Staying Home: American Football at 20

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So many years removed from the release of their first self-titled album, it’s clear that even the members of Illinois-based band American Football are surprised they’re still here. In the midst of a reunion tour in support of their debut album’s 2014 reissue, vocalist and lead guitarist Mike Kinsella sat down for an interview with Nevin Martell of FILTER Magazine; when asked for his opinion on what journalists had gotten right in their analysis of the band’s efforts, he had but one thing to say: “The fact that anybody cares this far down the road is cool.” The reunion clearly bore no expectation of new material, and certainly little more beyond a few months’ worth of tour dates. It seemed that, by year’s end, the band and its repertoire of twelve songs would die the same death it had in the summer of 2000. Five years later, we possess the counterfactual. The band now counts, alongside its debut, two additional self-titled albums, the third of which saw release this past March. Previously known for their lack of live appearances, the three-turned-foursome has, to date, played in sixteen countries on four continents. With a distinct yet unassuming visage, the Urbana, Il. home that graces the album’s cover has become not only a symbol of middle American suburban angst, but also a piece of living history. And on its twentieth birthday, American Football (hereafter referred to as ‘LP1’) is as relevant as ever—an authentic study of introversion, melodrama, and the irrevocability of transition.

For all intents and purposes it is an album that should not exist, the consequence of a chance jam session between guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos. Kinsella—as the two Steves’ mutual associate—took interest in this arrangement, having previously played with Lamos in the since-dissolved group The One Up Downstairs. With the belief he “could add something,” the trio coalesced as American Football, dubbed so by a poster seen somewhere on Urbana-Champaign’s campus. In an embrace of these relatively impromptu circumstances, in 1995 the band would begin shaping early concepts for songs that would appear on their 1998 self-titled EP‌ and on LP1 from long, meandering jam sessions that undoubtedly informed the latter release’s post-rock foundations. So, too, would the threesome’s mutual appreciation of experimental/minimalist composer Steve Reich, whose work inspired the group to seek out novel guitar arrangements centered around differing yet intersected key signatures.

The record would eventually emerge from an intersection of punk, jazz, and Electric Counterpoint, yet would remain but a concept until the eleventh hour when the trio moved to record under the auspices of producer and former Poster Children drummer Brendan Gamble —fewer than five days before Kinsella and Holmes were set to move back to Chicago. Melodically, lyrically, and instrumentally incomplete, the record was finished in-studio with each member picking up some degree of slack; Kinsella on bass, Lamos with his now-infamous trumpet, and Holmes as The One With the Wurlitzer.

Released 14 September, 1999 on Matt and Darcie Knight Lunsford’s Polyvinyl Records, American‌ Football was intended to be the first and last of its name. The band had little intent of touring extensively behind the record but found supporters in Lunsford and Knight who had cut their teeth as fanzine publishers and chroniclers of Midwestern DIY‌ and emo music. LP1 would make mildly successful rounds in college radio circles over the subsequent several months by way of Mike’s association with brother Tim’s indie rock outfit, Joan of Arc; even still, this would not motivate the two Steves and Kinsella to seek out fame, fortune, and meaning on the road. After a handful of shows in the Midwest and New York, Kinsella and Holmes returned to Chicago as intended while Lamos would make his way to Colorado to settle in as an academic. There, did American Football’s story end, with no expectation that it would ever continue. A fixture of word-of-mouth and a textbook cult phenomenon, LP1 would prove significant to a great many emo fans who would hail the record a classic in a genre where the term ‘classic’ is oftentimes foreign vocabulary.

For a project created essentially off the cuff, LP1 is characterized by a great deal of complexity and rhythmic precision, largely to the credit of Holmes’s and Kinsella’s backgrounds in post-hardcore and to the works of the aforementioned Reich. The dissonance of math rock and its high degree of structure was something with which‌ Kinsella was familiar, having developed a great deal of skill on guitar during his time writing and playing in Cap’n Jazz. Holmes and Kinsella each possessed vocal capacity, but the two Steves opted to place Kinsella on vocals; in an interview with VICE’s TJ‌ Kliebhan: “Mike became the singer by default because I [Holmes] couldn’t play those fast picky parts and sing at the same time.” Be not fooled by the relative simplicity of Kinsella’s lyricism, for underlying are guitar parts rife with math rock magic. One could encapsulate the record’s complexity in second act opener “But The Regrets Are Killing Me,” played at a brisk pace in A-major with no fewer than seven time signature changes in a matter of ten measures.

Kinsella’s strained, highly emotive vocals would thereby become a hallmark of early 2000’s emo, a movement that realized the inurement of math rock structure toward vocal performance despite its lack of priority in the mix. American Football would not be the first group, nor LP1 the first album, to intermix post- and math rock with emo sensibilities—see Tiny Moving Parts, TTNG, The Dismemberment Plan, Slint—but their debut would establish the trio among worthy progenitors of bands such as Algernon Cadwallader and Foxing. If nothing else, they flew the banner post-hardcore group Rites of Spring had hung up when they dissolved in 1986; there’s a great deal to say about Sunny‌ Day Real Estate and Jimmy‌ Eat World, but there’s something really special about American Football.

I hadn’t garnered a great deal of interest in this album until I had become aware of the release of the band’s second album in 2016. In the grand scheme, I will never truly understand LP1’s impact as circumstances and history had intended. The universality of human experience has undoubtedly informed this record’s significance as the quintessential autumnal emo record, yet its cover image, the light of an attic bedroom shining alone on a melancholy evening, is but the most superficial of nods to a somnolent and bucolic America where adolescence and young adulthood manifest themselves, for lack of a better word, differently. Testaments of fans from across the world speak to grief for moments lost to the sands of time, for evenings spent in parked cars or darkened homes among friends, for significant others whose love was so visceral yet so transitory. It’s a life I cannot understand, but it’s an understanding for which I yearn in the same way Vincent Van Gogh sought escape in his ideas of Japan. In a more ironic form, humorous subversions of the album’s themes and iconography—a version of its cover stating “I did not have fun in 10th grade;” a doctored photo of the house on fire; the endless riffs on album opener “Never Meant”—symbolize a deep appreciation at intersections of personal and comedic experience with archetypes of emo subculture. Call it twee, call it sophomoric, call it what you want—this record has lived so many different lives, and I have to wonder if mine, geographically and experientially disparate as it is, is among them. Maybe I should’ve gone to Mizzou after all.

In May, the band—now consistent of the core trio plus Kinsella cousin Nate—appeared on KEXP‌ 90.3 FM, Seattle’s public alternative radio station, for a short live performance in support of a pair of shows in the Seattle-Vancouver area. While three of the four songs they performed came from their latest (in my opinion, wonderful) self-titled album, the band ended their time on air with a rendition of LP1 closer “Stay Home” in medley with “The One With‌ The Wurlitzer.” Awash in reverb and pedal modulation, Kinsella’s vocals ebbed into a mix of guitar and vibraphone just as quickly as they crested, accenting the song’s already melancholy atmosphere with a degree of sparseness and negative space. While likely among the dozens of times the pair of songs has been played live, on this occasion their performance feels oddly significant. With a third record now under their belt, the future seems truly uncertain for a band that eluded reunion for so long. We’ve certainly not lost them yet, but if they were to announce an end with finality to American Football tomorrow, I’d call it nothing other than a poignant yet fitting underline to a mythology developed by a single record alone. 

And that’s life

Alec Chao