Western Michigan rockers Pop Evil have been plugging away in the rock world in one incarnation or another since 2001, and are finally getting the recognition and payoff from all of the hard work and dedication they have given to the music world and their fans. With a record-setting stand of three sold out shows at Flint, MI's Machine Shop taking place later this week, we were able to grab a little time from band founder and frontman Leigh Kakaty's schedule to discuss some of the band's achievements in 2015, the upcoming Flint shows, and so much more...
Toddstar: Thank you so much for taking time out, man. We appreciate it.
Leigh: Oh yeah. No problem, man. My pleasure.
Toddstar: There's so much going on right now, but I want to revisit 2015 for a second, if you don't mind.
Leigh: Sure. Of course.
Toddstar: 2015 seemed to be the year of pop evil, man. You guys put out, probably, one of the strongest releases with Up, and hit #1 indie on Billboard. What was it like being able to put that kind of album out in this day and age when the record industry isn't quite what it was back in the day?
Leigh: Yeah. One thing we try not to focus on is where the business is at, especially this record this time around because it felt like, up until 2015, it was always like, "Ah," there was always an excuse, "If this would have been around 20 years or if rock was in a different place ..." You just have to be very humble about it and figure the fact that, "Look, the bottom line when we were trying to get out of Michigan all those years ago was just to be able to play shows and to play music for a living." We've played over 250 shows a year since 2007, so I think mission accomplished on that, that was part of the first realization while we were about to write this new record. It was about being more appreciate, being more positive, looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty, and that was something we had heard about our whole career, but we really didn't know what it was like to really feel and live our life like that until this record. It was very nerve wracking it was very stressful because, with the success of Onyx, we knew we still weren't happy about where the band was going. We felt like, "Wow, we're not able to experiment and do the music we really want to do." Not that there was anything we weren't able to do on Onyx, but you're still becoming a better studio musician every album. You're still able to take more risks, take more chances. It was very nerve wracking. We went out of our comfort zone and went with Adam Kasper instead of Johnny K. We'd kind of a security blanket with Johnny and had so much success with him we knew that, in order to challenge our self, we had to get out of our comfort zone, get out of the Midwest, and go to a place and a city where we'd never been, so we had not distraction so we could really just dive in 100% on the music. I think that that had a lot to do with where 2015 ended up for us. It was big risk, big reward. We did that. It was very nerve wracking at the time, taking chances on songs like "Footsteps" and "Ways to Get High." It seems awesome now, but at the time people were expecting "Trenches II" and Onyx 2.0. We already have those songs in our set. If we're just going to regurgitate old hits, that's not the kind of band we want to be. We want to make sure we can challenge ourselves and, most importantly, challenge our set list to give people the best live experience possible.
Toddstar: That's something you guys always do, in my opinion anyway. You guys have grown from album to album to album. With Onyx...
Leigh: Sure, yeah. Absolutely.
Toddstar: What was the biggest thing you found, especially in the writing phase, the biggest change for you personally when you were putting together your pieces for this album? What did you see had changed in you the most from start to finish?
Leigh: The attitude, man. When we sat down to do it, to be honest, I didn't really feel like writing. I didn't feel like doing it. I was sick of being angry. You know what I mean? When Onyx was being written I was so upset with the business, where I was at personally, and of course losing my father, just a lot of anger and aggression built up, and pain that had to come out. Now it felt like, "Wow, people are starting to like the band. People are starting to recognize the band and understand the hard work. I don't have to be so angry." I think it's about inspiring other people to be positive. When I think of some of my favorite bands, STP, Pearl Jam, all of those '90s bands that came out and really influenced me, they always brought about happy feelings and good thoughts about my youth. I want to do the same for other people. Changing our attitude to be more appreciative of the opportunities we have, I think changed the game for us. It allowed me to go out there, personally, and write songs like "Footsteps" that were about, kind of, where we are. I think with "Trenches" being the lead off single on the last record, a lot of it had to do lyrically where I was in my life at the time. I really felt like there was a lot of proving to do with "Trenches." It felt like we were just cleaning the toilets and we were still not noticed. People didn't know who we were. It was like, "Look, if we want to be where we want to be, we have to write the songs that connect with other people, that's the bottom line." I felt like we had to dig out of those trenches once again. That song, obviously, really resonated with people. I felt like I was in a different position, obviously, with the first single on this new record. Every family member of mine close to me was like, "Look, we're just going to take it one step, one day at a time, and just gradually on the incline." I was like, "Wow, footsteps, it just felt like that's what it is," that's what it was; we're still going to go higher and "How can I motivate people in a more positive manner this time around to be relatable for people that might be going through their own trials and tribulation in their life?" How they can all motivate themselves to go higher, whether that is with their job or with their family or personal life or whether that be with their own religion, to find that inner peace.
Toddstar: That's a killer insight; I appreciate that. You've got big happenings in 2016 that we're going to talk about, but back on August 21st of 2015, it was Pop Evil Day in Grand Rapids. Back in 2001 when TenFive was kicking off, did you ever think you'd have a Pop Evil Day?
Leigh: No, certainly not. I remember back in the late '90s and the early 2000s trying to get gigs with so many people. It's such a conservative... Western Michigan is such a conservative area. When you're a minority like me, growing up there trying to do rock music, it wasn't easy. Having to just fight to get people to book us, to think that the city, one day, would embrace you, would give back; it was definitely a full-circle moment and definitely a highlight. It's always, I think, more exciting when you're home. You can play Madison Square Garden, you can play all of these amazing places, but I didn't grow up with those places. My favorite places were the Palace of Auburn Hills where we're playing tonight, The Machine Shop, Van Andel Arena, things like that, that made it closer to home for me. Whenever you get an opportunity to be embraced by your hometown, it really hits you right in the face and reminds you that hard work does pay off. It keeps you motivated, and that was definitely a big one and definitely one that we're proud of, to be able to have a day in the city where you poured out your blood, sweat, and tears. It's very humbling, for sure.
Toddstar: I can only imagine. You mentioned the Palace of Auburn Hills. You guys are doing the half-time show for the Pistons tonight. This is a short set for you guys.
Leigh: Yeah. We're just doing two songs, which is awesome that they asked us. I'm always very excited to do anything sports related for our hometown teams. I'm a big advocate of Michigan sports and Michigan State. The Spartans had me out to the Cotton Bowl. They've been playing "Footsteps." I think they're theme for their whole season was "Reach higher," so they've been having us playing "Footsteps" in Spartan Stadium the whole season. It's just amazing when you get your hometown teams that support the band and do what they do for the band. It's just incredible, man. Of course when the Piston opportunity came about, I definitely wanted to do it. If someone would have told me I would have been on the Palace floor in 1989 and '90, I would have been crying, in tears. I'm trying to appreciate it for the young me. That was my life when I was a kid, I was all about basketball, the Detroit Pistons, and so it is a huge sporting team for me and my past and my youth. To be able to give back and bring some music to help the team, hopefully, beat the Spurs tonight is a huge honor and something I know the band were stoked to do. As more opportunities, hopefully, come about for us, we're always down to do what we got to do for our Michigan sports' brothers and do our part. We're definitely excited about it. What a way to start 2016. It's cool.
Toddstar: Even better than that, better in my opinion at least and I know quite a few people's opinions, you guys have done something nobody else has ever done, that's three sold out shows at The Machine Shop in Flint, Michigan [http://www.themachineshop.info/]. Talk about coming full circle. You guys opened for Days of the New back in July of '07 and now you guys are headlining three sold out shows. What's that like to know that a place that you love and loves you can put three sold out shows together?
Leigh: It's incredible, man. It's a huge honor especially with all of the great bands that have played there over the years. I remember trying to get into The Machine Shop. It wasn’t easy from Grand Rapids back in the day to get in there. I remember the first time we played there. We probably just had our family and friends there. There was, probably, like ten people there. It was so rough at the time. To think that we'd be selling out three nights in a row is just unheard of. We certainly weren't thinking about that at the time. We were just trying to sell it out once, would have been great. To get embraced by that Flint audience and that faithful, loyal Machine Shop audience, it's an honor. They're so loyal. They're so gracious. They so believe in our band, in particular, it's humbling. You just want to go in there and do it and do it. A lot of bands that could even sell out three, they would just regurgitate the same set. We're trying to be creative to give those fans and those people that are, probably, coming to all three shows, give them a little different moment. I know that people that have been to, like you said, that Days of the New all those years ago in '07… every day, every show that we play there is memorable and unique to itself. We really pride ourselves in trying to give those fans that come to see us at The Shop a special moment. Every show there has kind of got an intimate flare. It's just an honor, how close we are with Kevin and everybody over there at The Shop. They're like a second family to us. They've always been so supportive over the years. Actually Kevin is going to be with us tonight at The Palace, Tony LaBrie, and of course Banana as well. It's like coming back home. You've heard the cliché, "It's like our second home," but literally, in some ways, it feels more like home than Grand Rapids just because there's so many people that have helped break our career that are still there. The people that helped break our career in Grand Rapids have come and gone, so it feels still closer to home when we go to play The Shop. We're a very family-run, small town band. It definitely has that feel there at The Shop. To be able to sell out three days, I don't think it's really hit us. I think it'll probably set in after we play them. We're excited, that first night, to play through the whole record. It's our first time to play through the whole Up album in its entirety. I know that, myself included, we're excited to do it. It's the first time. We've wanted to play these songs forever, but we've been so busy we haven't had time. The tours don't really... they haven't really given us an opportunity to play the whole album. We thought, "Wow, this would be a perfect opportunity to play the whole record," and we're all looking forward to Thursday night to really start the first of the three sold out shows.
Toddstar: You talk about doing something special; you're certainly doing that with playing Up all the way through on the first night, which is actually the third show added. It's kind of cool.
Toddstar: There's something else you guys bring to the table, and I want to know if this kind of leans back to how you guys were handled when you were coming up through the business, is all three nights you've got different opening bands. Are you guys just looking to help give that next Pop Evil the leg up? How does that work for you guys?
Leigh: Yeah. We try to do the best whenever we can. Obviously we have big booking agents and managers and all of that stuff that comes up the food chain, but we always tell them that, whenever there's an opportunity with deserving up and coming bands, we definitely want to try to give them as much help as possible. We understand it is hard. It was hard enough when we were coming out to get a break. It's even harder now. When we see those bands that are coming up and the promoters or the bar-owners are telling us... Not just in Michigan, when we come to other states and other cities, when we see that band that's really making some noise, we like to get them on the bill and teach them the ropes. I think about the first time we toured with a big, national band; there's certain protocol that, whether that's matching your prices to the headliner's merchandise, all of those little things that kind of come about to understand about how to tour with national bands, we studied all of that stuff. I remember the first tour we did with Judas Priest; we learned so much about just touring etiquette and how to do things the right way. Priest, I give them so much credit to our success. They were helping us even when they didn't know they were helping us. They're so inspiring, and to be around for 30 years and to give us a shot... other big bands that have given us a shot, it's so important to try to give back whenever we can and hopefully inspire another band to come up and do the little things that you need to do outside of just playing music to really create relationships with bands that are doing the same kinds of things to put out there. Once you build those relationships with bands, it's a lot easier to get tours. It's all about friendships and the relationships you make on the road that create survival for you and your band. Whenever we get an opportunity to kind of give back, it's important to do that.
Toddstar: It certainly is Leigh. You mentioned friendships and things like that. You guys have a special bond with your fans. It's almost like you are friends. I don't see many lead singers these days that can walk on the hands of their crowd. What's that like?
Leigh: Yeah, right. It's amazing, man. To be able to, just starting back with it, to get the support of your fans, it kind of has been built into our psyche. Just growing up in Western Michigan, there were so many people telling us we needed to move to New York or LA or even Detroit. The reality of it was we didn't have money for that. We were like, "Look, if they're going to find us, we're going to have to make a big enough noise where they're going to have to come to us," that's exactly what happened. I think we learnt how to appreciate people. Just how we were brought up, our parents, if we did anything wrong, they were first to check us. They still are. They're very much a part of our band and our band family. It's very important that they were there. Our family, mine specifically, when we told them what we wanted to do for a living and what I wanted to do, I was like, "I want to do rock and roll music for a living," they weren't the parents that were like, "Okay, what's your backup plan?" They were the kind of parents that were like, "Okay, well, what kind of guitar do you want? If you're going to play, you need the best equipment," so that was kind of my parents. They never really steered us away from our dreams, and that started it. All of my band members' parents are very similar. They're very motivational and very inspiring to kind of pursue our dreams. Once we did that, we learnt about appreciating people. Obviously it was rooted in our upbringing. Now with social media being such an important part of your fan base, it's important. We have a very personal role. I think the VIP experiences we offer now, and I think most bands do, it's an opportunity to get quality time with your fans, rather than getting wasted with them at the bar and embarrassing yourself and your band from doing things like that. We've certainly had our moments where we've learned over the years to give more quality time to the fans that really want to meet you and who are really enjoying your music. It's an opportunity for us to see what kind of an impact we're having. I think 2015 was a very important year for me with putting the bottle down and understanding that I have to be more responsible as a singer, worrying about singing first, everything else second. I finally understood that last year. I'm excited about how much better my voice feels and what kind of a better relationship we not only have with our fans, but we have with each other as band members to understand that we are the starting five, no one is vending for our roles. It's about being more appreciative of that, taking advantage of the opportunity.
Toddstar: Thanks for sharing that with us, Leigh, because that's something of your own that you've had to play with for a long time, so thank you.
Toddstar: I'm always struck, especially at one of your shows, when I'm at The Shop, I walk that fine line of "Am I the guy in the photo pit with a camera being a journalist or am I just a fan of the band?” It goes back to that bridge you were talking about where you've built that relationship. You've built that not only with journalists and photographers; you've built it with fans and converted most of them into fans. I know Minty [Machine Shop photographer Jeff Mintline] is a bigger fan than most anybody I know. It's just fun watching you guys.
Leigh: Yeah. You hit the nail on the head. It's fun for us to see. People get converted. I think about Eminem and Kid Rock. If I think about my first times I saw them, I wasn't a fan. They converted me. Those were two of my biggest idols growing up and two biggest influences were Kid Rock and Eminem. Obviously I have a rap upbringing and I have a rock upbringing. Those two guys I give credit to, but when I think back to the early days when I would see those artists, I wasn't in love. I had to be converted just like most Michigan ... I feel like Michigan fans, myself I'm speaking of especially, are very tough. We're very passionate about who we already love. When I think about it I like to relate it to cereal because we are the cereal city and cereal capital of the world. When I think about when I go to get my cereal at Meijer... I'm never a Walmart guy, even though I'm at Walmart now. I was always a Meijer guy, so I'm very Michigan rooted. When I would go get my cereal, even though the Malt-O-Meal or the fake Froot Loops would be on the bottom shelf, I’m always buying Kellogg's because I'm comfortable with that Toucan Sam that I grew up with. I'm buying the name brand that I'm so faithful with. I feel like that's kind of Michigan when it comes to our music. We're very particular about just letting new bands into our world because we're so passionate about the people we do have. Once another artist earns our respect, we're there for life, and that explains the three sold out shows and you walking that line between fan and journalist and be like, "Wow, I need to be professional, but I just like this band. I don't even know why," and that's the beauty of it. That's the biggest honor you can give me or any band, is when people tell you, "Wow, I wasn't really a fan at first, but now I just can't help it," that's really what it's about. I don't think there's many rockers that, their first song that came out, people love them right off the bat. People earn that with longevity, continuing to knock out great music. People like the struggle and the journey. It's harder than it ever is to be a band and to survive. I like to do the analogy of, "Rockers are more like mom and pop music stores." If Lady Gaga is the McDonald's of pop artists, because they can be open for 5 days a week and survive ... this new Adele thing, it's like she doesn't have to tour ever. Imagine that, you can put out a song, one song. She put out "Hello" and she doesn't have to tour at all? That's unheard of in our world. Us rockers have to be open 24 hours, we're making minimum wage on the assembly line. If we don't play, we don't get bills paid. There is no luxury. I love when people ask me, "What do you do? Your life must change." I'm like, "What are you talking about, dude? We make like $5 an hour, under minimum wage. If you want to be in rock and roll, you have to learn how to survive." We've had success, but it's amazing, we've had 5 #1 records, numerous top 10 songs, and people still don't know who you are. If that would have been the situation in the '90s, we would have been playing arenas. It's a different element. It's about being positive and looking how to survive being a rock musician in this day and age because, if you don't, it's not very flattering, it's not very inspiring. Like the conversation we had earlier about helping new bands, its like, "What's in it for them?" If they ask me, "Wow, what advice would you have?" I'd be like, "Don't do it. What's in it for you? Go get in debt and not make any money? That's what you want?" Is that what you're supposed to tell a band? Basically you have to tell them you've got to love it and you've got to keep believing and keep supporting. If other bands up and coming aren't supporting bands like us, then what's in it for them? There are no other bands for them to tour with, there's no other money to be made for the powers that be to package us artists together so we can put on a tour. What are we going to do, play 200 people seat rooms? There's not money in it for anybody, so if that's not the case, then there's no music. There's no money being given to artists to make music, there's nothing in it for them. It basically labels - those people are banks for bands like us that didn't have money to make that music that we dreamed of making and to get it to sound the best of its ability. We're basically fighting a big fight for the bigger picture. I think it's so important to educate your fan base nowadays, to let them know that their dollar does matter. Selling out three shows is so important to let people know that the powers at be are higher than you, to let them know that there is a demand for it. We keep fighting. We have to believe that music is all about cycles. Hopefully the other genres ... When Lil Wayne wins the Rock Grammy, it's important to let them know that that might not be rock. There are people out here that have a voice and we're trying to be heard as well. I'm really passionate. You'll see as the band gets bigger that I'll have a louder voice. It's definitely something I'm passionate about, letting people know that, "Look, when you come from the country where it screams pride about freedom of speech, I don't know who decided that people that listen to rock and live rock like yourself and myself, our voice matters less." I didn't understand that. That makes no sense. It's important for us to keep supporting each other, to keep fighting, and to keep educating our fan bases to let them know that we can make a difference. It's okay that you don't like Pop Evil, but it's important that you can understand that we are fighting for rock. It's okay if you do like Pop Evil that we need you then to get on board. Don't be so negative and think that we can't. We need to go up. We need to push higher, and let them know that, if it doesn't happen today, it could happen tomorrow. We're that much closer to letting people understand that popular music can include rock as well. It's up to us to write those great songs that matter.
Toddstar: Like you said, one step at a time, right?
Leigh: That's exactly it. I wish it was faster, but you just got to do it, man, and appreciate the journey along the way. It's important.
Toddstar: I couldn't have said it better myself, Leigh. I know you're busy, so I've got one more for you before we cut you loose, if you don't mind.
Toddstar: With everything you've achieved, again, you've been in the game longer than most. You've been doing this a long time. You've fought for your dreams. You've fought for what you got. You bust your ass every day. Like you said, you've faced demons in the last couple years. You've really come full circle in the world of Leigh. All of that said, if it all came to a halt tomorrow, what would be the couple things you were most proud of or you would want to be remembered for contributing to the rock world or the music world?
Leigh: Man, I get asked that a lot. I think if I answered that question I wouldn't be where I'm at because you don't think about it like that. You don't stop and think about what you're proud of. To be honest, you don't have time to. Literally I've had three weeks off since the last show we played; I think it's been about three weeks. What happens is, selfishly, if I didn't have anyone else in my life, I'd probably be able to answer that question. What happens is all of the family; all of my close friends that we put on hold... basically we put our family #2 all year long. Once we finally get home and get off time, you spend proving to them that they are #1 again all over again. You have to meet your family and friends and your loved ones all over again. Think about it. When you're gone for 3 and 4 weeks, a lot has happened. A lot happens and a lot changes. Your family goes on. Your friends move on and they live their life, while yours is spent living on a tour bus. You have to spend all of that off time making it up to them and re-getting into their lives like relearning what it's like to tell them that you love them and prove it to them and taking out the trash. We might be rock stars on this bus, but when you go home I'm just Leigh to my family and loved ones. Its like, "Okay, it's time to take the trash out. It's time to do this. You've got to help out. Do your part." Meanwhile on the bus we have a lot of people that do things for us. You've got to come back to life, come back to reality, make sure that you tell them and remind them that you love them and you are appreciative of them waiting and letting you live your dream while they're there doing the little things for you, making sure bills are paid, making sure the house is clean, making sure the little things are done that life can go on normal back at home in the real world, so we can come out here and live our dream and make sure that we can work hard to provide for the family. I don't really think about it as what we'd be proud of. I literally think that there's a lot of work to be done here. We've got amazing, amazing opportunity. Ram Trucks has come back in on 2016 and picked up "Take It All" for the whole year. We're so blessed to have that opportunity and to have them come on board for 2016. We have all of the festivals, Rock on the Range and everyone in between. We're gearing up for it. We've got "Ways to Get High," it's already approaching Top 5 on the radio charts with another Top 5 single. There's just so much hard work. We feel like this is our ... We're in the best place to really push this band and prove the identity and work ethic of this band, take it to the next level in 2016. I don't know. I wouldn't think about anything. I would just hope that, when all is said and done, I hope that the family would still love me and let them know that, "Look, I did everything I could to try to provide and to try to do my part to make sure people could understand that rock is still alive and well and it is alive and well in not only Michigan, but in Western Michigan," when so much of us in Western Michigan have always had to look to the east side, to Detroit, that we were a product of Detroit rock and roll. We were always studying and looking at what the east side was doing, dreaming that maybe something from the west side, people could be proud of as well. We feel like this is the best state on the planet. There's no other place to be than Michigan, rather than today because it's freezing. Other than that, it's so important that the Michigan pride oozes out of us. We were always, myself included, and I could just say for me, I always wanted people to be proud of Western Michigan as well, musically. Hopefully we've done our part to make sure that people can't just brush past when they think of Michigan. Not only do they think of Detroit, they can also think of Grand Rapids and Skeetown [Muskegon] where Pop Evil is from. Just doing our part and letting people know that rock and roll is alive and well and it is very prominent in the great state of Michigan and the Great Lakes. When they think of rock and roll, they've got to come to our state. Just carrying the torch. What Seger and Rock have done, we're trying to do our part as well.
Toddstar: Wow. Very well stated. You hit every nail on the head, Leigh. We love Pop Evil. We love what you've done for rock. We love what you've done for Michigan. We can't wait to see you guys do it three more times in Flint, Michigan this week when you start your three sold out shows Thursday night. We wish you well with the Pistons game today.
Leigh: I can't wait. Thank you for all your kind words. It definitely makes it work while. It definitely makes us even more proud to come back home. I'll tell you, you guys are the fuel. When we're out there, having those hard times, whether we're in California playing for 40,000 or playing for one person, we always know that we've got the support of our hometown and our home state. It makes the hardships, when we're out there proving around the rest of the globe to just keep fighting, keep fighting not only for ourselves, but for the pride of Michigan back home. It's important. Keep the fuel going. Bring on the haters because we've got the biggest muscle we can with our fans right here. It means a lot to us.
Toddstar: That’s it brother. Be good, man. We'll talk to you soon.
Leigh: Sounds good, man. I appreciate it.
Toddstar: Thanks, Leigh.
Leigh: Thanks, Todd. Bye now.
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