Flashback Friday: American Football ‘American Football’

I was fifteen and precocious when my friend Zac played the track Never Meant for me in his car. He was older, on his P-plates, a figurehead for the brother I never had. I was naive and soaked up all he had to offer. I was eating a Golden Gaytime and he was chain-smoking while the crisp guitar sounds played from his speakers, lo-fi and distorted which only added to the certain sort of garage production that made me yearn for a time before my time. There were other songs before this one that he had played for me, all of which fell neatly into what iTunes would classify as ‘Indie/Alternative’ – artists like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Arcade Fire and The Vaccines – but this is the one that sticks out in my memory. This was the track that catalysed the evolution of my musical taste, a journey that began in the dredges of mainstream pop and ended with my endless curation of Spotify playlists.

But all through this journey I never forgot American Football.

I remember that it was an uncharacteristically hot summer that year, and my sweaty palms had left a visible handprint on the brown paper packaging encasing the American Football vinyl. The records were green, a limited run from 2005 that Zac had obtained at a flea market somewhere in Inner West Sydney, and I cherished it for months, even without a record player. I begged and begged my parents for one – for I was young and unemployed – until they finally acquiesced, and so began my love of collecting good music.

In hindsight, I guess the reason American Football is so significant to me isn’t simply because they produced fucking great music. It’s because their early 2000s emo-rock soundtracked my angsty adolescence. Nearly every song on their first and only album was accompanied by an experience – whether milestone or trivial – and at the risk of sounding like a tired cliché, American Football will always represent to me a period of innocent youth that I can never reclaim. My first teenage heartbreak; heralded by the impassioned cries of lead singer Mike Kinsella – “Not to be/Overly dramatic/I just think it’s best/Cause you can’t miss what you forget” – over a math rock rhythm that seemed unfathomably complex to my fifteen-year-old musical sensibilities. Other tracks like The Summer Ends and You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon were equally as important, trumpets and guitars blending in an undercurrent that fought for aural dominance against the wind as I cycled past my neighbours’ suburban fences and carefully tended rose gardens lit by dim streetlamps. And yet other songs – I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional – emanating from the primitive speakers of Zac’s Nokia phone or my (very cheaply bought) record player as we lay in silence, absorbing the sheer ambience of American Football.

American Football is a band that has been notoriously insular, releasing no further music after their self-titled album, with band members largely moving onto other musical projects like Mike Kinsella’s Owen and Owls. It came as a surprise, then, when they announced a tour earlier this year that would be making stops in Australia. I snatched up tickets online almost as soon as I read the announcement, then – after the initial adrenaline rush that accompanies purchasing tickets to gigs – closed my eyes in a half-anticipation, half-trepidation. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that 15 years on from the release of the album, and 5 years after I had first discovered them, I’d be seeing them live at Oxford Art Factory. I left the show in tears – not of joy, or of sadness, or even reminiscence; tears of raw emotion – and I wasn’t the only one. I spoke to a couple I had met before the show who had travelled from Canberra to see American Football perform.

“We’ve been waiting 15 years for this moment,” one of them said. “We’ve been listening to them since we were teenagers in high school.”

“Emo isn’t what it used to be,” said the other, “in our day we had the real emos, not like the phonies
nowadays who only do it for the aesthetic.”

Honestly I can’t remember all my teenage feelings,” Kinsella croons on Honestly? – decidedly ironic given his unique ability to unlock those exact feelings in listeners. And that, to me, is the crux of American Football’s widespread acclaim and success. The album itself is a blend of soft, layered rock – with distorted guitars and vocals that are wailing yet sentimental – and, quite unusually, jazz, with trumpets and the occasional piano trill foregrounding much of their work. It’s a record that for the most part stays comfortably in the valley of what I like to term ‘dusky music’ – the aural equivalent of a quiet sunset on a suburban cul-de-sac after a day spent on park benches and car hoods basking in summer sunlight. But for all its pensive brooding, the album also has its peaks, like the rhythmic You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon and the guitar-driven I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional.

“It’s not explicitly heartbroken music, nor is it ever entirely joyous. Rather than pinpoint an emotion, the record exists on a continuum…the ache and the beauty are intertwined,” writes Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, and I tend to agree. The beauty of its album lies in its ability to evoke sentiments as complex as its math rock time signatures; perhaps even, dare I say, as complex as the inner workings of a teenage mind.

When I reflect on the album I will always picture Zac in the driver seat of his second-hand Ford, wisps of smoke trailing into the humid summer air. I will imagine him walking through rows of vagabond vendors and picking up the American Football record that I still keep in my collection, now infinitely larger than it was when I was fifteen. When the first notes of Never Meant play, I am an adolescent again, sipping my first Corona and swaying not quite in time with the music in the backyard of a stranger’s house.