Pop Evil Frontman Leigh Kakaty

by Corey O'Flanagan

Pop Evil, L-R: Matt DiRito, Hayley Cramer, Leigh Kakaty, Dave Grahs, Nick Fuelling

Pop Evil has been making pulse-pounding rock with a positive message for 20 years now, defying the long odds every step of the way. Bands aren't supposed to break out in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they're not supposed to pay their dues playing covers, but frontman Leigh Kakaty knew better than to head for a coast and abandon their support system, and those covers paid the bills. It was rough going, especially when their major label deal went horribly wrong, but this is a resilient bunch, and struggle only seems to strengthen their resolve and fuel their musical fires.

On this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, Kakaty talks about some of their key tracks and explains the band's philosophy. On May 21, 2021, Pop Evil release their latest album, Versatile.

History Of The Band

In the early days, I was doing everything. I had my own record label just out of college and I was trying to get into the highest level that I could. I understood early on that I needed to save the money to get the right demos dialed-in, and none of us had money, so we played covers.

Cover bars would pay you a thousand bucks or more a night - that was the big money back then. You had to play three sets and you had to play covers. The first set we would do acoustic songs and I could let my guys play and have fun. I'd play the first four or five songs by myself while people are coming in having dinner. Then by the second set we would flip it - we would change wardrobes and get dressed up in our Pop Evil clothes like rockers and then we'd come out and do all originals.

It wasn't always a success - sometimes the bar owners or club owners would get upset. They were like, "You need to play the covers." And I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, no problem." I would try to manipulate them as much as we could and push on in our little songs.

Then the last set was full of everything from Kid Rock to Afroman's "Because I Got High." We did a hodgepodge of hit after hit.

Looking back, those were pivotal times. The second set when we did our own set, we really started to build a local fanbase and a local following. We became that big fish in a small pond because people would come to see our stuff. The influence of the yin and yang and the duality of Pop Evil really spurs from that, because that last set we would have to play covers of all these hit songs because you'd want to keep people dancing, and it really taught us - me especially - how to really write choruses and hooks and different kinds of genres.

Our role models back in those days in the early 2000s, Kid Rock and Eminem, were just the biggest things on the planet, so it was really hard to grow up in Michigan and not be impacted by that and the way they were infusing other genres and really embracing their Michigan roots. It definitely rubbed off.

$1000 For A Covers Show?

They weren't all $1000. We definitely did our share of $500s for sure. But it didn't happen overnight either.

Florida was a big stomping ground for us too. We played Michigan and maybe a little bit of Fort Wayne and Michigan City, and then it was Florida. There was no in-between. We would go do spring break, I think for three years straight. We would play Spinnaker, or maybe Club La Vela [both in Panama City, Florida], and then we'd go right back up and play bars in Michigan.

I remember fighting with my rhythm-guitar player that is still with me to this day because he didn't want to show up. He totally bailed on me, which I hold against him to this day. He's like, "I couldn't do it man, I can't do any more cover songs!"

It was hard. Some shows we did for $500, but others we'd get sometimes $2000, but those were the cover bars where we had lines around the door just before we broke. I had the mentality with the guys - and three of my guys are still in the band - we were like, "We're going to take the money that we make and pay for expenses, so you won't have to pay any of your money in Pop Evil, but we're not going to pay each other a ton of money." We covered gas, and everyone would get between $20 and $50 spending money, but the rest of it was going to go to the band. We bought a Tahoe that would pull the trailer, and we bought a trailer. I begged, clawed and scratched at my parents, and was like, "Forget about my college fund, can we just skip it? I want to tour."

We went to Kid Rock's camp out in Detroit, and that's when things really started to change because then our network grew. All my uneducated rock friends growing up, they didn't understand. They'd always be like, "We don't have any money, so we're going to go record in our garage." I just had this mentality where I'd go, "I'm not going to meet anybody in my garage, so I'm outta here."

Once we started to branch off it led to some different things, and around the same time, we wrote "100 In A 55," and once we did "100 In A 55," my luck changed.

"100 In A 55"

It was written July 15, 2005. I wrote it for Kid Rock. That was my hope - it wasn't like Bob [Ritchie, Kid Rock's real name] was on Line 1 at the time.

We're from Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's a three-hour drive, maybe two-and-a-half if you're speeding, to Detroit. We never had any big-time bands there - maybe Verve Pipe, but they were from Lansing. They might argue they're from Grand Rapids but I would beg to differ because I remember driving weekly to go watch them play when I was in college [Grand Valley State University], and I loved them. It was something that I could relate to because they were at least from west Michigan. Other than that, there were no role models for us to follow.

Everyone would tell us that we had to move to Detroit or move to New York or LA, and we didn't have the money for that. I didn't want to go to New York or LA and know absolutely no one, then take away all my support staff, which is our friends and family and the fanbase we had already built.

So in '05, I wrote this song called "100 In A 55" and I felt good about it. I wrote it all by myself, just me on acoustic. A lot of times, that's how I wrote in the early years - I had no help, it was always just me. My band members don't really write lyrics. Our system has always been a little abstract outside looking in, but it's always worked for us.

When you deal with a band it's kind of like a sports team. You're not going to have your defensive line doing quarterback drills - they don't need to do that.

I've always been very sports-related. I had a scholarship to play basketball, but I had a knee injury. I always wanted to play for the Lakers, but what am I? 5'9" or 5' 10" - there was no way I'm going to be able to keep up with Shaquille O'Neal, so reality set in.

But I never wanted a desk job - I just couldn't do it. So I knew early on in life what I didn't want to be. I started writing, and my brother was always the biggest prick, so he hated everything I wrote. My brother and I are close in age, and he's actually now part of the management of the band. He was tough as nails on me, which was inspiration and a kind of fuel - I was always trying to impress him and write a song that he would want to play with his boys and be like, "Yo, this is fire." And my brother at the time was listening to Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam, all these rock dudes, and I was listening to more hip-hop or Kid Rock-type rap and rock.

I was always good at expressing myself and not keeping stuff in, and the guitar really helped me do that. I didn't really care about being in a rock band, I just wanted to write and I wanted to hear myself on the CD. In those days that was everything: to put your CD on in the car with your buddies, and have your buddies be like, "Dude that's dope."

And then I wanted to make something that I could get on the radio. We had a song called "Somebody Like You" that was our first big hit, and then we went down to work with Kid Rock's dude, Al Sutton [at Mackinaw Harvest Music studios], and the team that did the recent Greta Van Fleet stuff. They were awesome guys, and they just oozed Detroit Rock City. Marlon Young, who is now Kid Rock's lead guitar player, he was on the Lipstick On The Mirror record before he had got the job with Bob. These guys were just so talented, and they were like big brothers.

For the video for "Somebody Like You," I had a buddy that was working for DreamWorks, for Steven Spielberg, and I was like, "Can you shoot a video for me?" He was like, "Yeah, but it'll be costly."

It was something stupid - between $40 and $50k I think. I didn't have that kind of money, so I found some investors that were really excited about the project and all they wanted in return was to be involved. So they had a bit of extra money and they were really interested in kind of giving us the launch. We had Brit Koth, who used to be the star of the 8th & Ocean show on MTV - my brother locked that down. Unfortunately, we took a gamble on that show being the biggest thing on MTV. We originally wanted Lauren [Conrad] from Laguna Beach, that show from MTV, but we thought 8th & Ocean was going to be the bigger one. So that was our first fail.

But the video still turned out rad, and that led us to getting a meeting with our local radio station [WGRD]. There were Program Directors and Music Directors and a syndicated show called Free Beer and Hot Wings all there. I had the CD singles on every seat, and I said, "Guys, I'm not here to have you play my record, that's not what this is about. I just want you to know what a local band in your backyard is doing. If you need covers, we can play covers. If you need any kind of openings for national artists, we're here. We can play 45-minute sets with all originals or we can play three-hour sets, all covers. Whatever you want us to do, we're here."

The PD called me within 15 minutes and said, "We're adding your record to power." I didn't even know what that means.

So we're on the radio, and now we're starting to get $1000 to $1500 a night doing what we do. Grand Rapids is a big city but not that big, and word got out.

We played with Crossfade in Muskegon, which is an hour away, and we invited them back to the Pop Evil house in Grand Rapids. They came down, we were raging, and the neighbors called the police. We knew the police, so we knew they were going to break Crossfade's balls a bit. This was a different era. We were all drinking beers, and I remember an officer grabbed one of the Crossfade guys and he goes, "You been drinking this?" They were scared out of their minds, and then the cop picks it up and takes a sip and sits down with us and says, "How was the show tonight?"

They just lost it. They were like, "What?!" We were like, "We told you, we run this town." It was an awesome time. It was a different time, and the cops, we grew up with them, so we weren't worried about some neighbors.

Shortly after that, we started to really blow things up with radio locally, and that led to some management coming in. You know, you don't have to move. If you make enough noise wherever you are, they'll come to you.

Major Label Disaster

After earning their wings in Grand Rapids, the band signed with Universal Records. It did not go well.

We signed our first record deal, we up-streamed to major, and now it gets real. We made a record, it was a very expensive album, and they were going to shelf us. They had songs like "Boss's Daughter" and "Monster You Made" and "Last Man Standing," which are three of our biggest songs off our old catalog, and now they are threatening that these aren't going to go out. This is our second album, but our first under a major label.

That was a big debacle. Finally eOne, our current label, came to the party and got us out of that mess. But on the flip side, now the band's in debt. So, that leads now to the third album with [producer] Johnny K.

I lose my dad, and now there is an anger in me. There's anger and a vibe that wasn't there before. He was my stability - he was first generation in this country. Up until his last day, I remember singing "Monster You Made" in his ear before he passed. It was his favorite song. He gave me a little squeeze. He had a heart attack and was pretty much in a coma, so to sing "Monster You Made" and to have him squeeze me a bit before he took his last breath, there was nothing more beautiful and disturbing at the same time, and it changed me.

Third Album, Onyx

It started with anger and it started with a lot of reckless thoughts in my head, and that led to an amazing album. Then, of course, we did "Trenches" and I felt like I had to dig my way out of this huge hole that I was in. So the first #1 was "Trenches." I remember lying in the bunk in [producer] Johnny K's studio, downtown Chicago, right by White Sox stadium. I remember being in tears, being #1 most added. That was the first time we ever had that love with radio, with that many stations coming in. We were starting to become more of a prominent radio band, and the tears just rolled down.

New Album, Versatile

We finished it around March of last year and I remember we got ready to do the photoshoot in May, and the mayor was like, "We're shutting down Los Angeles." We were already looking forward to taking some time off in April. It was supposed to come out in the spring and then we were immediately going to jump on a tour.

There are a lot of different variables that we wanted to do on this album that was different from the past. Hayley [Cramer, drummer], this is her second album with us, and we really wanted to challenge ourselves. Once we got it dialed-in, I just knew that the drums needed to hit harder than anything. So, it was giving her time to not only play but to give ourselves days or weeks to manipulate drum tones and to start listening and comparing things that we never really gave ourselves time for in the past.

When we started diving in and writing these demos, we did 30 of them. I only write the hooks. I send the hooks to my family and friends who know me the most, and of course the band and managers, and see what they think. If I don't get a text back immediately from when they hear it then it's probably not good enough. That's the thing with this album: It all had to be heat.

It's funny, I wrote this over a year ago, so I've already written a whole other album of stuff, and whether I'm going to use it or not, who knows and who cares. When you're a writer, you do it naturally. It just comes. It's just like a baller probably goes to the gym to work out every day because it's his habit, and it's the same thing with me.

The Broke Rock Star

The modern-day rock star is broke - we are the brokest musicians, like if you take all musicians in all the genres, and I don't mean the royalty of the rock-and-roll universe, we're talking about the new bands, like the everyday blue-collar rock bands, that's us. We're the baloney sandwich crew - I had a baloney sandwich today and I didn't care. When we come back home, me and my buddies go to the same bar and go to the same places - most rockers do that.

In the Midwest, people still buy records, they still do it the right way. It's not like New York and LA, where people are too busy for you. Here in the Midwest, people are bored out of their minds, they're waiting for you. This is the sixth album, so at some point, you're not worried about what people think, you're worried about surviving, making a living, taking care of other people and your life now. There's a lot of our crew that is relying on us to make the right decision. That's a different kind of pressure that I wasn't thinking about on my first records.

"Torn To Pieces"

"Torn To Pieces," I never wanted to release that. It was for my dad, and it was tough for me for the first few years to play that song. You hear that term "celebrate life," and I'm like, "That's the dumbest phrase. I lost my dad, this is ridiculous." But now, I finally get it. I'm not alone. Especially when I see guys getting emotional at shows.

As a guy, you constantly have to be tough for your family and wear that masculine role, but that guy has pain too, like I do, and I'm so glad this song can help him and know that he's not alone, because he's helping me at the moment. That's like a split second when you see that guy on stage and he may be bawling and he's looking at you, and you give him the horns back and you acknowledge him and you make eye contact and he gives you that look, like, I got you, I'm here for you. That resonates. It's different than a #1 record, it's a real purpose. We're having an impact on people's lives.

Sometimes with these interviews, you hear that you didn't do something game-changing with the music, but we're having a positive impact on people's lives. You think about that moment in time when loved ones couldn't help you, but who was there: music.

Lyrics And Message

The lyrics have got to be right. We are proud of the way that we can send some positive influence. What does Pop Evil mean? It means a positive message with our songs, always. It doesn't matter what song you hear, there's always a positive message at the end.

Our music is very versatile. We have five different people in our band. One is from the UK, one is a long-haired bass player with American-Indian heritage, then we have a Mexican rhythm-guitar player, then we have a white guy from Pittsburgh who may be of German descent, and then there's me, with my dad from India and my mom is Canadian. We always are open to each other's tastes and preferences. We always respect each other.

"Breathe Again"

There's a limited amount of time when these songs can help me in any way before they're released to the public. After that, the only way they help me is when I see fans being moved, and it reminds me I'm not alone. People feel like they want to breathe again too.

A lot of these vocals are my first takes. I love "Breathe Again." When we started with the demo process, I knew right away it was going to be Pop Evil, it was magical, there was something special about the song. I knew it was going to connect with our fans. "Breathe Again" just felt different, it felt great. The music was just hitting hard. We knew that the Evil in Pop Evil, we wanted to let our metal roots shine.

Earlier on in our career we didn't want to write these heavy songs that we were told weren't going to get played. But streaming started becoming bigger and bands like Five Finger Death Punch were opening doors for other bands to be heavier. So we released "Let The Chaos Reign," which is our heaviest song to date, and then "Work," which is our most versatile experimental song to date. So our heaviest song, which we knew wasn't going to be a radio single, is now approaching 10 million streams on Spotify - it's crazy the streaming. You don't have to think of a radio single in the same way.

We don't need to limit ourselves at all. We're going to write as heavy as we want to, and still my voice is the tie that binds it. We can be as experimental as we want to be with respect to our old catalog and the fans that have been with us from the beginning.

"Breathe Again," you're hearing the first takes, that's it. "Work" is spoken word. My producer said, "Why don't you just do spoken word with that, just go for it, let's have fun." That was the thing that I learned with this record that we weren't doing on previous records: Once it became work, scrap it. Next song. It sounds obvious, but we got caught up in the flow, like this is work and we've got to show up to work. And I'm like, "I don't show up to work." This is the dream job because it's fun. We show up to the studio, we don't show up to work.

Once the energy was positive and our frontman was having fun, we wanted to live in that space because we knew that was going to translate to our live show, because all of this now goes back to our live show. People come watch a Pop Evil show and expect to hear certain songs, so without playing those, I'm not going to have a good show, I'm going to upset people. So, it's a very thin line on how many new songs I can add to the setlist, so when we do add it, we have to be thinking about what elements are we missing. How can we show people those peaks and valleys more relatable to life, so when they come to see a Pop Evil show, they can leave going, "Wow I can use some of this for my daily life." They know what it's like to be torn to pieces. I don't leave a Rage Against The Machine set crying or being highly emotional, I leave pissed off and being like, hell yeah! and that's okay, that's what that band gives to you. I have always wanted to be a band that gives you something relatable, and you can get that with that connection with the lyrics and the vocals.

May 19, 2021

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More at popevil.com

Further reading:
Our 2015 interview with Leigh

Our interview with Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe

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