, that’s my voice,” figuratively speaking. If that’s what came out of me, then that’s what should be on the record. I’ve started to take my time more recently, because what I found with this record is that if you let your ideas sit for a while, you can come back to them a month later and see them from a whole different perspective. I never would have come up with the concept for Elizabeth’s contribution if I hadn’t done that. Another big influence was Jason Cupp, our engineer and producer, who was challenging me to move towards making the words more inclusive, a little more open to people who find themselves in similar situations to mine.”
Had a third American Football album not materialised when it did - if he’d gone on and made another Owen record instead - these songs never would’ve taken shape; he’d have been back to writing “for a smaller niche, in a cruder way, for listeners who already know me.” He’s sure of this, he says, because he’s already set tracks aside for the next Owen release. Before then, though, plenty more American Football is on the agenda; they’ll hit the road as they did after LP2, in short sharp spurts that prevent them from being away from their home lives and their careers for too long.
That was a challenge they weren’t sure they could overcome when they first reformed, but they handled it elegantly. That balancing act between family and band is playing out all the time, anyway, not just when they’re on tour; Mike opens the conversation with the immortal line, “how’s it going? Oh, hold on. My dog’s choking.” Nate, meanwhile, jumps on the call late, after he’s put his baby daughter to bed, only for her to loudly announce that he’d failed in his efforts minutes later. “We still feel like we’re figuring it all out, somehow,” says Nate, and his daughter’s protests suggest as much in the background. “We’re still turning things down because we have other commitments, other lives. We’ve got a two week tour coming up, which is the longest straight stint we’ve done without going home. Hopefully, that works alright, but we’ll be sticking to that same, sporadic model as last time, for the most part. At least, until we can start paying for our health insurance with this band. Until we hit the big time!”
‘American Football’ is out now via Big Scary Monsters/Polyvinyl.
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