By Tom Reardon, August 2019 Issue.
You know two members of a band are pretty cool when you start off your conversation with them talking about whether or not hummingbirds have feet. Then, of course, the band in question happens to be one of the coolest, yet most overlooked bands from the 1990s: Imperial Teen.
For those who are so inclined but aren’t sure where to start, you can really check out any of their records and get a great feel for what Imperial Teen is all about. Their first release, Seasick, came out in 1996 and is as strong of a debut record as you will find. Seasick set the tone wonderfully for this quartet that truly is the perfect example of musical balance. Imperial Teen’s blend of boy/girl slightly fuzzy, but all killer and no filler indie pop with exquisite harmonies, is like a kiss from Glinda the good witch on your earholes. Once you get the first kiss, you’re only going to want more.
At one point, you could have called them “San Francisco’s” Imperial Teen, but now the members of one of the more underrated purveyors of beyond solid rock and roll are spread all over creation. The same four people have comprised the band since their early days in what revered San Francisco Examiner columnist Herb Caen referred to as “Baghdad by the Bay,” Roddy Bottum, Lynn Truett (formerly Perko), Will Schwartz, and Jone Stebbins are now in New York City, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, respectively.
One might think this would make it more difficult to continue being a working band, and it does, but this has not stopped Imperial Teen from creating one of the more anticipated releases of 2019. Now We Are Timeless (Merge Records) is the 7th full-length LP from the band since 1996. While the pace of their releases is not exactly setting the world on fire, the members of Imperial Teen have continued to crank out highly entertaining, head-bobbing, and thought-provoking work throughout their career while finding time to work on other, and sometimes more lucrative, projects.
The most well-known member of Imperial Teen is Bottum, who plays keyboards for influential band Faith No More. When Bottum came out to the world as a gay man in the early ‘90s, there was some initial shock, especially as Faith No More was sharing concert lineups with bands like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, but in the long run it hasn’t seemed to phase Bottum.
“It was a different world back then. Amongst me and my family, it (coming out publicly) seemed like a big deal at the time. Once it was done, though, once that declaration was made, it never ended up being a big deal. I remember there was hesitance … a manager had the nerve to say, ‘Are you sure?’” says Bottum before continuing:
“The bands we were playing with were super bro. You couldn’t get on a more straight platform. Looking back, I didn’t see it as such a big thing, but kudos to me (laughs).”
Schwartz chimed in, as well.
“I remember Roddy talking about it, before I knew him, on Dr. Drew on KROQ (the Love Line show). I remember thinking it was really cool to have an artist talking about that. It was an issue, too, with Imperial Teen in the 1990s. I remember our radio guy saying that there was a lot of push back from the big stations because “You’re One” was a queer song. I remember thinking, “You’re not embarrassed to be saying that?” says Schwartz.
“If that were to come up today, we would be like ‘Oh, hell no. How dare you even insinuate that this would make a difference to your listeners or to the music you would play.’ Then it was just a different time. It was very difficult,” says Bottum.
For Bottum and Schwartz, though, Imperial Teen was not about their sexuality. During our conversation, for example, they pointed out that they never wanted to identify as only a “queer” band as their bandmates, Stebbins and Truell, don’t fit into a particular box, or as Schwartz put it, “Lynn and Jone are queer in a sense, but also not. We were conscious of just trying to put it out there that we’re not any one thing and it was a hard line to drive in the ‘90s.”
This type of attention, though, was not new to anyone in the band as each member brings a certain pedigree to the mix. In addition to Bottum’s connection to the uber-famous Faith No More, Truell was formerly the drummer of infamous punk rockers, the Dicks, and later, Sister Double Happiness, which featured Gary Floyd on vocals who was one of the first openly gay punk rock musicians. Stebbins was active in the Reno punk rock scene as the bass player for The Wrecks, which were an early, all-female hardcore band that Perko also played drums in for a time before moving to San Francisco. Schwartz broke his rock and roll cherry in Imperial Teen, but since has also played in Hey Willpower as well.
When the band started, one thing Bottum did not want to do was play keyboards, so he opened himself up to playing several different roles in Imperial Teen, as did each of the members of the band. Imperial Teen is known for switching instruments quite a bit during their live show, which has led to some confusion, at times, for fans in knowing who is doing what on any given song. The first big “hit” for the band, “Yoohoo” from the What Is Not To Love album (1998) was prominently featured in the film, Jawbreaker, is a prime example of the true flexibility of this band to embrace anything that the world throws at them, especially when they play live.
“I like the songs where we switch instruments. We used to do that a lot when we first started, and people would talk about us in that regard. To go back and play drums, for me, is a real challenge and really feels different and weird and fun. A song like ‘Yoohoo’ which I go play on drums and Jone plays guitar, those songs are fun for me and I like that,” says Bottum.
Another example of this flexibility is that many fans assume Bottum does the majority of lead vocals due to his Faith No More notoriety, but it is Schwartz, actually, who does the lion’s share even though all the members have really great voices. The vocal harmonies on Imperial Teen records are top notch. Case in point on the latest record, Now We Are Timeless, are songs like “Somebody Like Me” and “The Girl” which both feature some really nice vocal interplay. Heck, you can just about count on a killer vocal hook in just about every Imperial Teen chorus and that is not a bad thing at all.
While the band does not have any current shows booked for the Phoenix area, they will be playing in Palm Springs on Sunday, August 4th at the Alibi, which is a hop, skip, and a jump for Valley music fans. The band will also be playing some select dates in California over the next several months as well, so check out their Facebook page for more information if you want to get your Imperial Teen fix satiated. And if you go, be sure and bring them some pictures of hummingbird feet. They will love it.