Latest release: Pop Evil (eOne)Website: www.popevil.com
Michigan rockers Pop Evil have been steadily growing in stature with a solid work ethic that has seen them support some of the biggest names in the classic hard rock genre. Their fifth studio album, Pop Evil, was released over a year ago and not only have they cracked the top ten of the US Billboard Hard Rock Albums charts but their first lead-in single scored the number one slot in the Mainstream Rock Charts. Regardless, they remain well-grounded and their success now allows them to tour Australia for the first time. Loud Online spoke to the energetic founding front man Leigh Kakaty about the impending tour, the most recent album’s creative process and how the history of the band’s touring achievements drives their approach to writing songs that continues to entertain a live audience.
The latest album has a massive sound going for it. How much of that involves production?
Yeah, we did get some great production on that one with our producer there, Kato Khandwala. We spent a year on it so we took a lot of time to make sure it was the most powerful Pop Evil album to date. We were really stoked at how it turned out. It has been a labour of love, so to speak. It is nice to hear kind words as it something that we are super proud of.
Is the end result something you can visualise when you’re doing pre-production?
Ah, you know, it is funny you say that. Yes and no, for me, I feel like I have the lead singer and writer curse because I always feel like I have demo-itis where it is not good enough. I’ll give you two funny stories. For the song, ‘Waking Lions’, I demoed that and I knew that was one of my favourite songs, probably that I have ever written in my career. I was so excited about it. The music gave me such a fire that I knew it was going to translate live in an impressive way. I had no idea it was going to be as big as it is now. It is incredible. It is probably one of our biggest live songs at the moment alongside ‘Trenches’. At the time I was so excited about it, I had the choruses written but we had no verses. So when we were in the studio this was the last thing we did before the song was going to be released on a Monday. A year had gone by, the single was going to be ‘Waking Lions’ and it was to be released on the coming Monday but I had no verses. I mean, I think I had recorded the verses but I had wrapped them. It was horrible, it was just too heavy and it wasn’t me and it wasn’t fitting the song. I had a dream about it that Saturday night and I hummed the melody from my dream. I came into the studio and I talked to Kato and said, ‘look…’, when we were already going to press it, ready to go as it was and I was like, ‘Dude!’ and it was almost making me shake because I was so nervous about it and this song had to be perfect for me. I told him, ‘The song is wrong, get back into the studio, we have to re-do this verse, this is not…if this is going to be a radio single, I have to give it the best shot for it to be a number one, it has to be a big hit for the band and being the first single off this record, it means a lot to me’ and he said, ‘All right, what do you want to do?’ and I just said, ‘Let’s just start singing.’ So I just started singing and we started at 12 o’clock PM and did around eighteen different versions of it. Finally at 10pm, when we had to be out of the studio at 10:01pm they gave us three extra minutes and I think it was by 10:03pm when finally we dropped it exactly as you hear it. That ended up being the number one record for us and all of that stuff. So, it was a very, very stressful song for me. Then for ‘Be Legendary’ which is our current single now, I didn’t even want to put it on the record. I was just saying, ‘Ah, it’s not good enough, I hate it, we’re not putting it on the record’ and managers the band were saying, ‘This song is awesome, are you nuts?’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t hear it.’ But then, I was so hot and heavy for a year just constantly writing non-stop so who knows if my mind may have been a little bit fried. So, two of the biggest songs on this record are the two that I had the biggest personal struggles with just trying to get it. Every song is different man, sometimes they fall into place, sometimes they don’t. It feels very rewarding now to have the success and most importantly, it is one thing to have a number one song which is an honour and is a huge super cool thing but to be honest, the real, most powerful moment is when you play those songs live and the fans just respond. It is just infectious. ‘Be Legendary’ is less than a year old and we’ve just released it as the third single which has only been out for several months. We just toured Europe about a month or so ago and they sang to it. ‘Be Legendary’ is probably one of the most insane songs that we did that whole night other than ‘Waking Lions’. To see that song do well that early in its lifecycle when we’re playing it live is incredible, man. It is just a testament to how the band keeps growing and how we keep moving upward. It has been a long haul but it has been a steady climb. Again, it is so important for us to be grateful and to respect the opportunity that we have, just be open-minded and always try to write a better song. We will always be trying to write that better popular song.
Backing vocals is clearly a key ingredient in the power of a song’s chorus and is certainly present in Pop Evil’s music. Is that something that you push even more in the live setting?
Yeah, I mean the backing vocals are always a challenge. Obviously the band sings live but in the studio they are not true singers because sometimes we will experiment with different dudes and sometimes the band will do it but I am always trying to get different textures. It is one thing when you hear a song live but when you hear a song on a studio album, there are different voices and different textures that might sound better with my voice or not. So it is constantly about being open minded and just trying to experiment with different things and again, some bands don’t really take the pride with the backing vocals. Even in the past with the previous records, we definitely have pride in it and we’ve spent a lot of time on it but we took our backing vocals on this particular record to a whole new level. I mean, we’ve really focused on it and for a lot of the backing vocals, I would sing and make sure that was what we were thinking about and if maybe we wanted to do that. Then we would talk about it and a couple of our backing guys would come in and sing it there while the band would try it here to get the perfect blend to sound like it was live so there was a lot of time and effort spent on the backing vocals, man. We wanted to make sure that even though you might not be feeling it when you’re listening, then you know when that chorus really hits you and sometimes those backing vocals can make all of the difference.
Pop Evil toured with Judas Priest and Whitesnake for Judas Priest’s British Steel 30th anniversary tour. That’s pretty good.
Oh, it was amazing. It was back in 2009 and we were babies so to be able to have a chance to tour, playing these big sheds and big concert venues and these big outdoor venues with Judas Priest…actually, half way through the tour, [David] Coverdale went down with a vocal injury so we ended up being the direct support for Judas Priest. It was wild, man, I mean, every night when you tour with Judas Priest, we would get booed at first, it would be like, ‘boo, Priest, Priest, Priest!’ and then for every show, I am not kidding you, for every show we would get a standing ovation afterwards. So these Judas Priest fans really respected what we were doing and they still come to see us to this day. We really learned a lot of things early on in our career about the pride that fans have for these classic rock bands that have been around for years. There is such a respect that those fans have and once you earn their respect they’ll stand up for you as well. To be able to earn the respect of the Judas Priest fans was a huge honour and it is something that we’ve learned early in our career to just make sure that we keep ourselves grinding. Actually, this last summer we had probably our favourite tours of all time with Cheap Trick and Poison. Again, another unbelievable tour with a lot of great pointers and tips that you could get not only from Cheap Trick and Poison vocally but just by watching them and their antics and just how professional they are both on and off the stage, it is always a pleasure to tour with those bands. It was nice to be able to learn from Judas Priest and Cheap Trick; they taught us some good stuff.
It is great. It must be hard for a young band to imagine, ‘Hey, keep working, you’ll be touring with Priest.’
Ha, no, that is for sure, you don’t think that. To be honest, it happened so fast but you don’t really realise it under you’re done with it and you think to yourself, ‘Wow, I just toured with Judas Priest’, I man, like I said, we were young, we were so new to the whole business. Our first tour was with Tesla and even just getting a chance to tour we were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we get to tour with Tesla? This is insane!’ Tesla were so good to us and then we got the tour with Priest and they were also so good to us. Being able to see these bands in action, especially bands that have been around for thirty plus years, to see how they’re still around and doing it and killing it at the highest level; it really motivated us. It taught us about how to a lot of diligence off the stage and behind the scenes to really make sure that when we get to actually do the stuff we really love, we are healthy, we are head smart, we are ready to go and we are focused on what we really need to be doing. There’s no partying like millionaires, it is about really focusing on the craft and those guys really do what they do and then repeat it. They stay healthy, they stay focused and they crush every night. I think that our band, maybe early on figured out where we wanted to be and wanted to be able to tour and play for years and decades to come so we’re planning on doing that. We’ve been diligent enough to look after the little things now so we’ve been pro-active so we can hopefully win in that way. Those tours taught us a lot and again, last summer, touring with Cheap Trick and Poison, we loved being out there as well so it was great of them to have us out there.
You mentioned you toured Europe recently. I believe that was with an up and coming band from the UK called Fallen State?
Yep, correct. Great band and especially when we headline, we love to get those up and coming bands because we know how it felt. Those young bands usually have a lot of fun energy that our fans really embrace. We’ve really prided ourselves as we’ve headlined here in the US, Canada and Europe to bring out bands that can entertain our fan-base and in different ways. You look at Fallen State, we had the guys come up on stage with us every night. I think we ended with ‘Trenches’ and we had them up there singing with us. Ben [Stenning – vocals] was up there singing with us and performing. We really try to make it a fun night not just for our fans but for the opening bands. They have fans too you know and we want to be able to get those guys to be motivated and hopefully we can help those bands and do the part to make those bands bigger so we can make our rock’n’roll and metal community bigger, man. It’s really important to not be negative all the time and to stop being selfish going, ‘me, me, me, no, our band!’ There is not rule that says your smartphone, iPod or your laptop can have a limit on the songs you can have unless you run out of storage. Other than that, you can have all of the latest new bands, all of the old bands; all of the music you want and just get another hard drive, right. So why do we have to be so over protective about things saying, ‘No, just me, just my band?’ Something with us that has really grown has been to be able to include other bands and with those opening bands we really try to help grow the business and help grow the genre so it is important to us.
The tour is coming here for the first time. What can we expect from the set list?
We’ll talk about it on the plane ride. We have a long, long plane ride ahead so we’ll probably sit together and just really think about what we want to do. Being in Australia for the first time, we going to really talk about YouTube and Spotify playlists to choose songs that as many people in Australia would know as possible. They are obviously not paying any attention to American radio, they’re listening to Australian radio or Australian social media streams taken from sources to hear the music. So, it is always a great starting point but at the same time we are going to try to keep as many of the songs that we play well and focus on as many of the new songs as we can because that is the album that includes this current line up so we want to give fans the best opportunity to see us and who we are and who Pop Evil is now. So, that is definitely important to us but it should be an incredible set list. We are just coming off an amazing tour of the US and Europe was incredible as well. It’s our first time in Australia so we cannot wait to just hopefully knock some socks off and really pounce on the set list. We should be ready to go as we have had a month off so we should be coming with a lot of energy. I can’t wait, man. Of course, that excitement of playing a country for the first time always has that adrenaline regardless of numbers. You’re always there to meet new fans and to meet new people in another country and try to taste the culture. We hope to go from having fans in Australia to having friends in Australia. We are definitely looking to build our relationships as we head down under.
Aside from some of the big names we’ve mentioned, you’ve toured with stacks of bands across the genre ranging from Seether and Theory of a Deadman to Black Label Society. Is there a particular band where you’ve really gelled with on tour?
Oh lots, the longer you tour helps but all those bands mentioned, we have great relationships with them. We toured with Three Doors Down though Europe, Theory of a Deadman we have played with many times in the US and Canada so we are very close with them. Recently, as we discussed, we toured all summer with Cheap Trick and Poison. When we tour with these people now it is even better because we’re not ‘workies’ anymore, it’s our twelfth year so we all kind of have so much in common. Five Finger Death Punch brought us to Europe for the first time and that was an awesome tour. You name it, man, usually every band we’ve toured with, we’ve been lucky, There has never really been any negativity, it has always been just learning that every band has something different to bring to the table and you learn from each other and steal a little from each other. It is almost like camp nowadays and touring with these bands you catch up with if you haven’t seen them for years. There is a family atmosphere with some of these bands that we tour together with now so it is special.
You spoke about not having a negative attitude. Your positive approach also comes across in the lyrical content as opposed to bashing people with aggression. Is that something that is natural for you to write?
I think it is natural. We just try to bring positivity to our fan base. I think that when you live and breathe in a genre that somehow has gotten a title of ‘rock’n’roll is dead’, it is so important not to be negative. I mean, there is no point. We are the only genre that has that negative kind of stigma around it and that is ridiculous. You know, we fight for our fan base and play for those people that come to our live shows, who live and breathe music, who live and breathe rock with real instruments of guitar, bass and drums so it is so important for us to get out and be positive about it. We are stronger together in numbers, man. It we can come together it can send a positive message because there are a lot of people in rock and who listen to rock and metal how are broken. They need help and they need motivation. They don’t go to a doctor and they are not looking for that stuff, they are looking to be healed to music. I was one of those people when I was younger and to be able to finally now be in a position to give back is something that is very important to us so whenever we can inspire people in a positive way to make people be better, then that is something that we definitely jump on. We pride ourselves about our catalogue and the songs that we have written but as we look to the future, we are always thinking about ways where we can not only challenge people but hopefully also bring people closer together, to themselves, to their families and to us as a band. So it is definitely important.
In that light, I’d imagine you’d happily tour with bands like Skillet or Stryper.
It’s funny that you say that as we’re touring with Skillet here soon, coming up. We love Skillet, we’re real close with John [Cooper] and the Skillet family. So, yeah, obviously that’s awesome so we’re definitely excited about touring with them again as we have toured with them before in the US. We would definitely tour with Stryper, of course. We are always open to that and even when bands aren’t even the same genre we are excited to tour with them because in today’s music society, it is so important to create more avenues and different opportunities to be seen by different audiences. We don’t get the TV market that you once did back in the 80’s and the 90’s so you know, you can never turn away an opportunity to be seen by people who may love you if you they just get a chance to hear you. It would be great to tour with any of those bands.