Q&A with a Smoking Pope
For the music story “Let’s do it again” SN&R’s Sarah Sol interviewed Smoking Popes vocalist-guitarist Josh Caterer by phone. Here’s a look at the full interview, conducted by phone in mid-April 2006.
Click here for photos from the band’s show at The Library.
SN&R: Are you on tour at present?
Josh Caterer: We are not currently on tour, no. We have a tour that starts in the middle of May. … We’re going to be playing Lollapalooza in August.
So tell me, why reform Smoking Popes now instead of starting a whole new project?
Well, I’d already started a whole new project a few years ago called Duvall.
Was that your Christian band? Or was that something different?
Yeah, it was basically stylistically very similar to the Popes but with more of a Christian perspective in the lyrics. And, you know, Duvall is still a band. We don’t play too often—we don’t really tour anymore; we just play sort of occasional gigs around the Midwest.
I think that the reason why I didn’t get the Popes back together—and why I decided to put another project together instead—was that I felt like I had something that I wanted to express that I couldn’t express through the Popes because it just wouldn’t be an appropriate platform to express that.
Because of your bandmates or the label or your audience? Or just not wanting to mix other stuff into what the Popes already were?
Right. I mean, the Popes’ catalog is already established, and it’s a pretty well-defined, you know, library of songs. I think to add something which is so lyrically different like Duvall is, it just wasn’t a good fit. But I think that after doing Duvall for a few years and really feeling that I had been successful in expressing what I wanted to say through Duvall—and will continue to have that as an outlet—it sort of felt like I was ready to come back to the Popes without having to, I don’t know, without having to feel like I needed to express my faith necessarily through the Popes or to use it as a context for the expression of my faith. And I think just trying to work out those issues is really why it took me so long to get back to the Popes.
So, how have people been responding? I read that you had a sold-out reunion show in November, and obviously you’re planning a tour, and you’ve got Lollapalooza coming up and all that sort of stuff. I imagine your fans are totally ecstatic.
They seem to be. Yeah, and we just did a tour of the East Coast in February and early March, and the crowd response was just fantastic. We were so pleased by that because we knew that Chicago would be pretty good—you know, that’s our hometown crowd, and we expected there to be some excitement there, but we weren’t sure if there would be the same feeling once we brought it outside the Midwest. But there was. I mean, we had some fantastic sold-out shows in, you know, in Texas, and in Jersey, and in Brooklyn and in different cities. So we were just really encouraged by that.
Was it your idea to get back together, or had your brothers been wanting to for a while already?
It was my idea to get back together. My brothers—it turns out that they wanted to, but neither of them ever thought that it would happen, so they were quite surprised when I suggested that we get the Popes back together. It’s not something that we talked about or anything over the years. We just sort of let it go.
What’s the lineup currently? You have a new drummer, right?
Yes. Well, there’s—the guy who drums with us on the reunion-show DVD is Rob Kellenberger, who also has played with me in Duvall. But he is not the drummer that we’re taking with us on these tours. He just can’t do the touring. He has other obligations and can’t spend that much time on the road, so the guy drumming with us will be Ryan Chavez.
But otherwise the lineup is the same? Eli and Matt and you and then Ryan for this tour?
Right, all the touring that we’re gonna do, Ryan will be our guy. We’re working on new material with him. So, he is effectively the drummer for the Smoking Popes.
Tell me about your new material. I had read about the new live album and DVD, but I was wondering if you were writing currently for a new album. And, if so, has the style changed at all?
It’s hard to say whether the style has changed [laughs]. I have about a half-dozen songs right now. And, you know, we’ve played them together—some of them we’ve played together; some of them we haven’t. I’ve written them, but we haven’t even worked out the arrangements yet.
So, the songs, to me, they seem really different. But when we play them together as a band, and—especially when we record them—they have a way of, you know, sounding like Smoking Popes songs and having more of a uniform feel than I ever had in mind while I was writing them, so it’s hard for me to answer that question.
I’m not intentionally trying to do anything different. I want to write songs that are Smoking Popes songs and that people would be able to embrace as Smoking Popes songs. But, that said, I’m not trying to specifically recreate anything we’ve done before, so there’s a certain balance there, you know?
Mm-hmm. Moving forward but keeping the same sort of feel.
Tell me about that. Because my sense—I mean, I’ve heard you described as sort of a lounge vocalist or, you know, sort of a crooner with a little bit of, like, a ’50s feel in the lyrics or in the song structure, but what I get out of it is just a sense of restraint to play up the relationship between the vocals and the guitar and the percussion. I get a sense of restraint in all of the elements—like they’re all somewhat precise. It’s hard to describe, because they’re also edgy, but it seems to be more about playing up the relationship between all of the elements. How would you describe the kind of typical Smoking Popes sound?
I like that description. I’ve never heard it described like that before. But it makes sense to me. Let’s go with that one.
It seems like the guitar is often following the vocal melody. And I think of your lyrics as being kind of poetic without being flowery. You have, like in “Rubella,” a repeating device of like “she doesn’t know it yet but” or “she doesn’t know it but she’ll soon be mine,” so a little bit of like a poetic play in the songs, but not in any kind of overkill sense. It’s still pretty simple because the focus is on something else, like how the vocals play with the other instruments.
Yeah, you know, I think that our songs are very much melody-driven. Once you have a sense of what the melody of the song is going to be, it’s a question of sort of developing a chord pattern that’s going to go underneath it, and sometimes the guitar work is sort of—it’s—what’s the word? It’s like subject to—it’s serving the melody.
Even the guitar solos seem to focus on the main melody.
Yeah. With the exception of a few intentional moments in our live set, we’re really not the kind of band that just turns on the solo switch and just jams for a while. At least not on our studio stuff. I mean, there’s a place for that within a live set, just for sort of dramatic purposes, but as far as writing songs and making an album, I think, having learned basic song structure from, like, the Beatles, primarily, I think there is a definite form for a pop song.
And this is also true of some of the even older songwriting that influenced me when I was younger, just like listening to standards. You know, Sinatra. Mel Tormé. Just the way a song is structured. Like the way certain types of poetry are structured, there has to be a certain number of lines and a certain number of syllables. And in a song there has to be, you know, there’s a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and then you have some type of bridge, and you can stick a solo in there if you want, but it has to make sense. 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 [laughs]. You know? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you’re writing a song as far as what the structure is going to be, so I think this is probably where the sense of restraint comes from.
Yeah, not to make it overly precise, but there’s a definite plan to the song.
And it’s meant to be sung a certain way and played a certain way.
Right. And you don’t just do things within a song just for the sake of it. Everything is sort of working toward a common goal in the song [laughs]. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Now, you mentioned Sinatra in there, and in doing a bit of research for this story, I’ve come across plenty of people who mention that Frank Sinatra was one of your idols. And someone I think even said that you had the stronger singing voice.
Someone said that I have a stronger singing voice than Sinatra.
I thought I’d read that somewhere.
It’s sort of a ridiculous thing to say, I think. I don’t have a stronger singing voice than Frank Sinatra. There aren’t very many people who do, and I’m not one of them. So let’s just set the record straight on that point.
[Laughs] Did you model your vocal approach after that genre?
Yes. There was a period in the Popes where I was intentionally adopting that kind of affectation in my vocal style, mostly on our Born to Quit album. But then after that, you know, I wasn’t really intentionally doing that anymore, although a certain amount of that just stayed with me.
I wanted to ask a little about your label. You’re on Victory now. What happened with Capitol back in the day? I’ve read that the band wanted to get out of the contract, and I’ve also heard it described that you’d been kind of abandoned by Capitol, that they weren’t putting enough attention into you, and I wondered was it a marketing issue? Did they not know what to make of you? It seems like it’d be fairly easy to market a band like the Smoking Popes, especially in 1998 after Destination Failure, but what was going on?
Well, no, it might not be as easy as it seems because I think tendency would be to put us in the category of a pop-punk band and market us to teenagers.
Is that just because of your background? I know you had some support early on from, like, Billie Joe of Green Day and Ben Weasel.
Is that where the inclination to put you in the pop-punk category stems from?
I don’t know. If you hear music that has loud guitars and a fast drum beat, but it has a melody on top of it, you think pop-punk. And we kind of sound in the same ballpark as Green Day, so there’s a certain way of marketing those kinds of bands, as far as the image of the band and the demographic of the people you’re trying to appeal to. Although I think now, as was the case back then, there are certain things about our music that sort of move us into a different category.
I’ve always felt that we were more of a college-age band because there was this element of different genres of music and, you know, sort of the heart of older styles of music that we were bringing into it that would be more appreciated by older people. Not that teenagers would hate our band, but, for the most part, I don’t think that they would just fully embrace what we were doing.
But I—and I think especially back then it was hard—that was just hard to market. And we weren’t making it any easier, just by the way that we were behaving and our general attitude toward the label. We weren’t very cooperative, and we just developed a bad relationship with them to where they decided that we weren’t worth putting that much energy into, and then we in turn felt that they weren’t putting enough energy into our band. So, when we tried to get out of our contract, it was pretty much a mutual feeling, and they just let us go.
I think partly because the people who were teenagers back then have grown up, but they still appreciate the same kind of aggressive edge to their music, you find, like, college music—it’s a little easier to market hard rock or pop-punk to slightly older people, whereas before, you know, you had to sound like R.E.M. in order to be a successful college band. But now, Green Day is also a successful college band, because their audience is a little more sophisticated, and their music is a little more sophisticated than it used to be.
So, are there things you’re doing differently this time around from a business perspective, other than taking advantage of what has changed in the industry? Are there things you’re doing this time around that you didn’t last time?
Um, well, again, and I keep saying this, but that’s a hard question to answer for me [laughs] because I feel like we’re doing everything differently. The overall problem last time around was that we were so in our own world that we were out of touch with almost every aspect of our situation as a band. 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.
Just because it’s a hassle? [laughs]
Just because it’s a hassle! And we didn’t really feel like dealing with it. And, aside from that, we just sort of felt generally self-conscious about doing anything that might be perceived as being, you know, capitalist [laughs]. I think we were really freaked out—and I know I’m at least speaking for myself, and this is to a certain extent true of my brothers, but we were pretty self-conscious about being on a major label and worried that we would be perceived as having sold out or something and sort of reacted to that by, like …
Like not cooperating with the label on any promotional things, and, you know, not taking merch with us on tour and saying no to things that in retrospect would have been a good idea.
So, what has it been like making music with your brothers again? Or were you, in the hiatus there?
Yeah, my brother Eli was in Duvall for the first couple of years. But we’ve kept a musical kind of relationship going with each other. And even though I didn’t play music with my brother Matt during our seven-year hiatus, I still was good friends with him. We’ve always been pretty close, so it seems pretty natural for us to do this again from a personal standpoint. It wasn’t because we didn’t get along that we broke up. I just had other things I needed to work out.
Have you been to Sacramento before?
I think so.
And you’ll be bringing your live album with you, I hope, for your show on the 24th.
Yeah. I think we’ll remember it this time [laughs]. We might even have T-shirts to sell.