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Q&A: Lit’s Ajay Popoff on New Album ‘Tastes Like Gold,’ the ‘That Thing You Do!’ Moment of “My Own Worst Enemy,” Riding in Dave Grohl’s Private Jet & More
In 1999, an Orange County, California-based band named Lit released a song called “My Own Worst Enemy.” The lead single from the band’s second album, A Place in the Sun, the track quickly took off, catapulting the hard-working band to superstardom.
More than 20 years later, “My Own Worst Enemy” has become something of a contemporary classic, an era-defining radio smash that has allowed Lit to remain active both in the studio and on the road — when not in times of a global pandemic, that is.
On June 17, Lit returned with its seventh full-length album, Tastes Like Gold. It blends much of the power pop-influenced alt/rock elements that helped Lit shape its sound back in the ’90s, but with a reinvigorated approach facilitated by a renewed focus and the help of collaborators including American Authors.
Below, enjoy an interview with Lit front man Ajay Popoff, about the new record, the differences between making music now and in the past, what keeps Lit ticking all these years later and much more.
Rock Cellar: I wanted to open by saying I went to a Star Wars-themed Emo Night event a few weeks ago at Chain Reaction in Anaheim, and “My Own Worst Enemy” probably got the most excited reaction of any song played that night. Everybody in the room was just going crazy singing along.
Ajay Popoff: That’s great!
Rock Cellar: I felt like that was a good way to start this interview, speaking to the legacy that song’s had. You guys released a podcast series about the song, and it’s very interesting to hear the story of a song that big directly from the band itself — a different sort of way to present that discussion.
— Adrian Garro (@adriangarro) May 29, 2022
Ajay Popoff: Yeah. That actually wasn’t our idea. The gentleman who actually produced the whole podcast, he’s the one that found all these people and interviewed them, all our peers and heroes, industry folks, to get their perspective on it. For us, that was the most interesting part of it. I think it’s cool for some people to hear us talk about how the song came about, and then more of a Behind the Music-type thing on the band, as well. But the focus was on the song, and trying to understand how a song that came out so long ago is still “relevant,” if that’s the word to use. But it just keeps popping up everywhere.
On a weekly basis, we hear some other crazy story about, “Oh, did you see that new viral video? The bride playing the drums at her wedding? It’s just so cool to always have something that is like this rocket that has all these little engines that fire up one after the other. It’s the song that just keeps on trucking.
Rock Cellar: Was part of the realization, like, “Hey, this song is still keeping us pretty fresh in people’s minds”? Was that awareness of the legacy of “My Own Worst Enemy” part of the discussion behind making the new record? Jeremy [Popoff, lead guitarist] is quoted in the press notes as saying you tried to recapture the “old-school Lit sound” and recapture the spark from the A Place in the Sun era.
Ajay Popoff: Well, maybe not necessarily trying to capture the “spark” of that record — you can’t chase after or recreate, you know, the phenomenon that is “My Own Worst Enemy,” but at the same time, what we definitely did intentionally was really try and put our heads back to how we felt and how we approached songs back then. As songwriters, we talked to other songwriter friends, everyone’s always trying to collaborate with other writers, always trying to grow and get better and better at the craft of writing. The more we started talking about it, we’re like, “It’s great to evolve and change, but at the same time, we were like, “maybe sometimes we overthink it and try to one-up ourselves. Why don’t we just get back to that natural feeling of, ‘hey, let’s capture this … it’s more like an energy.’ Let the words kind of come out as they come out and not overthink it and try and outsmart ourselves.”
The approach going into this record was very much like, “let’s just make a great like summer anthem, classic Lit-sounding record, but without feeling redundant or dated. Let’s take a fresher approach at it,” which I think for us, really helped in having bringing in [producer] Carlo [Colasacco] or YOUTHYEAR, and get their perspective. Here are some younger songwriters and younger artists that grew up listening to Lit, and we influenced them and their music. It was just cool to get creative with them. And it felt great.
Rock Cellar: As someone who wore out the A Place in the Sun CD back in the day, songs like “Mouth Shut” and “Kicked Off the Plane” — two of the album’s pre-release tracks — I put side-by-side with all Lit’s other stuff on Spotify, and it all fit together and flows really well. And then I realized that the way you sing the vocal hooks is similar in feel to much of that Place in the Sun era. It has a lot of that same type of energy.
Ajay Popoff: I get what you’re saying, I think that’s cool. It’s funny, I haven’t even tried that yet, but it’s something that I will now afterwards, go A-B test those two records. It’ll be interesting.
Rock Cellar: And Atomic, too, obviously, that’s one I’m assuming was a pretty big-budget major label follow-up to a huge album, so it had a lot of production stuff going on there.
Ajay Popoff: Yeah, that’s definitely one of my favorite records. The Atomic record, it kind of just came out at a very strange time in the world with 9/11. It was a nutty time for us, but I’m very proud of that record.
Rock Cellar: That was a weird time.
Ajay Popoff: The record came out, or was about to come out, we were literally starting our tour. Our first show was I want to say Washington, D.C., maybe. But we were right there. We were in Times Square, probably about 2 or 3 AM, and we woke up to all that.
Rock Cellar: You were in Times Square the night before?
Ajay Popoff: Yeah. We were staying in a hotel right across the bridge over the side, and we could literally see … we turned on the news, looked out our window of the hotel, and we could see when the building collapsed. The smoke in the air we could see from our hotel room.
Radiohead in NYC, 2001. Photo by Danny Clinch. pic.twitter.com/AfmYoNPb1A
— Classic Rock In Pics (@crockpics) May 7, 2022
Rock Cellar: There’s a picture of Radiohead in a boat doing a photo shoot with the Twin Towers in the background from a month or so before, something like that. It’s a very wild circumstance. Back to the new record, when you made this album, how did you know, “Okay, yeah, we’re on the right track here”? You released “Yeah Yeah Yeah” as the first single last year, before everything else was announced. And its video, it’s definitely got that straightforward fun energy I imagine you were going for.
Ajay Popoff: Totally. This day and age, putting out music is a lot different than you know, when A Place in the Sun and those other records came out. The setup process was more lengthy. You put out a proper single, whereas now you do a lead track or, like, “here’s another song, but here’s the actual single.” You’re kind of finding different ways to show people the music. A lot of times, that’s that’s how people are listening to new music, by going on a band’s social media feeds and seeing a new clip. That’s what we’re living in now.
Ultimately we’re promoting our tours. We’re a live band, we love getting out there on stage and playing the songs for everybody. So when a new record comes out, it’s like, “here’s some songs we’re gonna be playing out on the road along with your old favorites as well.” This is kind of a prelude to the show.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of, Lit recently played a hometown show in Anaheim at House of Blues. How did that feel? I know you and Jeremy are pretty much in Nashville, now, but the O.C. is still home base, right?
Ajay Popoff: It was awesome. Nashville is our new home, but Orange County is our hometown. So to put out a record, especially one like Tastes Like Gold, in a way it was a thank-you to the fans. So where we came from, it’s a nod to, “Hey, we’re back and we’re doing what made you fall in love with us to begin with.” Every record changes slightly and we’ve gone through all these different evolutions of what Lit is as a band, but this was a celebration going back to a certain feel that we had and then taking that back to where it all started for us. I couldn’t believe the energy in the room, it far exceeded our expectations. It was so cool.
Rock Cellar: And I imagine you can’t wait to get back out there again. You have some shows coming up but also have a proper tour in the fall, right?
Ajay Popoff: We’ve been doing quite a bit of bouncing around, flying from one side of the country to the other, getting ready for the record. Yeah, fall is going to be a proper tour, getting a tour bus and hitting the road for five weeks or more, you know, going for it.
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Rock Cellar: I was talking to Art [Alexakis] from Everclear recently about Everclear’s 30th anniversary and tour. He brought up a lot of like things that were very different business-wise, back when his band signed with Capitol Records. He told stories of pissing off label executives regarding their demands, all this stuff about the music business back then.
There’s a very different “rock scene” now than there was in 1999. I think A Place in the Sun hit so big at the moment because it was very catchy and different from what was really exploding at the scene. It was sort of an antithesis to the nu-metal movement, and it felt like the perfect time for catchy Orange County pop-punk stuff to hit. But when you’re making music now, was there an extra challenge when trying to figure out “how the hell are we going to release this and have people pay attention?”
Ajay Popoff: Of course you think about that sometimes, but for the most part I think we’ve always been best at what we do when we tune everything out. That was one thing that … if you can take anything good from the the quarantine and all the downtime, we really took that as a great opportunity to focus. It forced us to hone in on what we wanted to do next. We had no distractions, you know, we literally cracked open a bottle of something and spent some time doing Zoom writes, which at first was terrible, I didn’t like them at all, but you get used to it after a while. Luckily, we came out of that and did some in-person writing. A majority of what’s on this record we did with the four of us in Nashville [together].
Rock Cellar: When things got crazy — I don’t want to repeat the podcast, as people should listen to it for the full story — but was there a moment when you guys first realized, “okay, this is a little bit bigger than we anticipated. This is getting really popular”?
Ajay Popoff: It was just nonstop. It really started happening quickly. It took us a very long time as a band to get any … [attention], from management to record labels, a deal, and then it just kept growing. But I think it was when we started getting asked and invited to do things like these crazy tours, you know, these radio shows and getting invited to come down to MTV. I guess it kind of starts with hearing your song on the radio, that’s a definite, defining moment. My brother and I were raised on on the radio, basically, as our dad was a DJ — it was always such an important part of our lives, you know, to listen to the radio. To hear ourselves was just life-changing.
Rock Cellar: It’s like the dude at the beginning of That Thing You Do!, when he’s at the store and he hears the band’s song playing for the first time. It has to be a surreal feeling.
Ajay Popoff: Actually, I use that analogy all the time, so I was not gonna use it this time but you brought it up. It’s 100% the That Thing You Do! moment.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned festivals and radios gigs back in the day. There were some really bizarre label events, festivals, radio station shows all the time. Was there a particularly weird or memorable one? Lit played Woodstock ’99, for example.
Ajay Popoff: The thing about Woodstock, it was just epic. It was the biggest thing we had ever been a part of. Luckily, we weren’t there for the shitshow that happened late — we got in and out before that. But the fact that we knew that it was gonna be on Pay Per View … now this was before, you know, social media, live streaming and all that. Knowing that our friends, people all over the world were gonna be able to watch this was new. It was nerve-wracking, but also really exciting at the same time.
Anytime you’re able to show up and see these people, other artists that you’ve been idolizing all these years that are now, I guess, your peers — you’re eating at the same place they’re eating — you just look around and you’re like, “wow, like, pinch me. Is this really happening?” this. That was happening all these different big radio festivals where it’s basically all the bands you’re hearing on the radio all the time. And those artists show up, we’re looking at each other and a lot of the bands are thinking the same thing.
Rock Cellar: There’s an amazing video of you guys playing “My Own Worst Enemy” from a Live 105 BFD concert at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, I’m sure Lit played that a few times. But this is clearly like a three in the afternoon slot, and it’s funny because the young girls that the camera focuses on are just totally having a moment because they’re putting faces to the song that they’d been obsessing about. It doesn’t feel like that was more than 20 years ago, but it was, and everything about it just looks so perfectly of-the-moment.
Ajay Popoff: It’s crazy to see the obsession with the 90s going on now, especially the late ’90s, the fashion from then and even the music and the sound a lot of it is just … people are pumped about it. And it’s cool to watch, especially with these newer artists, too. You can tell the influence was there, but it’s also expressed in modern interpretation of it. It’s great to see it come back like that.
Rock Cellar: I wanted to ask you about when Lit toured with The Matches. Being from the Bay Area, I got into them around their start, before they got out there and signed with Epitaph and all that. But they toured with Lit, their guitarist Jon [Devoto] was featured on a song on your self-titled album. I don’t know if you’re aware of the new documentary film about them, called Bleeding Audio. If you’re not aware of their story, you should check that out. What was it like touring with them?
Ajay Popoff: Yeah, we really dug their band a lot. We took them out because we like to take out bands that we’re fans of, so we can listen to them play every night. We didn’t hang out a whole lot, it was probably more with Jon, but yeah, they’re just super talented, as you know. It was great to have them out. You always feel like, if you can hand something back down to to an artist that’s coming up and not quite where you’re at yet, it’s a cool process. I remember so many bands giving us those opportunities, and there’s not enough of that. I see some of that coming back now, with these collaborations and things.
Rock Cellar: Lit did that with American Authors, and though they’re not really “new,” they’re younger than Lit, so that counts as you sort of merging different realms of the alt/rock world, for a fresh take on songwriting. It’s probably a rewarding experience for both parties.
Ajay Popoff: Yeah, we had a lot of fun with those guys. That was one of those one of those Zoom sessions, and it was one of the first where we just laughed and had a great time, you kind of forget you’re on a Zoom and weren’t actually together. We co-wrote “The Life That I Got” with those guys. It’s probably it’s one of my favorite songs on the record.
Rock Cellar: I like the line about “checkered Vans.”
Ajay Popoff: Haha, yeah!
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Rock Cellar: You posted on social media about the passing of Taylor Hawkins. Being from Southern California like he and the Foo Fighters were, I assume you guys knew him.
Do you have any stories from hanging out with him? His death was a monumental loss for everybody, really. You could see from the scope of who was mourning his passing that he was beloved by everyone.
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Ajay Popoff: It was just so out of left field. Especially because he was just so full of life. He’s one of those guys who you just couldn’t tell how old he was because … kind of like our original drummer, Allen [Shellenberger] was too, I think drummers are that way a lot of times — just free-spirited, a great dude. We were labelmates with Foo Fighters, we actually had the same A&R guy. So we spent a lot of time at radio shows or hanging out.
Dave Grohl was always really super cool to us, too. He took us on his private jet one night to get home. He was like, “Oh, you guys going back to LA?” We’re like, “Yeah, man,” and he goes, “On the bus, or are you flying? I’m flying back tonight. You guys want to hop on with me?” And that was pretty badass, you know? Foo Fighters are just, you know, they’re legends.
Yeah, Taylor’s going to be missed, big time.
Rock Cellar: Random question about tour craziness back in the day: do you recall streaking onstage during the finale of your tour with Eve 6, probably back in like ’99?
Ajay Popoff: Yeah, ’99 it would’ve been. You know, it’s crazy. I don’t remember doing it, but I do remember that kind of stuff happening a lot back then. I can’t imagine doing that now. I’d be in jail. I actually almost was in jail because of it back in the Campus Invasion Tour. But I do remember doing it when Blink-182 was playing at KROQ Weenie Roast, just because.
I’m just glad we don’t do that anymore.
Rock Cellar: What was the first concert you went to that made you realize you needed to be a musician?
Ajay Popoff: It was definitely that first experience going to an arena. Our dad took us we were little kids to see an Iron Maiden concert. We were massive Iron Maiden fans, and it was at Long Beach Arena. We had nosebleed seats, the band hit and the adrenaline rush that we got just looking at the crowd, seeing the roar of the crowd and hearing these huge speakers. It was just an immediate realization that we had to be doing that. At the time, we were like eight years old. It took a long time to get there, but we we had the perseverance and and the determination to make it happen.
And we ended up on lots of arena stages, so it’s been amazing.
Rock Cellar: What’s a song you wish you wrote?
Ajay Popoff: The first thing that pops in my mind probably because we were just talking about Foo Fighters, I think “Everlong” is one of the most perfectly written songs.
“More Than a Feeling” by Boston, probably another one.
Rock Cellar: Do you have a song of yours that’s always in your head?
Ajay Popoff: Well, it’s kind of hard to get away from “My Own Worst Enemy” because every time I look at my phone I get a text from someone saying “check out this cover band” or we’re constantly getting tagged on social media, so that one’s always in my head whether whether I like it or not. But I’m loving the new record, it’s just been lodged in my head. Coming off recording it not too long ago and just writing those songs, we’re still in the honeymoon phase.
Rock Cellar: I do want to make mention of “Out of It,” one of the new songs on Tastes Like Gold, because that song was actually the one that I found the most interesting on the album. I tend to gravitate toward “deeper cuts.” I don’t know what it is about that one, but it has a different vibe to it, a little darker feel, maybe.
Ajay Popoff: It’s funny you point that one out, to me it’s sort of like the red-headed stepchild of the record, in a cool, dark way. I dig it a lot. I think for a moment it was one of the songs that stood on its own, almost like, “Do we not put this one on the record?” It’s definitely a little bit of a departure from the rest of the record.
Rock Cellar: I hope people take to it, because like I said, I had “Mouth Shut” in my head after one listen. What I said in our Rock Cellar writeup about the album was, like, “This is the same Lit you liked from A Place in the Sun — just a little bit older and a little wiser.”
Ajay Popoff: Hell yeah, I appreciate that.
Rock Cellar: But yeah, you’ll randomly see someone covering “My Own Worst Enemy” at a bar in Nashville and hop onstage with them? That’s happened a few times, right?
Only in Nashville! 😍 So cool. @Lit @Eric Van Houten
Ajay Popoff: There’s a lot of randomness happening on Broadway all the time. That’s one of the reasons we live there, just that the spontaneity of that town and the energy. It’s insane when you watch these bands covering our songs, they could pretty much sing the frickin’ encyclopedia and make it sound good. But yeah, it’s just an inspiring town.
August 12, 2022
August 12, 2022