"Do you know anything about clogged ears?" Imperial Teen founder Roddy Bottum has a waterlogged ear and is asking me for my expert opinion on the subject. "Have you ever had your ears drained?"
No, I offer, trying my best to be sympathetic, but I had a small piece of dust lodged in my eye once, which was really uncomfortable.
"It must have been," Bottum comments with utmost sincerity. "Jone [Stebbins, Imperial Teen's bassist/guitarist/vocalist] told me that there are these Chinese candles that you put in your ear and light and it sucks everything out. I'm thinking of trying a remedy like that."
I think he's waiting for a comment. That could set your ear on fire, I tell him.
"Stop," he says. "I don't want to lose an ear."
It's been that kind of year for Imperial Teen. If it's not clogged ears, it's having to postpone the tour in support of its new album, What Is Not to Love, while the co-headliners of said tour, Hole and Marilyn Manson, are clawing away at each other. Long story short: Manson repeatedly disses Hole from stage, Hole bails from tour, taking with it Imperial Teen. Hole begins its own smaller-scale tour with Imperial Teen in tow.
Bottum is very diplomatic about the situation, stating only: "Hole asked us on the tour, and when they backed out of it, we just did the same. We really couldn't imagine ourselves playing with Marilyn Manson. Playing with Hole and Marilyn Manson made a little more sense. Not a whole lot more sense, just a little more sense."
Now that music has replaced tabloid stench as the primary force behind the tour, Bottum says that, despite a few mishaps (like clogged ears), things are just fine. "There is a lot of pressure with these big Hole shows," he points out. "The clock is ticking. We've never done anything as huge as this before. But it seems pretty comfortable. At one point we were gearing up for the huge arena shows with Marilyn Manson, and that just would have been insanity."
Not that Bottum is all that unfamiliar with big rock shows. He played keyboards for macho rockers Faith No More for almost a decade. Which is a major sore spot with him these days.
"We don't even need to talk about that, really," he says. "It discredits the rest of this band to even talk about that band. It just keeps coming up, do you understand? [The situation] speaks for itself."
The circumstances probably have a lot to do with Bottum, a gay man, banging heads--literally and figuratively--with Faith's assertive, fist-raising, frat-guy-approved alt-rock, which is millenniums away from the ambisexual lo-fi pop of Imperial Teen. With Stebbins, Lynn Perko, and Will Schwartz (it's pointless to attach instruments to this band; everybody plays everything on record and onstage), Bottum found a group of commiserating friends to wade through tales of emotional isolation and rescue.
"The band just came up this way," he says. "It was the right sound with the four of us. I don't think we were ever thinking about it on other terms. And I don't specifically think about stuff like that when I work, if it's going to be specifically male or specifically female. And I think what's going on here makes for a better playground of music. Other people who make different kinds of music . . . I don't know, for what we do, it makes sense. But it was never intentional. The four of us just came together to do what we do.
"We initially came together with this faux innocence. We never seemed to be aware of what we were doing instrumentally. We were switching instruments a lot and singing for the first time. We sort of pushed that. And when things got easy for us, we intentionally switched things up to make it more of a challenge. It brings a vulnerability and a sort of self-challenge to the band."
On its 1996 debut Seasick, Imperial Teen combined musical shrewdness with overwhelming bubblegum hooks that often obscured the dark subtext lurking beneath the songs. What Is Not to Love is more of the same, but even drabber in tone and spirit. Bottum says it's all part of the plan--or at least something resembling natural design.
"With most bands, second records are coming to terms with a broader realm of statement or something," he explains. "Seasick was pretty dark, I think, but just seemed a lot poppier than it was. It was candy-coated. There was a pace to the songs and a formula that leaned toward poppiness, even with the artwork. But to me that record was pretty dark. I think the music catches up with the lyrical content eventually. And actually I think these new lyrics are a little darker than the ones on Seasick.
"I also think this album is a little deeper. We spent a little more time with it and were a little more aware of what we were doing in the studio. We know how to put it together, personally and instrumentally and technically. We're all just in a different sort of place and time. We're all at a very specific place in our lives right now. It's a few years later."
While Bottum doesn't have anything particular in mind for future Imperial Teen projects, he does offer that they recently recorded a single that had "sort of a French vibe" to it, which may or may not portend the band's stylistic lo-fi pop for the next century. "We would like to be in the position to challenge ourselves to try different things," Bottum says. "It would be a shame to reach a point where we would be in a rut and make the same record twice. What comes out of us is what comes in to us.
"So here we are two years later, and we're definitely making a different record. A year from now we will have seen different things and have had different experiences. The outcome is naturally going to be different."
Like maybe a song or two about clogged ears?
Imperial Teen, opening for Hole. 8 p.m., Friday, May 21, Nautica Stage, 2014 Sycamore Road, the Flats, $26.50 ($29 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.