Chinese Football’s 2017 release, Here Comes a New Challenger, could very well be interpreted in a number of ways. The first and most obvious is that it is a play on video game culture, with the album artwork resembling the cartoonish drawings that one might find at an arcade. The name might also draw upon their quirky moniker, which in turn takes influence from seminal American Midwest emo rock band American Football. Perhaps it is a nod to the fact that the band acquired their name from those former university students and ran with it, establishing their own form of underground secrecy in the same way that the Urbana trio did all the way back in the late ’90s.
Chinese Football were founded in Wuhan in Central China. Also known as ‘China’s Thoroughfare,’ the region is pretty analogous for the American Midwest, where a tight emo scene established the stereotypes that we find associated with that brand of music, emo rock, today. According to Chinese Football’s singer, Xu Bo, back in 2011 the Chinese band had little inkling that American Football might one day reunite.
“I picked the name just for fun,” Xu says. “I didn’t think they would reunite and didn’t think that we would stay together as a band until now. At the time my bandmates didn’t even know who American Football was.”
In 2015, four years after forming, the Wuhan band released their first record, also called Chinese Football, and their brand of sweet and subtle math rock captured attention with song titles like ‘Diqiu Shang Zuihou Yige EMO Nanhai’ or ‘The Last Emo Boy in the World.’
Image courtesy of Chinese Football
On the other side of the globe, American Football reformed in 2014 as a foursome, with the addition of singer Mike Kinsella’s cousin Nate, for a pair of dates in Champaign, Illinois and New York City. It had been 15 years since the release of their self-titled, nine-track album which had gone on to gain a cult underground following. Capitalizing on that unexpected, slow-burning success, their label Polyvinyl decided to release a deluxe edition of the album, which reached No. 68 on the US Billboard 200. Not bad for a trio of university students.
Drummer Steve Lamos, who now resides in Colorado and works as a university professor was, funnily enough, made aware of his former band’s cult success through conversations with his students. “I did have one student, probably seven or eight years ago, show me his phone and ask me ‘Hey is this you?’” Lamos says, “And he showed me that ‘Never Meant’ had gotten 3 million plays or whatever it got.”
Two years later and American Football were announcing their second album, 17 years after the first, in a move that was thrilling for long-time fans of the first LP.
“When we got back together and I tried to play the first record, I thought, ‘Oh, we’re gonna ruin this’” Lamos says, reflecting on the band’s first attempts at playing the songs from American Football. “It’s been a challenge for us. I mean, it’s sort of fun to be a real band. This is much more of a real thing than it ever was the first time around.”
American Football (LP2) might have been one of the most anticipated emo rock records ever, since this so-called genre went through something of a revival in the ’00s and ’10s. “I like LP2 a lot. It’s the record that needed to be made. We had to write those songs. There’s a track on there called ‘Born to Lose’ and I feel that is probably the best glimpse into the way I feel about that album.”
Image courtesy of American Football
Meanwhile, back in China, Chinese Football released Here Comes a New Challenger in 2017. In the years preceding the release, criticism had surfaced online accusing the Wuhan band of ripping off American Football. The new record, a beautiful four-track math rock EP, was massively different from the dreamy soundscapes that the US band had created on either of their albums by that point. It gained the band a plethora of new fans and new listeners. Yet the criticism persisted.
“I think our music is totally different,” Xu tells us, “The only commonality is that we all use a telecaster (guitar).” Lamos concurs with Xu’s assessment, saying “They’re doing very different, and very interesting things, musically.”
In 2019, by some funny stroke of luck, both bands released new records, American Football with American Football (LP3) and Chinese Football with Continue?, both of which see the bands take a leap forward. LP3 sees American Football move further away from the legacy of their debut, with the much-talked-about removal of the famed ‘House at Urbana,’ which made appearances on the album covers of their first two records.
The reasoning behind that is pretty straightforward, with the band’s sound opening up significantly, using much more space and atmosphere and creating what band members have called “an outside record.”
On the other hand, Chinese Football have carried on with their ‘Game Trilogy’ series on Continue?, but have once again altered their musical style on this record. “We brought more lyrics to this release so it sounds more like ‘Chinese rock’ rather than ‘emo rock’,” Xu tells us.
Image courtesy of Chinese Football
The continued success of American Football saw them grasp the opportunity to play in China for the first time. The band had, through various means, become familiar with Chinese Football’s music and presence throughout the preceding years.
Xu remembers a brief encounter he had with the band during a previous world tour. “I once saw American Football’s show in Japan, and gave a CD to Mike as a gift and told him that I had a band called Chinese Football. He said that he had already heard of us,” Xu says.
Lamos doesn’t remember the encounter, but he sure as hell knows who Chinese Football are. “You know we get a lot of people spoofing the band or teasing the band or whatever and I thought ‘Oh, this is probably one of those kinds of things.’ No, it’s a legit thing with legit players, so that was a really pleasant surprise.”
The fanfare that this combination has caused among independent music zealots throughout China, and Asia, has been a joy to behold; not only that the much-loved American Football are making their way to The Middle Kingdom, but that they have chosen their namesake, Chinese Football, as support.
“Steve Holmes, our guitar player immediately said ‘Oh, we should see if we can get Chinese Football on the tour,’ because he follows their music and he also follows them on Instagram,” Lamos tells us about propositioning the Chinese band.
“So we thought ‘Oh, you know, you take a shot in the dark and it’s just sort of a funny thing if they’d agree to do it… and sure enough, here we are.”
[Cover image courtesy of American Football]