A tale of four princes who wanted to be queens…
Of all the trivia about Imperial Teen, whether seeped out into the press or still concealed among the quartet, one fact is paramount: they genuinely love each other.
Their contagious chemistry has helped them survive, perfectly intact, through the quarter century and change since their impulsive, optimistic genesis and whirlwind first week of recording, which yielded the classic debut Seasick, 25 years old as of today. Will Schwartz, Lynn Perko Truell, Jone Stebbins and Roddy Bottum have thus handily outlasted most of pop’s classic four-way streets, many of them key influences on their subverted-sunshine sound.
“It always goes back in Imperial Teen to how we’re like a family,” observes Jone, primarily the bassist in a group where switching instruments is a foundational concept. “[People ask], ‘oh, you’re still together?’ It’s like saying, ‘oh, you still have a brother?’” Roddy agrees: “Every pairing of us is so fun. I’m not saying the outcome of what happens musically or whatever, but I have such a good time with Will by himself. And same with Lynn, and same with Jone. I feel like everyone has their own relationship… We do work really well when we’re all together. But each different person among the four of us is such a good time.”
An hour into their first-ever collective Zoom – an absolute privilege to sit in on – the looseness and mutual affection that powers their beguiling music is beautifully palpable. “You’re going to start us talking,” Lynn says in the midst of a random tangent, “and you won’t know what the hell we’re talking about.” Listeners concerned that the Teens, who’ve been geographically separated for years, might drift apart during lockdown needn’t worry – they have a text thread they use “nearly every day”, Will asserts. Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald, a guiding hand on most of their records – occasionally along with that dog.’s Anna Waronker, his wife – recognized this uniquely intense camaraderie almost immediately, referring to them as a “chosen family” who’ve only grown closer over time: “it’s the difference between a band that holds auditions, and a band that hand-selects who you want to spend your time with.”
These exemplars of cooperation and durability practically started their project out of thin air – Roddy and Lynn from the slow crumbling of their former bands, Jone and Will jumping into the mix from virtual vacuums as opposed to established careers. Bottum’s difficulties around the time of metallic eclecticists Faith No More’s 1995 album King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime are the most thoroughly documented of each member’s pre-Teen activities. He was only a few years into coming out, still a relative rarity in rock at the time, and starting to get sober in the wake of his close friend Kurt Cobain’s scene-rattling suicide, as well as the death of his father. Bottum was in a bad way, something not lost on his bandmates. “It was the most horrible time of my life,” he later recalled. “I just holed up and had a nervous breakdown, basically. I realized I had to choose my priorities very carefully. Things like honesty and passion and art.”
AUDIO: Faith No More “Just A Man”
Meanwhile, drummer Lynn was growing restless in her dozen-year partnership with Gary Floyd, whom she still cites as a close friend, having collaborated first with seminal hardcore band the Dicks, and then (“we got tired of the scene, with all the skinheads coming in”) the bluesier Sister Double Happiness. But experiences with label-jumping and high-budget recording sessions had worn her out, and left the band “waning”; she describes a bourgeoning eagerness for change. Having known her San Francisco neighbor Roddy for a long time, they found themselves constantly hanging out, confiding their matching desires for a shift. They settled on one concept early on: the idea of playing instruments other than their prior trademarks, with Roddy tossing away his keyboardist hat, and Lynn stepping out from behind the skins.
Each of them instantly thought to rope a close friend into the plot. In addition to rooming with Lynn in San Fran, Jone Stebbins had played guitar in their raucous teenage punk group the Wrecks, one of the few all-female bands the genre boasted at the time. Though she’d kept more than a toe in the music world since, running fanzines, doing a stint at BYO Records, and various other promotion and publicity endeavors for nightclubs and labels, her main gig was as a stylist – “I didn’t think I would ever play in a band again.” But as Imperial Teen started to coagulate, she picked up a bass and started to practice.
Completing the lineup was Roddy’s friend Will, a onetime theatre kid (he’d shared a stage with Monica Lewinsky in a production of The Music Man) and alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music who’d been transplanted to the West Coast and come to rock late – he describes learning the guitar by listening to PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos over and over. He’d already made Roddy’s acquaintance (“I thought he was so cool”), but in the wake of a mutual friend’s untimely passing, they’d grown much closer. Through casual moments of self-expression at parties with instruments, Roddy had taken note of Will’s natural verve for performance and innate melodicism. “This kid,” he soon reported to Lynn, “he’s like a secret weapon.”
Talking to the band, memories of this time are difficult to tease out – things seemed to fall together in a kind of rapid blur, though they remember their famous rapport as instantaneous. (Will recalls “butting heads” with Jone, who I’d say has the most bite out of four incredibly sweet people, at their very first meeting, but the source of the friction is lost to time.) Proceedings were almost deliberately makeshift – at one of their first practices, they remember belatedly realizing they were short of certain key pieces of equipment, including mic stands. So the group “rigged up a system for holding microphones” on the fly. “We hung towels from the rafters,” Will explains, with a residual hint of nostalgic wonder in his voice.
“It was pretty uninhibited – like, ‘oh, that’s great, what did you just do?’ ‘uh, I think I did this’,” recalls Lynn, reminiscing about their dynamic. “Very organic in that fashion.” “Our goal was to push ourselves individually in ways we really hadn’t before,” offers Roddy. “It was all sort of new territory, jumping into a vulnerable space together and writing songs and feeling out what that would be.” Despite the relative inexperience in their respective (rotating) roles, no one seems to remember any real struggle getting the new conceit off the ground.
“It was really good, we just got together and really knew what we wanted to do,” Roddy recalls.
Members generally agree that their first show was a concert to publicize the launch of a magazine by their friend Kim Taylor, and was booked very early in the band’s timeline: “oh shit, we’d better write some songs,” is how Jone evokes their progress up to that point. “Nothing like a deadline”, Roddy adds.
Steve McDonald speculates that the from-the-ground-up approach was revitalizing for the Teens, and the key to their collective efficacy. “The fact that Roddy was coming out of Faith No More, which was a very tight band… as a keyboard player [he’s] very proficient, and as a guitar player he was pretty novice. But I think he really liked the idea of stripping it down, of being more primitive. In my opinion, it was a little bit of a ‘fuck you’ to Faith No More – ‘you guys, with your fucking ego’d-out, macho chops. Just because it’s hard to do doesn’t make it better. The value is in the song, or the relationship I have with these people, this environment we’re creating. That’s where the substance is, that’s what I care about – I just want to do something with my friends. I don’t care if someone is maybe a beautician first and a bassist second.’ It was more about fun and attitude, and they were also very serious about their songs.”
VIDEO: Imperial Teen on French TV March 10, 1996
The band’s fortunes escalated rapidly. In very short order, they’d been honored with the San Francisco Guardian’s Demo of the Week, for a cassette featuring “Butch”, “You’re One”, “Balloon”, and “Helpful”, all but the latter (an eventual B-side) destined for a place on their debut. This and their spirited live work secured the interest of Faith No More’s label Slash, divergence from the prior project notwithstanding. Their memories of the bountiful company support during these early days brings to mind Lou Adler’s “I can’t believe my eyes and ears” enthusiasm for the Mamas and the Papas, an expectation-defying West Coast group in whom Imperial Teen saw a rippling reflection. A mere six months after diving into their DIY whim, Imperial Teen now had a budget for their first album, and all four were ready to get Seasick.
Though he would prove a perfect fit, McDonald was actually third on the list of producer hopefuls, a list very much conceived in the spirit of the band’s ritual professional defiance. In love with the Breeders, Kelley Deal was their original choice. “Her legacy was just like [the] sister that Kim brought into the mix, who really didn’t play an instrument, but she just brought her in for the spirit of it,” Roddy elaborates. “Which isn’t exactly true, Kelley’s a great musician, but we thought it’d be really fun and novel to have [a producer] who’d never done it before, which was sort of our credo.” Another Breeder would thwart this plan: “we called up Kim and asked her if Kelley would maybe be interested. And she was like, ‘no, no, no – you mean Kim’.” After entertaining supermodel Naomi Campbell for the slot, in further pursuit of the non-producer ethic (“she’s brilliant,” Will clarifies), they roped in longtime mutual acquaintance Steve.
Though with his brother and bandmate Jeff, he’d produced an EP for Frightwig, another all-woman punk outfit for which Lynn had drummed, McDonald was coming from a comparable place of occupying a role to which he wasn’t totally accustomed. Yet he was an instant beneficiary of the quartet’s mutual magic. “They were kind of treating me like they were each other, just like, ‘yeah, yeah, you can do it!’ That kind of cheerleading atmosphere they had with each other.” He sees himself as having been a ballast for four musicians doing things they couldn’t less than a year before. “It was eye-opening for me – I’d been doing this for a while, and the goal was always, ‘how can we make this sound more professional? How can we get tight enough to break into the mainstream?’ I had my foot in some of the more practical concerns – just naturally, it’s who I am. So I was probably a decent person to straddle that line for them, regardless of whether or not I was very refined. I was at least there to stress out about it sounding slick enough.”
In addition to “vulnerability” and “really fun”, another term often semi-cryptically bandied about by the members when reliving their beginnings is “intensity”. “It was tense in some ways,” Jone reflects. “Highs and lows, emotions, tears…” The allusion seems to be to newbie instrumentalists still feeling a kind of fish-out-of-water element in the red light spotlight, particularly during Seasick’s hectic schedule, which lasted all of one week. They would steal short bursts of sleep between sessions – “it was just delirious and crazy.” But also, Jone repeats, “really fun”, with McDonald “surprisingly diplomatic and nurturing.” “There were moments I was like… huh. I don’t know if I would make that choice,” Steve recalls. “Now I listen to it, and it’s all so original. You learn what not to sweat.” Jone also praises his dance moves. “I can tell it’s getting close when suddenly I need to start dancing,” he laughs. “You start going, ‘ooh, yeah’.”
Apart from these rapid-fire sessions at San Francisco’s Brilliant Studios, the band recorded the fabulous opening one-two punch – slow-simmering theme song “Imperial Teen”, one of the last songs written for the album (following a late-stage name change from Star 69), and Will’s ravenous “Water Boy” – at the Mouse House in Pasadena, initially of a mind to put them out as a standalone single. By this time, a fond and buzzy air of anticipation was starting to crackle around the record’s impending release. Slash head Bob Biggs dropped in on the session, as did onetime Grass Root and longtime manager Warren Entner, who offered an enthusiastic assessment: “I don’t want to manage the band, I want to be in the band!”
The group retrospectively overstates the “pop”ness of the final product, while multiple members allow that it has a spareness they really enjoy. In lieu of the keyboards Roddy would formerly fill spaces with – which are barely perceptible on Seasick if they’re there at all – the music’s laid-back yet raw intensity is furnished, and ultimately most poppified, by fantastic bursts of collective vocalizing. “We all wanted a piece of the vocal action,” remembers Lynn. The central sound throughout is Schwartz’s lone larynx; he bookends Roddy’s sweeter, more self-effacing murmur of a singing voice with an incendiary intensity. “What I found good about [my favorite singers] was there was a lot of breath and emotion in it,” he told Chelsea Peretti for Talkhouse, citing Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and – wait for it – Kim Deal.
The band is as mysterious about their collective writing process as Becker and Fagen – though everyone but Roddy remembers him bringing in “You’re One” and “Butch”, which stirringly and inventively mine the personal tribulation from which Imperial Teen provided Bottum an escape, no one member ventures to claim individual credit for a lyric or a piece of music. But the songs’ back-to-basics construction and effortless melodicism do bear the vague traces of four freshly self-taught performers carefully piecing things together from what they found they could do, “in the moment” as Jone tells it, and being unable to suppress the joy they brought out in one another. The words, meanwhile, are a barely penetrable torrent of wonderful aphorisms, their relative cynicism seamlessly woven into the music’s sunshine: “I don’t wanna go to a be-in with you”; “good boy gone sour”; “I licked the lack of luxury”; “we can’t even mess up right.” Though there, too, are sudden beams of pure sugar: “you like strawberries/I like you!”
There’s also “I’m a fan of Liberace too”, right there in the opening number, and in “You’re One”, which earned a couple of the members their first taste of radio airplay, the deathless “you kiss me like a man, boy”, from a band whose straight members, the women, didn’t yet sing lead. While the group makes little of their demographic makeup (though Roddy concedes the environment as “more nurturing” than that of his previous group) a clear shot of queer was more adventurous than not coming from a catchy major-label band in the late ‘90s. This was a recurring element in the waves of ecstatic press Seasick earned when its almost parodically bright colors and uneasily smirking dolphin were finally unleashed. SPIN ranked it the #4 album of 1996; Pazz & Jop #24. A still-unbroken record of critical ardor had begun.
Fresh off a listen to the album – tragically unavailable for streaming, Steve offers this assessment: “in the wake of the great grunge breakthrough, ’95 to ’96 was a time of uninspired third generation groups appropriating underground sounds and themes, overly polishing and refining them for the masses. [But] Seasick was a beautiful stripping it back to the basics. Early, West Coast punk, coed Velvet Underground-ish harmony with a sprinkling of Cobain-isms were the musical attributes I was connecting with. Every song has the right amount of savory and sweet, acid and fat, always balanced – never too much or not enough. A perfect stew.” The Imperial four are similarly proud of it today, though only one has recently replayed it. Either way, their impressions are inextricable from the communal joy of putting it together, as well as incidental environmental things, like the Mouse House pool they happily used while working.
The only time in their career they recall their lyrical darkness creeping into the music was in the wake of the follow-up, What is Not to Love – which, while bejeweled with the irresistible “Yoo Hoo”, does evince a harder, more downbeat edge, the result of “pre-millennium tension”, as Will speculates. But shortly thereafter, most of the band left San Francisco, whose vibe had caved some from the impact of burst Silicon Valley bubbles. Rather than fragmenting them, the band sees this as the true catalyst for their alliance’s endurance. “It was really a sort of pointed thing for us to make an effort to bring everyone together, and get the songs into place and make a record,” says Roddy. “We really had to focus on what we loved about each other, ourselves and our sound, and it turned into a whole different band.” Jone agrees: “When we moved apart, it was these precious moments that we could get together – but also intense, like ‘we’ve gotta get these songs now, because we’re only here for this weekend.’” A Seasick-style sweetness soon resurfaced in their sound. “That’s where our happier place was,” muses Lynn.
VIDEO: Imperial Teen “You’re One”
THREE TIDBITS FROM THE SEASICK TOUR:
Before a gig with the Lemonheads in Canada, they found out they couldn’t bring their merchandise through customs. So to compensate for the losses, “after the show, we set up a kissing booth, and charged people to kiss the band.” (“That’s genius,” Roddy spontaneously emits as he recalls this tidbit.) Jone: “We made a little bit of money, but we really raked it in when Evan Dando sat in and did it.”
They did a three-date stretch supporting the Go-Go’s – “just, like, big shows.” “We kind of knew a couple of people in the Go-Gos,” says Roddy, “but not [all of them], and we certainly did not know Belinda. But she was the prize – she was the trophy Go-Go to meet. And on our last night, before our final performance with them, Will was making some coffee or something, and [Belinda] walked over to the table. And Will goes, ‘oh! Hi!’ – kinda nervous because he hadn’t met her yet – ‘I just want to say, hey! I’m Will!’ And she goes, ‘are you here to do my hair?’” Jone: “to her credit, she was mortified.”
In Boston or Philadelphia, they actually had the plug pulled on their set. “We were playing ‘Waterboy’ – they wanted us off so the headliner could go on – and Lynn just kept playing ‘Waterboy’, and the whole crowd was going with us, ‘bow down baby, bow down baby baby…’” Will: “They went crazy. It was so cool.” They can’t remember the headliner, but they know that Vanilla Ice was playing downstairs. Jone: “And in between songs, it got really quiet, and we could just hear dun-dun-dun-dugga-dun-dun…”
AUDIO: Imperial Teen Seasick (full album)