June 19th, 2012, 4:45 pm · · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
It’s been eight years since Fullerton rock band Lit put out an album. For brothers A. Jay and Jeremy Popoff – the group’s vocalist and lead guitarist, respectively – along with longtime bassist Kevin Baldes and fairly recent additions Nathan Walker (drums) and Ryan Gillmor (guitar), the release date couldn’t have come soon enough.
This week the quintet unleashed new material to the masses via Megaforce Records, the label that launched monsters of metal like Metallica and Anthrax and more recently issued discs from Ministry and Living Colour. Lit’s latest, “The View from the Bottom,” was produced by Butch Walker, in-demand industry player whose behind-the-scenes work ranges from Weezer and Saosin to Pink and Katy Perry.
The title isn’t as ominous as it sounds. In fact, the true meaning is very much in the tradition of Lit, as the guys demonstrated for me exactly what a “view from the bottom” looks like, hoisting their cocktail glasses high in the air and clinking them together.
“If you get down and look up, it’s sort of our little cheers to the future, a little play on words,” Jeremy says as we chat in the back of the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen in downtown Fullerton, the bar and restaurant he owns.
To usher in the new disc, the band will headline a release party at House of Blues Anaheim on Saturday, along with fellow local acts Julien-K and We Are the Arsenal. That particular stage is very near to their hearts: Lit kicked off the grand opening of the Mouse House in 2001 and returned to perform at the venue’s 10th anniversary last year.
In April, the group embarked on a club jaunt to get back in the groove of touring, something they will do lots more of once the Summerland Tour gets underway next week. The two-month trek pulls together an assortment of ’90s bands – including Everclear, Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray and Marcy Playground – and after launching in Saratoga on Thursday, it stops at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on June 29, followed by a gig at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on June 30 and an appearance at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar on July 2.
“We did 16 shows in three weeks,” Jeremy says of the smaller outing that preceded Summerland, “so we were definitely forced to jump back into road mode. We were a little sore after about the third or fourth (show) and we were all kind of complaining to each other about our sore bones and joints – the things that start to go after the years. But it was awesome. It was all small, sweaty clubs.”
“It was pretty badass to get back to those roots,” A. Jay continues. “Especially with having new songs to play, that felt really good.”
The newer band members – Gillmor, who also plays keys, and Walker, who stepped in when Lit’s original drummer Allen Shellenberger lost his battle to brain cancer in 2009 – were seemingly welcomed with open arms by fans.
“They were just awesome and we actually got to meet a bunch of them after the shows,” Gillmor says. “One girl made this huge monstrosity of a cake – it was like something you’d see like on the Food Network, and had Lit written on it and a Jägermeister bottle.
“The fans have been accepting and it’s been really cool to come into this sort of built-in crowd – which, for me, is great because I worked for years and did two full Warped Tours on my own, selling CDs out the back of my car. So to now play shows where people are coming and rocking out and singing along to every word, that’s what you shoot for – and now that’s what I have.”
Without a current hit single on the radio or a big push from MTV like they got at the turn of the millennium, the Lit gang says they’ve been grateful for the turnout at shows thus far and the feedback from fans once a few new tracks were put online.
“It’s cool but also a little bit scary, because everything now is so unfiltered,” A. Jay says. “If someone doesn’t like your stuff, it’s up there just as quick as the people saying ‘I love the new songs.’ I was pleasantly surprised not to see a whole lot of (trash) talking. I expected a little of that since we had been gone for so long, but it’s mostly been positive from what I’ve seen.”
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” Jeremy adds. “We’re not trying to save the world. We’re just out there having a good time and playing rock ‘n’ roll songs that we dig, and people seem to dig ‘em too, so it’s fun.”
10-YEAR OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
“The next day we were, like, dunking our heads in the pool and rocking out with tennis rackets and pretending we were in Iron Maiden,” he recalls. “From the time I was 9 years old, that’s all I wanted: to be in a rock band. And to be 40 and still in a rock band, that’s definitely a blessing.”
“Jeremy and I would go to these big arena shows – Ozzy and Metallica – and we’d always have the (crappy) seats in the back,” A. Jay adds, “and we’d be doing whatever we could, borrowing binoculars just to get a closer look. It was just this bigger-than-life rebellion happening and all of these people were there and stoked to watch it all go down. So I think my brother and I were like, ‘OK, we’re going to have to flip the tables a little bit and be those guys.’”
Meanwhile, at 15, Baldes began helping with lighting and loading in for bands at Jezebel’s Nightclub in Anaheim.
“I would roadie for just about anybody I could,” he remembers. “I was just so in awe of the process and the people who could get on stage and play instruments. It was the lights and the loud noise, and it was this world that I wanted to be a part of so bad.
“Back then it meant that I might have to load gear and set things up, so I learned the ropes pretty early on. It wasn’t about the drinking or the chicks. You saw all of that going on, but for me it was the cabinets, the gear, the music – and getting to see how all of that came together. I mean, it wasn’t long after that I discovered (the chicks and drinking). It was like, ‘Wow, that comes along with it I guess. Well, all right.’”
The Popoffs and Baldes, along with Shellenberger, formed what would become Lit in 1989. Finding that they didn’t really fit in with the more punk-geared local music scene of that time, the band opted to play more gigs in L.A. nightclubs while cultivating a following by throwing keg parties and concerts in a warehouse in Anaheim, drawing 200-300 people at a time, Jeremy says.
That fan base grew via word-of-mouth as the decade wore on, until the group got its big break in 1998 and signed with RCA Records. Mere months later the “10-year overnight success” released the platinum-selling “A Place in the Sun,” spawning the hit single “My Own Worst Enemy” and radio staples like “Zip-Lock” and “Miserable.” By the time they played Woodstock ’99 that August, Lit was everywhere, enjoying a spot on the Vans Warped Tour and making the most of its spotlight on MTV, especially with its 2000 video for “Miserable,” starring “Baywatch” babe Pamela Anderson.
“It’s sort of surreal, and it does feel like we’ve been a band forever,” A. Jay says. “When KROQ finally started playing our music, it just seemed like the floodgates opened. Then we were on MTV or on ‘TRL,’ and it happened so fast.
“Now that I think back on all of those big moments, I am like, ‘God, I wish I would have held on to each one a little tighter.’ A lot of that doesn’t exist anymore and a lot of new bands probably won’t ever experience that. So I feel pretty lucky to have been a part of that whole MTV generation – it’s just so unreal.”
The first time he remembers hearing Lit on the radio, he was hanging out with Baldes at his parents’ house when a promo came on KROQ featuring quick clips from new artists.
“They threw out a couple of band names and then they said ‘Lit’ and I was like, ‘Listen, they’re playing the clip!’ Then the first song they went into was ours and it was totally unexpected. It was totally a ‘That Thing You Do!’ moment when you tackle each other and high-five because that’s the you-made-it moment. Now, when I’m listening to the radio and I’m driving home from picking up my kid at school, one of our songs will come on and she looks at me and says, ‘Dad! Turn it up!’ That’s amazing.”
Following the huge breakout of “A Place in the Sun,” the band released “Atomic” in 2001 to a less enthusiastic response, and a year later Lit parted ways with RCA. Success tapered off somewhat after that: a self-titled third album, their last until this week, arrived in June 2004, while occasional tours of small clubs and festival appearances continued.
But in 2005 A. Jay and Jeremy were hit with a tremendous blow when their stepfather Kerry Suglia was killed and their mother, Sheri, was seriously injured when they were hit by a drunk driver while cruising down Ortega Highway in Lake Elsinore on their Harley-Davidson.
The Popoff brothers laid low in the months that followed, helping their mother through her recovery. Yet not long after returning to performing, more devastating news came: In 2008 Shellenberger learned he had a brain tumor. Lit, however, had committed to a tour; Walker was named a substitute.
“When (Allen) got sick the band had a bunch of shows booked, and at the time they couldn’t really pass them up because everyone had bills to pay,” he recalls. “So they asked me if I could pop in for some shows and I said absolutely. As long as Allen was cool with it, then I was cool with it.”
Shellenberger died Aug. 13, 2009, at 39. The band once again stayed out of the spotlight and focused on their families, taking time to regroup.
By 2011 Lit was ready to rock again. Talk began of a new album and setting up tours. The guys had managed to dust themselves off and were ready to move forward.
“I think (Allen) is up there and he’d be proud of us and the record,” Jeremy says. “I think he would have been really (mad) if we hadn’t kept going.
“But I’m definitely proud of this record. I’m proud we’re still here and we’re still rockin’. I think our shows are better than ever and I think these songs are better – and I know a lot of bands say that, but I’m pretty critical of (us). We wouldn’t be putting this record out, especially after eight years, if we didn’t think that we could stand behind it.”
Yet putting out a new album and hitting the road is quite a different game than it was a dozen years ago, they’re discovering. Fathers themselves, the founding members say they can still party like rock stars, but do so now with more caution. A. Jay has a 9-year-old daughter with eclectic taste. Jeremy has a 10-year-old son who’s a huge fan of the band and loves hanging out backstage. Baldes, the newest father of the bunch, is grateful for technology that allows him to see his infant son while on the road.
Apart from Lit, Jeremy has his hands full writing songs for others and running the Slidebar, which made headlines last week for reasons other than its shows or drink specials. (A lawsuit filed by a former employee claims a false report about Kelly Thomas was called in to Fullerton police by an on-duty Slidebar manager the night that officers beat the homeless man to death. Popoff has denied the suit, calling it “false and frivolous.”)
A. Jay is also writing songs and DJ-ing, while Baldes has fallen in love with concert photography and can occasionally be spotted behind a giant lens in the photo pit at big concerts locally. One of his shots was featured in Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler’s recent book “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?”
“He called my phone and I was at breakfast, and he was like, ‘Hey, it’s Steven Tyler’,” Baldes says. “He asked me to come up and have lunch with him because he wanted to take a look at some of the photos I had shot of the band at Irvine (Verizon Wireless Amphitheater).
“When the book came out I thought it would be a small photo somewhere in there, but I have my own page. And what he said below it, that meant everything to me – ‘My favorite Aerosmith photo of all-time.’ It was jaw-dropping. I did scream like a little girl in my house. It was quite the accomplishment and I was pretty stoked.”
Personal endeavors aside, everyone remains proudest of simply being Lit. Each member shared milestones during our chat – big accomplishments, even some personal lows – but the consensus kept coming full circle to “well, we’re still here.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t dream of a mansion,” Baldes says, adding that he still doesn’t have one. “I dreamed of playing music with my friends and being on stage and entertaining people and playing that music loud.
“We’ve all done that together. It’s weird: In the time we’ve been together, new bands have come and then they go and more new ones come, then they go. And we’re still here, we’re still playing. We’ve been playing forever, and that’s awesome.”
Lit, with Julien-K and We Are the Arsenal opening, plays Saturday, June 23, at House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive. Tickets are $25 in advance, $27.50 day of show. Call 714-778-2583 or click here for more details. On June 29, the band plays the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles as part of the Summerland Tour, with Everclear, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, and Marcy Playground. Tickets are $30-$60.
Photos by Kevin Warn, WARNPHOTOGRAPHY.COM and Kevin Baldes.
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