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Off and On
Imperial Teen were famous and then they weren't. They're back again, with a new album and an indie label.

By Jimmy Draper

'WE WERE THE Strokes of '96!" cracks Will Schwartz, laughing in his Los Angeles home as a 99 Joni Mitchell tape, slowing and slurring on the stereo across the room, interrupts the conversation with an undulating warble that's excessive even for Mitchell. He gets up and ejects the warped bargain-bin find, then continues the conversation in a surprisingly serious tone. "But yeah, all the press did seem weird. Absolutely. I really was insecure about it, too, wondering if anyone would hear about us again. I'm neurotic and insecure about stuff like that."

It's a month before the release of Imperial Teen's excellent third album, On, and discussion has inevitably turned to the overwhelming hype that was heaped on the California coeds before they ever released a single song. That's a heavy burden for any new band to bear, of course, and in a gang of four distinctly strong personalities, the members have a variety of takes on all the attention. From Schwartz's uneasiness and Jone Stebbins's shrugged-shoulder response to Roddy Bottum and Lynn Perko's pressure-free appreciation ("It was great, like, 'Wow! We're in that magazine!' " Perko says), the only consensus within the group is that the hubbub was something that none of them expected.

"It's just a weird thing when it happens to you, 'cause you can't control it," Stebbins says. "We were just playing together because we liked each other and we wanted to get together to have some fun, and then all [the press] just sorta snowballed. I didn't really feel like we were the Next Big Thing or anything, though." She pauses, then laughs. " 'Cause if we were the Next Big Thing, then that's just kinda sad 'cause we definitely didn't become a big thing."

Just for fun

Formed in San Francisco circa summer '94, Imperial Teen began as a few friends out for fun. "[Bottum and I] were just hanging out, and we were like, 'Let's start a band, what the hell?' " says Perko, who played in Sister Double Happiness at the time. Bottum played keys in his own Bay Area band, Faith No More, and both wanted a new project to liven and lighten things up. "We weren't trying to get anywhere with it or even put a single out. It was just something to see what happens 'cause we liked to play music."

To fill out the lineup, Perko recruited Stebbins, her longtime friend and ex-Wrecks bandmate, and Bottum enlisted Schwartz, an art student who'd recently relocated from L.A. The four found a practice space and started cobbling a sound together out of whatever instruments, ideas, and musical know-how each had. "We had no guitar straps – we used towels with holes – and we had no mic stands, so we swung the mics over the rafters so that they'd hang above us," Schwartz laughs, describing the band's early, truly DIY practices. "So we had towels as guitar straps, and we were singing with our heads cocked up to the ceiling!"

Exhilarated by the creative, anything-goes energy and camaraderie that emerged, they went from being "a fuck band," as Perko puts it, to being a fuck band with a foreseeable future. When friend Kim Taylor asked the band to perform at her independent press benefit in August, they saw it as a way to jump-start the songwriting process. With no songs, no name, and only a handful of practices under their belts, they agreed to play the Kennel Club show, scheduled for just five weeks later. "Once we committed to the show, we were like, 'Wow, we gotta get our shit together, this is real,' " Perko says.

"We just set ourselves up for a challenge," Bottum agrees. "And when we went in there, we were all doing different and new things that we'd never done before. So we just jumped in. We were nervous. It felt really good. It was very cathartic."

An exhilarating mix of new wave, punk, and pop, the band – dubbed Star 69 at the time – blended insta-infectious her-him harmonies and fuzz-box bravado into deceptively simple sing-along songs that belied heavy, heady lyrics about sex, drug addictions, and desire. And by gleefully shuffling around and swapping instruments through their sets, the band, despite their occasional technical shortcomings, quickly earned a buzz around town. "People came to our shows for a good time, a good feeling, and emotional depth – certainly not musical proficiency," Bottum says. And in the brooding, bleak post-grunge era, that sense of abandon was a breath of fresh, fun-filled air.

Hype and hope

"They were so refreshing," Neva Chonin, a music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and a contributor to Rolling Stone, recalls of the first time she heard the band, in '94. "That year there were dead people everywhere, and every band was trying to sound like Pearl Jam. And then here came this great pop band that was so smart and so subversive at the same time. They were the perfect sound for what we needed."

Shortly after that sold-out Kennel Club show and a few subsequent Star 69 performances – including a gig opening for Hole at the Fillmore – Chonin gave the band their first press, reviewing their teal-sealed demo tape in the Bay Guardian's Demo Tape o' the Week column. "When I heard their tape, I said, 'It's gonna be a matter of about 30 seconds before someone snaps this band up,' " Chonin continues. "And in fact, it was about 30 seconds. They got signed really fast."

It helped, of course, that Bottum was already bound to a major-label contract through Faith No More. "Technically Slash had first dibs," he says. "But at that time the label was pretty cool people, so we were like, 'Well, let's try this.' We played 'em some songs that we recorded at practice, and the office really liked 'em."

During the "alternative" explosion of the early to mid '90s, of course, it would've been a no-brainer to sign the band. Riding high on the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, industry suits still believed that independent rock and pop were highly marketable. As a result, previously under-the-radar acts like the Breeders, Belly, and Veruca Salt were being signed with a ferocity that often resulted in bidding wars and contract buyouts. "[Nirvana] opened up a lot of doors for really interesting music [to get on a major]," says Anna Waronker, who coproduced On with husband Steve McDonald (ex-Redd Kross) and was signed to Geffen with her band That Dog at the time. "It was just a given during that time period that we'd all be signed to majors 'cause that was the music trend."

"The contract was sorta by default – it was just sorta what was in front of us," Bottum explains. "We never had aspirations of being a huge major-label superstar act. [Slash] was having a lot of success with the Kids soundtrack, and the Folk Implosion song ['Natural One'] was on the radio, and I remember all of us thinking, 'Wow! That's pretty neat! I guess these people know what they're doing.' So [commercial success] seemed like something viable 'cause that was a weird thing to become popular. So in some regards it felt like we might be in the right place on Slash."

Six months after forming, the band – newly named Imperial Teen owing to legal threats from another band dubbed Star 69 – entered the studio to record their debut full-length, Seasick. The album hit the streets in mid '96 amid high hopes and expectations, and the band immediately landed in every industry outlet from Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly to MTV and Billboard. Despite critical praise and a few minor hits ("You're One," "Butch"), however, Imperial Teen didn't catch on as predicted.

"We were sorta known and got written about a lot, but I don't know if people actually got to hear it as much as it seemed," Schwartz says. "I remember people saying, 'You guys must've sold a shitload of records!' 'Cause we were being written about a lot. But that just wasn't the case."

"They were on the downward side of the curve of 'alternative' music's popularity," says Miami Herald pop music critic Evelyn McDonnell, who has championed the band since reviewing Seasick in Rolling Stone. "And so, unfortunately, they didn't really benefit from the post-Nirvana trickle-down. They sounded like Nirvana in some ways, but not in the ways that made Nirvana popular."

Slash and burn

Unfortunately, that downward trajectory continued, and by the time Imperial Teen began recording their follow-up – the more densely layered and dark What Is Not to Love – the industry had shifted even further away from the "alternative"-friendly climate that had helped the band get signed. By 1998 labels were dissolving, shifting, and merging at an astounding pace; Slash signed a parenting agreement with London Records.

Initially scheduled for a September 1998 release, What Is Not to Love didn't come out until the following February, owing to the new Slash/London contract – yet the decision to postpone was made so late that publicity had already begun. "The dust was settling, or cracks were starting – I don't know which way to go with it – but they didn't have it together ... it was horrible!" Perko says. "We were getting several major reviews in Details and similar magazines, and [the label] even had posters that had the wrong date on 'em 'cause they were so sure it'd come out in September. But it got delayed until February! It was like being in labor for six months."

Worse yet, due to the label's severing its distribution contract, What Is Not to Love was practically MIA in stores even after its early-'99 release. So even though its first single, "Yoo Hoo" (complete with a video starring Jawbreaker's Rose McGowan), was being played on the country's five largest radio stations, finding the record often proved nearly impossible. A further disappointment was that What Is Not to Love had no release overseas, promotion seemed minimal at best, and as Bottum puts it, the label "just weren't that interested."

"The record had just come out, and our manager was saying, 'I know this is crazy, but we have to get off this label!' There was this moment of panic, total alarmism," Schwartz says. "But we were just like, 'Well, what are we gonna do?' "

"Even though some of these people were 'friends' of ours or [people] that we felt were up front, you never really know what's really going on at a label," Perko adds, describing the mounting frustrations the band had with the logistics of being on Slash/London. "We started finding things out more on a street level, though, like what wasn't happening. Several fans would come up and say they couldn't find our record at such and such record store, or like, 'Yeah, I called your label and wanted to feature you on my radio show, but the label never got back to me.' "

"Over the course of time we all developed reservations about the label, like, 'Jesus Christ! Who are these people? What is going on?' " Bottum says. "But it was just a time of confusion more than anything."

The band agreed to open for Hole and Marilyn Manson that spring, but the tour fell apart before Imperial Teen joined. After a subsequent national tour with Hole, they were released from their Slash/London contract in 2000, before the label was consumed by Universal/Seagram's. "Really, it was a relief [to get dropped]," Bottum says. "The whole sorta major-label thing and the disgruntlement that we felt wasn't really a crippling situation. We've always just done what we've done. And though it was a headache as far as the logistics of putting out a record went, it never stopped us from doing what we were doing."

Even so, the experience took its toll. "I've been so disappointed and downtrodden, without hope, in the music industry," Perko says. "I can't trust anything that goes on out there in that world, and I don't depend on anything or anyone. And I don't believe anything until it happens. And I don't believe I'm gonna have anything until it's in my hand, literally. Perfect example: We were played on every major radio station in the country. That seems pretty good! But what happened? Not much! But for a couple weeks we were somebody."

Moving on

Shortly after their release from Slash/London, Bottum and Schwartz, frustrated with San Francisco's gentrification and lured by film work (scoring and starring, respectively), returned to L.A.; Perko and Stebbins remained in San Francisco. The fellas' move by no means indicated an end to the band, but Schwartz says it allowed distance from the major-label experience. "It was like, 'Whoa! That was intense. So let's maybe explore other parts of ourselves.' But it wasn't like, 'Fuck this!' We just needed to get away from the storm, to cocoon a little bit."

Later that year, reinvigorated by their newfound contractual freedom, the four reconvened in San Francisco and started writing their most upbeat, (p)optimistic songs to date – music that would eventually become their third full-length. Recorded in stop 'n' start intervals at Waronker and McDonald's L.A. home studios throughout the summer of 2001, On is a sonic and stylistic departure from the band's previous material, with subtler, more keyboard-driven and complex arrangements that may take even longtime fans a little while to adjust to. Still, from the reworked, hip-whipping whirl of "Ivanka" to the relentlessly hummable "Undone," the band haven't sounded so uninhibited and happy since Seasick. It is, as Schwartz describes the album, the sound of "people enjoying making music."

"The fact that these songs sound a little bit more 'up' is a little bit of a reflection [of leaving Slash/London]. It's just like a release," Stebbins says. "It was just a feeling of being an indentured servant before, and now we can steer however we wanna go."

Perko agrees. "I personally feel so much more open and wide-eyed and kind of like, 'Let's not stop at anything.' And I think all of us are at that space. We stopped worrying, stopped regretting, and just let it happen."

Still without a record contract, however, the band sent a five-song tape to potential labels ("Majors were out of the question") and eventually secured a deal with Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Merge Records – a major-to-indie move that's becoming increasingly common in today's cutthroat corporate climate. (Spoon and Seaweed have made similar jumps to Merge, which – like New York's Matador Records and Sub Pop in Seattle – has developed a reputation as one of independent music's most prestigious labels in its decade-plus existence.)

"Things have been so crazy in the music industry that a lot of bands that once had labels – especially major labels – don't have labels anymore," Merge co-owner and Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan says. "And so, independent labels like us have been the beneficiaries of a rotten situation for those bands, and I feel like we lucked into a situation of being able to put out [a record by] a band who's made a really amazing album."

"The decision-making process of going to an indie label to do our own thing and make ourselves happy, it was a real conscious one," Bottum says. "Doing things by ourselves, it feels good right now. There's a lot of subtle ego in the band, and we sorta realized that we do what we do by ourselves best. Anyone who's ever done anything for us has fucked it up, quite honestly."

Working for a living

It's a move that many feel will ultimately be beneficial for Imperial Teen. "I didn't think, 'Oh, they're gonna be the next Nirvana.' But I did think they deserved a lot bigger audience than they got [on Slash/London]," says the Bay Guardian's Johnny Ray Huston, a friend and critic of the band. "It seemed to me that being on a major label slowed things down for them."

"They would've thrived better on an indie all along," the Miami Herald's McDonnell agrees. "In these days of increasingly mega-owned radio chains, I don't think that there's any place for a band like Imperial Teen, sadly."

Not to say that there were no perks to being on a major. "The good thing [about Slash/London] is that they came out of it with a solid fan base," Waronker says emphatically. "They're this great band with the potential to be huge. And if they're not, they have the potential to be this huge cult band that people will have gravitated to."

Which is just fine by Imperial Teen, Bottum says. "Hopes were sorta pushed on us by a bigger label last time around. And I think that for a split second there, we were all gullible enough to think, 'We'll get on MTV and do that, yeah, I guess so!' But then we got a little taste of it, playing some modern rock radio shows and things like that, and it's not anywhere we wanna be."

So while the band may not be wooing mass audiences anymore – though that may change: the band just got offered the opening slot on Pink's upcoming national tour – and goals were sort of reevaluated, they still have a lot riding on On.

"Simple mathematics: a band like us can make a living if we're on a smaller label. On a major label it's all this fantasy money you're dealing with, with promises of big returns," Bottum says. "It would be nice if, when we go on tour, we could support ourselves and pay our own rent."

"We're probably in a position where we have more of an opportunity to make a living off of it," Schwartz says. "Which would be great 'cause what we wanna do is make music – not catering jobs and haircuts."

"We just all wanna do our thing together and do it on our own terms," Bottum says. "We just wanna share our music with people who've liked us before and hope to hear from us now." Imperial Teen play Tues/9, 6 p.m., Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, S.F. Free. (415) 831-1200; Sat/13, 9 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. $12. (415) 885-0750.