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Michigan's Pop Evil stays on an 'Up" trajectory
Pop Evil is the little band that can.
Over the course of 10 years and five albums, the quintet from western Michigan has been one of the most consistently successful rock acts in a genre desperately in need of new heroes (evidence the past year’s breakout of fellow Michiganders Greta Van Fleet). Pop Evil has scored 13 Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart. Five of these, including “Walking Lions” from the group’s new self-titled album, have hit No. 1, and the group has scored numerous placements in TV sports broadcast
The “Pop Evil” album, meanwhile, debuted in the Top 5 of the Rock, Independent and Hard Rock album charts after its mid-February release.
Pop Evil isn’t yet a household name, mind you. It’s been what frontman Leigh Kataky calls “a steady climb.” But he also feels that’s been to the band’s benefit.
“We don’t want anything handed to us,” Kataky says by phone. “... If anything, that keeps you motivated to just keep working. You have to prove it, and the only way to survive is you have to do it 24/7. We don’t get many breaks. We don’t get many chances to taste the fruits, so to speak. We’ve got to stay out here, grinding.
“But we knew that going into this, so it’s no surprise. It’s how we want to do it. We’re just excited to keep pushing and come out swinging, whether it’s a new album or a show.”
Pop Evil was in a rising trajectory after 2015’s “Up” and 2013’s “Onyx,” both Top 10 on a variety of Billboard genre charts. But there was a sense of higher stakes when the group — including drummer Hayley Cramer on her first recording — and new producer Kato Khandwala convened to make “Pop Evil” at studios in Nashville and Los Angeles.
“It’s important that Pop Evil have an identity; We just felt like we haven’t been able to steer it in the right direction or really give it that clear-cut yin and yang yet,” Kataky explains. “We’re definitely metal and rock influenced, but there’s also an opportunity to be more alt and more vibe-driven musically, and we really wanted to get that point across clear on this record.
“It’s a challenge, so that’s what we’re trying to do with this record and hopefully we can steer that and define it even more as we continue to grow on future albums.”
That was exercised particularly on the track “Colors Bleed,” which pushed Pop Evil in a couple of different directions. For starters, it let Kataky try a more rap-style delivery that he’s kept at arm’s length before.
“This time it was important for me to not be afraid to express myself in ways I shied away from before,” he says. “‘Trenches’ (in 2013) was the only time where I felt comfortable to give a more rap delivery on a song. Obviously we had success with ‘Trenches’ at the time, but still I was just kind of afraid to go there again on future records with all the rap-rock negativity. I had to mature as a vocalist and as a frontman and have the confidence in myself to talk about these kinds of issues like this.”
In the case of “Colors Bleed” it was the August 2017 violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that steered Kataky in a more political direction.
“I think it was just kind of me venting, in my own way,” Kataky says, “to get people aware that, look, there’s obviously racial issues that are going on from all aspects, all different colors, minority background, throughout this country. But it’s this melting pot of culture that has made America great, that’s made us who we are. I think it’s important to let our fan base know that we are aware of what’s going on.”
“Colors Bleed” hits particularly close to home for Kataky, who’s of Indian/Canadian descent and particularly sensitive about race issues.
“I never had the role models,” Kataky says. “When you look at guys like Robert Plant or even Kurt Cobain to Eddie Vedder, where does a guy like me fit in? Rage Against The Machine (Zack de la Rocha), at least he was of minority descent, but there weren’t many for me to go, ‘OK, cool, that’s where I need to look to.’
“No one would ever have predicted a mixed-Indian guy singing in front of a rock band years ago.”
Pop Evil is busy on the road well into 2019 to promote its new album. But Kataky acknowledges “Colors Bleed” may well not be the last time he and Pop Evil venture into topical territory.
“I’m open to wherever the music takes me,” Kataky says. “It’s important for us to have topics or subjects that matter, whether it’s political, whether it’s inspiring, whatever. First of all, the music’s got to be good and the topics have to be relevant to what’s going on.
“Obviously playing around the world now we have a more global reach, so it’s important for us to be aware and be open-minded to writing songs that can connect with people all over the world. If the music takes me to a little more serious place, then I’m not afraid to go there. I think that’ll just happen naturally for us as the band continues to grow and as the writing maturation process continues.”
• If You Go: Pop Evil, Black Map and Palaye Royale perform Friday, April 6 (doors open at 6:30 p.m.), at The Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 313-961-5451 or visit thefillmoredetroit.com.
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