American Football’s self-titled debut album turns 20 and Getintothis’ Will Whitby looks back at a record which stood out from the crowd.
“Our record came out and no one gave a fuck, but the few kids that did are influential,” said American Football’s Mike Kinsella as he spoke in 2014.
The word “emo” to many may conjure up images of skater scene kids hanging out and drinking cans of Monster by shopping centres.
Buzzfeed and the like are quick to mark emo as a genre trapped in the Myspace generation doing quizzes to work out what your favourite pizza topping means about your favourite My Chemical Romance album.
Misery never goes out of style and reached its peak with grunge in the early 90s as your mum told you to cut your hair and every guitar line had hideous amounts of overdrive or a seismic wave of wah and delay.
Then Kurt died and the grunge bubble burst.
American rockers continued telling their mom to shut up as the late 90s pop punk behemoths of Blink 182, The Offspring and Green Day were selling albums in their tens of millions.
The underground went heavy again as post-hardcore pit-dwellers like At The Drive-In and Sunny Day Real Estate took the reins of the overdrive pedal. It was a pre-9/11, happy-go-lucky America but suburban skate kids who were self-aware about their sadness still needed a direction in order to articulate their teenage growing pains.
American Football came as a product of the alternative and math-rock scene of Illinois.
Vocalist and guitarist Mike Kinsella played with Cap’n Jazz and was joined by percussionist and trumpeter Steve Lamos and guitarist Steve Holmes formed the trio. The group released their self-titled on then fledgeling but now legendary US Midwest indie label, Polyvinyl, and has since developed cult status and has been one of the labels biggest releases.
In the lead-up to the album Kinsella -like so many confused early 20-year-olds before and since- indulged in The Smiths and The Cure.
Kinsella admitted: ‘Everything I liked was super sad shit. So I just thought that’s how you wrote songs. I never got into silly punk early on or anything. Political shit … I just felt like, “What am I gonna say?””
The lack of “political shit” set the album aside from the loudmouth post-hardcore sound that it proceeded pointing fingers at “the man” and societies walls holding the protagonist back. The only thing that Kinsella had to prove himself to was well… himself.
The album opens with the Magnum Opus of late 90s twinkly, emo songwriting, Never Meant, blasting into a perfect mess of interlocking guitars, jazzed tempos and earnest vocals.
When grunge displayed nearly brash Neanderthal-like production and musical technique, everything in American Football’s brand of super-intricate yet free-flowing melody lines welcomes you into the album -with the guitar, bass and drums meticulously forcing themselves to the forefront to shake your hand.
Instead of two guitars forcing a fight out of each other playing together, Kinsella and Lamos bounce off each other brilliantly to display the math-rock influenced technicalities within the album.
‘You can’t miss what you forget’ rings through as Kinsella leads at vocals through a track self-aware at the changes in life about to front him as him and the band left University in Illinois.
The contained and articulated yet hyper-aware lyrical outlook continues to the second track on the record, The Summer Ends and as the title suggests it is a brass-laden, coming-of-age epilogue of having to say goodbye.
The refreshing injections of Lamos’ solo trumpet lines lend itself to rainy night feel to the song as the unpolished brass recordings slice through the haze of glimmering guitar lines.
Honestly? launches in for a lyrical onslaught on growing old and the confusion of emotions and intentions.
‘Honestly I can’t remember (teen dreams) / All my teenage feelings / And the meanings / They seemed too see-through / To be true.’
Set in 12/8 time (and every track on the album was in a different time and tuning), the constructed interlocking guitars quickly turn into a commotion-filled yet controlled wall of noise.
Without an overdrive pedal, the intricate breakdown shows American Football both at the least but most aggressive. Repetitive and articulate bar set progressions make you anticipate the bands next move and the breakdown focuses more on the band’s musicianship than aggression to get the intensity across.
‘It’s not that I’m this totally sad sack dude all the time. Obviously, people from the emo scene gravitate towards that stuff, but musically, it’s totally different; we weren’t a loud band, and we weren’t a fast band. We were part of this little college scene, and nothing more than that.’ remarked Kinsella.
I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional plays like an argument as the guitar lines lock in together with the bickering drums.
Unguarded lyrics confront themselves from the start as the argument of misunderstanding becomes the most human track on the album. Stay Home is where the band get to show off their musicianship once again as it (ironically) peaks at Kinsella brazenly saying ‘that’s life, it’s oh so short’ during the mammoth 8-minute track.
Closing out the album with The One With The Wurlitzer brings in a Wurlitzer organ to accompany a hauntingly retrospective trumpet line for the final two minutes.
The album was released in September 1998 with no press release to fill zines, no release show, no tour supporting the album- they couldn’t have kicked up less of a fuss if they tried.
Despite the promising development of a fresh sound, the band broke up shortly after the release of their debut as their studies finished for the band members and they no longer all lived in the same city.
Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes moved to Chicago as Steve Lamos moved over 1000 miles away to Colorado- logistically it just wouldn’t work anymore.
Kinsella has admitted that the band knew the end was already nigh when they were recording it as they ‘never had ambitious goals and weren’t kids who wanted to tour all summer.‘ and like that they were gone.
The album was just a side project to creatively indulge themselves before all the band members went their separate ways- the entire album was recorded in less than four days.
But although the band ceased to be, their debut album lasted as a constant relic and flag in the sand for the emo underground for years to come.
Its modest attitude of showing up to the party and then leaving before anyone really noticed is the groundbreaking appeal that shrouds the album in both mystery and respect.
With years of silence from the band, the debut became an underground cult classic with emo’s many emerging and diversified fanbases- myself included.
American Football was the first album I unintentionally stumbled upon whilst trying to find revision music in my final years of A-Levels.
The sound was deep, melodic and was that level of articulated misery that my confused 18-year-old self would bind to.
I’d never heard of the band before, nor had any of my mates, it wasn’t in Kerrang and there wasn’t any obvious pop-punk or emo tropes that I had listened to before.
Spending more time revising NPR articles and Washed Up Emo podcast episodes than my English lit coursework; I quickly learned the many intricacies and influences leading to and from the album which has greatly shaped my music taste today.
‘Sad dad’ bands Minus The Bear, Death Cab For Cutie and The National all hark an influence to the Midwest group as the newer breed of shoegaze and emo bands like Tigers Jaw, Foxing and The Hotelier all have confessed an early 20s love for the twinkly emo oracles.
The cover art of a classic American suburban wooden house at night with presumably the bedroom light conjures imagery of the album being made in that very room.
A perfect setting for a record which encapsulates suburban struggles from the offset and although none of the band lived in the house, Kinsella said ‘I always just thought there was something about it that represented living in a kind of insular college town, and that speaks to the sound of the record, I think.’
15 years passed and as Never Meant hit up to 2.5 million hits on Last.fm, Kinsella and Polyvinyl re-released their debut in 2014.
The reception was exceptional, the traffic for the pre-order crashed the Polyvinyl website, something that had never happened before or since.
So in 2014, all grown up from their 1999 graduate selves they released a follow-up also titled American Football.
The album was immaculately received with the group selling out shows across the US, UK and Japan. With an original fanbase that grew older with the debut soundtracking hardship, their sophomore release followed the same math rock and twinkly emo guitar sound.
But the lyricism and the story behind the songs had matured and grown up as Kinsella became a father, adult life sunk in and the feeling of questioning themselves never really went away,
Now back together longer than they ever were in the first place, it seems the Illinois quartet are here to stay a little longer as they recently announced their third album- also titled American Football.
Lead single, Silhouettes, a 7 minute long mysterious, ethereal welcome back to the band as they look to develop themselves and try not to break up a shortly after their debut.
At heart, American Football is an angsty heartbreak album.
But it’s a break-up record which doesn’t follow any conventions of punk-influenced melancholy that came before.
There are no blazing minor guitar solos, the lyrics are matured and self-reflective and there is no cymbal ridden, crescendo chorus to sing in the shower.
Just two years prior to Blink 182 singing about shagging dogs, American Football created a baseline consciousness to hyper-relate with a fanbase all linked by being miserable and confused yet optimistic for the future.
All without a pizza slice in sight.