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.