Since their 1996 debut release, Seasick, Imperial Teen has been flirting seriously with pop stardom. Flirting, but playing hard to get, or maybe just not getting the breaks the critics always believed they deserved. Being a critic's darling seldom translates into commercial success, but then again, Imperial Teen didn't ever seem too terribly worried about it.
What set band members Roddy Bottum (formerly of Faith No More), Jone Stebbins, Will Schwartz and Lynn Perko apart from the beginning was a tenacious and communal way of making music together. Like Australia's The Go Betweens, Scotland's Belle and Sebastian and Olympia's Beat Happening, trading song-writing duties and frequently switching instruments was all part of the charm and fun of being just outside any tidy categories into which the record industry might have been ready to stuff them.
Despite their lack of any one marketable front man, their odd new-wave-guitar-pop sound, and lyrics that often deal obliquely with queer issues, Imperial Teen managed to land a major-label record deal with London/Universal less than a year after they formed.
While Seasick and its follow-up, What Is Not to Love (1999), were both well received, both suffered relatively weak sales. Nevertheless, their single "Yoo-Hoo" was chosen for the soundtrack to the 1999 film Jawbreaker and the band made a video with the movie's starlet Rose McGowan that again seemed to place them precariously close the edge of fame.
And again, fate, or perhaps an intelligently cautious reluctance, stepped in to keep the San Franciscobased group from the scorch of the limelight. Universal put almost nothing into the promotion of What Is Not to Love, and soon after dropped Imperial Teen from their roster.
To the band, however, the label difficulties were a largely irrelevant speed bump. "To even admit that big-business record company bullshit would get in our way gives it way too much weight and profundity," said Bottum. "It's just a stupid company. And that's the last thing I think would ever get in the way of an artistic endeavor -- big money. So we just kind of ignored it. And we looked at leaving our big corporate label as a freeing thing.
Not long after their label difficulties, Bottum and Schwartz relocated to LA, leaving Stebbins and Perko in the Bay Area. Now, without a label, and separated geographically from one another, it would have seemed natural, if not logical, for Imperial Teen to simply part ways. But in typical Teen fashion, the band kept the long-distance love affair alive, commuting for practices and shows.
"The geographical obstacle never seemed like that big of a deal," Bottum said. "If it's meant to be, what's a couple miles? We didn't want to break up, and we didn't."
And their devotion to one another is slowly beginning to pay off. Recently picked up by Merge Records, an artist-run independent label out of North Carolina, they released their third album, On, this past April.
As close to a perfect album as it gets, On blends pop hooks with lyrics that teeter back and forth between the sexy allure of couched suggestions and the always guilty pleasure of witty words in a private conversation you'll never fully get.
Imperial Teen, with Hole's drummer Patty Schemel sitting in for Lynn Perko (on hiatus in Chicago to get married), will be stopping in Colorado Springs at 32 Bleu on Friday night to play with Against Tomorrow's Sky before they head to Denver to headline the Bluebird on Saturday.
-- Noel Black