Imperial Teen formed in San Francisco in 1995; it's been dodging fame like a Matrix bullet ever since.
Or so you have to figure: After all, the band -- composed of Roddy Bottum, Lynne Perko, Jone Stebbins, and Will Schwartz, multi-instrumentalists all -- signed a major-label record deal about, oh, ten minutes after playing its first gig, which it booked about five minutes after it hypothetically determined that, since the members liked playing instruments together, they might as well consider themselves, you know, a band.
There was also Bottum's semi-notoriety as the erstwhile keyboardist for alterna-rock radio faves Faith No More, not to mention the lovestruck magazine profiles and strong reviews of the Teens' 1996 debut album, Seasick, that read like mash notes. "Yoo Hoo," a slick single on 1999's Jawbreaker soundtrack, further aided what should have been a mad dash to worldwide pop-rock preeminence. But Imperial Teen nevertheless managed to slink right back under the radar.
Sure, sure, the usual culprits can reasonably be blamed for the band's journey to nowhere. Major-label conglomeration, for example, along with a dot-com bubble that created a cultural climate more attuned to post-pubescent bubblegum than Imperial Teen's stuff, which popped, fizzed, and kicked back like a mutha if you bothered to listen to the lyrics or tune into the Pixiesish guitar hooks stabbing beneath the bandmembers' heavenly harmonies. After all, the similarly photogenic and meditatively frothy Cardigans found themselves cast aside by the same currents.
All of that would be explanation enough, were it not for the fact that the Teens are up to their old tricks yet again. Reemerging on indie stalwart Merge (home to Superchunk, Magnetic Fields, and fellow major-label exiles Spoon), the band has clocked time since the mid-2002 release of its third album, On, opening for the Breeders and -- incongruously -- Pink. This gives some credence to the idea that a rising tide for attitudinal rock posturing really will lift all boats.
Seriously: Pink. So why is Avril Lavigne on every friggin' magazine cover right now, and not Imperial Teen?
"Look ... hey! It's not like we're trying to avoid 'success.' I mean, please," Stebbins insists. Frankly, she sounds a little defensive, and far more eager to discuss other aspects of Imperial Teen -- the all-important intra-band loyalty, for example. Friendship is a big theme for Stebbins. It recurs as she talks about those opening slots for the Breeders ("We've been friends for a long time, so it was totally great to play with them when they finally got back into it"). It's there as she gushes about On's shimmering production by "buddies" Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) and Anna Waronker (late of That Dog). It spills over when she describes the band's lovey-dovey relationship with its new label. And it's especially prominent when she waxes about Imperial Teen itself.
"This was a really great album to work on," Stebbins says, "because Will and Roddy both moved to LA a while ago, Lynne got married, and the only opportunity we really had to hang out was when we'd get together and play -- it was so joyful, kind of like when we first started jamming, just for fun."
Stebbins' description of the band's jovial writing and recording sessions makes sense, seeing as On is Imperial Teen's most buoyant album yet. Those darkening guitars are hidden a little deeper in the mix, with added groovalicious keyboard licks filling in the breach. Be forewarned: Such tunes as "Sugar" and "Mr. & Mrs." may induce shagging. (The dance, not the thing you do on a shag carpet, perv.) And though the lyrics are still a mite tart, in between the handclaps and airy doo-doo-doos, the sting is more than mollified by the narcotic catchiness of the band's sterling melodies.
Which brings us back to that initial question: Why isn't Imperial Teen famous? Did the band have to put out the most sublime pop record of the year -- and the finest of its career -- in the midst of a garage-rock revival, when the national mood is more in tune with the musical equivalent of a Valium overdose than a cocktail of delight?
"We're just going along for the ride," Stebbins notes placidly. "We love each other, we love playing together, we love playing shows, and we love the music; as long as all that's working, y'know, we'll keep at it, no matter what happens."
Which, paraphrased, translates to "We're in it for the love," that old chestnut of dogged rock bands striving for stadium-sized fame. So maybe Imperial Teen isn't chasing away success with a stick so much as approaching it with a sneak attack. You'll be shagging before you even know what hit you.
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