So there is this house, located halfway between campus and downtown Urbana, whose facade is almost definitely the most recognized in our two towns. It’s nick-named the “American Football House,” and it’s been a token in the revival of a music genre. In the 2000s, that house, which graced the cover of probably the more important album to come out of Champaign-Urbana, saw a lot of visitors. People snapped photos and made videos. There were even tattoos. The house from American Football’s first eponymous album is an enduring shrine to the legendary band and to the emo genre. We in Champaign-Urbana know these things. But, what’s inside The House? What’s beneath that facade?
Now, we get to see what’s inside. Behold!
Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure if the house featured in this picture is The House, but that symbolism is the intention. With the release of their fervently anticipated second LP, American Football are opening the door to draw us in deeper.
Around the turn of the century, three kids attending U of I decided to form a band. They were a modest, awkward group, with music characterized by abnormal time signatures and plaintive, emotional lyrics. They put out an EP and LP, both self-titled, and then? They called it a day. American Football, or LP 1, was created quickly, released via Polyvinyl in 1999, and that was it. Mike Kinsella, the group’s lyricist, guitarist and singer, would continue to make music through myriad projects over the years, but the band amicably split and moved on. Over the almost two decades that followed, the lore grew. LP 1 developed a cult following, and American Football became known as a defining band of latter-day emo music. Kinsella’s songwriting, with its vulnerability and soft frustration, on top of the group’s unassuming and sometimes improvisational instrumentation, influenced an entire generation of musicians. If you’d like to know the intricacies of this, you could probably obtain them from the very first musician you ask around the area.
And now? Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, drummer and trumpet player Steve Lamos, and also new bassist Nate Kinsella, a new addition, have come together for another one. Their second LP is also titled American Football, a.k.a. LP 2, and it’s out today. The band will also be playing in C-U on December 4th.
Drummer Steve Lamos is pragmatic about it all; it’s in his nature. He’s as unassuming and introspective as in 1999, but he’s not a kid anymore. Lamos is now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, but in his spare time, he’s a part of underground music legend. We spoke about American Football then and now, the significance of LP 1, and of course, The House.
(Note: This interview took place prior to the band’s C-U show announcement.)
SP: You guys started touring again in 2014. what happened in the last year or two that made you decide to start making music again?
Lamos: Well we’ve been having a lot of fun doing this, actually I think more than we thought we would, and for a while we were talking about the idea of how it would be nice to play some new songs alongside the old ones. I think at first we weren’t sure if that was a good idea, but the more we talked about it, the more we started playing around with a couple ideas, and it kind of spiralled off from there. and so here we are a couple years later and releasing a new record.
SP: So was it just kind of the right time for everybody?
Lamos: Yeah, there was just this weird blip in the universe when everyone’s schedules kind of lined up. I mean, given how long it’s been and with all else that’s going on like with families and work, it’s really amazing that we were able to find windows of time to do this. So I guess we thought, everybody is at that point in life where they can try to give this a go. Like, if not now, then when?
SP: Sounds perfect. So how did the recording process of this LP differ from that of the first one? It feels like it was really fast for both of them.
Lamos: It was totally different this time. For the first album, we were playing quite a bit. I used to have a little one-room house in Urbana, and those guys lived somewhere else nearby. They would play together pretty often in front of the TV or just hanging out, and then they would bring these parts over to my house. By the time we got to the studio, we had been practicing a fair amount. We didn’t play out a whole lot, but we did practice a lot. This time, [for LP 2,] we had to write a lot of stuff long distance; there were a lot of MP3s back and forth. When we got to Omaha to start tracking, we had had a couple of these mammoth practice sessions in Chicago – I swear one of them was like fourteen hours or something – because when we get together, we have to try and cram as much work in as we can. As for fast, I mean we started writing music in earnest in probably January, and we were in the studio in March, so it was quick in that regard. But you know, people are going to say, “What? You sat around for seventeen years and this is what you came up with? That’s not quick.”
SP: Well you just had it all piled up in there and you had to get it out.
Lamos: I guess so. Well, something was piled up in there anyway. (Laughs.)
The band’s new EP is, without a doubt, American Football, but it’s impossible to replicate a situation and experience from seventeen years ago. Most of the time, it’s far better not to. There are many ways that the band’s latest effort differs from their previous work. The band can’t help but sound a bit more grown up, because they are. Lyrically, Kinsella becomes more specific in his woes. The early questions raised about human existence, often manifested by youth as a queasiness or vague dread, become real issues. Death and suicide, alcoholism, and aging are some of them. In that way, LP 2 has authenticity.
SP: The new album sounds fuller and more polished, and the lyrics are more complex and darker than on the previous album, like on “Give Me The Gun.” The instrumentation is tighter as well. Did you guys try to make the album sound more grown up, or did that kind of just come naturally?
Lamos: On the one hand, I think we were more aware of the album, as it wasn’t our first time. On the other hand, I suppose it’s been a long time, and I don’t think you can write lyrics pretending to be twenty when you’re twice that age. It doesn’t really make any sense. So I think that Mike (Kinsella) ended up writing about things that made sense to him, and they certainly resonate with me as well. There’s just kind of a cool darkness on the record, asking questions about what it mean to be middle-aged and trying to figure out how things work. It’s [addressing] families and life, and whether or not it makes any sense to be doing music like this as these old farts. I think I’ve said before that if we had just met each other a few years ago and wrote an album, I think it would end up being pretty similar. Because this is where we are. Sometimes, people my age will say, “I heard you were in a band, huh? Let’s hear it.” For the first record, I would always have to preface it and say, “Well, ya know, remember… we were twenty when we did this.” Now I don’t have to say that anymore. I’m perfectly happy to give this to older people and say, “I’m part of this record and I’m real proud of it.” The kind of music I listen to these days resonates with me as a person at my age anyway, so it’s kind of interesting to think about making albums at least in part for people I don’t have to be embarrassed about showing it to.
SP: Nowadays, do you listen to music similar to your band’s music, or do you listen to other types?
Lamos: I certainly listen to and have always listened to Indie music. I’m a big fan of The Walkmen, and the latest St. Vincent record is pretty neat. Gillian Welch is someone I’ve listened to all these years. I like a lot of other music. As a jazz fan, I’m in love with Bill Frisell.
LP 2 lacks the improvisational qualities of the group’s earlier work, and that’s largely a result of the recording situation. Even so, the more typical 4-4 structure of several songs isn’t a hindrance. Lamos, even as a jazz fan, doesn’t think things should be forced.
SP: Regarding jazz, I think that the new album has less jazz elements than the band’s previous work. As that was largely your area, did you miss that about this album?
Lamos: Well, I remember how I used to approach music. I tried to make everything, quote-unquote, “interesting.” I think that was a function of me at twenty-five. Like, “I’m not going to play it straight if I can play it crooked.” And I think this time around, it was more like, “What does the song need?” Some of these are more straightforward songs than the last stuff. It’s a part of the evolution. [Kinsella and Holmes] would noodle together on these guitar riffs and bring ‘em in, and I would write stuff to what they played. For the new one, things were constructed a little bit more “song-y,” and there are a few that are just kind of straight 4-4, even, and that was fun.
“I remember how I used to approach music. I tried to make everything, quote-unquote, ‘interesting.’ I think that was a function of me at twenty-five. Like, ‘I’m not going to play it straight if I can play it crooked.’ And I think this time around, it was more like, ‘What does the song need?'”
But as an old guy, I’m trying to not get too wrapped up in feedback. The internet didn’t exist the first time around, and you know what? I’m kind of terrified of it! But, whatever – I think that this is the drumming that makes sense for these songs. When we play live, I like the moments in the show where we open things up, and I do think that it would be nice to capture some of that opening up on record at some point. But, I think that wasn’t what this record was about. This was about having these songs and these constraints to work with. For me personally, it was like, “I haven’t been in the studio for so long, I don’t even know if I could do it anymore!” So at the end of that week in Omaha, I felt good about having worked real hard to learn new songs and go in the studio and get them so they sounded okay.
SP: That’s great. I really like the idea of just doing what you think is needed for the songs. It’s pretty important, and it definitely shows some maturity.
Lamos: I think that’s what playing music is all about. You’ve got to do what makes sense for the song, and try to make it as musical as possible. I suppose that people kind of try to hold on to the goofiness, and I mean that in a good way, of the first couple records. It’s interesting to look back. I actually think that the first thing we did, the EP, had the most intricate and unusual kinds of things going on. Every song was kind of like this tiny little puzzle. There’s a lot more opening up on the actual album the first time around. But the second record has some rock going on too, and then in some ways I think that this is just kind of is an extension of “Let’s see where the song goes.”
SP: Do you have any apprehension about the reception of the new album?
Lamos: Apprehension, no. I mean, we don’t have any business doing this in the first place, and I mean, I should not be making records in my forties anyway, so the fact that I got a chance to do it and to work with Polyvinyl again is awesome. So, I couldn’t care less if the whole world said, “Oh this is just a bunch of old fools.” As a music fan and a music lover, I think we did a good job. There are parts of that album that I’m absolutely in love with, so for me, it’s just been an amazing experience and it’s awesome that I get to continue it. If this record is allowing us to play more shows, that works for me. And that gets rid of all the apprehension. I mean, I respect the right for somebody to say, “Eh, the first record was all right, but everything else is terrible!” Ha. I totally get that, it makes sense to me – people love art and take it seriously. But just as I respect your right to like [the music] however you want to, you need to respect my right to pursue music.
SP: The first album was an underground classic, especially in Champaign-Urbana, and I really wanted to ask you: Do you think that there was or is a difference between American Football the band and American Football the (first) album? Is it possible to escape the deification of an album?
Lamos: That’s a great question. It’s funny to hear you talk about it in those terms, because to me, it was a result of the things that we did in this little house in Urbana on Tuesday and Thursday, or whenever band practice was. We did everything wrong; no press, nothing. So the fact that it had these legs is interesting. It has something to do with Mike and the music he’s made before, during, and since the album, but I don’t think he even really knew about the life that this damn thing had. I know Steve and I didn’t. But, frankly, it’s none of our business! We went out there into the world, and then it kind of became a thing. It was interesting to watch history being rewritten because back then, nobody cared at all. The handful of times that we played in Champaign, nobody came. We played more times in Chicago, and I think the biggest show we had in Chicago was still only a hundred and fifty people at maybe the very last time we played. So, no, American Football the band was more of this weird, awkward thing. I mean, the songs are the same, but I don’t remember enjoying it as much as I do now. I’m grateful for the record and I’m grateful for that house I’ve never stepped foot in, but it almost runs in parallel of my recollection of what this was the first time around, and what it is now.
SP: I think you guys have the ability to not only be that album, but to be this new one as well. Why is the new album self-titled as well as the first one? Does it have to do with the evolution of the band?
Lamos: You know, I don’t think we went into either one of them ahead of time thinking that. I know there was talk of trying to somehow tie in the artwork of the first one because of how much it means to so many people. We wanted to revisit that image in some way, so from there it was kind of like, “We have a number of pictures of the outside of this place, so if we could also manage to get inside…” I mean the more you listen to the lyrics, [the album] is really about getting inside of something, like a relationship, and then trying to decide whether to stick around or take off. So I suppose in that way, if the first one was LP 1, then this one, calling it LP 2, is connected. I was joking with the guys, One of the few quote-unquote “emo” bands I still listen to is Sunny Day Real Estate. They pulled that schtick. But then again, so did Led Zeppelin. I wish we could say we were trying to be Van Halen or something, but no. Van Halen did it for the first three, and Zeppelin did it for the first four, so you know, maybe we’ll do it for five.
SP: The house! I think I’m required to talk about it. So you’re figuratively taking us inside of the house then with this album and its cover?
Lamos: I’m not sure exactly what Mike did with the lyrics as I’ve never asked him point-blank about it, but I have heard him say in interviews that he’s interested in revisiting the character from the first record, and sort of reimagining that character for our age. The stuff that resonated the most and seemed the most interesting was what was going on “inside.” The outside parts are cool too, but I mean why would we want to do that sort of thing again? I mean why would this same guy, twenty years later, be looking at the same damn thing? And so in that way, it was kind of how it went. Again, the house – Mike and Steve maybe were in that house as college kids, but I’ve never set foot in the place. My girlfriend and now wife lived the next street over, so I was over there instead.
SP: So, as a professor of writing and rhetoric who doesn’t write the lyrics for his own bands’ songs, is music kind of a way for you to get away from your day job?
Lamos: So I got my undergrad, my grad and my PhD in Champaign there, and then came out [to Boulder] in 2005. Music has always been a big part of my life, but I kind of had to pursue it a lot less seriously as I tried to get tenure and all that. Music is always a nice alternative to the daily stresses of life. As I’ve said to some people talking about this, this is the best part time job in the world. Lyrics aren’t my department and I’m the least creative person in the bunch. I teach argumentative writing and freshman comp. and other boring stuff that no one else wants to teach.
That being said, my research currently involves the future of higher education and what it means to teach in a world without tenure. There are some weird parallels to some of what I’m talking about, like in indie music again, and in all of these unusual circumstances that involve reasonably happy people, and I’m interested as to what that means for higher education. Like what if we considered teachers craftsmen or artisans, and maybe think about ways to make their jobs more satisfying, even as they get less secure.
SP: That sounds like an excellent way to tie your hobby into your job.
Lamos: Yeah, I mean we really only do this on the weekends and during summers when I’m off, but I’ve got little kids at home and when I’m on a plane I get tons more done than I do when I’m at the house.
SP: Do you think your job will allow for more touring? Do you have a more extensive tour in addition to the dates you’re playing now?
Lamos: Well each of us has so much going on: We work around Steve’s vacation days, Nate’s got a baby coming, Mike’s at home with his kids, so we’re never going to be doing like three months on the road. But that keeps it fun and makes it easier to manage. I don’t need another job right now, but I think that we are all sort of in the same space in terms of appreciating this for what it is. If I was 25, I would have grand plans about this, that, and the other thing, but I’m happily past that.
SP: Well I will cross the collective fingers of thousands of people here in Champaign in the hope that you guys will return to play here at some point.
(Editor’s Note: This interview took place before their December 4th performance was announced. I’ll pretend I had something to do with it. You’re welcome, C-U.)
Lamos: Yeah, playing there recently was so much fun. We played the Pygmalion fest, and I’m so thankful for that and for Seth’s help there, but I’d also love to go back and play again now that we have forty or so shows under our belt, ha! There was a lot going on that day, but I’m not sure if my playing was at the top of the list of things. I think now I feel a lot more confident and comfortable playing the stuff and I hope we get back to Champaign again.
SP: I can’t wait. Thanks so much for talking with us!
American Football’s second self-titled LP is available today to stream and purchase on the band’s website. Also, make sure to grab tickets to their December 4th performance at Foellinger Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26, and going fast.