There’s no doubt that it takes a lot to make it big in today’s turbulent music industry. For every success story you read, there are countless other bands who’ve faded away into the sunset. However, Pop Evil frontman Leigh Kakaty is testament to the fact that hard work, dedication to your craft and not taking “no” for an answer can pay off in spades. Over the past decade, Kakaty has poured his blood, sweat and tears into Pop Evil, while relentlessly rocking countless fans around the globe. Along the way, the band has encountered their fair share of highs and lows but have continually overcome any obstacles that have stood in their way.
2018 is shaping up to be a truly breakout year for POP EVIL, who’ve just unleashed their 5th studio LP, via Entertainment One. For the self-titled release, Pop Evil called upon veteran producer Kato Khandwala to help the connect on a new level and venture further in unexplored musical territory. The band spent most of the summer in Nashville, TN at Studio A in Sound Emporium Studios and finished up the album at Sphere Studios in Los Angeles, CA. With a new approach to the recording process and a more collaborative songwriting process, the creative evolution is undeniably from the start of the record to its final note. In support of the new release, the band recently embarked on their Music Over Words Tour, which offers music fans the tremendous opportunity to soak in the raw energy of their powerhouse live performances. Pop Evil with return to American amphitheaters this summer in full force, alongside legendary rock acts POISON and CHEAP TRICK, on the “Poison…Nothin’ But A Good Time 2018” tour.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Leigh Kakaty of Pop Evil to discuss his journey as an artist, the challenges he’s faced along the way and how their new approach to their songwriting process resulted in their strongest record to date.
I want to congratulate you on all the work you put in over the years to make Pop Evil the success it has become.
I appreciate it, man! It means a lot. It’s been a lot of hard work and a hard fight in this business of rock and metal. It’s tougher than I ever thought it would be, that’s for sure! It’s worth it though, no doubt! The little wins and being able to put out music is a huge blessing. I try to be positive about it!
Let’s go back to your early years. Tell us about finding your creative voice as an artist early on.
It was difficult. I grew up in conservative Western Michigan that was very much influenced by rock radio. In those days, it was Eminem and Kid Rock, so there was definitely an infusion of hip hop and rock for me, especially being a mixed Indian American. My dad is from India and my mom was from Canada, so I did a lot of soul searching back in those days. I was trying to find myself musically and where I would fit in. I was always drawn to and passionate about rock and being in a band. It was something that was always romanticized for me. In my head, I always pictured myself with a group of buddies just jamming on stage. I always thought that was power! Whether you were playing in front of five people at a little pub bar or rockin’ for 100,000, it was always something I felt was cool as a frontman, having those people behind you have your back. There was always something very compelling to me about it. I think I spent a lot of those years finding out who I was.
At this point, you pursued music for the better part of two decades. What stokes your creative fire and what are the keys to sustaining a productive music career?
It’s been interesting, even from Pop Evil’s perspective. Once I found myself, it was important to then find the band’s identity. We kind of had to do that in front of everyone’s eyes. It’s where we grew up. When we got into the studio for the first time, we weren’t a band who had money. None of us had a bunch of money. We would just show up at the studio and they would say, “OK, we’ve got to record an album now.” We were like, “OK?! We have no idea. We could barely afford to get equipment in the first place.” We were never really the tech guys going into the studio. We had no idea what to do, so we were like deer in the headlights and said, “OK, what are we going to do now?” So, it’s taken us a few years to become better studio musicians and to learn from some of the mistakes we made in the past on albums. By that, I mean doing things that don’t necessarily translate on stage. That is really where our heads are at now — it’s all about the live show! More than ever, the way this musical landscape is, the one thing we can control is our live show. We put a lot of effort into that moving forward. It’s had a big impact on how we write our albums. We think about things that can better our set list and the songs that we can take out or replace. Now we are at a unique place where we can start taking out songs and bring others back in. That’s great because, as I’m sure every band could tell you, there are songs they just hate and never want to play again. There are also songs that they just don’t have room for. We can only play so many songs a night, so it comes down to, “OK, maybe we play these couple of songs today and next week we will throw in a couple of new ones and take those out.” It’s getting a little more interesting, so that helps with the longevity and keeps the fire going! I think what we have been able to do with Kato Khandwala over in Nashville and Los Angeles on this record has really recharged the band and given us what we’ve been searching for a long time — that true yin and yang, positive and negative identity that hopefully allows us to transcend rock, metal and alternative genres. We’re influenced by all three and were able to get all of those on our record but, at the same time, not write similar songs. We don’t want an album of a bunch of songs that all sound the same. That’s just not good enough for us. We don’t have a lot of opportunities in life to do things that are bigger than ourselves. So, when we do, it’s like, “Wow! There are five of us here. We’re all influenced by different things and come from five different places and walks of life, so everybody’s energy is put forth on these songs.” I think that shows on this album more than ever — we weren’t afraid to be who we are. We weren’t, certainly, afraid to fail and we’re not so worried about putting a cohesive work together that sounds like it’s all off the same tree. We want to take you on a journey with peaks and valleys. We want you to say, “Oh my god! They went from ‘Walking Lions’ to this … ” Basically, from “Waking Lions,” which is track one, to “Rewind,” which is the final song on the record, we wanted to give you those ups-and-downs and moments of emotion that are more relatable to life. By doing so, that music can now become a musical backdrop for people’s lives. That is a responsibility that we definitely take seriously now more than ever. That responsibility, to get back to your question, is the fuel that helps motivate us to help other people. That’s really it.
You worked with your band members for a number of years. What do you bring out in each other creatively?
This is the most creative we have really been able to be. You think about the early records where the label gave us a budget and I was basically the main songwriter, so the guys don’t write lyrics. They would get their ideas and, we felt, by the time I had really gotten into their ideas, the album was done. I really felt like the band would get pushed to the background and I really wasn’t happy about it. Over the course of the past couple of albums, we’ve tried to create more opportunities to let the band’s music be heard. If you’re the singer or writer of the band, there’s no way you can write to the song unless you have time with it. I mean, if I don’t write it, I need time to live with it! With this album, we spent a year. I went off and did my thing and got all my ideas out. Then, we locked the band in a house, in Southern Michigan, away from everybody. That way they could lock themselves in. We had a new drummer with Hayley Kramer. The four of them had time to gel and lock in as the musical aspect of Pop Evil. It allowed them to tighten up together as brothers and sisters and as a family. That really solidified the core. Once they did, I think they demoed between 15 to 20 songs! It was incredible! I would show up every Monday and say, “Here are the notes. I’m liking this … I’m hearing this … On these other ones, maybe if you did this, this or this … ” I would give them constructive criticism about how to make it better. They would go back and when the next week rolled around, I would show up and boom! I’d say, “Oh my god, you guys made the changes! OK, I like this, this and this!” Then it came to narrowing it all down. We had eight to nine musical songs that we absolutely love, and I think we widdled it down to four or five that I wanted to make sure the lyrics were totally respected for the band because they had worked so hard on the music. When a band sees that energy, where you’re trying to give lyrical respect to their music, they are doing the same thing for me musically. When I write, I’m writing from a more lyrically based mentality because I’m picturing myself singing it on stage and bringing it to the audience. When they are writing, they are thinking of a more musical approach. With that said, it was awesome, from a writing standpoint, to challenge myself to write in a couple different wheelhouses that we weren’t thinking about on previous albums. That’s fun! I love the challenge and it’s a totally different thing from touring. It’s awesome to be able to have different writing exercises. I remember when I was a kid, in my rap days, all the other rappers would say, “I’m going to pretend I’m you and you pretend you’re me. Let’s write from that perspective.” It’s all of these different writing exercises I think about when I work from other lyricist’s or singer’s perspectives. It was awesome to be really hands on with the band this time around and cohesively put together a project that we believe in and music that we could really bring to the live show. In a live show, we are going to be way more passionate about these songs just because of how they were born!
It’s interesting to hear about the making of this album. I’m sure you reflected on bringing this album to life. What challenges did you face during the process and what lessons did you learn?
Yeah, it’s been a year that we’ve had this thing done. We took a year to get it done, so it’s been awesome. We’ve been able to separate family time off-time with studio time. On the past records, again, budget is a factor in this. When someone else cut their part, that was your time off to go chill with your family. As a result, there was a bit of a disconnect on some of the records. I mean, they sounded great and polished in ways but the live, raw energy that is our show was harder to grasp on some of the records. That was our mistake by not knowing how to be better studio musicians. The way we went about it was all we knew. When we first recorded, our producers just put us all in a room separately just so we wouldn’t fight! It was easier, if you know what I mean. It was easier, so we just kept doing that and were practicing bad habits. I think as we have gotten prepared for this fifth record, we started to listen to our fans more. Everyone we talked to was like, “Don’t get me wrong, we love the album, but we love your live show. The live show is just so much more raw and energetic.” We took that to heart and said, “There must be something there. How can we do it?” When we sat down with Kato, he was like, “Well, for one thing, we’re going to sit down and you guys are going to record these songs all in one room together.” It was scary! We didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know if we would be throwing stuff at each other! [laughs] We were like, “Are we even going to survive? Is this going to work?” [laughs] When we stereotypically thought about bands recording together, that is what we pictured. You can picture the entire band in the room, everyone’s happy and everyone writes hits, but it just doesn’t work like that all the time. So, it was a little intimidating but once we started really diving into that world, it was awesome! Suddenly, the energy was born and those moments being born were recorded! We didn’t have to duplicate that or try to chase that because it was there, and we recorded it because we were playing together. Plus, if we wanted to go back and polish it, we could always go back and separately do that take. The core of the song was built on us being together, which was very unique for us. Again, I don’t know what other bands do. I live in a band called Pop Evil and it’s a Pop Evil world 24/7. I don’t know, I don’t really try to think about anybody else’s world because our music is our journey. Music is my journey in life; it’s a story. I’m not trying to copy someone else’s story. We’re just trying to be who we are. So, I think that was a huge difference this time around and something that’s very interesting about this process that I think you’re going to hear. There is a sense of fun. Even if the song is heavy, you’re still going to hear that confidence, swagger and fun that we were having and, quite frankly, didn’t experience on the previous records. It was real special, hence, why we called this thing “Pop Evil.” We self-titled it because it really feels like our first record and the band is coming of age. We finally know who we are and there’s that positive/negative, yin and yang, that is finally Pop Evil. It’s a blend between rock, metal and alternative music. We’re excited to finally show this genre and show our fans who we are. We’re looking to use this as a stepping stone to really launch ourselves forward and hopefully to be even better in the future!
This album is a creative milestone. As busy as you are creating new music and touring, do you take time to reflect on your journey? Are there milestones?
There are lots. I think this business is all about the next thing. It’s about the next single, song or tour, right? You don’t really have time to look back a whole lot. The only time you look back is if family and friends are like, “Oh, remember that?” Of course, it’s a little nostalgic period here for me with the album dropping. When I really think back on all the number one records, all the hits, all the fans and all the shows, I think, “Who is going to remember all of that years from now?” The one thing that they can remember is the albums and the music. To think that we are now on our fifth studio album, that’s a ginormous milestone, especially when I think about where we came from. We come from Western Michigan — Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are many radioactive rock bands that dropped from there. There were a lot of no’s and non-believers back in those days. To be sitting on our fifth album, I don’t think it gets bigger than that milestone right there. It’s very humbling. The label did a great job making sure the artwork and the packing on the record was well-done. It’s a dream come true! It’s exactly what the band wanted, and the label spared no expense to make sure that the vision, not only musically but visually, is there to hopefully challenge our fan base and give them something that can inspire them to be positive and be better people. That’s a huge win! As you get to your fifth album, hopefully, you start to learn a little bit more about who you are, where you want this band to be and what your real purpose with this band is. We definitely now know that we are driven to help people musically. We understand not everyone is going to like Pop Evil. That’s OK. The 1% that do, that’s the world we’re going to live in and the people we are going to try to help and inspire. If we can change the game for one or two people, then it was worth it, man. That’s what we are trying to do. We’re just trying to be positive musicians and we enjoy writing songs that help us cope and hopefully it will inspire others as well.
Pop Evil is on tour and it was recently announced you will tour with Poison and Cheap Trick this summer. It speaks to Pop Evil’s live show when you are asked to hit the road with two band’s known for their stage presence.
Thank you! We are stoked! I’ll give you a couple of perspectives! Business-wise, I’m excited because when you are in a rock band in today’s turbulent music business, you have to be creative to survive. You need to showcase your music to as many new people as possible. Sometimes it’s hard when you keep playing with the same people and radio bands all of the time. By doing that, you’re not really going to meet new fans. So, it’s so important for us to have that exposure. From a personal standpoint, if someone would have told me back in the ‘80s that I would be touring with Cheap Trick and Poison, I would have lost my mind! [laughs] It’s pretty amazing and the way that Bret [Michaels] and the team got back to us that they were interested in Pop Evil coming on was a huge compliment and an honor. When legendary iconic bands start looking your way, it’s important to respect and understand the lineage of what they’ve done for the genre. It’s always an honor. Maybe it’s that Midwest mentality that we respect our elders! It was always mom and sad or Mr. And Mrs., or you would get a smack to the face! [laughs] It was just how we were raised! I think having the opportunity to play with Cheap Trick and Poison is an honor. How often do you get to do things like that? We couldn’t be more stoked! I’m excited for the opportunity and I think it’s going to be an insane tour! It’s going to be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see all the new faces! I’m sure we are going to gain some new fans that will follow us for the course of our career. That’s the thing about fans of legendary rock fans, we learned it when we toured with Judas Priest in ’09. We still have Judas Priest fans coming to see us to this day. Those kind of fans, and rock fans in general, tend to follow their bands for the course of our careers. They are with you when you’re down, fail or fall on your face but they are with you through the good times as well. It’s not like pop fans, who are here today and gone tomorrow. These fans are here for the long haul. They raise their kids on your music and raise their kids to follow your music. It’s an honor and we can’t wait to add as many of those fans as we can pick up from that tour as possible. We’re totally grateful and we can’t wait!
As you said, you’ve been a rock music fan your entire life. Has your perception of rock ‘n’ roll changed through the years?
I don’t know. In some ways, I didn’t know what it was going to be. I think I was more focused on trying to make it out of Michigan. Now that I’m out of Michigan, maybe I should’ve never left. Not that I shouldn’t be doing this, you just realize what matters more. It wasn’t about fame or money or anything like that. It’s about the people. It’s the people that make it worthwhile. What is rock without the fans who come to see it. I don’t care if there are 10 people at the show tonight or 100,000 tomorrow. It’s those smiling faces singing those songs collectively with you, that’s what it’s about. If it’s ever waivered, its always come back when you play the shows and see the people singing the songs. It’s a constant reminder that we’ve been doing this for over 10 years, from when we got a record deal. It’s crazy to think that we’ve become a part of people’s lives. It’s not really about me anymore. I mean, I want the songs to be good, I want to be more driven and on stage I want to sound better and keep my body right. That’s a constant struggle for me because I miss partying. I mean, who doesn’t like a good drink or staying up late watching TV? Those things are the challenge for me now. I want to make sure I’m healthy, I’m eating healthy or that I’m with my vocal coach before every show. That’s brutal because that’s discipline, man! I don’t have a lot because I’m the typical singer or a band, so the last thing we have is discipline, right? [laughs] It’s all about learning how to develop that; not just for me but for the fans, the songs and the music. You can’t spend all of this time on all this great music and then not put the time in to make sure you sound great every night. It’s challenging when you play 200 or more shows a year to push it. We kind of know the road ahead as we prepare for this next chapter with this new album. It’s a long chapter, man. There are a lot of shows ahead and we’re all getting older, so you have to account for the wear and tear on your body while still striving to be better on stage. Thinking about where rock really is at this point in time, I don’t really know. I don’t know if that is something I’m focused on. Like I said, I just try to be positive in my life and think about the great things I’m blessed to have. I get to play music for a living and that is pretty awesome! I wanted to play shows and now I play over 200 a year, so I guess I already won in a way! [laughs] What do I have to complain about at this point!?
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
Man, I think we are still writing the script in a way. I think the lesson I’m learning from myself is to just be you and to be resilient. Don’t be afraid to fail or make it cooler than it is or cooler than it isn’t. Just be you. That’s what makes it cool and what makes it great. People want to see that. Fans today are smarter than they’ve ever been. They can see what you had for breakfast if you want to post it. They are there. They are there to lift you up, especially those rock and metal fans. Like I said, they are passionate about the bands they love. They are there for you if you just let the music be what it is. That’s what this tour is about — music over words. Just let the music do the talking! That’s what I have learned.
I love it and I wish you continued success, Leigh!
I’m so grateful, man! Thanks for always taking the time to support the band! I’m so humbled by it!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.