Caterer was in Milwaukee on December 22 to play Turner Hall Ballroom with his band, the Smoking Popes. Caterer is lead singer/guitarist, joined by his brothers Eli Caterer on guitar and Matt Caterer on bass. Neil Hennessey plays drums.
Warming up the crowd for the main event, Milwaukee’s Braid, the Smoking Popes arrived in punk fashion—late for their soundcheck, quickly plugged in and jammed out a few notes, and then headed backstage to relax. With a cup of tea. Josh Caterer and I found a place in the closed balcony to chat.
The 90’s pop punk band disbanded in 1998 following Caterer’s conversion to Christianity. Shelving the Smoking Popes, forming a Christian band, Duvall, and becoming involved in leading worship at a church, Caterer’s life changed directions.
Then in 2005, the Smoking Popes reunited, started playing and recording, and since then, they’ve been working their way back into the scene. Now, Caterer finds space both for leading worship (now at Village Church of Barrington in Chicagoland) and playing out with the Smoking Popes.
What’s the difference between life before the hiatus and now? Caterer says that he’s able to “enjoy life more, able to have a better perspective on life, and enjoy the band for what it is instead of a pseudo-spiritual transcendent thing.” Now he places the spiritual focus on Jesus, and the band becomes something he gets to do but doesn’t become an idol.
When the band takes the stage, they charge ahead right away with Destination Failure’s “Before I’m Gone”—a big punk sound played to a crowd that was mainly too old to mosh. At times during the set, I heard a Husker Du influence; sometimes I heard Jimmy Eat World parallels (“Wish We Were”). They would take a punk mellow meandering ballad (“Star Struck One”) and go right into a speeding bullet one.
“My Lucky Day” (Born to Quit) had a hint of twang, just a hint, like how the Replacements used to flirt with country. There’s also a glimmer of the Smithereens there. “Let’s Hear It For Love” shows a Ramones influence as they blasted through the hopeful, yearning song that pointed to Caterer’s search even before it began.
Towards the end of the set, Caterer set down his guitar and did a tad bit of Morrissey with the mic as he did a croon-over-the-punk vocal.
One of the touchpoints for me comes from knowing that Morrissey celebrated the Smoking Popes back in the 90’s, so much so that they were invited to tour with Moz. Caterer reflected on this now saying “it was surreal” to be near this “iconic figure” from whom Caterer had listened to while trying to learn how to sing. “I spent way too many hours listening to The Queen is Dead and Louder Than Bombs staring up at the Smiths poster on the ceiling.” I asked Caterer if he stayed in touch with Morrissey. “He’s not the kind of person that stays in touch.”
The Smiths/Morrissey connection’s not lost on the listener either as you sense Caterer passion in his songwriting. 2011’s This is Only a Test, written from a teenager’s perspective, recalls the struggles, joys, and passions of teen years very vividly. I asked Caterer how he captured those emotions so well that they made me relive what has long since passed. He credits “talking to some kids in [our church’s] high school ministry and being reminded of their perspective on life.” Yet, he also said that the album was inspired by the fact that he never really wrote from a teenager’s perspective. “I had never written from an explicitly teenage point of view even when I was a teen. I was listening to older people, trying to appear more sophisticated than I was.” Now 20 years later, Caterer has written an album that’s ripe for being used as a Bible study for a youth group.
Having the hopes and dreams of being in a band (“Punk Band”), wanting to shake off expectations of higher education (“College), and the lonely, lonely feeling of missing out on things when you’re sick and feeling as if the world’s leaving you behind (“I’ve Got Mono”) are captured in the Smoking Popes’ tight pop punk that rails against the pains even while singing along in hopeful ways.
That’s what I sense in Caterer’s approach now to his writing for the Smoking Popes: his faith isn’t forward but it does inform. He doesn’t speak about Jesus, but he does sing about hope—which begs the question: “Why are you hopeful?”
In “Letter to Emily,” Caterer sings: “I believe there’s a heart in everyone/Crying out for the love of someone/If that heart isn’t melt by anyone,/it can start to believe that it’s a no one.” That search and yearning for something bigger, brighter, and beyond comes through loud and clear.
That search and yearning is where pop punk meets faith, which is why I am so thankful that’s Caterer’s not just a worship leader. I’m glad he was on the stage of Turner Hall singing out, raising his fist, charging chords, leading the band, and pushing the envelope of what we expect Christians to be doing.
The Smoking Popes set ended with “I Know You Love Me,” another pre-conversion track from Destination Failure, and yet, a song so ready to be a devotion. Sure, it was probably written as a love song, but the words could certainly apply to God’s constant, consistent love for us. They closed the evening in a sure, hopeful fashion.
This world is freezing cold
I long for you to hold me in your arms
This world is burning and
I’m waiting for your hand to lead me home
I know that you love me
Oh, I know you love me
Oh, I know you love me.