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Never Meant: The Complete Oral History of American Football

Longreads Or Whatever

By TJ Kliebhan

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This story is becoming more and more common in the internet age: Artist puts out album, artist puts down instrument, album builds cult following, and, 15 or so years later, the artist realizes the album has generated a fanbase and returns to their former glory in the form of a reunion tour. But for American Football, there was never a period of glory. There wasn’t even a time where the band was a legitimate operation. American Football was closer to a stop-gap jam session to pass the time in the Midwest than a serious band.

Although singer-guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos will downplay the impact of their two-year “art project,” these three kids who lacked even permanent possession of their instruments managed to create one of the single most influential rock records of its time. Released in 1999, traces of American Football’s self-titled album—their only full-length release—were soon directly manifesting themselves in bands creating twinkly, mathy rock, a sound that became one of the defining traits of the emo scene throughout the 2000s. These guys were never meant to record an album, never meant to define a genre, and never meant to reunite. They were certainly never meant to sell out venues across the globe in 2014, 15 years after they stopped playing. Yet all those points became a reality.

This is the story of American Football in their own words, the story of how three kids going to school in Champaign-Urbana accidentally managed to create a major piece of music that has stood the test of time, regardless of how minor the whole period was to them.

 

Origins: The Years Prior to American Football, 1989 – 1995

American Football’s origins can be traced to the humble Chicago suburb of Wheeling, Illinois where Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes grew up playing in bands and learning to play guitar while Steve Lamos was playing horn instruments in polka bands with his father in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

Steve Holmes (guitar): I met Mike Kinsella freshman year at Wheeling High School. I remember the first time I saw [his first band] Cap’n Jazz play was in the theater of our school during the lunch periods. I didn’t play guitar yet, but I think seeing them play definitely spurred me in that direction. I would go see them and other local bands at basement shows or VFW halls around the suburbs. By sophomore year, all the kids we hung around with were starting bands and putting on shows. I got my first guitar when I was 15 and I was in a band a week later. A friend and I planned that first band after a Screeching Weasel show. When he realized I couldn’t even play the guitar, he invited his younger brother to join the band to essentially teach me power chords.

Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet): I didn’t play the drums ‘til I was 20. I had been in music lessons since I was four. I played violin as a kid and trumpet at age seven. I was playing in polka and dance bands with my dad at this young age, too. I got to Champaign as a sophomore and didn’t want to do formal music anymore, but watching some of these Chicago bands like Cap’n Jazz and Braid got me wanting to be a part of that social scene. I started messing around with the bass, which didn’t take, and the drums, which I enjoyed. I started practicing a lot and was teaching myself from these “how to be a jazz drummer” books.

Mike Kinsella (guitar, vocals): I had seen Steve Lamos drum in some band before. About a year later, I saw him play again as The One Up Downstairs and he blew me away. I thought he was really, really good. The band didn’t have a singer, though, so after one of their gigs in Champaign, I just went up and asked them if they wanted a singer. That’s how me and Lamos started playing together.

Steve Lamos: So we did that for about six months. That eventually broke up, but Steve Holmes, I knew too, because a year previous, he had jammed with a band I was in, but wasn’t ultimately interested in playing with us permanently. Eventually, he called me and said he wanted to play with Mike and I. So Steve [Holmes] joined us here in late 1996 or early 1997.

Steve Holmes:  It’s really kind of luck that American Football happened at all. It could easily have been The One Up Downstairs that people remember today if they had stayed together. That was a really cool band, with tons of potential. But luckily for me, it didn’t work out. They recorded those three songs as The One Up Downstairs, and broke up before the single could even come out. So Lamos and I started playing together and after a few weeks, I can’t remember how it happened, but it was a mutual decision from all three of us that Mike should join the band on guitar and vocals. Mike was insanely good on guitar, but for whatever reason, had never played guitar in a band, even though he wrote some of the Cap’n Jazz songs on guitar and bass. Mike became the singer by default because I couldn’t play those fast picky parts and sing at the same time.

Mike Kinsella: You could even say the band unofficially started before The One Up Downstairs because me and Steve Holmes were already living together. We lived together all four years in college so we had already played together a bit. Maybe you could say the band started in Taft Hall.
 


Photo: Janice Minn

The Writing Process and Creation of the Eponymous Record, 1995 – 1997

1995 was when American Football officially began writing songs together. This process typically consisted of Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes playing guitar and writing portions of songs together before going across town to Steve Lamos’ house in Urbana to begin piecing songs together. Essential to the development and distribution of the record was Danville, Illinois DIY scene contributor and Polyvinyl founder, Matt Lunsford, who had just moved to Champaign, Illinois.

Matt Lunsford (Polyvinyl Records founder): I sort of discovered Cap’n Jazz when I was still in high school and living in Danville, Illinois. For the size of the town, there was a really cool DIY scene of kids just putting on shows on their own for other kids. I had heard the Cap’n Jazz record and was in love with it. They were one of the major bands we wanted to bring to Danville. Cap’n Jazz was friends with some of the guys from Braid and we were able to bring them into Danville. Those guys were really young, too, and playing these shows in central Illinois, but they were all teenagers from the suburbs. Strictly through booking the Cap’n Jazz shows, I got to know Mike and his brother, Tim Kinsella. It wasn’t too long after that Mike came to school here in Champaign, and at that point, Cap’n Jazz had called it quits. Then those guys started up American Football after The One Up Downstairs.

Mike Kinsella: Playing together was always different because we didn’t always have the same instruments around. The guitar I play now, though, in Owen is sort of from that time. Senior year me and Steve Holmes had another roommate that owned a guitar, but he sucked at guitar. It just sat there so I would play it. After graduation, it was pretty much mine at that point. [Laughs] Holmes had a guitar and a little amp, someone had a bass. I mean, whatever we could find on a given day would dictate what we would play. We were just kids looking for something to do. Steve’s drum kit and trumpet were the only things around permanently.

Steve Holmes: It’s kind of hilarious that for the duration of that band, Mike never owned any of his own equipment. The guitar and bass were Steve's and the amps were borrowed from another friend of ours.  Our practices would in part be dictated by whether or not we could get the gear to practice with.

From a writing perspective, Mike or I would bring in a riff or a skeleton and we would sit and work out our guitar arrangements together. Lyrics were a total afterthought because we never owned a mic or PA. There was no point in trying to sing at practice since you couldn’t be heard over the instruments, so generally there were no lyrics as we were writing, at least initially.

Lamos’ approach was so different than anyone in the scene, and really integral to setting us apart from our peers. Because there were only three of us, each instrument was critical to the sound and arrangement of the songs; the drums definitely more so than in most punk bands of the era. The trumpet was also an organic addition. I think initially Steve started playing it just to voice melody ideas he was hearing for potential vocal lines, but we liked it so it stuck.

We never owned enough gear or were together long enough for it to evolve that way, but I always liked the idea of a band where the players switch instruments from song to song. The horn thing fit into that in my mind, and Mike switching from guitar to bass. Eventually it may have made sense for Mike to play drums on something, or me to move to keyboard.

Steve Lamos: When we started playing together, we definitely had a desire to sound a bit different than what was around us. Those guys were into the hardcore stuff coming out on Dischord records, but we didn’t want to sound like that. We didn’t want to sound like Braid and all the other emo bands that were around, either. Not that I didn’t love that sound. I did and I still do. But we were determined to be quieter than that, more post-rocky and jazzy than loud and aggressive.

Steve Holmes: With this band, we really did make a conscious shift away from the post-hardcore, emo, whatever sound and scene that we had come out of. Freshman year, I was turned on to a lot of the bands that would influence our sound: Nick Drake, Red House Painters, Elliott Smith, Codeine, the Sea and Cake, The Smiths/Morrissey, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Can, Steve Reich, etc. Mike always liked the slow, sad, dreamy, pretty stuff and I picked that up from him. Tortoise and post-rock bands like Slint were an influence. Lamos brought in his love of 70s jazz fusion via Weather Report and Miles Davis.  I was also big into The Beatles and Beach Boys and lesser known 60s bands and 90s bands that aped that sound.

Mike Kinsella: When we started playing shows, it was hardly even a thing. We were nobody, really. Braid made it because they toured non-stop and played 250 shows a year which we couldn’t do. They were popular in a way that they would play full basement shows. We would play shows with half-full basements. Polyvinyl was hardly a thing at the time. Promise Ring was kind of big. They made it and that was crazy. They had a video on MTV and we know those guys! Wow! Those were the exceptions. We were never expecting to make any money or anything like that.

Steve Holmes: It often gets written that we played only ten shows, or never to more than 20 to 30 people. That's not entirely accurate. We never did to a proper tour, but I can rattle off 25 to 30 shows off the top of my head. Certainly nothing like the scale we're doing now, but we did some little regional weekend trips to colleges in the Midwest and one East Coast trip. A few of those were played to decent crowds—opening for Braid, Rainer Maria, Low, etc. We opened for The Promise Ring at an NYU show that had to have been in front of 500 people. By the very end, we were just starting to headline on our own. I think our last show ever—right before heading into the studio to make the album—we headlined at the Fireside in Chicago to 100-plus kids.

Mike Kinsella: Matt let us record as The One Up Downstairs. He knew we were graduating but was like, “Hey, is there going to be a record for American Football?” So we thought we could record some stuff. Then we did it in like, four or five days and that was it.

Steve Holmes: None of my bands up to this point had been around long enough, or were successful enough, to put out our own record, outside of a song on a comp or something. So, that first EP was really exciting for me. I remember getting back to school the first day of my senior year and getting a CD copy of our EP and feeling like we’d made it. That was kind of the extent of my ambition as a musician—to put out a record of some kind.

Steve Lamos: We decided before the album was even recorded that we were going to quit. I vividly remember finishing the “Never Meant” take. I just thought, “Wow we’ll never play the song that well again.” It’s funny: now I’m not even crazy about that song. I don’t dislike it but it’s not my favorite. There are others like “Stay Home” and “Honestly” that I like playing more in a live setting. But that recorded version of “Never Meant” feels pretty special.

Steve Holmes: We recorded the album the week after graduation. I remember being particularly pleased with how “Never Meant” came out. We knew that we nailed that one. The whole thing was pretty easy though. Most songs were done in a couple takes, and then we’d go back and double guitars to beef up the sound a bit—there was no bass, except for the two tracks Mike played bass live on. For the album as a whole, we thought it flowed well. Nine songs felt short, but we were like, “Eh, close enough.” That song “The 7’s” was supposed to appear on that record, but we didn’t have the time and we just said, “Well, it doesn’t fit anyway.” 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. Like a lot of punk and indie records, it was a document of a band that no longer existed. The three of us planned on never playing together again until the reunion.

Mike Kinsella: I remember those days recording not being very fun. I think there was some tension by the end. I remember on a song, Lamos wasn’t happy with my bass playing so he re-recorded it and that’s what you hear on the album. Stuff like that was just like, “Well, we’re breaking up anyway, who cares?”

Steve Lamos: I was probably the crabbiest about breaking up. I wasn’t thrilled, but I think in retrospect, it made the most sense. I was upset in the sense that, “Aww, I can’t tour,” but I had to grow up. Old me thanks young Kinsella and Holmes for breaking up the band.

Steve Holmes: It’s weird in retrospect that breaking up was such a non-event. The distance from Chicago to Champaign just felt insurmountable, I guess. Or maybe unnecessary. We didn’t think anyone would care. We only played a few shows. I needed a job because I had loans. It was fun and we documented it for posterity, but now we’re moving on. It was more of an art project than anything for us. Indie bands weren’t a thing or it was at a level that was unattainable we felt.

Mike Kinsella: I think we would’ve liked to keep going, but at the same time I mean we didn’t keep up much. Me and Holmes have always been geographically near each other so we would chat every now and then. If you had seen us at that time, you would ask what there is to even keep up. You want us to keep tuning our guitars in front of people for 45 minutes? There was no money to be made. None of us really saw anything else happening.

Matt Lunsford: I remember hearing the record and being super excited about it. It really was the culmination of everything those guys had done before. All the other bands that those three had been in and all the music they played so far in their lives peaked on the recording of that album. We were pretty sure it was going to be a special record. Even though the band wasn’t touring or even really together anymore.

 

704 W. High Street, Urbana: The Infamous House

The house that appeared on the cover of American Football’s only full-length record has become synonymous with the band. It has appeared on almost all the merchandise associated with the band and even served as the backdrop for the recent reunion tours. Funnily enough, not a single member of the band ever resided there. Much to the dismay of all who have lived in the house recently, it has become a location of indie and emo pilgrimages for many. It is common to walk by the house today and see people dressed in flannel and skinny jeans taking pictures of the house, dearly hoping to replicate Chris Strong’s iconic shot.

Steve Lamos: I’ve never even stepped foot in the house. It really means nothing to me. [Laughs] Chris Strong lived there and he was the unofficial band photographer. Honestly, I thought it looked a lot like Don Caballero’s What Burns Never Returns. The fact that the house is iconic now is weird, but it’s no stranger than any of the rest of this story. Now that we’re back though I like the way it looks behind us. God bless the house. [Laughs]

Chris Strong (photographer): I lived in that house my senior year of college, 1998 to 1999. I knew Mike through mutual friends. He was already sort of a minor celebrity if you were up on the local music scene. I first started working with American Football, doing press photos for them. I think they needed press photos for their first show. I’m not sure how or when we started talking about album artwork, but it was probably on that press shoot. There wasn’t much to the shot itself. I just thought it fit for the album cover, proposed it, and the guys agreed.

Matt Lunsford: One of my most vivid memories of that time was there being no sense of production design or anything. I mean, I remember myself, Darcie [Lunsford], and the band going to a pseudo-graphic design house and meeting Chris Strong over there. We took all his shots and had to take printing film there and get the record jackets printed. I mean, this took the whole band and label to produce.

Steve Holmes: It was one of those happy accidents. That was Chris’ house and he had a dozen pictures of it, but I don’t remember, like, picking the photo or anything. I didn’t put much thought into it. In retrospect, though, it is one of the things that helped build an image of the album since it’s an actual physical place. Like, when we drove by the house before Pygmalion Festival [in 2014], there were people outside taking pictures of the house. The block behind that house is where we lived and wrote all the songs though.

Mike Kinsella: My manager Chase sent me a picture today outside it! It’s just a joke to us now. It’s not like we set out to extrapolate or communicate any sort of greater feeling or message with that cover. All the associations kind of happened themselves. I guess I like the cover. Chris is an amazing photographer. We just thought it was a cool picture. When I was back in Urbana, I drove past the houses I lived in, not that one. They were all dumps. [Laughs] When I look at that picture, though, I get a bit of those feelings a lot of people associate with it, I think… maybe. The only thing we have now that represents the band in any way is that house. It’s on our merch, even today, 15 years later. It’s like its only thing besides the music. I distinctly remember writing an email [about merch design] like “Fuck that house, fuck this, everything doesn’t have to be the house!” [Laughs] But it turns out people like the house. And even our pictures now promoting the band is the same stuff from 1998. We’re all bloated and chubby. [Laughs] Maybe we would’ve taken a band photo had we known we were going to play 40 shows. We would’ve tried to look a lot cooler.

 

Photo: Daniel Inskeep

Building the Following and Reuniting

The next 15 years led to very different paths for Mike, Steve, and Steve. Mike began opening up for Rainer Maria which led to him recording under the moniker Owen and finding success. Steve Holmes and Steve Lamos played in a band together after American Football, but they found greater success outside music. Steve Holmes put his computer science degree to work in the IT Field while Steve Lamos moved out to Colorado where he currently serves as a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was not until 2014 that the band had seriously considered reuniting to tour on behalf of an album that had slowly gained more and more fans across the world.

Matt Lunsford: The American Football record was a “frog in the boiling water” effect. I mean it was such a slow burn for so long that no one noticed this was burning for 15 years.

Steve Holmes: I had this live recording of one of our first shows with “The 7’s” on it. When I found this, my big ambition was to send it to Mike and Matt and maybe get it on Polyvinyl’s website for a free download. Matt was blown away and wanted me to send him the whole show. We took the 15 best tracks, which worked because it was the fifteenth anniversary. So I started writing these liner notes for the reissue. They were supposed to be from all of us, but Steve and Mike read them and thought, “OK, that’s good enough.” I sent them some old pictures I took from that era, too, that appear as the record sleeves and the back cover of the reissue packaging.

Steve Lamos: I would get a check every year for a little bit of money. It was certainly more than I thought, though. I was surprised that the album was still selling, but I was more curious than anything. I mean, we live in an age where people can steal anything, but people were still buying this? One moment I remember was six or seven years ago where a student came up to me and said, “Hey, you know ‘Never Meant’ has 2.5 million plays on Last.fm?” I was like, “Really? Oh that’s strange.” But I thought, “Wow that is a lot more than I expected.”

Matt Lunsford: So we put the reissue together and when it finally went up on the Polyvinyl site our website gets crashed with traffic. Now at this point, the band still has no intention of reuniting. We had asked them over the years but every year the guys would say no. Eventually I think it became so evident that people were so excited to see the band that the guys started to take notice. What you need to understand about these three guys is they hold themselves to an incredibly high standard. They were so afraid of doing a reunion and having it suck and disappointing people that really did want to see them. Eventually though, they decided to do shows, but the amount of people that showed up was the last major surprise. I mean, attendance has been great throughout the globe. I think that helped the band play even better live. It almost looks like they have been playing for 15 years up there. The scope of what this band meant to people was just lost on me as well as the band.

Steve Holmes: I just thought the record kept selling because Mike played in Owen and his fans were buying it. I didn’t realize that it was really popular until the reissue. I didn’t know it had its own notoriety. Now we’re crashing Polyvinyl’s site? Two years ago, if you would have said I would play 30 shows on an international tour as American Football, I would’ve said you’re crazy. I still laugh at the fact that we are playing these world-class festivals and selling out venues. Like, only legitimate bands do that. It felt like a movie, in all honestly. Even bands that do reunions were usually actual bands at one point. We were hardly a band. We were more like a school project. We couldn’t sell out Schuba’s in the 90s.

Steve Lamos: When we started putting this reissue together and were crashing the Polyvinyl website, we just thought, “What does that mean?” Up until this point we had been strictly opposed to reuniting. That was the first time we thought, “OK, this could be bigger than we thought. [A sold-out] Webster Hall [show] happened after that and it was mind-boggling. The Friday show sold out in 30 seconds. So they call us and say, “Hey, you want to do another date?” So we said sure, and the Saturday show sells out in three minutes. Now they want a third night and that sold about as fast too. Webster Hall was the first time we thought, “OK, this is definitely bigger than we thought it was.”

Matt Lunsford: What has kept the record around? If there was a definitive answer, I would tell you. The record is just so unique and original sounding, even today. The songs are emotional, the lyrical content and the feel of the record works in sync. I also feel that compared to other bands at the time, American Football was less aggressive. They really focused on their musicianship rather than aggression or intensity. These things were unique to all of its competitors at that time. You can feel how genuine of a project it is.

Mike Kinsella: I have a theory. My theory is that the album speaks to younger people. I think for teenagers or those in transition years, that’s the target for that album. I had a lot of friends in bands at that time and they are much more confused about how this is going than we are. They’re like, “You guys opened for us and sucked!” [Laughs] I think what happened was initially some people heard the record and liked it. In the past ten years, those people grew up and write for blogs. Now they have these influential positions. I think when these people hear it now at 30, they don’t connect with it as much but it has some importance to it. Personally, I think that record sucks compared to The Sundays. It’s incomparable. But now people accept it was an important record. I’m telling you right now though it was not an important record, at least initially. We liked it, but no one else really cared. It’s not like it came out to fanfare. Like, OK Computer came out and people were saying “holy fuck this changes music” immediately. The record wasn’t like that, nor is it anywhere as good as OK Computer. Our record came out and no one gave a fuck, but the few kids that did are influential. From there, it has sustained its momentum, which is cool.

 

American Football in New York, October 2014. Photo by Nick Karp.

Homecoming: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

September 28, 2014 marked the official return of American Football to the world since April 3, 1999, barring a secret warm-up show in in August, 2014 at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen. But in many ways, it was a rebirth. This was not the same group of kids that tuned their guitars for eight minutes in between songs. The band was much tighter and fine-tuned than its previous incarnation. For most of the audience, this was the first time they were ever hearing these songs live, an experience many of them never thought possible, including the band members themselves. To round out the band’s sound for a series of reunion shows, which came about almost accidentally but sold out in minutes, they recruited Mike Kinsella’s cousin, Nate Kinsella, to play bass.

Steve Lamos: We had to begin the tour in Champaign. That is what we wanted. I had never played outside before so that was kind of scary, but cool too. The stage was also huge so I was a little intimidated.

Mike Kinsella: We only agreed because we liked the Pygmalion Fest. We’re all comfortable there, we’ll see lots of old friends and it’ll be fun. Then we thought, “I guess one New York show wouldn’t be bad either. Lets do two shows. That’s worth making a spectacle for.” When New York sold out, we thought that was kind of crazy. So we thought, “Well, we’re practicing. May as well add a couple more shows.” It’s still ridiculous to me because if we did our original set from the late 90s in front of those 1,500 people in New York, we would have had bottles thrown at us. We would tune our guitars for six minutes at those shows.

Steve Holmes: When we played that first show in Champaign, that was my first time on stage in a decade, and it was in front of 2,000 people singing every word. It’s cool though because it really is a bunch of music nerds like myself. It’s cool because I see myself in the people that show up or stop by after and say hello a lot of the time. I did the same thing when we saw Drive Like Jehu last year.

Mike Kinsella: If you had asked me two years ago, I would’ve said I thought Cap’n Jazz was bigger or more cult-y. I really had no idea. My thing is, I have 1,000 Owen songs so it’s weird to think those 12 songs define me just because more people have heard them. It’s hard to quantify. I think now with the tour and the reissue, at least sales-wise, it’s my biggest record. I think my Owen records are better than the American Football record though. The American Football record has so many flaws. I can pick 12 Owen songs that are great compared to the American Football output. I’m a much more thoughtful songwriter now. For me, it’s another spot in the discography but more of a bookend. It’s what kicked off me as a singer and a songwriter.

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