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Mike Kinsella’s Part-Time Job Is His College Band

The singer thought he’d left his college emo band behind when he graduated. But American Football is enjoying an unexpected resurgence.

Mike Kinsella
Photo: Nolis Anderson

Mike Kinsella’s Part-Time Job Is His College Band

The singer thought he’d left his college emo band behind when he graduated. But American Football is enjoying an unexpected resurgence.

By his late 30s, Mike Kinsella had settled into a comfortable married-dad routine. The prolific singer-songwriter sporadically created music in his home studio in Roscoe Village and played semiregular gigs, either with his solo project, Owen, or with his brother Tim’s experimental-rock group, Joan of Arc. He’d all but forgotten about his college band, American Football. So imagine his surprise when that group’s sole 1999 album, a self-titled work recorded a week after some of the members graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was years later named by both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone as one of the best emo-rock LPs ever made.

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“I was like, Really? That band from 15 years ago that nobody liked at the time?” the 41-year-old recalls. “That’s insane. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Hordes of millennials had discovered and connected with American Football’s loosely propulsive basslines and diaristic lyrics that read like they were written by the artsy loner in a John Hughes movie. The band reunited in 2014, adding Mike’s cousin Nate Kinsella on bass to the original lineup, which included guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos, and promptly sold out three nights at the 1,500-capacity Webster Hall in New York City. It released its second album (also self-titled) the following year.

With American Football set this month to release its third full-length (self-titled again, of course, but commonly referred to as LP3) and head out on tour, Kinsella, the frontman, describes the group’s unexpected second life as more of a poker night between middle-aged dads than a rowdy rock outing. “We’re living regular lives and every couple months we get to go party with our friends and get drunk and emotional,” Kinsella says. “And then 48 hours later we come home to our families totally exhausted.” For now, the band members are spread across the country. Lamos, for example, is an English professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. (“It’s the ideal part-time job,” Lamos says of being in American Football.)

Kinsella performing
“We’re living regular lives and every couple months we get to go party with our friends and get drunk and emotional.” Photo: Atiba Jefferson

Kinsella admits the second album was a bit of fan service to those who worshiped its predecessor: “We were like, ‘OK, here’s that other album that you people wanted, I guess.’ And now we’re like, ‘Screw it! This is the type of music that we want to make right now.’ ” To that end, many of the new songs stretch into extended instrumental passages and enlist guest vocalists, including Paramore’s Hayley Williams, a longtime American Football fan.

Kinsella, who speaks with a nasally Chicago accent, is self-deprecatingly blunt when talking about his and American Football’s resurgence. “There are people who take what I do way more seriously than I do,” he says. Initially, he was hesitant about reuniting for the 2014 tour, particularly the notion of revisiting some of the debut album’s more juvenile lyrics, like on fan favorite “Never Meant” (“Not to be overly dramatic / I just think it’s best / ’Cause you can’t miss what you forget”). For LP3, he wrote with greater ambiguity. Or, as he sings on “I Can’t Feel You,” “I’m fluent in subtlety.”

Does American Football have plans beyond this album cycle? Kinsella loves not having to decide: “If it’s not fun anymore and we feel like it’s becoming a drag, we can just call it. Now we’re just old guys in a band.”

DetailsAmerican Football Mar. 30. Wrigleyville. Metro. $28–$31. metrochicago.com

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