Hometown Heroes

Pop Evil frontman Leigh Kakaty reflects on Muskegon heritage and the revival of rock
Leigh Kakaty
Pop Evil frontman Leigh Kakaty
Credit: Tammy Vega

If rock ’n’ roll is dead, West Michigan-born band Pop Evil is proof hard work and perseverance can fuel new life. For vocalist Leigh Kakaty, who launched his career on the coast of Muskegon, being a 21st-century performer demands a blue-collar work ethic and a desire to craft fist-bumping anthems metalheads will remember.

“For a rock band nowadays, you have to tour all year long,” Kakaty, 46, says. “It’s not like the MTV days when you could just play a couple of music videos and the world knew about you. There’s so much competition now. You really win people over when they see you live; that’s when they decide.”

A consistent record of sold-out shows throughout the nation and across the Atlantic speaks for itself — not to mention the more than 600 million streams unifying fans among major platforms. Last year, it became apparent the band, comprised of five hard-rock titans, made an impression on the world when “Breathe Again” became its sixth No. 1 rock single, joining previous hits “Waking Lions,” “Footsteps,” “Deal with the Devil,” “Trenches,” and gold-certified “Torn to Pieces.” Kakaty humbly says staying at the top of the rock charts is something that “truly motivates” the band.

“In the early days, it was just exciting to play with some Muskegon fans,” he says. “Now it’s like, we have to rock that stage. We have to crush that stage. We want the show to be so good.”

Pop Evil Concert
Pop Evil concert
Credit: Tammy Vega

Fresh-coast roots

After 21-plus years of band practice and stage experience, as well as a childhood interest in all-things music, Kakaty can put on an adrenaline-packed show with his eyes closed.

“I think music is a big part of growing up in West Michigan; it certainly was for me,” he says. “With the Kid Rock and Eminem explosion in the ’90s, it all came (down) to being proud of where we were from; both of those artists were proud of their Michigan roots.

“Bands that I grew up on always helped me through tough times,” he continues. “Doctors, counselors, parents — when they couldn’t be there for me, music was always there.”

During cold Michigan winters, Kakaty improved his intricate guitar skills and learned the craft of showmanship. He says he spent summer nights on the fresh coast with crackling campfires, passing around an acoustic guitar.

“There are a lot of good memories you can make on the lakeshore,” he says. “From Pizza Hut to the Grand Haven pier, we would play the guitar for whoever would listen. I remember Grand Haven — in those days, we would hop in the back of peoples’ trucks and bring our guitars. We’d ask people, ‘Do you like this song? Do you want me to play?’”

In the years prior to social media, West Michigan locals knew the band’s mix of talent and tireless dedication was something profound. From Muskegon to Grand Haven and Grand Rapids, Pop Evil grew its fan base one by one, solely by word of mouth.

“As the band started to get bigger and we started to play shows, those people would come,” Kakaty says. “You carry the stories with you. People have had stories with the band since 2001, and we’ve become a part of people’s lives.” One story Kakaty recalls fondly involves the Tulipalooza outdoor concert series that rocked Holland in 2009 — the same year iTunes recognized Pop Evil as “Best New Artist.”

“I remember growing up, going to the Tulip Time Festival, and not playing,” Kakaty says. “Being able to finally play the event was a big moment — the Muskegon Summer Celebration shows, too. I would have rather played Muskegon Summer Celebration than Madison Square Garden. It just meant so much to me, personally.”

Kakaty attributes the band’s success to the fans who were at those early shows in West Michigan and to 97.9 WGRD, one of the first radio stations to play Pop Evil’s early tracks.

“To this day, we’ll play wherever fans want us to play,” he says. “We’re down.”

Pop Evil guitarists
Pop Evil guitarists Dave Grahs (left) and Nick Fuelling
Credit: Tammy Vega

Musical grit

In May 2021, Pop Evil released “Versatile,” a robust album of works that combines driving riffs, a rhythmic pulse, and EDM flourishes. Perhaps the band’s greatest strength, well-demonstrated on this album, is its ability to actively listen to fans in the social media age.

“I don’t think fans necessarily realize we can read comments,” Kakaty says. “There’s a call for Pop Evil to bring the rock back. We experimented in other areas on previous albums, but we brought the heavy back on ‘Versatile’ and decided to get back to a little more of our roots.”

While the band is still willing and open to experimentation, its members were inspired by fans to ensure the guitars were prevalent and weighted. Additionally, the first vocal takes were the ones that were kept; Kakaty believes the raw vocals on earlier albums’ demos were lost.

“I wanted to give the fans an opportunity to hear what my close friends and family hear,” Kakaty says. “At this stage in my life, when I know I like something, I say, ‘Let’s keep it.’”

Six albums deep and with another on the way, Kakaty says music’s purest gift is the lack of limitation — fresh-coast fans can continue to love all the music they want.

“Competition hasn’t become so much about our peers,” he says. “It’s about the journey for us to out-do our last album. Once the songs are really affecting us, that’s when we know we have something special to put out into the rest of the world.”

Over the years, Pop Evil has seen several lineup changes that have contributed to its music, including last year’s departure of bassist Matt DiRito, who was a harmonic staple with the band since 2007. Throughout the past two-plus decades, though, the melodies have always stayed true to Kakaty’s voice.

“We’re older, so our families have gotten bigger,” he adds. “We’ve been away from our loved ones for so long that we try to give them the time when we’re off, because it can be grueling on everybody when we’re gone for three months.

“People’s lives change and go in different directions. But, you know, I like to think it’s changing for the better. With change comes new energy and new opportunities to come together and grow.”

Kakaty says last summer’s tour lineup was one of the favorites of his career (Dave Grahs on rhythm guitar, Nick Fuelling on lead guitar, Joey “Chicago” Walser on bass, and Hayley Cramer on drums). As a result of the pandemic, Kakaty and his bandmates appreciate touring in a new, esoteric light. He says even when they’re on a FaceTime call together, there’s a gratitude for one another that wasn’t there before.

“With every bad thing comes good,” Kakaty says. “We just have to find the good in it and keep being grateful we have an opportunity to play music for a living. It’s definitely a blessing.”

Pop Evil concert
Pop Evil concert
Credit: Tammy Vega

Life on the road

Kakaty describes touring as a way the band intrinsically gives back to fans — and, without hesitation, he admits Pop Evil wears a “big responsibility.” It’s the only aspect of his career that remains physical in what is otherwise a digital-first industry.

“Everyone we’ve toured with has been amazing, but I’d say one of the most special tours we did was with Poison and Cheap Trick in 2017,” Kakaty says. “They were always so supportive. It really reminded us of the rock ’n’ roll community and brotherhood that’s out there.”

Kakaty’s dream tour lineup? Metallic, Aerosmith, or Bon Jovi, by virtue of their roles in his childhood.

“Those nostalgic bands are really special and rare because they become a part of your history,” Kakaty says. “Those kinds of tours are really great because you don’t think about your career or where it’s going. You’re thinking about the fan in you that was a kid — what started your career in the first place.”

In addition to supporting Shinedown across Canada this past summer, Pop Evil headlined a northern American tour with supporting acts Zillion and Oxymorrons, and the band enjoyed sharing works like “Eye of the Storm.” Kakaty confesses he thinks it’s one of Pop Evil’s best-ever songs, and says he’s looking forward to sharing more new music with longtime Michigan fans during the Skeletons Tour this spring. The tour will celebrate the March 2023 release of Pop Evil’s upcoming album, “Skeletons.”

“I can’t wait to hear the screams and see the smiles, and (I love) the meet-and-greets,” Kakaty grins. “Sometimes they can be grueling, depending on how my voice is that day, but I miss all of it. I miss the smell of the arena or club.”

“I miss the hustle that’s just being a rock star in today’s world; it’s very blue collar,” he continues. “It’s about working the weekends and the holidays. That’s what the true rock star is today. It’s not so much about the money, glam, and fame; it’s the work and the work ethic.”

When Kakaty isn’t touring, he bounces between Los Angeles and Nashville, but he says he craves time back in West Michigan.

“In my early days, before Kid Rock, all I wanted to do was get out of Michigan,” he says. “Nowadays, all I want to do is come home. It puts some kind of ‘normal’ aspect in my life.”

On a lucky occasion, fans might spot him at Mr. Scrib’s Pizza and G&L Chili Dogs — two of his favorite Muskegon hangout spots.

“I try to eat healthy, but whenever I get back to Muskegon, old habits are hard to shake,” he laughs.

For more information and tour dates, visit popevil.com.

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