American Football’s Mike Kinsella on Their Long-awaited New Album, and Why He’s Not As Sad As You Think

Guitarist Mike Kinsella of American Football performs at Noise Pop 2016 festival at Regency Ballroom on February 27, 2016, in San Francisco, California. Photo: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

It took several miracles of modern tech for any of us to hear the music of Illinois emo titans American Football. The band formed in 1997 out of a recombinant string of emo and math-rock outfits, with front man Mike Kinsella crossing the keen sentimentalism his brother Tim championed as lead singer of Cap’n Jazz with the delicate guitars and offbeat time signatures both brought into Jazz’s successor, Joan of Arc. American Football only lasted three years, but they left behind a 1999 self-titled debut that nailed lovelorn late-teens ennui with aplomb, across gems like “Never Meant” and “Honestly.” The quartet lasted long enough to catch wind on the growing music-blog and file-sharing networks, but not long enough for the early 2000s major-label and TV-soundtrack run on indie rock, pop punk, and emo that would make unlikely stars out of Fall Out Boy and Death Cab for Cutie. For years, the American Football legend persisted among intrepid emo fans and in the enduring work of Mike Kinsella in subsequent acts like his solo project, Owen; the sorta–Cap’n Jazz reunion outfit, Owls, and others.

As the 15th anniversary of American Football approached, in 2014, the members of the band began piecing together demos and bits of live shows to assemble a commemorative deluxe edition through its original label, Polyvinyl Record Co. (Polyvinyl sagely escaped the hard times that dwindling interest forced on many peers in the late 2000s by auctioning off overstock on Kickstarter.) The reissue was well received and soon followed by a show in the band’s native Urbana, Illinois, which turned into a tour, whose dates have snaked through 2015 and deep into 2016. A new album titled American Football sees release October 21, and, going toe to toe with a fiercely beloved, landmark debut, it holds its own. The scrappiness of the debut album is lost on tighter musicianship and softer vocals ironed out by Kinsella’s years of experience in Owen, but the ever-present autumnal sadness coursing through “My Instincts Are the Enemy,” “I’ve Been Lost for So Long,” and “I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” is textbook American Football. LP2 is a tighter, more mature and delicate record and, frankly, as good of a sequel as can be expected.

I caught up with singer/guitarist Mike Kinsella to outline how a tiny band almost no one ever got to see live the first time has come to enjoy a more productive second life, and to learn how he balances multiple band commitments with a family life. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough hours in the day. (As American Football approaches, Kinsella has just wrapped a series of live dates in support of Owen’s months-old The King of Whys and will jet out again to Europe in November before a spate of 2017 American Football engagements.) He’d like to think that he’s “just some dad,” but how many kids can bring a handful of dad’s stone-cold indie-rock classics to show-and-tell?

I would love to know how a few shows commemorating the reissue of your debut turned into two years of tour dates and a new album.
[Laughs] By accident? We played the shows, and it was fun, and we kept getting more offers and picking the ones we wanted to do. We got to go to the cities we wanted to go to and play the shows we wanted to. At some point we didn’t want to stop doing that, but we couldn’t just keep playing the same 12 songs. So we had a little powwow and decided to actually write a new record, as an excuse to keep doing this, part-time and stuff.

So the new songs are an exercise in making playing out more exciting?
We went to a bunch of cities we like hanging out in, and we like hanging out together. You can’t keep going back playing the same songs. It’s our way of keeping the band going. Otherwise, it would have to stop again.

You’ve kept plenty busy in other bands since the last American Football album. What specific characteristics make these new songs an American Football project?
As opposed to Owen or something? We wrote really collaboratively. We went in the studio this time with 12 songs. I’d say I wrote about a third of 'em. When I say “write,” I mean, like, it’s my first guitar line or something. Once somebody has a part, everybody works on it, independently first, because we put it in Dropbox, and then we work on it collaboratively in a room together. Unlike Owen, which is all me all the time, these songs … a bunch of 'em were started by Steve Holmes, who plays guitar. A few of 'em were started by Nate Kinsella, who plays bass. Even Steve Lamos started one or two of them with just a drum beat. Once a part exists, just everybody putting their own take on it is what makes it American Football and not Owen, 'cause I would do something totally different.

Was it daunting trying to make something new in the shadow of an album people have been living with and loving for over a decade and a half?
At first we were intimidated by it. Before we committed to writing new music. Once we decided we wanted to write new music, we sort of talked our way out of being intimidated by it. It’s gonna be different. There’s no way it’s not gonna be different. We’re in different places, we’re interested in making different music than we were then, my voice is different, the lyrical content is gonna be different. There’s almost no point in comparing 'em, so we just sort of went out to make a new album — actually just an album, as if we were a new band.

Is revisiting that band and album title partially an exercise in reckoning with who you’ve become since the last one?
We wanted to have a little symmetry. In the same sense that we wanted to make an album that wasn’t trying to compare to the other one, we also wanted, like, the legacy of it. Sort of like bookends, maybe. We talked, and if there’s any more projects, there would be a different kind of artwork. It would [have] a different name and stuff. But this album almost seemed like an answer to the other album. That album … we finished it and then broke up, so nobody saw the songs live, and they never heard of us again. So it’s sort of like, “Well, what happened to those people who did that thing?” This would be the answer to it. So we wanted to keep it paired with the first album.

There’s a palpable sense of uncertainty running through the lyrics that feels kinda kin to the mood of the first album. I’m wondering if you write from a specific place emotionally when you’re thinking about American Football or if that’s just how it came out.
I had a bunch of lyrics, and some of them fell into Owen songs, and some fell into American Football songs. I edited them. The ones that had that uncertainty or longing, I threw into the American Football side, just cause it seemed like the same sort of sentiment as the first record. I was aware definitely of this being an answer to the first record. So whatever kid wrote the first record, what is he pining about or longing for? It’s not gonna be unrequited love or whatever.

So, it’s a bit of a character, you mean.
Sure. I mean, yeah. I’m projecting. It’s not all autobiographical at all. It’s based in my reality, which … I’m almost 40, and I have a wife and kids, and I’m, you know, settled where I am and stuff. So yeah, it’s a story.

Gotcha. Cause I was gonna ask about them being pretty sad … and the juxtaposition between that and family life.
That’s the myth. People send me these memes they make on the internet of how sad I am, and I’m like, “That’s not me. I’m literally just watching sports with friends right now at a bar.” I’m not saying, like, I’m faking it, but the music comes out of me when I’m drunk and bummed. That’s when I’m inspired to write. That’s how I associate with music. I never got into silly pop-punk or stuff like that. That shit comes out. I guess it’s sad or whatever. It’s not even sad, it’s just sort of thoughtful. There’s a weight to it, hopefully. But that’s not how I live my life, though.

I’m relieved!
That would suck.

You mentioned people sending memes. Is it weird to have this band take on a life in the absence of being a part of it, to see people responding to the music in a way you might not have imagined back in '99 and 2000?
Oh God, yeah. We had no idea. At first it was “Oh my God, this is so weird,” and it’s still shocking. This is the most popular band I’ve been in … like, accidentally. I’ve been in a bunch of bands, and we’ve toured and played shows actually and put out multiple albums, and none of them got this popular. I think people think, like, just 'cause there’s hype around it now in a way that there hasn’t been around other bands, that maybe I’m famous or something. Not even famous, but like … that I have some sort of public persona. So people think of me like that, but in my real life, I’m just a normal guy.

I guess it’s more of an internet question, how bands exist now with the internet as opposed to before. I think people feel comfortable on the internet just like to make fun of me and/or write me like “Hey, do you wanna get a drink while I’m in town?” And I’m like … I don’t know you! There’s weird barriers that are not there anymore because of the internet. It’s weird to be in a band people have heard of, and then they assume they kinda know you.

Especially based off of songs you wrote a decade and a half ago.
Yeah! There’s these songs that I don’t even relate to anymore. These people have this image in their head of what we’re supposed to be like. Like, I’m supposed to be some shut-in, Robert Smith kinda guy 'cause I wrote these sad songs when I was 20. But it’s like ... No, I’m just some dad. I gotta pick up my kids at school.

Are you ready to step full-bore into a digital presence with releasing a new record?
I’m not really gonna step full-force forward into anything because we’re sort of a part-time band 'cause the other guys have jobs. I mean ... we’re down for whatever. Bring on your memes.

I was gonna ask about logistics. Is this still a part-time thing, even with the new record coming out?
Yeah. We have to plan everything far in advance. We live in different cities, there’s a bunch of jobs, and a bunch of kids, and there’s pregnant wives and stuff. We’re not 24 trying to get famous or anything. It’s just like “Hey, cool, we get to do this, and it’s super fun, so let’s keep doing this.”

What have you gained from revisiting thoughts and ideas you laid down back in 98 and ’99 and such?
I guess I gained some new friends. I got a new appreciation for playing shows in general. I haven’t been playing in a band in a long time. So playing these songs live every night ... I get to hear what the drummer’s doing. There’s potential to be surprised in a way that I’m not getting when I’m playing solo.

I can’t think of many artists who are nearly as successful at juggling as many projects as you. Across Owls, Owen, Joan of Arc, and all those ... how do you manage to juggle that with a family life?
Once my kids go to bed I have a lot of downtime. The Joan of Arc stuff, I haven’t done in a while. I feel like at some point I’ll do something with them, just 'cause it’s fun. I shot a video with them a few months ago just for fun, to hang out all day. Their / They’re / There, I think is on hiatus. Or we broke up. I’m not sure. Owls, we only do once every ten years. The Owen stuff is part-time. American Football is pretty part-time. This has been a busy year just because I recorded and put out two different albums, but usually if I can do an album a year with a different project, it’s plenty of time to write and record and whatever it takes. Play some shows.

So it’s an album a year, but maybe it’s a different project, so it looks to the rest of us like “Whoa, this guy’s in five different things,” but really it’s just one at a time?
Yeah, it’s kinda one at a time. My role in Owls or Their / They’re / There, because I’m just playing drums, is a lot different. If we have band practice once a week, I just have to show up and play the drums, whereas with American Football, a lot of the nights are me writing on my own. I have different roles, and they don’t all overlap. I’m not the front man in five different bands. That would be insane.