In the days before there was an Alkaline Trio (and seemingly an epoch before Fall Out Boy), SMOKING POPES were Chicago’s premier pop-punk outfit, stamping their own personality on a well-established genre. The band split up in 1998, but their memory lived on in the hearts of those who helped fill up Chicago’s Metro for the Popes’ Flower15 reunion show last November. But this is no nostalgia trip–the Popes are going for it again. STORY: Scott Heisel

The back stairwell leading up to the stage of venerable Chicago venue the Metro is heavily tagged with graffiti. At first glance, you’ll see plenty of names suited better for a This Is Spinal Tap-esque farce than a legitimate marquee. Upon closer inspection, Chicago scene stalwarts Alkaline Trio and their skull-in-a-heart logo appear multiple times, presumably once for each performance. If you really take the time to examine the peeling paint through the dim lighting, you may discover scrawls from Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, both dated from over a decade ago, etched in the hallway. But no matter how hard you search, looking for the words “Smoking Popes” will inevitably end in failure.

This isn’t to say that, at some point in their original seven-year tenure of 1991-98, the hopelessly romantic, wonderfully morose Chicago pop-punk quartet–made up of the brotherly trio of vocalist/guitarist Josh Caterer, guitarist Eli Caterer and bassist Matt Caterer, as well as drummer Mike Felumlee–didn’t apply their John Hancocks to some square inch of the Metro’s cracked plaster. But, in typical Popes fashion, if it is there, it’s been overlooked for years and probably appreciated only by a select few.

A few minutes before midnight on Nov. 11, 2005–almost seven years to the day after the band last headlined the Metro–the Caterer brothers, alongside new Popes drummer Rob Kellenberger (Slapstick, Tuesday, Colossal, Duvall), ascended the steps to the stage where a sold-out crowd awaited their return. That last headlining show, Nov. 25, 1998, was at the tail end of the band’s career (Josh broke up the band in February 1999). To mark their return, the band recorded their comeback show for Live At The Metro, a CD/DVD coming out later this month on Victory Records–and to support the disc, the band are heading out on tour with Bayside, one of many bands who owe their sound to the Popes [see sidebar]. AP sat down with Josh Caterer to discuss the band’s past, present and future.

How do you think the reunion show went?

JOSH CATERER: I think it went great. I was so happy with how the show turned out. I don’t think we could have asked for a better reunion-show experience.

Did you ever think you would be getting back together? After the Popes breakup, you fully embraced your Christianity and denounced secular rock music, going so far as to label the Popes as “a waste of time” in a 2000 interview. How did you reconcile the band with your new self?

At the time that we broke up, I didn’t think we would ever get back together. My feeling that the Popes were a waste of time really was a product of the profound shift in my worldview that had taken place. In a larger sense, it was true that for me, the Popes were a waste of time, if that’s what I was looking [at] to give my life a deeper sense of meaning, or to answer any of the larger questions I had about life or why I was here. I think I was putting a lot of pressure on the Popes to fulfill me in a way that only God can fulfill a person. So, coming to know God in my life woke me up to the fact that the way I was approaching the Popes was a waste of time.

I think another part of why I stayed away from the Popes for so long is because, you know, when I was in the Popes the first time around, my whole lifestyle was not very positive. I was drinking, using drugs… just generally not living the way that I should have been living. And then when I came out of that and my life turned around, when I looked back, I associated being in the Popes with being the person I used to be. And I think it took me years to be able to separate that, and realize I had grown enough in my faith to feel secure in the person that God has made me into, to where I can get up onstage and sing Smoking Popes songs without completely regressing. I don’t have to be afraid of that happening.

Do you feel like you lose some of the passion behind the songs, then?

It’s a different kind of passion that I have for it now. Whereas, I think before, because I wasn’t doing well personally, I was connecting with the songs on a more negative emotional level, so I was able to sing the songs passionately, but it was a bad kind of passion. [Laughs.] Whereas now, I’m having a lot more fun. I’m able to approach rock music in general with more of an appreciation for just how fun it’s supposed to be. I don’t think I’m taking it more seriously than I’m supposed to.

Did you not have that feeling when you were working on your post-Popes band, Duvall?

I also felt that way in Duvall. As soon as we got Duvall together, I started having more fun than I ever had had the first time the Popes were around.

To me, Duvall is a version of the Smoking Popes that is specifically intended to be a way of expressing my faith lyrically. So, that’s the real distinction. I never intended for there to be much of a distinction musically.

Is Duvall over?

Duvall is sort of in hibernation right now; it’s definitely not over.

Mike Felumlee wasn’t a part of the reunion show. Why?

That was really a mutual decision between Mike and the rest of the band. I called him and talked to him about the fact that we were thinking about doing some kind of reunion, but we talked about the fact that our working relationship had gotten a little bit… strained over the years, and that it might not be a great idea for us to get back into a van with each other. That was his feeling about it, and that was our feeling about it. There’s definitely not any bad blood.

But, you know, that sort of happened when Mike left Duvall a few years ago. And again, it was not that we were fighting or anything, it’s just that we weren’t having as much fun together as we should’ve been, because our communication wasn’t that great. When you play with somebody for that long–and when you just know somebody for that long–you develop certain baggage and stuff. In this case, the baggage slightly outweighed the fun we would’ve had playing together. It’s supposed to be fun.

At one point during your reunion set, Eli said, “This is the most fun I’ve had in seven years.” Would you say the rest of you share that feeling?

I’ll tell ya… Even though I can’t remember any specific thoughts, I do remember that there was just this feeling; it was an amazing feeling to be on that stage. There was so much positive energy coming at us from the crowd. Matt and I talked about it afterwards, and just to compare it to when the Popes used to play at the Metro, there was a lot of energy back then, but it wasn’t all positive energy. It was a slightly different kind of energy. [Laughs.] This was just… there was a smile on every face. It really felt like a celebration. There was just this huge feeling that everyone was so happy that this was happening. That show sold out faster than any Smoking Popes show in our history. The Popes sold out the Metro years ago, but never in 36 minutes.

You seem like a very soft-spoken person. Do you ever feel like you’re not being heard the way you want to be?

I like to have the music speak for itself. I don’t really think that public speaking is my forte.

But public singing is.

Well, yeah. The words are already written; it’s like you’re reciting a script. I feel more comfortable singing in front of a crowd than speaking, especially when I’ve got loud music to sing along with.

So, is this upcoming tour a one-time thing, or is this a permanent reunion?

It is a permanent reunion. We are planning on doing an album of new material at some point–although we don’t have any of the details of that worked out; when, where, any of that.

So are you signed to Victory, then?

Um… [Sighs.] We’ve been talking to some people, but without wanting to be enigmatic, we’re not really able to discuss any of those details. But we’re going with Victory just for this release.

Looking at Chicago now, there are bands as big as Alkaline Trio and Fall Out Boy who are giving you a lot of credit. Do you think this is your time to reclaim the throne? Are you looking to put yourself back on top?

Well, it’s hard to determine where we are, because we’ve only played one show in the past seven years. [Laughs.] There is a real sense of excitement in the band right now to just see what this is going to look like when we fire up this Popes machine again. Because up to this point, it’s all conjecture. There are bands out there that are claiming us as an influence, and you get all this feedback about how important we were, and how exciting it would be… But it’s another thing to actually get up in front of people and actually start playing, and start working at it and see how far you can take it.

It seems, at this point, that there’s more excitement about us being together than there was the first time, but it’s a different kind of excitement. The first time, it was, you get signed, and you’re a buzz band, and there’s this sort of flashy excitement that goes along with that. But this time, it seems like just by virtue of the material being around all these years, people have a different kind of excitement about it. There’s a larger fanbase of people who are familiar with the material in a deeper way. The songs have sort of proven themselves over time in a way that just changes the tone of the energy that we get from an audience that wasn’t even possible the first time around.

You’re 33 and married, and I’m sure you’re not the only member of the band who has settled down. How hard are you really going to go at this? How hard can you go at this?

This is my biggest goal for the upcoming year: to find a reasonable balance between working hard enough to make the Popes as successful as it can be, but on the other hand, not destroying my family in the process. My kids are young, and I want to be there, to be their dad. I don’t want to turn around and have them be teenagers, and I missed it.

Jump 20 years ahead from now: What is it you want to show your kids musically to explain things to them?

I think when you look at things in a big-picture way like that, I guess I would have to say that the thing I would want to convey to my kids musically is the stuff that I’m saying through Duvall and my other worship music. I really want them to get that.

So is being in a secular rock band Daddy’s little secret?

Well, it’s for fun. It’s entertainment. There’s nothing inherently evil about entertainment. But there’s nothing particularly edifying about it, either. So, as far as things I’d actually want to pass onto my kids or teach them, I want them to know the Lord. And whatever else they get out of life is gravy. I’m pretty content with my relationship with God. So I guess I could say that the Smoking Popes is gravy. And I like gravy. [Laughs.] alt