Emo band American Football plots new musical territory, 20 years after their breakout album

Illinois emo/indie veterans American Football released their debut self-titled record in 1999 and quit. For a band that was on a break for 15 years, they’ve now got two albums out in three years and LP3 was even more breathtaking.

Anurag Tagat August 05, 2019 10:58:40 IST
Emo band American Football plots new musical territory, 20 years after their breakout album
  • First active between 1997 and the end of 1999, releasing their debut self-titled record in 1999, American Football quit while they were ahead.

  • American Football reunited in 2014 when their label Polyvinyl Records re-released the 1999 album as a deluxe edition and in 2016, a second self-titled album, referred to as LP2.

  • It took their third self-titled album (LP3), which released in March this year, for critics and fans alike to realize that American Football was going full speed ahead.

On a somewhat humid night in Bangkok’s RCA commercial district, people of all ages are sitting outside a supermarket and pre-gaming for what is perhaps the first time many will see Illinois emo/indie veterans American Football (often written as american football).

Emo band American Football plots new musical territory 20 years after their breakout album

American Football at the Live Arena in RCA, Bangkok on 3 August. Photo credit: Anurag Tagat.

First active between 1997 and the end of 1999, releasing their debut self-titled record in 1999, American Football quit while they were ahead, Mike Kinsella, Steve Holmes and Steve Lamos treating it as a side project despite gaining fame in emo music circles for vulnerable, confessional songs like ‘Never Meant’ and ‘Honestly?’ and ‘I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional’.

Kinsella has for long been prolific with whatever he’s involved in – boundary-pushing indie bands like Cap’n Jazz and off course, his own solo project Owen, which started out in 2001. Emo arguably went mainstream through the first decade of the new millennium, with pop-punk bands like Paramore citing American Football as a major influence, even thought it was just the one album.

Even out at the Live Arena in RCA, Bangkok on 3 August, there are people wearing T-shirts of emo bands like The Get Up Kids and it goes to show that this is about more than just nostalgia value. American Football reunited in 2014 when their label Polyvinyl Records re-released the 1999 album as a deluxe edition and in 2016, Kinsella, Holmes and Lamos (joined by Mike’s cousin Nate on bass) released a second self-titled album, referred to as LP2.

The new album hit all the right notes, perhaps coolly turning away from teenage love and angst and choosing to sing about 30-something stagnation and musings on experiences in relationships. Songs like ‘I’ve Been So Lost For So Long’ marked a return of the American Football that everybody loved, but also the side of Mike Kinsella that Owen fans knew for long.

It took their third self-titled album LP3, which released in March this year, for critics and fans alike to realise that American Football was going full speed ahead. For a band that was on a break for 15 years, they’ve now got two albums out in three years and LP3 was even more breathtaking, employing female vocalists such as Hayley Williams, Elizabeth Powell and Rachel Goswell for layered, dreamy rock.

It still placed emotional experiences at the center of it, but watching them play in Bangkok felt like watching one of the most important bands in indie, math-rock, post-rock, emo that more people should know about. It feels like promoters and booking agents know this as well, considering on their Asia tour through July and August, American Football are playing many territories for the first time – China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia and of course, Thailand.

Although guitarist Holmes has been absent from the tour for some reason, the band recruited young Californian guitarist-vocalist Damien Verrett (aka So Much Light) to join them alongside Cory Bracken on vibraphone and percussion, plus Mike Garzon handling stage tech duties and adding effects and percussion. They began with the interlocked layers that build up the glimmering ‘Silhouettes’ and the downbeat ‘Every Wave to Ever Rise’, with Mike’s ageing imperfect vocals matured from ‘Never Meant’ but still as openhearted and honest as ever.

While those were the longer songs (like a lot off LP3), they knocked off shorter songs off LP2 – like ‘My Instincts Are The Enemy’ and ‘Give Me The Gun’. The crowd roars when the opening guitar and bass line to 1999’s ‘Honestly?’ kicks in, showing that perhaps the nostalgia does indeed sell. Drummer Lamos eases into an extended trumpet solo, but people seem more interested in Mike seated by the stage, his head in his hands, perhaps exhausted from flying all over Asia. He only speaks to the crowd once Nate’s bass signal goes off during ‘The Summer Ends’, introducing the band. The bandleader along with Bracken and Garzon all lend a triple tambourine effect to another old song about teenage love, ‘I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional’.

Before launching into ‘Heir Apparent’ their newest achingly poignant song about adult loneliness, Mike asks the crowd, “If you had 18 hours in Bangkok, what would you do?” He gets a few jokey responses from the locals, but they readily return for a three-song encore that rounds off approximately 80 minutes of performance.

In the encore, there’s the older, delicate song ‘Stay Home’, but also the paced up, ephemeral ‘I Can’t Hear You’, followed by their best known song to date, ‘Never Meant’, which has hundreds gathered at RCA Live Arena lovingly groove to the twinkly song.

For a band arguably in their second innings, American Football are playing it cool. They know teenage angst can be packaged into a commodity, but in a show of true indie spirit, they’re creating a new kind of emo magic.

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