It’s usually a good idea to be wary of anything connected with the word “supergroup” — even if it’s softened by the phrase “something of a.” That’s how Imperial Teen were first brought to public attention: Lynn Perko (now Truell) had drummed for the Dicks, Sister Double Happiness and the Wrecks, where she’d played with bassist Jone Stebbins. Roddy Bottum was the keyboardist of Faith No More. Only Will Schwartz, who wrote songs along with Bottum, played guitar and sang lead, wasn’t an alt-rock veteran.
Yet unlike most such configurations, Imperial Teen wasn’t merely a summation of its members’resumés. In many ways, the band was a new beginning. The songs on the quartet’s 1996 debut, Seasick, were deceptively light: sunny harmonies, simple tunes, playing that largely avoided heft. Sharp lyrics, too, like one from the debut’s “Balloon”: “Our subtext is our plot.” This sliver-in-the-bubblegum style has stayed consistent on Imperial Teen’s subsequent albums: 1999′s What Is Not to Love, 2002′s On (their debut for Merge — the first two were issued by a major label and are sadly out of print), and now the brand new The Hair, the TV, the Baby, and the Band. And since the global tally of smart, catchy pop songs is always boosted by the appearance of an Imperial Teen album, we started our chat with the group by asking why they haven’t appeared more often.
eMusic: Was there any specific reason it took five years for the new album?
Lynn Truell: Yes: the band was living in multiple places from 2002 to 2004 — Lynn in Chicago, Roddy in L.A., Jone and Will in SF. During that time, Lynn got married and had her first child, Roddy pursued his music-composing for TV and film, Will recorded and toured with his band Hey Willpower and Jone started her own business as a hair stylist.
We collectively thought that if we all ended up on the same coast again, we would start to write and record. In 2005 we were all on the same coast. So we began getting together every now and then at our studio in L.A. It took about 18 months to write the songs on The Hair, the TV, the Baby and the Band, as we were working around everyone’s schedules.
eMusic: Was there a point where the band looked like it might not continue? You guys seem to have a fairly loose-knit sort of working arrangement. Is that true?
Lynn Truell: We never discussed ending the band. It just never came up as that sort of thing. And yes, we are loosey-goosey in our working arrangement and that makes it easier on all of us. No one gets terribly annoyed if another is unable to make a commitment to something. We do our best to respect each other’s situation.
eMusic: I know Will has a second, more dance-oriented band called Hey Willpower. Is there a way you can tell that a song belongs in Imperial Teen, or should be saved for something else?
Will Schwarz: There are songs that just sound like Imperial Teen songs; songs that sound like Hey Willpower songs; and then in between ones that can work in either context. Often the in-between ones remain in-between. We tend to have a lot of song ideas on lots of cassette tapes in practice spaces and bedrooms. It just happens that if a song idea sticks, it’s used, otherwise we kind of let it go.
eMusic: Who came up with the title The Hair, the TV, the Baby, and the Band? I’m also curious how long the day and other gigs the title refers to have been going on, and what sorts of duties they entail.
Roddy Bottum: We always end up writing songs about ourselves, go figure. The title of the record is the fourth track on the album. It’s a song that I wrote the lyrics to and it’s more or less about us picking up and starting over, something we’ve done again and again. Jone cuts hair to make a living, it’s a full-time thing, I moved back to L.A. to do film and TV scores, and it’s what I spend most of my time doing. Lynn’s got her family, and that’s full-time. And Will has his band that he records and tours with full-time. Us getting together to write and record and play is like a holiday.
eMusic: Your MySpace page says, “We live in California. Two in the north, two in the south.” Who lives where, and what would it take for you all to live in the same city at this point?
Jone Stebbins: Roddy and Lynn live in LA, Jone and Will live in San Francisco. We would love to be in the same town — that would make things so much easier, but for the time being this is the way it is and we figure it out as we go.
eMusic: What’s the biggest perk of being on Merge?
Roddy Bottum: It’s a perk to work with people you respect. It’s not always the case, or hasn’t been for me, in the music industry. The Merge people are all really supportive, approachable and respectful of what we do. Perky, right?
eMusic: You guys vs. the Arcade Fire: who wins at karaoke? Bowling?
Jone Stebbins: Bowling, probably us. I bowl weekly in a league and have been in training for just this sort or challenge. Karaoke on the other hand . . . they have more people in the band, maybe that would be an advantage. I dunno — maybe we could get together and do “We Are the World” and unite the two bands for a karaoke supergroup.
eMusic: Obligatory question for Roddy: Which of Mike Patton’s many post-Faith No More projects do you like best? And are you still in touch with any of the band?
Roddy Bottum: I honestly haven’t heard any of Mike’s post-Faith No More projects. I saw a teensy bit of the band he’s doing now at this year’s Coachella. I talk to all the FNM guys still, sure; we went through so much together, I’d hate to have a burnt bridge in those regards.
eMusic: On the new album, “Shim Sham” and “Sweet Potato” have a feel reminiscent of songs like “Baby,” from 2002′s On. And “Room with a View” is in some ways similar to that of “Pig Latin,” from your first album, Seasick (1996). These songs don’t necessarily sound alike, but there is obviously a basic Imperial Teen sound that has remained more or less the same since the first album. I’m curious if you’ve ever wanted to really overhaul that Imperial Teen sound completely at any point, and if so, how you might go about it.
Will Schwartz: At certain points we’ve flirted with having a more orchestral sound, or incorporating electronic drums and experimenting with different keyboard sounds, etc. But we’ve found a sound together and it’s like an instinct now. Within that context we experiment with new sounds for us like piano, or lots of reverb, etc. I think a lot of our songs sound different actually from one to the other. It doesn’t really have that feeling of playing the same song over and over, so it still feels fresh for us.
eMusic: Finally, have any of you read Jon Savage’s new book Teenage? And do any of you have a favorite teenager in history?
Jone Stebbins: Haven’t read it yet. Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol in the Little Darlings era came to mind first. And Nancy Drew.