Roddy Bottum used to play keyboards in a popular San Francisco band called Faith No More. Lynn Perko used to play drums in a popular San Francisco band called Sister Double Happiness. And, sitting in a Lower Haight coffee shop, both get cranky when those facts are brought up in relation to their latest outfit, a popular San Francisco band called Imperial Teen. They're music veterans, pros, and as such they've mastered the art of the Pat Answer to questions. Exhuming the past, to their minds, isn't playing fair.
"I feel sort of insulted whenever it's brought up," says Bottum, leaning back with a don't push it look on his face. "I mean, I understand why it's brought up, our other bands, but it's just so irrelevant."
So, then, history is irrelevant -- says Bottum, anyway. But it wasn't so long ago that history was the only thing interesting about Imperial Teen. Formed here four years ago as Star 69 when Perko pulled in her roommate Jone Stebbins (formerly of the Reno-based Wrecks) and Bottum recruited a friend from Los Angeles, Will Schwartz, the band was conceived as an upbeat pop outfit where everybody would switch off on instruments and try to do things differently. "We didn't set out to create a faux-naive musicality," says Bottum. "It just sort of happened that way. When we were writing songs, we found it was better when we switched things off, as a challenge to ourselves."
All of which left the band with ample opportunity to experiment, except that their first experiment was a failed one. The band's much-lauded debut, 1996's Seasick, was banged out in about a week, and it showed in the result: a cloying and thin-sounding slab of bubble gum that was entertaining mainly because few could've guessed that a band with punk and hard rock backgrounds could've produced it. But What Is Not to Love, released earlier this year, actually shows Imperial Teen was on to something. Still committed to making a perfect pop album, the band replaced the chirpiness with gritty guitar feedback, and found a rhythmic swagger to replace the basic bounce of Seasick's tunelets.
A darker and much more compelling record, What Is Not to Love has an epic reach to it: "Alone in the Grass" and "Hooray" come on like Sister-era Sonic Youth songs, building to a froth that lasts much longer than radio pop's standard three-minute cutoff point. It's a heartening sign that the band didn't work so hard to be perfect -- "Hooray" was released in its demo version. Even the simpler, hook-driven songs like "Lipstick" and "Yoo Hoo" have an edge to them; on the latter Schwartz growls, "I'll sign something when I'm ready/ I'll kill someone." All the better to unpack the tangled tales of sexuality the band started hinting at earlier, though this time Bottum is singing lines like, "Why you gotta be so proud/ I'm the one with lipstick on" (not that Bottum is particularly interested in discussing the lyrics; in his words, they're just "about people in my life"). Recorded mainly in San Francisco at Toast and Hyde Street Studios, the radical change in approach is something for which Schwartz credits "playing a lot together. When we made Seasick, it was sort of fresh and very naive. ... This record, although we approached the making of it with wide eyes, we know a lot more about each other and about making music."
"Seasick was so specific to the time in all of our lives," says Bottum. "It was sort of about immediate gratification. We were writing songs and experimenting with things -- it was very, very now: We rolled tape and played the songs. This time we had more time amongst ourselves, to think about what we're saying."
"We focused more on production," says Stebbins. "We really tried to get in there and get something else out of these songs. It was challenging, but that was good for us." It also resulted in the album being pushed back for ages, at least by music industry timekeeping. The band had finished the record nearly two years ago; its label, PolyGram-owned Slash, delayed its release first from spring of 1998 to summer, as the group kept busy retouching songs, and then finally to this year.
Band members write the delay off as typical record company machinations, though PolyGram's merger with Universal -- and the merger's attendant label restructuring -- certainly threw a monkey wrench into what should've been a grandiose album launch. Excepting a showcase slot for the first single, "Yoo Hoo," on the soundtrack to Jawbreaker, a go-nowhere Rose MacGowan exploitation flick, both single and record have done modest business, spiking briefly on the Billboard's College Albums charts, where What Is Not to Love hit No. 3 in March but faded soon after. The band gets complaints on tour from people who can't find its record in stores.
Still, those old musical relationships did kick in recently, when Hole's Courtney Love -- who briefly sang in Faith No More -- requested the band to open for the infamous Marilyn Manson/Hole tour. It wasn't such an absurd idea when you thought about it: Imperial Teen had shot a video with MacGowan, who also happens to be Manson's girlfriend. "It was something bold, something off-kilter," says Bottum. "It seemed to make sense."
But there were some reservations -- this was, after all, Marilyn Manson, and major label contract or no, Imperial Teen is still a scruffy guitar-pop quartet. "When you're playing in those big places, subtle nuances don't translate," says Stebbins. "You have to be more broad in your gestures." So, on March 10, the band went to check out the absurdity for themselves at the Cow Palace. "We found out that night that Hole wasn't going to tour [with Manson any longer]," says Perko, "so that nipped our anxieties in the bud. It was a relief when we found out that we didn't have to be in that situation. ... I was watching and thinking, 'Oh God, we're not going to translate so well.' "
Since then, Imperial Teen has done well supporting other acts that get more attention: Hole, Cibo Matto, and Fountains of Wayne, with whom they're currently touring the East Coast and Midwest. And members say they've settled into a comfortable space, both as a band and as a record label investment. As Bottum puts it, "It's about having the confidence to say, 'You know what? We know best.' Because we always do know best.