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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

The Smoking Popes Revisit High School

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The Smoking Popes' punchy pop-punk, sensitive lyrics and crooned vocals helped influence the first strains of Midwestern emo during the early '90s, when they were one of the most popular bands in Chicago. Helmed by the three Caterer brothers and a series of different drummers, they released three albums, including two for Capitol Records, before breaking up in '98. They returned six years ago and released their fifth album, Stay Down, in 2008.

This March they followed that record with their sixth and possibly best album, This Is Only a Test, a concept album from the perspective of a teenager that recounts those early growing pains and yearnings. It includes worries about the future (“This Is Only a Test,” “How Dangerous”), expressions of ambivalence (the Nirvana-ish power chord rocker “Freakin Out,” the Ben Folds-style piano power ballad “College”) and the enthusiastic freedom ode, “Punk Band,” where frontman Josh Caterer announces his desire to be like Iggy Pop, proclaiming, “If it gets me nowhere, I'll go there proud.” While suffused with youthful angst, there's a strain of resilience and even humor running through the album.

“The older you get, the more it seems like the problems that young people, particularly adolescents, are wrestling with seem disproportionate,” Josh Caterer explains. “[When you're young] you have this tendency not to see beyond the borders of your world. This is a super-pathetic thing to say, but the older you get, the more you can identify with James Dean's dad in Rebel Without a Cause.”

Caterer didn't expect to be in this position. He ended the Smoking Popes 13 years ago after discovering Christ. He felt that being a rock 'n' roller was incompatible with his faith and that “God wanted me to quit the band.” After taking time off to find himself and have his first child, Caterer started a new band, Duvall (his younger brother Eli would later join on bass). They recorded two full-lengths and an EP with a strong undercurrent of Christianity. Ultimately, Caterer grew frustrated with the band.

“I'm proud of the music we made in Duvall, but there are ways in which Duvall was a failed experiment,” he says, expressing discomfort with the band's live show. “I felt there was an element of bait-and-switch evangelism going on—like you paid to have someone evangelize to you without realizing that's what you were paying for.”

Since he's returned to the Popes, he's brought his two worlds into better balance, saving the devotional music for church.

“Now I've been on staff at a church as a worship leader for a long time at a couple different churches, and I'm able to write worship songs that are used in church services—having that outlet, I don't feel I have to put that burden on the Smoking Popes,” he says. “They can just be what they are.”

Caterer counts the Popes lucky to be where they are. Many bands make comebacks that go unnoted. Though the Popes' heartfelt romanticism and hooky, high-energy music offered a template for many future emo bands, there was no guarantee they'd be remembered, let alone appreciated, when they reunited.

“Not only had we not played in seven years, but we hadn't done anything to promote ourselves,” Caterer recalls. “It was all just word of mouth for seven years and then we got back together and not only did the show go well in Chicago, but the tour we did after that was really well attended. There was lots of excitement in all the cities we went to. We were just floored by that and really encouraged.”

Having been making music with his brothers since they were teenagers more than two decades ago, Caterer knows how fickle fate can be, and is thankful for the blessings he has.

“Success in music is such a fleeting thing. It's not something you can nail down. It's like mercury,” he says. “One day you're playing Lollapalooza in front of 8,000 people, six months later you're in Virginia playing for 15. I'm doing this because I love it even when it's only for 15 people.”

The Smoking Popes and Braid share a bill Thursday, Dec. 22, at Turner Hall Ballroom. Doors open at 7 p.m.