A plume of black smoke is creeping out of a chimney today, and across the frozen Chicago sky. This is the signal letting everyone know that a new Smoking Popes album has been released. Founding members and lifelong brothers, Matt, Eli and Josh Caterer have teamed up with drummer Neil Hennessey of the Lawrence Arms for the new record, called , This is Only A Test. It is the second Popes album they have recorded since reuniting in 2005, and is their first attempt at a concept album. It is a semi-autobiographical account of singer and interviewee Josh Caterer's life in high-school that like most punk rockers, was rife with issues of identity, musical aspiration and teenage suicide. Punknews interviewer Wes Tickle has said his Hail Mary's, taken a swig of Holy Water and is stepping into Pope Josh Caterer's confession booth to find out what the future holds for one of the holiest men in punk rock .
Does the title of the new record, This is Only A Test, mean that you guys are trying something radically different, or will this record be keeping in the Smoking Popes tradition?
Both. Weâve never done a concept album before, so thatâs new for us. And, a couple of the tracks sound totally different than anything weâve ever done before. But there are also some songs on there that feel like old-school Popes songs. Overall, it definitely sounds like a Smoking Popes record.
How is working with Mike Park?
Itâs awesome! We absolutely love working with Mike. Heâs a great guy. Asian Man is the best label ever.
The band is about to start touring. Do you still look forward to the same things that you used too?
Touring gets more fun all the time. I think we enjoy playing shows more now than we ever did before. Weâre totally looking forward to getting out on the road and starting to add some of these new songs to our set every night.
How does singing a song like "Megan" feel different now, as opposed to right after it was written?
It feels different now because people respond to it differently. If a song has been around for a while, people get to know it and the song takes on a certain meaning for them. Like when you meet somebody for the first time, they seem very nice and polite and you shake their hand and say, "Itâs very nice to meet you". But when youâve been good friends with a person for ten years and you havenât seen them in a while, then when you see them again you give them a big hug and say, "Itâs so great to see you! I love you, man!" Thatâs what it feels like when we play "Megan" now. The audience gives it a big hug.
The path that the band has taken until this point led you to separate for a while. Would you change anything about your journey to this point, or was it worth the effort?
I really needed to take that time off. I donât regret it. In fact, I think weâre stronger now and able to make better music than we would have done if weâd stayed together. Taking a break helped us get a better perspective on the band. We have a better sense of who we are and weâre definitely enjoying what we do a lot more than we used to.
In the years that you stopped playing together, technology kept moving forward. How different is the recording world for bands starting or reuniting now, as opposed to when you guys first started out?
Obviously the internet has made it way easier for bands to promote themselves and get their music out there without needing a big label to help them, which is a good thing. Itâs not worth the hassle of trying to get signed to a major and dealing with that whole system because you can do it pretty effectively on your own or on a smaller indie. But technology also makes it easier for people to get music for free, so itâs harder to make money from selling records. You have to earn your money on the road. Which is fine if you enjoy touring, which we do, but it might not be so great when weâre in our 70âs.
Are you surprised at all by the amount or the types of people showing up at your gigs since youâve reunited?
When we got back together, we werenât sure if everybody in the audience would be the same age as us. It was really cool and kind of surprising to see that we had picked up a lot of new fans and younger fans during our time off.
How is the Chicago scene different? Or the same? Is it snowing?
There are a lot more bands than there used to be, which is cool. And yes, it is snowing. It is brutally cold and covered with snow and ice.
Who is the best Pope of all time?
A little more seriously… What would you say to someone who feels isolated from the rest of their family and because of their faith, or on the other hand, a family that feels religion is taking someone from them?
I would say itâs natural, if you have a deep conviction about something you believe in, that you might feel isolated from people who donât share that belief. Thatâs true of religion and politics, right? These are very divisive subjects. But I think thereâs a way to stand firmly for what you believe without hitting people over the head with it. I mean, you wanna make sure that if people are rejecting you, itâs really because they have a problem with what you stand for, not just because youâre being annoying.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the Punknews readers about what the future holds for The Smoking Popes?
Our plan is to rock harder than ever in 2011. We hope to see you out there!