An Interview with Roddy Bottum of Imperial Teen

Paul Caparotta
Imperial Teen - Jone Stebbins, Roddy Bottum, Will Schwartz, Lynn Truell (Photo: Jonathan Grassi)
Now We Are Timeless (iTunes), the sixth full length Imperial Teen album since the band began in 1996, represents everything great about what Roddy Bottum, Will Schwartz, Jone Stebbins and Lynn Truell bring to today’s music scene. Timeless is heartfelt, acerbic, witty and authentic—a natural evolution of the band’s sound that feels extremely relevant today. We had a chance to speak with Roddy in advance of their upcoming San Francisco Noise Pop appearance at the Chapel on February 29th. At press time, tickets are still available and can be found here.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Thanks for making the time Roddy. I was excited to see that witty, acerbic writing you’re known for is very present on Now We Are Timeless. It’s most fun on "Parade" where you invert meanings, and explore paradoxes—how has the band’s approach to songwriting changed over the last seven years since your last album?

Roddy Bottum: I think on the last records, we’ve tried to bring everyone in the band into the songwriting. The first record was definitely just Will and I hammering out the lyrics for Seasick in which we called “Word Week” in a cafe in San Francisco. He and I just hammered it out going back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. We wrote all the words. I think we did that for a couple of records. On the later records Lynn and Jone came more into the picture in the lyrics department, though Will and I still handled the brunt of it.

On that song "Parade", particularly, I think we really afforded ourselves to get really specific with our personal dramas. In the very early records there was a lot of personal dramas, that was our reference points for songwriting—tragedies, some things going on in our personal lives. "Parade" is about a good friend of mine who took his life. Those are the things that ring truest when it comes to this record—for me anyway. A real nod to a true life story.

SFBAC: You can feel that in the song. Beyond the lyrics, you’ve always had an interesting way of weaving different vocal melodies through your songs. You feel this on Timeless particularly on the back half with “Somebody Like Me” and “Ha”—is this something the band considers when building the songs, or do these flourishes come together as the tracks evolve?

Roddy Bottum: It usually happens as we’re writing the songs. Again, it’s a point we try to make going into every song: We work best when we’re all inclusive. Will will handle the lead vocals most of the time, but it’s our intention to bring everyone in vocal-wise.

SFBAC: You can feel that.

Roddy Bottum: Yeah, we try to acknowledge that Imperial Teen works best when everyone is involved. So we always try to aim for most people singing. But then we get into the studio and there are so many options. We’re singing along, doing the songs, and just add things as we go. So, a little of both I’d guess.

SFBAC: You’ve been with Merge Records the last 17 years—that’s a pretty significant commitment. How has your partnership with the label shifted from “On” to today?

Roddy Bottum: The big shift was leaving Slash/London records and moving to Merge. That was a big shift. To be involved in a label like Merge was a wake up call to us. It put things in our own hands. The split between what we’d make on a record and what the label would collect—seeing that more fair spectrum of each of us getting paid for what we do—that was a real wake up call for us.

I think our relationship with Merge has been pretty consistent. Absolutely consistent since we started with them. Going through the years with them there’s been a recognition that while other labels drop off the face of the Earth and disappear, Merge is able to keep it going. That’s sort of a special thing—a special thing to think about as we’re going forward. Our relationship with them hasn’t changed—it makes a band like us focus ourselves very astutely to working our time together on manageable terms; to keep things working in very smart ways. We have the freedom to do what we want. We tell Merge, “We want to make a record” and they say, “Great!” We say, “Can we make a video?” And they say, “Yeah!” And give us a little bit of money for that. That’s what we want to do, and that’s the way it’s always been. It’s pretty great for the here and now.

SFBAC: Speaking of videos—that most recent one you released is fantastic. You’ve always had a good approach when it comes to video, back to getting Rose McGowan involved, through today.

Roddy Bottum: The video was kind of my idea. I live in New York City and the man that we made the video with, his name is Tabboo!, he’s a really influential, strong, cultural icon who lives in New York. He was involved in Wigstock back in the 80s New York-Lower-East-Side lifestyle. He’s been making art, a fantastic painter—an older man who was someone I respected.

As far as the theme of the record and what we are putting out in Now We are Timeless is addressing pretty much him in a nutshell—that’s what it feels like. To get him on board to walk through the streets of New York, celebrating his life and flavor of what he does in that colorful way seems to hit the nail on the head.

SFBAC: In today’s surreal political era I have to ask about the song "Ivanka". To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s about Ivanka—though there are certainly hints throughout the song. Is it about that Ivanka, and does it mean anything different to you today?

Roddy Bottum: It totally means something different. I don’t remember why, but it definitely was a reference to Ivanka Trump. Back in the day I think she was going to be a model at some point, and it was about this white girl who was moving towards paparazzi who had this dark but bright, disgusting but alluring, intriguing presence about her. It was very pre-Trump era. Yeah, it’s a shame that’s where it started from. It wasn’t specifically about her per-se—it started to be a song about attitude and very time specific; that era we were in. One of the elements of the era, I guess, was that woman.

SFBAC: While Seasick and Feel The Sound are in significant rotation for us, there’s something about On that feels so fresh and vital today. Do you have an album in the band’s catalog that’s particularly meaningful to you?

Roddy Bottum: On was the first one we did with Merge, so it was a real breakaway from where we’d been and this attempt to have a stab at the corporate music world which was foreign to us and didn’t really make sense. When we made that switch to Merge it felt good; like a real life changer for all of us. That records feels that way to me thinking, “Let’s not put all these crazy goals in front of us and do what we do best.” That record feels like that.

But also Seasick I love because I always gravitate to the band’s first record. We didn’t know what we were doing and we wrote those songs in a very short time. We threw ourselves into this crazy craft, it was our first time together. That still feels real special to me.

SFBAC: Seasick holds up so well, it’s a seminal album. I hear pieces of Imperial Teen everywhere in 2020—Polica, Twin Peaks—are you listening to anything now that’s intriguing to you?

Roddy Bottum: …Yeah, that Sarah Mary Chadwick—she’s super passionate and heartfelt, a New Zealand songwriter I’ve been listening to a lot lately. The Lana Del Ray album I keep going back to.

SFBAC: Yes that album is something. She’s also made some interesting shifts in her career, like you guys.

Roddy Bottum: Yeah, I like that album. There’s a lot of bands in New York, a lot of interesting music here now. I like Liam Benzvi—that record is very nice. Lizzo is really fun for me to listen to. Oh, you know what I love—that Kim Gordon record (Spotify). It’s so great.

SFBAC: She’s a real innovator. So much of what she and Thurston Moore have done outside of Sonic Youth pushes boundaries.

Roddy Bottum: That Kim Gordon record is so neat.

SFBAC: Obviously you guys have a lot of history when it comes to California, and the Bay Area in particular. How has San Francisco changed for you over time?

Roddy Bottum: San Francisco was such a unique place—I moved there in 1981 from Los Angeles. I was at a certain age and so impressionable…20 years of my life I lived in San Francisco. It really changed and formed my life. Going back now it’s hard to see the homeless issue—it’s daunting and disturbing. I can’t get away from it.

Faith No More has a studio on the other side of the bridge, at the bottom of the Oakland Bridge. We’ve had that place for, I think, over 20 years. When we first started recording there, there was a tent. And we thought, “Gosh, that’s the weirdest thing—someone is living there.” Cut to today and it’s an entire city that’s around that area under the bridge. Literally thousands of homeless people.

It’s not just San Francisco—it’s Los Angeles, California too. Going back and seeing that as that crisis gets worse and worse is very disturbing to me. It’s daunting. Every time I go back I think: What do we do to change this problem? I wish there was a solution. That’s what comes up when I think of San Francisco mostly—the homeless situation.

SFBAC: It’s tough to think of all money and progressive thinking in the Bay we’d have a solution, but it’s just not there.

Roddy Bottum: There has to be a solution. There are smart minds meeting and making things happen in San Francisco; that computer generation, that world of people live in San Francisco. That high level of thought is happening there, that sophistication; yeah it blows me away to think that we’re not working constantly to fix this situation. It seems like a priority of urban living now: Fixing the homeless situation.

SFBAC: You are absolutely right. Hopefully, music is a means to unite people and get people moving toward helping others. Maybe we’ll get some unity through Imperial Teen. Thanks for being so generous with your time—we’ll see you soon.

Roddy Bottum: Thanks so much, we’ll see you in San Francisco when we play!

SFBAC: It's only a week away! See you at the Chapel on February 29th! Once again, tickets can be found here.

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