Pop Evil frontman Leigh Kakaty sees a lot of division in society and in the once-dominant hard rock genre.
Pop Evil is no longer Leigh Kakaty’s band.
Well, sure, he still sings for the hard-rocking, hit-making group out of North Muskegon. The point isn’t that it’s no longer his band; Pop Evil is no longer a band to its emotive, energetic frontman. Or, not just a band.
Pop Evil is a work ethic. Pop Evil is a mantra. Pop Evil is a way of life. Anyone who talks to the Canadian-born, Michigan-bred singer for longer than 23 seconds should be able to tell that much.
But some people — without naming names — who talk to Leigh Kakaty at length can push him too far.
About 30 percent of the way into transcribing my 25-minute conversation with him, it’s become increasingly clear I struck a nerve. Not that he, an absolute trouper, would have ever told me directly. But an unexpected benefit/curse of listening to a long-form interview at 70 percent speed on a digital recorder is that you pick up on the more subtle vocal cues that may not have been perceptible in the moment. Or, at least, not perceptible to a well-intentioned but unwittingly obtuse person such as myself.
To wit, I followed up on a line of questions that — in retrospect — clearly weighed heavily on his soul by making a dumb joke. And then I pushed even harder. ‘Oh, there’s a subtle cracking of the voice, and was that an erstwhile unnoticed sniffle?’ Either way, it’s now painfully clear that I put him in an emotional state he probably wasn’t quite prepared to be in when he called my cell phone for our scheduled interview.
But Leigh, to his credit, dug deep. I woke the lion and he roared, to crib a metaphor from the band’s recent No. 1 hit. He embraced his pain and channeled it into a touching, beautiful story I definitely wasn’t quite prepared to hear when I answered the phone.
Such is the Pop Evil way. Such is the way of Leigh Kakaty.
We chatted about the ever-changing state of rock ‘n’ roll, what he hopes fans take away from Pop Evil, and having nothing but a good time on tour.
Want to hear the rest?
[This interview took place Tuesday, June 12]
Kevin Tall: Hello, this is Kevin.
Leigh Kakaty: Hey Kevin, it’s Leigh calling with Pop Evil; how are you doing?
KT: I’m doing great, Leigh; how are you doing today, man?
LK: I apologize I’m a little bit late; the soundcheck went a little bit weird for us.
KT: Oh, all good, man, I know you guys have a lot going on.
LK: Sweet, no worries.
KT: How is the road treating you?
LK: Oh, it’s been amazing.
KT: Where are you guys playing tonight?
LK: Just outside of Cleveland.
KT: You’re currently doing festivals, and you’ll be swinging my way at the end of the month, in support of Cheap Trick and Poison… I’m trying to think of the polite way of expressing my reaction to that tour package. I think it would be to call it ‘eclectic.’ How did that get put together?
LK: It is [eclectic]. It’s been amazing. Y’know, we had an opportunity — I’ve been friends with Brett [Michaels of Poison] for a bit. They wanted to try something a little new; we were already currently booked in Europe. We just got the opportunity to come up and play at sold-out [venues] pretty much all summer.
It’s a must; you have to be creative in this day and age to find more ways to expose your music to a new audience. Their crowd is bringing the next generation, they’re bringing kids coming with Mom and Dad.
It’s just a way that you get to have an opportunity to get a different blend of bands from different eras. It’s been super cool.
KT: Right on. I do think they missed a decade in there, though; shouldn’t there be a huge ’90s band?
LK: [Laughs] Right, we would’ve needed four bands; four bands on the bill.
KT: What’s your set list looking like for this tour?
LK: We’re just trying to not really change it up, just doing the most [songs] of who we are and not shying away from that. We’re just really trying to get these audiences the best of Pop Evil, obviously trying to find the perfect blend of playing the old Pop Evil and new Pop Evil has been a challenge these first few shows but we’ve got it dialed in.
Obviously we’ve got a new record; we’re trying to showcase new stuff. But there’s plenty of people out there in the crowd that, I think, after they hear us play, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, they do that song? Oh wait, they do that one too? Wow, I like this band!’
So there’s a lot of that; it being our 10-year anniversary, a lot of these people have heard our music before at some point and maybe aren’t putting that link together, that that’s us. So it’s been cool to see, it’s been cool winning over fans every night. It’s been awesome.
KT: Awesome indeed. Have you worked ‘Torn to Pieces’ in?
LK: It’s actually not in the set list. This is the first time we’ve toured and not played ‘Torn to Pieces,’ so it’s been cool. We have a shorter set; when we have a shorter set, no matter where we play, we try to be a little bit conscious about the ballads that we play.
KT: Right on, fair enough. You’ve got to keep the same rhythm, same mood. Don’t want to take your foot off the gas pedal.
LK: You got it. It ain’t ‘Nothing but a good time.’ We don’t want to make people cry, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s definitely been weird to not play it, but it’s been a nice, refreshing break. It’s kind of cool now, with all hits the and the success we’ve had, we’ve been very blessed to mix that set list up. You can take things out, you kind of miss them and then it’s fun to bring them back in later on, so it’ll be cool to get ‘Torn to Pieces’ back into the set.
KT: It’s crazy, that song just strikes me as almost uncomfortably personal, not only in the lyrics but obviously the video as well, with the use of home movies and stuff like that. I’d read you had some adjusting to do when the song took off, and you’re dealing with it becoming a hit. But I think that, perhaps unintentionally, ties in with something else you’ve said, which is that ‘People demand a certain amount of honesty from their favorite bands these days.’ I think emotional honesty has to fall in line with that, right?
LK: Yeah, you’re exactly right. I mean, the song started as something that I definitely didn’t want to release; it was something that was really personal to me. Nowadays, it’s been overwhelming how it’s become a sense of healing for me. The fans, seeing them being able to relate.
Even though we all know we lose people and death is a part of life, it’s just refreshing to know that you’re not alone, if that makes any sense. It’s been a big part of letting me learn how to celebrate my father’s life rather than just being miserable about it.
It’s been huge how that song has really had different chapters. When it started… the first few years that we played it to now, it’s definitely something that’s become more positive, and it started from such a dark place. To see that, like you said, that emotional honesty, there’s actual home videos that are really personal to me in that music video; to have it be our biggest video, and one of our biggest songs of our career… Dad would definitely be proud to be able to create a sense of healing for others. So, it’s a super-cool song and it’s just something that… When you write those songs and they kind of take off as their own thing, it’s pretty special.
KT: I’m really glad to hear that that song has kind of transformed, with the way the song has evolved along with the band and yourself as a musician.
LK: Right, exactly.
KT: In one interview I’ve read, you call your dad your best friend, and, in another, you mentioned that, because of the culture in which he was raised, in India, you didn’t necessarily discuss emotional topics.
LK: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Y’know, he was my best friend. He was the strongest, he was the biggest supporter of Pop Evil. I think back in the early days, he was like ‘Look, you know, you either get a computer or a desk…’ Well, I was like ‘Dad, I want a guitar.’ This was a pivotal time; this was when computers were very new. He thought we needed that for school.
‘Oh, he’s gonna be a doctor or a lawyer’ or whatever my dad was thinking, who knows? But I was like, ‘Nah, Dad, I want a guitar. He could have said anything, but he said ‘OK, well what do you want, a Gibson or a Les Paul?’ So he took me and got my first guitar.
I think I ended getting an Ibanez, just ’cause it was so, like, flossed out. I mean, I still have it to this day; I don’t think I ever play it. It’s just… it looks like a Prince guitar; it’s just so flashy. It’s white, gold trim all around it. It’s gotta be worth some money; I mean, it was expensive when we bought it.
That was the type of guy he was. He wasn’t the type that’s just going to sit there and tell you he loved you; he was the type that was going to get you what you needed when you wanted it, show you with his actions that he loved you; one of those guys.
Even in his dying days, I was singing ‘Monster You Made’; ‘Monster You Made’ was his favorite, so I was able to sing that in his ear before we… I mean, he had a heart attack, so he was on life support, so before we ended up having to do the inevitable, pull the plug, we wanted him to go in class and with dignity and with pride…
It’s a tough decision for families, man; it’s something that I can finally talk about. My dad lived a great life; he had two successful kids and a family who loved him, I don’t know what more you could ask for. Just being a role model to others and being the person who wrote the song, it’s important for me to be able to show others that I have come to a place where I can digest that and accept it, that that was a beautiful story and it was a beautiful end to an awesome chapter in an awesome book that was his life. I’m grateful that his story goes on through the song and through his sons.
KT: That sounds beautiful, man…. Did you tell him that the computer or doctor things were a little culturally stereotypical?
LK: Yeah, well at the time it wasn’t; computers were brand new. So it was like, ‘Oh, this is a big risk, but I’m going to buy you this computer; this is going to be a big deal. It’ll help you in school.’ And I was like, ‘Dad, I’m not trying to go to school, man. Let’s do this damn thing, let’s roll.’ ‘Alright, what guitar you want?’ He ended up, I think, getting me a computer later on, but school was never what I wanted, man; I wanted to be out there touring. I graduated; I have my degree and all that stuff. I could just tell. My heart was always just in a different place. So I was trying to break the band, and y’know, be out there in front of people.
KT: I promise this is my last related question; we’ll move onto something more upbeat. You’re performing Sunday night in Bristow, Virginia. Father’s Day. How do you approach that, emotionally, with one of your No. 1 hits being a tribute to your father, and with you as a father to your son as well?
LK: I try not to think about Dad as much like that. It’s Father’s Day; you move on, you know what I mean? Life is for the living; my dad would have been very adamant about not crying for him and not being sorry for him. So I try to just respect him; obviously, I get thinking about him, of course, on Father’s Day. A show day’s a show day, man; it’s work, and I think that what really comes into my thought process is where rock is in general. It’s another rock show we’re blessed to play. Rock is in a transitional state; it’s important to just be grateful for the things that you have. Father’s Day is like any other day; you’ve gotta be grateful and take something positive out of each day. That day, obviously, I’ll be thinking about not only myself personally; Father’s Day from that angle. But I’ll also be thinking about all of the fathers that are going to be at the show; they’re out with their kids, trying to pass the torch, so to speak. It’s just all about us passing this rock ‘n’ roll torch and hopefully getting a small piece, making a dent, hopefully, to inspire other people to pick up real instruments and start a band.
There’s something special to me about starting a band in your garage and taking it to the moon and back, so to speak. There’s something about dreaming that was Midwest, rock ‘n’ roll, how I grew up, that is just that whole old-school mentality and work ethic about being in a rock band is something I don’t want to see die. I want to see it infused with other, young generations; they come up there and find their buddies across town and come together and make something special that can change the world.
That’s really what it stands for. I’m giving you, obviously, a very vague gist of it, but that’s my overall goal; to just spread this rock n’ roll/metal/ alternative torch.
KT: I totally dig it, man. It’s funny; a week ago I was talking to Nick Hexum from 311; just another Midwest guy trying to push a band, maybe a couple of years earlier, but it’s an interesting little parallel.
LK: Absolutely, man. And I think it’s just hard, being a musician — especially a rock musician — in this day and age to not take it personally. It’s no one’s fault; it’s just how the situation is. We’re very grateful that we get to make music in this day and age; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
You always hear some of those artists, they’ll deny it. ‘Oh, if we would’ve been around 20 years ago, we would’ve had this.’ Well guess what; we’re not. We’re around now. We were always meant to be around now. So we have to just embrace it and just understand; yeah, we may never be KISS. We may never be as cool as KISS and Aerosmith and some of these other bands, but guess what; we’re gonna be as cool as we’re meant to be. And I’m OK with that. We are very essential.
This era may not be the bands that are gonna be in the Hall of Fame, or whatever that is. But we might be the ones that can really get over the hump and hopefully inspire that next generation to come up there and hopefully make rock and metal king again, y’know? It used to be more relevant than it is today.
When you come from a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, I just think it’s pretty twisted that people who voice their opinions through rock and metal, our voices seem to matter a little bit less. Y’know, you’ve gotta take it a little personally, and fight for it; you’ve got to fight to be heard. We’ve got to just keep doing the things we can control, and that’s trying to write the best music that we can.
Sure, not everyone’s going to like every song, but one thing Pop Evil’s going to — guaranteed — always do is not be predictable. We’re not going to write the same song — and have success — and write 15 more versions of that. That’s just not who we’re going to be; you’re either going to like us or hate us for that. We’re OK with that; we’re just going to keep challenging ourselves, keep reinventing ourselves, keep trying to think outside of the box, keep being influenced by tons of genres, but doing it in a Pop Evil way with real instrumentation, as much as possible, and then, of course, the big key to Pop Evil is melody. It’s simple; I’m a melodic singer. That’s pretty much the rocket science behind it; it’s not complicated.
KT: Right on. I can’t think of a better answer to lead into my next question. I read your interview with ‘Loudwire,’ in which you talked about kind of channeling Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. I definitely hear a more political voice on this album, specifically on ‘Colors Bleed.’ It’s funny because I was listening to it and I totally heard that Rage vibe, but I couldn’t put it to words until I read that interview, then it all clicked. You’d mentioned Nick’s playing inspired it, and I definitely get the Zack de la Rocha/Tom Morello dynamic, especially from the chorus.
LK: Sure, I mean, obviously Rage was a big influence; Kid Rock, Eminem were [also] big influences. So anytime I rap, it’s similar to Rage in a way because I’m a brown guy; I’m close to Zack than most dudes in this genre. So it comes out in different ways. I rapped on ‘Trenches,’ very similarly to ‘Colors Bleed,’ but people don’t see the same reference there. But yeah, it’s just, again, not being afraid to try new things. If I’ve gotta spit 16 or 8 in an 8-bar and get my point across, so be it. If I have to sing it melodically… I mean, take a song like ‘Waking Lions’; it started off rap verses, but I changed it. I was like, ‘Look, I think this should be a little more melodic, so people can hum this verse.’ Where on ‘Colors Bleed,’ the music that the band was doing was so staccato and so full of fire that it just felt like it needed a more aggressive, almost preaching mentality. It’s not necessarily political, there’s a lot of social influence on this record.
We’re not trying to swing people right or left. It’s like, ‘Look, there’s stuff going on, and — as fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers — there are interesting things going on that are affecting the way we live our lives, outside of the norm.’ So it was important for me to not shy away from those issues and not be afraid; maybe on past Pop Evil records I wouldn’t have done those things. So this time, I was like, ‘Let’s do that, instead of talking about party anthems and all this other stuff that just seems to be irrelevant.’
We keep growing and evolving as the years go on and as the albums get put in the rearview, it’s important for us to just be better and try to challenge ourselves to write things that, at the end of the day, make people be better and send a positive message to our fans.
KT: Yeah, totally. I love music with social messages. I remember in the ’90s, Megadeth was doing a lot of stuff that wasn’t ever partisan, it was all just social, like ‘Countdown to Extinction’ and stuff like that. It’s not like, left or right, it’s just straightforward; this is stuff we all deal with.
LK: Sure. Right, I agree. I just think that the bigger your band gets, the more people are listening. At times when I was young, I was being led by the music I was listening to. I wasn’t paying attention to the president; I was looking at what my favorite singers and favorite bands were doing. That’s where I was kinda learning right from wrong, in ways.
I feel that we have a responsibility to make sure people are trying to be more positive, especially within our genre. There’s a lot of hate, there’s a lot of competitiveness and I think that’s part of why we are, as a genre, where we’re at, you know what I mean? You think about all the other genres, there’s a lot of love. ‘Oh I like that. Oh, I like that band too,’ instead of, when you think of rock and metal, it’s like ‘No, that’s my band, I can’t go outside of that box. I’m a Metallica guy, I can’t like Megadeth.’ ‘Well I like Megadeth. Nope, I can’t like Metallica.’
There’s so much pride in our genre, which makes it great, but it’s really hard for us to get out of those traditional norms that have pigeonholed us and put us in this position. So, I just think we’ve got to raise it up and try our best, one person at a time, to be positive and to be open-minded to taking different risks. Because whatever we’re doing is not working as a whole, right? Because people keep saying ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is dead.’ I mean, that phrase alone is insulting. What do you mean, ‘rock ‘n’ roll is dead? That’s ridiculous. They shouldn’t be saying that about our genre; where’s the pride in that?
So the only way we can do away with that is to team up, in numbers, and be bigger. The way to do that is to support. Does that mean you’re going to like every single song a band does? Probably not… I understand you can’t just show up and have people like you, you have to win people over. If we can do that, hopefully, they’ll understand that, look, you’re growing up along with a band like Pop Evil. It’s not like we started in the heyday, where we had millions to make 15 songs and pick our best 10. If we make 15 songs, they’re all going on the damned CD… I could talk to you for hours about it, but it’s so important, as a genre, to come together and try to find ways to be supportive. Just like our song, ‘A Crime to Remember,’ we need to try to find more ways to be united than divided.
Related: Read Kevin’s interview with Megadeth bassist David Ellefson.
KT: OK, now I actually think you’re psychic, because that was my next question, talking about the social messages in the video and song itself. It looks like there are a bunch of messages to take away, can you spell some of them out for us?
LK: Exactly, again, trying to be socially aware. Number one, trying to let our fans know we’re not just some weird band trying to have a party over here. We’re trying to let our fans know that we see everything; we see everything that’s going on in the world. We see the division between races and genders. We have a female drummer [Hayley Cramer] in our band. We want to take pride and look, girls can hit just as hard as guys. She slays. She hits harder than any guy I’ve ever seen on the drums.
There are a lot of different things we’re doing in this video, trying to hopefully break down some barriers and challenge people in a positive way to come together. The whole point of that song is to be more united than divided….rallying around each other to create change.
It’s been incredible; it’s already over a million views in three weeks. That’s our fastest to a million ever. Who knows? Hopefully, that’s a sign of what’s to come with the song.
KT: Just to make sure my ears are working, the line from ‘When We Were Young’ is ‘It’s a fine line from war to welfare,’ right? Which, if my interpretation is correct, obviously has some political and social underpinnings.
LK: The big thing that I take out of that song — it’s one of my favorites — is how when we were young, it wouldn’t matter when we played in the sandbox at school, it wouldn’t matter what that person’s color was, if it was a boy or where they were from. It was just so cool to have someone to play with, and at some point, as we get older, those lines get skewed, and we’re like, ‘Wow, OK, suddenly we can’t hang with that person because they’re this, or they’re that, or they’re different from us.’ So, it’s just an awesome song to remind us, when we were young, things were pure; things were honest. That’s who our creator wanted us to be; to come together and be better and just learn from our differences rather than sit there and pigeonhole ourselves and lock ourselves away and try to put these walls up, and create wars and create conflict with each other. It’s a special song to hopefully remind people when we were kids, things were pure and honest and there was nothing there but love.
KT: What do you hope your fans take away from this album, and from your music in general?
LK: Hopefully they can take away, number one, the melody. Hopefully, you can A: be able to sing along. Whether you like the song or not is irrelevant. If you can sing it by the time it’s done, then that’s our job. It’s the more you hear it; if you like it, that’s up to the music gods. But hopefully they can understand that our band is that perfect yin and yang; that blend; that positive and negative that is the blend of rock, metal and alternative music. We’re the band that can play with Poison and Cheap Trick and then go tour with Five Finger Death punch next door. There’s not many bands that can do that. It’s sad, because you think about the days of hard product going away from Best Buy, and all these chain stores that used to sell records, they would put us in these categories. ‘There’s rock. There’s metal. There’s pop. There’s this. There’s country.’ Whatever it is, they try to put you in these corners.
Now, as a band, as a musician, why do we have to lock ourselves [down] and put boundaries up? We’re musicians; we play songs. As long we can do them and the band — the five of us that are writing them — it gets us excited, and gets us movement, and we can play it good onstage, then we need to be open to doing that. We’re musicians; we play music for a living. We write music for a living; we should be able to do that.
So it’s important to be able to set the boundaries up first for us now, hopefully on this record especially, to finally be a band that people can go to and be like ‘Yeah, Pop Evil, I’m going to get a little bit of this and a little bit of that; it’s gonna be awesome.’ There are a lot of people who might not like that, that just want to stay on one side, whether it’s left or right. But there’s a lot of people who want a little bit of this and a little bit of that, hence our iPods or our music collection, whether it’s our vinyl or CD collection. How many times, depending on who you’re hanging out with… If Joey’s hanging out with us, we’ve got him and we’re playing all the heavy stuff. But if Linda’s with us, we’ve got her some of the softer stuff; we’re listening to ‘Torn to Pieces.’ We’re listening to ‘100 in a 55’ or our song ‘Rewind.’ So that when our boys are there, it’s Friday or Saturday night, we’re playing ‘Waking Lions.’ We’re playing ‘Trenches.’
It’s just very similar to life, and that’s what we try to do with Pop Evil; to get those songs that are very relatable depending on the different moods, that are very relatable to life. We’re not just one way ever. It’s not like we’re happy all the time; it’s not like we’re upset all the time. And, hopefully, we’re not sad all the time. If we can get that blend of music that can be more relatable, hopefully, that will add to the positivity and the enjoyment of the musical experience for our fans.
KT: What do you see on the horizon for Pop Evil?
LK: Man, I have no clue. I just wish I could predict the future, bro. I’d be making a lot more money. You keep playing, man. That’s all we know. We’re just going to keep playing as many shows as our agents and managers can book and keep spreading this Pop Evil musical message; doing the best we can to promote this new record and hopefully get one step closer to creating our identity and building up a more household name.
KT: Alright, man. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
LK: I appreciate your deep questions. I appreciate you taking to time to get it out there. Thank you for that.
KT: Take care.
LK: Bye now.
Pop Evil is currently touring in support of Cheap Trick and Poison. Their North American tour continues with festival shows and other dates through the end of September.
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