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It takes a little while to pick Imperial Teen out of the crowd in the Mission District cafe where we're scheduled to meet. Not that vocalist/guitarist Will Schwartz helps matters any: Assuming a surreptitious slouch as he enters the coffee shop, the slightly built singer ambles up the aisle, claims an armchair, and, curling into a modified fetal crouch, falls into apparent slumber. It's not until some 15 minutes later, when bassist/guitarist/vocalist Jone Stebbins strolls in to rouse him and the pair display a vaguely anticipatory demeanor, that I get the faintest inkling that these are the subjects du jour.
When informed upon awaking, Schwartz finds the inconspicuousness amusing. Running with the thread, he eyes an entering customer. "Oh, look, here's Roddy [Bottum, Imperial Teen guitarist/vocalist/drummer] now! Hey, Roddy!" The anonymous patron offers a confused smile and nod before making his way past us.
It's a harmless joke, but a telling one; the question of identity figures prominently into Imperial Teen's not-quite-two-year history (year one was spent as Star 69, before the band received a letter from the lawyers of an identically monikered East Coast group). For those with score cards to mark, Bottum is the keyboardist for Faith No More, while drummer/guitarist/bassist/vocalist Lynn Perko will be remembered by many as the gal who banged the traps for much-loved San Francisco notables Sister Double Happiness (Imperial Teen is Schwartz's first band, while Stebbins had played with Perko "years and years ago" in Reno-based punkers the Wrecks).
An impressive pedigree that many a local band toiling in obscurity might sacrifice its eyeteeth for, it's nonetheless a burdensome one for a fledgling unit hoping to distinguish itself unencumbered by its lineage and as more than a "side project." Throw in the logistical nightmare of juggling schedules to accommodate Bottum's other gig, along with the generally pathetic legacy of rock's "Featuring Members Of" subgenre, and one could see why Imperial Teen might relish the kind of anonymity implied by Schwartz's jest.
"It's sort of an issue at this point," reflects the real Bottum after everyone has finally arrived. "Until we establish ourselves as a band unto itself without any other connections, I think it will be. It's sort of an internal issue for us, too -- we're not sure whether we'd like to use it or ignore it, so it's a little awkward. But it helps us out too, definitely."
"What it comes down to is, it's what we are," Perko adds. "We can't help it, and we're pretty honest about it. It's either hide the fact, or it's like, 'OK, there it is,' and just downplay it as much as we can and get on with what we're doing -- and that's what we've been doing."
Seasick, Imperial Teen's debut, does much to fortify Perko's claim. Slated for a May release, the record is the result of a week's worth of studio time last year. It's also the product of a band that, at the time, had been together for a scant six months. Brimming with eloquently simple song structures and an undeniably fresh-faced enthusiasm, Seasick handily accomplishes the Teens' self-stated goal of capturing "the freshness and innocence of a band in its infancy." In keeping with that theme, the Teens had hoped to get either Kelley Deal or supermodel Naomi Campbell to produce the effort (both, unfortunately, were as unavailable as they are inexperienced). In the end, they settled for the similarly untrained hands of Red Kross bassist Steve McDonald. "I think he was sort of in tune with where we were at," Schwartz recounts. "He's never really produced before, so he was coming from a similar place." Plus, Stebbins adds, "He's a great go-go dancer -- and he's not too hard on the eyes, if you know what I mean."
If Seasick's origin smacks of childlike naivete, though, its resultant tone might better be described as bratty. Rife with sugarcoated sarcasm, the album's most striking moments come from the juxtaposition of catchy, sing-along melodies with lyrics that cut past the bone and into the marrow. "Luxury" ties a lullaby lilt to an opening salvo of "I licked the lap of luxury, bit off enough to chew/ I love the taste of anything that I can spit at you." Likewise, "Imperial Teen" delivers a strolling cadence and the maxim, "One fat lip, one black eye, one back/ True love's not worth much more than that." A subversion, perhaps, of the pop music tradition?
"I'm a very cynical person," Bottum says, "and any words I write will sort of reflect that. And if I'm doing something along the lines of happy music, I think I tend to overcompensate and probably act uglier than I am."
"It just kind of came out. It wasn't like a conscious thing, like, 'Oh, we're going to write biting lyrics,' " Schwartz adds. "I'll write happy baby flower words someday, maybe."
For the time being, though, "someday" will have to wait; the band is currently preoccupied with the album's forthcoming public unveiling. Long held up by Slash Records' inability to find a suitable distributor after its arrangement with Warner Bros. ended early last year, Seasick's delayed release has given Imperial Teen ample time to build up anticipation -- and anxiety. "It's coming down pretty intensely right now, and it's a whole new thing to have to deal with," admits Stebbins. "It's exciting, but it's also a little nerve-racking, because it's kind of out of our hands at this point; we don't know where it's going to go."
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