It’s said that people are products of where and how they grew up.
Leigh Kakaty, vocalist of Pop Evil, certainly seems to buy into that idea, saying his group’s music is very much a product of his Muskegon, Mich., hometown roots. On a musical level, that experience translates into a rock band that is anything but a one-trick stylistic pony.
And the ability of Pop Evil to show musical variety within its melodic hard rock/metal core sound and a cohesive point of view lyrically has never been more apparent than on the group’s newly released fifth album, a self-titled effort.
“The big thing with Pop Evil is we’ve always been that band that had that ying and yang effect,” Kakaty said. “We never really got into music because we wanted to play one style of music all the time. We’d get bored. I think that’s a direct reflection that I don’t think fans always realize of the Midwest. It’s kind of like we’re the test market, especially Michigan, we’re the test market for a lot of things. So we were always exposed to all kinds of different genres. Even on our local alternative rock or rock stations, it was always a bit of blend of rock, metal and alternative. So we’re very much a product of that.”
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Kakaty feels Pop Evil showed it could touch on different styles within the hard rock/metal spectrum on its first four albums. But the new self-titled album is the best representation of the band’s music, particularly when it comes to finding a heavier and harder edge to the Pop Evil sound.
To achieve their goals for the fifth album, Pop Evil needed to go about the writing and recording process a bit differently. The first step was to get management to agree to allow more time to make the album.
Having felt rushed to make each of the first four albums, the group members – Kakaty, rhythm guitarist Dave Grahs, lead guitarist Nick Fuelling, bassist Matt DiRito and drummer Hayley Cramer – knew more time would be needed to explore the different directions they could take the songs both musically and lyrically.
Management agreed, feeling confident that the mainstream rock hit singles Pop Evil had generated recently (“Trenches,” “Torn to Pieces” and “Deal with the Devil” off of the 2013 album, “Onyx,” and “Footsteps,” “Ways to Get High” and “Take It All” off of the 2015 release, “Up”) meant the band no longer has to tour quite as much to make ends meet financially.
“The big thing that changed was the success we’d had,” Kakaty said. “We were finally now in a position to go off the road. In the early years, I mean, we’re a band that literally, we’re basically the janitors of the music business. We have to work holidays. We have to work nights and weekends. We basically had to play every month just to keep our lights on, or we don’t live. We have bills. It’s basically a job. It’s not really entertainment or fun.”
The more generous schedule gave Kakaty time, as the main songwriter, to explore different approaches to writing songs. One foray involved getting together with a couple of musical friends whose backgrounds were more in heavy metal to help him explore how writing songs in different keys might open doors to a fresh sound in his songs. He hit paydirt early on with “Waking Lions,” a song that combines crunching guitars with melodic vocals sung by Kakaty in a bit lower register.
“Once I wrote ‘Waking Lions,’ it rejuvenated me all over again. I was like ‘Wow, this is finally the heavy with the melody that we always wanted,’ ” he said. “Screaming has never been my strength, so I didn’t know how I could get heavy, to get the heavy across vocally. And then as I dove in there with Kato (Khandwala), our producer on this (album), he’s like ‘Dude, you’re melodic. Don’t run from it. Just give it to them.’ And once we started to really explore that, it was like wow, this is what I’d been searching for, that I just never had the time to explore or maybe I wasn’t even good enough to challenge myself differently on the earlier records.”
The result is the band’s most fully realized album, Kakaty said. It is the heaviest of the group’s albums, thanks to songs like “Art of War” and “Colors Bleed,” which boast pile-driving beats and razor-edged guitars. But there are also slightly lighter rockers that balance pop hooks and heft (“Be Legendary” and “God’s Dam”), a lighter ballad (“Rewind”) and even a particularly ambitious multifaceted track, “Nothing But Thieves,” which moves from ambient tones to industrial rock to metal-ish rock, topped off with a melodic chorus that verges on pop-rock.
As writing for the self-titled album progressed, Kakaty also began to lock onto a couple of key lyrical themes that took the band away from songs about dysfunctional relationships and mortality that frequently surfaced on the earlier albums. On songs like “Colors Bleed,” “Ex Machina” and “A Crime to Remember,” he reacts to the divisive tone that has defined America recently, calling for unity and equality. Kakaty also returns, particularly on “Waking Lions,” to the self-empowerment theme of some earlier Pop Evil songs, urging listeners to fight to overcome obstacles and recognize their own self-worth.
The musical range and lyrical punch of the “Pop Evil” album, Kakaty said, helps make it an album that provides the kind of rich listening experience the band intended.
“We try to spend a lot of time making sure we can give you an album where you can literally listen to ‘Waking Lions’ No. 1, listen all the way through to track 11, ‘Rewind,’ and want to start it over and listen again,” he said, mentioning the opening and closing songs on the album. “We have thought about that from the beginning, but hopefully we’re (now) able to steer it a little more direct and in that way, we can really identify ourselves with our fan base to know that when they think about Pop Evil, there’s going to be a little bit of mystery (where they ask). ‘I wonder what they put together on this album?’ ”
The next mystery from Pop Evil won’t be answered until the band releases album No. 6. That’s probably at least a year down the road. For now, all efforts are on touring and getting the word out on the “Pop Evil” album. First up is a headlining tour, which began in early February and runs into April.
“We’ve got a great stage show. The production is awesome. All that said, the weird thing is just getting used to this new material,” Kakaty said, mentioning that it’s taken a bit of effort to get the new songs dialed in for live performance. “Obviously, every band with a new album wants to play all the new stuff, of course. But we want to be responsive, too, because fans don’t want to be bombarded with all new songs. They want to hear old ones that they’re familiar with. Just kind of finding that blend has been a bit of a challenge, and finding ourselves with that new music on stage has been a bit of a challenge. But that’s what makes it fun.”