American Football: Going for the Extra Point, Trying Not to Fumble
Mike Kinsella talks about getting the band's act together for their much-anticipated reunion shows.
The rest of the world looks at the United States of America with a slight scoff as we cheer on our tight ends, quarterbacks, and offensive lineman throwing themselves at each other with a football held more than kicked. Another beloved “football” that’s been kicked around the music land continuously since their break up, but rarely held or seen, is the band American Football. The band performed 12 times in basements, released an EP, disbanded before the full-length album was even released, never to be seen or heard from again. But not so in 2014. American Football is returning this fall and are most likely at this moment trying to figure out how to play their songs again. We caught up with Mike Kinsella about preparing for the band's much-anticipated comeback shows.
Noisey: I guess you have a few shows to play now. [Laughs]
Mike Kinsella: Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs] We decided to play shows and the next thing was, holy shit, you need to learn how to play these parts. When we recorded the album, it was the last thing we ever did. A lot of the songs were never finished until we were like, you know what, a couple of us are leaving school, and the band's going to break up, we may as well record all these songs. So the last four days we spent in the studio and finished the songs and writing the lyrics. So most of these songs, we never played them the way people will know them. So, it's kind of like, oh, shit, what you were playing at that part?
Have you guys thought about sending it to Guitar World to have them transcribe for you guys?
[Laughs] Right, or checking YouTube... No, we individually didn't have some grand scheme, for some reason, this time when these offers came in we were like, yeah, let's do it, as opposed to every few years it happens. So I sat down with Steve Holmes, who plays guitar, and we were like, OK, we're doing these shows now, and realized we play every song in different tuning. Like, we learned them all and they all sound good, but we learned them different or something. First, we need to learn the songs, then we need to figure out how to get some sort of sound, then we need to learn how to play the songs all together. So for the first time in 15 years, we were in the same room, and in between songs we were like, "Oh yeah, this is why we weren't ever a real band; it takes ten minutes to tune guitars between songs." So we've got to smooth that stuff out, now that we're going to play in front of people.
Did you expect the shows to sell out like they did?
No, I can't believe how many people we're going to disappoint that weekend. We had no idea. We played to like 40 people, at our biggest show ever, in a basement back in the day. It's really sort of like writing the songs again. It's not natural for me to sing really high like that. So I'm sitting at home while the kids are going to bed, screaming in the basement. The good thing is even on the record, I was never in any key or anything, I don't have the need for that. I just have to get high.
What are people going to expect from the upcoming shows? I'm talking pyro, dancers, is it going to be the whole record?
We are going to do every song we know, which includes the newly released demo we never actually finished it, it's only like 12 or 13 songs. We talked about—at first joking, but maybe not joking—playing “Never Meant” twice in each set, because why not? That song's good and people like it. I don't think we'll have the nerve to do it, but... We talked about, oh, should we do a cover? But nobody who's coming cares. If we play five minutes longer and we play some stupid cover, nobody's going to be like, "Oh, that made the show." So I don't think we're going to bother doing that.
I think a cover would be cool!
That was my whole reason for not doing a cover, I've been telling them, nobody cares, and now the first guy I brought it up to cares.
How did anniversary edition of the full-length come about and who had the demos/live recordings?
People are still buying this record? If people are into it then let's do something fun. And I think Steve Holmes, or a buddy of ours had some cassettes, because we were asking around if anybody had anything. I just had a couple practices on, literally, a cassette tape.
What stood out the most when you first listened to the demos?
What most stood out was musically it doesn’t make sense that we're going to play to a lot of people. So I think that's the part that now, logistically, how do we translate some of these quiet songs or some of these drone-y songs that sort of repeat for five minutes into a setting that keeps it interesting for people. When I did the Cap’n Jazz shows, the only thing we had to capture was the energy. That was easy, the more energy we're going to get to feed off of, but this is hard, we have to actually make the song sound good.
Your pre-order crashed the Polyvinyl Records site. If I had told you 15 years ago, that you would have crashed a site for a band that only played 12 shows, would you believe me, or would you have said, "What the fuck is the internet?"
Yeah, I would have said, "What is a website?" "Crashed, what, is everybody OK?" No, that's why none of us knew. Because I've been playing, I still travel and play, and every show I go to someone brings it up. So I know there's interest, still. But Steve Holmes who's just been a dad and working. I don't think he's played in a band in 12 years. So he's blown away and asking who are these people that are interested in the band that we did 15 years ago? And I tell him, there's this whole scene that it's not even like we're super popular amongst 37-year-olds, this is new people that got into it. I guess it's extra shocking because there was never a buzz or anything when we were a band. We were just writing songs in our living room and played them a few times and recorded them, and never really thought about them again.
How did the songs come together in the writing process?
I don't think anything was quick. We didn't have a PA or anything, I didn't know what I was going to say until recording, or home before the show, we'd figure something out. And then the shows would be, OK, let's practice with the PAs now. We're just sort of jamming.
What were you guys listening to during that time period?
I think the drummer Steve was listening to—he was in jazz band in high school—so he's got a bunch of jazz influence. I think my biggest compliment ever—and I don't think it was meant that way—was we played a show, and my brother [Tim Kinsella] went, and he didn't really know what we were doing, it's definitely not his kind of music, but he was like, "Oh, your vocals are totally like the Sundays." Obviously I can't hit the notes, but I think he's saying the phrasing of them. And that's still a huge influence, in my solo stuff. Also, Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, everybody finds that in college. It's like a 12-movement, fourty-minute one long song. It's vibraphones and vocals, little cues that are changing and everything.
Do you feel responsible for continues sales of horned instruments to indie rock kids? And what about it appealed to everyone when you were writing?
I don't know, the drummer Steve Lamos, he played in high school, we didn't practice with vocals or anything, but he would hear these melodies and he would just play them. And we were all like, "Oh, that sounds awesome." I don't know, it didn't seem gimmicky at the time. It was just like, oh, he plays that and he's just got it sitting there, and here’s a melody right now.
What was the reaction back then from playing house shows?
When we played the shows back then, we didn't really fit. We would play house parties, and everybody's drunk and we're sober playing these quiet songs. So we're like, "Oh, that wasn't that fun." We had more fun just having a band practice. We'd drive to St. Louis and play for nobody, and that wasn't fun, either. It's totally ridiculous. And the whole thing I should point out, everybody you know in college is in a band. And we were just one of those bands. And, for some reason, Matt at Polyvinyl Records, was like, "Yeah, we'll put out your EP." They must have seen a show and liked it. I mean, it's not like we were some band destined that anybody would hear, while we were doing it. We were just on the bill with these other bands and luckily, Polyvinyl put out an EP and then they agreed to put out the full length, even though we knew we were breaking up and not going to tour. They didn’t have to do that at all. The whole thing could have dissolved and then never be heard again and our lives would have literally been exactly the same, except for this fun weekend in a few months.
More touring planned?
I think we wanted to see how these would go, we really didn't know if there would be a reaction of people—"Oh, that band from 15 years ago, ignore it." But it seems like people are into it, I think we're slowly going to take on some more.
It's interesting that after 15 years the record is lyrically, stylistically, and sonically referenced, revered, and beloved.
It's totally great. It's a happy accident. We did something at a time and it worked.
I'm super psyched.
I'm happy that you're psyched. It makes it less awkward to know that people are into it. Like, if we're like, "Yeah, we're going to play these shows!" and no one cares, I think we'd feel pretty awkward.
Also check out: