M mLatest release: Versatile (eOne)Website:www.popevil.com
Pop Evil are no stranger to adversity and hard work. So when the pandemic hit, the Michigan band had no choice but to put release of their 2019 recorded album on hold. Their sixth album Versatile came to light recently in 2021 and is probably their strongest work yet, and the title suitably indicates the direction of the band. Utilising various producers has pushed their strengths in showing off the richly varied and wide scope of sounds that Pop Evil deliver.
Loud Online spoke to the band’s co-founding guitarist, Dave Grahs to discuss the new album, survival as an international professional musician and how to stay inspired.
The new album is quite heavy with dense production. Did it take a fair while to get all those arrangements together?
We spent a lot of time on doing guitar tones and doing different things, there was a lot of experimentation with on this one. We used a lot of different guitars and a lot of different amplifiers. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where we started on that. I know that there were some Orange amplifiers on there. There were some Naylors, some Marshalls and a bunch of stuff like that. There was a lot of experimenting, especially on Leigh’s [Kakaty – lead vocals] part of it.
When you come into something like that and then a pandemic hits, how did you cope with it?
Wow, I tell you what man, that was a hard one to swallow. We were supposed to go back out there in March when the whole thing hit and then it was supposed to be two or three weeks and then the two or three weeks never came. So, here we are and I think we stopped touring on October 1st of 2019 and the last time we played together was New Years Eve of 2019, going into 2020. It was pretty difficult but we’re excited to get back out there and do all the stuff and to let everybody hear the music live.
Have you listened to the album recently given the delays to release?
Oh yeah, I actually got a copy at Leigh’s house and we got the brand new ones to look at the artwork and everything. We are pretty excited about it.
The singles went well too. Was that sort of an expectation?
It is kind of one of those things where for us it was a no-brainer. We felt pretty good about it from the get-go and when we brought it to the rest of the guys we were all like, ‘That’s definitely got to be a single,’ so yeah, I guess so, yeah. But look, we have a really good management team behind us and we are very lucky to have the staff that we have.
Breathe Again, like several other songs, gets to the chorus pretty quickly.
Yeah, it is kind of as they say, ‘Get right to the hook,’ you know, and keep it simple because people want to hear the good stuff. We try to give them anything that we feel is pretty good and we like to get right to the point and get into it.
There’s variety in the riffs underneath. You can hear overdubs, different levels, and so on. Do you spend a lot of time tinkering with your sounds?
Yeah, because we have two guitar players in our band, we’ve always tried to play different parts. If I’m doing something, then Nick [Fuelling – lead guitar] is doing something else and vice versa. So, we always try to overlap all of that stuff. If you listen closely, there is probably like five or six different guitar lines that we have got layered over a different bunch of stuff.
Yeah, aside from the electronic noises and synth, listening closely to the guitar lines, there are bits and pieces popping in and out. How many channels did you have running on the desk?
Well, jeez, I don’t know, it depends on the track and for some of the tracks we’ve got four or five different guitar lines going and then when we run that stuff live. Nick and I have to sit down and go through who is going to play what. We might hear something and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ but we’re only two guitar players so we cannot play all of that stuff at the same time. So, you’ve kind of got to get in the nuts and bolts, right out the gate, you know, the main stuff that the listener hears, that is what you want to deliver live.
Presumably that is similarly the case with all the programming of guitar sounds?
Nick uses a Fractal Audio AX8, I believe, whereas I am sponsored by HeadRush FX and I use that gear. We go in before all that stuff to get all the best tones that we can, doing the best that we can in getting it close to the record. You don’t want it to get too close to the record because you want it to sound good live. I mean, you know, you want the guitars to have that live sound, you just don’t want to have it sounding too mechanical or too pre-recorded.
When you started out, digital and amp profiling was in its infancy and may have been difficult to imagine you could tour with a USB stick.
Right, yeah, absolutely. When we started this thing, Leigh and I got together out of high school and college to form a band in 2001. Yeah, back then it was just plug and play and you didn’t even think that this was an option back then.
In contrast, you played on the 30th anniversary tour for British Steel, playing with Judas Priest and Whitesnake. Did you sit back in awe watching everything they were doing and checking out the equipment?
Oh absolutely, I think I was watching K.K. Downing every night and then, we’d watch the guys from Whitesnake and they are such pros, man, like you can hear them warming up each day before the show and they were just really…they gave us a good idea of just how things should be run and done. Like I said, I watched K.K. Downing every night and watched him go through his gear and would talk to his guitar tech a lot. I learned a lot on that tour.
These are bands that were around in the 70’s and have been through it all. I guess this sort of endurance also applies to Pop Evil to some extent what is the key to survival and longevity?
It is like anything else, man, the more you give to the project, the more it will give back to you. You’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing, and if you like and if you’re confident in what you’re doing, that comes across live, whether you have a good performance or a bad performance. I mean, I think that the crowd really feeds off the energy that, ‘Hey, this is our baby, we’re proud of it, hope you guys like it.’
The album production dynamics are impressive, going from a sparse, clean arrangement to a sudden wall of sound, and it is done very quickly.
Yeah, a lot of that stuff can be done in post and so on but we really like keep it, like, if you go back and listen to any of the other albums that we have, Pop Evil has always been the good and the bad, you know, the heavy and the ballad type stuff because we never wanted to be pigeonholed as one type of band. There are bands out there that have their sound and that’s great. I mean, it has been a blessing and a curse for us all at the same time. We’ll play songs and people will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you guys played that song or wrote that song!’ whereas other fans, who will be into the heavier stuff will say, ‘I had no idea that you did this song.’ I think that might be one of the things that helps us playing live just by giving people a variety of things. Some people are going to like a lot of the stuff and some people aren’t, you know, but you are always going to have a few that know a certain song off the records.
The first track, Let the Chaos Reign almost has a stomping Rob Zombie type of riff.
Yeah and that is a really super fun one to play, let me tell you.
Aside from the heaviness, it is in the album title, you’ve got variety. The song Work is partially a blues shuffle with electronica mixed in.
Yeah a little bit and we like to try to give everybody a bit of variety and we like to try to cover all of the bases. At the end of the day, we are fans of music too so we want to do things that are going to make us happy. We took a chance on that and threw in a lot of experimentation. Pretty much with every record that we do, we don’t only do the heavier stuff. We wanted to take a chance on this and that particular one sounded modern and it felt good. I never tell anybody what the song meanings are because I don’t want to ruin it for anybody else but the whole meaning behind it was for us.
Same Blood has heaviness that is almost has a bit of thrash metal in there in a little part of it.
Yeah, absolutely. We’re all fans, we’re all different players and we’re all writers in the band too. I mean, we come from a bunch of different styles. Nick is more into the heavier stuff, I am more like the bluesy rock and roll type stuff, Matt [DiRito – bass] is more into Nine Inch Nails, Hayley [Cramer – drums] is just very well rounded in general. It is a great combination, hence the name Pop Evil, the good and the bad. It is a big variety.
How is the song writing team arranged these days?
With COVID and everything, the times have changed so those days jamming in the basement or in the garage just really don’t exist anymore. I mean, really, not anymore for us, anyway. Hayley lives in the UK, we’re here in the States; a couple of us are in Michigan, some in Pittsburgh, then there’s Indiana, you know, it is through a lot of email and USB stuff like you said, too. But, we’ll come up with ideas or I’ll come up with something and I’ll send it to Leigh and if he’s vibing it, he’ll give feedback and then we’ll shoot it through to the rest of the guys. Same thing if Nick has something, he’ll send it to Leigh and he will send it to the rest of us. It kind of goes along with the COVID things in that everybody is working from home.
Do you think that people don’t notice how important the rhythm section and backing vocals are in a live situation? It is essential to drive a chorus.
Yeah, I believe that the rhythm section is the nuts and bolts of the whole thing right there that holds it together. I mean, that is what people are moving and grooving to.
It’s funny because the front man gets all the attention.
Yeah but that’s good, he’s our guy and he is on our team, you know. We are all about being team players. If my part is not right on…I try to play my parts to the best of my ability, kind of like a sports team. We’re all in it together, you know.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about backing vocals and how they work with the main melody?
Sometimes and usually during the writing process is when that pops up.
You mentioned your blues influence. How were the guitar solos delegated out or was it mostly Nick and was there improvisation?
The majority was mostly Nick and like I said, he is more on the heavier side, he is more of a technical player. If I have a song with a solo that I have and then Nick plays it a little bit better, there’s no egos there. We will let Nick lay it down and I don’t have any problem with that. It is just whatever is better for the song. If it needs more of a sloppier lead on it, then I’ll jump on it and vice versa. It all depends on the mood of the song and the picture that we want to paint, I guess you could say.
The Digitech Whammy pedal on the Breathe Again. It works well but unless you’re a guitar head, might not pick up on it.
Yeah, it was one octave up and one active down, that was exactly what it is – a Digitech Whammy. It is pretty much a unique sound and I think that you can thank Tom Morello for that. He brought that to the table and really put it out to the forefront there, you know. It was one of those things that I really wanted to do, just to experiment with it and go at it with octave up and octave down.
Do baritone guitars come into the experimenting?
Not too much. We did though, actually a few records ago we had baritones on a few things. But we really did have any on this one, I mean, they are fun to play. Although not on me as I’m short guy so it almost looks like a bass on me.
Is there a particular track on the latest album you’ve most proud of at this point?
Gee, I’ve got to go with Breathe Again. It is just one of those things that just kind of fits with the times.
Were there more songs put together since the delay in this album’s release? I gather there are some more tracks since recording completed that might eventually see the light of day.
Yeah, we’ve always got a catalogue full of stuff but we’ll see. On our third record [Onyx], the song Trenches, that was actually supposed to be on our second record [War of Angels]. We felt that it didn’t quite fit that album, more to the evolution of the band and we were just kind of leaving that rock’n’roll thing to get to a little bit of the heavier stuff. So we held off putting that out until the third record and it ended up being one of the biggest songs on that record. I mean, we have tonnes of material still just floating around and we cannot wait to dip into that. But we’ll see, with everything opening up just now we are eager to get out to promote this record. I know it has been a year since we did it but even with release dates and so on, we have already thought about starting on doing some more writing. But, right now, we’re taking it one step at a time, just trying to get back out on the road.
I saw your recent tour to Australia and it was a great show. Building a profile in new territories must feel like starting over again in some aspects though?
Absolutely. But you know, we will play the same show. If we play a club we are going to play it as if we are playing in an arena. We’re there to jam out, no matter who is there. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re there as fans of music and we’re all there because we love it. Yeah, it is like starting over again but you know what, it is beautiful. I still talk about touring over to Australia to this day. I’ll tell my friends about it saying, ‘We were here, here and here,’ and actually, I’ll tell me kids about it. My kids are learning about geography in school and Australia came up and I was like, ‘Your Dad played here and here, and so on.’
Great tour. I’m curious how you coped without the energy you are used to getting in an arena?
Hmm, it is definitely a different kind of buzz. I’m speaking for myself here but I feel like I can speak for anybody else that’s in this situation. You get out there and you kind of drag your feet, thinking, ‘Oh, there are only a few hundred people here,’ but once you start playing, man, it doesn’t matter how many people are there. Those can wind up being the best shows because everybody is up front, they are close, they’re getting sweaty together. It’s the real deal and I mean, that is starting over in a good way. You’ve got to remind yourself that you are miles and miles away from home and these people are rocking out to you, and that is a pretty cool thing.
The lyrics on the album contain a lot about overcoming adversity, perseverance and unity. As a parent, and as you mature within your career, do you look at music differently?
Yeah, from when we first started, a little bit. There are still things there that we want to say but like I said, we don’t came straight out and say it because I don’t to tell people what the songs are about. It is going to mean something different to us than it is to the listener and you don’t want to destroy that. But yeah, it is a little bit different but that is like anything in life. My kids, for example, they will tell me they cannot do something and I’ll say, ‘We don’t use that word in this house,’ because saying ‘cannot’ just means you haven’t done it enough. You have got to just try it over and over again and you’ll eventually get it.
I mention it because you did a film clip with Mick Mars [Mötley Crüe guitarist] for Boss’s Daughter and I wonder how he views songs like Girls, Girls, Girls these days.
Yeah, I mean, it is all a part of growing up, you know what I mean and everybody goes through phases and it is just like chapters of our lives. Songs like that, they are still fun to play and music is better than a diary. It takes you right back to that moment in your life, every time you hear it or when you play it, and that is the beauty of it.
How does chart success get measured in the States these days given radio versus streaming services?
Everything is all tied in together. It still works, you still get people on radio and you still get people on satellite [radio], the people at SiriusXM Octane are just amazing, they have been so good to us. But, you can tell when you roll into a city if they still have a prominent rock radio station. There are generally more people there [at shows] and it’s just the energy, you know. It is all pulling together.
Is it harder to engage with new fans given all of the other distractions around? It used to just be primarily movies and music.
It is definitely a different ball game, especially with social media and all of that. Back then, it was all about the mystique of the rock star and everybody wanted to know but you never knew because, well, there wasn’t any social media back then. Now, everybody wants to know what you’re doing, they want to know what you had to eat, what you’re doing, where you’re going, it is such a different game. But, the money and everything is out there, it is just about the experience of going to see a live show. I say, ‘You need to put the phones down and stop looking up the YouTube stuff and just come to the show, and enjoy the experience because I guarantee you won’t regret it.’
Yes, indeed. Thanks for talking to us, it is an excellent album. Planning on heading back at all?
I appreciate it man, thanks for getting a hold of me. We hope to come back, so we’re just going to say, yes, we’ll see you next time we’re over there.