American Football talks Riot Fest, popularity and the band’s Wheeling connection

Riot Fest’s claim to fame on Chicago’s summer fest landscape is its variety.

Despite its punk-rock roots, year after year the three-day music festival promises an eclectic lineup to its faithful fans, and this 15th anniversary edition delivers again with headliners as varied as punky blink-182 (featuring McHenry musician Matt Skiba), thrash metal from Slayer, electronic-laced modern Brit-rock from Bloc Party and solid emo-punk from Jawbreaker.

Pair that with Chicago’s Rise Against, Dashboard Confessional, Violent Femmes, Manchester Orchestra, the Struts, Descendents, perennial favorites GWAR and even a dash of the B-52s or the Village People for a bill that is anything but one-note.

Nestled right in the sweet spot on late Sunday afternoon is a band many Chicago music fans may have grown up with. American Football’s 5:30 p.m. slot puts them one band away from headliner Taking Back Sunday in a time that’s just right.

“When we play festivals, it works out pretty good usually,” Mike Kinsella, the band’s lead singer, said. “We’re not so popular that we’re competing with the biggest bands, but we’re also not playing too early in the day. We’re lucky. … We joke, ‘Let’s not get any more or less popular.'”

The rock band grew from the late-’90s college rock scene in Urbana, Illinois, when Kinsella, who grew up in Wheeling, joined his University of Illinois roommate Steve Holmes and friend Steve Lamos, both of whom he knew from his hometown, just playing in friends’ living rooms and for their own enjoyment.

“As the songs started to take shape, we decided, ‘I guess somebody should sing on these,'” Kinsella said. “I lost that bet, so then I started singing and it turned into a thing.”

American Football recorded a few songs for an EP at a friend’s house, but when the specter of graduation and real life loomed in 1999, Kinsella and the band members decided the band had run its course.

“We recorded our first full-length just to have it documented,” he said. College graduation passed and Kinsella moved back to Chicago, eventually pursuing music through other projects such as Cap’n Jazz and his solo endeavor Owen.

American Football has put out two new albums since reuniting and played a number of major festivals, including this weekend’s Riot Fest. “We’re having more fun than we ever did,” said Mike Kinsella, front. – Photos courtesy of Atiba Jefferson

But then a funny thing happened: The debut full-length “American Football” continued to draw interest and sell consistently. Without promotion. Or even a band.

“I have a theory,” Kinsella said. “The music captured a really earnest moment that relates to people. Year after year there are kids that are around the same age we were at going through the same transitions we were at, so it resonates with those people over and over again.”

In 2014, American Football’s original label urged the band to create a 15th anniversary release, so they put together demos and outtakes and released a deluxe reissue. And as a testament to the quality of the band’s music, the show offers started rolling in.

“People would ask me at shows with my other projects, and I said a million times it’ll never happen,” Kinsella said, referring to prospects of a reunion. “We didn’t know there was an interest. But once we figured that out, we decided maybe it would be fun to do this in front of people again.”

Now with Kinsella’s cousin Nate Kinsella on bass, the band started playing around again, putting out another self-titled full-length LP in 2016 and a third (LP3) earlier this year.

The new album takes American Football in a more introspective direction.

“The second album we felt we had to write an American Football album. We wrote the album fans would want to hear,” Kinsella said. “Now let’s just write the album that we want to write. The sound is different. The narrator is different. It’s not like a pining kid anymore, it’s sort of like a grizzled older guy now.”

Even though adult life — jobs, families and other responsibilities — makes the logistics of playing in a band regularly more difficult, the struggle of scheduling and planning ahead and writing music remotely sometimes makes it even more gratifying.

“We’re having more fun than we ever did,” Kinsella said. “We like our new songs. We’re more confident with them than we were with songs we wrote maybe 15 years ago. So that’s actually getting more fun.”

“Playing the old songs is still fun because the crowd grew up with them and knows them, sings along with them,” he said. “But these new songs are more satisfying because I know how much work we put into them. There’s more payoff.”

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Riot Fest

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Sept. 13-15

Where: Douglas Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive, Chicago

Tickets: $49.98 plus fees for single-day general admission passes; $99.98 plus fees for two-day general admission passes; $149.98 plus fees for three-day general admission pass; VIP, Deluxe and Ultimate packages are also available; see riotfest.org.