Imperial Teen had us worried. One of the Bay Area's favorite indie pop acts hadn't toured in years or released an album since 2002's On.
"We never broke up and we never planned to break up," says guitarist and vocalist Roddy Bottum. Instead, he explains, the four band members played a few shows together, but other projects took up too much time for them to be able to record an album together until now. "We always planned on making another record," he says. "It just took a long time."
Imperial Teen made up for lost time with the August release of The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, a title that sounds a little like a sitcom, but actually succinctly explains where they've been for the past five years. Bassist Jone Stebbins has been working as a hair stylist in Sausalito. Bottum, who scores films and TV shows, got caught up working in Los Angeles on the ABC sitcom Help Me Help You. Drummer Lynn Truell, who also currently lives in LA, recently had her third baby. And lastly, "the band" refers to Hey Willpower, a pop band fronted by Imperial Teen's other guitarist and singer, Will Schwartz.
Other than hair, TV shows, babies, and other bands, geography also made it difficult to get Imperial Teen back in the recording studio. With half the band in Southern California and the other in the Bay Area, getting all four members in the same room isn't easy, and forces them to use their time wisely when they have it. "The time when we get together and write, we have to be really crafty with it and make it work," explains Bottum. "When we're all in the same city, we're a little more lax about the structure of our work. But now when we get together it's really precious."
Though only Stebbins and Schwartz still live in San Francisco full-time, the Bay Area is still the band's biggest fan base and collective hometown. As a teenager raised in Los Angeles, Bottum grew sick of the city's plastic glam and came north, lured by the Bay's gritty punk scene and progressive politics. He found the people much more open-minded, and the city, which was much cheaper then, to be the perfect place for a creative teenager to figure things out. A classically trained pianist, Bottum began playing in the legendary, Mike Patton-fronted hard rock band Faith No More. He met Truell while she was drumming for the Dicks, a hardcore punk band that formed around the same time. Truell and Stebbins had played in another punk band together, the Wrecks, as teenagers in Reno. Schwartz and Bottum met in Los Angeles through a mutual friend. The four casually discussed forming a band, but hadn't started playing together.
Bottum mentioned this one day to another friend of his, who happened to be starting a magazine and organizing a kickoff party. She asked Bottum and his hypothetical band — who had no songs — to play. They agreed, and the gig forced them to begin writing and practicing together. The songs written for that first show ended up comprising the band's first album, Seasick, released in 1996. The original lineup has been together ever since, and still has many of the original fans, too.
"I think we have a pretty special audience," says Bottum. "The people who are into our band really get into it, which feels really nice." Soon after the album was released, audiences already knew the songs and were requesting them at shows. Bottum, who has been out since the beginning of his career, says they have especially loyal fans in the gay community. Imperial Teen tends to get a lot of attention from the LGBT press, which Bottum says has only been helpful.
"When our first record came out, there was more of a question of whether we were being pigeonholed as a type of band, but these days it seems like people have come a long way," he says. Being out doesn't seem to have had any negative impact on his career, even, surprisingly, during his days with Faith No More. "[It was] such a weird realm to be gay in. It was such a heavy heavy rock sound. For the most part, the fan of that kind of music was a more macho young guy who could potentially have issues with gay members. ... I remember I was surprised at how much of a nonissue it was."
Other than the band's LGBT following, Bottum says the thing Imperial Teen fans have in common is that they're "really happy people." Imperial Teen is definitely playful in its sound, lyrics, stage presence, and even its name: They liked the idea of a bratty, preposterous sense of pride. During shows, the multitalented members often switch instruments, tell stories, and hold dance contests.
The new album, which Schwartz says is their strongest yet, is full of running lyrical themes and catchy, melodic riffs, perfect for singing along. With innocent lyrics and tight harmonies, their sound is reminiscent of '60s pop with a grungy, alt-rock edge. The slow, dreamlike harmonies of "Fallen Idol" sound like the Hollies on a lazy afternoon, while "Sweet Potato" and "Shim Sham" are punkier, danceable pop. The band's favorites include the singable mid-tempo title track and "Room With a View," a bittersweet piano-based track with some of the album's best lyrics. Though touring has been harder since the birth of Truell's son, the band has still enjoyed its recent live shows.
"There's good stuff everywhere, good stories everywhere," says Stebbins. "When we went to the East Coast recently, Lynn's entire family came. Her husband and three kids — the youngest of which was sixteen weeks old. That's a whole different type of crazy road story. She was breast pumping backstage and I was drinking Budweisers."
Still, everyone seems most excited about the shows in their hometown. Stebbins says their recent Folsom Street Fair performance, to a huge nude and leather-clad audience, was especially memorable. "It was a beautiful day ... and that fair is just a crazy free-for-all in a very San Francisco type of way," she says. "I think some of my co-workers who came were emotionally scarred."
"San Francisco's always really great," agrees Bottum. "I love going back there. It's a special place."
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