Feature photo by Shervin Lainez
This weekend, American Football plays their first official reunion show at the most appropriate place imaginable: Champaign-Urbana’s annual Pygmalion Festival. Although it’s the first time in almost 15 years the band has gathered in their former college town as a trio (plus bassist Nate Kinsella), in many ways, frontman Mike Kinsella has never left. “It’s my seventh Pygmalion,” says the Chicago native. “I go every year as Owen.” Naturally, this makes for a rebirth that’s laid-back, natural, and low-stakes, despite meaning so much to so many people. This week, we caught up with Kinsella over beers at Village Tap in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood to talk about raising kids, getting together with old friends, and never being in a fight.
What’s it like going back to Champaign?
It’s the best. It’s totally changed. It would be so cool to go to school there now. When I went there, there were a couple of venues that were already kind of dated. Nothing new was going on. But now there are house shows every weekend. That’s the college town thing, though. Kids are waiting for something to do. You’d walk around and make fun of all the frat parties, then say, “Now what?”
What was college like in general for you? Would you say the American Football album is an accurate representation of that moment in time?
I mean, the American Football record was literally the last thing we recorded before we moved. We graduated, we had a week to get our shit out of the house. I was living with the guitar player Steve [Holmes] and some other people, and I wrote some lyrics on the spot.
So are the lyrics pretty autobiographical then?
That was sort of the first time I was writing lyrics. I was into The Cure, The Smiths. 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?”
I had a band in college. We weren’t very good, and like a lot of guys that age, I wrote about heartache, but I wrote about it in the way I thought I was supposed to write about heartache without ever having really gotten my heart broken.
Yeah! At the time, I had a journal or something that I took lines from, but it was shit from years before that, so it was just like, “Yeah, that’ll work.”
When you’re 19, you’re not always the best at being in relationships. Were you a shit at all when it came to women?
I had a bunch of long-term girlfriends. I dated a girl for four years, from high-school into college. Then I dated a girl out of college for a couple years. And that’s the first couple records, those things ending. Then I didn’t have a girlfriend for a while, which was awesome. Then I found a girl, and I couldn’t get rid of her, and I didn’t want to get rid of her. So now it’s like I don’t know what to write about. [Laughs.] What’s my inspiration today? Changing diapers?”
Since becoming a father, have you written a lot of songs about raising kids?
Oh yeah. That’s the thing. Instead of complaining about relationships, which is what I thought music was [back then], now it’s just complaining about being an old dad. “The monotony of it all!” Most days I only want to hang out with my kids, so my wife’s like, “Are you going to be nice to me on this record?” And it’s like, “I’m always nice!” It just comes out a little whiny. I need to vent.
When you covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” as Owen, you changed the title to “Stolen Bike”. Was that just to avoid copyright issues, or did it come from somewhere autobiographical? You mention Damen Avenue in it.
I used to have a bike, and rode around all the time. I lived in Wicker Park, and [my wife] lived in Boystown. I would shoot up Damen, then cut over. It was super fun. She was a teacher already. So, I’d ride my bike there after she got [out of school], and it was an excuse to ride for two hours a day. I’d ride over there, and leave at midnight.
Do you still ride bikes?
I’m so afraid of getting doored and shit. With kids, I’m too afraid now.
It’s your job to not die.
I just took [my son] Archie out for lunch, and I rode a bike with him for the first time in forever. I hadn’t ridden a bike since last summer, and it was awesome. But we were on Lincoln Avenue, and it just hit me. “Oh great, I might die, and now he’s gonna die.” He’s two, you know? But it’s also the most fun, and he loved it. He was just sitting back there with his little helmet. It’s like, “We can do this.” Just pick a safe route.
You just did another cover, Elvis Costello’s “Alison” for A.V. Club Undercover, with American Football. How’d you guys feel about the performance?
Honestly, it was the day after we did our one practice show for American Football, so I was feeling pretty rough that morning. We had probably played that song like four or five times.
It sounded good.
I thought it sounded pretty good, too. But then I read all those comments and never wanted to leave the house again.
You read the comments?
Yeah, I’m an idiot, I guess. But I thought it sounded fine. I was like, “Cool, I nailed some of those guitar parts.”
I read the comments a lot on my articles, even though I probably shouldn’t. It’s weird, because as a critic, you might tear apart a band, but then people will tear apart you for tearing apart a band, and then sometimes you feel bad, like maybe this is how the band feels when you criticize them.
I do have this thing with critics where I don’t understand the point of making fun of a band. It makes sense to me to promote the things you like, but why review a record if you don’t like it? I guess if it’s a thing like the new U2 record … I don’t know, if it’s some big thing and [the artist] wants to get everyone’s opinion of it. I was telling my wife about those comments. She came home, and I was all sad. [Laughs.] I’m just this guy, and they asked me if I wanted to play one of these songs with my band I was in 15 years ago. I’m sorry I can’t sing good.
What were peoples’ main criticisms of it?
The vocals. And I’m like, “I know! Whatever!” [Laughs.] I know I’m not Elvis Costello. I never said I was.
Did you ever read reviews before you started playing music?
Not really. When I first started touring, Maximum Rock’n’Roll would be in the van, so you’d read blurbs about different 7-inches, but I never had a subscription to SPIN or anything.
Not a Robert Christgau fan, then?
I don’t know who that is.
He calls himself the Dean of American Rock Critics.
I kind of love him. He’s very opinionated, of course.
You have to be. Like Jessica Hopper. Just as a friend, I like her…
You guys know each other?
She’s good friends with my brother. She did a PR company that I think did some Joan of Arc records back in the day. She’s great. The point is, if I was sitting with her, talking about a record, I’d like to know what she thinks, but I think it’s weird that … I shouldn’t say it, because you’re interviewing me, and…
No, you should! Be honest.
I guess I don’t expect anyone to care about what I have to say. [Laughs.] Or what one person thinks about a record.
Have you guys ever come to blows over music?
No, no, no. We never really talk about music. I think we have very different tastes in music. I’ve never come to blows with her about anything.
Do you usually talk about music with anyone, even your friends?
No, not really. There’s a lot of sports. More and more when I hang out with my friends … we all have kids, so we just kind of vent about that. It’s a lot less music than it was.
Do the other guys in American Football have kids?
Oh yeah. The guitar player has three, and the drummer [Steve Lamos] just had a second one a few months ago.
Are they coming on the mini reunion tour with you?
I don’t think so. There might be some family stuff this weekend at Pygmalion in Champaign, and in New York, there might be wives coming. But I don’t think the little ones are.
Do your kids ever listen to any of your bands?
Yeah. They see me play every day. They’ve come to a couple [festivals] when I’m playing drums, mostly. They come, and they’ve got their little headphones on.
Do you think they like your music?
No. [Laughs.] I think the girl doesn’t. It’s loud, so she’s like, “Ehh.” But I think the boy might grow up liking it. We’ll see.
Do you and your wife try and play anything specific around the house, like Mozart or something?
With the first one, we had that idea, that we can control what’s going on. But now in the car … you can find the theme songs for all the cartoons, so we just put that on loop over and over. [Laughs.]
I don’t even know what shows kids like. Dora the Explorer?
Exactly. A lot of that.
What’s the first song you remember hearing?
I don’t know if it’s the first one, but Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” was definitely on. We had that “Broken Wings” … (sings in falsetto) “Take these broken wings.” My brother and I had that 7-inch. We had an awesome record store just out in the ‘burbs. There was this dude who I think was a pothead, and his mom was rich, so she just gave him a job. She bought him a record store. We’d walk there once a week and spend all the money we had. Tim would come home with … first it was KISS, then Iron Maiden.
Are you a KISS fan?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Huge KISS fan.
Me, too. My buddies and I drove up to Detroit a few years ago to see their final show at Cobo Hall. The Alive 35 Tour.
I’ve never seen them. Is it awesome?
It was great. They pretty much replicated the original Alive show. They had the fireworks and all that. There were a couple things that showed their age, though. Gene Simmons does that thing where he plays a bass solo…
And the blood.
Yeah. And he’s supposed to levitate really high above the stage, but something went wrong, and he just went two feet off the ground and kind of spun around.
[Laughs.] And then came back down?
They just blacked out the lights really quick, then went to the next song. We got offered to cover their show at Tinley Park a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t go.
I got invited to that by my neighbor.
We had just seen Mötley Crüe the week before, so it would have been a pretty epic stretch of concert-going.
Do you get to go backstage for something like that?
I wish, just to see if it’s as debauched as you think it would be.
I doubt it. Mick Mars is kind of like a zombie now.
It’s sad, because they have a video feed during the concert, but it seems like they purposely don’t show him a lot. He can still play well, though.
Can [Vince Neil] hit the high notes still?
He can hit them, but he runs out of breath. Do you get out to concerts a lot these days?
A little bit. I don’t crave to go often. We got to Riot Fest a couple times.
Who’d you see there?
We saw a little bit of Slayer, and then Jane’s Addiction.
Were they good?
Slayer kind of sucked, actually. It sounded bad where we were at, and they had some drummer that sucked. We watched like two-and-a-half songs, and I was like, “Let’s go check out Jane’s Addiction.” And I loved it. It was raining on them, and I was under a thing, so it was cool to see the rain, but not be in it.
What’s the heaviest band you’re into?
Old Megadeth. But anything after that … I’m totally the old guy who’s like, “It just sounds like a bad version of the old stuff.”
What was the age where you started to feel like you didn’t understand what the kids are listening to? The first band where you said, “Not only do I not like this, but I don’t understand it.”
You can’t make me sound that old! [Laughs.]. Anything that’s popular, I don’t understand why it’s popular. And it’s not out of jealousy. It’s not like “My friend’s band should be popular.” It’s literally like “Why doesn’t someone beat Justin Bieber up?”
Hasn’t he gotten into a fight?
He got punched by another famous guy or something. But really, just beat him up. Make him fearful that he’s going to die, and maybe he’ll be like, “I’ve done everything wrong. I’m an asshole to everybody.”
Have you been in a fight before?
I’ve tried, I feel like. I’ll say something to people. I’m not afraid to put it out there, but I just end up avoiding it or something.
I’ve never been in one either.
I can’t imagine getting hit in the head. That would fucking kill!
I’ll speak my mind sometimes if I think someone’s being a jerk, especially at concerts, but then I’ll stop and think, “If this did escalate, it would suck for both of us.”
Or you’re worried the guy’s got a gun. It used to be that if he’s being an asshole in the pit, you’d just be worried about him punching you. But people are fucking crazy now. That’s why my wife yells at me.
Mine, too. I have a thing where if I’m walking across a crosswalk and see a car coming, and it’s clearly not going to stop for me, I’ll still keep walking.
Right! “Let him hit me!”
He’ll get in trouble and probably have to pay my hospital bill. Then my wife’s like, “Yeah, but you’ll also be dead.” So I’ve tried to stop doing it.
That’s hilarious. I do the same thing.
My brother-in-law does the same thing, and actually got clipped by a taxi in New York. He was fine, but the driver got in trouble.
He learned a lesson, but your [brother-in-law’s] got a limp. [Laughs.]
Did you ever see a fight at an American Football show?
No, we would literally play shows in classrooms of the English department building. None of my bands have been that rowdy. With Cap’n Jazz, people would be jumping on each other for fun.
It would be interesting to see someone fighting to “Never Meant”.
Yeah, I don’t see that happening, although we are talking about getting limited liability insurance for each show.
Because we’ve got a little tiny crew with us.
And it’s what, three, four shows?
Well, it’s going to be more than that.
Oh wow. Does that mean you guys see yourselves writing new music together again?
I don’t. Maybe when the dust settles. And by dust, I mean we’re going to be kicking it up every couple weekends over every couple of months. So we’ll see.
It’s hard because those songs were literally written when you were, what, 22?
Yeah. And the drummer lives in Colorado.
He’s an English teacher, right?
He’s an awesome drummer.
He’s a genius.
I think that’s what makes the music stand out. That jazzy drumming.
Totally. If I played drums on the record, it would just sound like every band from that era. He’s just musical, you know what I mean? It’s not just getting louder and bigger.
So you don’t think you’re a good drummer?
No, I’m a great drummer. I’m a great rock drummer. I just hit like a windup monkey. I just hit hard and shit. Steve’s a little more thoughtful, maybe. Do you play anything?
Yeah, I’m in a band. I like our stuff a lot, but it’s weird because since I’m a music critic, I’m nervous to put it out there sometimes. I had an old band with a couple of guys from Consequence of Sound, and it was literally just for fun. We never put anything out to get reviewed. Then I would give a negative review of someone else’s album, and fans of that band would find shitty YouTube footage of us, and post it in the comments section. “He can’t trash Black Rebel Motorcycle Club! Look how shitty his band is!”
Okay, so you get it! This is my argument. For you, it was just a shitty thing you did for fun. That’s all of my bands. And all my friends, [too]. But people treat it like everybody’s aspiration is to be famous, when it’s more like “I just made this thing.”
People would say “This guy’s clearly a music critic because his band didn’t make it.” I would try not to engage in that too much, but I would always say “I promise you, Consequence of Sound isn’t a second career for any of us because we never made it in a rock band.”
It’s more like “I’m a fan of music, and I have opinions,” which is cool. I get it. And you have to realize you have a right to say it, and they have a right to say it, and it is what it is. You can’t worry about it too much.
And maybe it is healthy to have that on my end, because I can at least put myself in the shoes of the band. To be fair, I did get kind of nasty in the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club review. I used the phrase “bullshit posturing.” I try and be a little more even-keeled and articulate than that.
Well, to totally contradict myself, it is bullshit posturing. I feel like there’s such a difference between putting on costumes and acting a certain way and being like, “Here’s my music,” as opposed to just being a band that’s [made up] of guys who play music. And you can call them out on that.
When playing your own music, especially these American Football songs that you haven’t played in years, do you have to get yourself into any kind of different head-space?
No, I don’t think there’s a space I can get into to connect with them, really. Some of them resonate. With some lines, I’ll know what I was thinking about. We literally played this practice show, and we finished, and my booking agent Justin was like, “I’ve never seen you smiling and looking so happy. You must love it!” I was kind of nervous, so I don’t know if I loved it, but I knew what line was coming up, and was just laughing to myself. “Oh man, this line’s fucking silly.”
I think that opening line of “Honestly” is pretty insightful though. “I can’t remember (teen dreams)/ All my teenage feelings.”
The line I always get shit for is “I’ll see you when we’re both not so emotional.” [But] that’s a great line! Any line you can say as a sentence is a great line. The whole emo thing doesn’t count. I’ll still stand by that as a lyric.
Mike Kinsella plays with both American Football (Sunday) and as Owen (Saturday) at Pygmalion. Get your tickets here.