Welcome to the fourth installment of “Tracking Down,” a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Most people who tuned in to MTV and alt-rock radio at the turn of the century should remember Lit’s charmingly lunkheaded drunk-regrets anthem “My Own Worst Enemy” and its equally sticky follow-ups “Zip-Lock” and “Miserable,” particularly the latter’s unforgettable “You make me come/ You make me complete/ You make me completely miserable” three-parter of a chorus. Their videos noticeably bucked the seriousness of such peers as Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind by presenting a willingness to wear fake moustaches and a premature love of ’80s corn (“Zip-Lock” brought in Dee Snider for an intro that pays homage to “We’re Not Gonna Take It”). Oh, and a giant Pamela Anderson who eats the band.
Needless to say, these guys made the most of their highest-charting moment when they spun single after single off of 1999’s beery power-pop powder keg A Place In The Sun. And if you missed the 2001 clip for “Lipstick And Bruises,” in which a giant robot named Mulletron gives everyone in Lit’s audience a mullet haircut, correct that error posthaste.
Lit never stopped crafting anthemic alt-rock — I’d be very surprised if 2012’s Leppard-worthy “The Broken” hasn’t been used as anyone’s pro-wrestler intro music. But in the last several years, the core duo of brothers A.J. (vocals) and Jeremy (guitar) Popoff have turned towards a surprising influence: straight-up Nashville country.
Their newest and twangiest single “Fast” has stormed CMT Music’s 12-Pack Countdown show, reaching the #1 spot this January, promising a possible unexpected comeback with a whole new audience. (Hey, it worked for Darius Rucker, who’s making some of the best music of his life these days.) Stereogum caught up with the Popoff brothers to discuss their as-yet-untitled forthcoming record (funded via PledgeMusic) and how the limelight has shifted since the days of the original TRL.
STEREOGUM: What are you guys up to?
JEREMY POPOFF: Right now, we’re just in the midst of figuring out in which way, shape, or form this new record’s going to come out. We’re still talking to labels and figuring out if it’s going to be a 15-song album or a couple of EPs or a single. It’s hard to know anymore how people want to consume their music. We’ve been making records for 20 years and this was the first time we went to master and it wasn’t in any particular order and we didn’t worry about, like, the transitions and the fades and how much space was between each song. We’ll do that eventually, but this was the first time we just sort of mastered the batch.
STEREOGUM: This is your first album in five years, right? Is the entire record going to be country?
JEREMY POPOFF: I wouldn’t call it a country record. It’s a Lit record that’s a little bit more influenced by Nashville than records past. There’s some other textures in there, some steel guitar, some Hammond organ, some things from the country palette if you will. But it’s still Lit writing the songs Lit is known to write about.
A.J. POPOFF: The only time we were really writing was in Nashville so we’d get home and all the time would lapse, but I guess that five years kind of flew by. We played shows in between, we weren’t really in a big rush to put out a record, just went into the studio any chance we got to lay down songs. And five years later we’re looking at the batch and like, “Well, we’ve got a record here and then some.”
STEREOGUM: If people who mostly knew you through “My Own Worst Enemy” and MTV were to catch up with Lit now, what are some significant developments they’ve missed out on?
A.J. POPOFF: A lot!
JEREMY POPOFF: I think a lot of those fans who were 15-29 years old in 1999 have grown up and probably a lot of them have moved on along with us. We’ve all been married and divorced and been remarried and had kids. I started going to Nashville 13 years ago specifically just to study country music and learn to write those songs, and I dove into that songwriting world out there. I would travel to Nashville to write country and then back to California to play Lit. It was two separate roads, and then over the years I started bringing A.J. and [former drummer] Ryan Gillmor out there, and then it got to a point where everything we sat down to write wasn’t in our warehouse anymore over a case of Natural Light. Now it was acoustic guitars in the living room.
A.J. POPOFF: We’re still writing about a lot of the same kinds of stuff. All the years and all the life in-between 1999 and now, we still like to drink and write about relationships but our perspective is different, obviously we’re more grown-up now. We took a lot more for granted back then than we do now. Country’s changed a lot over the years as well, it’s come a lot in our direction with the rock stuff and all. It’s not all about dirt roads. When we sat down to try and write more Lit stuff, like, what are we going to do, write another “My Own Worst Enemy”? That doesn’t feel like us anymore. I’m personally more inspired now than I’ve been in the last 15 years, so that’s been great.
STEREOGUM: Have you always been fans of country?
JEREMY POPOFF: When I was a little kid, our dad was a radio DJ and his first couple stations that he worked at were country radio. When I was 2, 3 years old, my first hero was Glen Campbell. When our dad was in Top 40 radio, back then that meant the 40 more popular songs in the country. So we’d hear Kenny Rogers on the radio and then the Cars and the Stray Cats and Dolly Parton. We didn’t know that that was “country,” we just liked songs that came on. It was in our blood early on, but in the late ’90s, we were way too deep into finding ourselves in the rock world. I remember being on the tour bus when we had a big hit and listening to Faith Hill and thinking that was just great.
It wasn’t until 12 years ago when we really went diving into that world and became friends with a bunch of country artists who are big today. And then on top of that, realizing how much of an influence we were to those guys. You can’t walk into a honky-tonk on Broadway without hearing a country band cover “My Own Worst Enemy.” It happens in every bar, every day of the week, we get videos sent to us constantly. Guys like Chase Rice and Thomas Rhett and Dustin Lynch have all covered it. So we’re kind of coming full circle.
STEREOGUM: The country world is fascinating to me because it seems like it can be very accepting in ways people wouldn’t expect. Like Darius Rucker has a whole second career doing really good country, after people had kind of written him off with Hootie And The Blowfish.
JEREMY POPOFF: You have guys like Steven Tyler living in Nashville now. I just think in the rock world… not to sound old and crusty or whatever, but nothing’s come out in a long time that, at least in my opinion, is inspiring kids to pick up an electric guitar and rock out. Whether it was late-’70s classic rock, heavy metal, glam, grunge, MTV was constantly exposing you to nonstop rock ‘n’ roll through the ’90s, and now I think if kids are picking up a guitar for the first time, they’re playing 20-year-old rock songs or they’re playing country.
STEREOGUM: Country is a very hardline polarizing thing for people, though; “I listen to everything except country” has become a cliché. What have you experienced from fans?
A.J. POPOFF: There’s definitely some cringing from some people; this is a day and age where opinions are just flowing on the socials, which we never had to look at in the past. In ’99 we were lucky if we had cell phones on tour. We hadn’t paid attention to outside opinions, really.
JEREMY POPOFF: A lot of years have gone by since “Miserable” and “Enemy” on MTV, since we were spending a lot of money on these crazy videos. All that time has gone by [and] without really following us on media, some people might be shocked. It’s like when you run into someone from high school you haven’t seen in 15-20 years and they look totally different. If you’re still making music and touring 15 years after your first hit, you’re not going to be the same people. If you are, that might look kind of silly.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of those videos, earlier you mentioned feeling like you took your initial fame for granted. Do you have any specific regrets?
A.J. POPOFF: I think if we took anything for granted it’s that those mediums would always be around. Who would’ve thought the days of MTV Spring Break or TRL or kids hauling ass home from high school every day to see who was on the countdown… but I mean years before that there was American Bandstand. Now it’s just instantaneous on your Snapchat or whatever. I think we took for granted that this world we were in wasn’t gonna be different in a few years. It’s crazy; when the bus pulls up to the back of the venue and you’re looking for a cup of coffee or catering or whatever, that’s 100% the same. But everything else around it is different.
STEREOGUM: I would say as far as the MTV era goes, you definitely made the most of it, I mean you did a video with a giant Pamela Anderson and the Twisted Sister homage. Seemed like the right way to use a video budget.
A.J. POPOFF: It was a blast. We were very lucky we got to experience that, to have the ability to go, “Hey, what if we got Dee Snider to play the dad, wouldn’t that be rad?” and the next thing you know, he’s on a plane flying out to LA.
JEREMY POPOFF: That’s a big part of why we got into this business, watching MTV as a kid and wanting to be a rock star. It wasn’t the only reason; we obviously love writing music and performing. But we worked our asses off for ten years and suddenly we had a video and got to do these bucket list things.
STEREOGUM: I have to know, how did you get the words “You make me come” onto both MTV and the radio uncensored. Did the label or anyone push back at all?
JEREMY POPOFF: It never really came up! It wasn’t actually intended to be a single when the record was made. It wasn’t until we started touring and crowds were really reacting to [“Miserable”] that the label really took notice and it became the third single. I don’t know that it ever really came up?
STEREOGUM: You mentioned country bands covering “My Own Worst Enemy.” Have you guys rearranged any of your older songs to fit your new style?
A.J. POPOFF: This is the first year that we’re playing rock festivals and country festivals. In the country world, for several years, people have invited us to go onstage with them and play “My Own Worst Enemy.” But we went out with Dustin Lynch last year at the Stagecoach festival, and 60,000 or 70,000 country fans went absolutely apeshit when we played “My Own Worst Enemy.” And we didn’t play it in a different style. If we’re playing a country festival tomorrow and a rock festival next week, our set’s exactly the same. It’s not like, “Okay folks, now we’re gonna put our cowboy hats on and some dip in our mouth for Lit Mk. II.”
STEREOGUM: You don’t really see people who identify by one genre of music and one genre only anymore. Drake has a song where he says “All my exes live in Texas like George Strait.” It’s awesome that he had faith that some of his audience would overlap and know that reference.
A.J. POPOFF: Rap and country are obviously the two biggest genres there are, it’s awesome to see them cross-pollinate.
JEREMY POPOFF: The lines are all blurred.