Spotlight: American Football – S/T

Exploring one of emo’s essential LPs…

The opening seconds of ‘American Football’ are a brief fillip. Guitarists Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes rummage restlessly down their fretboards; drummer Steve Lamos hits a couple of quick fills, running a beat longer than you’d expect; amplifiers buzz gently in the background. The studio atmosphere is intimate, capturing the type of noodling that only bandmates could allow in shared company.

A voice asks, “we ready?”, mutters “one two three!” and opening track ‘Never Meant’ snaps into focus. The previous messiness almost immediately fades, giving way to three musicians working in symbiosis, guitar lines rocking gently against the complicated rhythms Lamos builds. It’s like a switch has been suddenly flipped. These three young men have sealed themselves into their own little bubble.

For some time, American Football appeared to only exist in a bubble. Active from 1997 to 2000, the band grew out of the influential Illinois music scene in the mid-’90s. Kinsella – middle brother of an influential Illinois musical family – and Lamos, a local musician that appeared on various Braid records, played together in The One Up Downstairs, a band that splintered apart prior to their debut seven-inch. Recouping from the split, the duo began practising with local guitarist Holmes and American Football was formed.

Prior to the trio’s eponymous record, Illinois punks didn’t know what to do with these three college kids – there was little of the raucousness that Kinsella brought as a member of emo heroes Cap’n Jazz, but a tight focus on the band’s intricate and subtle songs. Their biggest live show was held in a basement to no more than 40 people.

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American Football

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They were more or less a studio-based band: each song came with its own guitar tuning, there was no official bassist (low-end duties were handled in-studio by Kinsella), and the members furrowed brows trying to incorporate jazz and minimal music into their sound. In September 1999, Polyvinyl released ‘American Football’. Despite their record being fresh on shelves, critical praise and growing support from college radio, the band decided to quietly go their separate ways and move back home. Their college days were over. The bubble had burst.

Fast-forward 15 years: Polyvinyl is reissuing the album on vinyl for the second time (following a ravenously-purchased 2004 edition), customer demand for the reissue’s pre-order crashed the label’s website, and reunion shows sold out almost immediately. In October, the three members will play New York’s Webster Hall to an audience of 1,500 people for three straight nights. 

Since 1999, positive word-of-mouth has helped to spread the record’s cult reputation across the world. I was one of those kids that heard ‘American Football’ and immediately sealed myself into the bubble. Judging by the frenzy surrounding the band’s reunion, I wasn’t the only one.

Upon announcing the reunion last month, Holmes snarked to Pitchfork, “Obviously, we knew the time was ripe for three middle-aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings.” This is also one of the reasons why ‘American Football’ became a cult item – its earnest approach to young heartbreak sounds tied to a specific moment.

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‘But The Regrets Are Killing Me’

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Post-American Football, Kinsella (also a member of Owls, with his brother Tim) found his footing as a gifted solo storyteller with songs where people bond over broken bones, drunkenly fail to hook up in bars and get stoned with their art teachers. Here, he’s more interested about analysing decisions and realisations: “I’m thinking about leaving”, “maybe for the better”, “we’re two human beings / individually”. He rarely describes emotional incidents, finding the emotional processes far more interesting. This esoteric lyrical approach – along with Kinsella’s often-mumbled delivery and refusal to subscribe any gender nouns – actually helps to make the record’s melancholy more accessible.

The music the trio makes is remarkably accessible as well, especially when you consider their fascination with off-kilter time signatures and each song’s free-flowing structure. Few bands ever sounded this involved in depicting stasis, with their guitar lines pitched somewhere between major and minor keys without ever acquiescing to one over the other.

These songs twist and turn and hold little surprises within them: runaway basslines hidden in ‘But The Regrets Are Killing Me’, maraca-led grooves on ‘You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon’, the jam-band urgency that closes out ‘Honestly?’. The music is technically proficient but never feels fussed-over; very little of the album sounds overdubbed, even Kinsella’s basslines or Holmes’ occasional trumpet solos – both helped by the warm intimacy of Brendan Gamble’s production.

‘American Football’ is just over 40 minutes long, but makes the most of its limited time. Along with the band’s short-lived first run, this makes the album feel like a moment that’s been luckily captured – much like the weirdly tinted suburban sky on the cover, an image that seems as passing as the magic hour. In the reissue’s liner notes, Holmes mentions how the band made music “in a vacuum”. It captures a transient period.

In other words, they lived in their own little bubble, and pressed record.

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Words: Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (Twitter)

A new, deluxe version of ‘American Football’ is out now on Polyvinyl. Check it out here. The band plays three sold-out shows at New York’s Webster Hall, October 10-12.

Related: more Spotlight features / Playlist: Owls

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