Fox Valley's Smoking Popes go back to school in new record

  • Local punk-pop band the Smoking Popes are touring behind their new album, "This is Only a Test."

    Local punk-pop band the Smoking Popes are touring behind their new album, "This is Only a Test."

  • The new Smoking Popes record is a concept album about a troubled teenager.

    The new Smoking Popes record is a concept album about a troubled teenager.

Updated 2/15/2011 8:51 AM

After hearing a teen pop song on the radio one day, Josh Caterer, leader of pop-punk band the Smoking Popes, realized he'd never written any songs that take a teenager's point of view.

Not even when he was a teenager.


"I always tried to pretend I wasn't a kid when I wrote stuff in high school," said Caterer, who grew up in Carpentersville and Lake in the Hills and now lives in Elgin. "So I thought it would be fun, now that I'm in my 30s, to go back and try that."

The result is "This is Only a Test," the new record from the Smoking Popes. The record's 10 songs tell the story of a teenager struggling with issues as serious as suicide and as relatively mundane as overbearing coaches.

"I created a character, a high-school student," Caterer said. "And immediately, I got all these ideas for songs. I wrote a song a day for five days, and I never usually write that fast."

The Popes will release the new record on March 15 on indie label Asian Man Records. The band is supporting it with a spring tour, which includes a stop this weekend in Rosemont.

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Caterer said he's pleased with the album, which delivers plenty of the band's signature sound -- punk energy and attitude combined with the heart-on-your-sleeve emotions of the best pop. Consider the opener, "Wish We Were," a rousing, rocking slice of teenage angst, or "I've Got Mono," with its ringing guitars and anthemic chorus.

There are some new musical touches on "This is Only a Test," including the cello-inflected "Letter to Emily," which Caterer counts among his favorites.

"I think that song came together really nicely, and it's so cool to hear cello on a Smoking Popes song," he said. "We've never done that before."

The Popes emerged from McHenry County in the early '90s. Caterer sings and plays guitar, while his brothers Matt and Eli play bass and guitar, respectively. Neil Hennessy plays drums.


The Caterer brothers grew up in a musical household. Their parents had tons of records; Dad favored classic rock and blues, while Mom enjoyed outlaw country by the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

"We listened to everything growing up, then we started getting into metal and then punk stuff like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks," Caterer said.

When the brothers decided to form the Smoking Popes, it didn't take long for the band to get sucked into the alternative-rock revolution of the day. Major label Capitol Records signed the Popes to a deal, and the group's song "Need You Around" landed on the soundtrack to the Alicia Silverstone comedy "Clueless."

Critics and contemporaries -- not to mention pop icon Morrisey -- praised the band, often singling out Caterer's unusual crooning vocals.

But Caterer, disillusioned with the music business, put the band on indefinite hiatus in 1998. He devoted time to his family and his Christian faith. Fans didn't know if the Popes would ever re-form.

"I don't think I was psychologically equipped to handle what we went through in the '90s," Caterer said. "It was overwhelming."

But then, in 2005, the band reunited for a packed show at Chicago's Metro, and the Popes were back. "This is Only a Test" is the third record the band has released since re-forming, and Caterer said he's never felt better about being a Pope.

"I didn't realize how much I missed the band, missed playing with everyone, until we started talking about getting together again," he said. "It feels like we hit the 'refresh' button. There's this new sense of excitement. I think everyone feels better about the band because we're no longer taking it for granted."


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