Josh Caterer of Smoking Popes
The year was 1994. Punk in its purest form was starting to fade, and a more pop and alternative-rock-based scene was growing by the day. For a little-known band from the suburbs of Chicago called the Smoking Popes, there was the looming task of making a quality sophomore album. That album turned out to be Born To Quit, and it didn’t stay a secret on their small Chicago-based label for long. Through a series of connections in the music industry, lead singer Josh Caterer, his brothers Matt and Eli, and the rest of the band watched as Capitol Records re-released their record in early 1995. They were soon playing venues all over the country and winning over new fans. Their songs started appearing everywhere, including a number of movies like Clueless and Tommy Boy.
With the release of a remastered version of Born To Quit on SideOneDummy Records Oct. 23, the Popes are celebrating the landmark album by playing it in its entirety for their current tour. Before his band’s show at Club Garibaldi Friday, Oct. 19, The A.V. Club caught up with Caterer to talk about revisiting that album, finding the right mix of music and faith in his life, how Green Day helped get them noticed, and his experiences with big and small labels.
The A.V. Club: Besides being one of the band’s biggest albums, what about Born To Quit resonates with you now?
Josh Caterer: Well, it’s pretty much a bunch of love songs. That’s kind of a timeless subject matter. It’s really easy for me to reconnect with those songs because I think nine out of the 10 songs are written about girls. I’ve always enjoyed singing about girls, and I still do.
AVC: Could you tell us a little bit about making the album? When the Smoking Popes started out, they had more punk roots, but then got more pop/alternative around the time of this album.
JC: Born To Quit was the point where we started to slow down a little bit and actually listen to each other playing. Before that, we put more emphasis on playing as fast as we could and with as much energy as we could. So the earlier recordings are exciting to listen to, but they’re a little sloppy. When we made Born To Quit, it was a pretty big step forward in our development as a band. It was the first record we made that the bass guitar actually lined up with what the kick drum was doing, which a lot of casual listeners wouldn’t even have noticed. It creates a much more solid foundation for the music, and we started paying attention to those kinds of things.
AVC: Besides punk bands, you were listening to a lot of other bands like The Replacements.
JC: Yeah, we were listening to The Replacements a lot, and the Ramones and the Buzzcocks and the Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks, as well as a lot of older music. I was listening to a lot of pop music from the ’50s and early ’60s during the time Born To Quit was written. There was this oldies radio station called Magic 104 that I would always listen to in my car. So I would play Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and The Temptations and Buddy Holly and things like that. I think the mood of that era of music made its way into that particular batch of songs that are Born To Quit.
AVC: What are some of the moments from the writing and recording of the album that had the biggest impact on you and the band?
JC: When we made that album we were on a small independent label in Chicago called Johann’s Face Records. We didn’t realize at the time that the album was going to get picked up by Capitol, so we were making the album on a very small budget. In fact, I think we paid for it ourselves. We all worked at our little minimum wage jobs and would save up money to go in and pay for a day at the studio. We recorded the album over a period of several months. We’d go in every few weeks on a Saturday or Sunday and have a recording session where we’d do a couple of songs. We would have to do them quickly. We didn’t have the resources to spend a lot of time getting everything absolutely perfect.
AVC: So kind of a DIY process?
JC: Yeah, but as I mentioned we were trying to be more precise in our approach to making music. So we would actually do more than one take, which was new ground for us.
AVC: This rerelease marks the third label the album’s been released on. So it’s kind of gone full circle from small to large, back to small.
JC: Yes, but SideOneDummy Records is considerably bigger than Johann’s Face Records. Johann’s Face was one guy running the label out of his basement, with his friend helping him. But I don’t think his friend got paid anything. SideOneDummy actually has an office building and they have people that are on staff. So I would call them a medium-sized label. The album went from a small label, to a large label, and now it’s on a medium label.
AVC: So you’ve had quite diverse experiences with labels.
JC: Yeah. Maybe next it will be released on an extra-large label, but I don’t think that’s likely. [Laughs]
AVC: What was it like on a bigger label like Capitol?
JC: Our relationship with Capitol was the end result of a long process of talking to a lot of labels. Pretty soon after Born To Quit came out on Johann’s Face Records we got a call from Green Day’s manager, who was starting his own label that was a subsidiary of a major label. He wanted us to be the first band on that label because the guys in Green Day had been talking about us, which is what really launched our career. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Green Day for getting us signed in the first place. We didn’t end up signing to that label, but the fact that they were interested drew attention to us, and we got a lot of offers from a lot of different labels during that time, which was late 1994 into early 1995. We went out to California and met with Warner Bros., Elektra, and a couple other labels. Ultimately we chose Capitol because it was the smallest of the major labels and we thought we would be able to get the most individual attention from them. And plus I think we were impressed by the fact that we could be on the same label as The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.
AVC: Around 1998-99 the band called it quits and you started getting into Christianity. Could you talk about that period of time?
JC: It has never been my intention to incorporate Christianity in the music of the Smoking Popes as a kind of hidden agenda. I’ve always known that Smoking Popes was not a Christian band. In 1998 when I became a Christian, I did go through a period of time where I would try to talk about my faith on stage at the end of our set. And that didn’t really work out too well. It was not a good format to be doing that. And in early 1999, I quit the band because I really wanted to focus on growing in my understanding of Christianity and reading the Bible and developing a fully developed, mature kind of faith. I did that for several years. I never set out to write a bunch of Christian songs for the Smoking Popes. Instead, I did that in a band called Duval, which was together for a few years before the Smoking Popes got back together. Duval is kind of the Christian version of the Smoking Popes.
But when we reformed the Smoking Popes in 2005, we did so with the understanding that I was not going to be using the Smoking Popes as a platform to preach. Although, also with the understanding that I personally am completely open about the fact that I’m a born again Christian. So I’ll be talking about this in interviews and conversations, onstage or at the club or the merch table. It’s not something I push on people, but it is something I’m totally unashamed of. So I’m going to be representing Christ everywhere that I go, even when I am onstage with the Popes. Not because I’m singing explicitly about Jesus in the Popes, but because people in the audience know that I’m a follower in Christ. So they can see the things I do and the way that I am as a representation of him. Every moment I’m trying to be a good representative of Christ.
The band didn’t break up because of tension about my faith. The tension with my faith was within me. I personally didn’t feel like the Smoking Popes was a good thing for me at the time because I wanted to focus completely on my faith in Christ. So I used several years to do that. When I’m not on tour with the Popes I work at a church and I’m writing worship songs. In fact, I came out with an EP of Christian music, a five-song EP called The Light Of Christ.
AVC: What convinced you to eventually return to the band?
JC: I felt like I was personally ready to come back. It would be very hard for me to describe the process. For a while I just felt like I shouldn’t be in the Smoking Popes, and I wasn’t. Eventually I felt I progressed enough in my faith where I could play with the Smoking Popes again without it being a compromise of the principles of my faith. It took me seven years to realize that it was okay to be in the Smoking Popes.
AVC: After getting back together, the band released two albums, including This Is Only A Test last year. That album was the band’s first concept album. What were you going for with that album?
JC: All the songs on that album were written from the point of view of a senior in high school. It’s not a concept album in the sense that there’s an unfolding storyline over the course of the album—you can really rearrange the songs and it still works. It’s just that each song is a snapshot in the life of this one kid, and all the songs are written from his point of view. Once I got the idea to write from that point of view, I found it very exciting, and the ideas for the songs came very quickly. I had written it faster than I had written any other project. In fact, the first five songs on the album were written in five days.
AVC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned through revisiting Born To Quit?
JC: I’m just glad that people still like the songs and want to hear them. I’m glad that the music still seems to resonate with people. It’s really fun to play these songs. It’s fun to be in the Smoking Popes. I’m grateful for it.