Revisiting the legacy of American Football as the influential band returns with a new album

Photo from Pitchfork

For a band with very little actual music, American Football’s impact is astounding. In 1995, Mike Kinsella and Steve Lamos, following the dissolution of their band The One Up Downstairs, started to jam together and write songs. About a year later, Steve Holmes joined the band on guitar, and along with Lamos on drums and Kinsella vocals and guitars, American Football’s lineup was set.
The band’s inception came while all three members were students at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana. This put them right in the middle of the burgeoning midwestern emo scene which had started to emerge in the early ‘90s. Kinsella was already well-acquainted with the scene, having played in two other influential emo bands, Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc, while attending high school in Chicago. While writing songs as American Football, however, Kinsella, Lamos and Holmes made a very conscious effort to push away from the emo and post-hardcore bands around them. It wasn’t that they didn’t like that sound, but, as Kinsella has explained, “we were determined to be quieter than that, more post-rocky and jazzy than loud and aggressive.”
One of the most frequently cited sources of inspiration for the band is minimalist composer Steve Reich. They have said that the weaving guitar interplay which has become part of their signature sound was directly inspired by Reich’s compositions. Other influences include post-rock bands from nearby Chicago, like Tortoise and The Sea And The Cake, early math-rock bands like Slint, and, as Kinsella puts it, “super sad shit” in general. Their wide range of influences, all built on top of the sounds explored by Kinsella with Cap’n Jazz, came together to create the American Football sound that has shaped so many bands since.
By 1999, only about three years after the band first came together, American Football had already decided to break up. Their only recorded music at that point was a three-song EP released the previous year, so they decided to go into the studio and record whatever they had left and then call it quits.
“We finished the whole thing in a week and handed Matt the mastered tapes and broke up. No press, no record release show, no supporting tour or anything.” Little did they (or anyone) know that the nine songs that came out of that studio session would eventually become one of the most important pieces of music to come out of the ‘90s. The self-titled album opens up with “Never Meant,” with Holmes’ and Kinsella’s guitars intertwining to construct an unforgettable opening riff, drifting along to Lamos’ 6/4 drumbeat. Kinsella’s pained vocals float in and out, offering wistful takes on heartbreak, failed relationships and teenage regrets.
The rest of the album follows a similar pattern. Twinkly guitars, almost always in different tunings, play off of one another in odd time signatures—some songs even feature multiple time signatures throughout the same song—with Kinsella’s anguished lyrics matching the melancholy tone of the dreamy guitar work. In addition to his exceptional drumming, we can hear Lamos’ trumpet offering warm melodies in place of vocals on tracks like “The Summer Ends” and “For Sure.” The centerpiece of the album, though, is the sprawling, eight-minute, post-rock masterpiece “Stay Home.” The song features Kinsella lamenting the woes of social interaction, with shifting guitar harmonies that one can’t help but get lost in.
After the breakup, the band members more or less forgot about “American Football.” Kinsella continued making music with his solo project, Owen, while Lamos and Holmes got jobs and settled down with their families. Meanwhile, “American Football” was slowly but surely building steam amongst young indie rock fans. The record’s heartfelt and emotional tone seemed to resonate very deeply with teenagers and college kids from all over. It has gotten to the point now where “American Football” is viewed as a quintessential album in the ‘90s indie rock canon, and a sort of rite of passage for young emo fans. Over the course of the last decade or so they’ve inspired an entire generation of emo bands. Their twinkly guitar harmonies and experimentation with different time signatures can be heard all across indie rock. In 2014, following a reissue of the album, the band agreed to reunite and have since been selling out venues across the world. And now, after nearly two decades, Kinsella, Lamos and Holmes have decided to put out a new American Football album, due out Oct. 21 on Polyvinyl.
From the start, American Football was intended only to be a side project. It was something for Kinsella, Lamos and Holmes to do in between classes and school work, a way to eat up time. “Braid (a popular emo band also from Champaign) made it because they toured non-stop and played 250 shows a year which we couldn’t do,” Kinsella said in an interview. “We were never expecting to make any money or anything like that.”
Their attitude is actually a big part of what made the record so magical. It was just three college kids sitting around making music; it was pure and sincere. It’s also, however, what makes the thought of a new record, 17 years later, so polarizing. Since American Football’s break-up, Kinsella has released 10 albums as Owen, not to mention his work with bands like Owls, Their / They’re / There, and Joan of Arc. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that his songwriting skills have only sharpened since then. What’s missing, however, is the context. All three members are nearing 40. Steve Lamos is an English professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Steve Holmes works in IT. They are no longer angsty college kids singing about their teenage feelings — they are selling out shows nationwide and selling more records than any of them would have begun to imagine was possible. Many bands have made music that is more technically complex and emotionally raw, but few have been as successful in translating the feeling of being young and disillusioned in a way that resonates with people the way “American Football” did. While there is no doubt that the talent is still there, whether or not they will be able to recapture the magic of their college days is less certain.

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