At one point in its history, it was entirely possible that Imperial Teen would forever be associated with the 1999 film Jawbreaker, given the fact that the band is best known for contributing the creepy, stalkerish "Yoo-Hoo" to the movie's soundtrack. The fact that the group dropped off pop culture's radar almost immediately following that success (thanks to major-label fuckwittery) made such a fate even more of a probability.
The time has come, though, for the Imperial Teens to take the throne, clad in their cutesy tan-on-tan uniforms (with regal red accents). Taking pop punk and questions of gender performance to new levels, the Teens are at the vanguard of the indie-cool cadre, making a great leap forward for the bubble-grunge revolution.
Imperial Teen was formed in 1995, as a side project of former Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum. He and Lynn Perko, a fellow San Franciscan and then-drummer for blues-rock outfit Sister Double Happiness, were seeking to scratch a creative itch that their respective musical projects couldn't reach. Attempting to emulate their indie-rock heroes the Pixies with a coed roster, Bottum and Perko recruited bassist Jone Stebbings (Perko's former bandmate in the Wrecks) and art student turned singer/guitarist Will Schwartz.
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Six months later, the foursome had recorded its debut album, Seasick, a punkish-pop masterpiece that, while a little rough around the edges, demonstrates the indie spirit that led the quartet to fuse bubbly hooks with crunching guitar lines and snarling, smarty-pants lyrics. But it wasn't really the hooks or the musicianship that turned people's heads: It was the words.
Two years after Blur sang the safe-sex anthem for "girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they're girls" and so on, Bottum and company smudged the lines, with little irony, between what it means to be a "boy" or "girl." Within an Imperial Teen song, gender roles are swapped as easily as instruments. On "Butch," Bottum sings nonchalantly of the prince wanting to be a queen, then later chants that "you kiss me like a man, boy" ("You're One"). Many critics, hungry for an angle and flogging the factoid for all it was worth, seized upon the fact that Bottum is an out-and-proud homosexual: Roddy Bottum is gay, gay, gay! Imperial Teen is chock-full of friends of Dorothy!
"On one hand, it doesn't really matter," says Schwartz, "but on the other hand, it does matter to people who are gay and don't have a person to look to in public who is okay with it and who's kind of cool." True, but it is horribly grating to pick up an article about the band and read about gay musician Roddy Bottum -- unless the story is a profile in Out magazine. Schwartz laughs it off, saying that the only writers who really home in on it are straight men.
It seems the group is only concerned with making music. But, as is often the case in this biz, the bandmembers themselves have sometimes been the only ones interested in their ability to do so. After the Teens' second album, What Is Not to Love, was recorded, it languished in the cogs of the London label's machine; the work was finally released in 1999, at which point it was marketed to all the wrong people.
"We were presented as more of a mainstream pop band with our last record company," explains Schwartz. "I think there are elements of that, like we definitely make music for the people, but I think the heart of our band is more independent. It wasn't really appropriate, in a sense, the way they presented the band." London made a critical tactical error by trying to market a rather subversive "pop" band with lyrics about sex, drugs and pathological behavior to the general public, but this miscalculation can be chalked up to the fact that, by the late '90s, bands were either "modern rock" or they weren't. Just as there are a million Britney and boy-band impersonators trying to cash in on today's kiddie-pop phenomenon, back in the '90s, if a band didn't sound like Nirvana, no one was going to buy the records -- no matter how good they were. At least, that's what the record industry believed.
After What Is Not to Love's lukewarm reception, Imperial Teen went back into the woodwork for a while. Bottum and Schwartz relocated to Los Angeles, while Perko and Stebbings remained in the Bay Area. The group soon became the victim of a label purge that left it adrift on the business side of things. Fans began to wonder if this was the end.
Schwartz shrugs off the mystery of Imperial Teen's hibernation. "There were a lot of changes going on, individually and collectively," he says. "During that time, we continued to play and record music; it just took a while to get it completed and put it out." The group recorded On, its third release, complete with hand claps and woo!s and breathy, sexy vocals, under the production supervision of newlyweds Anna Waronker (That Dog) and Steven McDonald (Redd Kross). Once the album was recorded, the band started shopping around for a label -- with the understanding that majors were out of the question.
The tape landed at Merge, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, label co-owned by Superchunk singer Mac McCaughan. Merge snapped up the Teens and released the spirited new record earlier this year. The professional relationship seems to please everyone involved.
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"I think we're probably tapping into the audience that we should have had in the first place," says Schwartz. "Merge is totally supportive, and I think they're doing a good job." (Martin Hall, a Merge publicist, is much less reticent, exclaiming that he hasn't been "this excited since I got that new bike for my sixth birthday!")
The new record and new label have placed Imperial Teen in an enviable position, drawing attention from all corners of the media and admiration from fellow musicians. In addition to supporting the Breeders on a nationwide tour this summer, the Teens were invited to open for Pink on her latest national jaunt. They're now revisiting many of the same venues, this time as headliners. The Teens are poised for maximum exposure, which is just fine with them.
"It would be great if a lot of people caught on to it. We want to make music for as many people as we can, but it's not the only thing that drives us," Schwartz explains. "It's a different thing for us; it's a creative thing."
Sure it is. But with the creative freedom offered by an indie label and a loyal fan base that's hungry for more, world domination can't be far behind.