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Since the mid-Nineties, Imperial Teen has crafted an infectious, hard-to-shake boy-meets-girl candy-pop jangle. Formed by Faith No More keys-master Roddy Bottum and NYU grad/pop maven Will Schwartz with ex-punk rockers Lynn Truell and Jone Stebbins, they quickly scored a major-label deal during the post-Nirvana “next big thing” splurge. Alas, Imperial Teen was a casualty of the record conglomerate slash ‘n burn—but the quartet eventually found itself on the ascendant Merge imprint.
Now Merge vets, Imperial Teen have churned out pulsating, hand-clapping pop perfection over the last decade. Sound of the City caught up with guitarist/vocalist Will Schwartz on the phone from a Cali garage in his Prius to talk Faith No More, living in Greenpoint and Teenbeat Records.
Hey Will. It’s Brad from the Voice here.
[Connection breaking] I’m in a parking garage, actually.
What are you doing in a parking garage?
I don’t know. It seems to be where I end up doing interviews. I don’t the luxury of like popping a couple of Vicodin and changing all day to do an interview; I have to multi-task.
Are you in your car now?
[Laughing] Yeah. I am.
You’re settled into a parking space?
It’s parked, yeah.
I wouldn’t want you driving around, doing an interview, while looking for a space.
Oh, yeah. The air conditioning is on, too. I hope that’s okay.
Yeah, I don’t hear a thing.
It’s for my health.
You’re in Cali, right?
I have a Prius so the motor doesn’t run when you put it on, ya know? Hopefully, I won’t get carbon monoxide poisoning. [laughing]
At least if you do get it, you’re doing it in an environmentally conscious way.
Yeah, yeah. Just to let you know I’m really thirsty and all I have here is some warm rice milk. I can’t guarantee I’ll be really on my toes.
Do you want to take a swig of your rice milk before we start?
Yeah. It’s nice to drink, actually.
Is that the official drink of Imperial Teen?
We’re into all kinds of stuff.
You guys seem really fun.
Yeah, we’re fun. We’re not a drag. [laughing].
The four of you are sort of scattered, right?
Roddy and I live close to each other, Lynne is in Denver and Jone is in San Francisco.
That’s not that bad.
Yeah, it’s not that bad. Right now, what we are doing is a show a month or a weekend of shows a month, like flying in and flying out. It’s been fun. That’s kinda how we did the record, too. We just would do a lot of fly in. I was living in New York at the time actually, in Brooklyn, and I came in [to L.A.] about five times the year before last and Lynn and Jone would fly in to L.A. and we would just do a bunch of songwriting and [then] go back to where we lived. And then leave it, ya know? Leave it on the tape. [Laughing]
When were you living here in Brooklyn?
I was there 2008 and 2009. I was in Greenpoint. I lived off of Franklin and Meserole.
Do you prefer living in California over Brooklyn?
Right now I do. I just found that being in New York was just so overstimulating. I would just go out every night. For some reason, I made so many friends the summer that I moved there and I just really ended up having such a strong community of people, which is really rare I feel like for an adult [laughing]. But when I came back to L.A., people were like “You? Whatever.”
Yeah, who needs all those friends you made here.
Friends are so distracting. I ended up not getting anything done so I had to be like “Later, dudes.” I gotta go where I can’t make any friends. [laughing]
Maybe that’s the reason why there wasn’t a new Imperial Teen record up for a few years? It’s Brooklyn’s fault.
Yeah. I could not make music in New York. It was late nights, late mornings. I couldn’t get anything done.
So we can blame your time in New York for Feel the Sound just coming out now and the last record The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band coming out way back in 2005.
Absolutely. Sorry, Brooklyn.
But you have a pretty sweet deal with Merge. The time in between Imperial Teen Records is pretty far between.
Yeah. Merge is like what you have to be today to have a successful business model; you actually have to have a really strong product and I think that’s why a lot of businesses fail today because they don’t live by that.
Do Mac and Laura call you up and say “It’s been five years since the last Imperial Teen record…?”
They do. They check in and they’re like “Hey. What are you rockers doing?” [laughing]. Mostly through emails but they do check in and ask where we’re at and like “Are you thinking about doing another record soon?”
How did you hook up with Merge originally? You’re one of the longest-running bands on the label.
We were on Universal and London Records and their whole company fell apart with Seagrams and all that and we were one of the many casualties of that. So we were without a label and then we recorded our record On and this guy Jason Reynolds, who’s this kind of manager, record company liaison kind of guy, he brought us to Merge.
Were you Superchunk fans?
I was. I would go see Superchunk. I went to NYU and they played at school-sponsored shows and stuff. So, yeah, I was really into them. My roommate at NYU turned me on to a lot of music and Superchunk was one of the bands he turned me on to.
How was your major label experience?
Well, the first year was pretty great. They had really big budgets for everything so it was kinda glamorous and we were livin’ the dream a bit [laughing]. We were kinda spoiled. We had this honeymoon in Paris where we stayed at a five-star hotel for a few days, we had a driver and went to the best restaurants and all that. But also, they really promoted your stuff. It was still in the days where they actually, really spent a lot of money on promotion, like there would be commercials. I remember Ann Magnuson did a commercial that they had on MTV for our record. [laughing]. They [the label] made singles that they gave away at shows, which we were mortified about because it was so uncool to give music away for free at the time. We were totally mortified.
Did you guys get signed because of Nirvana and the majors trying to find the next big thing?
Yeah, absolutely, because we had elements of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Breeders going on and that was enticing to the label.
Was it also due to Roddy being in Faith No More and how successful and huge they were at the time?
Yeah, yeah. So, I think it was a combination of those things to keep the interest. We also had a really great A & R guy—this fellow Randy Kaye—who was really kind of our cheerleader and he unfortunately passed away a couple years ago. He was a great guy. So yeah, we definitely got swept up in all of that. We got to tour with some of those big bands like the Breeders, the Amps and Dinosaur Jr.
Were you familiar with and were a fan Faith No More before you met Roddy?
The Real Thing was out and that song was a really big hit and that roommate who I was talking about at NYU, that was one of the songs he played. He would blast “Smells like Teen Spirit” and that Faith No More song [starts singing “You want it all but…’]… that song. So, yeah, I was definitely aware of them. But I was more of a melodic pop guy, not so much into having your own vibe.
Speaking of melodic pop, Imperial Teen has always reminded me of Teenbeat Records kind of stuff, like Unrest.
Yeah! That’s the kind of stuff that we all really connected on. I think Roddy, at the time, really needed an outlet [from Faith No More] and he obviously had that pop sensibility. But we really bonded on those kinds of bands like Unrest, the Breeders and the Amps and the more melodic music.
Was it trippy at first meeting Roddy, who was in this huge MTV-type band, then doing the type of melodic pop Imperial Teen would ultimately do?
Well, not really. I think at the time, I had this kind of cockiness and I just expected to be in that milieu so I didn’t really question it. I always thought that I would be in a band that would end being popular. I didn’t know [then] that’s really kind of hard [laughing]. It was exciting but it also seemed natural and organic and that’s just the music that came out of us. In terms of the melodic system of the music, Lynne and Jone also added a lot of that in their vocal approaches and it’s especially found in Jone’s bass playing and Lynn’s kinda tasteful drumming.
Lynn has been in some killer bands, too—the Dicks and Sister Double Happiness.
Yeah and Lynn and Jone, when they were 14 or 15, were in an all-girl punk band called the Wrecks and they toured with Black Flag and stuff.
Steven McDonald from Redd Kross produced the first few Imperial Records. It must be pretty cool now that Redd Kross are on Merge with you.
Oh, yeah. It’s awesome! It’s great when there’s a sense of community amongst the people you’ve worked with a long time. Merge has a real community and I’m proud that I get to be a part of that.
Are you into OFF!? Steven plays bass in that band, too.
I love seeing Steven play and I was really into it, yeah. It’s not necessarily what I’m gonna put on at home but yeah.
An Imperial Teen/Redd Kross tour would be killer. Merge should set that up.
We actually talked about playing some dates together. Yeah, we might do that.
The video for “Runaway” is awesome. You guys always seem to always have cool videos. I gotta get one of those cut-out face things.
We made those masks to give out for the first few shows we were doing for the record, but it’s kind of a hassle. [laughing] So, we’re not doing that anymore. Before this big show in San Francisco, we got all these things made of the faces in L.A., got the popsicle sticks and glue at Target and then we had this assembly line that we did between sound check at the show and we got like toxic fumes. It was really a pain in the ass.
So you got high on the masks.
Yeah! Get your own fuckin’ masks!
Imperial Teen plays Knitting Factory tonight.