Under the Covers explores the stories behind iconic album covers.
If you ask anyone outside of Urbana, Illinois, there isn't much to the area other than cornfields. If you ask someone who has lived there, you'll get a different story: probably one about the rich music history engrained all over town.
To classic rock fanatics, there's Illinois Street Residence Hall—the University of Illinois dorm where REO Speedwagon first practiced. To locals, there's Mabel's—a club that's now a two-story frat bar called Bro's, but in its former life was a popular venue which housed acts like Pixies and Soundgarden. But over the past 20 years, a decrepit little house just off campus at 704 W. High St. has become the most unlikely of music landmarks. The white-sided home featured on the cover of American Football's self-titled 1999 album managed to survive decades of college parties, punk shows, and the flash of countless cameras on its way to becoming one of the most recognizable places in emo music.
"I think the house is a thing because for 20 years there were no visuals associated with that band at all," says Chris Strong, the photographer who captured the iconic, tilted shot. "Everyone just sort of held onto the house because there really wasn't anything else to look at."
Photo by Sean Neumann
When American Football originally broke up a few months later in 2000—after just a short string of live shows and one full-length album—no one involved with the band thought much would ever resurface from the short-lived, three-piece college project, especially not the album's cover. But as the record started to gain a cult-like following a few years later, the house became its biggest mascot.
Its legacy is about as surprising as the band's announcement late last month that it would release their first new album in 17 years, donning the same name—and house—on the front cover. This time around, it's a photo from the inside, not the now-famous shot of its exterior, looking up at the home's highest bedroom window.
Matt Lunsford, who runs Polyvinyl Records and helped Strong and American Football put together the artwork for the band's first record, says they deliberately used the same house for the new record's artwork to capture the full scope of the project. Without the house, there would be a piece of the band that's missing.
_Photo by Sean Neumann_
"I wanted to make sure the artwork was not derivative of the first record and it wasn't like, 'Oh, let's go take another picture of the house,'" he says. "But at the same time, that's the only thing that people ever associated with that band."
Often with band reformations, there's a hope that some things haven't changed. For those involved with putting together American Football's comeback album, there was slight relief—and shock—when they discovered the home was more or less the place it was in 1999.
Strong finally returned to the house in 2014 when he shot the music video for "Never Meant" 15 years later and got a tour of his old place from then-resident Jessie Knoles, who lived in there at that time (2013-14). Walking around the house, Knoles showed him the basement he used to live in, which "flooded like crazy" back then and still did the same when Knoles' roommate Johnny Costello lived downstairs at the time.
"The house was really shitty—good shitty, maybe, but still bad," Knoles says. "I think our ceiling was falling apart. The layout of the house was really, really odd. The hallway to the kitchen was so small and there was a door to a pantry in the tiny hallway so when the pantry was open, people from the living room couldn't make it to the kitchen."
Strong puts it more bluntly: "It's not a terribly well-constructed house."
The house's landlord did recently do work on the property, and it's currently available to rent if you want to find out what happens when you test nostalgia against livability. The only difference so far is that the shed haphazardly attached to the side of the house will be torn down, according to landlord Joseph Donley.
Still, those who have lived there know the house can stand the test of time.
"I think I've aged a lot more than that house has in the last 20 years," Strong laughs. He told a similar thing to Lunsford this past May when the two sat outside on the porch after a photoshoot for the new album. The pair sat there and thought back through the last 17 years—about the home, the band's first album, and how much has changed since then. Back then, Strong was just a college kid and Lunsford was figuring out how to run a record label.
Thinking back to that day, Lunsford agrees. "The house is just as crusty as it ever was, but we've aged a lot more," he says, huffing with a sigh of nostalgia. Polyvinyl turned 20 years old this September, so his emotions have been on the forefront.
The house doesn't just invoke memories of the Champaign-based label, though. It's become a defining mark of a specific era in Urbana and in emo music.
For those like Knoles, who lived in the house years after the album started becoming one of Polyvinyl's all-time best-selling records, the chipped white paint, wood siding and heavy upstairs window represent an image that's now been familiar with them since their junior high school days. An avid fan of the band since she was a kid, Knoles had originally signed the lease without knowing it was "the" house. When Knoles found out, the lifetime fan was so excited that she broke in a few days before the lease began on a mission to explore what she knew as "The American Football House" before she called it her own.
"It is weird having something so intricate to my junior high and high school days continue to affect me in my college years," Knoles says. "It's like American Football wouldn't leave me alone."
Like most nostalgic symbols, Knoles had trouble escaping it—even when she moved across the country. Back in February, she saw American Football live at the Neptune Theater her new hometown, Seattle. Low and behold, there it was: "My old college house was the backdrop to their show. All my worlds were connecting."
Photo by Chris Strong
Across the country, Michael Thies felt that same thing while he watched American Football play at Webster Hall in New York City during American Football's original run of reunion shows. Thies grew up in Champaign-Urbana and started working at Polyvinyl in 2010 before moving to New York City to work for the label out there.
"I always had a feeling that I already knew that house just by looking at the record and listening to the record," says Thies, who has worked on the album every day in some fashion since 2010. "I think that comes from growing up and going to shows in Champaign-Urbana. Inevitably, you're going to end up in a basement of a house that looks like that. It always felt familiar to me."
But his tie to the house goes much deeper than his work life, his music taste, or even his childhood. It goes back further than he ever imagined. Nearly a century to be exact.
In early September this year, Michael's brother Adam—who once also worked at Polyvinyl—was researching their family's ancestry and discovered their great-great grandfather Charles M. Webber had died while living at 704 W. High St. on March 14, 1931—68 and a half years before it officially became "The American Football House."
"It's totally bizarre," Thies says. "I feel connected to it because of my personal family history, but also just having grown up in Champaign-Urbana. There's something about representing where we come from through an image like that."
Photo by Chris Strong
For most, that's what the house typically represents. It's a reminder of their home, whether that's the town they're from or the house they used to live in.
Some things have changed there, though. In the late 90s, there used to be a gangway connecting the garage and the house that's no longer there. There was also a decrepit half pipe in the backyard that Sleater Kinney had supposedly once played in. Illinois bands like Smoking Popes, Oblivion, and Apocalypse Hoboken played on the same halfpipe, although most punk shows happened on the back porch when Strong lived there.
One of the most minor changes to the property might be the most symbolic: A series of marks are carved into or spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of the house. They're attempts to mark the exact spot Strong was in when he snapped the legendary photo. They're spots so many emo tourists have stood in since, taking their own versions of the photo and trying to recreate the magic that the then-20 year old had unknowingly created nearly two decades ago.
Photo by Sean Neumann
They're also what continues to haunt the residents living there since American Football's debut album began to resurface.
James Onderdonk, who lived in the house from 2012 to 2013, says it got the point where he would lie to people and tell them the "real" American Football House was down the block.
"One time I was sitting on the porch and some guy came by and asked if he could have his friend take his picture in front of the house," he says. "Presumably, there's a picture out there somewhere of a person pointing at the house and smiling with me in the background drinking beer and scowling."
Photo by Jessie Knoles
But a scowl isn't typically the welcome you'll receive if you're outside the American Football house. Likely, you'll either be welcomed with a smile and a wave, or you'll simply be ignored. Either the person living in the house has never heard of American Football or they moved in knowing what they were getting into. And there's a sense of pride among those who have slept between those four walls or have lived in the historic Urbana neighborhood.
And that's what makes the house so meaningful to those who have it etched into their own history in some way, shape or form.
"For me, a lot of the stuff in the album artwork has to do with Urbana in general instead of specifically that house," Strong says. "It's super dark and kind of rundown, but in a great way. There's dirty corners. There's a nice 'Urbana' thing about Urbana that I can't put my finger on."
And nothing represents it more than the property at 704 W. High St. that has simply become known as "The American Football House."
Sean Neumann is on Twitter - @Neumannthehuman