Interview: Smoking Popes

[from The A.V. Club Chicago / September 17, 2008]

In the ’90s, few Chicago bands had both the acclaim and stature of the Smoking Popes. Formed in 1991 by vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Josh Caterer and his brothers, bassist Matt and guitarist Eli, the group released its major label debut, Born To Quit, in 1995 on Capitol. Despite success from the single “Need You Around” and its follow-up, 1997’s “I Know You Love Me” from Destination Failure, Capitol ultimately dropped the band. The group subsequently dissolved in 1999 as Josh discovered Christianity; he, Eli, and Popes drummer Mike Felumlee continued on as Christian-leaning rock outfit Duvall until Smoking Popes’ 2005 reunion show at the Metro. Early last month, Smoking Popes released Stay Down, its first new album of original material in 11 years. Matt and Josh Caterer spoke separately with The A.V. Club about turning the old band into the new band.

A.V. Club: Smoking Popes have been back together for almost three years now. How does the re-formed Popes compare to the original Popes?
Matt Caterer: In a way, it’s like everything in the original years, but shorter—everything seems less life-and-death. The first time, especially once we got signed, seemed like life and death. This time, we’re serious about it but we’re also doing it for fun. We don’t have to do it, so it feels like less pressure.
Josh Caterer: There was some time there [in the beginning] where we were just kind of messing around, just playing various local shows for fun, but then there was a point at which we said, “Let’s really apply ourselves to this.” At that point though, we had a lot of misconceptions about what it actually meant to be in a band. [Laughs.]

AVC: When you first got back together, there was talk of retiring songs because Josh didn’t agree with their themes anymore. Why have you brought them back?
MC: When we got back together we discussed that, and Josh assured me that he wasn’t going to use the Smoking Popes as a platform for his religious beliefs. It was just gonna be a secular band like it was. We were just gonna be a rock band. The only song I can think of that we wouldn’t do for anything other than aesthetic reasons is the song “Follow The Sound,” which has some words about reincarnation. Maybe “Star Struck One” because of the swearing, but I’m not even sure about that.

AVC: Were you at all surprised that your audience was still intact?
JC: I was surprised by it because I didn’t know what to expect. It’s not like I had been secretly monitoring the growth of our fan base over the years, waiting for a strategic moment to strike again. [Laughs.] I’d been off doing other things, and when we decided to get this thing back together, we expected there’d be at least a small following of die-hard fans because we had seen those people coming out to the Duvall shows for the last couple of years. But the crossover of old Popes fans into Duvall was pretty small because Duvall was a pretty low-profile affair. But we knew there would probably be at least 40 people at the show. [Laughs.] And if we could rock those 40 people, we’d be happy.

AVC: Knowing the audience is there, is the band back for good? Or are you just taking things as they come?
Our next thing is, I’d like to get Born To Quit re-released, because it’s currently officially out of print. And I’d like to play a show where we play Born To Quit, because everybody’s doing that now—taking a record and playing a show about it—and some of those are pretty fun. I would assume we can at least play a handful of shows, at least around Chicago, for the next 20 years if we wanted to, which we may or may not do.

AVC: How has playing with two of your brothers shaped both the music and the band?
MC: I’ve thought about this off and on a lot, and it must be kind of weird for whatever drummer we use. That’s the only real definite conclusion I’ve come to. And I also notice that when we play together, there’s just something we have going on that’s almost like telepathy. We probably know a lot about what we’re all trying to do because we all have a shared history about it, so we don’t have to talk about it as much.
JC: There’s not a lot of conflict about how to arrange a song. It’s fairly unanimous. It’s not effortless, but it’s unanimous. If it’s going in a certain direction, we either all like it or we all hate it. [Laughs.] So that’s a good thing.