By Warren Kurtz
“My Own Worst Enemy” propelled the band Lit into 1990s radio stardom.
Now the quartet has returned with the solid new album Tastes Like Gold on Round Hill Records/Black Hill Records, released last Friday.
And this Friday, American Laundromat Records will reissue 1990’s Sunburn album by Blake Babies (Juliana Hatfield, John Strohm and Freda Love Smith) with multiple vinyl choices for this college rock classic.
PART ONE – LIT
GOLDMINE: Congratulations on Tastes Like Gold. It has a great variety of songs. Let’s begin with a pair of classic songs first. I enjoyed listening to your podcast series on “My Own Worst Enemy.” In episode three of the series, I learned that the song was included in 2008’s Rock Band 2 video game and that your son, Jeremy, played guitar with that game.
JEREMY POPOFF: Yes, he sure did. He was little when that came out. He is 20 now. He loved it and loved beating his old man at his own song.
GM: Episode three also referenced a marching band playing the song.
JP: I have the sheet music to it.
GM: That is amazing. My daughter Brianna, who played in the high school marching band when “My Own Worst Enemy” was a hit said, “I wish we would have had it back then.”
JP: I am the collector for the band. I think I found it online and said, “Dude! I’ve got to have that.” I just got the Japanese music book for our Atomic album, which is a deeper album, not the obvious album.
GM: That’s one of my wife Donna’s favorite albums. In the U.K., they released a vinyl single with “My Own Worst Enemy” from A Place in the Sun on the A side and “Bitter” from your prior album Tripping the Light Fantastic on the flip side, a Nirvana-like angry power.
JP: We were 1980s kids, listening to heavy metal and we had long hair. In the 1990s we were young and impressionable and were influenced by that next wave of music. Thankfully we were young enough where it wasn’t weird that our tastes were changing and growing. We were big fans of Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains. In the midst of enjoying heavy metal and grunge, we were also discovering more pop sounds from Elvis Costello, so our sound became a hybrid of all those styles.
Fabulous Flip Side: Bitter
A side: My Own Worst Enemy (U.S. non-vinyl position No. 51)
U.K. vinyl release: June 1999
RCA 74321 67265 7
GM: The softer storytelling songs remind me of Elvis Costello.
JP: I kind of think of it as Lit’s version of yacht rock. They have an Air Supply “Lost in Love”-type sound.
GM: “OK With That” which tenderly states, “At the end of the day, it’s me and you and I’m OK with that.”
KEVIN BALDES: Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s we were exposed to so many varieties of music. You may get a little of bit of everything on every album. It may help us or may hurt us. You’ll get a ballad. You’ll get a thrasher song. You’ll get a punk-type song. You’ll get a pop-rock song. You’ll kind of get everything because the three core members grew up on everything.
GM: You mentioned Air Supply from 1980 and you mentioned pop-rock, so let’s go back one prior year to 1979, from The Cars’ second album, “Let’s Go” which you cover as a fun and edgy finale. Jason Freese on keyboards is a wonderful guest on this recording.
KB: That started as a fun idea. Jason and I are good friends. We live by each other. I said, “Hey will you help me out. I really want to cover a Cars song.” The Cars are a really well known band but nobody really tackles their material. There are not a lot of Cars covers out there. He did the keyboard part first, we added the bass and drums, sent it to Nashville and Jeremy and Ajay finished it up. It was cool seeing it come to life. When the song was recorded it wasn’t necessarily for the album, but when we heard it, we said, “Dude! This is cool. Let’s put in on the album.”
JP: It was kind of the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. We had just started writing songs for the album. With “Let’s Go,” it was a bit of a break to do something fun and get some of our friends on it, not overthink it, and see how it comes out. It was a way to grease the wheels and get us moving in that direction. Once we turn that light on and are in that mode, recording and making music, that usually starts the fire. We get bitten by that bug and get going.
GM: On “Mouth Shut” you state, “Words are getting dangerous.” Oh boy, is that true.
JP: When we set out to write these songs, we said that we didn’t want to talk about politics, and we didn’t want to talk about viruses. We had just been bombarded with an election year and all the lockdowns. We just wanted to make an album that was divergent from all of that but inevitably we are very outspoken guys and very passionate guys. We have families, kids and feelings and sometimes you will make a comment or send somebody a text and then wish you could unsend it. As much as we try to not discuss current events, “Mouth Shut” did creep its way in there. I am not saying that you should keep your mouth shut just because words are dangerous, but I think there is a delicate tipping point right now.
“I hope we can get back to a place where people can say what is on their minds and not lose friendships or alienate family members or lose careers or scholarships. It is time for everybody to have a conversation again.” – Jeremy Popoff, Lit
GM: Another topical song is “Kicked Off the Plane.” What a fun song. Brianna loves this one about the Chicago layover. We used to live there and when friends or family would have a layover at O’Hare, I would go and meet them. Had I been there, I would have kept you out of trouble at the bar.
JP: You should have been there that day.
KB: That song goes over really well. When we did a two-week tour of the U.K. you could feel the reaction of the crowd with that one. Sometimes it is great energy and sometimes we can sense that they aren’t feeling a song. “Kicked Off the Plane’ did very well every night. That felt really good.
“When we are on stage and moving around it is chaotic. We are like machines where we can laser over the audience and feel a certain energy.” – Kevin Baldes, Lit
GM: I would imagine that you would receive the same reaction with “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” which was last year’s single, ahead of this year’s album and with a fun video too. The song begins the new album, and the first reaction has to be, Lit is back and they sound like Lit!
JP: Yes. That was the goal with that song. We set that tone that we are back. We went back to our roots, and we’re coming for you.
GM: The title song “Tastes Like Gold” is in 6/8 time which I thought was in 3/4 time until I read your notes. I only know Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” as a 6/8 song off the top of my head. It is a great song with harmony vocals and touching on all types of addiction.
KB: That is probably my favorite track on the album.
JP: I wasn’t very good at math, but I do remember that 6/8 reduces to 3/4 so I would have thought them to be the same, so what is the difference? Actually, David Bryan from Bon Jovi was in the studio that day when we were recording that and I said something about 3/4 time and he said, “You mean 6/8.” We are a self-taught band. David explained it to me and showed me the difference in the song. “It is not 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Your song is 1-2-3-4-5-6.”
GM: Leave it to David. That is a good example on how he can fit in with the Broadway writers. When I relistened to it with 6/8 in mind, I could get it too. “Here’s to Another” has a steady bass and a watery guitar solo. This is a great toast song.
KB: We kind of have a handful of those, don’t we? Any reason to have a drink, I suppose.
JP: We wrote that one with an old friend. I think on every Lit album there is that moment where we reflect that our lives are pretty cool. We have one called “Here’s to Us.” We are here. We are doing what we love and that is pretty awesome.
GM: On the softer “Hold That Thought,” there is the question, “Is this the life we wanted?”
JP: It is very conversational. I think people can relate to it whether it is your kid going off to college or your son or daughter going overseas or your significant other going on a trip. It is hard to be the one gone but it is also hard to be the one back home. It never fails. Someone calls you from home but then you have to leave for a soundcheck, it can wear on you, because sometimes there is never a good time.
GM: You open it nicely with an acoustic guitar. I think about Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album By the Way. After Californication was so successful, I felt they went a little softer and deeper on that next album and I love it because of that. Your introspection shows a deep human side, making a nice balance.
KB: Thank you.
JP: That was a special song. It started with just a chorus idea. I was getting in the shower one day and I sang it into my phone before I got in so that my phone wouldn’t get wet. The guys were coming over that day to work on a different song and I played them that chorus idea. Everybody liked it. One of our co-producers, Carlo Colasacco lost his fiancé a couple of years prior to a long battle with cystic fibrosis. He was really there for the whole thick of it and took care of it. He asked if we minded if he would take the chorus home and put some thoughts down because the song felt really special to him. So, he really wrote a lot of those verses about his situation, and we left as much in tact as we could. We felt it was something that he needed to get out.
GM: It came together nicely. I love the album with all its variety.
KB: Thank you. We really appreciate this.
JP: We appreciate you, your family and Goldmine.
PART TWO – BLAKE BABIES
GOLDMINE: I am enjoying the return of Sunburn to vinyl.
JULIANA HATFIELD: Great. I have the original vinyl version from 1990.
GM: The album begins with “I’m Not Your Mother,” which is something I have heard around the house from my wife Donna over the years, fortunately not that often.
JH: (laughs) I had a lot of conflicting emotions, feeling lost in relationships and powerless.
“I think I was just trying to assert some kind of power in my lyrics and trying to express how confounding I thought relationships were. So much was expected in a role of a partner and desired of me that I thought I could not deliver.” – Juliana Hatfield, Blake Babies
GM: Questioning relationships continues with “Look Away,” as you sing, “I get along without you.”
JH: I do think both of those songs draw from the same idea, expressed differently, but both touching on independence or the inability to deal with complexity in intimate relationships.
GM: Freda, your drumbeats come through with wonderful accents on “Sanctify.” It is a moody and powerful song, and it has the male and female harmonies from Juliana and John. For a trio, there is a lot going on.
JOHN STROHM: I was just learning how to sing at that point. Juliana was more of a trained singer. I was encouraged by Juliana and by our producer Gary Smith. Using the tools we had to work with then, I think it works very well.
GM: That vocal blend is also on “Train” which I really enjoy and reminds me a bit of R.E.M.
JH: They have train songs too, “Driver 8” for example. It is an American tradition.
JS: I think with that song it was a dual lead vocal. I was struggling as a new singer, trying to find my voice. I was learning how to sing in front of a microphone in a studio, which is not the best place to learn. It is the quickest way to improve but most people who sing in a studio have sung in a school choir, at least.
JH: I was also a bit new. I studied piano at Berklee and then started studying voice, so I was also learning techniques on how to strengthen my voice.
JS: Juliana had already sung on two albums before this, so she had great experience, compared to me. “Train” has a pretty demanding vocal with an active melody. Juliana’s guide vocal helped me to nail the pitch. The lyrics were ambiguous, so having the male and female vocal was not a conflict.
JH: While this song doesn’t sound like the band X, John and my voice are so different that it reminds me of John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s voices being different in X. When we sing together it is a cool tension that blends well.
JS: When I would write songs back then I would have a template in mind for the kind of song I wanted to write and one song I was absolutely obsessed with was “4th of July” by X. I was thinking about how that chorus ascends.
FREDA LOVE SMITH: “Sanctify” and “Train” are both slow songs, fitting in with bands we were listening to at the time. I also felt new in what I was doing as a drummer. Like John, being in a studio helped me get better. By the time we got to the Sunburn album I felt more competent. We were playing more shows, but I felt like I was scrambling to catch up and keep up with the others.
JS: I had an eye-opening experience in the studio. I was a hard rock/punk rock drummer. I played in The Lemonheads before Blake Babies. I was pretty good at it, but I am definitely a better guitarist. There was a time with Blake Babies when Freda couldn’t make it to the studio, and I said that I would do the drum track. I got behind the drums and I couldn’t get it right at all, not one iota. Freda has a great feel that she brings to the trio, and I couldn’t replicate that. She is the only drummer who can make sense in this band.
GM: I think having a trio exposes everyone. Juliana, it is the same thing with your bass. Often bass is very buried in recordings where I just don’t hear it. I can hear you anchoring the songs nicely, making a wonderful blend, and we hear that on “Girl in a Box,” a rare and mysterious type of song, like “Little Black Egg” by The Nightcrawlers from here in Daytona Beach and even It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Girl With No Eyes” from their debut album which included “White Bird.”
JS: This is a case where fifteen minutes of creativity is now something I have to answer to for the rest of my life. I was trying to write something shocking. About half of the songs are ones Juliana brought to the band with me interpreting her songs with my guitar, making it work for my style, but I didn’t change the songs and didn’t take any writing credit. Then there are others where I primarily wrote the music and Juliana primarily wrote the lyrics. With “Sanctify” Freda also wrote a lot of the lyrics. Then there were others where I would write them on my own. I came up with a tune that I thought might be ridiculously poppy, so I wanted to write something shocking to offset it. At that time, I was really obsessed with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
“Now that we are more sensitive as a culture, I would definitely think twice before writing a song that might make people feel uncomfortable like ‘Girl in a Box.’” – John Strohm, Blake Babies
GM: You mention Nick Cave, X, and I even think of The Doors when I listen to “A Million Years” as a slow way to end the album with a mysterious atmosphere.
JS: That is a fascinating comparison.
FLS: I get that. Juliana’s vocals are so pretty on it, delivering a pretty and soaring melody.
JH: Lyrically, it shows my split personality. I’m tough on “I’m Not Your Mother” as an opener but for the ending I am singing that I will wait a million years, which is a polar opposite point of view.
JS: Freda and I were reaching outside of our experience to spin a yarn, but Juliana’s songs came very much from her own experience.
GM: In terms of different personalities, Juliana, you throw in humor quoting Wimpy from the Popeye cartoon series in the middle of “I’ll Take Anything” singing offhandedly, “I’ll pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
JH: I guess it is something to take the edge off. Some of the songs are pretty heavy and I just needed to throw in some humor.
JH, JS and FLS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Goldmine Fabulous Flip Sides now in its eighth year