Jeff Pearlman

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Jeremy Popoff

#291
One of America's hottest country songs belongs to (gasp!) Lit. Think the band's tattoo-covered, hard-partying lead guitarist is gonna apologize for cranking out something besides rock? Think again, punk. POSTED January 6, 2017

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So here’s the magic of the Internet, 2017 style …

About a week ago I was resting in one of America’s, oh, six wifi-free coffee shops. It was in Newport Beach, and nearby sat a copy of OC Weekly. I picked it up, flipped around and stumbled upon a piece about Lit, the well-known, well-regarded rock band made uber-famous by its 1999 smash hit, “My Own Worst Enemy.”

Anyhow, the article concerned Lit’s recent transition to country music, and its new release, “Fast.” I’m a fan of switches and changes and transformations, so I downloaded “Fast,” and listened. And listened. And listened. And listened. I absolutely love the song, and wanted to know more. Hence, I Googled the band, found the names of the members and hit up Jeremy Popoff, the guitarist, on Twitter.

And here we are.

To be blunt, Jeremy Popoff kicks ass. Yeah, he’s an amazing guitarist. But he’s also raw, honest, real, insightful. Here, he discusses—in great detail—the path of a rock band going country, as well as how he feels about the inevitable criticism that comes with change. He also breaks down Lit’s survival, as well as what it is to age in the business.

One can follow Jeremy on Twitter here and Instagram here. You can also visit Lit’s Pledge Music page to learn about the upcoming album, and see how you can help a band continue on a most fruitful musical path.

Jeremy Popoff, lead guitarist of Stan Pearlman’s Door Lit, you are the 291st Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m gonna start with an obvious one. Lit is known—and has been known for 25 years—as a rock band. Now you have a country song, “Fast,” that’s all over the place. It’s a … weird/unusual musical move. I was trying to think of something comparable, and could only come up with Nelly doing that “Over and Over” song with Tim McGraw. So, Jeremy, how the hell did this happen? And why?

JEREMY POPOFF: Man, I don’t know where the line is any longer. More stuff that is considered country sounds like rock to me and stuff that is played on rock radio doesn’t sound like rock at all. Maybe that’s a good thing. And I don’t know that it’s an unusual musical move for us because, honestly, it’s how we write songs. We write on acoustic guitars and then we take it to the band. We’ve always had ballads and different vibes on our records. This one we left sparse because it felt good. When A.Jay and I were little kids, our dad was a radio DJ first on country stations, then he moved to Top 40. That’s when Top 40, or pop, meant the top 40 songs or most popular songs in the country. So we listened to everything.

But to your question—I started writing songs in Nashville several years ago, around 2005, shortly after we released our self-titled “Black” album. I was bored of the stuff I was hearing on the radio and was becoming disenchanted with the industry. I was also in a dark place in my life personally, between my divorce and a tragic accident that mom and step dad were in. So I was looking for inspiration and to challenge myself as a songwriter. Nashville saved my life creatively. I bought a house there in 2007. I fell in love with the community. I’ve made some lifelong friendships there and it really became my second home. I also fell in love with country music. A couple years later I started bringing my brother A.Jay, as well as [on-again, off-again Lit member] Ryan Gillmor, out there with me to write. We actually wrote most of “The View From The Bottom” record out there with some of my country songwriter buddies.

I think what finally happened is that the stuff we were writing over the last couple years just felt more like who we are today. We wanted to play them ourselves instead of just turning them in to be pitched to other artists. So we tested a few out on the road last summer and the songs went over great. The feedback was all positive and it was a seamless transition. It was never like, “OK kids, that was our old rock stuff—now bring out the banjos and cowboy hats and let’s introduce to you Lit Mach 2!” It’s really just us same dudes from Southern California playing songs about what we’re living, which is what we have always done.

We love country music and it’s not strange to us at all that it has an influence on our music. Everything that influenced us growing up still influences us today. I’ll tell you what hasn’t influenced us in a very long time is modern rock radio. My kid is 15 and my wife is 28, and they don’t listen to it either so I know it’s not just me getting old. I mean, other than Twenty One Pilots, it’s been pretty slim pickings for a while.  I listen to the shit out of classic rock, but the only thing I have in common with modern rock radio anymore is that they still play our old stuff and our old friends from back in the day. I don’t know what the hell happened. Maybe that will change. I hope so. I can’t tell the song title from the band name half the time. Shit I don’t know if they would even play “My Own Worst Enemy” now if it were a brand new song today. Crazy.

I think a lot of people we grew up with, who were in high school or their early 20s when Lit came out, are now in their mid-to-late 30s and many of them listen to country. We played “Enemy” with Dustin Lynch at Stagecoach last year and 50,000 or so country fans went absolutely bananas! You can’t walk into a honky-tonk on Broadway in Nashville and not hear the band play a Lit song. Most people don’t give a shit about genres, they like what they like. A good song is a good song. That’s what I think.

Lit in action last year.

Lit in action last year.

JEFF PEARLMAN: I wanna stick with this for a minute. When it comes to music, people like their comforts and met expectations. I always think about it in relation to Hall & Oates. Those two sell millions of albums. Hall does a few solo records—they sound exactly the same—but they don’t sell, because people want Oates. It’s what they’re used to; what they expect. But going country, especially after being known as a rock band, do you risk alienating/losing fans? Do you risk having people say, “Ugh, another band that sold out”? And have you felt those reactions at all?

JEREMY POPOFF.: I think that might be the first time I’ve ever heard the phrase, “People want Oates.” That’d be a great shirt idea for Hall & Oates merch.

It’s just not that easy, selling out, or everyone would be doing it. Can you imagine if all you had to do was change your format or copy an old hit and you could make way more money? That would be insane. We are playing some country festivals this year and are playing way earlier in the day for a lot less money than normal, so I don’t know how that is selling out. We have a lot of work to do. We’re lucky that we can still go out and play the rock festivals too, and honestly we have been playing the new stuff at those and nobody reacts weird—because it’s not. It wasn’t weird when I saw Kid Rock live a couple years ago. Or ZZ Top. Or when one my heroes, Elvis Costello, made a great country record a while back. Or when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss made that amazing record together 10 years ago. I love that. We took A Thousand Horses on tour with us fove years ago. We had Parmalee open for us in North Carolina a few years ago. And we brought Jamey Johnson on stage with us in Houston before anybody knew who he was as an artist, like 10 years ago, and the crowd loved him. Afterward we probably got drunk as hell and celebrated how rad it was to do what we do.

It’s just all about music and friends and life—and we love it. I think for Lit, selling out would be to try and write a bunch more of “My Own Worst Enemys” and “Miserables” or trying to go back and recreate our mindset when we were broke, single and in our 20s. We are making music that feels good to us, which is what we’ve always done. We are very grateful and feel encouraged that CMT would step up and embrace our “Fast” video, and that it would be voted in the Top 10, week after week by fans. That feels awesome.

When I see 50-yearold multi-millionaires on TV pretending to still be angry and rebellious punk rockers and pandering—that’s selling out in my opinion. I don’t want to do that. In this day and age, we risk alienating or losing fans by posting the wrong picture or Tweet. You could piss off a fan for not responding to a DM. So I mean, all we can do is what feels right for right now and hope people dig it. If a heartfelt song about life and family like “Fast” makes anybody stop listening to Lit, I don’t know what to tell them. That’s one of the best songs we’ve ever written.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Random question—you and your brother have shitloads of tattoos. I always find it interesting how the professions that most lend themselves to tatts are music and sports. Why do you think that is? When did you get your first? How many do you have? Do you have any you regret?

JEREMY POPOFF: When we were 18, it was a big deal to go below where your short sleeve would cover. If you couldn’t hide them, you couldn’t get a lot of jobs. And the neck or the hands, forget it! Those were called “job stoppers.” Nowadays there are CEOs, cops, teachers and very successful people who are pretty covered up with tattoos. And 18-year olds getting their first tattoo on their throats and knuckles. It’s crazy. I don’t even know how many I have. I only regret not getting a big-ass back piece about 15 years ago when I was way more interested in enduring that many hours and that kind of pain.

With a young Lit fan.

With a young Lit fan.

JEFF PEARLMAN: The song “Fast” is sorta heartbreaking, in the way it handles life moving by at the speed of light. A musical career seems that way, too. You and I are the same age, and as a writer I feel engaged in this very powerful fight to stay relevant as I get older and older. What about you? How does aging/mortality impact your approach to music, your career?

JEREMY POPOFF: “Fast” was a song that A.Jay and I wrote with Jeffrey Steele, who is one of my favorite songwriters ever. We were actually finishing a different song and were an hour late for a dinner meeting with a rep from Sony. We had this idea for “Fast” that we had talked about that morning and as I was putting my guitar in the case to pack up, Steele kinda strummed a chord progression and mumbled a lyric that ended with … Fast.

I was like, “Oh shit, it’s on!” I pulled my guitar back out and told our manager that we might not be making that dinner meeting. We just started pouring out these words which were all connected to things that had happened in our lives. A couple times the three of us got choked up while trying to sing it down. We wrote way more lyrics for that song than we ended up using and we wrote it in about 45 minutes. It was just one of those special times we live for as songwriters. I think if we’re writing what’s relevant to us, then it’s relevant, unless you’re some kind of way-out-there person that’s just into weird shit. I mean, I like things that a lot of people like. I’m pretty normal and mainstream when it comes to life. So if I’m writing a song, it’s probably going to be about something other people can relate to, because I’m just not really an obscure kind of guy.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Another totally random one—your birthday is Sept. 11, 1971. What is it, in modern America, to have Sept. 11 as a birthday? And what do you remember of 9.11.01?

JEREMY POPOFF: I was there. We were about to start the Atomic tour on my 30th birthday in New Jersey. We partied in NYC till about 3 am. I remember being woken up early in the morning by Kevin [Baldes, the Lit bassist]—he called my room to tell me to turn on the TV … that a plane just crashed into the Trade Center. I actually opened my curtains first because we were right across the river and I could see the smoke. Then I saw the second plane crash in real time. It was the most helpless feeling, being stranded and being huddled around TVs with strangers. Cell phones weren’t connecting. It was scary. My son was about to be born in a few weeks and I just remember being so worried about the world I was bringing him into and I was paranoid about my wife driving to the doctor or anywhere with me being on the other side of the country.

We obviously didn’t play that night in Jersey, but we did play the next night in DC. We went on the radio station HFS and we told people that we didn’t mean any disrespect, but we had nowhere else to go and we were gonna play our show at the 930 Club that night if anybody felt like hanging’ out, but we understood if they didn’t want to go out and that we’d come back soon regardless. The crowd was amazing. Everybody needed to blow off some steam and get away from their TVs. I remember that time as the most united I have ever felt our country. For the next few days and weeks, America was one team and it felt amazing.

JEFF PEARLMAN: You’re from Anaheim. Your mom was a hairdresser, your dad a radio DJ. Your brother, A. Jay, is Lit’s lead singer. But how did this happen for you guys? What I mean is—there are 1,000,000 aspiring kids playing guitar and singing in their garage. How did you make it?

JEREMY POPOFF: I hope you’re right about the million kids playing guitar and singing. All my kid wants to do is rap and make loops. Haha. From the time I was nine and A.Jay was seven, it’s all we wanted to do. Our dad took us to see UFO & Iron Maiden at the Long Beach Arena and it blew our minds. From the next day on, it’s all we cared about. When A.Jay, Kevin, Allen and I decided to be a band, it was literally 10 years of living, breathing, eating, sleeping and shitting the band. If we weren’t practicing or writing, we were promoting, passing out flyers and stickers. We never stopped working. We were young, naive dreamers with no back up plan. We just never gave up and I think the thing that kept us going was that we loved what we were doing so much. We would sell out these clubs and even though record labels kept passing on us, we just knew they were wrong and that we would get there eventually. Tunnel vision, work ethic, discipline and ultimately luck—that’s how we made it. Luck is how anybody makes it. Like getting a hole in one, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot, but you have to be able to swing a golf club.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Your band was originally “Razzle.” Then “Stain.” Then “Lit.” Two things: A. Why Lit? B. Does a band name matter when it comes to success? Do you think the image, sound, impact of a name plays a role in success/failure? Could you guys have been “The Car Keys” or “Stan Pearlman’s Door” and still have had the same run?

JEREMY POPOFF: The Car Keys, maybe. Stan Perlman’s Door, probably not.

We were teenagers as Razzle. Named after the candy that turns into gum, for some fucking reason! Haha! We actually got signed a few years later as Stain and the “Tripping The Light Fantastic” album was originally titled “Lit.” The cover had an old antique oil lamp that used to hang in our grandparents’ living room, where A.Jay and I first started learning how to play music. There was a guy, Ron Krauss, who was a director and wanted to make a video for us. He said that watching us live was like watching a bomb go off in a building. We liked that description, so we were like, Bomb=Fuse=Lit= Lit! Plus the picture of the lamp=Lit. Fucking perfect! Then we found out that some dude in Ohio had the name Stain. He wanted something like 5 grand for the rights to it and we were like, “Fuck that!” So we took Lit from the title, changed it to “Tripping The Light Fantastic,” and that was that.

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JEFF PEARLMAN: Everyone on the planet knows “My Own Worst Enemy.” The riff is ubiquitous, the lyrics oft-repeated. A few things: A. How did that song come to be? B. Is it a great song, a good song, a random song that happened to hit? Like, how do you view it?

JEREMY POPOFF: “My Own Worst Enemy” was written just like all the others up to that point. We had a rented warehouse space in an industrial park in Anaheim and we turned it into a rock n’ roll man cave clubhouse. We would take turns buying 12 packs of Natural Light and we’d write and practice all night. We wrote it pretty fast. We liked it but we were unsure and kind of self conscious about it because our buddy T-Bone didn’t think it was cool. So we actually didn’t play it for a couple months live.

Then one night at the Troubadour in Hollywood, we tried it out and everybody freaked out. We felt like it was the one. But, like, three labels were there that night and passed on us. So we went in and recorded “Enemy,” “Miserable,” and “Four.” Every label said they didn’t hear a single. So at that point, we were like, Shit! What are we missing? Every show is sold out. People like what we’re doing. We like it. Then, randomly, a radio promotions guy at RCA in LA happened to see our CD on someone’s desk and recognized our manager’s name on the cover from college in Michigan. So he took the CD into his office to look her up and he put the disc in to check it out. He flipped when he heard it and ran it into Ron Fair‘s office. Ron knew of us from one of his other artists, Stacy Ferguson (aka “Fergie”), who was a Lit fan. Anyway, he took it with him and Bruce Flohr that day into a meeting with KROQ and that was that.

We were in the studio, on the radio and on the road within a few weeks, before the record deal had even been signed. We didn’t come home for almost two years. It was a long 10 years in the making—overnight success story. So, yeah, we fucking love that song! It blows us away how much it still gets played, covered, used on TV, in movies, during sports games. We are so lucky to have been in our warehouse together that night when that riff fell out of the rafters! When I think of those iconic intro riffs like “Start Me Up,” “Back In Black,” “Money For Nothing,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Walk This Way”—it’s crazy to know that we are members of that club.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

JEREMY POPOFF: Man. So many “greatest” moments. Playing Woodstock. Playing Reading Festival. Madison Square Garden. Angel Stadium in 2000. First time on The Tonight Show. Our first tour bus. Handing platinum plaques to our parents and grandparents. Buying a house. Opening The Slidebar. Still doing it.

Lowest moment—losing Allen [Jeff’s note: Lit’s dummer, Allen Shellenberger, died of cancer in 2009]

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JEFF PEARLMAN: This interview is happening because I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday. I pick up an OC Weekly because there’s no wifi and I’m bored. I read about you guys, and “Fast.” I go to Apple Music and download it. And I wonder—do you like how the music business works now more than in the 1990s? I mean, there are almost no CDs, few people download an entire album, you have to tour your asses off to get paid. So … is it good? Or awful?

JEREMY POPOFF: Yes, it is hard work to make money in this business or any other business. In the 1990s, everybody listened to the radio and bought CDs. FM radio paid. You could get checks in the mail for tens of thousands of dollars for having a song on the radio. Now everybody has satellite radio or streams from their phone, which doesn’t pay at all. As a music fan, I love having options. I like having my Pandora blaring through every room in my house on my Sonos. But I miss Tower Records. I miss artwork and the smell of a new record. I also like the freedom as an independent artist to be doing things like Pledge Music and involving our fans in the process. I like being able to get songs out to the people without necessarily having to wait for release dates and stuff. But artists will always have to get out there on the road and hustle to make any money and “The Music Business” will never pay artists what’s fair. It is what it is. The music business is still the music business. But shit, I can’t complain. Yeah, It’s good. I work my ass off but I haven’t had to punch a time clock anywhere in 20 years and I sign my own checks. That’s pretty cool.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEREMY POPOFF:

• My daughter’s good friend shares your last name. She’s only 13. What does her future hold, as far as nicknames?: Well, hopefully A.Jay and I having some popularity over the years makes it a little cooler for her and other young Popoffs than it was when we were kids.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): John Mellencamp, Wendell Tyler, orange cups, Chance the Rapper, Huntington Beach, the smell of crayons, the Wiggles, tuna melts, “The Jazz Singer,” Jerry Brown: Mellencamp, Jazz Singer, HB, tuna melts, Wiggles, crayons, Wendell, orange cups, Chance the Rapper, Jerry Brown.

This is my all-time favorite song. Your thoughts?: I love Blind Melon. I used to play Galaxy over and over and just obsess on that song when it came out. And I just watched the video three times after checking out your link. Damn, what an amazing voice!

• Ten years from now what are we saying about Jared Goff’s career?: He had a rough first year but went on to be the best in the game and took us all the way to a Rams’ Super Bowl victory!

• One question you would ask Carmen Electra were she here right now?: Um. Remember that one time in Cancun? That was awesome.

• Four memories from appearing on Cribs?: They burned a hole in my kitchen ceiling with one of the lights. I was drinking the whole time we were filming. Neighborhood kids would hang out in front of my house after it aired. Lenny Kravitz and Gene Simmons both complimented me on my style in furniture.

• Five greatest guitarists of your lifetime?: Barry Goudreau, Charlie Starr, Cowboy Eddie Long, George Lynch, SRV, EVH, Butch Walker, Glen Tipton.

• In exactly 17 words, describe your feelings on crushed pineapple: I’m not really sure why we would ever need to have our pineapple crushed for any reason.

Renée Fleming calls. She wants you to hit the road with her and play guitar in her rock opera. It’s called, “Poodles Shit on My Guitarist,” and it involves you wearing a large purple bunny suit and having poodles shit on you as you play. You have to be on the road for 360-straight days in 2018, but you’ll get paid $10 million. You in?: Absolutely!

• The world needs to know, what does Pamela Anderson’s hair smell like?: Sunshine and cinnamon.

  • F Calvin

    Nicely done.

  • RYAN Stoodley

    This is awesome! Really like to read these!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life