The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of: Smoking Popes

I’m trying to get better at posting these, so without any further adieu:

#5 Smoking Popes

The Popes are near and dear to me because they are from my hometown, Crystal Lake, Ill. Well, one of the members is; the others are from the neighboring town but close enough.

The Caterer brothers, of Lake in the Hills, Ill., formed the pop-punk quartet in suburban Chicago during the early 90s. Josh, Matt and Eli Caterer received instruments as kids and started playing together. After some instrument switches, Josh and Eli took the guitar duties and Matt took up the bass.

Drummer Dave Martens completed the original incarnation of the band—Speedstick. But Martens was unhappy with the band’s musical direction and quit. Dan Felumlee (who went to the same high school as me) replaced him and the band became Smoking Popes.

Most people (including me) describe the Popes as a pop-punk band, but the members didn’t necessarily think of the band as punk. However, it’s hard to argue with the catchy, three-chord songs the Popes put out during the 90s. At the time, other punk bands such as Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring overshadowed them. But the Popes always felt more distinctive to me.

Most of the Popes’ songs are loud and up-tempo, as one would expect from a punk band, but Josh sings more like a crooner or lounge singer. The story is that he grew up watching classic movies on TCM and AMC and also listening to big band, which is how he developed his unique singing style. However, I’m not sure if anyone knows if that’s a fact. It very well could be a rumor that music writers perpetuated as fact because it makes a good story. Honestly, I don’t care if it’s true; I love the laidback, drawn-out vocals.

The source of the band’s name also has a similar mythical tale. Supposedly, the “Popes” part of the name came from the brothers’ fondness for the movie The Pope of Greenwich Village, while the “Smoking” part came from Josh and Matt’s chain-smoking habit. I also heard the band added “Smoking” to distinguish them from a Chicago gang called the Popes, but that sounds a little ridiculous.

The Popes with Jerry Bryant of JBTV. I used to stay up late to watch this show on a Chicago public broadcasting channel because it featured interviews and videos with bands that MTV didn't cover.

Josh’s vocals backed by loud, and often fast, instrumentation is definitely an interesting pairing (in a good way). And compared to other contemporaries, the Popes used tighter, and sometimes, more complex arrangements—a benefit of having a rhythm guitarist. Josh’s lyrics often focused on unrequited love and relationships, yet they seem more mature compared to a band like the Descendents. Josh’s singing voice probably aids that perception, though.

In 1993, the band released their debut album Get Fired after Ben Weasel, of Screeching Weasel, Chicago pop-punk legends in their own right, used some connections to record it. The album is rougher than their later work but their energy more than makes up for that.

The album justifiably garnered some attention, which scored the Popes a gig opening for Green Day. In 1994, the Popes recorded Born to Quit, which attracted even more attention due to the single, “Need You Around.” The Popes signed with Capitol Records, and Capitol rereleased Born to Quit.

The album is only 10 songs, but, man, they pack a punch. The single, “Need You Around,” attracted the most attention, but “Rubella,” a song about a unknowing object of Josh’s affection, is actually the best song on the album.

Apparently, album sales didn’t live up to Capitol’s expectations, and they essentially demanded a hit record for their major-label follow-up. Destination Failure is what the Popes gave Capitol, including “I Know You Love Me,” which the bigwigs at Capitol hoped would be a hit.

The album is more ambitious, but it’s no Born to Quit. There’s not a stand-out song such as “Need You Around” or “Rubella” on Destination Failure. Although it does include one of my favorite cover songs of all time, the Popes rendition of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

After a spat with Capitol, the band released Party’s Over, an album consisting of cover songs, to fulfill its contract. The label rejected it but still released the band from its contract. About that time, Josh became a born-again Christian and wanted to focus on his faith. The band broke up in 1999 when Josh quit.

Over the years, the brothers Caterer and Felumlee played with several other bands and side projects including Duvall, Bayside and Alkaline Trio. In 2005, the Popes reunited for a much-anticipated reunion show (tickets sold out in less than an hour) at the Metro, a notorious Chicago venue. The band recorded the show and released it as Smoking Popes at the Metro.

The band started touring again in 2006 and released two more albums, 2008’s Stay Down and 2011’s This is Only a Test. I think I actually like both albums better than Destination Failure, but Born to Quit is still no. 1 in my book.

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6 thoughts on “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of: Smoking Popes

  1. Tori Nelson says:

    Cool. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Christine says:

    You know they are playing Mojoe’s in Joliet this Friday, right?!

  3. gealachmor says:

    Enjoyed the tracks I’ve listened to, thanks for writing about them.

    Have you listened to The Pigeon Detectives?

    PS – following on from your Freshly Pressed (congratulations)self-confessed grammer/spelling “thing”, I believe the phrase you’re looking to use in your opening sentence is, without further ado.

  4. Kevin Collier says:

    Oh cool. I love being introduced to new music. It’s practically the whole purpose of my blog. Thanks for sharing.

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