Pop-punk band Smoking Popes formed a full two decades ago. To still be playing music is the last thing lead singer Josh Caterer ever expected.
“I don’t know that I ever thought about what I’d be doing 20 years later when we started this band,” he said. “You always think you are going to be dead, and then it turns out you aren’t dead, so you have to figure out what you are going to do. I’m just glad I’m still alive.”
They’ve done more than just survive; although not a household name, Smoking Popes inspired many groups that are. Fall Out Boy and Alkaline Trio both hold the Chicago-based quartet up as the act that inspired them to form. Green Day, Morrissey and Jimmy Eat World were also admirers. They inked a deal with Capitol Records in 1994 before deciding that pressure didn’t suit them.
“We were and always have been an indie band,” Caterer said. “It just took us some time on a major label to realize that.”
Soon after that departure, Caterer converted to Christianity and left the group, feeling that the two lifestyles couldn’t co-exist. Smoking Popes disbanded in early 1999.
“Because I didn’t grow up in church, I didn’t have any previous familiarity with that faith. It was a shock to my system. I couldn’t conceive of my life up to that point being compatible with moving forward as a follower of Christ. There was some conflict there, for me.” Caterer said. “It took a few years to get established and realize I was mature enough to play in a rock band without compromising my faith.”
The band reformed in 2005, and oddly enough, that extended break is probably the biggest contributing factor to the longevity Smoking Popes enjoys today.
“Taking the break helped me to get my life in perspective and to be a happier and more productive person. It helped us enjoy what we were doing,” Caterer said. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Smoking Popes has released four albums — all on small, indie labels — in just six years, including its latest, “This Is Only a Test.” Despite being more than a few years removed from adolescence, Caterer wrote it through the perspective of a teenage boy dealing with finding his identity,.
“The process of writing this record was exhilarating to me. It was freeing to have a concept to contain the writing,” Caterer said. “It made the writing feel like it had direction.”
The group will re-release its seminal LP, 1995’s “Born to Quit,” soon, and plans for another new album are in the works. No end is in sight, unless the group works itself to death.
“We used to complain about touring because it’s hard, but now we love it. It hasn’t gotten easier; we’ve just realized the stuff we like about it is a lot bigger than what we don’t,” Caterer said. “I like the fact that we will go somewhere and set up our instruments and people will pay to see us play. It’s hard not to take that for granted.”