The story first appeared on VICE Quebec.
Like many people my age, I discovered American Football in a formative period of my youth. I was already into third-wave emo and was starting to cultivate an interest in post-hardcore. On a forum, someone suggested I check out this band, who were apparently the pioneers of modern emo; a bunch of kids who recorded a perfect album and then broke up.
From the first notes of the opening track of their 1999 self-titled debut album, “Never Meant”, you get the sense that there is something very important about this record, while never really being able to pinpoint exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the twinkly guitar arrangements, or the weird time signatures of the drums, or Mike Kinsella’s hyper-honest and sensitive lyrics.
Earlier this week I was sitting on the steps of the altar-turned-stage in a church in Ste-Thérèse, a suburb of Montreal. Around me were the guys in American Football, getting ready for their very first show in Québec. Singer Mike Kinsella started to freestyle a religious hymn, and they all laughed.
It was fitting that a band which many fans treat like religious figures would play a show in a church. Like me, a legion of kids around the world heard the Illinois band’s first record years, decades even, after it came out and the band had split.
“People often come up to me and say ‘I was born after your first album came out!’” says Steve Lamos, the drummer for the band. “But it’s kind of cool. At one of the gigs we recently played, there were a few people in the front row who were older than we were, but there were also little kids, and teenagers. So it’s cool to think that the music doesn’t only resonate with peers or people your age. ”
American Football started in 1997, shortly after Cap’n Jazz, pioneers of 90s Midwestern emo, broke up. After having been behind the drums with them, Mike Kinsella took up guitar and vocal duties in American Football, while Steve Holmes played guitar and Steve Lamos played drums and trumpet. After releasing a demo in 1998, the band put out a self-titled LP in September of 1999, and quietly broke up a few months later, after finishing college. The album achieved moderate success at the time, and for many years, the band was basically forgotten. Thanks to the Myspace-era internet, the album later became a cult classic, prompting label Polyvinyl to press it in 2004 and, a decade later, American Football was putting on a festival reunion tour.
“We kept saying no to offers, until we realized people were into it, kind of. We were offered festival gigs, and it made sense,” Kinsella said. “ It wasn’t that hard to convince us to do a couple of shows, and then we kind of got tricked into doing more.”
Of course, after not being a band for 15 years, things had changed. The band split at the end of the 90s, when its members graduated from college and moved in different cities. Lamos lives in Colorado, where he teaches drums at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Holmes and Kinsella relocated to Chicago, where the latter started a successful solo musical project, Owen. They are now all in their 40s and have children, which makes tour life tough, especially for those who hadn’t lived it in a while.
In January 2016, the band entered the studio to start recording their second self-titled album. Given the distance that separated them, they usually proceeded by sending each other audio file, before meeting in studio to finalize songs. “Do you have kids?”, asks Lamos, to which I answer that I do not. “You’ll see man, when you have kids, you can get so much stuff done in 2 days! When we meet up, we work 12 hours a day, and it’s much more productive than how we used to work. We don’t just sit around and drink beer and work on 2 or 3 songs.”
Having kids, as the band explained to me, has a huge influence on the offers they accept, or more often, refuse. “We tour sporadically, we don’t do big tours anymore,” says Mike Kinsella.
“We’re doing about 40 dates on this one, and that’s pretty big for us,” adds Lamos. “That means that for every day we’re out here, somebody is at home watching our kids, picking up slack. So we owe those people a lot, but it also puts an interesting bond on it. It’s fun, but I don’t want to do this for three months at a time.”
At this point, I realized that this was the perfect occasion to get life and parenting advice from heroes of mine, and I encouraged them to tell me more. First of all, everyone in the band but Holmes agrees, my thirties will be better than my twenties. “When you hit 30, you’re like ‘OK, I’ve made it’, and you care less and less. You just get a different perspective and you know that you don’t have the obligation to go hang out with people that make you feel shitty,” says Nate Kinsella, Mike’s cousin who joined the band when they reunited.
“My advice is enjoy it until you can’t enjoy it anymore. And then don’t try to keep enjoying it and ignore the rest of your life, ‘cause that’s your real life,” adds Holmes. “I think the reason this works for us is because on any given day, the band is the like the 30th most important thing we have going on, so we don’t take it so seriously. When we do it, it’s fun and it’s great. But in the grand scheme of my life, it’s not that big a deal.”
I ask the band members if they suspected 20 years ago, when recording their first album, that it would become a cult classic a decade later, allowing them to reboot their music career in their late 30s.
“Not at all!” Holmes said, laughing. “I don’t think we would have made the same music if we wanted to be popular. It was just a thing to do. Polyvinyl gave us $2000 and six days to record it, and everything was wrong. It was just cool to have it as a document for us to keep and say that we had been in this band when we were in college.”
“The first Pitchfork review of this record is terrible, they rip us to shreds! They were jerks, it was real petty,” adds Lamos.
Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the mistakes in playing the guys may have made onstage. I was perfectly happy to simply see them after all these years of waiting. In a flash, all my hyper-hormonal teenage emotions came back and hit me like a cannonball to the chest, and I sat there, blissfully taking it all in. I know all their songs by heart, and I’m not the only one who does.
Being such an important band for a whole genre of music (“I sometimes ask my wife, if we’re at a dinner or something, to refer to me as the Godfather of Emo. She never does”, confides Mike), it must be extremely stressful to know that there’s a bunch of nerds in the room who learned to play their instruments by listening to American Football LP1, and intimately know every single note of every song, even mistakes that might have made their way on the record.
“I’ve never quite thought about it that way, but thanks for implanting that thought in my head,” Lamos said. “But I think our crowd is fairly forgiving. I teach college, and so few kids care about my music. Not in a negative way, but I’m just a teacher and it’s a very humbling thing. But it’s just a tiny little slice of our lives. Our kids don’t listen to us, they don’t care about this!”