LGBTQ Icon Roddy Bottum on Elton John, Taylor Swift & New Imperial Teen
When Roddy Bottum went to see the recent Elton John biopic, Rocketman, it brought up some old, bitter feelings. John was one of the first musicians that Bottum had ever loved, but as a kid struggling with his homosexuality, he was disappointed that it took so long for the artist to come out.
“I had to go through that struggle on my own,” he says. “It was hard to be a kid at that age and not have people to look up to that made it easier.”
Bottum — of Faith No More and Imperial Teen — was arguably one of the first openly gay rock stars, so he understands the need for fans to see themselves in the music that they love. That’s why he’s been putting out hooky power-pop replete with nervous sexual tension and unapologetically queer lyrics for decades now — a tradition he upholds on Imperial Teen’s latest, Now We Are Timeless, a tight collection of alternately dance-inducing sing-alongs and wistful reflections on aging and distance.
Bottum was already a veteran in the game when Imperial Teen formed. He joined the legendary art-metal group Faith No More in 1981 along with his high school friends, helping guide the band through several early iterations, including a brief stint with his good friend Courtney Love as frontwoman. Eventually, Faith No More recruited the elastic vocalist Mike Patton and found mainstream success with 1989′s The Real Thing, conquering rock radio and MTV with hits like “Epic” and “Falling to Pieces.”
Still, being in a huge band can be draining; after several years of touring, Bottum needed a break from the business. His father and several friends had died, and while spending time in his native San Francisco, he reconnected with childhood friends Jone Stebbins and Lynn Truell, who played together in a group called the Wrecks. Along with new friend Will Schwartz, they formed a new band: Imperial Teen. ”That was a really intense time for us,” Bottum recalls. “Somehow that got transposed into a musical expression.”
Although they would eventually sign up with Merge Records and settle into a comfortable, sustainable groove as cult artists, Imperial Teen swung for the fences and achieved some unexpected success when they first started out. Their single “Yoo-Hoo” was featured in the camp 1999 camp classic Jawbreaker, directed by their friend Darren Stein.
“We’d made this record of songs that were pretty personal to us and then, all of a sudden, we were sharing it with the world through a veil of a big teen movie, which was a little bit odd,” Bottum says. “Looking back on it, I have nostalgic, not-bad feelings about it. [The film] definitely has a huge cult to it. I believe it’s considered a campy, queer classic.”
That last description also fits Imperial Teen quite well. Their first single, “You’re One,” from their acclaimed 1996 debut Seasick, received MTV airtime — even though not every outlet was comfortable with the song, which featured the refrain, “You take it like a man boy/you kiss me like a man, boy.”
“There was judgment and homophobia out there,” Bottum says. “We lived in San Francisco at the time and we were brazen in our attitudes, like, ‘Yeah, deal with this, whatever.’ It was challenging, I think, for major labels to navigate that.”
The band’s co-singer/guitarist Schwartz remembers Imperial Teen having dinner with their “radio guy.” “He was having issues with a couple of the radio stations not wanting to play ‘a gay band,’” Schwartz says. “If he said that now, he’d be canceled.”
“It wasn’t the same as it is now where there’s more acceptance,” he continues. “Roddy was out, and one of the first ones in that context to come out — and then I rode the fence on it for a little while until it was just untenable.”
The intense formative experiences that created Imperial Teen laid down lifelong bonds that have proved unbreakable, time and distance be damned. The band members tend to take five years or so between albums, but they always find themselves coming back to each other, even though they now all live in different parts of the country. Imperial Teen will always be together, even when the members go a while without seeing each other, a theme that runs throughout Now We Are Timeless, which Bottum says is about “about us being apart, but us being really close.”
The subject of distance and family is most directly addressed on “Walkaway,” a wistful, gently oscillating meditation on missing old friends you don’t get to see too often.
But Now We Are Timeless isn’t just about reflection and taking stock. The band also finds time to show off their casual mastery of pop pizzaz: from the riot grrrl pop of “The Girl,” with a vocal turn from Stebbins and waves of co-ed harmonies, to the cocksure British Invasion grooves of “Parade” and album highlight “We Do What We Do Best.”
“It’s funny to us because we’re remedial in a sense about what we do,” Schwartz says. “We’ve gotten to be better players over the years, but when we started, we didn’t know how to play our instruments. There was a real naiveté about it and we’ve kept a sense of that over the years. What we do best is not being super professional, competent musicians. It’s just being who we are.”
As such, Bottum has tried to remain true to himself throughout his career; the heavy metal bible Kerrang once called Bottum the “First Openly Gay Rock star.” While that might be technically debatable, it is inarguable that Bottum was out and proud long before many of his peers in the rock world (including, he notes, Bob Mould, Rob Halford and Freddie Mercury), casually announcing his homosexuality in a 1993 interview for The Advocate with the iconic gay journalist Lance Loud.
“It was preposterous to me that people would have issues with it, but it was a difficult time,” Bottum says. “I was in a band [Faith No More] that was being embraced by bands like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. Really hetero vibes and really over-the-top, sexist, clichéd camps of musical dinosaur vibes.”
Faith No More opened for Metallica and Guns N’ Roses on their 1992 stadium tour — a few years after Guns N’ Roses released the song “One in a Million,” which featured the lyrics “immigrants and faggots/they make no sense to me.”
“It was definitely awkward. I don’t know if I would be able to do that today,” Bottum says. “If a band like that asked a project I was involved in to open up for them, I think I would be a lot more politically in-tune with being able to say, ‘No, thank you.’”
Despite touring with those acts, Bottom decided he had to draw a line in the sand soon after and demonstrate that his band was too special and weird to be lumped in with an overly testosterone-fueled scene. “It felt like a good thing to distance myself, at least personally, from that weird hetero-sexist environments, and so coming out of the closet was a really powerful way to stake my claim and do that,” he says.
Coming out helped Bottum take complete ownership over his project. If his band wanted to make a sparse ballad consisting of harmonizing, a lone keyboard purr and aching regret like “Somebody Like Me,” and then follow it up one song later with a coy come-ons like “Ha,” they can do that — both will feel like Imperial Teen. And if they want to make a single like “Don’t Want To Let You Go” with an accompanying video featuring a heartbroken drag queen dancing out her feelings, they can do that as well.
The world has obviously become much more open-minded since Bottum was a confused kid waiting for Elton John to come out. It’s one thing for a group steeped deeply in gay culture to have drag queens in the video. It’s another thing for…other people do that. Like most of us, Bottum eventually gave in and watched Taylor Swift’s gay-culture signifier-packed video for “You Need To Calm Down,” and like many in his community, he has mixed feelings.
He appreciated the human rights petition she included at the end of the video, but “the actual aesthetic of the video I’m not so down to,” he says. “Appropriating all of the elements of something that’s not really hers gives me an icky feeling, but I feel like she’s doing something.”
Even though Bottum didn’t have Elton (or Taylor, even) to lead the way back in the ‘90s and beyond, he always had support and friendship in Imperial Teen. They’ve spent decades creating that family for each other — and you as well, if you need it.
“We all accept what we do in a really nurturing way,” Bottum says. “I think we all need each other in the same way that a family needs each other. This is a family that we definitely chose to be part of, each of us.”
(Photo credit: Jonathan Grassi)
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