Q&A With Imperial Teen’s Will Schwartz

Imperial Teen has been around for longer than you think; roughly 15 years to be exact. Wielding its own distinct brand of pop/rock, the quartet has since crafted a solid niche for itself on the indie scene, particularly thanks to the experience of seasoned pros Will Schwartz, Roddy Bottum, Jone Stebbins and Lynn Truell. Known for its complex lyrics and catchy hooks, Imperial Teen has made a solid mark in the music world during its run, especially with new album Feel The Sound (Merge). We decided to test that experience by inviting the band to guest edit all week. We recently caught up with Schwartz via email.

“Runaway” (download):

MAGNET: How does Feel The Sound mark the most current evolution of the band? Is it truly the closest thing to the essence of your sound?
Schwartz: Feel The Sound has a sort of chain-letter quality to it, only if you were to do a chain letter with yourself. (How narcissistic!!) Roddy and I live in L.A., Jone lives in S.F., and Lynn has been living in Denver for the past couple of years. When we started writing the record, I was living in N.Y., and we would all get together for two or three days at a time and then have a couple of months in between. We would have these bursts of creativity, then basically pick it up the next time we got together. Towards the end of the writing period, this was done in an accelerated way, and the writing process bled over into the recording process. This created a template for the sound, which has something in common with sketching or painting than the more photographic method of our previous records. In that sense, we were able to create and explore a sound over a period of time rather than capture the sound like a time capsule. So I would answer yes to your question!

What was it like recording everybody on “Runaway”? Did it bring you closer together than previous?
Well unconsciously (or sometimes consciously), we thought, “What would make this song sound most Imperial Teenish?” We all work on other projects, other music, jobs, families, etc., so when we come together we have an unwritten set of tools and colors that we use to make us sound like ourselves. One of the most prevalent over time is the collective sound of our vocals. Organically, Will, Lynn and Jone wrote a vocal part on this song, so we decided to hyperbolize it, and Roddy added an octave to Will’s vocal, Jone sang a unison track, and Lynn has a lot of backup vocals on it. We’ve always been close, though; if we got any closer, it might be too close. Get away from me! Jone and I made out all night one night in Paris, and Roddy and Lynn have a baby. (Just kidding about the R&L part.)

Your older albums, as well as the singles, all seem to reach back toward a more traditional pop/rock sound, almost at times reminiscent of the Beatles. Do you think the genre has stayed timeless, or has musical culture begun to push past this timeless era?
In pop songwriting on the radio, many songs still seem to have a verse/chorus/verse/bridge song structure. Because that’s kind of been done to death, the indie world has moved a bit away from that into creating more of a sonic landscape or atmosphere; incorporating melodies and harmonics, but in more of a referential way than defined as it were in the ’90s or early ’00s. I believe people always love and are surprised by a great hook, though, even if it sounds reminiscent of something else. Supposedly, there’s a new wave of post-modernism (well now even that’s dated; like a year and a half) going on, and I can see that. People are returning to what we already know and then tweaking it to make something new.

Have you found that, since switching to Merge, you have a better label for the type of music you produce than with Universal?
Well Universal is a large corporation with an extremely varied catalogue. We were interested in being part of London Records at the time we were signed because they had Portishead and DJ Shadow, and not that we were like them at all, but we wanted to be an art-pop band in the way that they were. We’ve always been interested collectively in music that can crossover to many people, but is steeped in a history or comes from a real place or environment. (I hate to say “scene.”) We came together loving bands like the Breeders and Unrest, bands that are really melodic but want to push the envelope and create a sound. Being on Merge has enabled us to make the music we want to make without thinking so much about how it will play out in a commercial arena. Being a pop band, we’re not completely divorced from thinking about that, but we’re able to be more self indulgent and allow songs to linger or devolve a bit more because we’re not being pressured to wrap it up with a bow. That said, we made What Is Not To Love on a major label, and there was some pretty experimental stuff going on there. Then again, we were dropped after that record. We’re extremely grateful we’re on Merge and feel like we couldn’t be on a better label. We’re just coming from a similar place with the people running our label, rather than working with more of a corporate structure like Universal.

How did you all meet and first come together as Imperial Teen?
I met Roddy through our mutual friend Cliff. Cliff worked at Slash Records, and Roddy was on Slash at the time. He seemed real cool and nice, although I didn’t know him very well at the time. Our mutual friend passed away, and Roddy called me with the news, and we’ve been like family ever since. I was living in L.A. at the time and learning how to play guitar, and Roddy said, “Let’s start a band.” He had these two friends, Lynn and Jone in San Francisco, and we just decided that would be the band. Lynn played drums with the Dicks and Sister Double Happiness, and Jone, having been more of a guitar player/singer in bands like the Wrecks (with Lynn), was learning the bass. We met at a gathering at Roddy’s house in S.F. We scheduled a show a couple of months later and wrote some songs for it. Those songs turned out to be the bulk of our first record, Seasick. We just acted at the time without over thinking it too much. Kids.

What has been the defining moment for the band so far?
We’ve had a lot of “defining moments” I think at this point. Our first defining moment was getting “Demo Of The Week” in the SF Guardian, and then our first show, which was a benefit for a local magazine at the Independent in S.F. Randy Kaye was there and became our A&R guy. We had another name at the time (it’s embarrassing), recorded a record and needed a new name in like three days because we got a cease-and-desist letter from another band with that same name. We came up with Imperial Teen, and it stuck. The year Seasick came out, we played at South By Southwest, and it was another defining moment where we were embraced by the press. The next defining moment was “Yoo Hoo” being on the Jawbreaker movie soundtrack and having the video with Rose McGowan, getting added on KROQ, then touring with Hole. Then we were dropped by London/Universal, another defining moment. Then we landed happily on Merge, which has been kind of the current defining moment. I think we’re due for a couple more?

“Runaway” seems to be a song about escapism and freedom. Does that partially set the tone for Feel The Sound?
It is about that! Escapism is definitely one of the themes of the record. I think as a “working class” band you’re kind of forced to deal with the reality of making a living and sustaining yourself in ways that might be something other than your passion or your art. When we come together, it becomes this kind of sacred shared space and that’s reflected in the music. I would agree there’s a sense of “What if we could only do this: write and perform music and hang out with our best friends” on this record, and then also we write about our personal experiences outside of that realm, which of late have been challenging and we’ve all been dealing with a lot of adversity, but also a lot of love and joy. Hopefully it all is reflected in the music.

As your first album in about five years, does Feel The Sound represent any kind of turning point?
Well, people say five years, but we’ve never stopped writing music or hanging out, so to us five years isn’t as meaningful as to say the listener or the press. Everything seems to be a turning point these days. What can I tell ya?

—Alex Hosenball

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