American Football: Accidental rock stars | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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American Football: Accidental rock stars

This downstate band became heroes to the emo scene after breaking up in obscurity—and 17 years later, they’ve returned with a second album.

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The reunited and expanded American Football: Nate Kinsella, Steve Holmes, Mike Kinsella, and Steve Lamos - ANDY DE SANTIS
  • Andy De Santis
  • The reunited and expanded American Football: Nate Kinsella, Steve Holmes, Mike Kinsella, and Steve Lamos

This year's incoming freshmen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-­Champaign can choose from among roughly 1,400 registered extracurricular groups: more than 100 athletic clubs, including Badminton for Fun and Numenor Foam Fighting, "a full contact sport based on medieval combat"; close to 100 fraternities and sororities; and more than 100 cultural organizations, among them the Phoenix Improv Company, BeatBox Club, and a LARPing society called Elysium on the Prairie. But once those students finish school, not many will continue to care about the stuff they did to amuse themselves between classes, even if they thought at the time that a role in, say, the Illini Voter Coalition might look good on a resumé.

That should've happened to Steve Lamos, Steve Holmes, and Mike Kinsella after they finished their undergraduate degrees at UIUC. While at the school in the late 90s they'd focused on an unregistered extracurricular group, playing together in a basement band called American Football that borrowed from emo, postrock, and woebegone indie rock. By their own accounts, though, the band pretty much ceased to be a factor in their lives in spring 1999—as soon as they finished recording what would become their self-titled debut album. Kinsella and Holmes moved back home to the Chicago suburbs, while Lamos stayed at UIUC and earned a PhD in 2005. Downstate indie label Polyvinyl released American Football in September '99, several months after the group dissolved, and that was that—nobody had any further ambitions for it. "To me it was always just for fun," Holmes says. "I never even considered it as a career. It was like, 'OK, that was fun, now I'm gonna get a job.'"

Holmes now lives in Lake Zurich and works as a director of client services for ADP, which provides payroll and human-­resources management and software. Lamos landed a job at the University of Colorado Boulder within a year of finishing his doctoral degree, and he's currently an associate professor of English there. Kinsella left American Football behind too, though he continued to pursue music—he briefly worked in a day-care center after graduation, but he never tried to turn that or any other straight job into a career, instead focusing on his solo project, Owen, which released its debut album in 2001. In their two years or so as a band, American Football had played only a handful of shows—the lore that's grown up around them says 12, though Holmes told Noisey in February that the real number is somewhere north of 25—and their disco­graphy, which also includes a 1998 CD single, consisted of just a dozen songs. They should've disappeared without a trace, the way thousands of 90s college bands with similar track records did. But unbeknownst to Lamos, Holmes, and Kinsella, American Football began to gather a cult following.

Today American Football is one of the five best-selling albums in Polyvinyl's 20-year history—it's sold more than 75,000 copies, pretty impressive considering that the band didn't exist to promote it in any way. That changed after Polyvinyl announced a two-disc deluxe re­issue of American Football in March 2014. The public response was so intense—pre­order traffic crashed the label's site, and the record peaked at number 68 on the Billboard 200 in June—that Lamos, Holmes, and Kinsella started considering something they'd never talked about before. Soon American Football reunited, and after an unannounced warm-up show at Beat Kitchen in August 2014 (the venue billed it as an Owen gig), they made their grand return to the stage the following month with a headlining set at the Pygmalion Festival in Urbana-Champaign.

American Football became a four-piece when they got back together, with Mike's cousin Nate (aka Birthmark) on bass, and they've since headlined venues many times the size of Beat Kitchen—including Webster Hall in New York, the Electric Ballroom in London, and Shibuya O-East in Tokyo. "It just became this cool, 'Let's get the band back together every couple months' kind of thing," Mike Kinsella says. "We realized if we want to keep doing it, we can't just keep playing 12 songs."


American Football, Low, Joan of Arc Sat 10/29, 7:30 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield, $30-$35, all ages


It took almost a year for American Football to get their heads around the next step in their unlikely reunion. While in the UK to perform at the Reading and Leeds festivals in August 2015, they decided to make another record. When they play the Vic on Saturday, they'll be celebrating their sophomore album, also self-titled but referred to colloquially as "LP2"—it came out on Polyvinyl last week.

"LP2" shares a lot of the distinctive features that made American Football's first album an indie-rock touchstone. The shimmering, overlapping guitars seem to yearn for their own braided melodies the moment after they're played; the tumbling, minimalist drums nudge the songs along and give them a wide-open sense of space; and Mike Kinsella's depressive vocals reinforce the emotional weight of his plainspoken, earnest lyrics. The two records have a couple pretty stark differences, though: Mike sings with a confidence he hadn't developed during American Football's first go-round, and the band sound tighter and more controlled, in large part because they've better matched their skills to their material. They wrote it over e-mail, exchanging song ideas via Dropbox—compared to their old process, Mike says, it was "night and day."

American Football have their roots in Cap'n Jazz, an influential northwest-­suburban emo band that existed from 1989 till '95—Mike Kinsella played drums and his brother, Tim, sang. Holmes first saw Cap'n Jazz during his freshman year at Wheeling High, which he attended with both Kinsella brothers. "They were the coolest band in our high school," he says. Cap'n Jazz introduced Holmes to the network of suburban shows in basements and VFW Halls—he saw the likes of pre-Braid band Friction and Gauge, and he was inspired to pick up the guitar. "You couldn't overstate the influence of Cap'n Jazz for me personally, and for everyone else in our little scene," he says.

Lamos, who'd taken trumpet lessons as a kid, saw Cap'n Jazz in 1995 in downstate Danville. "I'd never experienced that kind of energy, in terms of watching music," he says. "I was like, 'I wanna do this.'" Lamos had played in a jazz band at DePaul his freshman year, but didn't care for what he saw as an academic approach to music; after transferring to UIUC his sophomore year, he tried his hand at bass and then settled on drums, teaching himself with some 1960s instructional books he'd borrowed from his dad. "I was like, 'Oh, I know how to read music books—I could read these "teach yourself drums" kind of things,'" he says. He also figured that as a drummer he'd be in demand in Champaign-­Urbana: "You pick the instrument most of the bands need around town."

Holmes and Lamos briefly played together in late '95, a year or so before American Football formed. Holmes remembers that Lamos "was in some kind of punk band, and they wanted me to join on guitar." He only rehearsed with them a couple times, in part because he was unimpressed with Lamos's drumming. But his friend's next band changed his mind: "When the One Up Downstairs started, I was like, 'Holy shit, Lamos is really good!' He's just sitting at home in his room practicing with his little jazz books, and he just evolved into this incredible drummer in the span of a year." That short-lived group recruited Mike Kinsella too. "I sang, or I tried to sing, in the band," he says.

The One Up Downstairs only recorded a few songs before flaming out in 1996, and Polyvinyl released them digitally in 2006. "They broke up via fistfight," Mike says. Holmes and Lamos began jamming, and because Holmes lived with Mike Kinsella, he got to hear a lot of it. "Holmes would bring home the cassettes of their demos—like, what they were just playing," Mike says. "I was like, 'This part's awesome'—it sounded like Sea & Cake, just repetitive guitar noodles, and then Lamos's really musical drums."

Soon Holmes invited his roommate to join on guitar, and he became the singer by default. "I think we were all looking to try to do something other than just rock or play really loud—so it worked out," Mike says. Their new band, which would become American Football in early '97, drew on disparate influences, including some relatively heady stuff they'd first encountered in college. Holmes says he fell down a rabbit hole that took him from Chicago postrock outfits such as Tortoise and the Sea & Cake all the way to minimalist composer Steve Reich. You can hear them in American Football's glimmering, cycling guitars, and in a 2015 interview for the Song Exploder podcast, Holmes admitted ripping off the Sea & Cake's "Jacking the Ball" for his riff on the sprightly "The One With the Tambourine" (from American Football's debut release, a self-titled three-song EP that Polyvinyl issued in 1998). Lamos mentions using a bossa nova beat on the tune—a flavor the Sea & Cake often borrowed as well.

As a kid Lamos had played violin and trumpet in wedding bands with his father—he specifically mentions polkas—and as a way of honoring his dad, he brought the horn into American Football. "My father and I had an interesting relationship to say the least, but he was a big fan of me playing that trumpet, and the reason I played it was for him," he says. "Every time I get to perform it, I kind of think of him, and it makes me happy that people allow me to play that damn thing in front of them—'cause I have no business doing that."

Mike Kinsella had shared bills with lots of hardcore bands in Cap'n Jazz (who were pretty noisy and frenetic themselves), but he'd long gravitated toward melancholy rock such as the Cure and Red House Painters. His desire to back away from the aggression of hardcore affected his approach to singing, which he was still figuring out. "I was into the Smiths and the Cure, so I just thought lyrics were, like, 'What's the saddest thing you can think about?'" he says.

Mike's early lyrics are strikingly unself-­conscious and poignantly vague, and despite his tendency to write in fragments and snippets, they convey great emotional detail. On "The Summer Ends" he sings, "Thinking about leaving / How I should say good-bye? / With a handshake? / Or an embrace? / Or a kiss on the cheek? / Possibly all three?" His lyrics can feel off-the-cuff, and they often nearly were. "I remember writing some lyrics in class—they weren't a priority," he says. "It was like, 'Oh, OK—we have a show this week. Well, do you want to play six instrumentals and two with lyrics?' And then I'd be like, 'Well, I can probably finish this before the show,' so I banged something out."

The tenderness and tranquility of American Football's music put them at odds with the posthardcore and emo scene that had nurtured them—though in that context, the choice to play quietly can feel just as confrontational as turning up to 11. The dreamlike "For Sure" on American Football opens with a somber, somnambulant trumpet melody, which melts into Kinsella's almost timid vocals. "It's funny that we came out of that scene, but kind of did a hard left and stayed associated with it," Holmes says. "But I never thought of American Football as an emo band."

That's not to say American Football didn't have emo in their DNA. In the liner notes for the deluxe 2014 reissue of American Football, Holmes says he deliberately picked the same guitar tuning for the effervescent "Never Meant" that Victor Villarreal used for Cap'n Jazz's later material. And when you run with emo bands, the label sometimes rubs off on you even when not much else does. As Lamos says, "Now I realize that indie scenes, and music scenes more generally, are just as much about a social group."

In part because of their position as an odd band out in their community, few people seemed to get American Football the first time around. "A lot of our songs live were just totally instrumental, or very sparse vocals," Holmes says. "Like 'Five Silent Miles,' it's just this noodly, meandering thing. If you can picture that at a Champaign college house party where people are used to rocking out and getting drunk, it's kind of, 'What are these guys doing?'"

Thankfully, Mike Kinsella's history in Cap'n Jazz persuaded a few people to give American Football a shot. Holmes's friend Jorge Ledezma (best known from hybridized Latin pop group Allá) remembers seeing the group play to a respectably large crowd at the Fireside Bowl. "They were bad—it was rough to watch," he says. "Steve [Holmes], his back was always to the crowd. It took forever between songs, 'cause they had to tune everything, and that became a joke. [But] when they played a song like 'The 7's' or a song where they really let loose, it was special."

Whether or not American Football felt they were doing something special, they didn't try to make anything of it. Little about their approach could be described as professional. Mike Kinsella never even owned any of the gear he needed for the band. "The guitar he played was Steve Lamos's. The amp he played usually was borrowed from a friend of ours," Holmes says. "We had to borrow that amp to have band practice. Whether or not we could rehearse was dependent on whether or not they weren't rehearsing." Lamos admits that at the time he loved the idea of playing in go-­nowhere basement bands, so he wasn't about to try to whip anybody into shape. "I think I had that problem," he says. "It was all I was thinking about for a while, and it was just silly."

American Football arose to give three college kids a creative way to fight the boredom of living in a town surrounded by cornfields, and as such it had an expiration date. Saddled with loans, Holmes had to find a job immediately once he finished his undergraduate degree. They'd started to burn out on one another's company too—Holmes and Mike Kinsella had lived together for all four of their years at UIUC. A couple weeks after the two of them graduated in May 1999 (Lamos was already in grad school), American Football recorded their debut album onto ADAT tape at Private Studios in Urbana. They broke up without ever playing again, but Polyvinyl decided to release American Football anyway. "We knew at the time that it seemed like more of a project band—it wasn't gonna be a band that was gonna hit the road," says label cofounder Matt Lunsford. "We wanted to document them."

Polyvinyl's catalog includes more than 300 releases, including albums by established indie-rock groups Deerhoof, Of Montreal, and Japandroids, but not one has the extra­ordinary sales history of American Football. "Typically when a band puts out a record and plays a handful of shows, and for whatever reason it doesn't work out and the band parts ways, those records tend to be records that aren't remembered all that long," Lunsford says. "The American Football record is such an anomaly—it came out, and it sold some copies, but people kept buying it." Polyvinyl didn't do much to promote American Football after its initial campaign, but the label kept making the album available—and it kept selling, at first slowly and steadily and then faster and faster.

American Football’s self-titled 1999 album (left) and self-titled 2016 album
  • American Football’s self-titled 1999 album (left) and self-titled 2016 album

"It does seem like it was kind of a ramping up," Lunsford says. "Never exactly a spike, but more a consistently upward trend—and that really seemed to start becoming even more apparent maybe in 2011, 2012." That was when emo's fourth wave—many of whose standard-­bearers had been influenced by American Football—began to break out of basements nationwide.

At around the same time, Holmes found a forgotten trove of American Football demos and show recordings on cassette. Ledezma had bought a cassette-to-digital converter to digitize tapes of some jamming he and Holmes had done together in the early 90s, and Holmes thought of another use for the device. "He's like, 'Hey, you know, I have a bunch of American Football demos and live stuff,'" Ledezma says. "'Just for fun, you want to digitize it and see what it sounds like?'" In fall 2012, Holmes shipped a box of the original tapes to Polyvinyl's headquarters, though the label didn't have any plans for them. "It didn't even occur to us that, 'Oh, this is something that people would like to hear,'" Lunsford says.

With sales of American Football climbing and the album's 15th anniversary approaching, Polyvinyl decided to put together a deluxe reissue—the same reissue whose flood of pre­orders opened the band's eyes to their long-gestating cult following. The label added the best odds and ends from Holmes's cassettes on a second disc. Lunsford thinks that part of American Football's appeal at the time had to do with how little documentation of their original run made it onto the Internet—before the 2014 reissue, it was tough to find anything but the records, their sleeves and inserts, and a few press photos. "I think that created a mystique around the band," he says. "They were an enigmatic band that made this one record, and the vibe of the whole record was based around these photos that this guy Chris Strong took."

The cover art for American Football is a nighttime shot looking up at a second-floor window of the Urbana house where Strong lived while attending UIUC. The house became the image most associated with American Football—it's the closest thing emo has to the Velvet Underground's Warhol banana.

"One of the things that made us start to really take notice that there was something happening with the record that was beyond our knowledge—we see these random things on Tumblr," Lunsford says. "People making a birthday cake with the house, or somebody did a needlepoint of the house." The house has become an unlikely tourist attraction—Lunsford claims that someone has scratched an X on the sidewalk where you can stand to get a photo that looks like the album cover.

Mike Kinsella was the only member of American Football who had an inkling about their popularity, mostly because he maintained an active connection to the emo community by performing as Owen. "I'd play shows and people would ask for 'Never Meant,'" he says. "I didn't realize that American Football was more popular than the thing I was doing for 15 years, until it was slapped in my face." (Holmes and Lamos went on to play in a country-­tinged group called the Geese, which fell apart in the mid-aughts, but their audiences didn't request American Football songs.) American Football started getting offers for reunion shows before the reissue even came out—after it went up for preorders in March 2014, they heard from the Pygmalion Festival, then from bookers in New York.

Mike Kinsella says he placed a precondition on any reunion: this time the band had to have a bassist, and he wanted it to be his cousin Nate. (Originally there was no live bassist—Mike and Lamos recorded a few bass parts for the album.) Nate was already a fan of American Football, so it was an easy sell. "I real­ly identify with the modesty of it," he says. "I agreed to it knowing that I would just be, like, playing invisible frequencies—I would only be playing the root notes. I wanted to be there, to fill out the sound, but add as little as possible and try to stay true to what was on the recording." He also fit into the band's interpersonal dynamics comfortably. "Nate's a big piece of bubble gum," Mike says. "Everybody loves Nate, so he makes everybody get along."

American Football play Webster Hall in New York in October 2014. - RACHEL GULOTTA AND DANIEL INSKEEP
  • Rachel Gulotta and Daniel Inskeep
  • American Football play Webster Hall in New York in October 2014.

Ledezma remembers attending a Bulls game with Holmes and Kinsella after the offers started coming but before they decided to regroup. "Steve and Mike were like, 'We really sucked, and I don't want to suck now,'" he says. "I'm like, 'It can't be any worse than it was the first time around—you guys are probably much better musicians than you were before.' I think that helped them decide."

Today two members of American Football live outside Illinois—Lamos is in Colorado, Nate Kinsella in New York. All three original members have kids, and Nate is expecting his first child soon. Their divergent schedules mean they can't practice often, so when they do it tends to be in 12-hour marathons. The band that used to be a hobby is more of a part-time job. "Each time we get together it's a treat—it's a break from other work, or kids, or real life, just for a few days," Lamos says. "After usually two or three days, everyone's like, 'Oh thank God, we get to go back home and do the things we're supposed to be doing.'"

American Football began testing out new material onstage before they decided to work toward a second album—Holmes says they played an instrumental version of the "LP2" single "I've Been So Lost for So Long" during a four-show run in Chicago around New Year's Eve 2014. They shared 18 or 20 song ideas over Dropbox, then settled on their dozen favorites. With a March recording session fast approaching, Mike had to juggle writing American Football lyrics with work on Owen's ninth album, July's The King of Whys.

"A lot of the immediate, initial critiques—'Oh, this just sounds like Owen'—but it's like, that's just what my voice does. I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to do," Mike says. The band sounds more assured—a product of many more years of experience as musicians—and so does his singing. "Before, the vocals were an afterthought," he says. "It's like, 'Oh, I guess here, if I kind of yell,' and after we already recorded the song I realize, 'That's not even near my range.' I'd just go for it, and it sounds funny. This time we tuned to different keys and different capos—there's all these tricks you can do to fit within my range."

The new album won't please everyone, but American Football still remember when they barely pleased anyone. They already have their critics—Holmes brought his two daughters and son to see the band play at the Wrecking Ball Festival in Atlanta in August. "They're generally unimpressed," he says. "Not their thing." v

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