Imperial Teen is back in action
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
“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
“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
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.