Imperial Teen Sang About LGBTQ Issues Before It Was Cool

The band is still together despite being spread from coast to coast.

Imperial Teen’s Roddy Bottum sees his band’s latest album as more than another artistic statement. 

According to the vocalist-guitarist, Now We Are Timeless is, in many ways, a musical bookend to the indie-pop group’s debut disc, 1996’s Seasick.

“The presentation of the first album was super poppy, shiny, and summery, but there was always darkness underneath,” says Bottum, who appears with Imperial Teen for a Noise Pop Festival show at The Chapel on Saturday. “Cut to 25 years later, and we are putting out this new record when the world is in a super dark place politically with the current administration and global warming and we’re forced to address the darkness while also owning our place in a world that is falling apart.”

The album’s cover, featuring a polar icecap melting, is a sad reminder of the perils of climate change. The sealife pictured on Seasick’s sleeve, a happy dolphin splashing around, now appears as a stark contrast. But there is still a fortitude to be found in the remaining ice that resonates with the quartet that, 25 years into their careers, must fight to stay afloat. 

Guitarist-vocalists Roddy Bottum and Will Schwartz, bassist Jone Stebbins, and drummer Lynn Truell have had a harder time coming together to produce their buoyant and hooky tracks.

“That’s a real challenge for us,” says Bottum. “We live, perform, and write in a world where we’re not really compensated for what we do with our art. None of us make enough money to let that be the only thing we do with our lives. So we all have careers, things we have to do just to survive along with Imperial Teen. We honestly just do it because we love it and love each other.”

Outside of Imperial Teen, Bottum is currently in two other groups: Nastie Band, an eight-member performance art band; and Crickets, a “restrained punk electronic” trio with longtime friends JD Samson and Michael O’Neill. Bottum also occasionally tours with his original band, Faith No More. He also scores films and puts on theatrical presentations like the gothic fairy tale Sasquatch: The Opera and The Ride, about the AIDS LifeCycle Ride fundraiser.

Making meeting up even more complicated is that the four members, who once all lived together in San Francisco, are now scattered across the country. Bottum lives in Brooklyn, Schwartz in L.A., Truell in Denver, and Stebbins in the East Bay.

The separation anxiety members feel living and working apart enters into much of the material on the new album. “I Think That’s Everything,” “Parade,” “The Girl,” and “Don’t Wanna Let You Go” all tackle the fleeting nature of relationships. Then there’s “How We Say Goodbye,” with one of the most poignant lines on the record: “I heard a song, I closed my ears/ I couldn’t stand the sound of lonely.”

“The loneliness comes from the separation from each other,” says Bottum. “Each of us on our own can’t stand … not being with each other doing what we do.”

When Imperial Teen first formed in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, Bottum, a founding member of alternative rock band Faith No More, found more than a new group to write, record, and play shows with. He encountered three kindred spirits who would become lifelong friends.

Bottum had had creative differences with his former bandmates and had struggled to overcome heroin addiction, the loss of his father, the death of Kurt Cobain, and wanted to explore an entirely different genre of music. Truell and Stebbins, who between them had long histories playing in punk bands like The Wrecks and The Dicks, were game.  

“We had all sort of been there and done that, so we forced this naivete on ourselves of starting over and trying something new with a clean slate,” Bottum says. 

While their new sound was “simple, catchy, and innocent,” according to Bottum, their lyrics betrayed the weightier issues that trailed them, including “death, drugs, and overdoses,” as well as the complexities of romantic relationships and sexual identity in early songs like “Butch” and “Imperial Teen.” Bottum was already out as gay and Schwartz has since disclosed that he, too, is gay.

By singing about LGBTQ issues at a time when it was still taboo to do so, Imperial Teen became part of a small number of artists to openly address their queerness in their music. In so doing, they paved the way for future queer-identified bands like Scissor Sisters, Deerhunter, and Hercules and Love Affair.

“It was a super tricky time,” Bottum says. “At that point, coming out as gay in that world and putting music out there in that industry, was really awkward. But it felt very important at the time for a gay voice to be heard in that sort of realm.”

JD Samson, best known as a member of the electro-feminist bands Le Tigre and MEN and who currently plays with Bottum in Crickets, is just one of many young queers who took inspiration from Imperial Teen’s sexual frankness in their early years. 

“Imperial Teen was always one of those supergroups to me,” Samson tells SF Weekly. “Will [Schwartz] and I have toured together a bunch, so I always looked at that band as a seminal indie queer older sibling, of sorts. The band came to me in a time when I was listening to so much indie rock, but none of it was queer in the way Imperial Teen was queer — unassuming, kind of joyful, fun, cute, loving, and deeply sincere. It was something I saw a lot of in myself, but was afraid to show.”

The irony of a band that experienced its most commercial success in the late 1990s and early 2000s (when their song “Yoo Hoo” was making waves after being added to the Jawbreaker soundtrack) titling their sixth record Now We Are Timeless is not lost on Bottum. 

“The record title refers to the magnitude and permanence of what you release as an artist, in that recording and finishing a record and putting songs out into the world,” Bottum says. “But there’s also the contradiction and irony of it’s all fleeting these days. Yeah, it’s out there and it’s not going to change. But, really, people forget about it in five minutes and there’s a sadness to that, which ties into global warming and where the physical world is at this point.”

Imperial Teen, Saturday, Feb. 29, 8 p.m., The Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $18, thechapelsf.com

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