Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes on the band's new LP
by Interviews

In the early 90s, punk rock was going through a transformation, it was becoming increasingly difficult to categorize and fit into that studded box. One of the first bands to stray from the traditional path was Chicago’s Smoking Popes. Their crooning mix of punk rock, indie rock and pop was innovative as it was catchy. The band is experiencing a re-energization as of late, reuniting with their original drummer for the first time in 20 years and releasing their eighth studio album, Into the Agony, on October 12.

Lead singer and guitarist Josh Caterer spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about the anticipated comeback, the terrific new album as well as his obsession with Judy Garland.

I bet that you're pretty excited about the new album!

Yeah, definitely. We’ve been working on it for a long, long time. We started recording it over a year ago. We didn’t go in and bang it all out. We would go in with like two songs and record those, and a month later, we’d do it again – we kind of piecemealed it. We didn’t’ even have all of the songs written so it was an evolving process. That’s how we did our older stuff…that’s how we did Born to Quit. The fact we have spent the last year of our lives working on this thing, it’s an incredible relief to get it out there and people are going to hear it.

We are particularly proud of this one. This one feel more inspired and more natural and more like a Smoking Popes record than our last couple of records. A lot has to do with Mike Felumlee being back in the band. Playing with him again made us fall into this natural rhythm of playing – it’s hits the reset button on our identity as a band.

So was Mike the missing piece to the Smoking Popes puzzle?

Yeah, he is an essential part of our musical voice. A drummer will do that. Drummers are very important to the sound of a band.

What led to this reunion?

It was born of necessity in a way. We had some shows that Neil couldn’t play with Face to Face here in Chicago. But Neil (Hennessy) couldn’t do them so we had to figure out what we were going to do for a drummer. So we decided to reach out to Mike but we didn’t know if he’d be interested. It just felt like the right thing to do. I don’t know. We hadn’t played together for a variety of reasons which were stupid in retrospect – some childish issues. But when we all got together to practice for the first time, all those things evaporated.

Since forming in 1991, the Smoking Popes have influenced a lot of bands, most notably Alkaline Trio. Are you aware of this impact?

Yeah, we’ll sometimes have musicians tell us that and they listened to us during their formative years. We’re old enough now that we’ve been able to make music that musicians were listening to in junior high. (Laughs) It’s pretty cool.

Is there any pressure to continue to be influential? Especially with the new record?

Well, it was never an intentional thing – it’s not one of our goals. It’s sort of a peripheral part of making music. The thing we’re setting out to do is to make music that we feel good about…we want to be band we’d be excited about listening to if we weren’t in it.

So songs you’d be listening to.

Yeah, when you hear it and think if I wasn’t in the band, I’d be excited to hear this because it speaks to my own musical tastes in an interesting way. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be the biggest band in the world if you do that, but people that share our musical tastes will be excited about it. (Laughs) We just never thought about reaching the widest possible audience. You can’t try to emulate anyone – you just have the best you can naturally be.

Speaking of goals, what are they as a band?

The goal is to be able to continuing to do this – to continue to write and record music that we’re genuinely proud of. Also, it’s getting to play. I feel like the older we get, the more we enjoy playing shows in an almost Zen-like way. There’s something about being in the moment of a show. It’s a meaningful experience for both us and the audience – if things go well. (Laughs) And to live in that space is a goal in itself. Back in the 90s, the touring we were doing for Capitol Records, I was more aware of the various pressures that were surrounding the band – the large corporation putting our music out and we were getting a lot more attention and media coverage. I was thinking a lot more about context and our music career. I don’t see it anymore.

How do you see it?

It’s not just because we’re not on a major label anymore. I feel like, with age, we’ve dropped some of the inhibiting self-consciousness that you might have when you’re in your 20s. Now we can feel a little more comfortable in our own skin and be present in the moment of a performance and enjoy it.

I’m thinking about this conversation I had with Bill Stevenson (drummer, The Descendents) just recently. We just did four shows with The Descendents. On one of those nights, I was able to talk to Bill right before they went on stage. He came into our dressing room before and was kind of hanging out. He was doing some stretching and I asked him about his pre-show rituals – how he gets into the zone. He told me he tries to center himself and focus on his breathing. He also thinks about the fact that he might die tomorrow so all he’s got is this show he’s about to play. He said, “I just need to look at this show like it’s all I’ve got. And I’m going to go out there and spend this wonderful time with my guys, who I love, doing this thing we love doing. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.” I was like, “Yes, Mr. Stevenson.” (Laughs)

Pretty inspiring words…

Yeah, quite honestly, I’ve thought about that a lot since he said that to me. When you’re taking the stage, assume that you’ll be dead by that time tomorrow night. You have to think about what the purpose of this is. It’s not going to get you anywhere other than you are. It can’t be seen as a stepping stone of any kind. It is it’s own reward. That makes for a good show and that makes for a good experience in almost anything you’re doing in life.

What inspired you to write the songs on the new record?

This one is slightly more political than other records we’ve made. I don’t if I’ve written any overtly political songs for the Smoking Popes in the past – so this is sort of a new thing. It’s hard to be a little political these days, given the climate we’re living in. There’s so much to be outraged about every day that that can become overwhelming and I try to intentionally avoid that. I didn’t want this to be an entirely political record and I wanted my politics to fit in with the overall flow of the record – which I feel like we were able to accomplish. There were a couple of big themes I wanted to touch on. One of them was “Little Lump of Coal,” which has to do with the environment – something I care deeply about. In the song, “Melting America,” I’m talking about how we, as a society, are treating immigrants and refugees. It’s about the compassion or lack of compassion we are treating people with.

But with those politics and that environmentalism, this record also has that signature romanticism you’re known for.

Yeah. The kind of romance I end up exploring in songs is romance with a kind of obsessive, darker side to it. I don’t think that necessarily comes across in the tone of our music – we’re not like writing minor key, heavy stuff. When I write about that, I’ve always felt like I’m taking some aspect of myself that I normally try to control or suppress for obvious reasons. Within the context of song, I can explore what it would be like if I didn’t control those things. What if I allowed myself to get as obsessed with someone as I could potentially be. Would that manifest in me actually stalking that person.

Does punk rock have room for romance?

In the beginning it didn’t, depending on where you think punk started. If I trace it back to The Stooges first album, it’s not a particularly romantic record. I don’t think the Sex Pistols were a romantic band. But then soon after that, you have the Ramones writing a lot of great love songs and the Buzzcocks writing a lot of great love songs. Those undertones were a great influence on us. So I think there’s been place for romance since almost the beginning of punk. But it’s become a little more accepted over the decades because you ask if it’s punk or pop punk. Like, pop is the same musical genre The Carpenters were in. So if you’re in any way associated with that, you can be as mushy and as sentimental as you want.

Does that give you license to write sentimental songs?

Yeah. We’ve always been about that. We always felt like we could do whatever we want. I don’t we’ve ever felt a strong sense of being inhibited by the expectations of the scene we were involved in. We’ve always just been lovers of music and I write these songs because I love punk music and I also love the music of Frank Sinatra. Both of those styles of music are equally valid and interesting to me. I want to take part of each and bring them into what I’m doing. Hopefully into a new combination that’s intriguing and I’ve been working on perfecting that over the years.

Speaking of Sinatra, was that the artist that got you into music?

Yeah. Our parents were very musical people. They both had a lot of records and there was always music being played in our house when we were growing up. Our dad had hundreds of LPs. Some of our earliest memories are of listening to The Beatles – our dad had every Beatles record. He let us play his records and we had full access to them and we would discover new music all the time. It was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin. He also liked bluesy music. He had a couple of Muddy Waters records, some John Lee Hooker. He liked this band called the Amazing Rhythm Aces and the Atlanta Rhythm Section – he liked bands with word “rhythm” in them. (Laughs)

So what’s the new album’s title all about?

Well, there’s kind a Judy Garland theme on this record…

Is that Judy Garland on the cover?

Yeah. Aside from a couple of political songs I mentioned before, there’s a song called “When You Want Something” which is about a person who is obsessed with Judy Garland. Again, it’s one of those semi-autobiographical things. I am a really huge Judy Garland fan. (Laughs) The song is an exploration of that aspect of myself and about how if I let it run wild, what that would look like. It’s a comparison with longing a person would have for Judy Garland. Like, feeling connected to her psychicly but separated by time. But comparing that to the longings she had that seemed so powerful they destroyed her. And the song after that, “Get Happy,” is cover of a song Judy Garland did in her movie called Summer Stock.

The idea of Into the Agony intended to encapsulate this exploration of her demons as a way of representing the darkness that could potentially swallow all of us if we let it.

Have you ever let that darkness swallow you before?

I’ve had some bleak periods where I was unhappy but I always had things to anchor me and keep me well balanced. I was in drug rehab at a fairly early age. I’ve never really talked about it. But yeah, I got out of rehab a week before my thirteenth birthday. I was smoking pot on a daily basis…I didn’t experiment with harder stuff until later on. Throughout my teens, I continued some affiliation with NA and AA and ended up getting certain tools that served to ground me and to stay balanced. Later, when we got signed to Capitol, I got reacquainted with substance abuse but it didn’t swallow me completely because I had those tools – this honest self-assessment.

So thinking about all those lessons you learned, how has that led you to this album? To this point with the Smoking Popes?

When I look at Into the Agony, I would point to the final track on the album, “Someday I’ll Smile Again,” as maybe a testament to the kind of abiding hope that I’ve been able to develop over the years. The perspective of that song is maybe not a perspective I always would have had. It’s a perspective that takes time to come to because you have to go through things…you have to come out the other side of them and realize it’s going to be ok. So the next time you go through it, you know you don’t have to despair. That hope has become the faith that is a central part of my life but it’s a hope I want to extend to people through our music. There’s no particular religion associated with it – I just want to give that to people.