There’s a Point to Everything: The Smoking Popes Are Back, Older & Wiser

Believe it or not, I can remember the first time I heard The Smoking Popes. I was in college, and one afternoon I ran into a friend who was DJing at the college radio station, a friend who happened to be completely freaking out, ecstatic over this awesome, incredible song he’d just heard up at the station. I can’t remember if he actually had the 7″ or had quickly taped it, but whichever it was, he played it for me; it was a track called “Writing A Letter,” by a band called The Smoking Popes and it was fucking brilliant.

The best thing about the song, really, was how simple it was: one repeating lyric, a whopping two chords (four if you count the key change 3/4ths of the way through), and a “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” chorus that hooked into your brain and wouldn’t let go for anything. That was it. We played that damn song over and over and over again pretty much for the rest of my college life, jumping around like lunatics every time it came on. It was just this perfect, stripped-down, addictive little pop song, and it came to symbolize a big chunk of my time at school.

The years rolled on, and the band released a handful of albums’ worth of streamlined, resolutely un-cookie-cutter pop-punk that resembled classic pop/jazz performers like Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé more than it did The Clash or The Ramones — tracks like “Let’s Hear It For Love” (off of 1993’s Get Fired) combine loud, distorted guitars and speedy rhythms with frontman Josh Caterer‘s smooth crooner’s voice and song structures straight out of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook.

It was a unique combination, one unlike anything I’d ever heard, and both Get Fired and 1995’s Born to Quit provided a great, great soundtrack for mid-’90s heartbreak, one far more poignant, bitter, and true-to-life than most love-gone-wrong songs you can name. With those two albums, in particular, The Smoking Popes helped form the basis for a lot of pop-punk bands in the next decade to come. The band was snatched up by Capitol Records as part of the post-Green Day pop-punk signing frenzy, and things were looking up.

I finally got to see the band live, years after that first listen to “Writing A Letter”; they played now-dead Washington Ave. venue The Abyss, and I was absolutely psyched. Then, of course, fate intervened, and we didn’t get to the damn club ’til the very end of the Popes’ set. As luck would have it, we were just in time to hear “Writing A Letter”…and nothing else.

And then, the band broke up. In early 1999, they went their separate ways, with Josh Caterer moving on to new outfit Duvall, and it seemed pretty sure that the Popes were gone for good.

Or maybe not. Seven years down the road, the band decided to give it another shot, reforming for a sold-out show at The Metro in Chicago, and like that, they were back on. They started touring again, and even released their first new album in a decade, Stay Down.

Fast-forward to now, and The Smoking Popes are fully back on track. New album This Is Only a Test is a flat-out pop-punk masterpiece, with Josh Caterer, brothers Matt and Eli Caterer, and new(-ish) drummer Neil Hennessy managing to grab hold of everything that made Get Fired and Born to Quit awesome — the classic song structures, the just-distorted enough guitars, the heart-on-sleeve romanticism — and have grafted it onto a leaner, more mature sound.

If anything, it sounds miles better than the old stuff, as sacrilegious as it sounds. Caterer’s voice is the strongest it’s ever been, and the songs about the trials of high school life feel downright real, despite the fact that they’re being sung by a guy my age, who’s been out of high school a long damn time. The somber pledge of “College,” with its Say Anything…-esque declaration of nonconformity, the furious glee of “Punk Band,” and the bittersweet, yearning roar of “Wish We Were,” for three, all capture what it felt like to be a kid, not knowing where you were headed but fairly sure you knew where you didn’t want to go.

For the most part, the album comes off like a concept album of sorts, with Caterer only breaking character for the title track, where he issues a warning to the pretty, popular in-crowd people, letting them know that high school doesn’t last forever and hinting that once you’re out of there, really, nobody is going to give a shit about how popular you were. It’s a great moment in a decent-sized pile of great songs.

And now, of course, the band’s touring again, they’re finally coming back through our little city. SCR was able to talk a bit with Caterer about the band, the new album, and the mindset of teenagers everywhere prior to the show.


SCR: First off, I know it’s been a few years already since you came back together, but how has the reunion gone so far? Was it difficult to step back into the band after doing different things for all that time? You guys are older, you’ve been doing other stuff, whatever; has it been an adjustment going back to playing and touring and all that?
Josh Caterer: We’re having a great time. I think we realized how much we missed being in this band, and we’re really enjoying it this time around. It feels very natural.

What prompted the reunion, by the way? Was this somebody’s idea in particular, or…?
It was my idea. I woke up one day and said to myself, “We should get the band back together.” So I asked my brothers if they wanted to, and they said, “Sure.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Have you found that the band’s getting more attention now, having come back from the dead and all that? I know there are several fairly well-known pop-punk-y bands out there now who point to you guys as an influence.
We meet a lot of younger people who discovered us while we were broken up, so they thought they’d never get a chance to see us play and they’re very excited that we’re back together. It’s always nice to talk to people like that.

Is Duvall still a going concern, with the Popes touring fairly steadily these days and releasing albums?
Duvall sort of got swallowed up by the Popes. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of doing another Duvall project in the future, but there’s definitely no time for it right now.

After listening to This Is Only A Test several times now, it seems to me less like it’s you speaking and more like a cross-section of teenage life, almost like you’ve tried to encapsulate all the painful, awkward stuff about being a teenager. What caused you to go that route?
I heard a song by some teen pop star, and it got me thinking about how I had never written from an explicitly teenage point of view, even when I was a teenager. I was always listening to older music like Frank Sinatra and trying to capture that mood in my lyrics, instead of just being a kid. So I thought it would be funny if now, in my 30s, I tried to write songs from a teen perspective. As soon as I thought of it, I got really excited about the idea, and the songs started coming really quickly.

Kind of tangentially to that, is this you-as-a-kid speaking, maybe? Is the album based on your own experiences back in high school?
No, I created a character and wrote from his point of view. He’s a kid who is a lot like the teenage version of me, but he’s not limited to my experiences. In that way, I was able to say some very personal stuff, but also have fun exploring different ideas outside myself.

The album seems to almost turn the cliched teenager tropes on their respective heads — I mean, you’ve got a song where the narrator’s telling his girlfriend how much he’d like to go to a show, but he’s got mono, and another where the narrator just can’t do P.E. that day because his heart’s been broken. There’s almost a snarky sense of humor in there, like you’re trying to burst those high school bubbles; was that sort of the intent?
When you’re young, there’s this tendency to blow things out of proportion…to think that what’s happening to you is really catastrophic. I wanted to write about that, not only because of the potential humor, but because I thought it might be helpful or encouraging for young people to know that the world they’re living in now, the world of high school, is not the real world, and all the things that are getting them down right now will not necessarily apply in the real world.

What’s the songwriting process like? Do you do the bulk of the songwriting, or is it the whole band getting together?
I write the core of the song, the lyrics and a basic outline of the music, and I bring it to the guys, and we work out the arrangement together by playing it over and over until it feels right.

Speaking of the band all doing things together, I’m still mystified that all three Caterers are able to be in a band together; my two brothers would drive me absolutely batshit crazy if I tried to do anything collaborative with ’em, much less write songs, practice, and travel the country in a van. How do y’all survive it?
We get along really well. It helps that we are terrible at interpersonal communication, so we avoid conflict by stuffing our emotions and refusing to address any of our differences. That way we never get into arguments.

Looking backwards a bit, I really loved what you did with The Party’s Over, recording those classic, standards-type songs — show tunes, some of ’em — and doing it without a hint of sarcasm or irony. It was pretty obvious how much you all genuinely loved the music, and that made it pretty incredible to hear. But hey, why no Sinatra covers?
We were working on a cover of Sinatra’s “Deep in a Dream,” but we just couldn’t get it right. It’s an awesome song. I’d like to do something with it someday, but ultimately it wasn’t right for that album.

Do you still play a lot of the older, Get Fired-era songs? Or are you focusing more on the more recent stuff these days?
These days we’re playing a lot of songs from Born to Quit, Destination Failure, and Get Fired. We’re also throwing in a few songs from the new record, but since we’re playing towns that we haven’t been to in a few years, we wanna give people a healthy portion of the old favorites. It’s really fun to see people respond to an older song that they obviously have grown to love. Hopefully, they’ll grow to love some of the new stuff in the same way, and we’ll play more of it on future tours.

How would you say the music’s evolved since then? Do you see the current Smoking Popes as a very different band from the band back in the ’90s?
We’re older, wiser, and taller. And we’ve switched from Mountain Dew and cigarettes to coffee and multi-vitamins. Otherwise, we’re exactly the same.

And while I feel a little weird asking about this, since it’s extremely personal but at the same time a pretty big part of the band’s history — has your own conversion and faith changed things in the band? Were there any difficulties with other guys adjusting to that?
The difference my faith makes is that I’m not as self-destructive as I used to be and I’m a little easier to get along with. So I’d say the the presence of Jesus in my life has improved everything and made everything work better. It was a very dramatic change for me at first, which is why I quit the band in ’99, but once I settled into being a Christian and figured out how to live a new way, it’s been great.

Going back somewhat to the old days, it sounds like the years when you guys were on Capitol were pretty horrific. Can you talk at all about what that was like?
We had a very disappointing relationship with Capitol, which wasn’t entirely their fault. I wasn’t the easiest person to deal with in those days, and I think they were frustrated working with us because we would say “no” to some of the promotional things they wanted us to do. And in turn, they didn’t support us as much as they could have. So the partnership didn’t work out, but we’re still really proud of the music we made on Capitol.

On a totally, completely selfish note: will you guys be playing “Writing A Letter” at the show in Houston? I have to warn you that this one writer’s little heart will break if you don’t, so…
You got it! END

Feature photo by Katie Hovland.

[The Smoking Popes are playing 5/14/11 at Fitzgerald’s, along with Girl in a Coma & The Energy.]

Interview by . Interview posted Saturday, May 14th, 2011. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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One Response to “There’s a Point to Everything: The Smoking Popes Are Back, Older & Wiser”

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: Haute Wheels + Smoking Popes + Art Institute + Middlefinger(!) + Crawfish Fest + Venomous Maximus + More on January 23rd, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    […] totally tongue-tied and couldn’t think of a damn thing to ask. Argh. Check out the interview on over here, […]

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