American Football's eponymous and only album is one of few in existence that has the power to transport those who know it vividly back to a particular time of their lives where they had it on repeat until the person closest to them began to consider homicide. For me, it’s year two of my undergraduate degree. My bedroom is on the ground floor of a busy student road and I’m always catching fragments of conversations as people walk past - “...and that’s why I don’t shave anymore”, “he did what with it?!”, that sort of thing - which I turn into really terrible short stories for a creative writing class. I’m spending too much time half-heartedly chirpsing someone from my hometown on Facebook chat, which results in a lot of pathetic 4am drunk dialling. I wear navy Vans Authentics every day until they quite literally fall off my feet and I am convinced this is why my big toes now turn inwards to hug my little ones like they’re afraid of being isolated. My hair is cut to look like Edie Sedgewick circa when she did way too many drugs. I am also doing way too many drugs.
So, as American Football, the Illinois-based emo granddaddies, step out in front of a massive backdrop of the house at London’s Electric Ballroom and launch into “Five Silent Miles” my face involuntarily breaks into the kind of smile that would cause people to move away from you on a bus - not because the memory of my former self is embarrassing, but because re-visiting your adolescence is a bigger trip than living through it the first time. I imagine having to revisit and re-learn the material you wrote at that age and play it in front of thousands of people, most of whom have spent more time with it than you have, would provoke much the same feeling.
The “reunion tour” has become a common narrative over the last few years for 90s bands who used to play to rooms of under 100 people back in the day (see: Mineral, Texas is the Reason, Refused and Braid to name a few) to return now that they have somehow gained hundreds of thousands of fans. Each of these band’s decision to tour has each been received to varying degrees of skepticism. So when American Football announced last year that they would be reforming for a string of shows worldwide, many simply refused to accept it. Their self-titled album is the definitive coming-of-age record about failed relationships and wistfulness, written by four friends dealing awkwardly with puberty. Wouldn’t it sound insincere, now, coming from four middle-aged men with wives, children and all the other stuff that accompanies certified adulthood?
Admittedly, that was an initial concern for me too; did I really want to run the risk of feeling like an album that meant so much to me had been devalued? That all quickly went out the window, though, when I realised that I also really value fun. Besides, if you wrote the quintessential emo record when you were a teenager, played a grand total of 12 shows - all of which took place in basements between 1997 and 2000, went on to influence literal hundreds of bands in the decades to come, and fifteen years later more people than ever wanted to hear that record live, you’d probably say “fuck it” and take it out for one last spin, too. It’s not like the band members have spent last decade and a half staring out the window at their desk jobs, thinking about their instruments at home gathering dust and wondering whether or not to flog the proverbial horse. From Cap’n Jazz to Owls, Joan of Arc to The One Up Downstairs, Owen to Birthmark, the two Kinsella’s and Steve’s that comprise American Football are responsible for contributing a decent chunk of music to the Polyvinyl catalogue. The way I see it, the only reason they would have to breathe life back into American Football is because they wanted to.
When I interviewed Mike Kinsella about it last year, he compared the sentiment to “an '80s movie about these old dudes getting the band back together." And I guess if you had any hope of enjoying these reunion shows, you had to be okay with that. The songs may be the same, but American Football are now a very different band. They can’t possibly sing the lyrics “I’ll see you when we’re both not so emotional,” with the same conviction as an inept late-teen trying to navigate a failed relationship, but then, can any of us really sing along with the same sincerity either? The majority of the audience is in their late twenties, at least. Though most people in the room probably know better, that doesn’t make it any less relatable, it just means the sincerity is replaced with retrospection; a communal thought process of “Remember what a dickhead I was? Remember that life of self-sabotage and resulting loneliness? That was good, wasn’t it.”
People went to these shows anticipating heartbreak, equipped with packets of tissues in case memories of “the one that got away” came flooding back on a wave of fear induced by their approaching 30th birthday. Reviews I’ve read have described the gigs as “solemn” even. But my personal experience was less tears in beers and more on par with a family reunion (in an alternate universe where everyone in your family likes all the same music as you and stuff) or the event we all talk about but has never, ever happened: getting everyone you met at uni back together for the biggest booze up since Carnage. In the spirit of things, Mike threatens to do Oasis covers - “You guys are gonna get your money’s worth”, he jokes, before launching straight into “Never Meant”, which he messed up.
I mean, imagine fucking up what is probably the most beloved song on the most significant record in emo history in front of thousands of people who have been waiting decades to hear it reverberate through an actual venue. It’s enough to make even the most casual American Football fan wince, but in the end, it’s inconsequential. Tonight isn’t about witnessing a bombastic, important event in cultural history, or even finally realising something you’ve been longing for. It’s about people re-living a certain point in time - musically and sentimentally - flaws and all.
Reflecting briefly on his mistake, Mike says: “You know who’s not my favourite tonight? Me.” Then he plays the melody again in the style of a pop punk riff before picking up where they left off. And everyone forgave Mike Kinsella, because it’s Mike Kinsella.
With Mike, you get the feeling that fun always comes first. I’ve interviewed him over Skype while he was at home with his daughter doing “dad stuff”, and I’ve bumped into him in a bar after an Owen show when he proceeded to drink me and most of my friends under the table and I puked in a sink. He plays with the masterful indifference (or arrogance, I can’t decide which) that can only come from being really, really good at what you do and having done it for your entire adult life. When Mike’s on stage, there’s always this air that the people watching and listening are taking the music far more seriously than he is. On this tour, especially, that worked in his favour. It made it more meaningful; there was a tangible sense of things unfolding naturally rather than being forced forward under the weight of importance placed on it by new generations.
American Football only have 12 songs in total, which may make for an incredibly indulgent basement show in Champaign-Urbana but doesn’t go as far as some would like on a headline slot of an hour and a half minimum. “Thanks. We don’t have any more songs, sorry,” Mike says at the end of the encore, “But we’ll see you guys in the pub.”
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