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The Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer Talks New EP, ‘Born To Quit’ Reissue

The Smoking Popes
Jared Scott

Chicago pop-punk band the Smoking Popes first rose to prominence in the ’90s, thanks to the song ‘Need You Around.’ A tune from their second album, 1994’s ‘Born To Quit,’ it showcased the group’s unique alchemy of lounge-lizard vocals and driving rock guitars. Although the Popes’ third album, 1997’s ‘Destination Failure,’ maintained their commitment to smart, quality songwriting–and the band toured with Morrissey following its release–it didn’t chart. The band broke up in 1999.

Six years later, however, they reunited—and since then, they’ve released two albums and toured on a frequent basis. On May 1, the band will reveal more new music: the ‘Complete Control Sessions’ EP. The EP, which is part of an ongoing live-recording series released by the California label Side One Dummy, features five tracks: two older tunes (‘Writing A Letter,’ ‘Grab Your Heart And Run’), two new songs (‘Let’s Call It Love,’ ­­and ‘Hey Renée’) and a cover (‘I Dreamed A Dream,’ from the Broadway musical ‘Les Misérables’).

As the band prep for the release of ‘Complete Control Sessions’ and the long-awaited reissue of ‘Born To Quit,’ singer/songwriter Josh Caterer checked in from his home in Elgin, Ill.—45 minutes northwest of Chicago—to talk about their forthcoming activity.

Where was the ‘Complete Control Sessions’ EP recorded?
We went into Atlas Studios here in Chicago, which is where we recorded our last album [2011’s ‘This Is Only A Test’]. We’ve done some work there before. We know [producer] Matt Allison really well; we’ve done a bunch of work with him. That’s part of why we weren’t too worried about the more live approach in the studio, because we knew that he’s so good at mixing, he could basically make it sound great. [laughs] He could help cover up any of the blemishes that may exist.

The cover on the EP, ‘I Dreamed A Dream,’ is a difficult song to sing.
It is. It’s a difficult song to sing if you’re trying to sing it like some of the people you’ve heard sing it. The key with any of these things is to make it your own and bring it onto your own turf, so you can feel comfortable singing it your way. That’s what I always try to do.

What drew you to that tune in particular?
It was really seeing Susan Boyle perform it on that show, I think it was called ‘Britain’s Got Talent.’ That clip of her—she’s wearing an old, raggedy dress; she just looks like kind of a frumpy mom. She does not appear to be a person who’s about to blow your mind. And then she launches into that tune, and instantly you’re just like—it just puts a lump in your throat. It’s like something from a movie that is happening in real life.

Right after that [performance] happened, we put together our own arrangement of the song, and we played it at a few shows. It went over pretty well, because it was timely; everybody was familiar with her at the time. But that was a couple years ago, and we haven’t played it in a while. We didn’t know if we would ever record it, but this particular project seemed like a good opportunity to get our version of that down on tape for posterity.

The two new songs you wrote–are they in the vein of your last record? How did you approach them?
Well, because we’re about to reissue ‘Born To Quit’—and we’ve been playing those songs a lot lately to gear up for playing the entire album when we tour for it this summer—our heads have been in ‘Born To Quit’ world. I feel like that’s how I approached the songwriting.

I tried to put myself back into the spirit of songwriting I was doing at that time, as an exercise. It was almost like the way I decided to write all the songs on our last album from the point of view of a high school senior. I often find it liberating to figure out what the limitations are, and what the box is that I’m writing in. It sort of gives me a specific target to shoot for. In a way, it would seem confining—or somehow fabricated or something—to do that in advance. But from a creative point of view, I actually find it very freeing to make a decision like that.

So I decided, “Why don’t I write a couple of ‘Born To Quit’-type songs?” There’s two basic kinds of songs that are on ‘Born To Quit’: One is the uptempo punk song with slower, crooning lyrics; the other is the midtempo pop song. I wrote one of each.

When you go back and listen to ‘Born To Quit’ now, what are your thoughts on it?
Well, what I realized when I started re-listening to that stuff…I mean, we’ve been playing those songs consistently since that album came out. But it’s not like I sit around listening to it. In my mind, the songs become our current live versions of them. It’s possible to lose sight of what was going on when you originally recorded them.

When I started going back and listening to them just recently, I was reminded of the dichotomy between the driving energy of the music and the slower, more exaggerated vibrato of the vocal. There’s a tension between those two things, which was taking two different eras of music and putting them in a blender. [You take the] more modern pop-punk and then more classic crooner, Frank Sinatra-era music, and blend them up. What comes out is a smoothie that tastes like the Smoking Popes.

And that was something we were experimenting with back then, and I was experimenting with as a songwriter and vocalist. I feel like I never really carried it further than that, because when we did our next album, I wasn’t focusing on that tension anymore. I was in a different headspace. We’ve never really gone back to fully exploring that particular musical combination. And so I got sort of excited about revisiting that and maybe exploring some of that space a little further.

When you guys first started doing that musical combination, it was a lot more novel. I think a lot of bands took inspiration from you guys and took the style further.
The thing you’ve heard in more recent years is that people in punk bands aren’t afraid to actually sing anymore. Maybe people were a little sheepish about that. But it’s become acceptable to sing in a punk band. [laughs]

I don’t hear a lot of people in their writing actually exploring the older, more traditional structures of songwriting. Like listening to songs that were written by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern and people like that, and trying to capture the ethos of some of those songs. [Trying to capture] the mentality of where those songs were coming from—and bring[ing] those into a modern setting.

That’s the part that fascinates me, even more so than the surface thing, which is the sound of somebody seeming to croon over punk music. That’s just a sonic thing. There’s something more at the heart of the song—there’s a vibe that existed in that older songwriting that is really awesome that you don’t hear people bringing into the modern age very much anymore. That’s what I’m interested in exploring.

On the traditional tip, then: I love that a couple got engaged during your New Year’s Eve show last year. Is that the first time that’s happened to you guys?
Yeah, that’s the first time it’s happened to the Smoking Popes. It did happen once at a Duvall [Caterer’s other band] show several years ago. But it was during the same song, “Mrs. You And Me.” That’s always the proposal song.

The video of the engagement was very sweet—I was touched by that.
It was very touching to be asked. The person contacted us and asked if he could propose during our set. That’s such a personal thing—and it’s a huge part of their life, it’s something they’ll always remember. So it’s really wonderful to be invited to be a part of that; to be a part of their lives in that way is really cool.

Do you have any concrete plans for the ‘Born To Quit’ reissue or the summer tour?
I don’t think we have a date for the reissue; it’s just going to be sometime during the summer. The EP is going to come out in the spring, and the reissue will be in the summer.

After the release of the EP and the reissue, what are your plans for the rest of 2012?
Well, if the reissue happens in the summer, I’m sure we’ll be touring on that for the rest of the year. And then in 2013, we’ll think about doing a studio album of new Popes stuff.

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