At the Regency Ballroom, San Francisco: One album and an EP, active for just three short years. Not exactly a recipe for enduring fame. But, against all odds, it worked for the band American Football, formed in the late 1990s in Illinois.
Founders Mike Kinsella (vocals, guitars, bass), Steve Holmes (guitars, Wurlitzer) and Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet) released a self-titled EP in 1998 on Polyvinyl records. A full-length debut album, also called American Football, followed this in 1999. While the record did well on college radio stations at the time, the band broke up as members moved away from the college town of University of Illinois and went on to other pursuits. Since that time, it has become a cult classic.
Influenced by a range of artists including Steve Reich, the dreamy sound of American Football is an amalgam of alt-rock, emo and jazz, with varying time signatures and polyrhythmic interlocking guitars. Lyrics are simple and confessional, sung in a loose manner that brings to mind the confusion and alienation that can inflict high school and college aged students. It’s music with and about feelings.
Kinsella called their musical ideas “noodly and meandering,” yet the songs are carefully built with precise counterpoint. While rooted in emo and math-rock, listeners may notice the influence of bands as diverse as King Crimson and Radiohead hidden in these songs. They are unique, and comprise an album that was and remains a classic, must-have record. Even the cover art adds to the whole, featuring a photo of a Midwestern home near the university, taken by Chris Strong — and used ever since as their defining iconography.
After American Football decided to revisit the work and to reunite for some live tour dates in 2014, their debut album was reissued as a deluxe edition with extra tracks, and a music video directed by Chris Strong for the lead-off track “Never Meant” was released. Apparently, Polyvinyl’s website crashed under the weight of traffic, such was the pent up interest in this band and their only full-length record. New live shows that have been staged in the U.K. and U.S. feature Kinsella’s cousin Nate on bass and occasional percussion by, to this writer, an unknown band tech.
American Football made their way to San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop music festival on February 27, 2016 and the Regency Ballroom. It was a fantastic show that, as one would expect, featured nearly their entire debut album, along with a many new and rare tracks. Among these were “Tamborine,” “Letters,” “Emotional,” “Leaving Soon,” “New Song,” and “Five Silent Miles,” the leadoff track on the set list.
Lighting was simple and tasteful, illuminating a full-size image of their only album’s iconic cover photo. The show ended as that album began, with the first track from American Football, “Never Meant.” It was a fantastic concert, attended by fans and newcomers alike, heaping praise on this multi-talented band.
Asked if there were any questions before they played the final encore — described as “the last song we know how to play” — one audience member asked if American Football would go on another long hiatus. Kinsella mused, “We’ll be back in another 15 years when I’m 54. I’m going to keep these jeans and wear them again!” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that …
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