clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When the Emo Kids Pivot to Dad Rock

American Football, deities of their genre’s late-’90s golden days, return this week with their third self-titled album, and they’ve traded songs about youthful heartbreak for ones confronting mistakes you can’t bounce back from. On the eve of the release of ‘LP3,’ lead singer Mike Kinsella talks about fatherhood, working with Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and fixing the shortcomings of the band’s last record.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If Mike Kinsella ever gave up drinking and Chicago sports fandom, he’d be a lot less depressed—and we’d probably get new American Football albums every year instead of, say, once a decade. With his band’s sterling third LP—titled American Football, like the previous two—still months away, he’s already started to fill a folder of new ideas generated during a “dry week” suggested by his wife. At a neighborhood friend’s recent 40th birthday, Kinsella ruefully recalls that “all the small talk is about business careers, and I can’t keep up,” which led him to living out a song title from the second American Football—“I Need a Drink (or Two or Three).” “There was a thing the next day with my wife where I was like, ‘I kinda play this role of idiot rock star dad,’” his point underscored by his choice of outfit during his first appearance as a “room mom” at his children’s school—a metal band T-shirt and swimsuit. “She said, ‘No one expects you to play that.’”

On the contrary, just about any American Football fan would expect Kinsella to be exactly the guy he’s been on and off of records throughout the 21st century—in the Funny or Die–hosted video for 2016’s “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long,” he played a goth dad teaching valuable life lessons to a normie son. And there is a substantial demographic of music fans who probably wish Kinsella was their dad—partially because they worship his music, partially because it’s pretty easy to see him in that role. He has a gregarious and occasionally troublesome Twitter account where he gets cranky about modern music, self-deprecating about physical decline, and bemused at how much the Bulls suck—not too different than the typical dad, save for the neck tattoos and his contribution to two of the most influential emo bands of all time and at least two more (his solo project Owen, the quasi–Cap’n Jazz reunion Owls) that have made minor classics.

Yet “rock dad” is a tough pivot when Kinsella has spent nearly half of his life as Emo Incarnate—Cap’n Jazz, the band he started with his brother Tim, released one album in 1995 that basically created the exuberant, hyperbolically anxious sound of Midwestern emo and disseminated it with the projects that came immediately after. Tim’s hyper-pretentious Joan of Arc is a wildly divisive band mostly known outside of their core cult for getting the Greta Van Fleet treatment on pretty much every album; guitarist Davey Von Bohlen moved to Milwaukee and made albums of sugar-spiked emo-pop as the Promise Ring; meanwhile, Mike moved from drums to guitar and vocals in his next band, American Football, which basically became the sound of emo right now. Their 1999 self-titled debut, long assumed to be their swan song, was the biggest influence on the “emo revival” of the past decade, inspiring a subgenre of “Never Meant” mashup memes and countless bands to play in open tunings, capo past the fifth fret, add a trumpet, and sport wildly unfashionable combinations of flannel shirts and shorts. American Football reunited in 2014, playing shows to crowds hundreds of times bigger than they ever saw in their year of existence, and released American Football LP2 two years later, debuting at a respectable no. 82 on Billboard.

In a relatively whirlwind turnaround, American Football are back with the third American Football, which parallels its front man’s transition from emo to dad rock in an unusually literal sense. At this point, I imagine you know the meaning of dad rock, a rare genre that describes the people listening to it rather than the music itself. But there are general, identifying characteristics; despite the efforts to broaden its meaning, it’s almost always a band of white guys with guitars who may have once rocked and were once perceived as crucial to the zeitgeist, but have slowly drifted toward no. 25 spots on year-end lists, engagement in tasteful liberal politics, and associations with NPR. For both the band and their listeners, this process usually happens in about three to five years—the amount of time it takes to have a child, take a few years off from keeping up with the pop culture narrative, and get ready to earmark maybe one or two nights a year to actually go see a show.

We’re talking bands like the War on Drugs, the National, and Wilco, definitive “dad rock” even if the music itself rarely tackles the actual mechanics of parenthood. And that’s pretty much the bulk of American Football LP3, out this Friday: Kinsella taking stock of being a 42-year-old in a band willed back into existence by popular demand but not quite successful enough to provide any semblance of long-term security. In fact, Kinsella’s 401(k) envy has reached the point where he fantasizes about being a journalist—he’s the first musician I’ve interviewed who asked whether we could switch jobs. Though American Football is to credit or blame for emo bands’ owning their inherent wimpiness by reappropriating sports terms, Kinsella might actually be sincere. American Football live shows usually earmark a significant amount of time for changing guitar tunings, and I’ve been to several where Kinsella has used the downtime to talk about his fantasy football lineup—he finished second in his league this past season after a heartbreaking loss in the championship game to Bob Nanna of fellow emo gods Braid. He offers his pal Kevin Devine as a reference, the respected punk-rock lifer who also happens to be the brother of Ringer NBA guru Dan Devine.

Of course, he also realizes that no one is going to shed tears over his financial situation. American Football grew organically from a cult curiosity to a festival staple playing 1,000-cap rooms over the span of 15 years—and it was 15 years where they did absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, their upcoming third LP is one of the most highly anticipated of the year and has already made previously inconceivable inroads on alt-rock radio with “Uncomfortably Numb,” a heartbreaking duet with Paramore’s Hayley Williams that has the potential to smuggle lyrics like “I can’t feel a thing inside / I blamed my father in my youth / now as a father, I blame the booze” onto the radio in between Imagine Dragons and whatever new bands sorta sound like Imagine Dragons.

Yet the status of being an unreliable breadwinner can feel more precarious than being in a band that obviously mandates a day job to make ends meet. He can play a run of solo shows as Owen—think Dashboard Confessional’s surlier and drunker older brother—when “it’s time to make the donuts,” but that donut-making needs to be planned a year in advance. “We woke up in a panic maybe last September, like—‘Oh shit, I need to go play shows,’” Kinsella admits. “How about February? That’s before American Football picks up, and after Christmas, we’re gonna need some money.” He’d love nothing more than to have American Football support his family and have his wife quit her teaching job, but Kinsella says that conversation tends to be a short one. “What are we gonna do about insurance? In order for me to make more money, I have to leave the house more and more. It seems detrimental to trying to make her workload easier even if she had to quit her job completely.”

Though these concerns have lent American Football a gravity since reuniting that Kinsella couldn’t have generated as a 20-something, as a married father of two, he has to consider any time he airs out his personal failings: Does it violate the family’s privacy? “When [my wife] met me, all the songs were about other people and she didn’t like it,” Kinsella says, regarding the often unflattering lyrical content of early Owen albums. These days, he acknowledges his self-editing process takes into account not just his own family, but even the other parents at his children’s school. “But my argument is ‘I need to make it entertaining.’ If a turn of phrase is interesting or clever and I feel like it adds enough value, it stays even if it means I’m in the doghouse for a while.”

This justification mirrors Kinsella’s response to his most notable brush with controversy. In 2016, he made a since-deleted tweet that appeared to celebrate Kim Kardashian getting robbed at gunpoint, or at least claim she deserved it—he joked that the perpetrators were his “spirit animal.” Go to some of the most active emo message boards and he’s still unforgiven, not that he was asking for forgiveness. (“I deleted it because it would never end. But I still stand by it,” he told Spin afterward.)

While Kinsella thinks his politics should be obvious based on everything else he posts, he recognizes the impact it can have on his band and, by extension, his bottom line. “Everyone in the band is aware of the current climate,” he states in regard to how his own actions can be assumed to be reflective of a genre whose gender dynamics remain troublesome. The band made it a point to be more gender-inclusive with their opening acts: Their West Coast run in 2018 featured indie-folk phenom Phoebe Bridgers as an opener and their latest tour will feature all female-fronted acts, including tenderpunk rockers Illuminati Hotties, hazy folk act Tomberlin, Campdogzz, and Pure Bathing Culture.

Whether or not Kinsella finds himself again in the public doghouse, the most brutal lyrics on American Football come at his own expense, and for that, LP3 is a sad album—this being American Football, such a claim might be akin to calling an AC/DC album “loud.” But it’s far from the innocent longing for college flings of the recent past on the original American Football, when the lyrics of “Never Meant” and “The Summer Ends” spoke in ultimatums and the wistful, intertwining guitars and cymbal washes sounded open-ended and optimistic. That album was a testament to both the hyperbole and resilience of youth in heartbreak; they made breakups sound like something worth aspiring to, a shorthand for self-aware sadboys who inevitably linked it in perpetuity with “Can I Borrow a Feeling?” But LP3 is Kinsella confronting the mistakes from which you can’t bounce back, the ones you make while trying to set an example for your loved ones.

We’re talking during a small window of time on a Thursday afternoon before he fulfills his house-dad duty of picking up his two children—ages 10 and 7—from school. “I’m literally folding my second load of laundry right now. Made some fresh pasta this afternoon,” Kinsella boasts, quickly recognizing an opportunity to wrangle a metaphor of it. “Every time I make pasta, I don’t do it for a couple of months and then I forget what I did wrong, but if I made it again tomorrow, it would be so good.”

He already seemed to grasp this lesson when LP2 was released in October 2016. If not as rapturously received as My Bloody Valentine’s m b v or The Avalanches’ Wildflower, two bolt-from-the-blue returns from groundbreaking artists most assumed would never be heard from again, it was in no way an embarrassment that besmirched their name. LP2 exists mostly because American Football came to enjoy doing shows again. “With kids, we have stuff in common,” Kinsella notes. “We all look forward to hanging out with each other because you’re so much less social as a 40-year-old working person, married person, than you were as a 20-year-old.” And there’s a big logistical problem when your band has a grand total of 12 songs to its name.

Particularly in a live setting, American Football are a much stronger band—one bonus of seeing my favorite ’90s emo bands reunite is that they can really play their instruments now. But hearing Kinsella talk about LP2 even shortly after its release, there was a creeping sense that an album 17 years in the making was also a rush job that gave nobody what they wanted. Though abetted by file-sharing, the writing and recording of LP2 had the major logistical hurdle of keeping schedules aligned: In addition to Mike’s parenting duties, guitarist Steve Holmes has a nine-to-five, and drummer Steve Lamos is a PhD serving as the associate director for the program of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado. The trio set a hard deadline to meet touring demands and also ensure that recording didn’t stretch out into eternity. “It just got very stressful, and there were a ton of compromises made to the point where no one got their vision,” Kinsella says, admitting that he was writing lyrics in the booth until the last minute and it showed.

And so going into LP3, “Everything about it was a reaction to LP2.” The most immediate and potentially divisive risk is in the cover shot. The house on the cover of the first American Football is one of the genre’s most iconic and thus frequently memed images. Dumpy and potentially inhabitable like most houses in a college town, 704 W. High Street has become an actual tourist destination in Urbana, Illinois. (And, full disclosure, it’s tattooed on my arm.) There are whole Reddit and Rate Your Music threads covering “emo album cover” pictures, and numerous genre classics that warrant their existence. The cover of LP2 was shot from the inside of the house, reflecting the photo-negative approach of the song titles: Everything on LP1 was titled after the last line in the song (save for the instrumentals), and everything on LP2 was titled after its first line.

Chris Strong, the former owner of the house and photographer for both covers, was again commissioned to shoot footage in Champaign, and the band sensed an inescapable omen in being immediately drawn to the ones that referenced the house. “And then we thought, the idea with this one is that the music seems a lot more expansive,” Kinsella explains. “It doesn’t seem confined to a singular person or relationship; it seems more broad. So let’s blow it out—we’re not doing the [white] bars at the top, we’re doing full bleed.”

It’s an easy and apt metaphor for American Football seeping out past the framework they set for themselves. Whereas LP2 dabbled in peripheral genres, LP3 is at times a full-on post-rock record that fits into the upstate Chicago tradition of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake (whose Sam Prekop will open several shows on the upcoming tour), an emo-shoegaze hybrid and bedsit pop. The glimmering guitar leads of highlight “Heir Apparent” earned it a working title of “The Smiths” before the addition of Mellotron flutes and the least-heralded of American Football’s guest vocalists. The band recorded at the Omaha studio owned by Mike Mogis, the Saddle Creek in-house producer who called in a favor to his daughters’ public kids choir to sing the despairing refrain on the coda. “They were paid handsomely with gas money and pizza,” Kinsella jokes.

It’s thrilling enough as a musical development for the core band, which now includes Kinsella’s cousin, multi-instrumentalist Nate Kinsella. If LP3 somehow exceeds the hype of its previously unfathomable predecessor, it’s due to American Football being able to call in some favors after giving so much. All of the big guest vocalists are women: Elizabeth Powell from Land of Talk, shoegaze legend Rachel Goswell of Slowdive, and emo titan Williams. This may align with American Football’s more inclusive approach to collaboration, “but [also] purely selfish reasons,” he continues. “Since I’ve ever written music, I hear my voice as a woman’s. Every Owen album has some kind of washy, breathy vocals, because that’s what I like sonically.”

Powell guests on the impossibly sultry, multilingual “Every Wave to Ever Rise.” Kinsella wrote some of the lyrics in French and Powell returned them with pronunciation videos. He found his usual need for washy, breathy vocals during “I Can’t Feel You” and asked himself, “What shoegaze voice would I pine for?” Getting someone like Goswell on an American Football song is a realization of a nearly lifelong dream for Kinsella, a fan of Slowdive since hearing their debut, Just for a Day, when he was in eighth grade. “I don’t think Rachel had ever heard of us [before],” he says, but now they’re friends on Instagram.

“Uncomfortably Numb” is the biggest coup, a legitimate back-and-forth duet with Williams and a unification of emo generations. “It was a conversational song and we thought, ‘Who’s got a dramatic, theatrical kind of voice?” Kinsella asked before reaching out to Williams. While she’d come out to an American Football show recently, the band figured she’d be too busy to participate even if she was interested. The affirmative response from Williams and the band was instantaneous; “We were like, holy shit.” Nate Kinsella wrote a new third verse intended for her, sending scratch vocals to Mike while he was relaxing on a beach with his family. “[Nate] sang it and was like, ‘How’s this for Hayley?’ And I was, ‘Fuck yeah,’ because I’m on vacation, and don’t want to do any more.”

The hook is pretty much the exact same melody and words as Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”—a bold move from someone frequently concerned about his financial stability, given the recent precedent of Matador destroying $50,000 worth of Car Seat Headrest vinyl because Ric Ocasek wouldn’t approve a less substantial recasting of elements from a Cars song. “That was a whole thing with Polyvinyl, some people saying, ‘Let’s not even risk it,’ and then some of us said, ‘Let’s risk it and if they sue us, they can have all the money because we’re not gonna make any,’” Kinsella jokes. “Plus we get the fame when someone writes about how they sued us!”

It’s been over a month since “Uncomfortably Numb” has been out in the world and there’s been no indication that Dave Gilmour and pals have lawyered up. Kinsella’s intended viral marketing plan has failed, but then again, his brief brushes with virality have been almost entirely negative. Even beyond his recent controversies, Kinsella muses that if Twitter had existed in the early days of American Football, his shyness and fear of public shaming would’ve made him too embarrassed to put anything out. “People keep sending pictures of me playing, and it’ll be like, ‘I don’t need to see that!’” Kinsella says. “I was there, I know when I fucked up.” Maybe LP3 will be successful enough for him to never have to log on again, but he ultimately recognizes how the synergy between his once-obscure band and their very online fans at least gives him a shot. “I just need to start getting paid for all the memes,” Kinsella jokes. “If I got paid a little money every time someone clicked on a meme and ‘Never Meant’ started, that’d be sweet.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.


When AI Is Making Music, Where Do the Humans Fit In?


The National With Jeremy Bolm

The Bill Simmons Podcast

The NBA’s Almost Club, Denver-Miami Picks, and Taylor Swift’s Iconic Year With Joe House, Raheem Palmer, Nathan Hubbard, and Chuck Mindenhall

View all stories in Music