Back in 1996, Faith No More were headlining festivals around the globe. They had just followed up the critically acclaimed Angel Dust with the better King For a Day… Fool For a Lifetime album, and were at their creative peak.
So when keyboardist Roddy Bottum suddenly showed up with another band, fans didn’t quite know how to react. Because ’96 was also the year that Imperial Teen put out Seasick — an altogether less caustic proposition that FNM.
The mid-’90s were a very different time. Nowadays, Metallica can get on stage with Gaga and people barely blink. Back then, it would have caused riots. Pop and metal did not mix. There was power-pop (Cheap Trick, Big Star, et cetera), but that was a thing all of its own. Still, Imperial Teen didn’t seem to give a shit about that sort of nonsense.
That first album saw them harmonize male and female vocals in a Mamas & the Papas-esque style, while allowing themselves to go heavy on the keyboard-pop. There were elements of Paisley Underground in there, but it was also very much about the “there and then.” It was contemporary indie-pop. Meanwhile, this was no Roddy Bottum side project. Imperial Teen was and is a real band, a democracy consisting of four talented musicians.
In that regard, nothing has changed. In other ways, things have changed massively. Back when Seasick came out, all four members lived in San Francisco. Now, only bassist Jone Stebbins does. Bottum is in New York, guitarist and vocalist Will Schwartz is in L.A., and drummer Lynn Truell is in Denver. Both Schwartz and Truell agree that the geography has an impact on the music.
“We were all together in one city, which had a big effect on things in terms of practicing three times a week, having a schedule with it and being able to be more prolific as a band,” Schwartz says. “We were also very naive in terms of our own musicality. We were trying new things with Imperial Teen. It was my first band and I was just learning to play guitar. I played piano and sang before that, in a more classical sense. Over the years, we became interested in other elements besides guitars.”
It’s a sound that evolved over time, a direct result of the four individuals involved. Truell is keen to point out that Imperial Teen wouldn’t be what it is if any one of them weren’t in the group.
“We’re a democratic band in the sense that we all kind of contribute equally in a spiritual way to the band,” Schwartz says. “On this album and the last album, I sing 80 percent of the lead vocals. But sometimes, people still refer to it as ‘led by Roddy.’ That’s fine. It’s people’s perceptions, but it’s not accurate to the way we perceive it. We’re led by one another as a collective.”
“Even to this day, I’ll see that and flinch at it,” says Truell. “How can we stop this? It’s not offensive. It’s just not accurate, because we’re all in this together.
Seven years have passed since 2012’s Feel the Sound, and Now We Are Timeless, the band’s sixth album in total, came out this month. All four members have other things going on which accounts for that gap.
“There’s a year-and-a-half after the album when you do your other things. Then we start thinking about getting together again,” Schwartz says. “We feel that pull. Everybody’s living their lives and we all have such full lives. We’ll get together for a few days here and there, and then a few months pass by. It’s just the way it’s gone recently. Things just take really long with us. But that makes it really special, too, when we do get together.”
Special it is. The passing of time, various other projects and, in Truell’s case, having a family have taken none of the band’s youthful spirit and energy. They still write hooky melodies and the lyrics are still about their everyday lives.
“Our lyrics are about our lives, usually,” Truell says. “What’s happening, how we’re affected and what’s going on around us. We hang out and talk about love, politics, kids — I’m the only one with kids — and how it affects us. We’ve suffered, collectively and individually. So it’s our story of the last few years.”
This week, the band plays the Rickshaw Stop with Oakland’s The Younger Lovers and, while they stop short at calling it a hometown return, the venue is billing it as “The Return of Imperial Teen.” It means something, and Schwartz is excited to play some of the new songs alongside old favorites.
“We just want people to have a great time, dance, be moved, have fun and laugh,” he says.
When it’s done, the band has some overseas dates booked, and then they’ll likely go back to their regular lives — performing in a variety of other bands, being with the family and, in the case of Stebbins, managing her hair salon and enjoying her vintage trailer.
That is, until it’s time for Imperial Teen to rise from its slumber once more.
Imperial Teen, with The Younger Lovers,
Friday August 2, 8 p.m., Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., $15, rickshawstop.com.