American Football
American Football
Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Mike Kinsella on the Surprising Comeback of American Football

Few names in indie rock (dare we say "emo"?) can evoke the same reaction as mentioning the Kinsella brothers. Mike, Tim, and Nate have all played in bands acknowledged as towering influences: Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Owen, and the often-gushed-about American Football. Even a cover of that band's 1999 album can provoke a sentimental outpouring among superfans. The album cover in question is a lit-up bedroom window at night, perhaps a reference to the track "Stay Home." It's no shock the image and music resonate on a gut level with a new generation of disconnected kids every few years. But Mike Kinsella wouldn't have predicted it when the original recordings were made. New Times caught up with Kinsella to talk about his musical roots, his solo output, and the enduring legacy of that lonely, lighted window.

New Times: Let's talk about Cap'n Jazz and how your lengthy music career got started.

Mike Kinsella: Tim [Kinsella] would practice in the basement with friends, and I would sit upstairs and play my own guitar parts to it while they played. I wasn't allowed to hang out because I was the little brother. This was an older band called Toe Jam... The drummer had to quit in order to play football more, and my mom bought me a drum set, so I switched from guitar to drums and we changed the name to Cap'n Jazz. Even during those times, I was into a lot of pretty, melodic music, and Tim would bring a more angular element.

What was the impetus behind starting American Football? Was it a response to the kind of music you were making as Cap'n Jazz?

We wanted to flip the expectation on its head. We were writing songs around little electronic pieces instead of with a guitar. It was more about the process than the product. Victor, who played in Cap'n Jazz, started playing in open F. It sounded great. A band called the Promise Ring started using that tuning a lot, and I thought it was cool how much it changes the sound, so many ringing notes. Every time I picked up a guitar, I'd write a song in whatever tuning it was in when I picked it up. Then I'd have to go learn that tuning.

How has your songwriting process changed over the years?

I'll write a basic melody, and if I'm feeling productive, I'll try to match that with some words I'd written previously that have a similar vibe. Stuff will hit me during the day that I'll write down. It could even be just a nice word that I feel I need to write a song around. It all starts out as notes on my phone.

Do you write the structure of a song concurrently or mix and match pieces later on? I'm thinking specifically of moments like the extended coda of "Honestly."

Piecing it together is the part that still keeps me interested. We'll jam on a part over and over for a really long time. Something happens just from playing a part for so long — after enough repetition, the littlest changes really start to stand out.

Your style of drumming has garnered a lot of admiration. Are drums your favorite instrument?

It kind of hurts me now to play the drums, as I never learned to play with proper technique. To make my kick drum do what I want it to do, it hurts. I'm getting old. When I was young, I was able to do it, but now I sort of dread it. I think I've officially quit Their/They're/There, going back to the drums thing, but I know they have other stuff in the works.

You've made a lot of output over the years with what began as your solo project, Owen.

The first Owen album was just me — I really wanted to learn how to use ProTools. I was writing songs with, like, 13 guitar parts, though, and when I went to tour those, it didn't really work. The next album was more folky, like, What's the main song? I wanted to be able to play it live. I was figuring out what kind of band Owen was going to be. Recording with S. Carey [of Bon Iver] was great — all of those guys take music very seriously. They're up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and they just do it full-time. They're from a different background entirely; they have this whole kind of sonic history to pull from. I'm like, "Oh, man, I want these oohs and ahhs here," and they're like, "We know how to make that." It definitely affected the final product.

Is the continued success of American Football something you anticipated?

It's been surprisingly fun for a band that wasn't really a band when we made the first record, who kind of broke up not liking each other. No one knew who we were at the time, and the music was very quiet, not anything immediate. We didn't realize it would be fun to hang out again, write new music, and keep doing it. It's all been surprising. I was the one most attached to music still, and the popularity totally shocked me. I would play Owen shows, and people would ask to hear "Never Meant." It turned out there were all these other kids who discovered it way later, found it on their own. There was an obvious fan base there.

What do you think it is about the first LP that continues to draw fans to this day?

The music is pretty, it's accessible, and the lyrics are like high-school diary entries. We dismissed the whole thing, but every year, a new high-school or college kid discovers it. It was like planting a seed that kept growing.

Do you still connect with that subject matter? Do you try to write in an American Football mode?

I'm a 40-year-old man now, not a 20-year-old kid, so I relate to my more recent lyrics for sure. When I'm organizing things, it's obvious what's an Owen lyric or an American Football lyric. The Owen lyrics are usually more personal, and the American Football stuff is more general, more open-ended.

So is there more American Football music on the horizon?

"Yeah. I can't say much. It wouldn't be out this year, I don't think. It would be for next year."

Last, let's mention your upcoming show at Revolution Live.

We've never played Florida as American Football before, so that's exciting. I don't picture Fort Lauderdale being a big American Football scene.

I think you'll be surprised!

We'll find out.

American Football. With You Blew It! 7 p.m. Saturday, August 11, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $22.50 via ticketmaster.

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