Party's not quite over for Smoking Popes
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Where you been?
I haven't seen you for weeks
You've been hanging out with
all those Jesus freaks
Oh, yeah, and I feel like giving in ...
— Felt, "Ballad of the Band"
Josh Caterer sits in a leather armchair at Uncommon Ground, trying to figure out how to drink his hot chocolate. He sat down not knowing what he wanted, ordered this drink on a whim, and now it's a bit more than he bargained for — a wide soup bowl of cinnamon-dusted, frothy hedonism (in any other context, I'd remark on how sinful it looks) and it's got no handle. Whipped cream is piled high and is deflating over the brim. To get what he wants, he's going to have to abandon a few expectations.
But this is the prodigal son of Chicago rock, a wide-eyed searcher who broke up his band, the Smoking Popes, on the cusp of national stardom and chucked his rock records to find what he wanted in a newfound Christian faith. Now, seven years later — having searched and researched his soul, started a separate Christian band called Duvall and become a father of two — here he is slurping cocoa and matter-of-factly discussing how he's managed to compartmentalize his religious and rockin' ambitions well enough to return to the devil's music.
He's revived the Popes, they're having a blast in practice, and they might write a new album. The reunion show this week at Metro — originally scheduled as a one-off, a test, a lark — sold out in 36 minutes, so now there's talk of a tour. He's blessed. He hefts the bowl with both hands and sinks his nose into the foam.
"At the time," Josh says, wiping away the mustache, "the best way to respond to my decision to follow Christ was to quit the band. I did it with a sense of permanence. But my understanding of the faith has grown to the point where I can see how to encompass the Popes. On the one hand, I can do it without compromising my faith; on the other, I can do it without using the Popes as a platform for expressing my faith."
So relax, kids. No altar calls at the rock show.
Not that Josh didn't try that before the breakup. For the encores in '98, the band would return to play "I Know You Love Me," and Josh would discuss his newfound faith, a moment captured on the band's posthumous 2000 live album. You can almost hear the crowd shudder — not because they're necessarily a bunch of pagans but because suddenly Josh was Debby Boone, explaining that the "you" in "You Light Up My Life" was really Jesus and, well, few things can deflate a concert at a rock club near the witching hour quite like a little heartfelt evangelism. (Plus, the mind began to reel: Did the band's other perfectly romantic songs now have religious overtones? "You Spoke to Me"? "Let Them Die"? "Paul"? Had we been tricked?)
"That went over better than you might expect, though," Josh says of his attempted homilies. "I never had anything thrown at me."
• • •
We hadn't been tricked, he assures. The songs are as secular and seductive as we thought they were. But as he became swept up in Christianity — a result of years of searching for spiritual significance, from Buddhism to the Bible — it became clear the Popes were not the platform to make that particular joyful noise. Because Josh had little to no religious upbringing, his new insights were overwhelming. He didn't know how to balance the new life with the old. All he could think to do was eliminate the old one.
It was written. The guy who led a band with albums titled "Get Fired," "Born to Quit," "Destination Failure" and "The Party's Over" finally called it a day.
"It was a process over about a year," says Eli Caterer, Josh's brother and the Popes' guitarist. (The band also includes another Caterer brother, Matt, on bass, and a new drummer, Rob Kellenberger.) "Josh had become born again, and we started talking about it in practices. We started bringing it up with him, and eventually he started saying, 'Yeah, yeah, I can't keep doing this.' Josh is the kind of guy who likes having one-on-one meetings with people, and that's how he told us he wanted out. That's also how he got the band back together."
And he didn't just quit the band. He quit the life. He threw out his Zeppelin records. And the AC/DC, the Ramones, the Buzzcocks (which he describes with a phrase often ascribed to the Popes: "great melodic pop with a touch of melancholy") — all of it went into the bin. He stopped going to clubs. He switched off the TV.
It's a typical response of brand-new Christians, he's found, but perhaps it's especially ironic in Josh's case. He had not just listened to rock records and shaken a fist or two in his time; he'd tried to emulate them — an act that carries its own particular messianic overtones.
In "You Spoke to Me," from the Smoking Popes' second disc, "Destination Failure," Josh sings from the perspective of fans who see their music idols as golden gods: "I don't know if you actually saved my life — but you changed it, that's for sure."
"That song's about being on tour with Jawbreaker and hearing the things people would say to Blake [Schwarzenbach, the singer] when they got to meet him," Josh says. "They said crazy things. With tears in their eyes, they'd be gushing about the importance of his music in their lives, how they wouldn't be here without him. I was so struck by that, by the way this music affected people.
"My faith now has allowed me to sort of shift the importance I place on music and the lens I look at it through. Before, I think I saw music in some way like that — as some means to connect to something greater. There is that larger spiritual significance to making music, and music itself tends to have a religious quality, even if you're not an ordinarily religious person. But coming to know Christ, I understand that music can be used as a tool to worship and can help you in your religious experience — but maybe it's not that experience itself."
That's the discovery that set him free, he says. He's not the messiah — and now that he believes who is, the pressure's off. The real one, in his mind, can worry about the saving of lives. Josh maybe can change a few. And he can work at music again for what it is, a means instead of an end. "The thing I want now is God," he says, finishing the hot chocolate and smacking his lips, "so music is finally something to be enjoyed."
• • •
In 1997, the Smoking Popes toured nationally as an opener for another act who regularly hears the praise of a fervent flock: Morrissey (who had gushed about "Born to Quit" that July on KROQ in Los Angeles: "I bought the album, and I just thought it was extraordinary — the most lovable thing I'd heard for years. I think he has a great voice. Are they big here?"). The Popes and Morrissey's new band were both units marrying driving, buzzsaw guitars to lyrics that are quite clever though often hastily judged by their surface melancholy.
Josh, the Moz — one ticket, two tortured romantics. And both can croon cream into butter.
When discussing his band's sound, Josh uses a surprising word: "loungey." It's surprising, given some of the breakneck tempos and the buzzsaw guitars. It also may have been a description surprising to fans until the band's last studio record, the prophetically titled "The Party's Over" — a collection of 10 pre-Beatles pop standards. That album, Josh says, despite being an intentional record contract buster for the band, was the zenith of one of the band's rollicking musical experiments.
"I guess people thought the whole loungey thing we did was tongue-in-cheek," he says, cocking his head quizzically. "By the time we made that covers album, I guess they knew we were sincere. It took me a few years to be confident enough to attempt that vibrato. I started in punk bands in garages, basically yelling. When we recorded [our indie debut] 'Get Fired,' the last song I did vocals for was 'Let's Hear It for Love.' And, you know, when I'm alone or in the shower or something, I sing with an exaggerated vibrato. I thought, 'Let's lay down a track of me singing like that.' I did, and we laughed — but we thought it was cool enough to leave it."
By the next album, "Born to Quit," which would become the band's debut for Capitol Records, Josh was pushing the loungey singing on every track.
Josh was tapping into something he did get growing up: an appreciation of standards. When he started writing songs at age 11, he was doing so out of a fondness for ... "The Music Man."
"Goodnight, my someone; goodnight, my love," he half-sings, half-reminisces. "You can play three chords under that. I was figuring those out on the guitar. Even at that age, I was beginning to appreciate the timeless quality of that music. I could recognize that that kind of songwriting had a substance that transcended musical trends. It's not just that Sinatra was a stylish guy that we still listen to his music. If the melody is strong enough, and the lyrical content has an emotional quality that can touch people in a meaningful way, then the songs sound good 10, 20 years later, regardless of the recording quality."
• • •
It's not been 10 years since the Popes wound down, but the band's following seems to have held steady, even grown. The Popes' strong melodies and emotional lyrics seem to be doing their job.
"Being in Duvall, Josh and I were always surprised when young people would come to those shows because they didn't find the Popes until after we broke up," Eli says. "People were still finding out about us. The music was still out there doing its thing. It didn't just end when we unplugged it. The fan base is still growing. It seems to have a life of its own."
"I could never tell how widespread it was. There's always that chance you're living in a bubble," Josh says. Then, noting the sold-out show at Metro, he says, "Well, now we know the bubble is at least big enough to contain 1,100 people."
The Popes also played their part, however big or small, in influencing Chicago's current crop of pop-punks. The Popes' new bio quotes Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, saying, "After Naked Raygun, Chicago was the Smoking Popes. They were the Alkaline Trio before Alkaline Trio; they were Fall Out Boy before Fall Out Boy."
Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio adds: "The Smoking Popes were a good band that only wrote good songs. They have always been a big influence on Alkaline Trio and are a huge reason a lot of us started bands in the first place. I can't wait to see them again — I hope they play 'Brand New Hairstyle.'"
Josh confirms that a tour is being planned, probably to support a new collection of the band's hits or some out-of-print material. And the Popes plan to try some new songs. But likely not in this week's show.
"This show is really an attempt to reignite the flame we had going when we broke up," Josh says. "It shouldn't be hard to re-establish ourselves as the band eternally about to break."
The Smoking Popes
with Bella lea
When: 11 p.m. Friday
Where: Metro, 3710 N. Clark
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (773) 549-0203
Duvall to Remain a Faith-Fueled Band
After Josh Caterer found religion and dismantled the Smoking Popes, he wasn't done with music altogether. Instead of keeping the Popes around as a mouthpiece for his new spiritual notions, he formed a new combo for that purpose called Duvall.
Duvall released two CDs, "Volume and Density" in 2003 and a Christmas record, "Oh Holy Night," in 2004, both on the Asian Man label.
Now that the Popes are resurrected, Duvall will continue, though in what capacity or frequency Josh is not entirely sure.
"When I was ready to come back to rock, I didn't want to start with the Popes," Josh says. "I wanted to express things I couldn't in the Popes. That's why I put Duvall together. I'll keep doing that. It'll be my outlet for that kind of expression."
His brother Eli — a fellow Pope and a founding member of Duvall — thinks that's the best plan, even though in March, he left Duvall, for similar reasons (though opposite philosophies) that caused Josh to bail on the Popes.
"Duvall had been riding this fence," Eli said. "Initially, Josh was ambiguous about his faith, then he realized he wanted to be more open about it. But we were still playing these secular shows. It was a conflict. Now he wants to be open and singing about faith and Jesus and stuff, which I totally support, but since I'm not actually a Christian, I felt like I couldn't do it, to be promoting beliefs I don't really believe in."
Josh says he's waiting to see how the Popes revival shapes up before figuring out what his next move will be in Duvall.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.