James McDonald So I’m not sure if you knew this, but you’re currently 4,059 miles from Champaign, Illinois right now…
Mike Kinsella Really? That’s further than I thought! I guess it’s like a thousand miles from Chicago to New York… not even… I believe you, I’ll take your word!
James McDonald So tell me a little about Champaign…
Mike Kinsella You know it’s changed a lot since we were there, I’ve been back in recent years… It’s just this fake town that they create for kids to be at, somewhat safe you know what I mean? And there’s like a downtown which is kind or run down and full of shitty bars… can I swear?
James McDonald Sure…
Mike Kinsella So yeah, so they create this town and put in like shitty restaurants [laughs] and make this fake downtown area for the kids to hang out… it’s just a college town, and that’s all it was, and at the time we were all punks and into the indie scene stuff so instead of doing the pub crawls with all the drunk masses we would just throw or go to shows in our friends’ basements and stuff. It was great for that, every weekend there would be shows – bands that we still really like. Braid were around at the same time as us… I mean, they literally played every weekend!
I’m trying to think of other bands that were around… you know what’s funny though? All the DC bands, a lot of them would come through so I think I saw Lungfish in a house in Champaign, and Cap’n Jazz, we used to play a lot… I saw Tortoise as well… It was close enough to Chicago that if you were a touring band heading south you’d drive a couple of hours and be in Champaign so our friends would set the shows up… it was cool.
James McDonald Fond memories…
Mike Kinsella Yeah man, it was a good time.
James McDonald So as far as I understand it, there are two people outside of the band who are to thank for the distance you’ve travelled… Matt Lunsford and Steve Reich
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Steve Reich(!)… Yeah, he’s instrumental in the sense that we were just trying to do that on two guitars. With Polyvinyl, Matt and his wife started the label down there in Champaign. They were actually from a smaller town, so they would come to Champaign as like the ‘big city’ to see shows and stuff, but they were already putting out seven-inches from local bands and it was so awesome, you know? Just like friends in bands that they liked they would put out their single, and so we met them and they put out our EP and then the record, even though they knew we’d broke up after we recorded it so they knew we weren’t going to promote it or play shows, but they didn’t mind.
James McDonald I saw the excitement, even now, when you sent them the demos cassette for the deluxe reissue of the album…
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Yeah, it’s erm, it’s weird!
“Never Meant was unfinished when we went into the studio and then that came out as ‘the hit’. I think we finished that one then put vocals on it for real and we were all kind of like, ‘oh that’s a cool song’ because we’d never heard it before.”
James McDonald Weird, right! So something I’d like to understand… What’s it like playing everything you ever wrote as a band to a thousand people who have never seen you before?
Mike Kinsella It’s so crazy! You’re right, they’ve never seen us… nobody’s seen us! I mean when we were a band we weren’t a band, you know? So like when this all sort of came together it was like, ‘how do we be a real band?’ So we added a bass, we bought tuners! We got a guitar tech because otherwise, when we played shows originally we’d just be tuning all the time… every song is a different tuning so logistically it just doesn’t translate live at all!
James McDonald How many tunings do you use? Just a rough estimate…
Mike Kinsella They’re all different. There’s like two songs in the set that I play the same…
James McDonald Which two, out of interest?
Mike Kinsella Haha, erm, it’s ‘Honestly’ and, I think the proper title is ‘Letters and Packages’ maybe? It was on the EP… just a coincidence, dumb luck that they’re in the same tuning. I mean some tracks are just a string or two off, but Steve (Holmes) is in totally different tunings, he has his own tuning list and I got mine… It was so stupid! If somebody asked us to play the same, they say ‘we’ll give you a ton of money and a ton of people will be there, and you have to play just the two of you through the same gear, you have to recreate it’ I’d be like, no! It’d be so bad! But we kind of smoothed it out I think, plus we’re hopefully better musicians!
James McDonald Baring in mind the distance you’re travelling for this band 15 years later, and the reissue of the album crashing the Polyvinyl site etc… How do you stay grounded?
Mike Kinsella Oh, because… [laughs] Because it’s ridiculous! I’ve been playing music until now and writing stuff that I’m currently… that’s still relevant to me, whereas this stuff is like reading an old journal or something. It’s fun, actually I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would! But yeah, I’ve been playing music unsuccessfully for 15 years…
James McDonald I’m not sure about that…
Mike Kinsella Relatively unsuccessfully for 15 years! But after this we go home and change diapers, you know? I mean, we’re not like living any sort of ‘rock life’!
James McDonald So it’s so hyperreal that it almost doesn’t sink in?
Mike Kinsella Yeah, and there’s like a couple of songs that I hate playing, like tonight… I really don’t know how to explain it, but Steve (Lamos) pointed out that he saw people singing [to those songs] and after the show they’d say it was their favourite so, I don’t want to sound like this old jaded guy, but it’s totally crazy that these younger kids, who obviously haven’t seen us but maybe have been listening to it for a long time, to finally hear it they’re so excited. It’s crazy.
James McDonald When the idea came about that you were going to do these shows, was your first feeling excitement to relearn the songs or was there some trepidation as to ‘how do we make a recording project into a live show’?
Mike Kinsella Oh definitely… I mean, it’s been brought up before and I’ve literally told people ‘it will never happen’, all through my twenties and whenever I was over here with other bands, I’d just be like, ‘nope, it won’t happen’. And then throughout the whole reissue process it never came up, but then we were offered to play Champaign at this big festival, Pygmalion, well big for that place anyways… So we got this proper offer and we were like ‘holy shit’, if we’re going to do it it would be so cool to do it in our home town, and it kinda went from there. I think because there’s just been so much time now, I forgot why I kept saying no and started thinking, ‘ok, maybe we can’.
But yeah, there was a ton of trepidation. Everything from, like, talking to my wife to, just… I’ve been playing [in other bands] this whole time, and I’ve had the same booking agent and I haven’t made him any money, but he’s stuck by me and so part of the conversation was just, you know, it’d be cool if we played some shows and finally he gets paid! Like, after all these years he gets some kickback from me… I mean, he’s been getting 10% of my nothing! We have kids now so, yeah, it’d be beneficial for a lot of people, and we can do it now. I think if I was younger I’d be more embarrassed to sing some of these songs and being stuck in the kind of ‘teen realm’, you know?
James McDonald Yeah, and you’ve kinda referred to some of the lyrics as a little ‘corny’ listening back…
Mike Kinsella Yeah, yeah…
“I know what I’m singing about and it’s not like I’m pining for some girl twenty years later, but I can relate and I can remember… They’re just love songs, you know?”
James McDonald Do they still have the same meaning when you sing them?
Mike Kinsella [smiles] Oh they do, sure! I mean, I know what I’m singing about and it’s not like I’m pining for some girl twenty years later, but I can relate and I can remember… They’re not bad, they’re just love songs, you know?
James McDonald Well yeah, and I still dig them and I take it a whole lot of other people do too!
Mike Kinsella Right! How old are you?
James McDonald I’m 26…
Mike Kinsella So maybe you found the band five, six, seven years ago and everybody can relate to it at that time… it’s cool. This whole thing has kinda made me feel really good about it, I’m meeting adults that like the band when I just kinda assumed for all these years, I mean, I knew the record had sold consistently a little bit and just guessed it was a bunch of fourteen year-olds buying it, but its not, its college kids and older and it’s cool.
James McDonald So was it a case of you literally playing these songs again for the first time in fifteen years?
Mike Kinsella Absolutely, and we hadn’t kinda kept up during that time, the Steves kinda did, and I’d see Steve (Lamos) every couple of years but we never really talked, so when we were like ‘oh shit, should we do this?’ And then like, ‘OK, let’s get together and see how close we can make it’, and so we spent a day breaking strings and figuring out what the heck the other guy was doing! And then it kinda sounded like, ‘yeah, that’s the song’. It seems like a fast process but at first it was when can we get together, and then, like, in a month we’ll fly Steve Lamos out and then we’ll play and see how close we are, and then it was ‘well, we need to get a bass’, so we’ll fly Nate [Kinsella, Mike’s cousin] to New York and then, yeah, we got to a place where we could do it in front of other people… kind of!
James McDonald Let’s talk about the album for a bit… Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and tell the twenty year-old you?
Mike Kinsella Oh, erm, just don’t worry about any of that stuff! I mean, my wife hates the music that I make now, just because I associate writing songs with being drunk by myself, like, I write on tour at a bar by myself or something… quite unsocial. So when I’m home with my family I can’t write, you know, ‘this is a great dinner!’ and then go and sing about it you know?
“We’re trying to figure out if we can write new stuff, or how insane the backlash would be! Everyone’s been assaulted by all these reunion shows! It’s kinda ridiculous… the internet’s all like ‘they’re playing these shows and we’ve gotta go!’ and people are coming which is awesome, but if in a year or two it’s like, ‘we’ve got a new album, a bunch of forty year-old dudes!’, are the same kids gonna care or be like ‘ah, they’re just cashing in’?”
James McDonald I’m sure you’re a decent cook though!
Mike Kinsella [laughs] I’m not bad… But, what was the question? Oh, yeah, these songs are sort of more sincere but I think now I’ve got a little more bite in it or its a little more tongue in cheek or something. But yeah, don’t worry about that shit, like girls or whatever, any of that! I would love to do it all again, but I’d do it very differently.
James McDonald So the album took a few days to record before you all went your separate ways after college…
Mike Kinsella I think we did it all, recorded and mixed it, in like four or five days, and many of the songs were not written. We’d have these two or three parts and it was, ‘let’s play it seven or eight times then change’ you know? So we did that and then a lot of the lyrics were sort of written that night and then the next day I’d sing them… Like ‘Never Meant’ was unfinished when we went into the studio and then that came out as ‘the hit’. I think we finished that one then put vocals on it for real and we were all kind of like, ‘oh that’s a cool song’ because we’d never heard it before. We played live probably a dozen times and a lot of the songs I wouldn’t even sing on because I was still learning the parts, it was too much, so recording was the first time we heard a lot of it as songs.
James McDonald That’s incredible… so they were still kind of growing organically…
Mike Kinsella Oh yeah, yeah, I remember me and Steve Lamos butted heads on a few things because they weren’t finished so it was sort of ‘crunch time’, so there were some vetoes…
James McDonald Is there anything you would change about the LP? You’ve been a musician for over a decade so…
Mike Kinsella You know I was just talking to somebody about like, that I’ve sort of been proud and stupid this whole time just being myself, you know? Like, ‘ah, I’m going to wear shorts on stage’ or whatever, and just be myself, I just didn’t care, and it sounds weird but I was trying to sell it as ‘I’m just being myself’. But now I’m like, ‘well fuck, why didn’t I try to look cool or something like all the other bands?! I fall for it, you know? I think these bands are cool and look cool so, you know… I mean now I’m too old to try, I’ve lost all my hair and shit! But maybe I should have put more effort into that aspect?
It’s been quite laid back since I’ve settled down with kids and stuff, I don’t promote as much and if people show up it’s great, but I don’t put up flyers or anything, and I always thought that was cool or I was punk rock or whatever, some slacker dad guy, but now I’m seeing how much fun it is to be in a popular band I’m like, ‘ah, I wish I’d done more!’ I didn’t do anything to help myself become popular!
James McDonald The LP itself you’re happy with though? Considering you only had a few days…
Mike Kinsella Yeah, that part’s really cool… It’s sort of unique, it has a charm… but I wish all of Nate’s bass parts were on the album now, because I think they sound great. But I like how it came out, I like that it doesn’t sound like 1999 in a way a lot of albums do maybe. And the songs are not just kinda rock songs… I’m rediscovering why I liked that music.
James McDonald It’s very ‘full’, there’s a lot of double tracking…
Mike Kinsella Oh tons of it, but live it was very small and loose, so we’d do the first take of a song in the studio and then it’s like, ‘well, let’s double both our guitars immediately’, and sometimes even triple it just to beef up some of the melodies. I think it worked [smiles].
James McDonald I suppose it’s obligatory to ask about the house on the cover… So this was a friend of a friend right?
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Yeah, we had friends there… there’s a funny story, erm, after we graduated a couple of friends and I went back to visit and stayed in that house and one of us was drunk and slept on the couch and when they left, the girlfriend of the guy who lived there a couple of days later was, like, ‘I think your friend shat on the couch because the room reeks’! So she, like, hated this guy… but then, maybe six months later, somebody opens the closet door in the corner and just sees cat puke everywhere! [laughs] But yeah, it was just another college house, you rent them and they’re about to fall apart…
James McDonald People always write about that house as soon as it comes up for sale…
Mike Kinsella Yeah, yeah! Well, we wanted to buy it for a while!
James McDonald Do you remember much about the writing process? Would you just jam or someone came with an idea first…
“Live it was very small and loose, so we’d do the first take of a song in the studio and then it’s like, ‘well, let’s double both our guitars immediately’, and sometimes even triple it just to beef up some of the melodies. I think it worked [smiles].”
Mike Kinsella A lot of it was just, Steve Holmes had like a load of ideas, like the intro to ‘Never Meant’, and a bunch of stuff like that, just cool, noodley, just moving a lot and who knows where it’s going, you know what I mean? So the writing process was usually – we lived together as room mates, so we’d just sit on couches and I’d just try to put some kind of melody to it. A lot of the melodies are very straight, like Fleetwood Mac rip-offs! Like the simplest components, but then his stuff is all noodling on top of it so there’s weird time signatures and stuff.
But yeah, he started… I’m trying to think as I go through… I think there’s probably just two or three where I brought the riff first and he built around it…
James McDonald Name one or two maybe?
Mike Kinsella Erm, I think ‘Summer Ends’, maybe ‘Honestly’? I think ‘For Sure’ was his, ‘Never Meant’ he brought that riff but I remember the bridge part for that we did together, I vividly remember writing that part…
James McDonald I read somewhere else that when you were rehearsing for the shows last year, you’d trip up listening back to it, it was like, ‘I guess we just play this through a couple of times then change up’
Mike Kinsella There’s definitely parts in the set that I know how they are now, but I think they’re slightly different on the record… I’ll admit, there are songs where I still haven’t listened to the whole way through, so I still haven’t heard it after all this time! But I’ll get the gist, and then in my head I know the melody so I’ll relay how I think it goes, and I think it’s right!
James McDonald Well it is right, you know, because it was always intended as a studio project, and you could never have foreseen what was going to happen now, so these songs are still growing in a way… that’s nice!
Mike Kinsella Right! There’s a song called ‘Sevens’, it’s a working title, and it’s a demo that we play live now and it’s super fun even though it’s not finished, but it’s playable and it’s almost our favourite because it’s new and more of a jam, it can go different places each night, so that one’s exciting.
James McDonald So is there new material on the horizon?
Mike Kinsella Well, there’s another new song we might play tonight, it doesn’t have any vocals yet, but, erm, we’re trying to figure out how or if we can write new stuff, or how insane the backlash would be! I mean, everyone’s been assaulted by all these reunion shows! It’s kinda ridiculous, like I was saying earlier, we never did that before but now the internet’s all like ‘they’re playing these shows and we’ve gotta go!’ or whatever, and people are coming which is awesome, but if in like a year or two it’s like, ‘we’ve got a new album, a bunch of forty year-old dudes!’, are the same kids gonna care or be like ‘ah, they’re just cashing in’, I mean, who knows?
James McDonald Why do you think the LP has had such longevity? Why do you think it connected with people and stayed with people?
Mike Kinsella I don’t know, I think, as people are searching for music… I think everyone sort of stumbles into it if you’re looking for punk or indie or whatever, and then, it’s easy to like, you know? It’s not too challenging, even though there’s weird time signatures and stuff, or tunings that are interesting, but yeah, like I say, it’s Fleetwood Mac songs! It’s catchy… on my vocals I’m trying to sound… like I love The Sundays or The Smiths, and I’m just trying to sound like that, so it’s not, like, hard rock, you know what I mean? I don’t know… I guess it’s pretty?
James McDonald For me personally, well it was actually a friend who got me into the band, but for me it’s the connotations I have with the time when I was getting into it, because the music’s very candid, and it’s very heart on sleeve and it’s just a nice sound! So it evokes a lot of memories for me, good and bad obviously…
Mike Kinsella Well yeah, it’s definitely relatable and there’s nothing too obtuse about it!
James McDonald Obviously you’ve been in a lot of different projects since 1999, so do you still get a kick out of playing these songs?
Mike Kinsella Way more than I thought! I was sort of like, ‘man, this is weird that we’re going to play these sort of quiet, mid-tempo not-rock songs’, and ok we can do that in a small room but in a big venue is that going to be enough, you know? But it’s awesome, the quiet pretty ones are quiet and pretty, but just in a bigger room! So I’m really enjoying it, 100% more than i thought I would. And I should have known because I’ve done these other reunion things with other bands and it’s been nothing but fun, for purely selfish reasons! Like playing drums and thinking, ‘this is fucking awesome! I’m breaking a sweat while I’m playing music, this is so much fun!’
James McDonald Do you prefer either instrument? Or I guess you get different things out of each…
Mike Kinsella I like that I can do both, but there’s a lot of plusses to not being the drummer! I mean, like, sweating is fun and doing a show where everyone is jumping off my drum kit is fun! But it also sucks to have to pack up the drums every night!
James McDonald You missed the Owls show in November because you were doing the American Football shows in New York, right?
Mike Kinsella Yeah, I kinda said, ah, well I can’t go then, and they were like, ‘but we wanna go!’… So, that’s cool, but they scrambled and found a drummer and I kinda wished they would have gone at a different time because I would have liked to have done it.
James McDonald It totally sucked without you man(!)
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Nah, they were good, I saw it in Chicago and it was like watching a cover band of myself! But yeah, me and my brother kinda butt heads a lot!
James McDonald Hence the whole Noel Gallagher thing on the Owls sleeve(!)
“I was sort of like, ‘man, this is weird that we’re going to play these sort of quiet, mid-tempo not-rock songs’, and ok we can do that in a small room but in a big venue is that going to be enough, you know? But it’s awesome, the quiet pretty ones are still quiet and pretty, but just in a bigger room!”
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Well that was, on the original Owls record there’s a square with a bowl of jello, and that’s my square, but that Noel Gallagher picture I initially picked for that album, and Jade Tree at the time said we couldn’t do it because we’d get sued! But for the second LP I had another collage made with my buddy Paul and he still had the original Noel file saved for twelve years ago or whatever, and just swapped it in! I can’t believe he still had it, so it finally go used!
James McDonald Do Oasis have any kind of influence or…
Mike Kinsella Oh I love Oasis, and at the time I was huge into them…
James McDonald They had kind of a positive light in the US, I remember I saw Rival Schools play Reading a few years ago and they covered ‘Wonderwall’ which was quite surreal…
Mike Kinsella Oh really? Huh!
James McDonald You guys wouldn’t consider doing any covers, Oasis or otherwise?
Mike Kinsella We did a cover song for AV Club, we did Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’ and I thought we did it pretty good… We’d just played four Chicago shows in a row, and one was on New Years eve, so four long nights and they were like ‘OK we can shoot you before you fly home’. So it was like 8:30am, and I was super haggard, and we’d barely practised but I thought we played it well… but then all the comments just, like, killed me! Like, ‘look at that fucker, that guy can’t sing!’ But I thought it was pretty good, I stand by it.
James McDonald So [definitely] maybe you’d have more luck with an Oasis cover after all?!
Mike Kinsella Well, another time I was supposed to play CMJ in New York, it’s like a label showcase thing, and I secretly got a buddy of mine who laid out the Owls record, I flew him out from Chicago… and Norm and Chris from Texas is The Reason, we all planned it to play ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory?’ from front to back, instead of doing an Owen set! We had to cut a couple of songs for time, but Polyvinyl were mad at me! But it was fun, it was pretty awesome!
James McDonald Please tell me there’s a bootleg of that somewhere!
Mike Kinsella [laughs] Well, I mean, it wasn’t awesome, it was a drunken mess! So please tell me it wasn’t bootlegged! But it was a lot of fun… we never practised and we just all love that album so… like that drum fill in ‘Wonderwall’, I remembered that, and Chris looked back while we’re playing and was like, ‘ah, you he nailed it’! It was cool!
Perhaps less cool when Mike suggests an Oasis cover around two-thirds into tonight’s set, and he’s met with a smattering of boos from an all-adoring American Football faithful. I guess this is unsurprising, though, considering how seemingly at-odds it is with the reason we’re all here in the first place. Plus Mike couldn’t care less right now, visibly absorbed in a childly giddiness. Tonight he’s a rock and roll star.
The story of American Football is extrodinary, and I’ll leave it to writers with a greater capacity to relay, but the beauty of that opening track on that album, and the fact it has brought them halfway across the world today, well, damn. It was simply never meant.