Hey Willpower! Can I Get a 'Hell Yeah!'?

Imperial Teen's Will Schwartz goes solo, Top 40, and asks, "Why the Hell Not?"

Ten SXSWs ago, I wrote a li'l pick (or was it a sleeper?) about a band called Imperial Teen. They were a'buzz because they included members of Faith No More (Roddy Bottum) and Sister Double Happiness (Lynn Perko). It was love at first listen, confirmed by first sight at a made-up venue for the conference in that still unfinished SE corner of the Driskill Hotel.

Will Schwartz was a principal Teen. Rumors of the Teens' total demise, as we will learn below, have been greatly exaggerated (or things change, whatever). Anyway, very recently, on one of our first MySpace "friend harvesting" sessions, we came across this totally hottt, not-quite, but sort of, faggy-looking shirtless dude and clicked. Lo and behold, we stumbled upon Will Schwartz's new thang.

It's called hey willpower! And, (as we said in our MySpace blog) "It's a li'l Pharrell, a l'il Sean Paul, a l'il uh-ungh!, a l'il Scissor Sister, a l'il Prince, a l'il Ladytron... a lotta UNGH UNGH. OOOH. OH YES." And that was way before we realized that they had a song called "UhUhUh."

"They" (hey willpower) for all intents and purposes is Will and collaborator Tomo with some color-coordinated dancers. Everything you need to know about them can be found at: www.heywillpower.com and in this interview (we hope). Hey!

AC: Is Imperial Teen totally over? A done deal?

WS: No. We've actually been getting together around once a month for the past few months and writing some songs and hanging out. We're vaguely planning to record around the summertime, still on Merge. So it isn't a done deal, in fact.

AC: Who is hey willpower live? Does it vary?

WS: It's basically Tomo and I and dancers... and we have choreographed dances... Y'know, like Beyonce or something. [much laughter] We're kind of ... maybe ...

AC: Whiter? [more laughter]

WS: We're referencing big pop like that, but not in a way that's like smirky, grinning. Just because I really love it. It's really exciting to me. Like a lot of radio music, I think that there's a lot of innovation going on in R&B radio music ... as well as a lot of crap.

AC: Tell me great and what's crap on the radio?

WS: Well, like a lot of the stuff that Missy does and Timbaland – I think there is a lot of innovation going on there in the way the beats are constructed and the sound that they use is just something you don't hear. The Neptunes... I feel like they have that also. Yeah, definitely Pharrell and Dr. Dre – the production is often amazing.

AC: What's the big thing regionally out there? Like, here it's Mike Jones and this whole Houston thing. Do you guys get that out there?

WS: Yeah, not as much. The big thing happening here is the E-40 – if we're talking regionally – and the hyph-y stuff.

AC: Ashlee Simpson's coming to the rodeo. Do you wanna go? Do you like Ashlee Simpson?

WS: [laughter] There's something in it that's compelling to me because I was in New York recently for a couple of months and my roommate had an obsession with Ashlee Simpson, and I loved the roommate, so I can't hate Ashlee Simpson because of it [much laughter]. But it's kind of crappy. What else? You know what bugs, kind of? John Legend.

AC: Bad?

WS: I'm just not that into it.

AC: Crap?

WS: Kind of, to me.

AC: Wait, who?

WS: John Legend. He does this Stevie Wonder-ish ballad song. He won some Grammy's. I'm not feelin' it. But, I'm kind of a softie that way. Shit- talking... I'm not a great shit-talker.

AC: So if John Legend walked into the room, you probably wouldn't throw down?

WS: I wouldn't throw down. I'd probably "bro-down." [laughter] For example, Usher songs don't really get me, but I think he's a great dancer.

AC: Yeah, I feel that way about Bob Dylan ...

WS: [laughter] He's a great dresser, or he was.

AC: Like, to me, this isn't something that I turn up in the car, but I get why people get it; I just don't get it.

WS: There's that guy Chris Brown, the young guy, the 16-year-old guy, his songs get to me for some reason. It's "[Yo (]Excuse Me Miss[)]." And he's an incredible dancer. He has something I could grab onto for some reason.

AC: Where do you hear this stuff, mostly?

WS: Mostly on the radio. We have a station here, KMEL. And then we have the hip-hop, R&B stations. So mostly I hear it on those when I'm driving around.

AC: Are you in SF or L.A.? Are you as car-based as we are in Austin?

WS: I don't have to drive everyday, but I lived in Los Angeles for a while, and you do have to drive everyday there. I shouldn't drive so much because I have some San Francisco guilt about it [laughter]. So that's where I hear a lot of my jams.

AC: [laughter] What's your latest?

WS: The latest downloads? It's kind of embarrassing. Well, you know, yo, check on it. Let me see my LimeWire...

AC: You guys get Chamillionaire?

WS: It's kind of not so popular on the KMEL.

AC: Okay this is weird, like when you think Top 40, you think Clear Channel and same hits across the board. I don't get out much, but I guess the hip-hop stuff is a lot more regional.

WS: Yeah well... Is E-40 huge there?

AC: No.

WS: Oh, cos E-40 is like every other song. He's Bay area-based, and it's not my favorite thing. He's got the whole hyph-y thing. You know that term? It's like getting hyph-y is like starting a fight or getting angry. Or getting down with it. You know that kind of thing? And that's pretty universal at this point. We're not gettin' hyph-y.

AC: [laughter] You're not?

WS: I'm getting R. Kelly.

AC: [laughter] So you aren't so much into the manly hip-hop.

WS: [laughter] I can rock out to it, but personally, songwriting wise, it just doesn't seem to happen that much. If I try to go Li'l Jon style, it comes out Kelis style.

AC: [hysterical laughter]

WS: You know that's what happens organically.

AC: So the origin of hey willpower was an idea that you and [Aislers Set's Amy] Linton had, right? And does Linton identify as "he" now?

WS: As "they."

AC: Oh. That plural thing makes the proofreader and teacher in me crazy. Crap, I've been referring to Linton as "he."

WS: "He"'s better than "she," but "they"'s better than "he."

AC: Does Linton still participate in the band?

WS: Not really, no. Besides being a great friend and coming and dancing at the shows, that's about it. We were really obsessing on the pop radio stuff, and it was amazing then. It was really like a Renaissance going on.

AC: It all started because of that Busta/Mariah song, right?

WS: Baby if you give it to me, I'll give it to you... And it was a Sean Paul summer. Linton was living in the same building in Harlem as Sean Paul, and we were just crazy for it. We wanted to try and make a song like an homage kind of song to that style of songwriting; so we did that song and then ... this feels right. Then Linton moved to New York, and I just ran with it. Then I met Tomo through a roommate of mine. He said he would help me out with this. I had come up here, I was in L.A. for a while, and Imperial Teen was really in between. Like we had put out that "On" record, and I wanted to do something that felt more like, that wasn't as democratic, and that just really felt like my trip. So I was determined to do that when I came back to San Francisco, and I didn't know exactly how it would manifest. Then the thing happened with Linton, and I decided I wanted to write songs for a show 'cos that's how Imperial Teen started. We booked a show, and then we wrote songs for it. So I was like, that worked out for that, so I'm gonna try it with this.

AC: When did you start playing out?

WS: September 2004.

AC: Would you classify yourself as a regional phenomenon?

WS: No. We're worldwide.

AC: Would you say that's because of MySpace?

WS: [laughter] Or, okay, we aspire to be worldwide. You really had to dissect that one, didn't ya? You called my bluff.

AC: Yeah. But you did tour recently, didn't you?

WS: We toured with the Scissor Sisters last year. And then we toured a bunch. So we've gotten to play for a bunch of people all over the States, but we're going to Europe in June for a couple of festival shows and some cool clubs. I'm really excited about that. I feel like Europe is gonna be psyched on it, and people have been really nice there through e-mail.

AC: How did the duet with Annie work out?

WS: We played at this past CMJ [College Music Journal Conference], and I'd been e-mailing a little bit with Adam Shore from VICE Records. He dropped by our show, then I got an e-mail from him. He said he this idea this kind of weird idea, "How do you feel about making a duet out of 'Chewing Gum,'" and I was like, "Yeah!" I love Annie, and she performed here last March or something like that. I usually don't do this, but I gave her a CD like a total nerd and typed a note on it and tried to make it all aesthetic and cute, you know? Just saying, "I know this sounds weird or you probably hear this all the time, but I feel a kinship with you in terms of playing around with the boundaries of big pop and underground and that kind of thing." Then the thing with Adam from VICE just happened totally exclusive of that, like a coincidence. So we still haven't really met or anything. I met her that night as a fan. I don't really know her yet. I received the separated tracks and made the song with those. We rebuilt the track and used a lot of tracks from their sessions, so it's not exactly a mash-up, it's more of a duet.

AC: So you haven't really met?

WS: No. We're actually DJing this party it's for that Nylon magazine it's at the Factory People. We DJ right after Annie, so we'll see what happens there, if she's like, "Are you stalking me?" We were gonna try and get her to come by our show and maybe sing the duet.

AC: There's certainly a happy dancey emergent movement somewhere in all this.

WS: Yeah, definitely. And we were kind of joking before about being regional or national, but part of the thing is that it's mobile. What makes it so mobile is that there's not that much equipment to carry around, so you just can sort of go to different places, set up your turntables or computer and a keyboard, and just throw it down. So there is a lot of movement like that.

AC: What systems do you use?

WS: Well we basically record it on ProTools on an Mbox and then we re-record it. We record an outline of what the song will be. Then we record it with this guy in New York whose name is 1-L. We go to New York. He has a better studio setup. I want it to sound as big pop as possible. I want to be it. I want to become that sort of pop person while kind of having a commentary on it. Do you know what I mean?

AC: You're examining it by embodying it?

WS: Like we said, a lot of it's crap, but I think it's serious too. And there's a lot of amazing things going on in that genre. It has a huge effect on our culture.

AC: What makes what you're doing not just another bunch of white boys appropriating black music?

WS: Well, it would be one thing if I was totally appropriating a vernacular or posing like a thug or something like that. I'm just making the music that I want to make, and that I grew up on. Like Michael and Janet and Eighties pop. So I'm sure there will be people saying that I'm appropriating, but I'm making pop music. I'm not making world music. Pop music is supposed to be for everyone. That's part of what I'm doing. I'm making the music that I want to hear, and that I like to listen to.

AC: Kind of like Sonic Youth's riff on Madonna, Ciccone Youth?

WS: Except that they were deconstructing it. Like they were taking the actual tracks and getting rid of it and starting with something else. And what we're doing is just making the music. Musically, I'm really going for it. I have respect for Madonna and was really into Sonic Youth, so I didn't take it as a total joke: I took it as a kind of homage. It was like "This + this = something else," something totally different. In that sense we have that going on. "This + that music = something different" in terms of packaging for people. A lot of pop is so packaged and so perfect. I wanted to do something that commented on that, that has the songwriting and the production, but that maybe has a package that's not so perfect and seamless, where maybe you could see some of the threads, you know.

AC: The experience of pop is so filtered and so manufactured, it's easy to forget that sometimes there is some great songwriting.

WS: It is on the radio, and it is the predominant music in our popular culture, so I want to check it out, I want to see what it's like to have the experience of making that music because I love it first of all, and also 'cos I want to explore how it happens and why it happens and the whole idea of "phenomenon."

AC: When touring with Le Tigre and Scissor Sisters, how did you find the state of queer fans? Is this a viable audience segment or is it a scene...?

WS: It seems like in queerness, there's getting together at the club and dancing. And it's a way that people come together, and it's a community thing. That's really how it carries over with bands like Le Tigre and the Scissor Sisters, and Junior Senior, Peaches, and Annie. Queers like to dance.

AC: And you sure can't do that at a Rufus Wainwright show or a Holly Near show.

WS: [laughter] You could...

AC: Do you feel like this is truly a possibility... that you could bust out and show up on the Top 40?

WS: I do. I think it's a possibility. Just from the way the crowds, our audiences, react to our shows. I just know it's there. I think it's hard because of what I was talking about before, the way things are packaged and the way the industry goes, especially in America. If it doesn't happen here first, I think there's a good chance of somebody in Europe recognizing it and just being like, "Well this could happen." Just because it doesn't fit all these marketing trajectories, there's no reason... Why not? At a certain point I felt like maybe I don't fit in to that structure, but yeah, why not? And that's part of the thing, like why not? People like it and people want it, so... Why the hell not?

AC: We have a third party gubernatorial candidate in Texas, a Jewish, mystery-writing, cigar-chomping cowboy named Kinky Friedman, his campaign motto is "Why the hell not?"

WS: [laughter] Let's face it. There are a lot of "why the hell nots" going on all around us. So I certainly wouldn't do that to myself – say it can't happen to me.

AC: Top 40 also encompasses so much, there are dance charts. If Junior Senior could do it...

WS: Yeah. The Scissor Sisters are a "why not?"

AC: That record did real well. Hey, Willpower? Why the Hell not?

WS: Oh, man. Is that gonna be the title of it?

AC: Yeeeah. Is that bad?

WS: What about HELL YEAH?

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