Still on Fire
The boys of Lit—at this point, international superstars with a platinum-selling album—have not experienced fame in the same way. Take, for example, singer A.Jay Popoff and his older, guitar-playing brother Jeremy, both of whom are sleeved, pierced and constantly recognized. A.Jay's got dyed black hair and striking blue eyes; Jeremy's got bleached-blond hair and a six-inch goatee. They stand out. Should they want to go to the mall to, say, buy a Mother's Day present, they know that they have to plan to go separately and on a weekday morning, when the fans are in school. Otherwise it'll be a mob scene.
"They actually have to planwhen they can go," says bass player Kevin Baldes incredulously. For Baldes and drummer Allen Shellenberger, both of whom are clean-cut and exude genuine sweetness, things are not so. "Kevin and I can go to our own show and not be recognized," admits Shellenberger.
He talks of a recent shopping experience with his 11-year-old daughter. The two are in Tilly's. She's trying on clothes in a dressing room while he sits in a chair waiting for her. The store speakers begin blaring the opening strains of Lit's mega-hit "Miserable," and the video comes on the store's bank of video screens. Shellenberger is sitting in plain view of everyone in the store, which, mind you, caters to Lit's demographic. Suddenly the dressing-room door swings open. "Ha, ha," Shellenberger's daughter taunts, "No one recognizes you! Ha, ha!" And with that, she slams the door shut and begins laughing.
"She loves to make fun of me," says Shellenberger, smiling.
His band mates, kicking back in plush couches at the LA studio where they're putting finishing touches on their new album, chuckle at the story.
"It doesn't bother me," says Shellenberger. "I mean, I wouldn't mind being recognized, but it doesn't bother me that I'm not."
Lit's new album, Atomic, due in stores Tuesday, picks up where the ubiquitous A Place in the Sun left off. Tight, radio-friendly songwriting. Catchy choruses. Pleasant harmonies. A bit of clever wordplay. Guitars that are deceptively simple from a demanding guitarist who, if he wanted to revert to his metal roots, could blow every Guitar Center a-hole out of the water. Writing the album early this year—after Lit finished more than two draining years of nearly nonstop touring ("Toward the end, we were definitely changing; we were turning into these, like, these road jackals," says Jeremy), wasn't so easy, though.
"Both of our other records and just our entire career, we'd write as we go, and all of the songs were road-tested. This is the first time we've ever written an entire body of songs in a small window of time," says Jeremy. "Elvis Costello said, 'You have your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second.'" He pauses. "Well, I mean, in this case, it's our third, but . . ."
A.Jay says writing under pressure is a good thing. "I was literally taking the lyrics sheets off the printer after we finished writing them and going into the studio and singing the songs so I didn't have any time to pick up any bad habits or get used to singing the songs in any certain way. I thought it was going to suck, but it actually worked out really well."
In a sense, Lit have two albums coming out: their own and the debut album from Orange County's Handsome Devil (released Sept. 25), which Jeremy produced as the first release on Lit's very own label (in conjunction with parent label RCA), Dirty Martini. Having their own imprint is something they've always wanted, though they say they had to prove themselves before RCA would take them seriously.
"When we were a new band, it's not like [RCA] was going to be like, 'Okay, here's all this money; go sign some bands,'" says Jeremy. "That's what they have their staff for."
In time, RCA probably realized what most everyone else realizes about Jeremy, though. He's like an actor who really should be a director. He's a mini-mogul.
And so Dirty Martini has signed two bands, Handsome Devil, who are poppy, and the Color Red, who are heavy. Both are from Orange County.
"We have two of the raddest bands in Southern California on our label," Jeremy gushes. "It's insane. Our label roster smokes half the record companies out there's rosters!"
FAME (part 2)
When A.Jay first started getting recognized, he thought "it was really cool, but then it got to a point where it got scary." For the most part, fans who approach him are genuine, but every now and again, there are guys who want to start shit. "I would be at the mall by myself and notice maybe a group of guys lurking nearby, and I'd think, 'Shit, I better haul ass and do what I need to do and get out of here.' Sometimes they'd come up and be like, 'Hey, are you the guy from Lit?' But you can just sense it's not a friendly approach."
There was a time when A.Jay had a bad temper. If someone said something that rubbed him the wrong way, he'd rub back. "But now I can't. I can't really do anything," he says. "Even if a guy starts shit with me I can't get in a fight because I'd be sued. You have to be really careful. You almost need security just to protect your ass because you can't really defend yourself."
And does that suck?
"It does suck!" he says emphatically. Or perhaps it doesn't, on reflection: "It probably keeps me out of trouble. I find myself biting my tongue a lot more, like when I hear some guy saying, 'Oh, big rock star,' I find it easier to pretend I didn't hear it, which is a good thing. I probably should have been that way before."
"It's progress," says Shellenberger.
"It's like what your mom told you in high school," says Jeremy. "Just ignore them."
Before he was famous A.Jay used to think it would be cool to date a supermodel or famous girl, but now he finds himself attracted to the exact opposite. "I'm into supernormal girls—supernormal-looking with normal lives. You want someone who's going to ground you. I already had the chance to date celebrities, and it's an instant turnoff," he says. (In an effort to find out which celebs he's dated, we circumvented normal channels and went, instead, to Erin Law, who's a huge Lit fan, who said she knows everything about Lit. She asked a friend—also a huge Lit fan—who said, "There's hearsay that says he's been with Carmen Electra." We do not know if this is true.)
But what about the idea that only another celebrity would understand celebrity? "I don't really know if that's the case," A.Jay says diplomatically. "I think other celebrities are so caught up in their worlds, and two crazy worlds put together is just going to be chaos."
"I think it's definitely hard for a girl to put up with this kind of lifestyle," says Jeremy. "That's why I think a lot of guys in bands have either been in relationships for a really long time or have been single for a really long time. You find someone that can tolerate you and you kind of keep them around."
Which is what Jeremy's done. He's been with his wife, Michelle, for more than 10 years. The two are expecting a child this month.
FAME (part 3)
Spin magazine once ran a story about how to sneak into VIP rooms at clubs in which the author mentioned celebrities who would be easy to impersonate because no one knows what they look like. One of these under-the-radar celebrities was Kevin Baldes. The story said something like "even his mom wouldn't recognize him" and then said something derogatory about his polyester pants. "They ripped me," exclaims Baldes. But he's not upset. If anything, it seems like a point of pride for him. "It was cool, man. They put a picture of me in Spin magazine!" FAME (part 4) On "Lipstick and Bruises," the first single from Atomic, A.Jay sings, "Kiss me on the way up/Kick me when I fall down." "It's that thing where things are going so killer, but you just know everyone's waiting for that moment when you start to slip," says Jeremy. "It's crazy: you're constantly swimming through the piranhas. You gotta stay on top and keep going, otherwise they just can't wait to get a piece." He pauses and reconsiders. "Well, that could be a little bit of paranoia. Maybe it's not necessarily that way, but you just sense that it could happen." Lit perform with Handsome Devil and MxPx at the Santa Anita Racetrack, 285 W. Huntington Dr., Arcadia, (626) 574-7223. Sat. 10:30 a.m. Concert free with $5 admission to park. All ages; Lit appear on KROQ's Loveline. Sun., 10 p.m.-midnight; Lit make an in-store appearance at Wherehouse Music, 3850 Barranca Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 857-1095. Tues., 7 p.m. To attend the in-store concert, get a wristband at Wherehouse. Mon., midnight. For more info on Lit, go to www.litlounge.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.