The SPIN Interview: American Football’s Mike Kinsella

Mike Kinsella quickly cops to being “old,” by which he means that he’s 39, married, and spent the day taking his kids to IKEA. His aw-shucks attitude doesn’t quite conceal the ingrained stubbornness of someone who came up idolizing the D.C. punk scene’s no-bullshit ethics. It’s dumb, Mike said, that he has to wear freebie Vans sneakers for an American Football photoshoot, even though they’re legitimately his favorite shoes.

The photoshoot was long overdue; until recently, articles about one of the year’s most anticipated reunions were running with pictures from almost 20 years ago. American Football, Mike’s band with Steve Lamos and Steve Holmes, recorded one self-titled album in 1999, and broke up in 2000. It’s not true that they never played any shows, but it is true that no one really cared, not the way they do now. American Football, their sole record, captured devotees with its introspective, spiraling melodies, unconventional rhythms, and emotionally raw lyrics. It became a foundational album for a generation of underground rock and “emo” bands, while the nondescript white house on its cover became a landmark in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. (“I’ve taken countless pictures of bands in front of the house,” local show booker Isaac Arms told me. “Some people maybe even try to play Champaign because of the American Football record, because they want to see the house.”)

Today, 17 years after American Football, the band is releasing a new album, also titled American Football. LP2, as it’s known, came about during American Football’s first reunion tour in 2014 and 2015. Bored of playing the nine songs from their only record, they started sneaking some new instrumentals into the setlist. Eventually, they headed back to the studio to record nine more tracks—another American Football. Mike calls it a “bookend,” which is nerve-wracking for some devotees of the first record, who might feel the story was better without a sequel. Emotional memories might be corrupted; an underwhelming new record might overwrite the one true, sincere expression of whatever “American Football” is supposed to mean.

In 1999, Kinsella was still coming of age. Today, as a father, the new record is largely concerned with adult themes of commitment, sacrifice, and mortality. Modern teens, who’ve turned their love of American Football into hyper self-conscious meme clubs where sad-sack college kids poke fun at themselves and their love of twinkly guitar lines, might not know what to make of it. Kinsella doesn’t share their precociousness, nor does he share the politics of his new fans, which is probably why his Twitter following reacted with horror to a recent (and since-deleted) tweet in which he joked that the men who robbed Kim Kardashian West in Paris were his “spirit animal.”

Kinsella, however, isn’t really worried about any of that. American Football feels like a whole new band, he tells me the next day. We’re in Wicker Park, Chicago, at a picnic table behind a barnhouse-industrial burger joint chowing down on medium-well Midwestern beef. Every so often we have to halt our conversation, either so Mike can chew or so the Blue Line train can go by overhead. We talked about the new American Football, his solo project Owen, The King of Whys, and that disastrous Kardashian tweet.

What do you remember about the very first band you were ever in?
Tim [Kinsella, Mike’s older brother, who played with him in the band Cap’n Jazz] was in this band [who] would practice in our basement, and I would get so jealous because it seemed so fun. My friend and I were in sixth or seventh grade, and we started a band called P.M.D., Posers Must Die. I remember having one song called “P.M.D.” My friend’s older brothers were into heavy metal, and I remember the logo was a headstone with “P.M.D.” written on it. We only wrote a couple songs and they were terrible.

Which of your groups do you wish you could still be a part of? 
I wish Joan of Arc was something that I could jump in and out of. I mean, I did that for years, but I wish I could still do it. It’s fun to do part time, like for one cycle. I wish Owls could be functioning. I played three shows once with Aloha, I’d love to be in that band. A lot of the other ones, it’s okay that I’m not in those bands anymore.

Do you feel like the Cap’n Jazz reunion and Owls had to happen first before you could go back to American Football?
Absolutely. The Cap’n Jazz reunion shows, I was kind of dreading them, but they ended up being so fun. They showed me that it could still be enjoyable instead of just embarrassing. I thought it would be embarrassing or stupid for nostalgia’s sake, but they were legitimately fun.

So why now for American Football?
I have no idea. They released like the 15 year reissue [in 2014], and I guess it was just a better response than anybody thought. Before, I think I would have been embarrassed. I mean, they’re pretty sappy songs and stuff. As an older guy I’m so distant from it that it’s almost like a cover band in a way. I don’t feel like I wrote those songs or those lyrics.

Do the new songs feel like that?
No, the new songs don’t. We feel like we’re a new band, because we are. We added a new guy, the songwriting process is totally different, and we live in different cities so we practice intensely over weekends instead of noodling all the time and not getting anywhere. It’s focused.

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How long since you listened to the first American Football record all the way through?
I still haven’t.

Ever?
No. I usually put it on to get down the tuning, and then that’s it. The reissue, when it was happening, there was no talk of shows or anything. They were like, “We’re gonna do this thing, and you guys can be involved or not.” They asked us for old photos and to dig up some tapes, but honestly they even remastered some tracks and I didn’t even listen to them. I was completely checked out of the band. Within the year, we were already playing shows and stuff. I mean, I’ve heard “Never Meant” since, or a couple of songs, but some of the songs I have no idea how they even go.

I don’t listen to the first record because the vocals are hard to listen to. I was this shy guy and I think I tried to sing in one other band before that, where we wrote like five songs, so I wasn’t really a singer. A lot of the lyrics were written on the spot, and it’s kind of embarrassing. I can look back, and I don’t care now, but it was just naive. What I was singing was naive, and the way we recorded truly captured a young man doing this thing that he doesn’t really do.

Who’s your audience for American Football now? Are they different than an Owen audience?
I think it’s people transitioning from being young to feeling old. Even though I think I’m officially old now, and not in the transition anymore, I still feel like I am. So, maybe it’s the people who are still wrestling with that. American Football—turns out a whole bunch of young kids liked that first album, but I don’t know how they’ll feel about the second album. If you’re in high school, a lot of the themes are definitely not targeted towards you. You can’t even imagine until you’re getting older. You don’t believe it’s gonna happen to you, and then it does.

When I listen to the new record, I hear the themes of mortality and resignation—especially on the very last song, “Everyone Is Dressed Up.” Those aren’t part of the landscape of the first record. You don’t notice that they’re not there because they don’t exist.
Yeah, because when you’re young, it’s not a part of your world. You’re thinking about getting laid and that you’re gonna live forever. You honestly do, until you don’t think that way. Mortality—once you have kids it’s just worrying about either them dying, or me dying, or what if my wife dies. You can’t escape it now. Like, I don’t ride a bike anymore, because I’m afraid to die in situations [where] I didn’t obviously worry about it before.

I was going to ask you about your politics and the election, but it seems, based off your Twitter, that it’s pretty obvious.
Yeah, it’s pretty obvious if you follow my Twitter. Obviously Trump’s a moron, but it’s insane that we validate him. We should ignore him as a populace. The fact that people take him serious at all, I mean, he’s not even close to being a regular human. Are you asking about a specific tweet?

Yeah, let’s talk about that Kim Kardashian one. 
Fuck Kim Kardashian, and her brother, whatever his name is. It wasn’t a gender thing, it’s just a celebrity thing. She’s just like Trump, just the worst type of human. Just chasing fame. The people who buy into it and put her on a pedestal just because she’s famous, fuck those people too.

But you deleted it. Did you get a lot of pushback?
Yeah, I deleted it because it was misunderstood. People were calling me misogynist, saying that it was the same because they knew who I was, too. But I’m not a celebrity like her. However celebrity is defined, we’re not the same. I tried to defend myself, the first couple I responded to, and then that would get twisted again. How do people that followed me and liked my music take the side of Kim Kardashian? I apparently tapped into something that was already going on.

I’m not the guy to go to for hot takes or political things. I make crude dumb jokes and I have an opinion on it, but I deleted it because it would never end. I still stand by it. It drives me crazy that people are like that. I would say something like, “I’m obviously not a misogynist,” and people would say, “Sounds like something a misogynist would say,” like people who say, “Some of my best friends are black.” I’m not saying it like that, it’s just that you can’t sit there and call me a thing.

We’re in a climate where misogyny is more recognized, and accusations come faster.
My wife runs a feminist club at the high school and she said, “You can’t win this. You’re not allowed to have an opinion on this. That’s the whole point.” But like, fuck that. That’s not the thing I even wanted to start talking about. I feel like Kim Kardashian is a misogynist. She’s fake in every way possible. She’s the ideal of a beauty that is unattainable because she paid for it, and she’s a bad role model for my daughter. It drives me crazy that people saw my thing that was misinterpreted, admittedly, and boycotting me like you don’t know me at all.

Are you worried that it’s a distraction from the album?
No, it’s Twitter, it doesn’t matter. One person wrote that I should have apologized for offending someone in general, and they were right, you shouldn’t go through life offending people. But my reaction was just fight back. I had a talk with [that person] on a long DM thing, and now I’m good about it. Anybody who knows me, it doesn’t matter. I’m not worried about it. My manager thinks I should apologize, but I don’t know, you can’t get out of it. I don’t know these conversations, I’m an old dude. I’m not grandpa like, get off my lawn, whatever. [It] hit a nerve.

You’re channeling a little Henry Rollins here. Someone who’s outspoken and is not gonna apologize.
I’ll take that. I’ll be Henry Rollins. The week before, I tweeted about killing Trump. The tweet during the debate was like “I hate rich people,” and that’s the problem with society. It’s the gap between rich people and poor people. If there’s 1% or 0.1% who have all the money and the rest of us are just fighting over whatever percent of our taxes [we] can pay, it’s bullshit because that guy can pay for all of us.

Do you ever address politics in your music? It seems like it’s mostly personal.
Yeah, I’m not really good about that stuff. I think it’s corny or something. Is it? I’ve never found a way to marry the two.

Are you conscious about the memes around American Football?
Yeah, I’m aware of that stuff. People tag me in them all the time. If I had seen those before, I would have thought everyone in the world was making fun of me, but I think they actually just like the band.

I think they’re making fun of themselves because they see themselves in you.
Yeah, a laughing with us, not at us. Now, I see that they actually like the band. I didn’t know that before.

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When did you get to the point where you felt confident that you could support yourself and your family as a musician?
I’m not at that point yet. I don’t support my wife—she brings home the steady money. We’ve had talks on switching the roles, like if she could go part-time, what I would have to do? I’d have to leave a lot and make money on tour, so I’m not at that point yet. It’s a great part-time job, it pays well one weekend a month, but it couldn’t pay off our mortgage.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you do, career-wise?
If I didn’t come out of college and get a taste for touring and enjoy it, I don’t know. Before anybody liked any of my bands, I was doing it just because I liked to. I guess I would have gone to culinary school. That’s one of my favorite things to do. Seeing as I don’t have those skills now, if it all goes away tomorrow, I’d get a job at like, Old Navy or something retail. I really like Old Navy, I’m there like four times a week. The kids grow so fast.

Does it change the dynamics in American Football to be the one guy who’s doing music full time, versus having a non-music career?
Yeah, it’s a weird band to be in. Usually bands are like, “let’s tour all the time,” and pushing to get somewhere. This band, we get cool show offers like a festival in Europe, and some of the guys are like, “I don’t think I can get away that weekend, I got some soccer games to go to.” I can also do Owen, so I can fill the gaps when there’s downtime. The drummer [Lamos] is a professor, so he can only play when he’s not teaching, and the other guy [Holmes] is a businessman, so he only gets a certain number of days off, and Nate is sort of a freelance sound guy around New York, but he’d be happy to tour eight months a year.

Do you picture a time where you retire? Or is it going to be Owen until you can’t physically do it anymore?
I think it’ll probably just be like, “Oh my god, I haven’t released anything in six years, I guess I’m not in that band anymore.” The way that my cycle works: I write and stress about it, and then I record and stress about it, and then there’s downtime before the album comes out [when] I’ll be content just watching sports and not feeling guilty. I feel like one day, I just won’t go back to the writing part and I’ll just keep watching sports. I don’t think that’ll happen soon, though. I’m really inspired to do the next thing because this last cycle was the hardest I’ve ever worked and [I’ve] gotten the most rewards.

What made this cycle the hardest?
I had to be gone from the family for more than usual, because it was back-to-back Owen and American Football. Tapping the creative well—I didn’t have anything else to say about getting old. Now, I finished both, so I’ve been guilt-free playing shows. It’s a different kind of work than the mental work.

What was it like working on The King of Whys with S. Carey in Eau Claire?
Everyone was so nice and so Wisconsin. If you’ve been there you’d understand. I remember day two, I was talking to my wife like, “I fucked up my whole life. They have such a cool system.” We’d be there for a couple days and some of [Justin Vernon’s] friends would come by with horn ideas. They just take music seriously. It was impressive, how thoughtful they are. The way I write music is like, “I have a thing to say and I kind of know how I want to say it,” but these guys would say things like, “Oh you want it to sound like that? Well then you have to put these notes together in these way.” It’s like they’re doing math or something.

What did that bring to the music? What does the new Owen record have that the others don’t?
I feel like it fills more space. If I used to hear something like, “There needs to be more in this bridge,” I would just add more guitars to it. “Twinkle daddy.” But these guys, like Mikey [Michael Noyce] on viola, he creates this atmosphere. They all run it through these cool pedals, and make this atmosphere. I just really loved it.

Can you recreate it live?
No, not really. We talked about them, S. Carey and the guys, playing as a backing band for a week of shows, but then they got busy with Bon Iver. I couldn’t do it without those guys though, no.

I read you saying that some of the Owen records have so many layers of guitar that you couldn’t possibly recreate it on stage, because you would need nine of yourself.
Yeah, at some point. The first record I did was like a ton of layers, and when I tried to play shows it didn’t work at all. So for the next record I just wrote acoustic guitar songs, but the next time in the studio I wanted the layers again. I think it can be two separate things. You can buy the record and hear how I hear it in my head, all fleshed out. Live is like, “Here’s a chance to hang out with me. This is how they sound when I’m in my kitchen.”

Is it ever frustrating, the amount of attention American Football gets compared to everything else you do?
No, I don’t care. I have X amount of time or energy to commit to music, so however it gets filled, it doesn’t matter. It’d be cool, of course, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not about to drop all these ads and create “new album!” hype, we have a manager for that who does a good job.

Will there be a third American Football record?
I don’t know.

Would it also be called American Football?
Maybe not. I think we talked about, if there was [a second] one, it would bookend the [first], and then start over. [The third] would have different artwork and not reference the other one. … Today, I don’t think there will be a third album, but that could change.

Who do you look up to in the industry as an example of a career you’d like to emulate?
Hmm, I’ve never thought about it. Like I said, I don’t crave it, I don’t want to tour a lot. Who else does it part time? Bon Iver, like that whole crew, and [S. Carey], they take it serious.

Justin Vernon’s an example of someone who’s successful and only plays shows on his own terms.
Oh yeah, if you win a Grammy I think you can do that. They all practice though, and I don’t really do that. Maybe J Mascis, [from] Dinosaur Jr, just because he doesn’t give a fuck. He’s like Bart Simpson. I hope when I’m older I still don’t give a fuck. He was my main inspiration. Morrissey’s cool. I wouldn’t mind being Morrissey.

What did the word “emo” mean when you first heard it?
All these bands playing basements and sort of like hardcore-screamo bands, is how I associated it. The dudes hanging from the ceiling screaming instead of singing. Then it turned into something else. By the time [American Football] were already broken up, it was a whole genre. I don’t really think about it.

Is there a word you use for your music or the people you associate with?
All those bands sound so different, I think. I think Owls sounds so different. I guess they’re all kind of math-y, but they’re not math rock. Maybe indie-math-rock.

What do you feel that group of musicians stands for?
I think honesty is what it stands for. The scene’s been getting recognition recently, but it wasn’t always. We’ve all been doing the same thing, being in these bands for like 20 years. When we started there was no manager or tour manager or ambition to get popular. There was no marketing or publicist. You just got in your van with your gear and drove to a city, and then in three months [another] band would play your basement. I think it’s attractive to people because it’s honest and heartfelt, which is where the emo thing comes from probably.

What’s the music industry like now versus then?
I’m not anti-streaming or anything like that. The worst thing is just that everything is kind of the same now. Like, Cap’n Jazz would play a basement with Bob [Nanna] from Friction, there were a handful of bands, and you would see those bands influencing you. But there would be a whole other bubble in Southern California, like Evergreen, and they sound totally different. The D.C. scene had all Marshall guitars. Now though, you can see everything everywhere. The new thing is like to sound exactly like the Replacements even though they already did it and it sounded amazing.

So where do you go for inspiration now?
I go to sports bars, mostly. I put headphones on, like I’ll have demos recorded with no words. I’ll try to write songs and just watch and observe people that aren’t like me.

I’m out of questions, is there anything you want to add?
Can I say that I’m not a misogynist? I’m good.

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