Lit seemed to have roared – fully formed and developed – out of the Orange County punk and hardcore scene of the mid-’90s. But the band’s roots go back father, and they go deeper as well. Founded by brothers Jeremy and Ajay Popoff, the group grew out of two earlier bands, Razzle (with Ajay on drums) and five-piece Stain; the latter evolved into Lit by 1995. Lit established their place as a popular live act and – with the release of 1999’s A Place in the Sun – a hit-making outfit. In the more than two decades since, Lit has weathered setbacks and navigated tricky course corrections. Their latest album, Tastes Like Gold is being hailed as return to form; it’s their strongest offering in years. Fresh off a UK tour with Bowling for Soup, Lit lead singer Ajay Popoff sat down for a career-spanning conversation with Rock On.
Rock On: You guys came up as young players with the Orange County music scene as kind of a backdrop. How much did that that that scene influence the sound and character of the band?
Ajay Popoff: Coming up, we were pretty isolated from any other sort of music scene. Before we took on the Lit sound as people know it today, we started as a little more of a Sunset Strip kind of “hair band.” That was our School of Rock. We booked all our shows at all-age venues there like The Roxy, the Whisky, Gazzarri's, and the Troubadour. We spent a lot of time banging it out and “building our brand.” So Orange County wasn't really a big influence other than the obvious things: the sunshine, skateboarding and the beach brought a little brightness to our sound.
Rock On: You started out as a drummer. How does that foundation affect your approach to vocals?
Ajay Popoff: I've heard from engineers in the studio that I have a unique timing with my phrasing. I think that's got to come from my backbone as a drummer. I tend to lay a little lazy on my vocal just behind the beat. A lot of singers don't pay attention to timing as much as I do.
Rock On: Have you always known that playing in a band is what you wanted to do with your life?
Ajay Popoff: Our dad took us to see out first concert, Iron Maiden, when I was 8 years old and Jeremy was 10. It was life-changing: the amount of people in the crowd, and the energy from the stage. We were hooked.
Rock On: Even on Lit’s earliest releases like Tripping the Light Fantastic, you were combining thrash, metal and hardcore influences. But there was high value placed on melody. Was it a conscious and deliberate part of the band's approach from the very beginning to make music that was catchy?
Ajay Popoff: Yeah; our influences stem from all over the place. Our grandfather was a jazz musician; when we'd spend weekends at our grandparents house, we were always hearing all the standards. And our dad was a deejay; he worked in pop radio for a long, long time at KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. So he was always music bringing home. And at the time, pop music wasn't necessarily what it is today. You'd hear Def Leppard, Bon Jovi Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton on the same radio station. It's the hooks that bring people in, so that's always been really important to us; pop was a big influence in our upbringing and as songwriters.
Rock On: On one hand, it's hard to argue with success: three of Lit's best known songs are from 1999's platinum-selling A Place in the Sun. But some critics weren’t as enthusiastic. What are your thoughts on the apparent disconnect between commercial and critical success?
Ajay Popoff: Any time your growth is happening in the public eye, it’s no different than if you watch a kid go through high school and then go off to college. And I feel that musically, that’s what happened. Our music has been constantly changing from the time I was 14 through to today. I think that Tripping the Light Fantastic was a little bit of the growing process captured onto tape.
Rock On: Coming out of a difficult period that included your stepfather's motorcycle crash and the loss of drummer Allen Shellenberger, the band really rallied and came back with The View from the Bottom. And it was successful on many levels. Did hardship re-energize the band creatively?
Ajay Popoff: It definitely put a halt on everything that was Lit as a band; we were definitely put to the test during that time. We weren't even sure we were going to continue as a band. But we came together as human beings and brothers; we mourned together and went through difficult days together.
It might have been Big Al looking over us and sending us these messages, but we all realized, “We need to get back to this. Big Al would be bummed to hear that we weren't going to continue.’” Nathan Walker came in and took the torch from Al; he had been close with Al and drum teched for him for a while. It was inspiring to feel that wave of, “Hey, this is okay,” and “We need to do this for Big Al.” And it brought a lot of songs. It was good therapy for us to continue on.
Rock On: In the context of Lit’s overall sound, the country music character of 2017’s These Are the Days is mystifying. What were you thinking?
Ajay Popoff: That album is a product of our introduction to the Nashville songwriting world. Jeremy, came over a few years before I did, and he had such a great experience in some of these writer's rooms, working with next-level talent. I resisted: “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Finally, he talked me into coming over and, after that first time, it clicked. It lit a fire under our asses and turned me on to country music; I wasn't a fan of it before that. And for selfish reasons we wanted to record the songs we wrote instead of some other artist cutting them. In retrospect, it probably should have been The Popoff Brothers instead of Lit; that's something that we realized a little later. We want to continue writing those country-infused rock songs, but we’ll keep it separate from Lit, because that's really the wrong energy for our band.
Rock On: Tastes Like Gold has a character more in line with your best work. And you’ve been previewing songs from the new record in your live shows. How has it been getting back on stage in front of fans?
Ajay Popoff: It's a great time not only for music fans, but for the band. My favorite thing is getting on stage, and playing these songs live couldn't have come at a better time. The crowd loves the new music, and it shows. The reception is very similar to when we first started going out on tour and playing the A Place in the Sun songs. I know that pretty much every artist says, ‘This is our best record yet.” But we strongly feel that way. And to have that validation from our true fans feels good.
In the mid-1960’s, a high school band calling themselves the Earwigs wanted to enter a Phoenix talent show. Basically, it was five guys lip synching, and lampooning the Beatles. They won. Forty-Seven years later, in 2011, three of that original band were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eventually, after a few different nicknames, and a couple of personnel changes, the band became known as Alice Cooper. Despite that innocuous sounding name, their shows became the must see event of the early to mid 1970’s. Having invented what would go on to be called theater, or shock rock, they redefined what concerts looked like, and influenced music, and stage craft, in a way still going strong today.
The R&RHOF inductees were Dennis Dunaway, Gary Buxton, and Alice Cooper, nee Vincent Furnier. Furnier, originally from Detroit, had legally changed his name to Alice Cooper in 1975, to protect the name of the band. As a result, his legal name became synonymous with their music. Their first record, called Pretties For You, was released by Straight Records. The label was created by rock legend Frank Zappa, who wanted to find bands who fit his avant-garde vision of what rock music could be. Alice Cooper fit that description to a T. What attracted Zappa? Cooper said, “We were already a pretty good rock and roll band, and then we just allowed it (the theatricalities of their stage show) to go wherever it wanted to go. I mean why not? Why wouldn’t we do that?” He continued, “We started a movement that worked, but honestly, we didn’t have to force that.”
Other acts saw the success of Alice Cooper, and felt inspired to create their own stage shows. The more successful of these artists weren’t copying AC, but rather, it set them free to follow their own inspiration wherever it took them. He said, “It’s what they should have done. Twisted Sister invented their own character, Bowie invented his character. KISS certainly became four comic book characters, and great!” But aside from making great records, and sitting in prop electric chairs, what inspired Alice Cooper? Continuing, he said, “Rock and roll had nothing but heroes, and Peter Pans, but they didn’t have any Captain Hook, and I just kind of looked at it and asked, where are the villains? I would rather be a Batman villain, than Batman.”
He’s not wrong. In the 1960’s, most bands, playing to audiences of white college, and high school kids, were putting on concerts similar to the early Beatles, and even The Rolling Stones. They’d pretty much stand there and play their music. Sure Mick Jagger was a unique presence, and guys like Paul Revere and the Raiders, and The Who, had their mod outfits, but few bands featured live performances like the stage show Alice Cooper put on nightly. One of their early influences was The Doors. Cooper said, “Jim Morrison was definitely on a dark trip. Sometimes we’d tour with them, and they’d do a song like The End, or When The Music’s Over, and every night it was different.” He explains, “Jim would go off on his poetic trips, and the band would just listen and then compliment it. I had never heard anyone do anything like that.” However, it wasn’t just Morrison dangerously crashing to the floor after throwing himself off the drum riser, or taunting the cops with profanity, a la Lenny Bruce, Cooper says, “Their music was so good, and it complimented everything he was thinking.” He’s right. To this day, despite Morrison having died in 1971, The Doors continue to sell records. The same is true with Alice Cooper.
Between 1971 and 1976, The Alice Cooper Band released seven albums that reached into Billboards top 40. Four of them entered the top 10, and in 1973, Billion Dollar Babies reached #1. The band that began as a Beatles parody, complete with wigs and suits, had become rock legends. Ironically, their album oriented rock, designed for their increasingly elaborate stage shows weren’t driven by singles. Throughout Cooper's career, as a band, and solo artist, he’s just had a handful of singles break into the top 40, and only a couple of them were top 10. It seems peculiar in an industry still largely driven by singles, Alice Cooper could have at least a dozen albums in the top 10, but have no #1 singles, and only a couple of songs still played on classic-rock stations.
The dichotomy between huge album sales, driven by a noticeable lack of high-ranking singles seems mind blowing, until you realize the underlying secret of his success: concept albums. A concept album is essentially a collection of songs with an overarching theme, or simply tells a story. Early concept records would include The Beatles Sergeant Peppers, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and The Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies. Cooper said, “I think everything after Love It To Death, and Killer, became conceptual. Schools Out was a concept, Billion Dollar Babies was a concept, Nightmare of course, Goes To Hell, they all have story lines.” Those storylines created the basis of his live act, which became the band’s generally accepted claim to fame.
Some of those albums, at first blush, seemed dark, twisted, and dangerous. Songs like "I Love The Dead," and "Sick Things," fit the villainous image Cooper was carefully cultivating. However, when you look deeper into the music, what you find is irony, and humor. "Schools Out," one of the songs still receiving regular radio airplay included the lyric "well we’ve got no class, and we’ve got no principles, and we’ve got no intelligence. We can’t even think up a word that rhymes,” and later, on the song "Go To Hell," which opens the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell album, the chorus sings, “You’d poison a blind man’s dog and steal his cane. You'd gift wrap a leper and mail him to your Aunt Jane. You'd even force feed a diabetic a candy-cane, you can go to hell.” When asked about the rich, and dark humor, he said, “Thank you for noticing that! A lot of people don’t get that. There’s a ton of comedy that goes on in the lyrics of the songs” He continued, “I understand not everybody’s going to get it, which is why you kind of have to put some kind of comedy inside of a song that people are just going to rock too. Even if they don’t get the lyrics they’re at least going to rock to the music. It’s kind of a tricky tight-wire act. Making sure that the song rocks, and then putting the clever lyrics on it.”
His latest album is called Detroit Stories, and it was written and recorded during the pandemic, and is his first #1 album since 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies. He said, “We were shocked when the Detroit Stories album debuted at #1. We just went, are you kidding me? That was a total shock to the system.” Why does he think the record scored so high? “I think, maybe, the world needed a good hard-rock record to cheer up a little bit (during the pandemic), and that’s the one that came out at the right time.” When asked to describe it, he said, “With this album, we said at the beginning let’s just do twelve hard-rock songs. We had to decide(where to record it). LA isn’t quite right for hard rock, and certainly not Nashville, or New York,” Then he exclaimed, “DETROIT!” Continuing, he said, “Detroit is the home of hard-rock, and its hometown for me. So yeah, let’s do Detroit. So we get to Detroit, and we go, why don’t we write this song about Detroit?
And then we were like, why don’t we use all Detroit players? Ok, and suddenly we had a concept.” The record is great, and should easily stand up to repeated playing. He said,”we can do hard rock, but if we’re going to say Detroit, then we’ve got to include every kind of music in Detroit, so we did a punk song, “Go Man Go,” we did a Motown song, “$1000 High-Heeled Shoes," we did a blues song, “Drunk And In Love,” and it all sort of fell into place. We didn’t start out making a concept album, it just ended up being a concept album,” because that's what Alice Cooper Does. Cooper is still out there touring at a frenetic pace. The third leg of his tour, 26 shows in 38 days, brought him to The Grand Sierra Theater, in Reno, on April 22, 2022.
Visit https://alicecooper.com/ for more!
Taking a page from the classic early ‘70s Mad Dogs and Englishmen musical revue – and adding its own original songwriting, character and musicianship – has been a winning approach for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Led by wife-and-husband duo, guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, the group has won widespread critical and commercial success.
After combining popular groups led by Tedeschi and Trucks in 2010, TTB released its debut album, Revelator, the following year. Three more studio albums, three live releases and nearly a dozen live archival albums would follow, along with Grammy nominations and wins, Blues Music Awards and other recognition. After a pandemic-imposed break from live performance, the group returned last year with a tour in which it re-created onstage the classic 1970 Derek & the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; a live document, Layla Revisited (Live at Lock’n) soon followed.
But even with all that activity, TTB’s prolific nature was only beginning to reveal itself. With a staggering amount of talent contained within the 12-person group, its creative potential seemed unlimited. And that idea is supported by the appearance of I Am the Moon: I. Crescent. Released June 3, it’s the first of four new albums from Tedeschi Trucks Band, and part of an ambitious suite of songs that hold together conceptually while standing successfully on their own as well.
As the timed roll-out of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s new music begins, the band is embarking on its 2022 Wheels of Soul Tour, taking to the stage with Los Lobos and Gabe Dixon. And now is an ideal time to take a look back at the creative musical journey – so far – of the band’s co-leader, Susan Tedeschi.
Born in Boston and raised in nearby Norwell, Massachusetts, Tedeschi grew up listening to her father’s record collection, and absorbing some of his musical tastes. Tedeschi’s father frequented the region’s folk clubs, and those clubs took a wide and eclectic approach to booking artists. “You could see Reverend Gary Davis, Taj Mahal and Dave Van Ronk all in the same night,” she says.
He also followed the music and career of artists as varied as The Staple Singers and Joan Baez, and he enjoyed the Beatles ‘White Album.’ “And he went to see Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival the year he ‘went electric,’” Tedeschi says. Her father sat under a weeping willow tree with Mississippi John Hurt for an hour and a half. The blues legend “had his guitar out, playing songs and talking to my dad,” she says.
All of that made an on young Susan Tedeschi. “As far back as I can remember,” she says, “I was listening to [music] that my parents had.”
Thus inspired, she knew she wanted to pursue music, and began singing when very young. “I was doing plays and musical theater starting at age six, and I auditioned for Broadway when I was 10,” she says. “I met Johnny Cash; I had a lot of experiences around that age that helped shape what I do to this day.”
Tedeschi developed a finely-tuned pop sensibility. She and her childhood friends bonded over a shared appreciation for the Bee Gees, Madonna, Run-D.M.C and Beastie Boys. “I remember going to a yard sale and buying [The Allman Brothers’ 1973 album] Brothers and Sisters and The Clash,” she recalls. And she was a fan of assorted Boston-based acts like the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith and the Cars.
By age 12, Tedeschi was lead singer in a local band. “We didn’t really have a name,” she says with a laugh. “We did everything from Beatles covers to Rush to Bon Jovi to Boston.” She says that group was her first real attempt at going professional. “We would play private parties and yacht clubs for $50 here and there,” she says. “It was a good experience at getting out in front of people and seeing what worked and didn’t work.” That group would be the first in a succession of bands for Tedeschi.
It wasn’t until college that she gained a fuller appreciation for the blues. “And it wasn't until I graduated from college that I figured out that there were all these other artists that I didn't know about,” she admits. “I didn't know about Koko Taylor and Big Mama Thornton.” But she learned, making up for lost time. And Tedeschi continued to expand her musical horizons. “I learned about gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson,” she says.
Tedeschi’s gospel journey started when she was a student at Berklee. “I began part of the gospel choir as a sophomore,” she says. Being a white girl from Massachusetts, it was really cool getting to go sing in [African American] churches.'' Her experiences included singing with the James Cleveland mass choir “It was quite an amazing education,” Tedeschi says. “I was blown away by how the music could make you feel so spiritually moved. I was like, ‘Shoot! If this was the choir at my church, I would've gone to church every day!’”
Observers of Tedeschi’s own music – as a solo artist, leading her own group and then eventually co-leading Tedeschi Trucks Band – might consider her choir experiences among the most important foundations of her soulful style. “I learned how beautiful and communal singing can be,” she says.
Primarily a vocalist up to that point, Tedeschi’s main instrument was piano. “I wrote on guitar,” she says, “but it was mostly ‘cowboy chords.’” After college, she began to take guitar seriously; today she’s a skilled and expressive player. “I'm a huge fan of Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King,” she says, noting that those artists all share a commitment to storytelling and melody, values she sought in her own work. “So I really started to try to hone my songwriting,” she says.
After college, Tedeschi became immersed in the Boston live music scene, networking and becoming friends with a wide array of the region’s musicians. She eventually put her own band together; between 1995 and 2008 Tedeschi released six well-received albums. She also guested on recordings by other artists including Robben Ford and Little Milton. The Susan Tedeschi Band became an in-demand opening act, sharing stages with Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, The Rolling Stones and others. As a solo artist, Tedeschi is a five-time Grammy award nominee.
After marrying guitarist Derek Trucks in 2001, Tedeschi guested on two Derek Trucks Band albums. Her momentum as an artist in her own right continued to grow. But at the end of that decade, she and Trucks decided to put each of their groups on hiatus, instead creating a large ensemble group called Tedeschi Trucks Band.
“Derek was like, ‘Do you want to do this band with me?’” Tedeschi recalls. She had momentary misgivings. “How am I going to co-lead now and still feel like I'm getting to be heard?” she wondered. “But I thought, ‘I've got to take this opportunity. This is not going to be here forever, so I’d better do it.’ I didn't want to miss out playing with Derek, because he's really one of the greatest guitar players I've ever heard.”
And while Tedeschi allows that getting the balance right was tricky, she and Trucks are clearly making it work. “We have different takes on things sometimes, but we've learned to communicate,” Tedeschi says. “And we've learned to sacrifice a little bit for each other and to go along with each other's kind of hope and dreams.” And those dreams have found fruition with I Am the Moon.