Interview with vocalist Josh Caterer | By John B. Moore
Smoking Popes’ 2011 record, This Is Only a Test, could very well have served as a swan song for the band’s decades-long career. Brothers Josh, Matt, and Eli Caterer, alongside newish drummer Neil Hennessy, were more than happy to get together and play a handful of shows in their native Chicago and other nearby Midwest stops every now and then, and that seemed to be enough for all involved.
However, when Hennessy moved out of state a few years ago, with three shows already booked, they sought to rekindle a once-strained friendship with original Smoking Popes drummer Mike Felumlee.
So began a slow process that ended up resulting in a full-on reunion and, surprisingly, an album of all-new material. On Oct. 12, Smoking Popes will release Into the Agony on Asian Man Records.
Vocalist Josh Caterer takes a moment to fill fans in on what finally brought the band back together.
I’m surprised but obviously stoked that you have a new record. I thought This Is Only a Test might have been your last album of new material.
Well, I guess we thought maybe This Is Only a Test might be our last album.
How did this new record come about? When did you start working on these songs?
In 2015, we reunited with our original drummer, Mike Felumlee, and as soon as that happened, there was a shift in an energy in the band. We all felt inspired by that reunion, and the new songs just flowed naturally out of that. We had been playing and touring with Neil Hennessy; he had played on This Is Only a Test and toured with us on the  Born To Quit tour, [celebrating the rerelease of the 1995 album]. We just, for a variety of reasons, decided to stop touring and to be a band that just played a handful of shows around the Midwest as a kind of hobby or something.
We had some shows with Face To Face in Chicago, and we had booked and confirmed them, but then, Neil couldn’t do them. We had to get a replacement drummer and decided to contact Mike; we hadn’t talked to him in a while. He said, “Let’s give it a try.” We were all sort of open-minded, and as soon as we got together and practiced for the first time, all of those things evaporated and we felt like we were the Smoking Popes again.
Was that an odd feeling, after playing without him for so long, to turn around and see him on the drums again?
Neil’s a fantastic drummer, and I really enjoyed playing with him, but there’s just something about Mike’s drumming. With any band that has its own voice, all of the individual players are essential to that. Each of those gears have to be in place in order for that band to have that sound. I’m reminded of an interview that I heard with Iggy Pop after he started playing with the Asheton brothers again when they did the Stooges reunion. I remember Iggy saying, as soon as he got together and played with the Asheton brothers again, he said he realized he had been in a Stooges cover band for the last 25 years. I think there’s something to that with us. You could argue that the drummers and guitar players that Iggy had put together over the years were technically better than the Asheton brothers, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something about the personality to the playing that those guys bring to the table.
We’re not necessarily comparing ourselves to The Stooges, but the principle is the same. I hadn’t thought, “Let’s get Mike back in the band and start working on a new album, and let’s do a tour.” We just thought it would be cool to play those shows with him, but there was just something about the chemistry there that inspired those songs. The songs started coming really easy after that.
Did your songwriting style change at that point?
I sort of felt that the songwriting I had been doing for the previous albums, certainly [This Is Only a] Test and [2008’s] Stay Down—I look back, and I feel like they’re good records, and I’m proud of them; there are some good songs on them, but I do feel like, in the writing, there was kind of a grasping for who we are as a band. I was trying to write for what I thought the musical identity or musical voice of our band was. I didn’t necessarily have a firm grasp on that yet. In the previous incarnation of the band, in the ’90s, I was just writing to write. I wasn’t worried about how I was going to write Smoking Popes songs, because we were the Smoking Popes. But then, we got back together and had a different drummer, and there was something about the way that felt that caused me to try to find that voice again. I never totally felt that I found it until we got Mike back in the band. Then, immediately, I felt like I was writing from a place where I wasn’t trying to redefine our identity again; I was just writing a song from a less self-conscious place.
Do you think part of the reason why things are working out so well now can be chalked up to maturity? You are obviously older now and have lived since the band first split in the late 1990s. With families and lives outside the band, maybe the things you were arguing about before just weren’t that important in retrospect?
Oh, yeah. I think 90 percent of it is just maturity. You get a clearer perspective of what’s important in life as you get older. You stop worrying about the dumb stuff. Also, I think part of the maturing process was all of us individually came to the point where we realized how much we enjoyed playing in this band. I don’t know how to describe it, but on a basic level, the act of playing music with this band and playing shows is just enjoyable to us. I think we discovered, over time, how much we loved it without realizing it and how much we cherish it now. We sort of took it for granted.
With everything that has happened to the band, the mere act of playing music together was a part of the puzzle. Once you get signed to a big label and you have all of these other things to consider—how your music is being marketed and distributed, and you’re looking at SoundScan numbers and trying to be strategic about everything, and you have A&R guys talk to you about your career—the sheer joy of playing music with a few guys who you’re connected with is lost in the shuffle. We had to put it on the back burner and minimize it for a few years to eventually realize we want to do that simply because we love to do that. We don’t need to be the next big thing in order to justify that. To just be able to play together, the most enjoyable way is with these particular four guys playing together.
So, it seems like you are sort of back to where you started with those first couple of albums, before signing to Capitol Records.
Yeah. I think, in many ways, our career is similar to the romantic relationship between Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood—her untimely death aside. The first marriage didn’t work out, they went their separate ways and, eventually, realized they were both meant to be together. There’s got to be a better example—maybe Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith? Are they still together?
I know you are doing a small tour with Descendents. Do you have plans to do a longer tour together once the record comes out?
Yes. I think our approach is going to be, instead of touring the entire country in six or eight weeks, we’ll break it up into two-week runs with a little bit of space in between. But we are planning on covering all of the U.S. and Canada in the tour cycle of this record over the next year.