American Football's Mike Kinsella, on fatherhood and music: "My time isn't my own anymore"

American Football's Mike Kinsella, on fatherhood and music: "My time isn't my own anymore"

American Football knew that they would be disbanding, even while recording their first LP. The peril of endings became the album’s overarching theme. Years down the line, and the album still continues to resonate with audiences of different backgrounds and ages.

It's been twenty years since the release of LP1. Mike Kinsella, Steve Lamos, Steve Holmes, and Nate Kinsella have released two follow-ups. A contrast against their first album is a new set of songs on ruminations about adulthood and painful odes to being a grown-up.

Ahead of their headlining Manila show with Bandwagon Live, we catch American Football frontman Mike Kinsella as his day is starting. “It's happening all day sort of concurrently,” Kinsella shares of how being a stay-at-home dad would interlope with being an off-tour musician. “I keep my daughter’s guitar in the kitchen so every time I pass by I can pick up the guitar, play it while I'm going somewhere, and take it to another floor of the house.”

In this interview, he shares how most of his days are like, how his family has knocked off music from his priority list, what his writing process is, and how his friends keep him in line when he starts complaining. 

Read the full conversation below:

Hi, Mike?

Hello, yes!

How are you?

Pretty good. How are you?

I'm good. What time is it there right now?

It's 9:30 AM. 

How was your morning so far?

Oh, it's just getting started. I was up late so the dogs woke me up at about 5:30 AM.

In the morning?

Yeah. I [usually] put them out, then I feed them, and then I fall back asleep and today, I just kept sleeping.

That's cool.

Yeah, not bad.

What's a regular non-touring day like for you- what do you usually do, what keeps you busy? 

My wife works and I have two kids that I sort of have to get ready for school, and then I take them to school. It's the first time this year that they're both full-time in school so I have the whole day to do laundry, clean up their mess, and take care of the dogs. I sort of spend all of my days just being a dad.

What occupies your headspace?

After I sort of figure out the organizational and administrative stuff of being a dad, it's usually music-related or song-related. So all day, while I'm doing stuff, I sort of just pick up a guitar, fool around with it, and then put it back down, and then come back to it a couple of hours later. 

Let's talk about how fatherhood and having a family has affected the way you write or create as an artist. Let's start with that.

Logistically, I just have a lot less time to make music. Like, it's funny; in the past ten years since having kids, I really just appreciate doing it more. I feel like I started playing so young that maybe I just sort of felt I was entitled to play music. Back then it would say, "Yeah, I'll just keep playing shows and people will come to see me." Now, my time isn't my own anymore. I came to appreciate being able to do it, being able to do it in front of people, and have people interested in it. 

Writing-wise, it just totally turns your world over to music, not being the main priority in your life. You know, I feel like early Owen albums and stuff, it was so much like sort of selfish pining. Now, hopefully, my writing has expanded [and that] it's more sympathetic to other people in general. It's just knowing that I'm not the most important thing in the world anymore.

I think there's a lot to unpack with that answer. You said something about feeling entitled to play when you were younger. Now that you're able to play with American Football after all these years, does it feel like a privilege? Or maybe privilege isn't the right word to describe it. If you were to describe it, what is it like?

Privilege is pretty good! Like, it really is. We really don't take it for granted. Like, we'll play cities like Manila. We're going to cities that we've never been to and we feel pretty lucky that this thing we started is the vehicle that gets us there. All of us have kids, jobs, and wives, and other things that we've sort of made a priority before this thing happened.

I think we really understand. I also sometimes find myself complaining to some of my friends who gave up playing music fifteen years ago and they're like, “F*ck you. You get to do this. I'd love to do this even if I have to go play in a smaller show or smaller town or something.”  I get enough friends who let me know how lucky I am.

Let's talk about the concept of compartmentalization. Do you feel the need to separate the artist from the different parts of your life? Or are you the type to let the different parts seep, or bleed into one another?

What I do on my day to day life definitely bleeds to what I do creatively. I don't really know how to separate it, lyrically and stuff. I write what I know whether it's the frustrations or the love, but I also think there's this fine line. I just can't write songs about doing laundry. I have to sort of pick out the parts that people might relate to, that would be interesting, or trigger some sort of emotion. So I guess that's the line I walk. I wouldn't know how to separate the two, really. 

Do you think like you need to step back from it to be able to process or are you the type to who does it at the same time it's happening? 

Well, I guess I'm saying I do it all at the same time but that's not altogether true. In the writing process, there's a part that I do need to sort of step back and really concentrate on the editing so that happens before I go record an album.

There's a lot that does end up going to my studio every night after everybody's in bed. So that's like maybe 9 or 10 o'clock or something. I go for a couple of hours and that's the time I can actually focus on a lot of the stuff that I do write musically and lyrically. That's where I sort of make shit more concise, make it more biting, or give it a little more of my own voice;  whereas maybe while I'm only sort of doing it in passing during the day, it might be a little more generic or a little less interesting in general. 

Let's get into that part. So you do need time to step back and to process later on in the day to pick on what you've written or what've started on. What are the little things or specifics that you see or realize when you're in that part of the process?

Yeah, it varies. And it even varies every couple of years when I'm starting the album process. Maybe the things I'm prioritizing change. I think I used to write very literal and I'm sort of trying to get more and more-- it's not really vague because I still want people to relate--  but I just like the idea of having people interpret it differently. More poetic as opposed to writing prose. Nowadays, when editing, I say things not so plainly. You know, that's even if I get past the first step [which is figuring out] whether or not the content is even worth exploring at all.

It's sort of like..  oh, is this idea anything? Melodically, does it feel good with the guitar part I have or something? Just the right direction. And once I get there, then I can sort of get into the details a little more. I know I'm not like a good singer, really, so I have like a limited range with the melody; so it sort of has to fit the cadence of what I'm saying. It has to fit with what my voice physically can do, too. So there's a lot of trial and error with that. Trial and failure. 

Yeah, it's just a process. 

There's a 17-year gap between the first album and the 2nd and 3rd LP. What is something you would say to a 22-year-old kid? It doesn't have to be actual advice, just something you'd like to say to someone who's like 22, fresh off of college, I suppose.

Well, what's funny... I mean, it's not really advice, it just happens naturally. These things that obviously, in the first record, seemed like the end of the world didn't kill me, you know. You know at that time, it seems like it's the be-all and end-all of everything. I guess so whether it's living life in general, just keep doing it. If you don't like whatever you're doing, change it.

The first album 20 years ago, a lot it was sort of the reaction to a bunch of transitions and changes happening in my life. They hurt for a while. And then suddenly, it becomes normal again. 

I guess you're right when you say everything in the past, when it's in hindsight, doesn't feel that heavy anymore. But when you're there right in the moment, it feels like everything, and everything important in your life. 

For that album, in particular, it was relationships I was in at that time and it was right around finishing school so people were moving and things just seemed like... Yeah, it's ridiculous now in hindsight. It reads like a high school diary or something, but it just seemed like the idea that relationships can end and anything can happen. The unknown seemed more than I could bear or something.

Even musically, when we recorded that album and before all the songs were done, we already knew the band was breaking up. Even that whole album was sort of like, this is the end of this whole thing too. Seemingly, it was less traumatic but fit this whole tone of transition What's happening next? Nobody knows.

You're coming to Manila in August and FYI, Filipinos are generally very emotional. Culturally, we're an emotional bunch.

That should work. 

As a people, we like sweeping ballads and emotional rock songs. And it even kind of manifests in our films and our humor as well. Personally, what do you think is the importance or validity of being able to articulate emotion?

This is just what I thought music was. I was writing like this even before there was a word 'emo.' I mean if you listen to like a Cure song, it's like the most quote-unquote emo thing ever. And those were my formative years, listening to The Cure, The Sundays, and all that D.C. hardcore stuff just 'cos musically, it interested me, like math rock and all that. But yeah, I just always thought music was supposed to be like 'what's the coldest and harshest thing you could say at any moment?' I don't spend my whole day like that, though. I say I write all day but it's not all heavy shit all the time. Most of my day is spent making dumb dad jokes and then when it's time to write... it's like putting my work clothes on and then I go and write. But yeah, it's always been how the way I write.

Well, I think with the concept of emo. I think a lot of it is just being able to be vulnerable. Would you agree or would you contend with that?

Yeah, no. I mean, that's right. Some of the things I wrote about is kind of cringe-worthy and it's sort of awkward to sing or to think that my mom is listening to it. There's definitely a vulnerability. As I got older, I just kind of got more comfortable with it You know what I mean. I think there's a value to it. I don't know. When I hear other music, I sort of cringe when people are holding back. Just like when they're sort of go with some generic line or something.

You can spot it right away.

I'm just content with being vulnerable. 

So, you're going to Asia in a few weeks. I know that you know Chinese Football but have you heard of other Asian acts that you particularly enjoy or maybe like? Is there anyone? 

I've played in Japan a few times so I have some friends who play in some bands there. The Firewood Project is a band that I like and I've played with. There is an old band from Japan called Nihon Bass that I really like. They opened up for another band of mine years ago. Otherwise not really because I haven't really been there [in Asia].

I kind of don't listen to a lot of music. I don't keep up with current music too much but I'm excited to sort of just see Chinese Football over and over. We're playing with them as American Football but I'm also playing a solo show with them. So, it'll be cool to see them a bunch of times.

Cool! Well, thank you so much for your time. I know that you're a busy guy so we really appreciate you making time in your morning.

Okay, I appreciate the interest. Thanks very much.

See you in Manila! Bandwagon is really looking to having you.

Are you coming to the show, then? Yeah?

Yes, of course. I'll see you there.

Come and say hi. Thank you!

Thank you so much.

Bye-bye.

Bye!

Yup. 


American Football are making their Manila debut on August 2, 2019 at Power Mac Center Spotlight. Tickets to the show are now sold out.


American Football Live in Manila is presented by Bandwagon, in partnership with Independent Play.