Bass player Matt DiRito is jumping on the couch like an over-excited ten year old boy. It’s an hour before showtime and Pop Evil is chilling out before taking the stage at the Hard Rock in Biloxi, Mississippi. Vocalist Leigh Kakaty is stretched out on the other couch, his black hair hidden underneath a hat as he talks in a soft voice about growing up in Michigan. The band, formed in the Wolverine state in 2001, has had a very hot hit single (“Monster You Made”) from their latest CD, War Of Angels
, and another popular single and video featuring Motley Crue’s Mick Mars (“Boss’s Daughter”) that recently hit the airwaves.
At this moment in time, it feels good to be in Pop Evil but not good to have Pop Evil’s hair in one’s mouth. With DiRito’s black mane half-way down his back, he is known to flip it wildly while in the zone, leaving his band mates ducking for cover. “I don’t think he’s really hit me with his hair,” said Kakaty. “He almost took my eye out with his hair once,” chimed in tour manager Chris Iteen. “But I hit Matt’s bass somehow and I thought I broke my hand,” continued Kakaty, who feels that one’s own hair in your mouth is just as equally bad. “It’s tough to sing when you’re gagging on your hair.” “Yeah, that’s totally gross cause it goes right down your throat,” added DiRito, who has momentarily stopped jumping. “And you’re trying to spit it up as best you can,” Kakaty admitted with a grimace on his face. “I can’t even talk about it, man, it makes me gag thinking about it.”
With that bit of Pop Evil pop trivia now out of the way, DiRito and Kakaty settle in to talk about their popular CD, working with Mick Mars, and how switching to a record company that actually cares about their artists has made them stronger.
One of the first things that you notice about this band is their sense of fun. They are having a good time running around the rock & roll track and playing music at every stop along the way; including this summer’s trek as part of the Metal Hammer Trespass America traveling festival. And even though just a few days prior to the Biloxi concert their guitarist Tony Greve announced his departure from the band (Nick Fuelling filled in), there was still a positive vibe within the core. “It’s always rotating, it’s always growing and changing and evolving,” Kakaty summarized about the life process of a band. “The roots of this band are something that we’re proud of, that our roots are about these guys who grew up together and sink or swim we’ve tried to stay rooted to our traditions and our culture, our specific culture that is western Michigan.”
“I’m originally from California,” offered DiRito, in a rare moment of stillness as he leaned back on the couch. “I lived all over California when I was young. Then I lived in Arizona for a while then moved to Michigan … I was pretty much raised out west and then kind of finished growing up in Michigan. I got in some local bands and I eventually ended up hooking up with Tony and then Tony and I went to Pop Evil and that’s been the past five years.”
“We credit ourselves in calling the band Pop Evil because Pop Evil is a band and it’s not about one person,” explained Kakaty. “Whatever the main line for normalcy in rock music is, we’re always above and below that. If we want to write a heavy electric song and crank those amps up to eleven and jam as hard as we can and try to break some windows, it’s great, we got that. But also not being afraid to pull out an acoustic guitar, maybe a piano down the road like Guns N Roses and Stone Temple Pilots, which are some of our biggest influences over the years, but still not forgetting great bands like Metallica and Rage Against The Machine.”
“Even with our looks,” continued Kakaty. “We don’t look like your typical rock band. Visually I’m a different front singer than what people are used to. There’s only a handful of brown or mixed singers out there in rock but I think it’s inspiration for others who will come after me: ‘Well, I look like him, I look like Leigh from Pop Evil, and he sings rock so I’m not afraid to sing rock either.’”
“I must have been fourteen or fifteen when I picked the bass up,” DiRito recollected about his earliest musical days. “At first I was like, man, guitar is so hard. I started playing and the strings are so small that my fingers are just mashing them and I had such a hard time with it. Then I got into like Jazz and stuff like that when I was in high school and I was like, man, the bass plays such a cool part in Jazz music, so that’s why I picked it up … Actually, I look up to a lot of bass players. Billy Sheehan from Mr Big was a fucking ripping bass player. Can’t say I can play like him (laughs) but he was awesome, a big inspiration. Then I got into Victor Wooten and Jaco Pastorius and different people like that.”
“I loved Michael [Jackson] of course,” added Kakaty about his influences. “I loved Eddie Vedder and he was a big inspiration of mine. I loved Pearl Jam and I loved Scott Weiland, I loved Axl – just like everyone else.” When I asked him about his first time on a stage performing, he laughed at the memory. “I don’t know if I remember the first but I remember one of them. It was a big one. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen and it was a big thing with schools called Showcase. I had three other guys with me and we did like this choir piece or this a cappella group thing with the Temptations classic “My Girl”. It was insane.” At this point, Kakaty sat up and started singing the song’s chorus in a smooth, quietly sexy voice. “There were a lot of ladies in the crowd and I think that is when I got that first itch (laughs). I was playing a lot of sports at the time and doing the jock thing and shortly after that I was like, I think I’m going to have to take the music a little more serious.”
“We’ve been together since 2001,” continued Kakaty about the origins of Pop Evil
. “The line-up has changed now, people have grown to adapt and that’s always changing. People’s lives change and people’s goals change and you just kind of keep grinding and at the end of the day it’s about the music.” Starting with a small 3-song EP and then a 2008 debut (which was re-released in 2009) Lipstick On The Mirror,
they began to receive lots of airplay with such songs as “Hero”, “Somebody Like You” and “100 In A 55”. Pop Evil
was on an upward spin of tornado force winds. Songs were flying up the charts, tours began falling into place, opening for the legendary Judas Priest, and going back into the studio to record a follow-up was met with heightened enthusiasm.
And then the gears began to lock up. “Labels are tough,” Kakaty explained, a seriousness permeating through the once jovial atmosphere. “Obviously, labels want to make money and less and less money is being invested in artist development, CDs, music videos; especially for rock music.” Kakaty shook his head. “We spent all this time doing our new album, which is War Of Angels, which has been doing amazing for us. But at the time, just before we released it, the label was scared. They were having cold feet, like, ‘What do we do? Should we hold it?’ We just spent six months moving to Chicago and spending every day of our lives just writing and finally doing what we always wanted to do and really invested in spending all our time in the music. We really felt proud of this record and who we had become in the process of making it.” Deciding to take their fate into their own hands, they discarded the big record company for a smaller more hands-on label where the band feels it can grow the way they see Pop Evil growing.
Kakaty continued, the elite tension seeping out as quickly as it had arrived. “We’re excited for the future and what the next chapter of Pop Evil will be even though we don’t know what that’ll be.” War Of Angels has certainly proven to be a solid starting point for Pop Evil Phase 2: “Last Man Standing” became an NHL Stanley Cup Anthem last year as well as a calling card for UFC fighter Frank Mir. The power ballad “Monster You Made” became a monster hit and the single “Boss’s Daughter” showed sure signs of following it’s previous brothers up the charts. With a wild video featuring playmates, DiRito’s hair in full spin, a cool car and the even-cooler Mick Mars, Pop Evil is headed for a homerun once again. “We had a great opportunity to co-write with Mick,” said Kakaty, a smile broadening across his face. “We didn’t have any expectations. We were just really excited to work with Mick and just kind of learn from his knowledge … We were actually working on ‘Monster’ that day and Tony was working on a little bit of the guitars with Mick and sure enough we came up with this music that was fresh but still old school. It had that vibe, that dirtiness that was Crue and that dirtiness that was rock that reminded me of what Pop Evil was always raised on.”
I asked Kakaty, who is the main songwriter, about how much of his personal feelings he brings into his songs: “I don’t consider myself a writer. I consider myself a better listener to what my guardian angels might be sending me. You know, music is about healing and helping people find themselves, getting them through struggles. [Music] helps people get through the day and if it’s something as simple as the work week or paying a bill or whether it’s something like the loss of a loved one. We all go through our battles and our struggles and we think about some of our greatest times in life or our darkest times in life, and there is always a song or music that helped get through those times. I think for the majority of people, we are a lot alike. To be able to give people a musical piece of healing, I think, is a huge responsibility and something that I personally don’t take lightly.”
He continued by adding that Pop Evil “wanted to be able to be honest with our emotions. Yeah, sometimes we feel like crying and we’re sad and sometimes we feel like punching a window out. We’re honest with our emotions but at the same time trying to be as hooky as possible. If I can’t sing it or my friends can’t sing it, or the band especially can’t sing it with one listen, then we don’t want to do it.”
And all band members are asked to contribute. “We try to hold everyone accountable to bring ideas to the table,” said Kakaty. “You never know where that hidden gem is going to be but the guys are great working together obviously. They deal with more of the music and I deal more with the lyrics. But every now and then they write lyrics and every now and then I throw in some of my musical ideas as well. It’s a collaboration.” I started to ask DiRito about his songwriting at the same time he started to talk about alcohol. “I automatically go to booze and you go to songwriting and I go to booze (laughs). I’ve got this new drink I’ve been trying. It’s Crown and pickle juice.” DiRito seemed excited; Kakaty and I gave him our grossed out look. “It kills the bite, the pickle juice. You can drink it with Crown and it absolutely kills the bite.”
DiRito has a natural funny bone affinity and is one of the main reasons that the band emits the fun-loving airs that it does. Ask DiRito about his notorious hair (it has it’s own Facebook page): “Some girls are into the hair but a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Oh man, love the hair, it’s so 80’s’ and I’m like … (making a WTF expression) and some other people think it’s a wig and it’s definitely not. It’s not a weave.” When food is delivered to the dressing room for tour manager Iteen, DiRito looks it over: “What you got to eat there, Buddy?” Iteen: “It’s tuna. Want some?” DiRito: “No, it’s yucky but it looks amazing.” And by all means don’t get him started on Gene Simmons: “He’s a big dickhead and you can tell everybody that. He’s just cocky.” But John 5, on the other hand, “is so awesome. I would love to meet him.” And David Coverdale, who has been known to carry his ego out front: “He is one of the nicest guys in rock & roll. I can only speak from my personal experience but the whole time we toured with Whitesnake back in 2009, he was the sweetest guy.”
And you think that rockers ALWAYS love the female attention? Well, sometimes NOT when they’re in the middle of a solo. “Some girl last night tickled my tank,” DiRito popped in from out of nowhere. “Really? She went under the edge?” Kakaty asked before adding his own take on the situation. “I get felt up all the time. It gets nuts. But what are you going to do? Smack somebody? We can’t do that (laughs). Or they’re groping up on your leg. They’ll start right here and they’ll be like, ‘He’s not doing anything’ so then they’ll start getting higher and more riskier. Finally after a while I got to look at them and go … (shaking his finger and making one of those no-no faces)”
The band, as you have probably picked up on, is more like a band of mischievous brothers. “It’s like, whether or not you like your brother on that given day, it doesn’t matter cause you’re born to be with each other so everyone’s cool,” surmised Kakaty. “Yeah, we’ve had fights like brothers but we don’t fight a lot; like rarely.”
Another thing about Pop Evil is that everyone is still a fan themselves: “I never really got that starstruck feeling, you know,” DiRito explained as he talked about playing on the same ticket as one of his longtime favorite bands, Jackyl featuring Jessee Dupree. “The first time we played with them I was just going bonkers, like side-stage jumping up and down, hollering the songs like the whole time. After the show I went and stood in line for like forty-five minutes to get a t-shirt and get it signed by the guys. And I just don’t do that.”
Which means they know what it feels like to be on the other side of the rail and they keep that in mind every time they meet their fans, whether in Wal-Mart, before a show or standing in line at a casino’s buffet. “I try to dress normal,” said Kakaty nonchalantly. “But Matt looks like Matt 24/7. I’ll put a hat on and change or just wear something normal. But today I got spotted when I was at the buffet so I went and sat with them. It was a mother and daughter and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, my daughter is a huge fan of ‘Monster’ and I’m a huge fan of ‘100’ and I was like, ‘Where are you guys eating? Right there by yourselves? I was going to eat by myself so why don’t I come and eat with you guys.’ So we sat down.”
It is gestures like these that will have Pop Evil fans coming back for more. “I mean, I’m a person too,” Kakaty summed up before having to head out to change before the show. “I’d rather sit with them and talk with them. I get to see everyone else all the time. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re doing here.”With kudos from the likes of Carlos Santana and Steve Vai, Orianthi has quickly made a name for herself amongst all the testosterone that monopolizes guitar players. Next week we get to know this Australian shredder who is currently on tour with the Alice Cooper Band.