For Leigh Kakaty, Pop Evil is all about putting in the work. Just like it was when he was playing sports years ago.
“It’s the exact same to me,” Kakaty said. “I played all the sports. I went to school (at Grand Valley State) on a full ride scholarship. If you’re a rocker, you’re the underdogs. I hate to say it, but if you’re a rocker, it’s like you’re playing (University of) Alabama every night.
“You keep pushing and you keep playing. I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “We didn’t get into this to play arenas, to have fame. We did it to play shows. We’re doing 280 shows a year, so we’ve got that."
That effort began when he started the band in North Muskegon, Mich. 15 years ago and hasn’t let up since. “I started this band in my garage,” he said. “That’s the formula I learned. Start in your garage, make a snowball and it gets bigger and bigger every year. We didn’t take no for an answer. We don’t really care who likes us or doesn’t like us. We want to make a plan and go out there and go.”
That plan, however, didn’t just include Kakaty, who is the band’s vocalist as well as primary songwriter, and his bandmates. “It’s a team game,” he said. “It’s you, it’s your fans, it’s your management. It’s all together. It starts with your family. Those are the four people at your first show, it’s your mom and dad and it’s another band guy’s mom and dad or it’s nobody.”
And, like sports, success comes from sacrifice, Kakaty said. “We never took any money from the band,” he said. “We paid the expenses but we didn’t pay ourselves any kind of salary. We’re not getting $400 a show and splitting it up. We’re putting it into a fund to make sure the band could roll.”
Nor did Pop Evil think about following the route of many Midwestern bands by moving to Los Angeles or New York in hopes of getting discovered, landing a record deal and becoming famous. Instead, Kakaty followed the advice of an industry friend who told him to stay home.
“The truth of the industry is if you’re big enough and make a large enough stir, somebody’s going to come to you,” he said. “I understood that early on. We made sure we were the big fish in a small pond. We signed our management deal and there you go.”
In fact, after four albums and a decade and a half, Kakaty still lives in Michigan, where the band is rooted — even if it just added English drummer Hayley Cramer to its lineup. “It’s great to expand and become more of a global brand, but we’re very much Michigan grounded,” he said. “It’s that working class attitude, even though we’re not from Detroit, we’re from Grand Rapids. No one’s going to come and give anything to you. We’re not in Chicago or L.A. or New York. You can get on the top of the highest mountain in Michigan and yell.”
Kakaty will be yelling louder and longer from stages across the country as Pop Evil tours this summer, doing a mix of headlining shows and gigs as a support act. The headlining shows, especially, require sports-like preparation for Kakaty. “You play longer, so it’s obviously a little more,” he said.
“You’ve got to stay healthy. For me, I have to take care of my vocals, which can be hard to do sometimes. When you’re the support act, it’s a little stressful. You play quicker. It’s 45 minutes and you’re proving yourself to people who didn’t come to see you. When you’re the headliner, the people are there to see you. But you really have to work.”
And it is all about work, not the passe cliches of sex, drugs and rock and roll. “If you want to stay in this business you’ve got to work,” Kakaty said. “There’s no excess partying, man. You don’t have six figures in your bank account and you’ve got to work the next day."
“There’s nothing glamorous about it,” he said. “People will say ‘what did you do before you life changed?’ It hasn’t changed. We’re still eating baloney sandwiches. We’re still in debt. We’re making more money, but we’re paying back everything we had to spend to get here. It’s a lot of stuff that can really depress and bring a lot of bands down. That’s why some many bands you see are here today and gone tomorrow.”
In fact, Kakaty said, because of the tight economics in a time when records don’t sell and nearly all income is the result of live performances, the work of a band now requires more business sense than musicianship. “You’ve got to actually become a better businessman than you are a musician these days,” he said. “If you don’t know how to how to handle the money and use it properly you won’t last. You’ve got to be a Jon Bon Jovi these days.”
As he and the band work, Kakaty is waving the flag for hard rock/heavy metal — Pop Evil’s genre, which he believes not only been disrespected of late, but almost dismissed from the nation’s musical radar.
“That’s a little frustrating,” he said. “Our genre is definitely loud and proud. When we’re trying to make people aware that rock and metal exist, I think, it’s important for rock and metal bands to team up together instead of alienating ourselves as we often did 15-20 years ago. There’s no room for that now."
“We do feel snubbed,” Kakaty said. “When Lil Wayne wins a rock ‘n’ roll Grammy, it’s a little offensive. We work really hard too. It’d be nice to get some recognition. For bands like us, it can be hard to be motivated. Since we’ve had a little success we get asked all the time what advice we’d have for new bands. It’s ‘Don’t do it unless you’re willing to work.’”