Imperial Teen formed in San Francisco in 1995, and it's been dodging fame like a bullet ever since.
Or so you have to figure: After all, the band -- composed of Roddy Bottum, Lynne Perko, Jone Stebbins, and Will Schwartz, multi-instrumentalists all -- signed a major-label record deal about, oh, 10 minutes after playing its first gig, which it booked about 5 minutes after it hypothetically determined that, since the members liked playing instruments together, they might as well consider themselves, you know, a band. A slick single on the Jawbreaker soundtrack aided what should have been a mad dash to worldwide pop-rock preeminence. There was also Bottum's semi-notoriety as the erstwhile keyboardist for alterna-rock radio faves Faith No More, not to mention lovestruck magazine profiles and strong reviews of their 1996 debut album (Seasick) that read like mash notes. But Imperial Teen nevertheless managed to slink right back under the radar.
Sure, sure, the usual culprits can reasonably be blamed for the band's journey to nowhere. There was major-label conglomeration. There was a dot-com bubble that created a cultural climate more attuned to post-pubescent bubblegum than Imperial Teen's stuff -- which popped, fizzed, and kicked back like a mutha if you bothered to listen to the lyrics or tune into the Pixiesish guitar hooks stabbing beneath the band members' heavenly harmonies. After all, the similarly photogenic and meditatively frothy Cardigans were cast aside by the same currents.
All of that would be explanation enough, were it not for the fact that the Teens are up to their old tricks yet again: Reemerging on indie stalwart Merge (home to Superchunk, Magnetic Fields, and the Imperial Teens' fellow major-label exiles, Spoon), they've clocked time since the release of their third album, On, opening for the Breeders and -- incongruously -- Pink, giving some credence to the idea that a rising tide for attitudinal rock posturing really will lift all boats. Seriously: Pink. So why is Avril Lavigne on every friggin' magazine cover right now, and not Imperial Teen?
"Look . . . hey! It's not like we're trying to avoid 'success,' I mean, please," insists Stebbins. Frankly, she sounds a little defensive. Although, come to think of it, that could just be the static from her cell phone talking, or the roar of traffic echoing from her end of the line, as Imperial Teen hits the road for its current headlining tour.
Stebbins may have continued arguing her point, but her phone cut out entirely.
"Sorry sorry sorry, we are literally driving out of San Francisco right now, and the signals here are always jammed," she explains after the interruption. She sighs with pleasure. "This is always my favorite part of touring," she continues; "right at the start, the van's clean, and everyone smells good, we're all happy to see each other . . . It's just like embarking on this exciting road trip with three of your best friends."
Friendship is a big theme for Stebbins. It recurs as she talks about those opening slots for the Breeders ("We've been friends for a long time, so it was totally great to play with them when they finally got back into it"), On's shimmering production by "buddies" Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) and Anna Waronker (late of That Dog), the band's lovey-dovey relationship with its new label -- and especially when she waxes about Imperial Teen itself.
"This was a really great album to work on," Stebbins says, "because Will and Roddy both moved to L.A. a while ago, Lynne got married, and the only opportunity we really had to hang out was when we'd get together and play -- it was so joyful, kind of like when we first started jamming, just for fun."
Stebbins's description of the band's jovial writing and recording sessions makes sense, inasmuch as On is Imperial Teen's most buoyant album yet. Those darkening guitars are hidden a little deeper in the mix, with added groovalicious keyboard licks filling in the breach. Be forewarned: Tracks like "Sugar" and "Mr. & Mrs." may induce shagging. (The dance, not the thing you do on a floppy carpet, perv.) And though the lyrics are still a mite tart, in between the handclaps and airy doo-doo-doos, the sting is more than mollified by the narcotic catchiness of the band's sterling melodies.
Which brings back that initial question: Why isn't Imperial Teen famous? Did they have to put the most sublime pop record of the year and the finest of their career out in the midst of a garage rock revival, when the national mood is more in tune with the musical equivalent of a Valium overdose than a cocktail of delight?
"We're just going along for the ride," Stebbins notes placidly. "We love each other, we love playing together, we love playing shows, and we love the music; as long as all that's working, y'know, we'll keep at it, no matter what happens."
Which, paraphrased, translates to "We're in it for the love," that old chestnut of dogged rock bands striving for stadium-sized fame. So maybe Imperial Teen isn't chasing away success with a stick so much as approaching it with a sneak attack worthy of one of its melody's dives on your serotonin receptors. Now's the time, then, to join them On the come-up.
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