If you were to ask Mike Kinsella, de facto leader of late 90s quintessential emo band American Football, to play â€œNever Meantâ€ at an Owen show â€“ the moniker for his solo project post-Football â€“ he would ignore you. No matter whether it is rude â€“ or endearing â€“ to ask an artist to play from the catalogue of their former band, for Kinsella, American Football represented another time and place â€“ one which he was miles from.
But times change. People grow older. Things find a way of coming full circle. After the reissue of their only full length â€“ the eponymously titled genre-standard bearer â€“ in 2014, American Football are busier now then they ever were during their first time around, performing nationally and abroad to fans that never thought such a reunion would happen.
Punknews contributor Matthew Bentel spoke with Kinsella before a recent show in Seattle in late February, where they talked about the evolution of the reunion, the changing of ethics within the alternative music scene, the next step for Owen, and living the life of a character in a Judd Apatow movie.
Polyvinyl is given the unearthed recordings that appear on the second disc of the reissue. Did they approach you about what to do with them?
Mike: Well, you know who found them? [Guitarist] Steve Holms found them. Well, an old friend of ours from high school found them. He found cassettes of stuff, practices. I donâ€™t even know why he had them. He sends them to Steve, then Steve emails Polyvinyl and says, â€œHey, do you want to put these on our website [on Polyvinyl]?â€ and people can just listen to them. Then there was enough material that we thought, well, itâ€™s been 15 years since our full length, we could reissue it.
Did the cassettes surprise you when they were brought up?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, Iâ€™m not exaggerating, but once Polyvinyl decided they were going to release a reissue thing, Iâ€¦wasnâ€™t opposed to it butâ€¦ I didnâ€™t think it was necessary.
Is this material what started the conversation of a reissue?
And your feeling on the reissue was indifferent?
Mike: Yeah, it was fine. It was okay. Big picture: I didnâ€™t have any idea that we were popular.
Sure, maybe back in the day, but now?
Mike: Yeah. I knew people kept buying the record [American Football]. I mean I get royalties twice a year. I knew people were buying it, but I never added up where it was coming from [Owen, American Football, Capâ€™n Jazz, Owls, etc.]. Itâ€™s like, okay, every 15-year-old who gets into this genre, well theyâ€™re all buying this record, which is cool.
In your mind, youâ€™re thinking a certain type of 15-year-old gets into this. You were, what, 19? 20?
Mike: Yeah. We started in college, so about 19 to 21.
It is weird to you that so many teen youth who listen to this genre gravitate so strongly to it?
Mike: No, not at all. I think itâ€™s awesome.
Do you take pride in that?
Mike: Yeah, I do now. For 15 years, really of all the bands that Iâ€™ve quit or broken up or whatever, I would say of this band, â€œNo, weâ€™re never going to [play again].â€ Because if we tried to do it the same way we did it, it would never work. But I canâ€™t even explain what it would take to do this again. Like, okay, we need a bass player. We canâ€™t just get up there. We need a guitar tech. We canâ€™t just play this [makes a weird noise grinding noise]. It was really this perfect storm of circumstance. First: found the tapes. The kids who like it will like it. I thought, not that I collect vinyl, but if people like it, I probably would have liked, back when I was into that stuff. But throughout the whole email thread, everything, I thought, â€œYeah, I like it.â€ I totally checked out. I thought [Polyvinyl] did a great job with the first record, those guys can handle it. Then we got the show offer from Pygmalion [Music Festival]. Which is our buddy, and itâ€™s in the Champaign (Illinois) area, and it all made sense. It was a lot of fun. But again, that was the thing. They come to us and asked, â€œHey, do you want to headline this whole thing?â€ Uh, weâ€™re popular enough to do that? Okay, weâ€™ll play this one show. People will drive to see it and that will be it. So that happened. Itâ€™s this whole thing, the record is coming out, and we still have no clue that anybody cared, or really cared, or whatever. That show got offered, and we thought, okay, that will be it. That will be the one thing we do. But then we got offers for a few other shows, and that was cool. As long as we were practicing, as long as my cousin [Nate Kinsella] was flying in to do these shows, then letâ€™s play. As long as weâ€™re practiced we may as well. It just keeps going becauseâ€¦ well, we have no idea why.
How did the New Years Eve run in Chicago in 2014 come about?
The New Years thing came about just because we thought it would be fun to be around all our friends.
Did someone approach you about that? Was it calculated?
Mike: In what way? No, I donâ€™t even know. We did the New York shows, from there other cities were like, well, come do that here.
And yet you havenâ€™t.
Mike: Weâ€™ve done as much as we can! Man, we have seven kids between us.
Right, Iâ€™ve seen the touring itinerary. Christ, you did Primavera Sound Festival.
Mike: Yeah, Primavera is great. We were actually just talking tonight, â€œHow do we get back to Barcelona?â€ It was so awesome. Barcelona and Tokyo have been some of the best.
I suppose my point is youâ€™ve done these long stretches in New York and Chicago; I have to imagine there are dozens of offers coming in like that.
Mike: There are, but logistically, jobs and everything. When we started we had one rule, mostly because weâ€™re old and not trying to make this â€“ no one is going into this, â€œoh, letâ€™s make this our thingâ€ â€“ the rule is if someone says no to anything, no questions, nothing, itâ€™s done. Because the next time itâ€™s going to be me who says, â€œmy wife is going to kill me if I go out that weekend.â€ Itâ€™s worked out, so far.
Youâ€™ve done the reunion thing with Capâ€™n Jazz, Owls and now this. Is it weird revisiting material from a couple decades ago?
Mike: Capâ€™n Jazz was weird because that band was so physical, for me, playing drums. Itâ€™s kind of weird. American Football is weird because itâ€™s journal entry lyrics and itâ€™s like, â€œoh, this is what was going on in my life 15 years ago.â€ Iâ€™m nowhere near that now. The Capâ€™n Jazz reunion was a lot of fun, but itâ€™s even more youthful.
Are you more disassociated with Capâ€™n Jazz then American Football?
Mike: Umm, yeah. I donâ€™t listen to that. I donâ€™t listen to this either, though. But that one, yeah, I am because that one- you know how I said I think every 15-year-old listens to [American Football], I think every 12- and 13-year-old listens to [Capâ€™n Jazz]. Thereâ€™s like this slow progression.
I remember heading down to Fest one year and my friends put on Algernon Cadwallader. They said it was a fine mixture of the raw intensity of Capâ€™n Jazz with the guitar technique of American Football. I later interviewed the guitarist Peter Helmis and related the same story, and he took the comparison as the biggest compliment. I know youâ€™re humble, but that has to be pretty cool â€“ two of your earliest bands having such influence.
Mike: It is. Iâ€™m not being humble. Itâ€™s super cool. And I realize you have bigger things, like kids.
Mike: Thatâ€™s what I mean, my day-to-day life revolves around wiping other peopleâ€™s assess, so itâ€™s awesome that people like those bands. Also, those bands at that time â€“ you know, youâ€™re old enough â€“ there was no ambition to be popular. It was just fun to do because you got to see other cities and people. So to think that years later people are passing this music along is like, really? That thing we did in high schoolâ€¦
Your music â€“ American Football, Owen â€“ isnâ€™t for everyone, especially in terms of lyrics. What do you think about people relating to your words?
Mike: I donâ€™t think about it really. Itâ€™s funny, though, a friend of mine sent me some lyrics, told me, â€œHere, I wrote these lyrics, if you want to use them, share them, whatever.â€ I read these lyrics and my reaction to them was, â€œOh my God, these are depressing.â€ Heâ€™s not that type of guy. I told my wife that these were really heavy. My wife responds, â€œWhat the fuck do you think people think about your writing? Have you read what you write?â€ I think thereâ€™s an honesty there that people are attracted to â€“ a bluntness â€“ and thatâ€™s sort of what Iâ€™m going for. I want it be more conversational. But my excuse to my wife when she asks me why Iâ€™m writing about this or so upset about that, she hears it later and gets mad. You know, I grew up listening to The Smiths and the Cure and Depeche Mode, and thatâ€™s how I think music is. I never listened to Propagandi or Blink-182 or whatever those fucking funny bands are. I never got into that. I just thought thatâ€™s what music is: itâ€™s a way of expressing some dark shit. So I got a melody, a line or something in my head and I need to flesh it out. What dark shit can I flesh it out with? [laughs]
But itâ€™s different the way you are speaking to your audience. You have the Cure or Coldplay or whatever, occupying this big space, and you have your own niche.
Mike: I have a manager who tells me I have a really unique set of fans, and the way the discussion with him goes is heâ€™d like to make me more popular. But it doesnâ€™t work. It doesnâ€™t work if I got popular and played these songs in front of 3,000 people. It would fucking suck. I have a great part time job. I get to play in a room with a couple hundred people that are there to see me. It feels great. Sometimes I drink too much and it shows.
Last night at the Abby Fremont [in Seattle] you played as Owen. Iâ€™ve never seen you so engaged with the crowd, talking with them casually, and then there was that guy who didnâ€™t ask so much as demand you to play another song.
What I think a live show should be is different- you should get an actual interaction in a way the record canâ€™t. I spend weeks or months trying to get these songs just right for the record, but live itâ€™s like, â€œhey, want to hang out?â€ I felt bad for that guy. I think he just came out wrong. He was probably trying to compliment me with wanting to hear another song but came off, â€œwhy are you so chatty? Play another song.â€
Why do you think youâ€™ve become more engaged?
Mike: I donâ€™t know. Because my real life is my real life and thisâ€¦ At 25, 26, I wanted people to hear [the songs]. I was worse then, but I would tour, leave the house for a month and did the routine of being a guy in a band. But now itâ€™s a dumb movie, like a Judd Apatow movie. The old guy gets to leave for the weekend, everyone throws beer at him and thatâ€™s it. So now, yeah, I can play a song you want to hear.
Thereâ€™s a lot of nostalgia floating around the scene. Weâ€™ve talked about Capâ€™n Jazz and American Football, but thereâ€™s a litany of other artists doing album anniversaries and the like.
Mike: I donâ€™t know if I was into that in my 20s, if bands were doing that. I donâ€™t think I would have been the guy to be into that. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a bad thing. I think itâ€™s different now. When we were younger there were punk ethics involved and selling out was a thing. It doesnâ€™t exist now. The bands playing these shows almost seem like they deserve it. You do this thing that people want to see. Go do it. That being said, I donâ€™t want to see a lot of them.
How do you feel about that in regards to your recent run with American Football? Itâ€™s obviously not some cash grab â€“ youâ€™ve played a handful of shows over the last year and a half.
Mike: Itâ€™s not altruistic or something, either, but itâ€™s cool. I think people donâ€™t think in the same way. Thereâ€™s not that D.C., Dischord [Records] mentality with $5 shows and what not.
Are you going to play a $5 American Football show?
Mike: Talk to the other guys [laugh]. Thing is, weâ€™ve all got kids. If this was a cash grab, weâ€™d have figured out a way and do a tour. But weâ€™re not, weâ€™re just like, â€œholy shit, someone in Barcelona offered us money to come play,â€ who wouldnâ€™t do that? We got to go to Japan, Australia. This is so fun, why would someone not want to do this? And itâ€™s fun because itâ€™s part time. We appreciate it in a way that these young bands canâ€™t appreciate it. They play these festivals and theyâ€™re on the festival circuit. But weâ€™re not on that circuit. We appreciate it because weâ€™re not doing it like that.
So how far do you plan to take this?
Mike: I donâ€™t know. Weâ€™re going to try to write new stuff. I think weâ€™re getting tired of playing this set, to be honest. We only have those songs.
Are you writing new material? Mike: Weâ€™re trying to figure out if we can anymore. Weâ€™re sending files, asking each other, â€œdoes this work?â€ Iâ€™ve been writing from the vantage point of Owen â€“ a crabby old man. I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s the other bookend â€“ if thereâ€™s another American Football record. Itâ€™s like, â€œwhat happened to the young romantic guy? Oh, he got old and crabby.â€ I donâ€™t know if people want to hear that.
Considering Owen, are you more open to playing material from the early years, like off of the self-titled?
Mike: I think I like a couple songs off that record. I listen to [the early records] probably every five years to hear what they were like. Those records were me learning how to use Protools, crudely, like a chimpanzee. So the songs are 30 layers of, well, this guitar happens now and then a 3rd guitar and 7th guitar. Itâ€™s cool. How am I doing that live on acoustic guitar? How am I going to play a 7-minute song? I could play the main riff for seven minutes but then nothing else is happening. Then the lyrics donâ€™t come in for two and half minutesâ€¦ The last two songs on [Owen], Iâ€™ve thought about trying to play â€œPlaces To Goâ€ and â€œThink About Itâ€ â€“ theyâ€™re pretty strummy and I can make them just songs.
Do you plan on doing a 10-year anniversary of At Home?
Mike: You know, I should. That one in particular. I feel the Owen records were responses to themselves. The first one was all these layers. I was still trying to tour and I couldnâ€™t play that shit, it didnâ€™t work. So for No Good For No One I was writing folk songs: songs I could just play guitar and sing. Then I Do Perceive was sort of studio tricks, and then same thing: oh shit, I need to write songs again. That would be At Home. Maybe. I donâ€™t know.
Where does Owen go?
The next record is all done. Itâ€™s getting mixed tonight. It will come out in August probably. Itâ€™s the same thing. I feel so lucky. I was just telling Nate, he has a friend that was asking about getting on a label and stuff. I said, â€œMan, we take it for granted that we have this label where we want to make a record and [Polyvinyl] puts it out.â€ Itâ€™s fucking awesome. Not everyone has that.
You said you would never play â€œNever Meantâ€ again, sort of symbolic to the whole American Football phase. What changed that?
Mike: I think for 10, 12 years, especially right after [we broke up], it was too close. I was trying to do this other thing. I saw the faults in the album. We documented this thing we did but we didnâ€™t expect people to keep listening to it 15 years later. But then I feel I got far enough away that I was like, â€œwhy not?â€ I got this whole catalog of stuff Iâ€™ve done since then, no oneâ€™s going to judge me on this stuff. It just doesnâ€™t matter. You get old enough and say, â€œfuck, I just want to do what I want to do.â€
Was it ever a matter of being too close to the subject matter?
No, it wasnâ€™t an active separation, like it was touching a raw nerve, it was just sort of I donâ€™t do that, thatâ€™s not me. It felt like faking. I donâ€™t take anything that serious, like I was trying to prove a point. It was like: I did this thing and it didnâ€™t work. I donâ€™t know. Maybe? I mean, we broke up on purpose. It wasnâ€™t like it was an accident. I just wasnâ€™t connected to it. And in the same way, relatedly, the album happened, college happened, and my whole life changed after that in so many ways. The crazy thing isnâ€™t that I couldnâ€™t move on, itâ€™s that I moved on immediately. I took a right turn and never looked back. Itâ€™s not this thing that hurts me in any way. I just didnâ€™t care. This thing happened, and I didnâ€™t think anybody else cared. I know people at Owen shows would ask for â€œNever Meantâ€. Okay, thereâ€™s 30 people that want to hear this song, but itâ€™s not a big deal. This whole [reunion] thing is crazy. Itâ€™s fucking crazy.