Let’s hop in our way-back machine and set the dial for 1990. A punk rock group has formed in the suburbs of Chicago and makes quite an impact on the basement/garage circuit. The following year, brothers Josh (vocals/guitar) and Matt (bass) Caterer regroup under the name Smoking Popes and, after recruiting their younger brother Eli as a second guitarist, set their sights on bigger game.
Over the course of four years, the Smoking Popes conquered the local/regional music scene, releasing material like it was going out of style. By the time they signed with Capitol Records, in true DIY fashion, the band had already amassed a catalog of 7-inches, EPs and two full-length albums. The only way was up … or so they thought.
Singer and songwriter Josh Caterer set himself apart from the pack early on in the group’s development by developing a unique vocal approach – described by some as crooning. It was an approach not necessarily embraced by punk rock groups of the day.
“I kind of think that a lot of artistic choices that people make are supposed to be funny at first,” Josh said. “There are certain artists that strike me as being that way. David Byrne, for example, I get the feeling that when he first came up with the idea for the big suit, I bet he thought that was pretty funny.”
Turns out, what ended up being Josh’s hook was actually hatched out of experimentation and trying to make his band mates laugh.
“When the band first started out, I didn’t really sing,” Josh said. “If you listen to our very early recordings, I’m just shouting. Sometime around when we made our first full-length album (Get Fired) I decided to experiment with using a vocal vibrato because I thought it would be appropriate, particularly to this one song (‘Let’s Hear it for Love’) that seemed sort of ‘loungy’ to me. As I was laying down the vocal tracks for that song, I was experimenting with it right in the studio. I hadn’t even done that live yet. It cracked all of us up. It was a little bit of a joke but it seemed to work … so it stuck.”
Known for writing catchy, pop-punk anthems and even the occasional ballad, Smoking Popes found themselves caught up in a music industry signing frenzy initiated by the release of Green Day’s Dookie. In 1995, for better or worse, they went major.
Josh remembers, “I think that’s why a lot of bands got chewed up and spit out. There were a lot of record deals being signed … only a certain amount of those bands were going to rise to the top. There was this bubble within the music industry, the major labels could afford to sign up a bunch of bands and then figure out which one were going to be the most successful. They were going to work those bands, and the rest were going to fall by the wayside.”
The Smoking Popes held on and released two full-length albums of original material on Capitol (Born to Quit, a re-release of their second indie album; and the wonderful Destination Failure). The latter almost never saw the light of day.
As sometimes happens, business decisions occasionally trump talent and dictate a shift in priorities. And it’s that impersonal approach that has crippled many bands on the rise.
Josh recalled, “After we made Destination Failure, Capitol told us that they weren’t going to put it out … they wanted to shelve it indefinitely because they had a couple other projects, and they were like ‘you guys are going to get lost in the shuffle.’ Our manager at the time was able to persuade them to release the album anyway, telling them they didn’t have to do anything to promote the album – just release it so it’s out there. If they didn’t, it was going to tank our whole career.”
Following a successful tour with Morrissey, who was a big supporter of the band and of the album that almost never was, the Smoking Popes started looking to get out of their contract. The indies were calling them home, and the band was in the process of shopping a new album around when Josh abruptly quit the band in 1998.
“I became a follower of Christ,” Josh said. “I didn’t feel that it was compatible with being in the Smoking Popes at that time. And so I wanted my faith to be something that I concentrated on first and foremost. I’m glad that I did that. I needed to do that at the time.”
Josh didn’t want his newfound faith to be perceived as a phase.
“You sometimes see that,” he said, “where an artist will be born again and then it just seems to wear off and you don’t know anymore if that person is still a Christian or has any sort of relationship with God and that scared me. I put rock music aside for a few years, and I really focused on growing in my faith. Now, my relationship with Jesus Christ is the very foundation of my life and everything else that I’m doing is built on that. If I had tried to build Christ in the foundation of rock music I was living on before than the whole building would have crumbled, I think.”
After a few years of only playing music in church, Josh formed Duvall; a punk band founded in faith and showcasing Josh’s spiritually-based lyrics. Eventually, his brother Matt joined, and the roots of a Smoking Popes reunion started to take hold.
That actually happened in late 2005 with a concert at their old Chicago stomping grounds, The Metro. Tickets sold out in 36 minutes, and the show was immortalized on CD and DVD. Since reforming, the band has toured sporadically and continued to release material … all on indie labels.
Their current offering, possibly their best and most endearing, was released on Asian Man Records on March 15. This is Only a Test finds Josh writing from the perspective of a teen and takes the listener on a journey as his character deals with various issues often found in those formative years. Surprisingly, as a father in his late thirties, Josh has pulled it off without alienating his audience. The subject matter is accessible to those that survived the teen years as well as those currently in its clutches.
“I definitely was trying to adopt the perspective of the main character as I wrote,” Josh said. “But, that doesn’t mean I was trying to intentionally write at a high school level. I wasn’t trying to write an album for kids, but I was trying to write something that was genuinely from this character who happened to be a kid. I’m hoping that there’s something universal about it.”
This is the album that should bring the Smoking Popes back into the spotlight. In support, the band kicked off an extended national tour in March at SXSW. Pulling from most of their releases, the set list has proved to be a crowd pleaser and seeing the Caterer brothers on stage again, now with drummer Neil Fennessey, is again a pleasure. The trials and tribulations of the past are gone, and they are now well equipped to face the next chapter in their career.
“Ultimately, when I look back on what we’ve accomplished, the albums are still there and all the circumstances surrounding those albums – whether they were promoted or supported – what label they came out on and how was our relationship with that label and how was it perceived – all that stuff sort of goes away,” Josh said. “Those are only momentary. The thing that lasts is the music that you’ve made. Eventually you get to the point where you really just want to make the best possible music that you can make and just sort of bring it into the world. And what happens to it from there … it’s just in God’s hands, you know.”