Let’s do it again
After seven long years and one religious conversion, the Smoking Popes are back
In the mid- to late 1990s—the post-alternative period before indie and emo really took off—many a mixed tape contained at least one Smoking Popes song. It might be “You Spoke to Me,” about a kid making a long drive to see a beloved band (that doesn’t even end up playing his favorite song), or the spine-tingling “Pretty Pathetic,” in which the singer confides to an acquaintance the painful, puzzling details of a recent breakup.
Fans fell in love with the clean, restrained sound of the Chicago-based band—a delicate balance of loungy love-ballad vocals, driving guitar and drums, and the occasional melodic guitar solo. Critics likened vocalist-guitarist Josh Caterer to a pop-punk Sinatra. (It wasn’t a stretch; for a while, he intentionally adopted a Sinatra-esque vocal style, and he’d learned much about songwriting from the standards—like the music of Mel Tormé—that influenced him when he was younger.)
“I think there is a definite form for a pop song,” Caterer said by phone during a recent interview. “And you can sort of play with the boundaries in that form, but it’s a very effective form, and if you’ve learned that, if you veer too much from it, something doesn’t feel quite right.”
His measured, melody-focused songwriting approach yielded the band early support from Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) and Ben Weasel (Screeching Weasel); a song on the Clueless soundtrack; two albums on Capitol Records; and tours with Morrissey, Dinosaur Jr. and Jawbreaker. (Morrissey even called Born to Quit, the Popes’ 1994 album, the most loveable thing he’d heard in years.) Even now, bands like Alkaline Trio and Fall Out Boy cite the Smoking Popes’ influence.
Still, unless you were paying attention to Chicago’s pop-punk scene back then, you might have missed the Popes’ catalog entirely. But don’t feel too bad; they weren’t necessarily trying to get your attention.
“We were so in our own world that we were out of touch with almost every aspect of our situation as a band,” said Caterer. “Like, we weren’t really thinking about or paying attention to any of the business aspects of what we were doing. And, like, for example, we would go on tours, and we would not bring merch with us.”
Uncomfortable with the marketing and publicity that came with a major-label deal, the band—Caterer and his brothers Eli, on guitar, and Matt, on bass, along with then-drummer Mike Felumlee—focused on the music to a fault, “not cooperating with the label on any promotional things … and saying no to things that in retrospect would have been a good idea,” Caterer said.
Capitol quit putting much energy into them—they were difficult to market to the teenage pop-punk audience—and band and label soon parted ways. No matter; by late 1998, Caterer was thinking of leaving the Popes anyway, feeling an urge to sing about something more meaningful to him: his newfound religious faith. He quit the Popes and formed another band, Duvall, which kept some of the style of the Popes but added a Christian perspective in the lyrics.
But last year, seven years after the Popes’ breakup, Caterer surprised his brothers by deciding that he was ready to re-form his earlier love. “It turns out that they wanted to, but neither of them ever thought that it would happen,” Caterer said. “It’s not something that we talked about or anything over the years.”
Fans have eagerly welcomed them back. The Popes played a sold-out reunion show last November and went on tour in February. A second tour brings the band—with new drummer Ryan Chavez—to The Library in Sacramento on May 24. Later this summer, they’ll play Lollapalooza.
Their sound hasn’t changed much, even if their approach to the business of music has. For example, they’ll bring their latest CD, the live recording At Metro from Victory Records, with them when they play The Library. “We might even have T-shirts to sell,” Caterer said.Read SN&R’s full interview with the Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer here and click here for photos from the band’s show at The Library.