Leigh Kakaty of Pop Evil

by Greg Prato

When MTV started out, the majority of music videos were simply bands lip-synching on a soundstage (or, if they were touring, in an empty arena before a performance). By the mid-'80s, big productions were expected, but fast forward to today, with the advancement of digital editing software, music videos have become a low-budget afterthought for many hard rock acts.

Pop Evil is one of the few rockers nowadays that haven't forgotten the era when these productions were more akin to mini-movies. On their 2015 release, Up, the lads have not disappointed, with a striking clip for the leadoff single, "Footsteps," which looks like a futuristic sci-fi or action flick.

As Up was rising, The group's singer, Leigh Kakaty, spoke with Songfacts to discuss songwriting, videos, and the stories behind several Pop Evil favorites.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): When it comes to songwriting, what tends to inspire you the most?

Leigh Kakaty: A lot of times, with songwriting, I try to listen to what my soul is going through. Like with Onyx, the record before this, there was a lot of anger and aggression. I lost my father in 2011, so I was dealing with a lot of personal issues with that.

At the same time, you're listening to what your fans go through. The bigger your band is, you see a lot of people that are going through very real, interesting situations. You feel responsible to try and tap into some of those things that may be a little darker, or that may be a little challenging for you. That was kind of the last record.

But with the success of that, personally, I was in a totally different place. I went out to Seattle at the top of the year - I always dreamed about doing a record out west. I grew up in the Midwest - which was Michigan for me - and spent a lot of time in the winter covered in snow and feeling like I was trapped indoors, so there was a lot of anxiety I was dealing with. In Seattle, it was wasn't snow I had to deal with, it was rain, but at least I could be outside, since it wasn't so cold. There, I had some big meditations and personal time to reflect.

I just felt like I was tired of being in a dark place, I was tired of being angry and frustrated, and I just wanted to get back to the roots of why I got into music and rock n' roll in the first place, and that was to have fun. It seems like everyone is comparing you to this band or the next band, and everyone has these expectations on you. We really wanted to flip the switch this record, and do something a little more challenging for rock, and that's not doing what everyone expects you to do. I think that sometimes, when you're labeled "rock" or "metal," if you don't do those things or if you stray off the beaten path, then you're kind of rebelled against.

So we wanted to take those kinds of challenges and do what we feel - in our opinion - what rock needs. We need more bands that are in these positions to take more chances. To let people outside of our genre know, "Hey, we're risk takers. We are rock. We are metal. And some of our pioneers that we love were able to do what they did because they took chances."

When you're a band in this day and age, it's hard to do something that's brand new out of the box, because everyone's already done it. It's very hard to come up with a creative, unique genre. We're all products of all these other great bands that have come before us, and that's OK, it's just different.

So in order to challenge ourselves, we wanted to do something a little extreme, by not doing the expected. We wanted to take more chances and experiment on this record. Being out in Seattle, we were in a place where I put the bottle down: At the top of the year, I said, "No more drinking. Let's focus on the music and writing the best record we ever had." And more importantly, off the stage, we were having the most fun we've had since we started this project.

Just the way we were supportive of each other, that led to a very open environment to write, so that alone was very unique. And once we got that kind of platform, I wanted to write the music that dealt with situations that I'm dealing with, the band's dealing with, and of course, what our fans are dealing with.

Songfacts: Do you ever notice recurring themes in your songs?

Leigh: I don't really pay attention to what the songs are doing. I try to give every song its own moment. And when songs need a certain thing or theme, then I go with it.

Thinking back, we try to be as open to the real-life themes as possible. Sometimes we're upset, sometimes we just want to get aggressive and be more metal-influenced, and sometimes, we want to be more pop-influenced.

Growing up on the Great Lakes, we always had our acoustic guitars around, and for me, it was always melody. I don't think we're really focusing on if we have reoccurring themes - we just try to give whatever song we're working on, whatever theme that might be, the best attention and the best focus, and make sure that the hooks are strong and that song is given the best representation we can for that moment.

Songfacts: It seems like fewer and fewer rock bands are spending money on their music videos nowadays, but Pop Evil is one of the bands that is putting money and effort into creating big-production videos.

Leigh: Yeah, especially when I don't look like your typical rock singer. There are a lot of people in the early years who would be like, "You don't look like you sound" - whatever that might mean. It was very important for us to say, "We have an opportunity to have a visual representation of what our band is." We are a little bit off the beaten path, we are unpredictable at what people expect of us, and I think the visual representation is so important.

For example, our new video for "Footsteps," from day one, it was like, "If you just take it one day at a time, one step forward, and you live life more positive, you, the normal person from Grand Rapids, Michigan, can move mountains and make a difference."

It's very metaphorical to how Pop Evil was "us against the world" in some instances. When you think of Michigan rock and roll, you think of Detroit, you don't think of Grand Rapids or the western side of the state. And that's where we came from. So we always felt like we were in a whole other different world, trying to fight through to be heard. Now we can finally represent that in kind of a superhuman way. Normal people have superhuman powers sometimes when you can make the difference and you just decide to be more positive.

Johan Carlén is a Swedish director (who hails from Gothenburg, to be exact), who has been working in the video field since 1996. In addition to having worked quite a bit with the Pop Evil lads (including clips for "Footsteps," "Torn to Pieces," and "Trenches," among others), he has also directed music clips for Avatar, Smash into Pieces, and Seaweed Meadows.
And getting an opportunity with our great director, Johan Carlén, who has been very instrumental to the success of our videos, to get someone like that behind us - who is just as passionate about being visual and taking the songs to the next level, and making them more of a story - is something that is very important.

Every band has their own perspective on videos and whether they're relevant. But according to Pop Evil, we think they're extremely relevant, for the fact that when we tour overseas and as we expand our brand worldwide, a lot of people look at YouTube or their social media outlets to watch your band and find new music, rather than in the States with radio. Radio is a very different thing as you leave this country, and a lot of people are going to those videos to find new music and bring those videos into their homes and become closer to your band.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "In Disarray"?

Leigh: "In Disarray" is kind of like taking your medicine and looking at yourself in the mirror, being like, "OK, my world needs to change." It's a reflection of what we were doing with Onyx: we were living it, we were tasting it, we were having success, and we were playing over 250 shows a year since '06. We realized at the end of that cycle, the bigger the band gets, the longer we have to play. We went from being an opening band to headlining shows. It's like, "If we don't take some kind of care of our health, who knows how long we're going to be able to do this."

So that song was a reminder to say, "We've got to start looking at life and living healthier." Even when it seems like the world is in disarray, it's important to find your balance and find your center.

Songfacts: "Boss's Daughter"?

Leigh: That was at a different place in our career, where we wanted to pay homage to all the greats that came before us. Our favorite of all time is Mötley Crüe, and getting a chance to work with Mick Mars was a dream come true [look for the Crüe guitarist in the video]. When you think of those days - the '80s - it was just drugs, sex, rock and roll, and girls, girls, girls. That's kind of why we got into it when we were young. But now, we wanted to pay homage to that girl that got away - that elusive girl.

It reminds me of that movie Weird Science, with that girl that you couldn't have, so you had to create her. And if I could only have her for one moment, I'll take it and sell my soul. So that's kind of where that inspiration came from. "Boss's Daughter Part II" is now "Lux" on this new record - in a more seductive kind of way.

Songfacts: "Monster You Made"?

Leigh: Again, very similar. I was dealing with a lot of issues with my dad, and that was my dad's last favorite song when he was living. It was one of those things where you had to look in the mirror, and want to be held accountable for writing music that made sense and helped people.

Y'know, we got into this thing to make a difference, and to help. It wasn't just writing a bunch of words that sounded cool together to get some high fives with your buddies. We want to make a difference, and we want to write songs that could be a part of people's lives and stand the test of time.

"Monster You Made" was a reflection of that: "Take a good look in the mirror. Do you still recognize me, or are you still that monster and living with those demons?" It was like, put the negative away.

That was my first step in trying to overcome the loss of my dad, but it's taken about two years to finally find peace. The success of that song, and to see the fans embrace that song and have it become a part of their healing, really helped in a cool, weird way. It helped me recover. I was always terrified to play that song on stage live, because I don't want to think about that. But now, having it be successful, and the song having done what it's done, it's been very instrumental to my healing.

Songfacts: "Hero"?

Leigh: We'd been dealing with some things with people that were trying to help the band early on in our career, and once we got our management and record deals, in the early days, they backstabbed us. So dealing with the business. It was kind of like, "Who's your hero now?"

Songfacts: Having previously worked with Mick Mars and DMC [a remix of "Trenches"], are there any other musicians you would like to collaborate with?

Leigh: There's a few that we would love to, but we were very adamant on this record that we were not going to have any gimmicks. We really felt proud about Up, which is our fourth installment of an album.

We kind of dabbled in it, but hopefully, down the road, how knows? We're open to whoever - whether it's a different artist in a different genre, or whether it's another rocker, or someone in metal. It just depends on the situation and what the song needs.

DMC was a great one, because it was something different, to give a little homage to our old-school favorite pioneers of rap. It just fit and it was different. Who knows? Down the road, if something comes up and we feel we can justify it and it makes sense, we're open to it.

September 2, 2015
For more Pop Evil, visit popevil.com
Photo: Dean Bradshaw

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