GoldFlakePaint meets… | American Football

by Tom Johnson

Clinging on to the lyrics like they could somehow change everything. The slow but inevitable passing of time, the wrong choices we made, the regrets that were slowly killing us. Closing our eyes to the intricate sways of guitars and recalling; the faces of our friends, the rooms we grew up in, the towns we once felt we belonged to. Feeling at once a part of something but also more removed than ever before. From the outside looking in and getting further and further away.

What American Football achieved on their one and only full-length record is miraculous. A striking, vibrant and utterly unique document of a time and a life that was rushing away from them before it’d even begun. Three friends at the end of college, a few basement shows, a few late-night jams and then, out of nowhere, for nobody, a collection of songs that mattered. Really mattered, to those that found it. And then slowly, over time, more and more hands finding it, feeling for the cracks, listening for the small sighs that might somehow inform them. The pictures faded, the memories muddled, but with them an anticipation for more. For a reminder, for greater things, or maybe just for the chance to feel it all again. To stand right there on the cusp, the smell of greatness in the air, the thrill of a life stretched our in front of you but mixed with a sadness that now seems incomprehensible, silly almost. Like catching a reflection of yourself in the mirror and suddenly realising you’ve looked this way all along.

But for a moment it was there. For a moment we had it. Carried on shoulders, our sweat mixing with the sweat of others in a beautiful confusion of love and growth and solemnity. Them and us. You and I. Leaping out in to a world that maybe had it all.

You can’t miss what you forget, so we choose simply to remember. Over and over and over again.

GFP: Does it feel strange to be back in the american football role? Is it odd to be revisiting characters that must feel like a different life now?

Mike Kinsella: Yeah, exactly, that’s a good way of putting it. We basically spent a couple of weeks hashing out the details; how we should do this and if we could, and should do this. But the shows are so far away still, I don’t think I’ve assumed that role yet, not really. Obviously when I have to get in front of people and sing those old songs again then I guess it’ll be a different story. Just now it’s kind of fun, I get to do some interviews and talk about it all and re-hash the past, which is always fun.

At this point I’m sort of putting off having to admit that I actually have to get up there and sing some of these lines that I can’t really relate to as a grown man anymore. It should be fun though; everyone knows what we’re getting in to here, both us as the musicians and the people coming to the shows.

What were the deciding factors when it came to making that decision?

It’s weird, we’ve been asked every so often and I’ve always said no. I always felt like we weren’t really a real band when we were a band, so why would we do a reunion? But with Polyvinyl doing the reissue, it just felt right this time. Me and guitarist Steve got together and went to a basketball game in the city a couple of weeks before the meeting and I got to hang out with this person I used to be friends with and I was like “Oh yeah, this is fun!”

So I think, for whatever reason, it just made sense this time. We all asked ourselves, and each other, if we could do it justice and to be honest we’re all still worried about that! But we’ll have a bass player with us and a guitar tech for the weird tunings, so if we can do it properly it’ll be both fun and worthwhile.

So are you looking forward to it now that’s it’s this living, breathing thing that’s happening?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve got a few other tours with other bands to keep me busy in the meantime but we have our first practice all together in two weeks, so it’ll be exciting to see where we’re at…and where we’re not at.

Do you expect it to feel odd being back in the same space together again?

Yeah…yeah! A couple of us played a month or two ago, without a bass player, and we just spent the day trying to remember the parts. It feels like a different role to me, compared to what I’ve been playing in other bands, so that’s been fun.

I wanted to ask you about the nostalgia associated with reunions, but then I realised that this record always felt nostalgic, from the moment it was released. Was it born out of nostalgia?

Yeah, sort of. A lot of the songs didn’t have lyrics or melodies when we went in to the studio, but I have this little notebook with lyrics and some writings or whatever and that’s definitely the main sentiment. That’s what bound them all together. That’s a funny way to say it but I agree with you; it was immediately nostalgic.

Were you surprised by the lyrics that you produced then?

At the time I was. A couple of weeks ago it suddenly hit me that I’ve got a whole career writing these lyrics, it wasn’t only on that record, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised! Whenever my wife complains about my longing lyrics, my complaining all the time, I always say that the bands in my formative years all wrote such sad songs! The Smiths, The Cure, The Sundays… If you look at the lyrics they’re so sad and blunt, so it’s just how I thought that writing music had to be. I’d avoided pop-punk until I met my wife in my late twenties, so I didn’t have that quirky music side to me, it was all just sincere heavy shit.

Are you a particularly nostalgic person?

Umm…, not really. Literally the house I grew up in, which my Mom has had her whole life, is being sold today and she’s moving out. I was in it yesterday for the last ever time and I just thought “Man, I should be feeling something right now but I’m not!” I’m sure it’ll hit me again, when I’m not ever back there again but, I don’t know…

I miss being young – as an old guy. I miss youth in general, I guess. I don’t pine for specific details from my past too much though – and if I do they tend to just come out in a song and then I’ve dealt with it.

Do you think you could have made the record that you did had the three of you were to get together now?

Musically? Oh it wouldn’t be anything like that. I know for a fact that the other Steve’s wrote some songs together with a couple of other guys soon after we’d recorded American Football and it sounded very different. I guess Owen stuff kind of sounds like that, but it’s much more laid back. I don’t think it would be at all the same.

Given the circumstances it was recorded in, I guess the record came together quite quickly?

Yeah, I don’t remember it being particularly stressful. I think we had maybe three or four days to piece it all together and mix it and, like I said, a lot of the songs weren’t done. Day three was time to do the lead vocals and I’m sure the other guys were like “Ok, let’s see what happens here then!” and I guess I was the same!

It was right towards the end of a couple of us graduating from college. I think we were already pretty much packed up at that point so we knew we had to finish the record so we could head home. I do remember getting in some fights!

What about, specifically?

I don’t remember now, exactly. We all approached music pretty differently. We were playing together often and in that situation – of recording in a small space – everyone wants to have their own way. It’s just something that happens.

Did you always have grand ambitions for the album? It’s not the kind of record you imagine a bunch of college kids making in a basement. It’s very textured and inventive.

We had no aspirations. We already knew we were breaking up. We knew when we set up the recording time that we were never going to play a show together again so the idea that we would sell any records didn’t even exist. I’ve said this before in interviews but we would play these basement shows and we were one of five of our friends bands playing and I have no idea why our record kept on selling every year. Most of the bands you never heard of again and that could so easily have been us. If Polyvinyl didn’t put the record out, which wasn’t a very good business decision on their part at the time, then nobody would ever have heard those songs again in any form.

Were you proud of it when it was first released and has that changed at all over time?

I mean we weren’t a band when it came out so that was kind of strange but I specifically remember hearing Never Meant, which we’d only played live a couple of times with some kind of vocal, and we all thought that it sounded really good. We were surprised that it sounded like a real song, and then a lot of the other tracks too, which had mostly come together in the studio, sounded good and I think we were all happily suprised by it. A couple of years later I was already trying to distance myself from some of the lyrics, I mean they’re pretty young-sounding. Owen covered some of the same stuff but I think it was a pretty clear and steady trajectory, so for a while I was saying that I already couldn’t relate to how simple the lyrics were, or whatever, but now we’re so far removed, yeah it sounds really good.

And that’s another thing; we talked about doing these shows and I realised that I hadn’t listened to the record in years! So I listened to it and I thought the songs were pretty cool and I remembered little parts that were coming up, and Steve drums are amazing on that record and I got excited at the thought of people getting to see him play those live.

Were you surprised by how inventive it sounded, or was it much like you remembered?

I mean I’ve always been a fan of Steve’s drums. I joined another band, just in time for it to break up, which Steve played drums for, so I was already a big fan of his. Me and Steve Holmes were room mates and we’d spend Friday nights writing these twisted guitar parts, one guy moving around while the other one held the fort…we thought that we were doing something clever. But then I sort of forgot about it. Looking back it’s nothing crazy, not compared to what the kids are doing these days, both hands slapping the fretboard, but I think it’s still interesting.

Do you ever wish that circumstances were different and you’d had more time to make music together?

Yeahhhhhh, I think so. Well, now we do. Now we’ve got to play shows in front people, it’d be nice to have a bigger catalogue! At the time, if we’d wanted to play more, we would have kept being a band so I think it had run its course.

Do you think you might write some new stuff now that you’re in this situation again?

I don’t think so but then I said we’d never play shows together again. The logistics of getting everyone in the same room, in the same city, at the same time, to write and then record, just seems way too hard to me. Steve Lamos is in Colorado and Steve Holmes is an hour away from me but I don’t see him too often with the kids and things.

What are you hoping to get out of the shows?

Right now, it feels like a challenge for me. I want them to sound the best that they can. It’s like, shit, we’ve said we’re doing this so now we actually have to learn to do it well. It’s our pride now. We want those people who have waited a long time to see these songs to not feel rebuffed by them and not feel like we’ve phoned it in.

Is it a worry, that expectation?

Totally. And it’s a legitimate fear. It’s kept me up a few nights already. As it gets closer that’s only going to get more stressful. Only because we were never a real band. If we were a well-oil machine back then, I think we could maybe slip back in to that same situation but we were learning as we played back then, so now we just have to do all of that all over again.

Is there a freedom that comes with the fact that 95% of these people have never seen you play live before though?

Oh yeah, exactly. All we have to do is turn up and do a good job. Simple as that!

Has the reaction to your return taken you by surprise at all?

We all just keep laughing at each other, it’s totally ridiculous. We thought we’d play one New York show and one show in Champagne because that’s where we were a band, you know? The fact that the New York show sold-out so quickly was genuinely shocking, but it made the idea of playing more shows in different cities much more reasonable.

What do you think it is about the record that appeals to so many people?

I think it’s a good record, obviously, but there’s a lot of good bands and a lot of good records. We didn’t get the chance to be popular at the time so that’s cool that we get to do that now. I think it acts as a rite-of-passage for kids getting in to emo and indie music. With the internet you can find infinite records and this just happens to be one that kids getting in to music stumble upon and relate to. Different generations have grown up with it now, or at least used it as a stepping stone.

It doesn’t have universal appeal but it certainly has a universal appeal among awkward teens and that’s cool, that’s me, that’s who I was. So it’s cool that somehow this band that I was apart of is now a band that people turn to as they grow up.

I wanted to ask if you have a favourite track on the record, despite the fact that you’ve distanced yourself from them somewhat.

I like ‘Stay Home‘, the last one. i think we did a good job on that one, I like that the vocals don’t come in for three or four minutes and those guitar parts interlock so nicely. I don’t know, I think that song just works. The vocals are sparse and plain-stated, in a good way. Ah, I’m trying to think of the other songs… One of my only vivid memories of writing lyrics is the song ‘I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional‘. I was an anthropology major and I was in a class and I remember writing these lyrics and in my head they sounded like Depeche Mode! Which obvsiouly they don’t, at all, not when I’m singing them along to our music. So I like that one, I still like those words.

What does the whole American Football trip mean to you now?

Haha, well if you asked me three months ago, before I realised we were still popular, I would have said it was cool and a fun thing back then. Like I said it’ll probably mean a lot more to me once we start playing and then once I’m back to my day to day life. I talk about American Football a lot more these days, more than I have for fifteen years or so, but I’m still just changing diapers and doing grocery shopping. You know, we had a good time back then and I hope we have a good time this year, and get to re-live it.

Are there any plans to expand the show to other places and countries?

We’re talking about it but it’s really just a matter of everyone having time in their schedule. I’m in a stupid amount of bands at the moment and while they’re all part time, when you add them up it gets kind of busy. The two Steve’s definitely have ties and full, working jobs and we all have multiple kids. The UK has been talked about. I know we want to play Chicago and also get out West, LA maybe. It won’t be any time soon but hopefully we get them all set-up before we bomb in the New York shows! (Laughs)

I’m just kidding, it’s going to be awesome.

The Deluxe Edition of American Football is out now, via Polyvinyl.

Buy it in various formats here.

For the full set of American Football tour dates, see here.

Back to posts