Web Exclusive! Pop Evil’s Hayley Cramer on the Band’s Current Tour and New, Self-Titled Album
by Ben Meyer
Last time we checked in with Hayley Cramer (February 2017 issue), she’d just joined Pop Evil in time to play the final leg of the group’s Up tour. Hayley was then asked to contribute to the writing sessions for the band’s recently released self-titled fifth album. Let’s find out how that went down.
MD: How have you been, Hayley?
Hayley: I’ve been very well, thank you! I had a great time recording the album and it’s nice to be touring it now.
MD: How’s it going so far?
Hayley: Really good. The new songs are feeling great live.
MD: This is a heavier, more aggressive album, and I found the inclusion of some of the more rap/rock material interesting. And the chorus of “Waking Lions” got seriously stuck in my head.
Hayley: That’s awesome. Not only the music, but the message of that one is exactly what we wanted to say with this album. It’s definitely an album to kind of give people strength and to unite people, and that’s the message in “Waking Lions.”
MD: How many months was the writing process for Pop Evil?
Hayley: We spent a couple of months together in a house writing, and then we spent a couple of months in Nashville tracking the drums, bass, and most of the guitars and keys and piano. Then we headed over to L.A. to do the finishing touches, the vocals and the lead guitar lines.
MD: Was most of the writing collaborative, or would the songs come in with pre-written chunks with demos?
Hayley: There’s a batch of songs on the album that were the band writing together, meaning bass, guitar, and drums writing together and coming up with grooves, and then Leigh (Kakaty, vocals) would join afterwards. Then there were a batch of songs where Leigh went off on his own and then brought those songs to the band and we sort of reworked them. It kind of came from two different directions, and then we met in the middle and exchanged ideas.
MD: Which of those two scenarios was “Waking Lions”?
Hayley: “Waking Lions” was Leigh’s.
MD: That one is such a vocally oriented song. I think that’s what makes it a great single.
Hayley: That was one of the first that he did, and it really kind of spurred his direction for the album. It made sense that it ended up being the first single, because it represented the whole concept of the album.
MD: Was having a heavier overall vibe with more double bass and less pop-oriented material a conscious decision, or did it just come out that way?
Hayley: I think the goal with the new album was to really blend Onyx  and Up  together, to have the heavy side from Onyx and then to have the more kind of commercial and melodic side from Up. We were trying to please ourselves, but also the fans.
MD: Were able to have input on the writing of every song on the album?
Hayley: Yeah, for sure. Also, working with producer Kato Khandwala in the studio was just an amazing experience. [Tragically, Khandwala died in a motorcycle accident after this interview was conducted.] The setup that we used in Nashville was really exciting. I had a big rock kit set up the whole time, and then I had another kit that I tuned up and put loads of tape over it and got lots of really weird overtones. I used strange cymbals on that kit and got some very different sounds. You can hear it on the verse of “Ex Machina.” That was set up 24/7 as well with weird mics, distortion, and going through echo chambers and all sorts of things. And then I had a whole electronic rig set up 24/7 as well, where I could be creating sounds on the laptop and electronic kit, and then Kato could be manipulating the sounds at the same time from the control room. We could be really creative together at every minute of the process. I could be playing a part on the rock kit, and then be like, “Yeah, this is a great part, but I think it would sound better over there,” and I’d just sort of run from that kit and try it on the next kit.
MD: So you could be spontaneous and create without having to sit and wait for the room to be changed over.
Hayley: Right. I’ve got two people to thank for that, really, and that’s Kato and JC Colangelo of Demon Drums, who’s been a massive part of helping me create my dream setup. Everything that I’ve imagined sonically, he helped me build. Switching to SJC now, that’s an extension of that relationship, really—somebody coming onboard and taking my weird and wacky ideas and saying, “It’s doable.”
MD: So you’re no longer with Sakae?
Hayley: No, I’m not, sadly. The Sakae kit is actually on the album. That got transformed into my “weird and wonderful” kit, actually. All those beautiful overtones and things came from that kit. I’m sad to not be playing Sakae, but ultimately, they couldn’t quite grow in the way that I wanted them to grow.
MD: So was the primary kit on Pop Evil an SJC?
Hayley: Yes. I’m really excited about this kit for the tour. It’s a blend of the three worlds from the studio. I have a side snare with a trigger on it, a Roland SPD-SX pad, and a Roland trigger on my main bass drum to get the exact kick sound from the record. I’m using an e-kick as well. For that scene change in “Ex Machina,” I’ll play the intro on the main kick and then switch my foot to the e-kick and the side snare with the trigger. It’s a whole magical world on stage right now, and I’m having so much fun! [laughs] I play some keys on the album as well, so we’ve also integrated a little keyboard. We’ve got wind chime sounds on it, and on “A Crime to Remember” and “When We Were Young” all the piano and organ are me. I’m doing a fair amount of that live. I can’t do all of it, but the bits I can do, I’ll be playing a groove and playing keys at the same time.
MD: I assume the rest of the key parts that you can’t cover live are in the backing track?
Hayley: Yeah. I have chords on the SPD-SX that I hit as well. If I can’t actually play them with my fingers, I can hit that and I’m triggering my own piano part, if that makes any sense. I was having so much fun in the studio, and as I was recording, I was thinking, “How can I do this live?” Could I actually trigger myself playing the piano and play the drum groove at the same time? That’s why this tour, to me, is so exciting. It’s a real adventure.
MD: That’s a few steps past where most performers would take it, especially with the current backing track stability, etc.
Hayley: I just want to push boundaries. Also, we have the technology to do that nowadays, you know? It’s changing the whole kind of mindset of what your job is as a drummer. You can do so many other things as long as it doesn’t detract from the groove. If anything is going to detract from the groove or my performance, I just won’t do it. It’s a very fine line.
MD: Did you have to do any preparation on your own to get all of the technology pieces together for the tour?
Hayley: There were rehearsals leading up to the tour, yes. We needed to get our heads around the new setup and what worked and what didn’t. There was definitely a lot of trial and error. JC Colangelo being there was just great, and he helped a lot with that.
MD: So most of that preparation was done during pre-tour rehearsals, not on your own?
Hayley: Yes. And also, I had two months off in England, so I actually only got to my new kit when I got back to America. I had dreamed it up and had all these emails about the details and the Gibraltar rack as well. I’m now endorsing Gibraltar also. A lot of it was dreaming it up at home and really trying to imagine it, and when I actually first sat at it in rehearsals, I was like, “Oh, wow. It’s real! We built a monster here!” [laughs]
MD: What other official endorsements do you have at this point aside from SJC and Gibraltar?
Hayley: Zildjian cymbals, and I’ve also just gone to Vater drumsticks. I haven’t got a drumhead deal at the moment, but I’m using Remo, clear Emperors on top of the toms and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms. And I’m using a Kevlar head on my main snare. I’m kind of experimenting with that at the moment. It’s a very different feel, but I used it a fair amount in the studio. I wasn’t sure whether I’d want to make the switch for an entire set, so we’re still working with it.
MD: How long did the drum and percussion tracking take for Pop Evil?
Hayley: We were in the Nashville for six weeks, but we didn’t do drums every day. I’d play the drum part and then we’d track bass and guitars for that particular song. It’s quite hard to say how long the drums took because we took the whole six weeks for all of the songs.
MD: That must be refreshing to have some time between takes like that.
Hayley: That was a Kato thing. The idea was to get the essence of each song and just do one at a time.
MD: I think I’d enjoy that as a player so that the pressure isn’t as concentrated that way.
Hayley: Also, once the other parts start taking shape, if you want to change a part of the drum groove, you can. If you do all the drums straight off the bat, you don’t really get the opportunity to do that. It was a really fun process to just enjoy the essence of every song. Kato was a very, very important part of this album.
MD: Were any of the rhythm tracks done live, or was everything overdubbed?
Hayley: I think “God’s Dam” is pretty much the live rhythm tracks. It just felt so good! It was a last-minute song as well. It’s an old Pop Evil song revisited, actually. We just got the acoustics out and played it during the last couple of days of being in the studio, and I was just tapping the drum sticks on the floor while they were playing. Kato was like, “I really like that groove. Just go and sit on the kit and record it.”
MD: That song certainly stands out from the others.
Hayley: That was just one of those moments where I felt like I understood it straight away, and I loved playing it. That was just what came out on that day. I didn’t overthink it. On a lot of the songs, everything goes under a microscope and gets analyzed. “God’s Dam” was just pure groove. That’s where I was that day and it’s on record. I love that.
MD: So that song came together quickly?
Hayley: Yes. It was literally done in a couple of hours. Blink and you miss it! [laughs] I put the conga part over that as well, which was a lot of fun.
MD: That was a surprise! I didn’t expect to hear conga parts of a Pop Evil record!
Hayley: I totally had my Toto moment! [laugs]
MD: Did you do any overdubbing of parts to create certain textures away from the kit?
Hayley: You’ll hear all the really strange overtones from the Sakae kit on the percussion breakdown in the middle of “Art of War.” I had cymbals taped to drums to get weird bell sounds, and anything that sounded ghastly, we went with it! [laughs] It was a lot of fun.
MD: Were there any adaptations that you needed to make to your technique in the studio to get the sounds that you or Kato were after?
Hayley: Obviously, you have to adjust certain things for recording. Live, you smash the cymbals and it’s all for the performance, but in the studio you don’t hit them as hard. It just doesn’t work. I’m always trying to better myself and work on my technique, though. That’s part of my general process, not just when recording.
MD: That’s tough to do on the road.
Hayley: It’s very important not to get complacent.
MD: I read that you tracked nearly twenty songs during the sessions for Pop Evil.
Hayley: I think it was close to that. It was all about getting the right blend of the “Pop” and the “Evil.”
MD: How many dates are there on your tour?
Hayley: I think we’ve got around forty shows. It’s a big one! The two bands that are supporting us, Palaye Royale and Black Map, are great too. Great guys and a great sound.
MD: Since you’re already on the road for this tour, are there any “must-have” items that you find make touring easier?
Hayley: I carry my basic Roland V-Drum kit with me, and it’s very important when I’m on the road that I eat. I eat four times a day. I have breakfast, lunch, dinner, a couple of hours before the show and about an hour or so after the show, I eat something else. I eat very healthily and mostly things that are going to fuel my energy level. I’m quite strict with keeping healthy and keeping strong. I don’t ever leave it to chance that I’ll have what I need. Every show is important. Every venue looks the same and they all roll into one, but the people that attend the shows are very important, and it’s part of my job to be the best I can be. I take that very seriously.
MD: You’d mentioned that the guys in Pop Evil have been great to work with and have been very supportive of you. But have you encountered any specific challenges from being a woman in a highly male-dominated system?
Hayley: I think the only challenge that I experience now is the way that men and women are programmed to think about each other. There’s still a little underlying feeling that females are inferior to males, and I don’t get mad at people when they say something offensive and don’t actually realize what they’re saying. Gradually, over time, society has to be reprogrammed. It’s definitely better than it used to be, so I don’t really encounter too much of that now. I just get on with playing and hopefully display that I’m doing my job well.
MD: What does your daily warm-up routine usually consist of?
Hayley: Just very basic stretches using the sticks and shaking out my arms. I play my practice pad all day using rudiments and some new grooves, and I just keep my fingers, arms, and wrists moving all day leading up to the show.
MD: So you play on and off throughout the day?
Hayley: Yeah, I don’t sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to do forty minutes with the sticks.’ About an hour before the show, I kind of get in the zone and get focused and play through some songs. I’m mostly just playing basic rudiments, not anything amazingly technical. I play paradiddles, single and double stroke rolls, and accent work using the Morello technique. Just getting everything flowing, but it’s nothing overly technical.