Sunday, January 01, 2006

Interview: The Smoking Popes

The Smoking Popes are not a Christian band, and front-man Josh Caterer says so in exactly that many words. Ain't it a kick, then, that we met in an ornate church sanctuary, especially considering that every interview I've ever done with a Christian band has been in a bar? The Popes' existence serves as a complication to easy-answer niche-notching, because not only is Caterer a devout believer, but he's also the force behind Duvall, a band that does work in the Christian market.

This, according to Caterer, is how the Popes are being written about nowadays:
Most of the press we've had so far has been sort of rehashing what happened, why I left the band, then why are we getting back together. So I have to talk a lot about my conversion and the process that I went through of quitting rock entirely, but then eventually feeling like I could come back to it without feeling like there would be a conflict with my faith. So that seems to be "the story."
The story, then: The Smoking Popes -- formed primarily of the Caterer brothers, Josh, Matt and Eli ("the genetic onslaught of the Caterer front line" as Josh termed it) -- started in Chicago in the early 90s, recorded three albums and a covers record, did all the right touring, and broke up in 1998 on account of Josh's newfound religion. Here's how Josh tells it:
One of the reasons I completely distanced myself from the Popes for so long was because, from a spiritual perspective, I associated the Smoking Popes with all the things that Jesus set me free from. . . . I guess the Popes embodied who I was before I knew Christ, therefore I couldn't go back to who I was before Christ. For the first few years that was valid in order for my faith to flourish.
So what's changed?
Eventually I got to a point of maturity when I realized that I could sing Popes songs again without compromising my faith, but it took me seven years to get to that point. . . . I never thought that I would do a Popes reunion, but I worked through some of the things that I wanted to work through.
Last November the band played at the Flowers Festival in Chicago and sold out the Metro theatre. The show was recorded on CD and DVD and packaged together for release by Victory records. And now that, too, is history. The Smoking Popes are together again for good.

What's the difference between playing seven years ago and playing for the last couple weeks?
We weren't having very much fun seven years ago. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, all of which had to do with us. I think we tended at the time to blame our circumstances for our unhappiness, but I really think it was immaturity on our part, and in my case it was definitely the absence of God in my life. He was beginning to stir in me the longing for him. Over the last few years of the band I was more and more intensely trying to fill the God-void with other things, as I was becoming more and more aware of that huge void.

So you find that you're more satisfied now as a person because of your relationship with God and that makes playing with the band more satisfying.
Yeah, it makes everything better.

The Smoking Popes are really at an interesting place for the Christian music scene because you are a Christian and you play in Duvall, which is a Christian band, and you play in the Smoking Popes which isn't, so it sort of begs the question: what makes a band a Christian band?
I think that in order to call yourselves a Christian band you have to be more than just Christians in a band. You have to be communicating something about Christ.

Something you said during our phone interview was that there's a space in your life to sing love songs.
Mm-hmm.

So then you would be a love band.
Ha, ha.

Is that something that occupies much of your mind-space, trying to categorize yourself as "this Christian band" or as "this regular band."
No, I don't think it requires much thought in our case. The Smoking Popes are not a Christian band. We are, I think, pretty easily defined as a pop punk band.

What are some of the things that have influenced you over the last seven years.
Well, since I became a Christian I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do in the realm of Christian music because I never used to listen to it. So I think most of the new things that I added to my library was Christian or gospel stuff, and I've been sort of keeping up with some new stuff in the general market, but I think that my influences now are really the same as they were before, except most of the gospel stuff that has really grabbed me has been older stuff. I started listening to a lot of stuff like the Johnny Cash gospel recordings, and George Jones has old gospel recordings, and a lot of those country artists, I have a Loretta Lynn gospel album, there's an Emmy Lou Harris gospel album that's fantastic, and the Louvin Brothers, and then uh, the Soulsters with Sam Cooke, that stuff is amazing.

Are you reading anything that influences you now?
Right now I'm reading Arthur Conan Doyle. I got this two-volume set of the complete Sherlock Holmes stuff and I've just been reading a lot of that. I'm just hooked on Sherlock Holmes. I picked up The Hound of the Baskervilles at a bargain bookstore and it was so awesome that I went out and bought the complete set and I've just been plowing through those stories and really loving them.

They're crazy with the heroin.
Yeah, there's a lot of stuff, not just the adventures and mysteries, but the character as it unfolds from story to story and you learn more about Holmes and the relationship between Watson and Holmes and the friendship that they have. It's really interesting. Before that, I went and I saw Capote, so then I went back and read In Cold Blood and got started on this true crime kick. The true crime stuff -- I read a couple books and it was too gruesome for me. I thought, "I don't want to live in this neighborhood anymore, I want to move on."

Are you still with the worship band at your church?
Yes.

Does the fact that you're playing there draw people to the church?
I don't think so. I've met a few people in the young adult ministry who've said when they came to the church and discovered that I was playing there they thought it was pretty cool and it's probably one of the reasons that they keep coming, but that's pretty short lived because people get into their own groups at the church and they start getting involved in their own ways and it becomes their own thing. I've really only met a few people like that. I think mostly the congregation of our church -- 98% of them -- had never heard of the Smoking Popes until they found out that one of their worship leaders had been in this band that was called the Smoking Popes.

What are the Popes doing now?
Which we're doing. We're developing new songs, we're playing them on the road, we're starting to demo some of the stuff.

I heard you did that with J. Robbins (yeah, the dude from Jawbox who says of the Popes on his website, jrobbins.net: " A nicer bunch of fellows -- and a tighter band -- you'll never meet in rock. Getting a chance to record them . . . is pretty much like Christmas in March.")
Yeah.

How was that?
It was awesome. I love that guy. I mean, I've admired his work for a long time, but finally getting to work with him was just such a joy because he's a really sweet guy to work with.

Where are the Smoking Popes going to go?
I'm not sure where we're going to go. But I'm sure that whatever happens, I'm confident that we're going to be able to do it the right way. I feel like the first time we were a band we were stupid kids and we didn't handle the whole thing correctly and we got bogged down with all this personal baggage and we weren't having fun and we were counter-productive as far as our career was concerned. We could have been more successful that we were. I mean, we had a fair amount of success, but as the success was coming at us, instead of rolling with it and trying to build on it we sort of curled up into our turtle shells.

What's happening with Duvall?
Duvall is taking a break right now. We want to play some shows this summer, local stuff, and I would like to get back into the studio at some point this year. There were just a couple of new Duvall songs floating around that we didn't get a chance to record and even if we don't put anything out this year I would like to at least put them up on our website or something just to keep some kind of output flowing from Duvall. Because I really like having Duvall. It's sort of important to me to still have that as an outlet. So I'm going to keep that alive. We might not be very active in the near future, but we're still alive.

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