Fun, Talent and Naked Ambition
Orange County Edition

It's a mark of Lit's grounded attitude about the music business that in the band members' shared dream of being on stage at Irvine Meadows, it is still daylight as they begin to play--not as headliners, but as an opening act. "Our ultimate dream is to be at Irvine Meadows with the sun setting behind the lawn," said Jeremy Popoff, who plays guitar and writes the Anaheim band's songs in collaboration with his younger brother, singer A. Jay Popoff.

It's a mark of Lit's naughty streak that, when the band actually did hit the big stage at Irvine Meadows for the first time--on June 19 during the KROQ Weenie Roast--the Popoffs, bassist Kevin Baldes and drummer Allen Shellenberger appeared without their equipment--except that which God gave them.

The Lit foursome took a nude run across the stage as a prankish inside joke during a set by their friends in Blink 182, a punk-pop band known for disrobing on video and on stage. Lit's own Weenie Roast set took place on Irvine Meadows' second stage: close, but not quite the stuff dreams are made of.

As luck would have it--and these Las Vegas gambling-junket enthusiasts have been on a roll lately--Lit gets to do it again this weekend, this time with instruments, and, presumably, with clothing. Opening for the Offspring, it appears that Lit will go on stage at dusk, just as the members say they always envisioned it.

After 10 years of persistent trying, two name changes and a couple of stylistic about-faces, Lit finds itself in much the same position No Doubt was in three years ago when it played the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim--as the opening band on a triple bill headlined by Bush and the Goo Goo Dolls.

No Doubt's album "Tragic Kingdom" had shot into the Top 40 on the strength of a hot first single, "Just a Girl." Ditto for Lit and its album, "A Place in the Sun," which has been certified gold (for sales of more than 500,000 copies) by the Recording Industry Assn. of America and reached as high as No. 31 on the Billboard chart, thanks to a first single, "My Own Worst Enemy," that became omnipresent on modern rock radio.

Lit's follow-up single, "Zip-Lock," is another catchy rocker, just as No Doubt's was. No Doubt kicked its sales from impressive to phenomenal with a third radio hit, "Don't Speak," that was a sweetly sad ballad. Lit has a couple of potential sigh-and-hum ballads in its arsenal that sound like potential all-format pop radio hits: "Miserable" and "The Best Is Yet to Come Undone."

Enjoying Their Hard-Earned Buzz

It was the levelheaded, self-contained Lit that turned up for an interview in Fullerton recently, not the act willing to go naked to make an impression. After the newspaper interview, it would be on to Hollywood to tape a TV appearance with Dweezil Zappa. The next day, Rolling Stone wanted Lit for a fashion shoot. The stretch limo that shepherds Lit around these days would be getting a workout.

There was no sign that any of this is going to the band members' heads. Rather than exuding a giddy sense of triumph, they projected a quiet satisfaction that they had ridden out hard times and gradually improved.

Jeremy Popoff, who comes off as first among equals in the band's decision-making and strategizing, has a maxim about a big industry buzz being fatal when a band is just starting out, because expectations become impossible to fulfill.

"The buzz we have now is the result of hard work," said Jeremy. "The buzz is earned."

Indeed, as Lit arrives at the doorstep of stardom, one of its most important credentials is a diploma from rock's school of hard knocks. Its 1997 debut album, "Tripping the Light Fantastic," was the classic case of a record getting no promotion and flopping badly. Lit got off its label, Malicious Vinyl, as quickly as it could. The band has war stories to tell of its losing campaign.

Baldes recalls a night in Ogden, Utah, when not a single soul turned up to see Lit play at a local bar. Some regulars were in the joint drinking and playing pool. A sympathetic doorman begged the band to play anyway and took up a collection so they wouldn't go away empty-handed, netting $30.

But, said A. Jay, "All the tough times made us stronger. It takes getting over that hump to learn if the four guys are going to stay together and be in it for the long haul."

Steve Lynch of Burnin' Groove, a strong O.C. band that has had its own run of frustrations, is a member of Lit's inner circle of friends. He says Lit never got dispirited by the kind of setbacks that often destroy bands.

"They always kept a clear head and a positive attitude," Lynch said. "I could see at times they would be sort of down, but Jeremy really kept pushing forward. There were times I wondered how he did it."

The key, Lit's members say, is that despite their business setbacks, their music continued to progress.

"After we had written four or five of the new songs, we'd look at each other and think, 'We're onto something special,"' Jeremy said.

Lit's long and winding path to the Top 40 begins with the Popoffs' maternal grandfather, Ray Watson, buying the boys their first instruments: a Hammond organ for Jeremy, a set of drums for A. Jay.

Alan Popoff, their father, is a career disc jockey whose broadcast moniker is A.J. Martin. His sons grew up with stacks of his LPs in their living room, and they soaked up lots of classic pop and rock influences to go with the heavy-metal stuff that first made them want to be in a band.

All that music in the house--and Granddad's stint as a touring drummer and singer in a jive-swing band after World War II--also got the Popoff brothers stoked on an unlikely influence: Frank Sinatra. The Sinatra bug is so strong that Jeremy's right upper armsports a large, reverent tattoo of Ol' Blue Eyes striking a cool pose at the microphone, drinking glass in hand.

Lit may play modern rock, work distinct strains of the Beatles and Elvis Costello into its most zestful and surprising songs, and relish '70s oldies from Journey and Boston ("Don't Look Back" is the band's favored pre-show psych-up music), but the members say that their vibe, if not their sound, is built around a vision of '50s and '60s cool centered on Sinatra, the Rat Pack and Las Vegas casino life.

"That was a great time for entertainment," Jeremy said. "My whole apartment has '50s furniture. I have a love for that time. What people perceived as the American Dream seemed much more attainable then. A guy could have a regular factory job and buy a car, buy a house and raise a family."

Lit's rock 'n' roll dream has taken a circuitous path. Baldes, 27, befriended the Popoffs in junior high school, and Shellenberger, 29, completed the lineup when the members were still in high school--except for Jeremy, who dropped out and got an equivalency diploma. They began playing in 1989 as Razzle, a pop-metal band on the Hollywood club circuit.

The lasting benefit of that period, the members said, was that they learned how to be self-starters when it came to doing the promotional legwork that often separates the bands playing Irvine Meadows from the lonely geniuses in the dives and basements.

Musical Evolution Comes Full Circle

In 1993, the foursome retooled its sound and image and emerged as Stain, an aggressive band that played it loud and angry, after the fashion of the grunge-influenced early- to mid-'90s. Forced by a trademark-holder in Ohio to abandon the name, Stain became Lit and emerged with the aggressive, but melodically tinged "Tripping the Light Fantastic."

When that album flopped, Lit honed its pop craft, signed with RCA and emerged with an album that fits nicely with today's emphasis on catchy hooks coupled with punkish energy.

The band members insist the changes weren't calculated for commercial impact, but simply reflect the natural musical development and expanding interests of rockers moving from their teens to their mid- and late-20s.

"When we were writing that [first] album, it was definitely a more frustrating time for us, and it showed," A. Jay said. "The writing for ["A Place in the Sun"] was a lot more lighthearted."

Said Randy Cash, the Club 369 booker who watched Lit in each stage of development: "They just said, 'We're going to write some good, strong pop songs that make us feel good, and that will make other people feel good."'

If Lit's good luck holds, this could be another case of mega-stardom for a bunch of ambitious but fundamentally nice and normal Orange County rock kids, after the fashion of No Doubt and the Offspring.

"I've seen so many rock 'n' rollers get caught up in drugs, so many have this seedy description of what their childhood was like," Cash said. "They're four middle-class kids who love rock 'n' roll. They're fun-loving and normal on one side, and when they have their crazy side, it's not out of control."

* Lit, the Dickies and the Offspring play Friday and Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8808 Irvine Center Drive. 6:30 p.m. $28. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster) or (949) 855-6111 (taped information).

- by Mike Boehm
The Los Angeles Times, 07-14-1999

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