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American Football’s Steve Lamos talks about reuniting, vinyl, his day job as a college professor and more

The band's first trip to Florida brings them to the Orpheum on Friday.
American Football. Photo: Shervin Lainez.
Published Aug. 3, 2018

Steve Lamos is bringing homework on tour. He has no choice. Days after his indie/emo band American Football plays Tampa for the first time, he has to be back at school for his day job: English professor at the University of Colorado.

"As an academic, I like my routines," the drummer said by phone recently. "But if I'm going to do the band thing, I've got to get used to doing the opposite: Working in airports, working on no sleep, working at 10 o'clock at night, whenever I get a chance. It's Costanza-esque: Do the opposite of everything I've ever done. But doing the band is important enough to me to do it."

For American Football, squeezing any sort of rock 'n' roll experience into their workaday lives is a challenge. But that's because few bands have a history quite like American football.

Formed in Illinois in the late '90s by singer Mike Kinsella (formerly of emo forebears Cap'n Jazz and Joan of Arc, now also of Owen), American Football released one self-titled album in 1999, then fizzled out in 2000.

But then a funny thing happened. That album grew a cult fan base as a high water mark of turn-of-the-century emo and indie rock; Rolling Stone would later rank it the sixth greatest emo album of all time.

The band didn't fully realize any of this was happening. While Kinsella stayed in music, Lamos took a teaching job at Colorado, and guitarist Steve Holmes became a vice president at a payroll company. It wasn't until demand for a reissue of the album reached a fever pitch that American Football (now with Kinsella's cousin Nate on bass) reunited in 2014, immediately selling out multiple dates at New York's 1,500-seat Webster Hall.

American Football has been touring ever since, and released a second self-titled album, unofficially dubbed "LP2," to acclaim in 2016. Now they're coming to Florida for the first time, playing the Orpheum on Aug. 10.
Before that, Lamos answered a few questions by phone from his home outside Denver.

I'm told this is American Football's first trip to Florida. How is it you've not come here since the reunion?

You know, I don't know. It certainly wasn't by choice. We have to work around work schedules and family schedules. That must be the reason. It's summer, so I'm a professor, I'm on break right now, so it was real easy for me to do this. It's that sort of thing, where everybody can get off, or other guys can get vacation days, is how we plan these trips. We're glad finally it's happening.

It seems weird to think of a band of your stature as a weekend hobby or part-time thing. Does it feel like that to you?

I appreciate your saying that it's got stature. It doesn't really feel to us like it has stature. If it's possible to do something part-time but take it seriously, I think that's where we're at. We appreciate it when it exists, and we appreciate the other aspects of our lives when it doesn't. But I certainly don't — and I don't think any of us do — think "part-time" means we do it halfheartedly. We're on when we try to be on, and when we're not, it's because we've got other stuff happening. This is probably the right balance for everybody at our age. I forget how many kids we have collectively, eight or nine or something like that, and they're all under 10 years old, so this is about as much as we all can do.

How long after you guys disbanded did you begin realizing that "American Football" was this entity that continued to exist without you guys?

Honestly, not really until the reunion stuff happened. Mike has done this on and off full time; he's been doing it the whole time; Nate's been involved; Steve and I, less so. But I don't think anybody, Mike and Nate included, knew about this reputation. It's very strange that during all those intervening years, it had meaning to other people and not necessarily the same meaning to us. It's one of the cool things about this, and we're grateful for it, that's for sure.

Did it ever come up among your college students? Did you ever sense some students were taking your class just to say they took a class by the guy from American Football?

Oh, that still doesn't happen. But it certainly didn't happen back in the day. Before the reunion, I had the entirety of two students in 10 years who mentioned it in some fashion. I had a handful of kids in the last class that I taught who were sort of teasing me about it. I had this one student, I loved her, she was really smart, but she was also kind of sarcastic and snide. All semester long, brilliant kid, but then six months afterward, she came to my office and said, "Why didn't you tell me you were the drummer of American Football?" I said, "Would you have been nicer to me if you knew that?" She turned red. But I thought it was a sweet moment.

As a Colorado professor, you're a public employee. I have to think there aren't many rock musicians earning paychecks from the state, right?

Yeah, and I think about that all the time, like, How am I presenting myself? What is this going to mean? I am a public employee, and I take that duty seriously. I've got to serve everybody in the state. But that's part of my job. Honestly, CU has embraced it; they've done a couple of features on it. It's a little bit of a balancing act to make sure I'm doing my real job and doing this in a way that complements it, rather than potentially causes problems.

Which industry would you say faces greater economic challenges in 2018, music or higher education?

Universities like mine are trying to imagine new ways to sustain the things that they do with increasingly higher proportions of private dollars, because state funding continues to dry up, and there are a lot of folks who are either tacitly or actively opposed to public higher ed. Music faces its own challenges too. Certainly, that has changed a lot since we did it the first time, in that nobody really buys records anymore, aside from vinyl. That's interesting. For us that's cool, because I like vinyl, and vinyl's been cool to us in American Football. I don't know how anybody makes any money off any of it. Maybe they don't. Maybe it's all just a big shell game.

Do you know if LP2 sold more copies on vinyl than any other format?

I think it's true that its biggest proportion of sales has been on vinyl. I would be shocked if that weren't true. I know the first week it came out, we were the No 1 selling vinyl that week in the country. That was neat.

What do you think makes American Football fans vinyl fans?

There's something about having a physical object to relate to. I know what it meant to me to go to record stores when I was younger, and if I can find them, even now. There's a still a record store in Boulder, and I'll go in there once in a while, and bring something up to the counter, and the guy who owns it has owned it for 35 years, and it ends up being at the centerpiece of a conversation about something else entirely. You can have those kind of conversations online, but they're not the same as they are face to face. So I wonder if American Football fans get that a physical object is a way to interact with other people, which I don't think everybody wants to give up on.

The second LP, despite it being so far removed from the original one, felt like a natural continuation of your sound. From your perspective, how did rock and emo change from 1999 to 2016?

I appreciate very much hearing you say that it seemed like a natural progression. It certainly felt that way. When we decided we were going to make more music, we got together and a room and then (sent) a bunch of files back and forth over the Internet, putting together songs that made sense to the four of us. The second album came from the same place. I think we set out to keep making the kind of music that made sense to us. I appreciate your saying it sounds like a natural continuation. I certainly have had other people say we're selling out, or we should have left well enough alone, or the worst thing we could have done is play more music. I suppose I get that perspective, too. I don't share it. But I was that snotty purist once, so it's just karma for all the times I said that about other bands, coming back to me 100-fold.

Did all the attention you got since you reunited feel earned?

That's such a good question. On the one hand, I think it's fair to say we did do what most bands do in terms of touring — the first time around, that is. Not that we didn't try to play shows, but we didn't (play shows). So to come back to Webster Hall and all this fanfare, I can imagine folks saying, "Wow, they didn't earn any of that." That said, all of us are lifers in this. I first took a stage when I was 5 years old, and I'm 44 now, so from that perspective, it's hard for me to say anything but: Hell, yeah, I earned it. Because me and everybody else associated with this, we do it because we have to, not necessarily even because we want to. This is just part of who we are as people. And we're not taking any of this for granted. If and when it goes away, it's been pretty magical.

Are your kids going on tour with you? Are you going to Disney or anything?

At some point, that would be great. We've talked about, and maybe we'll do it at some point, trying to arrange touring with the family. We've even goofed around, like, maybe we'd all rent RVs and make it so the families could interact and have fun together. But these gigs flying in and out, one after the other, doesn't lend itself to family life. It bums me out. Neither of my kids has ever seen this. Everybody else's have. But at some point, I hope to do that.

— Jay Cridlin