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Interview: Pop Evil’s Leigh Kakaty Talks To Our Music Maven About New Album ‘Versatile’

Photo credit: Ashley Osborn

Words: Music Maven Tracey Moyle

When a band’s press release opening statement reads – ‘If rock is dead, then POP EVIL is definitive proof of the afterlife’, then you know it’s time to sit up and listen.

Right off the back of their latest single Set Me Free American rock powerhouse Pop Evil are set to release their sixth studio album ‘Versatile’ on May 21st via Entertainment One (eOne).

The Michigan rock heavyweights have taken this new record, packed it full of anthemic belters and taken their music to new heights. Previous singles released from ‘Versatile’, Let The Chaos Reign, Work and Breathe Again rocketed into the top 10 rock charts with latest offering, Set Me Free, following suit and soaring up the ladder.

These blue collar hard rockers are celebrating their 20th year and are no strangers to success with previous #1 hits Waking Lions, Footsteps, Deal With The Devil, Trenches and massive hit Torn To Pieces, which was certified Gold by the RIAA in 2020.n

Our resident Pop Evil fan and rock Music Maven Tracey Moyle has once again spoken to the bands passionate frontman Leigh Kakaty getting yet another insightful look into the band and the creative processes that brought ‘Versatile’ out to their eager fan base.

Check out this in depth chat right here and delve into the thoughtful intent and purpose that Kakaty has expressed about his connection to his song writing, the freedom of their new recording process and how the band have embraced a ‘versatile’ approach to their music.

It’s been 12 months since we’ve talked, and a lot has happened in between. You guys must be pretty pumped about having the new album out?

“We are you know. I’m excited, even with Covid being bad obviously from a band perspective, but to get little bit of extra time with family and friends that we haven’t seen… It’s our 20th year anniversary so we didn’t really think until we got home just how much has gone by you know. You’re so worried about the next album, the next song, next single, next tour, that once you get home it’s such a culture shock. Now the album is finally coming out and tours are finally starting to get booked, it’s a bit of a double edged sword right. I mean of course I’m excited but at the same time it’s like man, I haven’t played with the band going on over year. It’s crazy. That’s an eternity to not play with the band that long.  So I’m excited to get back in rehearsals and see everybody and kind of get this thing going.”

Are you happy with how the four singles from the album have been received, particularly your latest track Set Me Free? It’s hot on the heels of the success of the previous three. It’s certainly built up such positive anticipation for ‘Versatile’.

“It really has. I think it’s a bit overwhelming because you feel so helpless because we can’t help the songs that’s for lack of a better way of putting it. I feel like we’re not doing anything for the song you know, it’s just so different for us because we’re normally touring and thew the album cycle would be over just about because we’d already be halfway through it. So again, it’s just a testament to the hard work from the producers, the band and the management label getting it out and then of course all the credit to the fans man, for giving us that attention during this tough time and inspiring us to just keep working harder. So it’s awesome, it’s definitely very cool to see.”

Right from the start, with the first two singles Let The Chaos Reign and Work, you captured two completely different musical feels. I think that was pretty much the precursor for the album. All the tracks are brilliant rock tracks on their own, but you’ve given them all their own unique personality.

“Yeah, thank you for that. You know we worked hard, because this was all written before Covid, but we were excited to really flirt with that duality that is Pop Evil, which is basically a fight for the new sounding Pop Evil. How could we make our heavy heavier and still experiment with my vocal textures but at the same time balance that old school Pop Evil writing style that so many people, six albums in, have grown to love about us. We don’t want to totally alienate it or not do any of it  but you know some of juggling that duality, split/side personality of the band, it was the challenge and the fun of making this record.”

Listening to the album, I actually hear a new level of maturity in your music. To me it has more depth, more complexity to the it. I’ve loved your music for a very long time, but I feel this album is next level. Do you feel that yourself?

“Thank you for that. Yeah, it’s definitely a part of becoming better musicians, and knowing our-selves off the stage, I think helps with that confidence in your identity. But it was interesting, more specifically this record, to kind of move away from things that we don’t like about the recording process. I mean the studio in general. The studio is so expensive and you’re always on the clock. If you go to the bathroom you’re paying for it. It’s just not very conducive to a healthy creative space. I knew that going into this project, especially for my parts, I wanted to be in a home studio. It’s just more like being on a tour bus or being at home, it was the vibe for me. And another big element to this was, writing songs with the demo process could be respected. What I mean by that is the energy that comes from a demo is worth listening to. When you think about our close friends and family, every time they hear the demo’s, they hear it when the songs are birthed and the excitement of it. Normally you’ll demo these songs and then you’ll go to a producer who knows nothing about your band and then you know he’s expected to come in, move you to some studio and then you have to re-record 15 to 20 songs. When you already know you have good stuff on these demos, it’s just not fun, it’s daunting. It’s just work, and once it was work, I realised on the past albums, you lose all, natural, organic vibe and energy from a song. So when we did the demo process, we knew we wanted to harness as much of that natural, organic excitement that comes from just birthing a song.

“A lot of these songs, chorus wise especially, are my first and second vocal sessions. Pretty much what you’re hearing are the vocal performances from when I actually sang those songs for the first time, so there’s just an element that you can never hear that anywhere else you know.”

The album’s title ‘Versatile’ couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s like a kaleidoscope of music. You’ve kept your distinctive sound, you’ve kept it rock, but the songs rise and fall in such different ways. You mentioned in our chat last year that you had different producers to give you a better edge and a little bit more variety. Is that how you went about it?

“The multiple producers were key. This is a different era for music. The album doesn’t have to always sound the same you know, there’s no more shelf to put you in a category and that’s been a negative about the music business for me personally. I don’t like how we’re fans of music for our whole life and the next thing, because you decided to be in a band and you’re in it certain genre, that you’re on a shelf for the rest of your careers. Why can’t we grow and expand and listen and be inspired by other genres just like other people are.

“Growing up in Michigan, it’s not really what you call, a tropical destination, so it’s cold seven months of the year. Kids don’t have anything to do, so when a band was coming we just go. It didn’t matter if you liked them, we just wanted something to do. Soon enough, little by little you start liking other bands, liking different styles of music because you just respect the musicians.

“For me I’m very much a singer and a writer and I was once asked the question ‘do you think Michigan has a big role in the way you write’ and I’d never thought about it like that. I was like ‘God, you know, I think that’s a big part of it.’  In the 90s when popular music was really blowing up, it was all about Eminem and Kid Rock and they were bragging about where they were from. They were happy that they were from Michigan and of course guys like me wanted to get the hell out of there.  When guys like Eminem and Kid Rock were the biggest thing on the planet, especially here in the US, it was like ‘wow, OK, I can be happy about where I’m from. I can be OK to be from Michigan. When you’re a kid, before those guys, you’d want to be in New York or L.A. or in Detroit. That’s the stereotype but the reality is you can just be you.

Do you think the music industry has changed a lot since then?

“What I think now more than ever is it’s a singles business. There’s no way you’re going to buy the whole album. It’s tough it’s so playlist driven now, it’s about the song. Bands like us have to be creative, look for different ways to spread our audience. You have to be creative to make more opportunities and we’re certainly big believers in controlling our own destiny and holding ourselves accountable for the things we write. There’s an element of that ‘no big reward without big risks. Let’s go for it.”

You’ve nailed it with, not only variety, but getting your message across with the new music with this ‘Versatile’. There is a song on the album, Worst In Me, it’s got such a fierceness to it. Talking before about not being put in a category or fitting into a genre, when I listen to it this track, and I hate to categorise or label it, but it’s got a real Nu Metal feel to it. It really stood out as different to me. And that wail you have through it is devastatingly awesome, but it seals the message behind the song perfectly.

“For sure. I’m glad you mentioned it, it’s one of my favourites on the record and again like I get it and you have to put it in those genres for fans, so they understand what you’re talking about. For me it’s always just where the lyrics go. It’s such a deep song, and not all of them are always about me or any personal ties to the lyrics, but this one is. Worst In Me was for all our loved ones, family members who we basically put on the back burner so we could put our fans and the dream on the front page of our priority list. You’re chasing the dream and they love you unconditionally and they’re there for you and there helping you do that or do this or take care of the home front or whatever. Then sometimes, somewhere in that chase of the dream, those real values, the little things basically get construed, or they get blurred and Worst In Me was obviously was written before Covid, but it was a reminder and a dark shout-out to our loved ones to let them know that ‘I know we put you through hell and back and we love you and know you love us.’ It’s like, ‘you love the worst in us and you’re still there for us to this day and we couldn’t be here without you’. This sometimes is that backbone and that foundation in your life whether it’s a mother, father, brother, sister or teacher, counsellor, whatever, it’s that it really gives you a stability where you can go find your identity or find your career  and chase your dream. That is very personal to me and a dedication to those people that have been with me from the beginning and also with me to this very day you know, the rock.”

I also love Human Nature. The thing that made me played it a couple of times when it first starts is that sound, at the very beginning, of a needle on vinyl. It sounds like you’re listening to vinyl and I’m old school, I started life with vinyl but the track has everything in it. The way it builds is brilliant, lyrically it rings bells with me as well but vocally, I feel like you’ve put your heart and soul into it. You can really kick back and get into it, then the way it builds into the chorus, it just absolutely rocks. We talked about your songs having different vibes but this whole song has it though the whole track. How did it come about?

“I’m so glad you mentioned Human Nature, it’s just got a great story. Again you picked up on two of the songs on the album that are more to do with me personally. Human Nature was the last song on the record. I wrote it for me. I don’t think people realise I’m a writer first, performer second, so I always write it for me. Growing up, when I dealt with my insecurities or craziness in my life, the guitar was always there to help me through, you know, kind of assess it. I didn’t have to cage and hide these feelings inside and Human Nature is a deep song there’s no doubt, sure whatever adjective you want to use to describe it, but it was deep you know. I wasn’t so much worried about it having to be a single or if fans were going to like it, it was for me, to remind me that we’re all looking for a saviour whether that’s political or whether that’s religious, whether that’s again something close to home but you’re looking for that identity and that’s kind of Human Nature. Once you find that human nature, you find that identity, those are the people, I find, give back in life. When you’re comfortable in your own skin and you know what you mean and you’re comfortable with the people that love you. I find it interesting, what I’ve observed in my life how those people give back and it’s those people that struggle with their identity and who they are, there’s a true happiness that they’re missing. You know there’s more of entitlement and then there’s a darkness that is evident in those kind of people. I think that’s the true struggle. There are those people that are happy and those that aren’t. I know it sounds obvious, but to have a song, to have that guitar that puts you in that hypnotic state, for you to want to take those lyrics in. I know there’s a lot of my close friends where that is one of their favourites as well. I think the music kind of puts you in that mood where you’re ready to listen because there’s a message there that’s deeper. There’s obviously more meaning that song that I’ll let the fans decide as they hear it, but for me personally that core messages is where are you on that line. Are you the person that’s giving back and helping others, are you on that side that’s hating others and jealous of the rest of the guys?

“You know it’s tough, especially in America and what we’ve been going through and with Covid. This country has no problem lifting people up but they just as quick to cut you down, so it’s a tough world man. Again it’s and ode to me, that I want to be on that ladder, to try to do my part musically with this project, in this band and these people. To send that positive message that positive energy and put it out there and hopefully the positive energy will come back to us and then the people around this project.”

You said I touched on the two songs that were personal to you and I think maybe subconsciously you’re putting something else into it, like a little bit of an essence of yourself into the music and that is projecting out there to people. Maybe you don’t even realise it’s happening.

“Yeah, maybe. It’s interesting now because the interviews are just starting to happen for people that have actually heard the music and that’s another element that it’s worth noting. That this has been, speaking for others, this has been my music or our music for a little longer than normal. Once you put it out in the world it’s no longer yours, it’s their music right. It becomes a part of just the rock’n’roll story. It’s now other peoples, to take and make their own, so I think maybe because I’ve had a little extra long to be selfish with it, it’s going to be interesting now to see how people respond. It’s just super flattering and it is really refreshing to hear your feelings on these two songs because it feels like it’s been so long since I’ve even talked about Pop Evil music intimately like that. Because that’s what it is, an album is such an intimate aspect of your life. You spend years making it and especially from a lyricist standpoint you’re trying to help and you’re trying to keep in mind we have five albums, so you don’t want to write the same one thing, you want to try to be different, you want to try to challenge yourself for your fans. But it’s going to be exciting now to see with some kind of people gravitate too so I can’t think it up for the awesome feedback great questions and you know that’s cool I can’t wait to see what the fans think.

With 600 million streams from your music, I think people are definitely going to be listening.

“That’s so crazy right.”

Survivor is a brilliant, slow burn track, and that guitar! Is it a steel guitar?

“Kinda sounds like it, clean, clean, electric man. But we again, I don’t remember the exact effect now because it’s been a while, but we were just diving into different tones man. I wrote Survivor like I did 100 In A 55. Survivor was in the batch of songs on this album that we wanted to write old school Pop Evil style, if that makes sense for lack of a better description. I know that I get a lot of requests like ‘can you write another 100 In A 55 it’s my favourite song’. It’s one of our oldest hits so I understand why fans are drawn that. It was just incredible you know, and it just popped, it felt like it had a groove. Again, I was having fun with it in the studio just thinking about ‘how can I just load this song up with hooks, but still tell a story and make it sing’. This reminds me of a song, like again when you’ve been around as long as we have, there’s nothing that means more to me than some kids with their families at shows singing with their Mum and Dad. I lost my Dad in 2011 so, you know I could be the tough guy but the reality is I’m not, I miss my Dad you know, and I want to see kids with their Dad at a rock show with their horns up, and on their shoulders and they’re singing Be Legendary or Trenches or Waking Lions. You can’t help not be inspired you know. Survivor I can already picture being a summer type anthem and kids up with their Mum and Dad singing it. There such an element of team and family to it that I love to come ride with me like ‘dude we don’t have to do this alone man just come come walk with me’ you know, it’s just about rock and it just reiterates the rock and roll/metal community and the family atmosphere that surrounds it. So I’m just totally blessed this song’s on the record. I hope the fans appreciate it as much as that we do and I hope they are excited as much as we are as well, so time will tell.”

Thanks for the chat again Leigh. We can’t wait to see you back here in Australia soon. Festivals are happening here again so maybe we will see you there.

“As soon as we can, it will be good to get back. I love that. I think that’s all good signs you know. I’m hoping that, who knows by the end of this year, I’ll take anything by the end of this year, just to be working but if everything goes good, 2022 spring/summer, I’d love to. There’s no doubt as soon as we get the green light but hopefully sooner than later so we can’t wait and I speak for the band on that we had such a great time the first time we went. We’ve got to just keep putting more time in and get down there more, the better we keep spreading the band, so hopefully we’ll be doing this interview in person again next time. That’s why were we were doing this press now and making sure we’re catering to our Australian fan base and growing it. Its inevitable we’re coming back.”

Pop Evil’s new album ‘Versatile’ will be available on all streaming serives from 21st May.
Pre-save/pre-order HERE.

Cover Artwork by Pedro Correa

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With thanks to Entertainment One (eOne).