Testing the pop waters

Levittown’s Mike Kepko is shedding his alternative rock sound for CIVL, a new solo project influenced by pop icons like Justin Bieber

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

The next phase: In August, Levittown’s Mike Kepko took to social media to make an announcement — his band Civil Youth was officially rebranding to CIVL, a new solo project that would draw influences from pop icons such as Justin Bieber and Jake Miller. Source: David Lisowski, Foxal Productions

Three short months ago, dozens of sweaty, Monster Energy Drink-infused fans battled the scorching afternoon sun to crowd around the Full Sail stage. It was the last time Vans Warped Tour, the festival haven for all things punk rock, would make a stop at Camden, New Jersey’s BB&T Pavilion.

Though some of the biggest names in the industry were performing simultaneously throughout the venue, these fans wanted to see Levittown’s own Civil Youth, an alternative rock band that snagged a coveted spot on the tour’s final cross country run.

Lead vocalist Mike Kepko commanded the stage alongside guitarist Daniel Chapman, performing hits off Civil Youth’s 2017 release Conversations. The riveted audience seemed to know every word. Little did those fans know, that would be one of the band’s final performances.

On Aug. 15, Kepko took to social media to make a shocking announcement — Civil Youth was officially rebranding as CIVL, a new solo project that would draw influences from pop icons such as Justin Bieber and Jake Miller. The fresh sound, which can be heard in Kepko’s debut single “Somewhere Around,” is a stark contrast from the Radio 104.5-friendly songs that landed Civil Youth opening spots with Twenty One Pilots and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. But for the artist, the change couldn’t have come at a better time.

After a late-night studio session (something that’s become a norm for Kepko in recent weeks), The Times caught up with him to learn what exactly sparked the new sound and image, where his relationship stands with his former bandmate, and what he hopes to accomplish with CIVL over the coming months.

According to Kepko, the shift in musical direction wasn’t something that happened overnight. In fact, the idea to slowly step away from the alternative rock image began when Civil Youth was still the original threesome of him, Chapman and Evan Seeberger.

“Before I did the name change to CIVL from Civil Youth, me and the guys were talking about maybe going toward a pop direction. Probably not as poppy as CIVL is, but definitely more poppy,” Kepko said.

Prior to this brainwave becoming a reality, the lineup of Civil Youth started to change. Seeberger left to pursue heavier, hardcore music with local band Moral Support, though he still actively aided his friends in the creative process. Meanwhile, Chapman was experiencing some personal issues that made his full dedication to Civil Youth difficult.

So, the longtime friends came to a mutual agreement. Kepko would continue on with the new, pop vibe they previously discussed, and Seeberger and Chapman would continue to be involved in the writing process, in addition to playing with Kepko live.

“It just made a little bit more sense to not put that kind of stress on the guys,” Kepko said. “Essentially the rebrand, it’s a way to alleviate some of the stress on Evan and Dan.”

Rather than embark on his pop journey with the same band name, Kepko completely rebranded so as not to confuse people. Having a Bieber-influenced track follow the rock sound associated with Civil Youth just wouldn’t have worked.

“If you’re finding the band for the first time, it really wouldn’t make sense. I think it would be kind of confusing and you wouldn’t know what kind of a band we were,” he said. “It’s to separate the two and make it easier on the listener.”

The Times asked Kepko whether he grew up listening to Bieber, Miller and the other inspirations behind CIVL. His response?

“It’s funny, not at all. Literally not at all,” he said with a laugh. “I grew up listening to Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Aaron Carter, and then completely got out of that and got into the really heavy music. That’s essentially what I listened to my entire life, either classic rock or just super heavy music.”

But earlier this year, for whatever reason, Kepko began incorporating pop into his playlists, and found himself loving it.

“It’s sick,” he said of the music. “I’m literally listening to J-Biebs and Jake Miller and some of these guys by myself in my car. And it’s kind of funny, last year I was listening to Underoath, Devil Wears Prada, all that kind of stuff.”

At the end of August, Kepko released his first single as CIVL. “Somewhere Around,” which he wrote with Seeberger, is that perfect summer jam ideal for dance clubs, house parties or simply relaxing at the beach. So far, the track has received an overwhelmingly positive response, with numerous people describing it as a “bop” on YouTube.

Kepko is thrilled to have people latching onto not just the new music, but CIVL as a whole.

“Everyone seemed to take it really well, which is cool. Even if they didn’t take it well, they didn’t tell me, which is also cool,” he said. “I think that the people who really, really liked Civil Youth stayed with us, and the people that were maybe wishy washy or not as fully committed, maybe they’re not with us anymore.”

For example, Civil Youth’s St. Louis fanbase, which Kepko described as “super rock and roll,” probably won’t be attending any future CIVL shows.

“I think we might have lost a couple of those guys,” he said. “It is what it is.”

By the end of 2018, Kepko plans to drop a few more singles and enhance CIVL’s digital presence, which he said is vitally important in the pop realm. He also hopes to hit the road by next summer.

So what does all of this mean for the future of Civil Youth?

“It’s been really stress-free and liberating,” he said of CIVL. “Not that I couldn’t do anything I wanted with the guys, with Civil Youth and stuff, but not having to run so much by so many people is a little easier. And I think knowing that it’s better on Dan, I don’t know if I would go back.” ••

Keep up with CIVL at facebook.com/CIVLOfficial.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com