[Editor's Note: Welcome to the latest edition of Teen Time!, our column by and for teens. Our teen's name is Eli (he's above). Eli is from New Jersey, and in the past, we forced him to spend his snow day listening to new wave, and he has also interviewed his teachers, his classmates, and his dad about music. This week, Eli The Teen was having some feelings and wanted to interview architect of modern emo Mike Kinsella (of American Football, Owen, Cap’n Jazz, etc.) about teen emotions. It's teen time, baby!]
“I wasn’t that far out of my teens, so I don’t know what the hell I was talking about. I suppose it was more emotions, I’m guessing. I didn’t know what I was thinking.”
Mike Kinsella is talking about the writing process for “Honestly?,” from American Football’s 1999 eponymous debut LP. The track succinctly captures the ambiguity of adolescent feels—“Honestly I can't remember / All my teenage feelings / And the meanings” —but Kinsella seems to just brush it off. When he wrote the song, and all of American Football, Kinsella was caught in the limbo of his early twenties.
The recent “emo revival” has spawned a new generation of genre followers including me, and Kinsella is ubiquitously known as the movement’s Christ figure. I discovered American Football’s 1999 album (their sole full-length) freshman year of high school, after seeing it pop up on the pages of some “emo revivalist” Facebook friends. It’s been a pillar in my high school music vernacular ever since. Besides their coverage of teenage melancholia, American Football’s calm, unadorned attitude has made them unique emo. In May of last year, that attitude enabled them to execute a great reunion. It was simple: they reissued their 1999 album with some bonus content, accompanied by an ample, but not overloaded tour schedule (their first in over a decade).
The hormones rushing through my pubescent body and the agony of high school banality are both catalysts for overthinking, sexual frustration, humdrum, and other stupid shit. Trying to find the meanings of my feelings is futile, so I get American Football; especially stuff like “Honestly?”
Seeking a wiseman’s take, I got a hold of Kinsella to muse on all those teenage feelings.
Noisey: I know [Kinsella’s preceding band] Cap’n Jazz and American Football happened close by each other. American Football seems to have had a much more “mature” approach to reminiscing about teendom and the general past than Cap’n Jazz. What do you think?
They were kind of close, but they weren’t that close. Their albums came out maybe like four years apart. Writing the lyrics and stuff in Cap’n Jazz was all my brother [Tim], and he was more interested in wordplay and was a lot more clever than I was. I was sort of more straightforward. I’m sure that’s why they come across as super different. They’re different musically too, like American Football was precise and planned, and Cap’n Jazz was a lot more about energy and youthful spirit I suppose.
Even though you didn’t write lyrics in the band, did you and Tim strive to encapsulate teendom in some sort of way with Cap’n Jazz?
I can’t speak for lyrics, but, as I said, that sort of energy—when we were doing Cap’n Jazz reunion shows there was less of, “Can we get up there and sing these songs or play these songs?” as much as, “Can we put the necessary energy into it?” So we may play them faster than they’re supposed to be, even though we’re old and tired all the time. I think there is a definite teenage angst/youth feel to them, but it’s not directly or specifically [the focus]. It’s implied by the sloppiness and the hecticness of it.
Did schoolwork ever get in the way of your Cap’n Jazz stuff, or did you balance the two out?
No, I don’t think it really got in the way with Cap’n Jazz. I was in a band all four years of my high school. Our show route would be like, spring break we’re gonna go as far as we can drive in three days and then work our way back in three days. And then summer we could get away for maybe a couple weeks at a time, before my mom would start to worry. Yeah, I don’t remember schoolwork so much. [Laughs]
So Cap’n Jazz was your main outlet in high school, but during your spare time did you ever get into emotions and stuff like that? Just overthinking stuff when you weren’t focusing on the band?
Oh sure. [Laughs] That’s what you’re supposed to do in your free time when you’re a teenager. Cap’n Jazz was a great outlet for that. And socially it was so fun to have this band, like every week we’d be playing shows in friends’ basements, so you knew people from other high schools and all the other bands that you’re friends with. Yeah, the rest of the time was spent sitting in my room in the dark listening to The Smiths or something.
And you mentioned The Cure before [via text message]. How did they play into your life?
Oh they were huge. Tim brought a record [of theirs] home. I was probably in like fifth or sixth grade, so he was in seventh grade or eighth grade—and they were huge. I’m still writing music that’s sort of corny and emotional. My wife will be like, [bemusedly] “What’s that song about?” And I’m like, “Oh it’s no big deal, I’m just trying to write songs like Robert Smith.” They were so formative in how I learned, Oh this is what songs are about, like about love gone wrong or something. [Smith’s] super important as a songwriter.
Do you have a favorite Cure album?
Probably Disintegration, as a whole album.
Getting back to American Football, the album really harnesses the melancholy of teendom and young adulthood. Did you notice if the sadness of being a teen was similar to that of young adulthood, or was it a different kind of sadness?
[Chuckles] Probably a similar sadness. With those songs, I had this little journal of lines written down. Some of them were from a couple years earlier, when I left high school and headed to go to college. I was overwhelmed in leaving a relationship and starting something new. The rest of it, which we recorded right before I graduated college, was in the same exact spirit. It was like, “Well I’m leaving another school to go to a different thing and possibly begin a relationship.” I think it was both young adult and teenage experience.
You mentioned before how with Cap’n Jazz, when you were performing around town or at different venues, you knew kids from different high schools and bands. With American Football, when you performed, was there also that sense of community?
Yeah, same type of thing. Cap’n Jazz was the suburbs of Chicago and then American Football we were down in Champaign, Illinois, which is where I went to college. And it was the same thing, where every weekend there’d be house parties. We didn’t play too many of them, we weren’t really a live band, but we played a handful of them. If we weren’t playing, we were still going and supporting all our friends who were in all the other bands. Braid would play like once a week and we’d go see them.
Have you shown any of your kids your music?
No, I’ve never really sat them down. They get enough of it, with me just walking around the house holding a guitar. My six-year-old, up until the past year or two, she’d walk up to the guitar and just slap her hand on it, telling me to be quiet. They call it “going to work” whenever I go play shows, so that’s cool. I get a little respect from them.
What kind of music do they like? Do they listen to music yet?
Cartoon music and stuff still. When they were born, we got GG Allin onesies and Misfits onesies, but nothing [my wife and I] do has really any influence on them. They just like their cartoon bands. Nickelodeon bands.
Yeah, like Yo Gabba Gabba! and stuff like that?
Yeah. Yo Gabba Gabba!’s pretty good.
Eli Zeger is a Teen so he's obviously Twitter.