Sixteen years into their career, timeless sugar high Imperial Teen remains one of the most immediate and appealing bands in the alt-rock cosmos. The quartet has never sounded better than on their just-released fifth album, Feel the Sound (Merge Records). SPIN already dubbed it one of 2012's essential releases, adding they're "sounding like a veteran quartet with nothing to prove, but still hellbent on proving it anyway," and their delectable concoction of exuberant harmonies and grownup lyrical concerns finds the Teen wearing middle age proudly. We caught up with guitarist/keyboardist Will Schwartz and bassist Jone Stebbins shortly before they headed for Denver to start rehearsals for their American tour.
So, your last album, 2007’s The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band listed everybody’s then-current pursuits. What have you been up to since then?
Will Schwartz: [Laughs] Just, you know… Feeling the Sound.
Jone Stebbins: It may seem like we haven’t done anything in a while. But we never really stopped making music together. We’re always scheduling and planning and figuring out when we can get together. We’d be more active if we all lived in the same town, of course. It just takes so long for us to get in the same room to write together. We did have to do more writing separately this time than before. Otherwise, this record wouldn’t have come out for another 16 years.
Some parts of Feel the Sound almost seem like you’re saying goodbye, like that line at the beginning of “It’s You”: “Too many songs we sang are left unsung / Another dream unwritten, the record’s done.” Do you feel like every record could be the last one? Or will Imperial Teen be a lifelong thing?
Schwartz: Definitely the latter. Because we have such a history and feeling of family to this band, to say that it could ever be the end just doesn’t seem necessary.
Stebbins: It really is like family, and families just can’t say, "I’m done, see ya." Well, we could. But we wouldn’t. There’s no pressure from Merge on the release schedule. We just do records as fast as we can, and we’re not breaking up. When people say, "They’re back," it seems funny to us because in our minds we never went away.
Why did you self-produce for the first time, after four albums with Steve McDonald?
Stebbins: Steve is a dear friend and very talented producer who helped us a lot. But at this point, we all understand and respect each other. Everyone can take criticism, and we’ve gotten to where we don’t need a babysitter as much as we once did. A lot of insecurities come out when you’re recording, emotions are on the surface and feelings can get hurt. It’s easy to feel vulnerable when you’re singing something over and over, not getting it right, and it seems like you’re being judged. But we’re past that.
Parts of Feel the Sound seem to echo other songs. Do you have reference points in mind while recording?
Schwartz: This record, we know ourselves so well by now that it almost feels like we’re referencing ourselves more than other bands.
Jone, what’s the strangest question you've ever gotten on the “Ask Jone” part of your salon’s website?
Stebbins: Nothing as bizarre as what people say in the salon, because I work with people all day long who ask weird questions about their hair. There was this one client, a middle-aged woman who could have a great career doing voiceovers — she sounded like an underwater creature. She asked me how difficult it would be to dye her pubic hair. Apparently she had a new romance going with a neighbor, who even had a color request. So she wanted to know how to go about it. Oh my God, this is way too much information!