The Smoking Popes first got together during their Lake in the Hills high school days. Some twenty years later, they’re back - with a concept record that revisits teenage life. By their own account the band has gone through a couple of lives in the past two decades.
Wednesday, they’ll kick off their tour with a showcase at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. But first they sat down with Eight Forty-Eight music reporter Althea Legaspi. Frontman Josh Caterer shared the latest chapter in the band’s history and the story behind their new album, This is Only a Test, which comes out Tuesday.
SONG “Wish We Were”
“I said, ‘OK, I’m a teenager again and the first image that popped to my mind was, there’s this girl, I’ve got a crush on her, she doesn’t know I exist.’ Boom there you go,” Smoking Popes singer, songwriter and guitarist Josh Caterer said. “And then the song just wrote itself after that.
The song “Wish We Were” is from their first concept album called This is Only a Test. The idea came to Caterer after hearing a teenage pop song on the radio. He says he never wrote from a teenage perspective, even when he was one. So he wrote the song as if he were a male high school senior. And for five consecutive days, songs came tumbling out quickly.
“If you’re just gonna write a song, it could be about anything. And you’re like, ‘What do I want to say about life now?’” Caterer explained. “But here I had like this little list of topics that I think would apply to teen life, and looking back on my own life, but not wanting to be really autobiographical.”
There is a resemblance to Caterer, though. There’s a funny song about having mono, and a power ballad about not wanting to go to college. Both of those mirror Caterer’s life. Smoking Popes’ lyrics have shades of British rock star Morrissey’s wry sense of humor. And it’s evident in “Excuse Me, Coach.”
SONG “Excuse Me Coach”
“There was a kind of duality going on in the song anyway because here’s this kid and he just got dumped, and he’s like too depressed to participate in gym class that day, which is a very, you know it’s just a very teenage thing to be happening,” Josh said of the song.
SONG “This is Only a Test”
Other lyrics deal with more serious issues, despite the upbeat sound. The character struggles with identity. Caterer describes him as a disaffected punk in spirit, a guy who through the course of the album learns how to cope and survive.
“This kid is able to, you know, take a step back and get a perspective on life that allows him to see this high school world that we’re living in is not the real world. And maybe that’s something I’ve been able to bring to it as an adult, since I’ve, you know. had years to separate me from that environment – I don’t know if you can see that as well in high school,” Caterer said. “So who knows? Maybe that’s gonna be helpful to some teenage kid who’s listening to the album, and just realizing that these people who appear to be your enemies because they’re just prevailing over you in these different situations, you know that’s not gonna last and you’ve got things within you that are valuable, but maybe not appreciated, right now. But like in the real world these things you’ve been gifted with are gonna have a chance to shine.”
SONG “Letter to Emily”
The album ends on a poignant note with “Letter to Emily,” a song about suicide. “This was a letter just to sort of deal with that that sense of guilt that a person can have about ‘even if I didn’t know this person that well, maybe if I had reached out, maybe I could have impacted this person’s life and helped them. But now I’ll never know,’” Caterer explained. “I think that’s something you know that every kid in high school, if there’s a kid at school who’s committed suicide, every kid who’s had contact with them is affected in that way to some extent.”
SONG “Need You Around”
That yearning to help and seek understanding parallels Smoking Popes own story. Core members and brothers Josh, Matt and Eli Caterer formed the group in 1991. Their indie debut album and their robust shows got them noticed. Their sophomore album Born to Quit appeared on major label Capitol Records in 1995; Destination Failure followed in 1997. Those album titles foreshadowed what came next. Caterer unexpectedly called it quits in 1999. He says at the time he thought being in a rock band was incompatible with his newly found faith.
“It took me a period of years to be able to come back to the band and feel comfortable in the environment of the Smoking Popes without feeling like being in that environment is going to cause me to compromise my faith,” Caterer revealed. “And also it not feeling like as a perquisite to be in that environment I have to evangelize from the stage, you know, which would be a compromise to the integrity of what the Smoking Popes are trying to do … Our whole breakup and reformation for me was just a process of working that out.”
SONG “Punk Band”
They reunited in 2005 and This is Only a Test is their second studio album since they regrouped. Caterer says the song “Punk Band” encapsulates the spirit of who Smoking Popes are now. He references Iggy Pop in the song, who inspires Caterer with his career longevity and riveting performances
“It’s a privilege to be able to participate in that…That at least is an attitude that we’ve been able to have during the more recent years of our career. I don’t think we had that during the ‘90s when we got signed and we were going through that stuff. I think we were a little bit too self-absorbed and not quite capable of handling what was going on,” Caterer said. “But I think that now we have a much more defined sense of who we are as a band who are audience is, what our relationship is to them and a lot of that external stuff that sort of has to do with the trappings of your career and stuff. We’re able to forget that when we’re onstage and just really enjoy the moment.”
Looking back through the eyes of a teenager, Smoking Popes have gained a mature perspective.