Doing What They Do Best: An Interview With Imperial Teen
Imperial Teen's latest album may be about the state of the world and how hopeless it is. It may also be about how there actually is hope. Roddy Bottum and Lynn Truell reflect on the group's past and present. "When we're at our best, we represent a movement," says Bottum.
Now We Are Timeless
12 July 2019
Imperial Teen have had something of an unlikely career trajectory. Formed in the mid-1990s (initially as Star 69), the collective brought together Roddy Bottum (Faith No More, guitars/vocals) with Will Schwartz (hey willpower, also guitar/vocals), Lynn Truell (the Dicks, the Wrecks, drums) and Jone Stebbins (the Wrecks, bass). The 1996 debut Seasick was met with nearly universal acclaim and set the course for the next two decades. And two decades for any outfit labeled "supergroup" at the outset of its career seems unthinkable in most cases.
The intervening years have seen albums such as What Is Not to Love (1998) and The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band (2007) present a consistently fresh musical vision despite the odds. While many of their peers have seen creative peaks and valleys, each Imperial Teen record provides cause for celebration as the band unites to create bold, energetic compositions that are never easily slotted into any specific genre.
The members have scattered to various corners of the United States (California, Colorado, New York). The group has evolved from an alternative rock powerhouse (Seasick wouldn't sound out of place in your disc changer alongside classic releases from Guided By Voices or the Breeders) to one that recalls the sunshine pop of the 1960s, dance music, and shoegaze. All the while Imperial Teen retain their core sound and singular vision for wise, witty compositions that are consistently infectious.
Now We Are Timeless,the collective's sixth studio outing, loses none of that luster even if there are hints of darkness at the edges. Rising global temperatures, heated political debates, a world in which we are constantly connected yet increasingly alone. With only one song exceeding the four-minute mark, the LP is as much a soundtrack of these times as it is a soundtrack of the future, one where humans will find ways to face seemingly insurmountable odds whether in the world where they live or within their own hearts. Maybe.
Witness the opening "I Think That's Everything", the stomping, would-be anthem "We Do What We Do Best" and the deeply, delightfully askance "Don't Wanna Let You Go". "How We Say Goodbye" finds an unexpected intersection between the bittersweet tendencies of classic singer-songwriter albums, theatre music, and contemporary pop in typically seamless fashion. "Ha" further affirms Imperial Teen's alternative rock roots - either the Breeders or Nirvana would have been proud to write such a track - while never sealing the band there.
For the weight the album suggests in its cover and the outline of its themes, Now We Are Timeless is ultimately a life-affirming affair. We can find connection, happiness, and have some hope beyond the horizon if we commit to happiness. Maybe.
Bottum and Truell recently spoke with PopMatters about Imperial Teen's longevity and the friendships that have held the quartet together all this time.
When did you start thinking about making this record?
Lynn Truell: It probably started several years ago in our heads. Because we live in four different cities in three different states, all of that takes a lot longer than it would with a band where everyone lives in one place. But I think it was about four years ago. Roddy?
Roddy Bottum: We knew we'd continue. We're close, and one of the things that we can rely on is the four of us getting together and writing music. But, "Let's make a record"? That was probably four years ago.
LT: That got sprinkled into the conversation because we're in contact all the time, just like best friends would be. So, it came up and then we made a record.
RB: It's all a big commitment. We decided to make the record. Now the record will come out, and we'll do shows. And it's been three or four years since we've played shows.
LT: Real shows. We'll do one-offs every one or two years but nothing like this.
What is the writing process like, then, since everyone is in different places? Is it something where maybe Roddy sends a demo out, you add parts. Or do the songs get sent around in more or less completed form for everyone to approve?
RB: We've found that we work best when we do everything together. That's the common goal: To have all of us together in a room. If that doesn't happen, then it's really crucial that everyone adds their parts. This time around, Will went to Denver, where Lynn lives. They wrote some parts. Then Will came to New York, and we worked together. Then we all got together in Los Angeles and tried to construct everything.
LT: That works best and, honestly, I think that's the best outcome. Each of us has a particular nuance that we add, whether it's a background vocal or a guitar part. That's how it really becomes an Imperial Teen song.
I'm struck by how much you like each other and the idea that you like to write together in a room. That's not always the case.
I often hear about the anxiety and tension that goes with getting four or five people in the same room to work on material.
RB: We all have strong personalities, but the four us together is what makes it Imperial Teen. I think we've always acknowledged that. Everyone adds a crazy, interesting perspective, and we really appreciate each other. I don't think we'd be able to be in a room with someone missing. It just wouldn't work. But I think that's always been the case. We've always liked each other and always had quality time together.
LT: It doesn't happen without tension. There is tension. There's discussion. We work through it, and I think that's part of what makes us who we are. It's not like somebody's going to be mad and stay mad for a year. We do have to talk it out sometimes. We're lucky that we can do that. We're not going to lose each other over a drum part. These are my core family people.
It's a democracy. If you're passionate about something that nobody else is, that's too bad.
To you, is there a thematic connection among the songs?
LT: I don't think it started that way, but it always seems like we end up with something.
RB: It's not a strategy to come up with something like that. But the concept of the record, how it looks, what it's titled, all of that, happens naturally. In the best world. When it survives the end of a writing process and a recording process, you look back and say, "Oh, this is a theme. This is a body of work that says one particular thing." But it's always a surprise.
What do you feel that is this time out?
LT: I feel like there's a lot of reflection. All records have that. We've been a band for so long, and we've been friends, and we've experienced social and emotional challenges and loneliness and politics, the social media frenzy. It's taking all of that in and taking a pause.
RT: All of these things make us feel some crazy sense of global community. Couple that with the fact that all four of us are in different spaces and have to deal with that distance. There's a bigger picture too. Global warming. The political administration. All of it. On the one hand, we're very close and yet also very distant.
LT: It could be about relationships around you or one feeling that you have about yourself.
As we're talking this morning, apps in the Facebook empire aren't working. People are voicing their frustration at not being able to see pictures and seeming to panic. It's like they feel incredibly disconnected. "I can't connect! I can't connect!" And yet we have people around us all the time.
LT: I have a teenage daughter, and I read a lot about that stuff. I've read that even 15 minutes without a phone per day makes you disconnected among your peers if you're a teenager. That's the new norm for them. I found that to be so awful. It's a generational idea about how to connect.
You've been a band for more than 20 years. Have there been points where you thought it was over? Or is it always a case where you look at each other and say, "OK, we'll go through this again in two years?"
RB: We've never closed the door, but it's interesting because this time around I saw the concept of the record and the look of it as a kind of bookend. The first record is very sun-driven and has a beach sort of vibe. The other end is this one which is ice and the decay of a planet. That suggested to me that this would be our last record. Then we said, "We can't say that. Why would we do that?" We've never made that decision. As long as we continue to like doing it, we will.
Have you followed how the fan base has changed over the years?
RB: I have no idea. Right now we're playing cities where a lot of our people will be, and a lot of it is family and friends. It's hard to tell who likes it at this point. When we were looking for openers, and it was weird because I don't know many bands that do the type of music we do. We all pay close attention to music, but I just don't see bands like us now.
LT: We do have something that we don't see much of anymore.
Photo: Jonathan Grassi / Merge Records
The reason I asked is that is because listening to this album, I thought, "Wow, this sounds like a new band. It's fresh and energetic." At the same time, it fits with what you've done in the past.
LT: I'm glad to hear that you think that.
RB: Me too. It's good to hear that. I talked to somebody the other day who said, "Yeah, it' sounds like what you always sound like." I thought, "Oh, that's a bummer." [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] When you look back on your time together, what are the dominant memories?
LT: Being in the van, laughing about ridiculous stuff. The bands we've played with. Shows where we get to count the famous people in the dressing room. Those are the fun ones.
RB: I love it when it's a lifeforce, not just a band. When we're at our best, we represent a movement. I think about the queer sensibility when we started and where it is now and how it's accepted more in the world and how the world is a different place. I'd like to think we were part of that. Our part in how things have changed is very special to me.
- Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band - PopMatters ›
- Imperial Teen: Now We Are Timeless (album review) - PopMatters ›