Illinois’ emo rock pioneers American Football are back with their first album in 17 years. Like their 1999 debut, their new album is also titled American Football and it’s a brilliant comeback. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch up with the guys and the drummer Steve Lamos was the one who told us all about how’s been like to be back with the band and much more.
First of all, it’s great to have a new American Football album and it’s a damn good one. How does it feel for you guys to come back 17 years later after you released your first album?
This whole experience has been fun. The reunion stuff was a tremendous surprise, none of us saw that coming. I think we didn’t know what to make of it two years ago when all started. We thought that maybe there would be one or two shows and then it would be that, but here we are two years later with the opportunity to make this new record and I think we’re all proud of it and pretty excited to see what people think of it.
Why did you decide to get back together and play again with American Football?
Steve Holmes (vocalist) found this box of tapes in his basement. He sent them to Polyvinyl Records and they said “This would be a good opportunity to reissue the album.” We didn’t really realize it was the 15th anniversary of that record and when that reissue was announced people started contacting us through Mike [Kinsella]. Mike plays in Owen and so he had management and things like that, but people started contacting us and saying “Hey, we would like to invite you guys to come play” and it were offers to play on big places. We were surprised by it, but we thought “If Steve really want us to do it, we’ll might just give it a try” and so that was the initial motivation, but as I said, it’s been quite more fun than we thought it would be and I think now the motivation is that we’re enjoying play music and hanging out and we would love some more of it.
This comeback and new album is a rebirth of the band in every way. How was the process to get back together and go through what the band wanted to do?
We were talking about this not too long ago and I think we just wanted to make an album that we were happy with. There’s this notion that we did this thing many years ago and it has this certain status – and we’re surprised by the status and maybe not entirely sure why [laughs] – and what we wanted to do this time around was just make an album that reflects who we are at this point of our lives. We are considerably older, we have families, we all have other things going on and I think a bit of the challenge was to make a record that we were proud of and to not to get hang up on whatever people may associate with things that we did many years ago.
Back in 2014 you guys announced that you would play live for the first time in 15 years and those live shows at Webster Hall in New York City sold out in a matter of hours. How was it like to go into playing those songs for those shows?
We basically had to relearn the music, but we’ve never played it live and so it was like preparing to do concerts for the first time. I think that kept refresh for me and I was terrified because I haven’t played these songs in a long time. I would say that now that we’ve done like 40 reunion shows we’re excited to play new material. I think we’ve played as many reunion shows as we could play and now we’re trying to imagine that music plus the new music as kind of a living and breathing thing.
What about those shows that really had an impact on you to go forward to work on your sophomore album?
Yeah. Playing those songs for people that seemed to know them and care about them, we all said it was really surreal to hear people singing along with these songs and sometimes their singing seemed louder. [laughs] That’s a kind of inspiration that none of us in our wildest dreams would ever imagined when we made this album that so many people would listen to it around the world. Going to all these places and knowing people who sing along and sometimes in a language that’s not their first or second, that’s inspiring and that made us all think “Maybe it would be fun to try some new music, clearly there’s an audience for it.” We’re all on our late 30s and early 40s and I think we wouldn’t have made new music if that was the only motivation, I think at the end of the day it seemed to us there was a chance at least of make some new music that we’re proud of and that other people might connect with other people. I don’t think we would do it at this point unless we all felt it was a worthwhile thing to do.
“…what we wanted to do this time around was just make an album that reflects who we are at this point on our lives.”
Do you still have the same musical and non-musical inspirations from back in the day or do you have other that you think are important to mention?
I’ll just speak for me personally. All the other guys of the band have different references. I have always listened to a lot of jazz music and that’s still very important to me. It was 20 years ago and it is now. I will say that when we were thinking about making this album for whatever reason I was listening to all my old The Police records again and again. There’s something about that band and somebody told me unsolicited that they thought they heard The Police in this record and that made me happy, because that’s the band that I think a lot of. I’m a big fan of St. Vincent, I like her stuff a lot. There’s a woman here called Gillian Welch and she does kind of old country music and I like her quite a lot. I still listen to some of the same things that I used to listen to many years ago, but I’ve certainly tried to keep up with more contemporary music too.
You mention earlier that you’re into jazz music and one thing that I thought was missing in this new record was the trumpet, but when the ending track “Everyone Is Dressed Up” hits, there it is. The trumpet just adds this amazing vibe to your music. What’s so special about the trumpet for you and for the band?
I still hate that instrument. [laughs] I hated it ever since I first played it. [laughs] I started playing that instrument when I was probably 6 years old. My father had a dance band and even when I was a little kid he sort of invited me upstage and so I’ve been performing on that thing since I was small. I studied jazz music a little bit and I’ve never really been very good at it though. I studied a little bit in college, put it away and then took up to drums. When it came the time to make that first album, I couldn’t sing and I still can’t sing, but I would hear certain kind of melodies and the guys said “Why don’t you just try it if you can make it work?” All these years later, it seems like it’s something that people enjoy. I didn’t want to play it at all on this new album. I can say at this point after 2 years of doing it at least I feel comfortable having it on my face and playing it in front of people. I didn’t play much in those 15 years, maybe every couple of week or something, but you can’t do that. The trumpet does not allow such laziness. You have to play it regularly for those muscles to develop properly and maybe after two years I don’t feel at least embarrassed to play it in public anymore, but the reason I was attracted to the drums was for a very specific reason and now I remember what it is because I hate that awful trumpet and all it stands for. [laughs] But with that said, when I get the chance to play, there’s a melody or something that maybe I feel a little bit nostalgic because I did play a lot with father and he’s no longer alive. So, maybe once in a while that’s the closer thing I get nostalgic on stage and I remember that “My dad would like this song…” I suppose it has that meaning for me.
That’s really amazing. I love the trumpet part on that song, it just gives a distinct vibe to your music.
I appreciate it and I will say too that we’ve been playing a lot of festivals lately and there’s not too many trumpets that pop up, so it’s a way to say there’s something a little different with this music, for better or for worse. [laughs]
How was it like your approach for the writing of the new album?
In some ways, it was a lot different. I think 20 years ago we all lived in the same town within a mile of each other, we rehearsed pretty regularly and we were able to work on ideas that way. This time around it was totally different. We were in different parts of the country and we have some other commitments, so there was much more sharing of ideas over the computer and sending MP3 files back and forth. Mike or Steve would send something to the next person and then he would send it over to me and I would try to put on some drums. We did some really raw demos and worked that way. We would also get together for these kind of practice sessions on the weekend. I think one day we spent 14 hours together in these hot and terrible room trying to work out ideas for the album and then we wrote quite a bit in the studio too. With the first record we had the instrumental down pretty well, we knocked that whole album out in less than two days and then Mike added vocals later. The vocals respond to the music and they did this time too, but we spent a lot more time tracking. We were in there for four or five days just kind of getting drums and bass stuff. The technology is different now, the way that things get recorded is different than it used to be. We did some live stuff definitely, but it was quick tracking and it was a little more precision based this time around, which I think it’s good in some ways. This record is more well produced, but also maybe slightly less spontaneous sounding than the first one, so there’s good and bad in everything.
So, your second album is self-titled just like the first one and the house on the cover is the same one as on your first album cover art as well. What does that mean for you guys?
I think naming the album as American Football again was kind of lazy and impulsive as the first one. [laughs] But also, the one quoted emo band that I still listen to without embarrassment in any way is Sunny Day Real Estate and I really do like their records. To me, they stood the test of time. They did the same thing with naming their album and so we thought “We’ll just rip them off, that’s fun.” [laughs] The house thing… I don’t know the genesis of it. The cover for that record I thought the first time around it was just the picture that we liked the best and with that said it obviously resonated with people. This time around Chris [Strong] went back to that house and took more pictures and we decided as we were looking at them that interior shot made the best job as capturing what’s going on lyrically in this album. This album has a lot to with… not so much longing from the outside but to be in this house like “Now you’re inside this place and you’ve got relationships, family and some stuff going on and what are you going to do?” We were joking that the cover has the stairs on one side and the front door on the other side, and you could go upstairs or you could get out of the house. [laughs] I’m not so sure this has been a deliberated theme so much as time has developed as we thought about what the record was. It could be that Mike had some of these ideas in mind, but I’m not sure. It could also be that he was just writing what was on his mind and when we thought about it as a whole we were like “Oh, this makes sense and it’s kind of an extension idea from the last time.”
What’s the biggest difference about being a band back in 1999 and being a band nowadays for you guys?
Personally, I think I’ve worked really hard to not be so uptight… I was borderline obsessed with a certain less stylish associated and not even so much with music, I don’t think it was healthy. I was quick-tempered at the time and honestly a pain to be with. [laughs] I worked hard to try to be less of a pain to be around, so for me personally I tried to grow up a little bit. But I will say that there’s this pressure-free… We’ve joked a multiple times that none of this should be happening anyway, so why stress out about it? It’s a truly sort of relaxation and a chance to get away for these long weekends when we were in Barcelona sitting on the beach and we were like “Who gets the chance to do this and be paid a little bit of money to come out and play music?” I would say the biggest difference is we’ve all got pretty important priorities with family and work commitments and understanding this for what it is and being grateful to be able to do it. On those terms, to me that’s the biggest difference and it’s been a pleasant surprise. We all enjoy being around each other. So, this is better, this happened at the right time. This is the right time for us.