ALL EARS Imperial Teen was just being “a little bit cheeky” with the title of its sixth studio album, Now We Are Timeless, according to singer-guitarist Roddy Bottum. Some might say very cheeky, after seeing the album’s cover on which these words are very calculatedly placed over a photograph of a melting iceberg.
“Like, it’s practically as obvious that the band being ‘timeless’ or the music we make being ‘timeless’ is as absurd as the notion of icebergs being ‘timeless,’” Bottum told 48 Hills. “We meant to address the world, global warming, our involvement in the grander scheme of totality, music, and artwork, and the temporary nature of our interaction, and the concept of ADD. Mostly we were speaking of the importance and magnitude of artistic output and the weight that we put on that.”
There’s actually a hyper-awareness of the lack of time they have to devote to the band, on every occasion the indie-pop quartet—formed by Bottum (Faith No More), singer-guitarist Will Schwartz (Hey Willpower), bassist and backing vocalist Jone Stebbins, and drummer and backing vocalist Lynn Truell in San Francisco in the mid-1990s—records together, now that all the members live in different cities across the country and have varying outside commitments.
Time’s fleeting nature is a theme that ties many of the album’s catchy songs together, whether linked to the acceleration of global warming (“Timeless”) or the impermanence of relationships (“I Think That’s Everything,” “Parade,” “The Girl”).
The band bangs its point home in its new video for its mid-tempo electro-driven track, “Don’t Wanna Let You Go,” which follows New York-based artist and drag queen legend Tabboo! as he makes himself up in his East Village apartment before heading out to deliver impromptu dance performances in public spaces around town.
Tabboo! is probably most famous for designing the hand-drawn fonts exhibited on the original Wigstock banner in the mid-’80s, not to mention Deee-lite’s World Clique album cover in 1990. But he and fringe artists like him have become increasingly forgotten over the last three decades as queer culture has become more mainstream, and gentrifying and progressively less affordable metropolises like New York City—and San Francisco—have exiled its artists.
The video seems to make the case that queer heroes like Taboo!, who continue to create art, shouldn’t be lost to time.
I spoke to all four members of Imperial Teen, who return to San Francisco this week (Fri/2 at the Rickshaw Stop) about the new album, their “timeless” tracks, and the difficulties involved in making the band work almost a quarter-century later.
48 HILLS In “Don’t Wanna Let You Go” you celebrate Taboo!’s place in queer history. What, in your opinion, is Imperial Teen’s place in queer history?
RODDY BOTTUM We put our first record out in a time when being queer in a band felt kind of badass and revolutionary. It was really inspiring to create and to write with that judgmental aura breathing down our backs, so to speak. It put us in a bind as a band in a way that we felt the need to define ourselves and put a credo of sorts into the world in the way that a full non-queer band would never have to do.
So we had a role in queer history, for sure. We felt a need to write our history and live it and make declarations in a political way. That doesn’t seem as important for young queer kids these days. To be at the forefront of that movement was remarkable.
48 HILLS The song “Walkaway” is about the distance from others that many of us feel in our hyperconnected world, and I know you recorded the album in the cities each of the members lives in. Can you talk about the recording of this album and how you manage to maintain the connections with each other and make the band work when you’re so far apart?
RODDY BOTTUM It’s an easier time to be able to get over geographical barriers. It’s a lot easier to share music and create things together while being apart. That said, we didn’t do a whole lot of that. We mostly got together two at a time, sometimes all of us, writing and working in fits and starts and putting songs together until we had a full album worth of material.
Getting ready for our live shows is really difficult. We usually have to fly to Denver because Lynn has a big family there and it’s just easier for us all to convene there and do what we do. I’m in NYC, Jone is in the Bay Area, and Will is in LA. It actually couldn’t be more tedious. The fact that we’re able to make it work is a testament to how much we love what we do.
48 HILLS About the track “We Do What We Do Best,” the band said, “the individuality of our collective voice is all that we have and it’s what we do.” Can you elaborate on this?
RODDY BOTTUM We do a really specific thing together. I don’t know bands that work as we do. Our friendship kind of motivates our output and is a direct channel to the writing that we do. It’s unique and a thing that only we can do. That’s the thing that we do and we do it to the best of our ability. That’s what the song kind of gets at. The fact that the title is cheeky and outrageously stating that we do what we do best makes us laugh collectively.
48 HILLS How have you changed from the band we see in your 1996 debut video, “You’re One”?
JONE STEBBINS I think the biggest change is that I’m 20 years older than that person in the video! Really though, I feel pretty much exactly the same!
LYNN TRUELL That was our first video and the first single of our first record ever! It was an exciting time… at that time, we did not know the story we would be writing, the conversations that would occur around our lyrics, and the fact that we would unconsciously continue to write melodic pop songs with deeper and sometimes darker meanings than what at first was realized. It was our attempt at what we all wanted to be in a band, switching instruments and all singing and writing stories about life and experiences. And then it became our sound.
Over the years, we have challenged ourselves in breaking out of our comfort zone with new approaches to songwriting and adding more digital and diverse audio sensations.
48 HILLS How do you explain the enduring success of your 1998 single “Yoohoo”? Did you have any idea that that song would live on the way it has?
JONE STEBBINS When we first were coming up with “Yoohoo,” I knew it was going to be a favorite! It’s quirky and strange and a little haunting…Of course, being used in the movie Jawbreaker added to its enduring success. That hallway strut scene ended up being iconic in an underground way.
48 HILLS What is your life like today outside of Imperial Teen? What are you up to when the band’s not recording or touring?
JONE STEBBINS I live and work in the Bay Area. I own a boutique hair salon. I’m out with my Muttville rescue dogs all over the Bay Area. I also camp as much as possible with my little vintage 1954 trailer.
LYNN TRUELL I have a family of five, plus two dogs here in Denver. I am managing two teens and an autistic son that requires a lot of one on one. I play some DJ parties as a drummer, have accompanied a dance project, have done some session work, and am thinking of starting a drum troupe.
48 HILLS Jone, is it still possible to make it as an artist in San Francisco?
JONE STEBBINS I still live here. The socio-economic thing is very real in the Bay Area. It’s always possible to be an artist, but it’s a lot harder than ever to maintain.
I moved to San Francisco in 1987 and was working a minimum wage job, paying $125 a month rent for a room in a big house. Obviously, it was a lot easier back then than it is now. It’s sad that housing, studio, and creative spaces are so astronomically priced now.
48 HILLS How do you keep the queer value of resistance alive as gay has become more mainstream?
WILL SCHWARTZ I think our value of queerness is kind of intrinsic in the band, and we don’t really have to try or make a disingenuous effort with it. We don’t look at it like, “Oh, gay is so in right now.” We just do what we do and hope it resonates with a wide swath of people.
48 HILLS What’s it like coming back to SF to play a show?
WILL SCHWARTZ We haven’t played overall for years until just this past weekend. But coming back to SF, where several of “our people” and family and friends still live, will certainly be special.
48 HILLS What’s coming up next for Imperial Teen?
WILL SCHWARTZ We have a few more shows booked here in the US. We intend to book some shows on the East Coast, and are hoping to make a short trek to the UK and possibly other parts of Europe.
Although we are all close as friends, we also have separate lives and commitments to other projects and people. However, we really do love our time together and the experiences we have doing all things Imperial Teen. With this new record out, we are focused on planning and hanging around each other and playing these songs live as much as we can. We love being Imperial Teen.
WITH THE YOUNGER LOVERS & DJ AARON AXELSEN
Fri/2, 8pm, $15-$18
Rickshaw Stop, SF
More info here.