Pushing through the back streets of Soho the thick aroma of garage, garbage and spice masks the secret entrance to London Borderline.
Not all interviews start like this. A greasy intercom admits Trebuchet to interview Imperial Teen prior to a rare European show. Have you heard of Imperial Teen? Probably not. So here it is. To start, they’re a band that needs an proper introduction. Evolved from alt-stadium band Faith No More and underground iconoclasts The Dicks they’ve maintained a cohesive millennium-crossing career when neither of the other bands have managed to make the transition with half as much vitality or life (reunions and reunions).
Remembering their DIY roots, Imperial Teen have managed to keep going despite fan distracting aeons between albums (up to 5 years), irregular touring and the vicissitudes of a changing and ageing demographic. Common enough issues for any band but those that never stall are those willing to drive on through the increasingly dark landscape of the contemporary music.
When did it all get so dark? From Lana Del Rey to Adele to Rhianna it seems like pop only serves to highlight love’s bruises, or worse still, pale into the Aryan blanch of bands like Mumford and Sons, music so soporific and asinine that it smacks of drip fed mind control. These neatly packaged and seasonally repeated offerings need an alternative that smiles without condescension.
Imperial Teen’s version of post-indie garage pop is such a divergence from the standard and their gigs such a weird post-consumer event that it happily defies easy analysis. Perhaps cultivated by the audience’s 90s remembrances the gigs feel like a band of friends playing for friends and everyone’s on the inside. Feelings aside, musically Imperial Teen take cues from earlier pop punk bands and then add a weird new flavour mixing with an angstless whimsy and DIY aesthetic. It feels unique. And unique is a currency that won’t necessarily pay the bills, but also can’t be learnt. It’s it.
What is it and why does Imperial Teen exist?
Trebuchet: Your video ‘No Matter What You Say’ was directed by Guy Franklin
Lynne : My friend Norman was working with Guy and was playing the new record a lot during their car rides. So he told Norman ‘Tell them I want to make them a video’. So we were ‘great’ and it didn’t cost us anything, and he’s a pretty popular up and coming director – he does all those great Kimbra videos.
Roddy: They’re so nicely shot and she’s so pretty, that actress.
Lynn: That’s Emily Browning who is also a friend of Guy’s. She’s Australian I guess and so is Guy. It was great that Guy thought that she’d be perfect for it and got in contact with her.
Roddy: We didn’t have to lift a finger.
Lynn: He got his whole team together and sorted everything out.
Trebuchet: The video seems like Guy’s personal interpretation?
Lynn: He did ask me what the song was about and but in the end he just wanted to make sure he had the lyrics right (I had to check with Will, as he wrote the lyrics). Then he just texted me a blurb of what the video was going to be about. So it was his thing from our song. Which is really how we like all our songs to be interpreted.
Will: I had to check because I couldn’t really remember what the song is about, I mean it changes over time. Some songs are more concrete in terms of their meanings but that was one that could mean something else on any given day or year.
Trebuchet: How did Imperial Teen start and how has it kept going?
Will: Our first album came out in 96 and we started around 94.
Jone: 95 I think?
Roddy: I’m not good with years
Lynne: Not 20.
Roddy: 20 is harsh.
Will: We’re still teenagers.
Roddy: We only do what we do because we love doing it and there’s not a lot of financial motivations involved. So it only works so long as people are on the same page and feel like doing it. And then of course we’ve all got our outside projects etc.
we’re just in a band.
On the other hand we’re
not NOT in a gay band,
I just think ‘who cares?’
Trebuchet: What brings you guys back together?
Roddy: Because we love it. It that old corny thing but we really do have a special relationship (with each other) and the music. So it’s just that and it feels really good. We like to make records and we like to make music and we do it well together.
Lynn: It’s like we’re all members of a family and you while we may never see each other for a while we’re never not getting back together. It’s a family thing, so we do.
Will: And we’re masochists
Lynn: We came together, we were in different bands, and we all sort of knew each other. I knew Jone and Roddy, and we were introduced to Will through Roddy. We just kinda did it because it was different to everything else we were doing. We managed to write some songs really quickly and then we did a show. So it all happened pretty organically, pretty quickly and then someone offered to put our record out. That’s where we started and it just continued.
Jone: Imperial Teen has meant a lot to people. I speak to people after our shows and I hear that it means a lot to people. I have a Facebook friend who is an artist, I really like his art, and I posted about a Imperial Teen show. He asked ‘Are you going to be there?’, ‘Well yeah, I’m in the band’. He started going ‘ oh my god, I had no idea, I met the love of my life at one of your shows’. It was so long ago that he hadn’t put the two together.
Lynn: When we first started it was a period of crossover between indie, pop, and grunge rock. And then also there was the gay aspect that you mentioned. For instance at our last show a guy got up on stage (and we were worried ‘oh god what’s he going to do’) and he started telling a story about a time when he was in high school. He was really frustrated about who he was and what he was going to do and then Imperial Teen came on the radio. He heard our song and he had something to relate to.
So he sought out the band and faced himself, realising that he was gay and our music really helped him. It was very real when we was telling the story.
Trebuchet. It’s a big thing to carry around with you as a band though?
Roddy: Yeah, given what it was like when we started… I mean so much has changed in the last 20 years. I mean two of us in the band are gay and there are some thematics that come up in our songs and back when we started, wow, eyebrows were really raised and we heard people being shocked.
It had happened before but 20 years ago it was still almost taboo and that’s where that kid came from. For a kid growing up now… I mean people hardly care. It’s great that we’ve come that far but it’s happened in such a short period of time where the world has adjusted to become accepting of gay themes in art.
Lynn: It can be frustrating a bit as you don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’m not gay and Jone isn’t gay and we’re not in a gay band, we’re just in a band. On the other hand we’re not NOT in a gay band, I just think ‘who cares?’.
Jone: Equally Imperial Teen could be an All Girl Band!
Lynn: The topic got really…
Will: Played out.
Roddy: To it’s credit the band means different things to different people. It’s not specifically that to straight people. There isn’t one type of person that identifies with Imperial Teen, it’s a broad spectrum.
Will: I think it’s surprising to people to hear something where there is queerness to it but it’s sublimated. It’s not queercore. There was the possibility of us being mainstream. Those bands are in their ghetto and that’s cool but we’re definitely more pop.
Trebuchet: What then are the influences of Imperial Teen?
Roddy: When we started our ethic was really just to get together and write songs and we came with stuff that was really immediate for us. And our inspiration at the time was stuff like The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Nirvana etc.
Will: I was really into Sonic Youth when we started, but you guys were listening to Redd Cross and Celebrity Skin (Hole) a lot.
Roddy: We were trying things that really let the melody play out strongly in those early days, rather than musical finesse, which was a cop-out in some ways as it didn’t push us, but we were definitely about letting the song rule.
Trebuchet: But you’re known as an accomplished keyboard player?
Roddy: Yeah well intentionally when we started I didn’t play any of the keyboards, I just played drums and guitar.
I think we’ve all got better at our instruments over time too, we’ve got better at hearing things and respecting each others’ spaces.
Will: When we’ve been away from each other in a while it’s like a muscle, the Imperial Teen muscle, a lot of melody and harmony.
Trebuchet: What’s next?
Roddy: We all have crazy full schedules but just for this tour alone it’s a hard thing to get everyone together. So we just want to play a handful of shows every other weekend or something. So when it does happen there is something really special about it when it works.
Will: If people want us. We’ll play.
Photos: Kailas Trebuchet