Imperial Teen is still kicking, still churning out singularly crafted Indie Pop so ear-pleasingly addictive that it’s kind of remarkable they’re not more of a household name. But, then again, that’s never been the band’s reason for being.
Sixteen years after surfacing, the men and women of this indispensable melody machine continue to fly their flag, no matter how they fit into a greater musical universe that has never quite known what to do with them. From major label buzz band (Seasick, its 1996 debut, remains a kind of masterpiece) to overlooked lifers backed by indie label du jour Merge (which dropped the band’s fifth record, Feel the Sound, earlier this year), Imperial Teen endures, juiced by the idea that an album, a song or even a single hook can transport us (and them) to a different, less mundane place.
As the ever-attuned critic Robert Christgau once wrote of the band, “This is unabashed art for art’s sake — a subsidized hobby, only it’s a label rather than a papa laying out the cash and expecting personal fulfillment through creative expression in return. Pop isn’t an ambition for these smart people with other things to do, it’s a discipline — the tunes strong, the beats solid, the vocals lightly yearning and pungently sweet.”
Imperial Teen is the sound of four people — still and forever guitarist Roddy Bottum, bassist Jone Stebbins, guitarist Will Schwartz and drummer Lynn Truell (all sing, all play other instruments) — whose diverse experiences coalesced around making music both accessible and slightly subverting, sweet and occasionally sour. Or, as Schwartz once sang, “Our subtext is our plot.”
“We set out to do something different,” Truell says by phone from her home in Denver. “Roddy and I had been in bands (he Faith No More; her Double Sister Happiness, The Dicks and The Wrecks) that had toured for years and had different types of success, and I just wanted to try something new. I didn’t want to sit behind the drums the whole time.
I wanted a bigger role. I could sing a little, I could come up with a catchy chorus here and there. It was fun. It was Pop. I wanted to try something new, and everyone (in the band) would tell a similar story: ‘Let’s try to challenge ourselves here.’ That’s how it started.”
Though they’ve each lived in different cities in recent years — which is the main reason they’ve only recorded two albums since 2002 — San Francisco was the quartet’s original nexus. Truell (nee Perko) knew Stebbins from their teenage days in a Punk band that once opened for Black Flag. Schwartz was a musical novice before joining Imperial Teen, a curious fact given that he’s probably band’s most distinctive member (they call him “The Secret Weapon”) — his snotty vocals are the perfect counterpoint to Bottum’s more pedestrian pipes. In fact, more than anything — even more than their endearingly successful experiments in instrument swapping or their irresistible melodies — the band’s vocal interplay is at the heart of their appeal, carrying their best songs from “You’re One” and “Yoo Hoo” to “Ivanka” and “Runaway,” Feel the Sound’s keyboard-driven opening track, which marks a discernable evolution from the band’s more guitar-based beginnings.
While the fact that they were no longer working with longtime producer Steve McDonald (who was busy with his own band Redd Kross’ resurrection) impacted the direction of Feel the Sound, Truell says the move to an even more Pop-oriented approach over the years was an organic one.
“Seasick — we literally recorded that record in seven days, and back then we were trying out new instruments — was coming from a different place,” she says. “That record in many ways did define our sound, but I’m comfortable saying all of our records are fairly Pop. Yes, we did want to try something different this record. We wanted to move outside our box, although we were pretty comfortable there. We thought, ‘Let’s just see what happens,’ and brought in a few different sounds with keyboards.”
Over the course of a 45-minute conversation, Truell touches on everything from the impact of the Internet on the record business (she, as a mother of three and a member of a band that came together in a different era, has little patience for social media and is mystified by the outsized influence of Pitchfork) to the importance of Merge in Imperial Teen’s continued existence (“I have so much respect for them and the way they do their business and the way they support their artists”) to the logistical issues of extended touring (“We don’t really tour; we just kind of do shows here and there”).
But it’s only when asked about the fact that Imperial Teen is sometimes classified as a gay band — Bottum and Schwartz are gay, Truell and Stebbins are not — that she seems especially eager to make a point.
“For some reason that’s something to be talked about to the point where we’re labeled: ‘Gay band, Imperial Teen,’ ” she says. “We are not a gay band, and that becomes very frustrating for all of us because we’re not (homosexual Punk Pop band) Pansy Division, we’re not trying to promote gayness. We’re not a gay band; we’re all just human beings.”
And they’re all friends who just happen to have made some of the best music of the last 16 years.
“The thing that kept us going and moving forward was that we really enjoy each other and we really like making music together,” she says. “We’ve been through a lot together personally and professionally, and we love each other. That sounds super corny, but that’s just the way it is. We’re like a little family.”
IMPERIAL TEEN performs MPMF.12 Saturday, Sept. 29 at 11:30 p.m. in the vitaminwater room at The Hanke Building.