Pop Evil’s Leigh Kakaty Talks ‘UP’ Album, Sobriety, Seattle Heroes + More
Pop Evil are coming off the very successful album Onyx, but show no signs of slowing down with their new album UP. We had a chance to speak with vocalist Leigh Kakaty about his experience recording the album, with the band heading to the Pacific Northwest to record in Seattle. He also discussed their eye-catching new video for "Footsteps," talked comic books basketball, his Seattle heroes, along with revealing his sobriety during the recording of the disc. Check out the chat in full below.
That last album, Onyx, was huge for you guys. Did you have any time to reflect at all on the success of that disc before going into this one?
No, not really. You don't have a lot of time to digest anything these days. We didn't want to be too influenced by trying to match it. We kind of just wanted to go be ourselves, it was definitely on our minds. I think once we started in Seattle, it was such a different chapter for us, being in Seattle as opposed to Chicago -- it all just happened naturally from there.
You've got a new video for "Footsteps." I know working with Johan Carlen, you've got a history there. But can you talk a little bit about the video and your relationship with what Johan has provided you over the years?
His creativity and him being so open to doing the things we want to do [is great], but sometimes when you make music videos you don't even know what you want to do. That's where he's been so huge, kind of giving you a starting point. "Footsteps" was a little different, we knew we wanted to be a little more extreme and a little more metaphorical about this inspiration. Obviously a lot of fans have had their own opinions of where they want a music video for a song to be. But for us, it feels like especially with the success with Onyx that ... when you're living your normal life that's busy and chaotic, sometimes you just need to take one step at a time and you can move mountains. We're all superhuman.
I'm a huge Marvel comic books guy so when you think about all the things people can do when they're super focused, it's just really amazing and empowering. Like many of the videos that we've done before, we always try and challenge the audience creatively. If they're ever happy and content with the videos, then we've failed. You get very few opportunities to expose yourself visually, so when you do you have to make the most of it. Having an idea come to life with Johan, he's just so great at having his own vision, too. When he's telling you about it, you have no idea what's going on in his head. We shot on a green screen in Sweden, just trying it in his hands. It came out amazing, we're all stoked on it.
You mentioned being a comic book fan. I gotta ask, what are your favorites?
Ah man, I've got a lot. Everything from Batman to GI Joe even. I miss my GI Joe comics! That was so big. I'm such a fan of seeing them come to life on the big screen now, too. Obviously I read them as a kid as I'm sure you did, too, but to see it all come to life these days, wow. When I think about reading my first Iron Man comics as opposed to now, thinking of Robert Downey Jr. every time I see it now, it's just amazing how they can really bring that stuff to life. I was big into Superman, Batman, too. Trying to get that No. 1 issue. It was always worth a little more money at the time. Batman was probably my favorite.
Up was recorded in Seattle. Do you feel like Seattle had any influence at all on the music that you put on this record? Or was most of it done by the time you got there?
It had 100% influence. We wanted to start fresh this time around. We didn't want anything that was lingering around from Onyx. We needed it for our own sanity to get up there with all new ideas, keeping it fresh. When you finish an album cycle of any record, it's always a little draining and exhausting. So this time around we wanted to plan ahead for that. So having new music, keeping the band really excited and inspired, etc. We felt like on the last three albums we had done, we weren't really able to explore and do different things that we wanted to do, we were always playing catch up with the old label or different band members transitioning. It was always doing everything but focusing on the music. I was always worrying if we had this or that ready to go. On Onyx especially, we were dealing with Chachi and Nick -- two brand new guys who had never worked with an A-list producer, so we were like, "Oh man, we're going to have to carry the weight here." This time around was totally different.
It was the first time in our career where we had the same lineup for two records. That alone, the support staff, everyone was so excited to just support each other -- very open minded with creativity coming in from all areas. It was just really cool. Then you put Seattle in the mix, the history that is has, it rubs off on you. I know the first rainfall we felt, it felt like we were cleansed. We had a reawakening. Everyone was just more focused. We put the bottle down Dec. 31, that was it. I haven't drank since. Just being focused on what the attention should be on and that's music and we're finally in a position to be able to do that whole handed.
You mentioned putting the bottle down and sobriety is a big thing. I know certain surroundings can trigger things as well. Obviously it worked well for you in the studio but how's it been with life on the road?
It's funny, someone asked me earlier today if it was less fun than the early years and if it was more about hard work and I'm like, to be honest, I'm having more fun now! Once you're sober and you're seeing straight, you understand the responsibility and you really focus on the music and what it should be. Sometimes, when I think back on the earlier years when we were playing the bars and the clubs, and you're drinking all the time, it gets away. You wake up the next day and the last thing you want to do is play a show and be a singer. It's definitely been a huge eye opener for me, and the band. We believe that if we want to be a band that can really stand the test of time, and make a difference instead of being part of the "complaining" problem, that is -- people are always just not happy with the position they're in.
We wanted to refocus our whole image and how we are on and off stage. We want to say, "Look, we are blessed to be a radio rock band in today's world. It's not easy to be an independent rock band in America or be a touring rock band making money playing shows. It's not easy to make music for a living, music you create. It's an honor and a privilege." Sometimes you can forget about just how valuable and how rare this opportunity is. I think rekindling that and appreciating the focus of where our minds should be at was so important for us. It allowed us to really get prepared internally for the long haul that is touring and this album cycle. It started early on, something I experienced with the band on the previous record. So that alone made it rewarding.
You've been around with a few albums under your belt with a good idea of what your setlist is going to be like. But when it comes to the creative side of things, when you're putting together songs for an album, are you thinking how they're going to translate live? Or even where they're going to fit within certain songs that you already have in your catalog?
It's definitely what was on our minds. 100 percent. We knew before we started this record what we thought was missing in our live show. We know what's our bread and butter. We've been playing 200-250 shows a year since 2006. That's our bread and butter, that's our in the trenches moment with our fanbase. That's something we can control. We really feel like, when you write a record some songs translate better than others. We knew that, OK we don't want to play this or that song because some songs weren't from when these five guys were together so a lot of them want to play music they wrote, the newer stuff. So finding that happy medium has been a challenge. When we sat to write this record, we did exactly that. To the best of our ability, we tried to write the best music that can not only supply the best example of who we are and where we're going, but also represent the best live show we can make for our fanbase when people come see us live.
Some of the fans are coming for the first time, and we want them to be like, "Wow, that was awesome. I had a great time. I had fun." I think back to all the old rock shows that I would always go to growing up, I was having a blast. It was always about having a great time. When we grew up in West Michigan, that was so important to us. That's what we were living for. Blue collar paycheck to paycheck, waiting for our parents to come home so we could borrow some cash. That was it at the time. So just having fun through music was so important for us, we tried to remember our roots with that on this record and give our fanbase the best example of what that was when we were growing up to give them that. We really felt like the that's why we could get a song like "Footsteps" on the album, that's more creative and taking a different risk but at the same time we're giving some of the balls they've known us for like "Trenches" did in the song "Vendetta." It's more about aggression and taking that anger out on the music.
We really want to do what Pop Evil has become know more, we really want to take that listener through all the emotions. We take you on an emotional roller coaster when you listen to track No. 1 through No. 12. It's so important to take people on a musical journey, we don't want to just have one song where it sounds like it continues through the whole album. That's not the band we are.
Growing up, for me the first listen of an album would always be on my car stereo. But now having worked in studios a little bit, you hear those speakers and it's amazing the sound you get. Once the record is done, what's your test? Where do you want to hear the music and what are you listening for?
Back in the day you had to have all this high tech stuff, now it's just got to hit in my car. That's always been my test. I've had the same car, a GMC Denali -- I've had it before the band even got signed. I've always put it in there, it's got some factory BOSE system I think. I don't even think it's the best system, but I'm just used to it.
I know when I get in the studio and how good it sounds in the studio with those big expensive monitors, I know where the vocals should be when I hear it. But when I'm happy with it in my car, that's how I know it's legit. I'm sure a lot of musicians do the same, whether it's their house or their car. I'll be out there listening to mixes until 5AM saying, no that guitar needs to come up just a smidge or that vocal needs to come down more, this and that. Not my favorite part of the process but I definitely live in my trust when it's around mixing time.
We've had a few new songs pop up here lately, "In Disarray" and "Dead in the Water." Now that the record is just about to come out, and you're able to work some more stuff in, what songs are you most interested in people getting a chance to hear?
A lot of it, obviously. It's like having a child! I'm excited about the song "Take it All." It's very much how I feel in life. You feel like held down, especially with the fans and the people we've met, everyone feels like there's something holding them back. It's like I only wanted a little, and now you're not going to listen to me, now I'm gonna take it all. That's the theme. It's just reckless.
I'm definitely excited about the ballads, I think they're going to touch a lot of people. We've been a band that has really connected with people through our ballads. As much as I love to throw back, break windows and rock, I've always liked to drive around at night meditation listening to my music just so I could calm down. I loved that ballad that can just explain where my life was in that situation. We've got two of them on this album we think are just unbelievable. A lot like the "Torn to Pieces," "Monster You Made," "100 in a 55" [songs] that we've had success with in the past, we make sure if we're going to only do a limited amount of ballads, we're going to make sure they're breathtaking and groundbreaking.
One of the studio videos you guys put up, it shows you shooting hoops and making a few trick shots. Who in the band has the most game, and who made the most ridiculous shots?
That's easily me. [laughs] I went to school on a basketball scholarship. The other guys aren't really the greatest at hoops. But I think that particular day, our bass player Matt had an unbelievable trick shot. He threw it up as high as he could. We were seeing if we could get it anywhere near and he actually made it. I don't think he was really trying, and it went it. Normally, I'm the guy doing all of the trick shots. That day, I was a little off. My head must have been more focused on the music that day [laughs].
You've had the chance to do both headlining and support. In your experience being a support band, what have you learned you can take into being a headliner in how you treat the other bands?
The biggest thing about being a support band is how to be more militant about your stage presence. You gotta be done at a certain time, you don't want to go over because it's disrespecting the headliner. It's taught us how to be disciplined enough to really get our best music out. How to get the quickest 45 minute set list that we can, to really power through. Sometimes when we're really opening and there's a bunch of bands, and we're only playing half hour sets, so what's the best song we can really leave our mark with? Sometimes it depends on the band we're playing with. When we're playing 30 minutes, we're not playing ballads. When you're playing 45 minutes, depending on what city and what singles they've played. There are a lot of factors that come up when you're dealing with that, but when you're a support band you learn about how to be more strategic and more productive about not wasting time. Everything has to be structured so you can really have the best impact on the fans. Especially when you're playing in front of new fans that might know your music, but they don't know who you are. So when they finally get the chance to hear you, you want to leave the biggest impact so they come back.
Three CD release shows this coming week, most of them right around your home vicinity. One of them definitely at home. Do you notice a different reaction when you start playing closer to home?
It's different feedback in different cities. It depends a lot on radio play for a radio band. So the markets where we get a lot of spins, and a lot of love those places go just as crazy at home. It's definitely something special when we come to Grand Rapids, where we're from. The midwest is huge, which is always rewarding. But to see your friends and family get to come out and see it, your friends you've have and knew you before the band is where it is, it's always rewarding to get a chance to see them and trade war stories of where we've been and back in the glory days when we didn't have all the stress and pressure. It was just free booze, and playing for a good time. It's definitely changed [laughs].
Going to Seattle, London Bridge Studio and I saw you guys walking down the hall with all the record plaques on the wall. I'm asking for your four or five favorite albums with a Seattle tie to it.
I was a religious Pearl Jam fan. "Crazy Mary" was my song, I learned how to play it. [laughs] I grew up on an acoustic guitar all the time, I always had to figure out what Eddie was doing so I could play it. They were huge for me. Obviously Nirvana, that whole thing, the whole animal when Kurt passed. It just ignited a fire. Wow, we were taking the grunge movement for granted. The next thing Kurt Cobain passes. It was like wow, we may never get to experience that again. As you got older, you realized who the Foo Fighters were. Dave Grohl, being in two mega bands like that, it's just inspiring. Then of course you got Alice in Chains, Soundgarden.
Being a Pearl Jam fan, I was a big Mother Love Bone fan. With what those guys did before they became Pearl Jam, I was a really big fan of that. Even Chris Cornell and Eddie singing together in Temple of the Dog, that was my generation. That was when I was finally starting to realize that wow, I really want to be in a band like these guys. It was so romanticized on TV. Everywhere you went you saw Eddie Vedder jumping off a balcony into the crowd going nuts and singing like it was all he had to offer.
Getting a chance to meet Eddie out in Seattle and have him tell me the stories really cemented it. It gave me a lot more confidence. He and I were very similar, we were chasing the same thing with nothing but our dream in our back pocket. We had nothing else to play for, there was no fallback option. Being out there in Seattle and talking to all these great people who were a part of those big records, it gave me the configence to do this record and that we are doing the right things. We're making our own story and it's OK. People are going to love your band and people are going to hate your band, and that's OK. We're not making music for everybdy, we're making music for the percentage of the world who like Pop Evil, and that's fine. When you hear it from people who are your role models and you see the grind and you see the handwork, you see them still doing the same things we're doing today, it was a reminder to stay focused and passionate and just doing what you're doing.
It's easy in this day and age, especially when someone steals your music in this era, it's really easy to get bummed out and lose hope. But it's so important that you keep fighting the fight. Rock music need bands to fight, we have a right to be heard. Somewhere along the line, somebody somewhere decided that people who listen to rock, their opinion matters less and that's frustrating. I get that. Instead of complaining this time around, again calling the album UP we want to focus on the positive. We want to do our part to make sure and remind people that rock and roll is alive and well. It's OK to be you. To be yourself. We don't have to do what everyone expects us to do, we're not going to put out singles and albums that people expect us to do. We're going to write music that we feel we can bring on stage and make the most of it and hopefully give our fans the best live experience they can have.
Last thing, anything on the horizon you'd like to promote that we didn't get to?
Nah that's pretty much it. Support rock 'n' roll, buy those records. Your dollar matters.
Our thanks to Pop Evil's Leigh Kakaty for the interview. The band's UP album arrives this Friday (Aug. 21). You can pre-order the disc here and see the band's upcoming tour dates at this location. Look for Pop Evil sharing stages with Aranda, Red Sun Rising and Three Days Grace in the coming weeks.
Watch Pop Evil's 'Footsteps' Video