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Eight years ago, pop-punk rockers the Smoking Popes found themselves signed to Capitol Records, opening for diverse acts such as the Goo Goo Dolls, Jawbreaker, Green Day, and Morrissey. The band had sold out countless venues and garnered a glowing reputation for its fusion of punk and big-band sounds. Then the Popes' lead singer and guitarist found God, and the world lost one of the most influential rock bands of the Nineties.
"When I came to faith in Christ at the age of 26, it really finally changed everything about the way I looked at life," 34-year-old Josh Caterer explains via phone of his decision to leave his band. "I tended to look at the Christian life in really black-and-white terms because it was sort of all my brain could handle at that time, and part of that was simply saying that the Popes had been part of my old life and now I was a new person, so I needed to renounce that which was in my old life and embrace my new life. And therefore I left the Popes."
And after years of faith-examination and adjustment, Caterer recently realized he could still front a rock band while retaining his beliefs. That has led to the reunion of the Smoking Popes.
"I eventually got to a point where I realized that I had come along far enough in my faith that I could do something like put the Smoking Popes back together without jeopardizing or compromising my faith," Caterer says, "and that basically my being a good Christian didn't depend on me not being in a secular rock band."
Comprising Caterer; his two brothers, Matt and Eli, on bass and guitar, respectively; and Mike Felumlee on drums, the band was destined to be unique, due in no small part to Josh Caterer's early influences, such as Mel Tormé and Elvis Costello, and the way he used those influences in his own music.
"I've always been interested in sort of older music," says Caterer.
Those interests directly contributed to his voice, something that always stood out as an unheard-of aspect of a punk-rock band, and one that has proven to be a key aspect of the band's success. Caterer's croon emerged as the group was experimenting while recording its debut album, Get Fired, which was released on an independent label in 1993. The album fell into the hands of Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, who then asked the band to open for his group at a gig in 1994.
Shortly thereafter, the Popes released their second album, which was re-released by Capitol Records when the band was signed to the label that same year. The re-release led to the band's touring around the country with the Goo Goo Dolls, and also landed their single "Need You Around" in the movie Clueless. However, the Popes didn't fare as well financially as the label would have hoped, and their third album, Destination Failure, was almost permanently shelved before being released in August 1997.
In October of the same year, the band began touring with Morrissey, and Caterer began doubting his success.
"After the band got signed and we started to become successful back there in '95 or '97, a lot of my personal goals were being realized and I was just wondering why I still wasn't happy," Caterer says. "I sort of became preoccupied with death and the fact that all of this was meaningless, like I should be happy that this is happening to me, but it's just so meaningless because we all die. I started to think about that a lot, and it got me down to the point I couldn't go on without finding some sort of connection with God."
Caterer began studying different religions in his spare time, visiting Buddhist temples, meditating, and reading the Bible.
"I was confused by a lot of what I discovered, but through it all, the more I read, the more I searched, the more I realized that Jesus Christ, not only as a teacher but Christ Himself, rang true."
Once he reached this conclusion, Caterer decided that if he was going to embrace his faith, he was going all the way. He left the band and the record deal and began going to church regularly. He recorded religious solo acoustic songs before beginning the Christian rock band Duvall with his brother Eli on bass and Rob Kellenberger on drums.
"At the time, everybody that I knew I think sort of had the same reaction, which was, 'Great, Josh, that you have found something that makes you happy, and that you're doing what you need to do,' but nobody could really relate to where I was coming from," Caterer says. "I think they all thought I was slightly insane, especially my own wife."
Though Caterer has only recently decided he can go back to the Popes while retaining his faith, he doesn't believe that any of the time he took contemplating this choice or his life over the past years was any sort of waste.
"Looking back, it was the right thing to do at that time; I needed to take time off," he says. "I can see the differences that God has made in my life: They have to do with my character and the kind of person that I am it's the very fabric of the person that I am. I have been fundamentally changed by Jesus Christ, and that isn't threatened by getting up and singing öI Need You Around.'"
After Caterer decided a reunion would be okay with God, it wasn't difficult for him to get the okay from everyone else. He had already been playing with Eli in Duvall, and Matt was happy to return to the Popes with his siblings. They recruited Duvall drummer Kellenberger instead of Felumlee, and began rehearsing.
"As we got together and started rehearsing again, we were having so much fun and it just felt so natural that probably after our second rehearsal, we knew it was something we'd want to continue with and run with," Caterer says.
Their one concern: Would anyone care they were coming back? They'd been successful in the past, but it had been years since any Popes songs had been performed live anywhere. However, when tickets went on sale for the Smoking Popes reunion show at the Metro in Chicago this past November, they sold out in about a half-hour.
"It was really encouraging to us that there was a general sense of excitement that seemed to go beyond just our small hard-core following that had followed us from the Popes to Duvall," Caterer says.
When trying to explain how the Popes stay fresh after so many years, Caterer can respond only with comments he's heard from other people. "There's something about what has been expressed through the song that hits people at a genuine gut level and makes them want to listen to it ten years later," he says. "I don't have a formula for it; I'm only really glad that's the case. I'm really glad to be doing this."