It isn’t always easy to come upon a story that embodies the essence of an entire movement, at least not in the way Illinois-based rock band American Football did when they decided to reunite after fifteen long years, at the height of what’s being referred to as the “emo revival” era. Mike Kinsella, Steve Holmes, and Steve Lamos were in their early twenties when they debuted a self-titled American Football album back in 1999, just before they broke up and moved to different cities to follow different paths. That eponymous record, now referred to as “LP1”, also took its own trajectory over the years, finding its way from a somewhat cold initial reception to garnering cult status, then retrospectively earning esteem as one of the most influential albums of the emo genre as a whole, all without the help or knowledge of the band itself. It wasn’t until 2014, when a generational zeitgeist had begun to concern itself with revisiting emo music’s midwestern roots that the band aptly but unexpectedly announced they would be reuniting, along with Nate Kinsella on bass, to play a few shows.
Now American Football are back, so long as their work and family life permit it. After an overwhelming positive response to their return, the band not only recorded a follow up album (LP2) in 2016 which was met with acclaim, but are currently touring in support for a third record, LP3, which released March. Dummer Steve Lamos who, in the years following the band’s split, went on to become a tenured english and writing professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder, graciously agreed to talk with Byline Houston to share his thoughts on genre labels, the revision of history, and life between being an educator, a father, and a part-time member of a legendary band.
Byline Houston: So, LP3 is three months old now, and so far has been praised by fans and media online. How are the new songs being received live, in your opinion?
Steve Lamos: You know – I think they’re kind of some of the highlights of the set. I mean, there’s the group of people who come in to hear the older stuff, and that’s cool, but we’ve been opening the sets with Silhouettes and Every Way, which is how LP3 starts. So those have been pretty consistently the two songs we start with, and boy I love starting sets that way. I just think it’s kind of fun but also I think they’re translating well live and we’re just trying to make it something powerful to start with. So far so good.
Byline Houston: It really feels like a natural progression from LP2, as much as LP2 did 15 years after LP1. Were there any challenges or changes to the bands writing method in order to achieve this?
Lamos: I actually think it was harder to put LP2 together because it had been an extended period of time. This time, I think maybe there was a little bit more confidence, with Mike and Nate in particular. I mean we all played our roles to the best of our abilities but I think Mike and Nate were really able to take their vision for some of the stuff to the next level with this one. But no, I think the bigger jump was figuring out how to be a real band and that was more during LP2. That said, I think we’re all pretty proud of 3, and I think it has a pretty consistent sort of vision and style to it that, you know, is a function of having played together a little bit and also a function of us being older people. Every one of these could be the last one we do so we might as well make it out we want to make it and not worry about it. So in a weird way the pressure is almost off, because we shouldn’t even be doing this anyway. So why not?
Byline Houston: This is the first one to have features on it, one of them being with Hayley Williams from Paramore, which comes as a surprise. Can you shed some light on how these collaborations happened?
Lamos: Well, it was a little bit of a shot in the dark. So there are three collabs on that record. Elizabeth [Powell] from Land of Talk – we had played with her before, we knew her a little bit, loved her voice. She might’ve even been the first name to come up, like “oh yeah, we should have Elizabeth come on and do some stuff.” And Hayley had said some nice things about the second record and I think Mike just basically reached out to her through our manager and said “hey, I know this might be a long shot, but if you want to do it –” and we were shocked that she said yes! With Rachel, I don’t think any of us had ever met or interacted with her in anyway other than liking Slowdive and I think that was just another the shot in the dark, like a let’s just ask sort of thing. So yeah, we had different relationships with these women and we were lucky enough to have all three of them on.
Byline Houston: Oh, so it was just you guys hand-picking people to work with.
Lamos: Oh yeah, and I think partially based on the song aesthetics. So I think with Elizabeth, Mike just had these lyrics in french, and she speaks both French and English but also her voice is just magic and airy in the way it needed to be. Then Rachel. Rachel just did what she did in that Slowdive-y way with the vocals which was really cool. And Haley, I guess she was a — or is a prodigy of some kind, like she was singing in studios in Nashville at like, 10 or something. But you know, she’s a pretty powerful vocalist, her ability to kind of bring it out and then make it fit that song I thought was impressive.
Byline Houston: Yeah, it was pretty interesting to hear her in a more supplemental and harmonious role, as opposed to being at the helm.
Lamos: Totally different than what she normally does. And not every star would be willing to do that, and maybe not even be capable of doing that, so I thought it was pretty awesome I really like how that one turned out.
Byline Houston: Speaking of that song, the video for Uncomfortably Numb randomly has Blake Anderson from Workaholics and skating legend Paul Rodriguez Jr. in it. Any way you can explain how that happened?
Lamos: (Laughs) Sure! It was all Atiba Jefferson. So if you don’t know, Atiba is a big time skateboard photographer, he got famous through like Thrasher and stuff like that and at this point he’s kind of like one of the NBA’s go-to photography people, just this amazing guy. Well, he’s sort of been a friend of the band, like he started coming out to shows and he’s just a buddy. He agreed to make this video, and he basically made those two guys be in it. (laughs) I don’t know if they understood what they were signing up for or what the hell it was when they got there, but I’ll be damned, we were out there making the video, you know, Mike’s all dressed up in this crazy POV camera or whatever, and it’s nuts. We’re just up all night making this video and those two guys sorta got roped into being part of it. They were both gracious enough to do it, and gracious enough to care. Glad people noticed, they show up for like two seconds in the beginning.
Also, did you know who the ambulance guy is, the main EMT guy? That’s London May. He’s the drummer of Samhain, and he’s also been in a couple of the Misfits reunion lineups. He’s the sweetest guy in the world, but in that video he’s so creepy and enticing, and he might just be my favorite part of the video. But yeah, check him out. Anyway, yeah, Atiba like, basically roped all these poor guys into doing us a favor. And I loved the video, I think it turned out awesome.
Byline Houston: So, the infamous High St. House is noticeably absent from the album art this time around. Was it a conscious decision for you guys to move away from it?
Lamos: Um, I think… well, yes. I think we were just a little bit sort of like, “alright that’s been done.” The outside of the house wasn’t supposed to be anything other than, you know, “oh, that’s a cool photo” like twenty years ago, and then it became whatever it is now. We sent Chris [Strong] back to Champaign (Illinois) to shoot that same house for the second one, and thought “well, this time the record is a little more interior, so let’s shoot it from the inside.” And this time, I think there was some effort – I mean, we had Chris go to Champaign again, but he really shot a lot more outside stuff and we thought, “well this record seems a little bit bigger and broader, so let’s just get away from the house.” We’ve even joked about just putting a picture of the house on fire, but then we were like “No! Somebody is going to end up doing something stupid as a result” (laughs) So we just did it metaphorically instead, I guess.
You know, the fact that people go to that actual house — which was really just Chris, the photographer, that was just his house, it was a front picture of his own place that he was living in at the time. The fact that people go there and make this pilgrimage, and I guess there’s a little accent on the sidewalk now where people can take that picture, it’s both crazy and weird. Like it was not a real place for us, it was this sort of metaphorical place, but you can’t control sometimes what gets out there in the world, and now it’s a thing. So I’m grateful for that, and also grateful to move beyond it a little bit.
Byline Houston: I understand you’ll be playing a few shows in Asia with Chinese Football, who draw comparisons to you in name and sound. How’d you guys hear about them and what came into deciding to set that up?
Lamos: (laughs) Yeah, we’re looking forward to that, should be wild. So, there’s been memes about us over the years and all that sort of stuff and I remember somebody showed us them a few years back, and I’m like ‘yeah ha-ha, whatever, another meme’ but no, not only are they legit, they’re actually really good! It’s a really interesting, sort of flattering homage to whatever it is that that first record evidently meant to people. And it’s really awesome, so we’ve got the chance to go over to Asia, and getting the chance to play with them, they agreed to do it, and it’s going to be a blast. It was very, uh… you know, it’s one of things that’s part of the luck that’s has been this band, for us to be able to meet up with people like that. I’m excited to meet them up face to face.
Byline Houston: Considering that LP1 ended up being regarded as one of the most influential albums of the late 90s that earned American Football pioneer status where the emo genre is concerned, did it feel like you were creating something new or groundbreaking at the time?
Lamos: You know, it didn’t feel like much of anything, I suppose, at the time. I think there was a way in which we were proud of trying to do something that was a little bit different than the loud stuff that we all had heard, and liked, and admired back then. But, it was sort of the end of a chapter and the guys were moving away, I was sort of — you know, I wasn’t super thrilled that the band was breaking up, I’ll be honest with you. I was sort of bummed about the whole thing. But then for years and years, nothing really happened. None of us really had a sense that there was any kind of pioneering of anything. It just sort of felt like a thing that happened, it was a band like a gazillion other bands at the time, and on we go. Mike went on to do solo stuff, and me and Steve [Holmes] were pretty much out of the world entirely. So yeah, this pioneering thing is awesome and hilarious, but also a complete revision of history because it definitely didn’t seem that way at the time. People didn’t really like the record when it first came out, at least not in the way they do now. Most of the reviews were pretty lukewarm to sort of borderline nasty, even. So it’s funny to watch it evolve and change. But, no I should just lie and say “yeah, we totally knew.” (laughs)
Byline Houston: Well, the whole “emo pioneer” thing did happen in the years during the split, so it’s probably safe to assume it was earned without much regard for your input on the matter. So, how do you feel about that genre as a whole, and do you think it’s accurate and fair for American Football to be grouped in with it so often?
Lamos: Well, speaking for myself personally, I used to dislike the label. Initially I thought it was sort of dismissive, but the older I’ve gotten and now in the age of Trump and the age of people sort of thriving on negative vibes and emotions all the time, I actually think emo is kind of an interesting label, you know, there’s people trying to make positive things out of negative emotional situations and I think that’s kind of cool. I’m not 100% shocked that there’s a so-called “emo revival” now because you know, everything is so intensified by social media and that sort of stuff all the time that I think people are looking to sort of feel differently and transform stuff that negative into something positive.
That said, there’s this book called Fearless: The Making of Post Rock by a woman named Jeanette Leech. It’s like the history of post-rock in the U.K. and in the States, and one of the greatest thrills I’ve ever had was getting to the end of that book and seeing her mentioning us in the last chapter, specifically as a post rock band as opposed to an emo band, just because I think that [post-rock] is a big part of American Football. So yeah, there’s some emo aspects, and partially that’s a function of Mike and his lyrics and some of the cool stuff he’s doing there, but that wasn’t the only thing we wanted to do and I’m grateful when people acknowledge the mathy part of it too, or the post rock part. Tortoise and all those bands meant the world to me, and still kinda do, so I like to be talked about in the same conversation, I think it’s pretty flattering.
Byline Houston: Was there ever a scenario in which you didn’t pursue your doctorate and continued in music?
Lamos: Well, I certainly played in bands a bunch for another four or five years in Champaign, hoping that music was going to pan out in a different way but I was in school at the same time. I was left just sort of hanging around in Champaign. And you know, I got married, my wife and I met there and stuff. But no, I actually think — I mean we’ve said this before, we get along much better now than we did back then too, I don’t think we could’ve reformed back then, I don’t think the vibe was right. I think everybody wanted to do different stuff, and we didn’t necessarily all want to be at the same place at the same time (laughs) And that was one of the tentative things about reforming, like I wasn’t 100% sure everybody was super jacked about each other back in the day, but instead I think it worked out and I’ve just been so pleased to kind of hang out with the guys again and because we’re older and appreciate this for what it is, it’s been a thousand times more fun now.
Byline Houston: Your drumming is an undeniably crucial element in making American Football the band that it is. What are your origins as a drummer and how did you keep your technique sharp in those years away from music?
Lamos: Well, I played some, just not as a primary part of what I was doing in life. I was doing the professor thing and trying to get tenure and all that. But I definitely play and practice as a lifer, you know? I’m forty-five and I’ve been playing a musical instrument of some kind or another since I was about four, and now I have a seven and a five year old, and the seven year old plays every day on the violin and the five year old is about to start. That’s just part of who we are. My dad was a musician too, so I never didn’t play but I also probably played ten times in those fifteen years in public, if that, in like cover bands. That last cover band I did started about year before all this happened and thank god for it because it got me out in front of people. I really hadn’t been in front of people in a number of years.
But thanks for saying nice things about the drumming, I don’t know, I played “drummer” as like an ex-trumpet player who failed, but — you know, for better or for worse, Miles Davis used to say “it takes a long time to play like yourself”, and I feel like I play like myself on the drums. Doesn’t mean that I play them right, and real drummers tell me all the time how screwed up my technique is, but at least I feel like when I hit the drums, it sounds like me, so I like to think that’s something. I came to it pretty late in life. I had basically quit playing trumpet for a couple years, didn’t do any music at all until I’d turned about twenty or so, and then I said, “well, I’m gonna learn how to play drums” because there was a band who needed a drummer. And now here we are.
Byline Houston: What kind of kit did you use to record LP1, and which are you using now?
Lamos: LP1 was a Franken-kit, but based around a twenty inch Ludwig kick from the late ’60s. I cobbled that stuff together from pawnshops and friends. I actually bought that kick off off Brandon Gamble, who ended up recording the first American Football record, so again, one of those weird lucky things. He had this bass drum he wanted to get rid of, and that ended up being sound, you know, that was the sound of that first record. And there was the Slingerland early ’70s snare that goes with it, and I think I’ve had the same Sabian AAX kinda heavy cymbals with it the whole time. That said, I think I’ve played that kit exactly once in this version of American Football, and Jason [Cupp], our sound guy, basically flat out said it wasn’t good enough for live shows anymore (laughs) So I play C&C’s stuff now. I’ve been consistently pleased. I usually play a 20 inch kick, but I had a 24 inch our last gig in Toronto, and I loved it, I love to play 24 inch anytime, it’s super fun. Yeah, I’ve been really happy, and then I think the Zildjian Dark K’s are my happy cymbal, much more than the Sabians. You can beat the shit out of them and they don’t wash out so… if you’re listening Zildjian, hint hint: I really like your stuff.
Byline Houston: I can only imagine with the careful composition that characterizes American Football’s work, there might be special attention to detail where drums are concerned. When it comes to the production process, do you find yourself being picky on how your drums sound?
Lamos: I think on the first record I sort of knew what I liked but didn’t know how to describe it — and actually, I think that’s probably true for two and three as well. (laughs) They’re very different sounds in these more recent records, I think in a good way. We’re in a more proper studio and Jason Cupp, who produced the record, spent a lot of time as a drum engineer with like, Jon Brion and other people, so he really know what the hell he’s doing. So, I can tell you the difference between stuff I really like and really hate, but I don’t know the technical ins and outs the way I wish I did. One of my favorite John Bonham quotes was something like, “Oh, the kick drum isn’t loud enough? I’ll kick it harder!” like I think he just played the damn things after a while, so I just go with my own little backwater version of that, like “Oh, I’ll just kick it louder, you worry about all that technical stuff”, just let me get behind these things and we’ll see what happens.
Byline Houston: It’s well known by now that you’re an English and writing professor at UC – Boulder, but have you ever taught or considered teaching a course in music?
Lamos: I’ve been invited a couple times to music school to talk to students in kind of a popular music class about my experience, but otherwise that’s about it. That said, I was actually working all morning, I’ve been working on a book about what it’s been like to kinda travel the country as a drummer who’s also a professor in writing, and talking about what literacy means and what education is for someone in their mid forties who’s basically had to learn something new, or re-learn something in a new way. So I’m kind of making my peace with the idea that there’s some middle ground between teaching and this experience. When I talk to my 18 year old students, I talk to them about life long learning and how important it is, and for me it’s been a really kind of fun example to be like “oh my god, I have to learn how to do interviews!” and present myself on social media and not embarrass myself and all that sort of stuff. This is what I tell other people to do all the time, but it’s another enterprise entirely to have to do it yourself. Someday maybe I’ll teach a class in music school, on post-rock or emo or something, that’d be fun.
Byline Houston: It’s a little hard to imagine being a university professor and author full time and still manage to be in a highly regarded band in rock music. What advice, if any, can you give to people who aspire to achieve a similar kind of duality and have eggs in different baskets?
Lamos: I’m glad you put it that way. I mean, I can’t really give much advice because this should not have worked — no one should follow this particular version of this that we pursued because it’s insane right? I mean it was a lot of luck at the end of the day. But, I talk to my students all the time, including students I’ve had recently who talk about their frustrations like, “Oh I used to do this” or “I used see myself this way” or “I really wanted to pursue whatever, but my parents said no, you have to do this other thing” but I think there’s a ton of value in having different eggs in different baskets, and trying to have a few things you’re really excited about. And sometimes you keep them separate. I was actually writing this morning about how I kept the whole drummer identity separate from the academic thing because I really needed to focus on one, or how the drumming was the release from the pressure of the other thing. But I’m more interested in thinking about them together, like what does it mean to do all these things at the same time or what new ideas can I come up with if I think about them together? But you can’t do any of that if you only do one thing. If you’ve got a journalism gig, and then you’ve got the music thing, that’s really interesting, now what’re you going to do to bring those two worlds together, or to keep them separate in a useful way? I think our culture has this narrative about trying your best at one thing and putting your all into whatever, and I get those narratives and they make sense, but man, I’m a big fan of people who are interesting thinkers and then can bring different pieces of themselves together in new ways.
You can catch American Football and Tomberlin in Houston at White Oak Music Hall, at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29th.