Smoking Popes are coming around again. Throughout the ’90s, the group’s journey through the music industry included the kinds of experiences shared by quite a few rock bands of that era: introduced via independent labels, graduated to a major label, released some memorable albums and singles, and then called it quits after that trajectory proved not to be as fulfilling as promised. It’s been more than a decade since the band reunited and began releasing new music again, but the impression made by the group during that first decade persists, that of undeniably catchy pop punk and front man Josh Caterer’s sentimental approach to singing. The band’s standout songs, “Need You Around” and “I Know You Love Me”, were love songs.
Another, more explicitly political strand of punk lived alongside Smoking Popes in the ’90s. Well-known contemporaries like Good Riddance, Propagandhi, and many others, exhibited some of the same style, but little similar substance as Smoking Popes. The tuneful, classicist approach of Caterer, brothers Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass), and drummer Mike Felumlee contrasted with that sort of activism as well as with the nihilism or hedonism prevalent in other acts of the day. Yet if the essence of punk can be defined in part by a commitment to individualism, then the narrow path carved by Smoking Popes deserves to be recognized as a distinctive punk rock stance.
Now, 20 years after the end of Smoking Popes’ deal with Capitol Records, the band returns to its original lineup with an album, Into the Agony, informed by present political realities. On some level, the band is engaging in the kind of “counter-hegemonic communication” scholar Kevin C. Dunn associates with the political possibilities of punk rock. But many other factors and feelings are present in the new album. My conversation with Josh Caterer reveals a blend of musical and spiritual experiences, as well as reflections and conjectures about one legendary artist in particular, that inspired Into the Agony.
The activity surrounding the album release, and the attention the singles are receiving, create the impression that Into the Agony is a form of re-launch for the band, whose musical style has stayed remarkably well-preserved. Though Caterer thinks “it’s difficult to say” whether this is the most high-profile release since the band reunited. “I think right after we got back together in 2005, we released a live album of our reunion show. And I remember there being a lot of energy around the band and the reunion of the band at that time. I felt like we were getting a lot of attention because we were fresh off of a seven-year hiatus. So I don’t know if this is more of a high-profile thing than that.
“I think, after that, that kind of attention and momentum leveled off. Now, it’s similar to that, in that we finally have our original drummer back and so it’s a different reunion, of sorts. When we did the reunion in 2005, it was not the original lineup, and this is, so one might argue that this is the first real Smoking Popes album in 20 years.”
Caterer says playing live shows provides the clearest indicator of the effect the music is having. “It’s always hard for me to be objective about how much excitement there is surrounding what we’re doing. I can’t tell. I’m only able to really judge how excited we are about a particular project at the time. And then when we go out on tour and play shows, what sort of reaction are we getting from the crowd. You can sort of sense whether there’s an excitement and a palpable energy in the room. That’s what we’re feeling a lot of these days.
“The tour that we just did a couple of months ago, where we were playing Destination Failure (Capitol, 1997) in its entirety, but sprinkling in some of the new songs, and those were being very well-received — we feel, as far as that kind of audience interaction at shows, right now we’re feeling a lot of very tangible excitement. And it’s a really wonderful, refreshing, energizing thing.”
Is this a different kind of enjoyment, a different set of stakes now, than there were when the band experienced major-label attention? “Yes,” he answers, “and I think some of that is the maturity that comes with age. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I enjoy life more, the older I get. Because some of the crippling self-consciousness of youth falls away and you can just enjoy things for what they are.
“I’m thinking back on the initial success of the band in the ’90s when we signed to Capitol and we had a lot of attention and support and money and fame, media attention surrounding the band, which we weren’t really able to enjoy at the time. For a variety of personal reasons, but part of it was, we were young.
“Speaking for myself, I couldn’t just savor those experiences for what they were and just be present in the moment. I was thinking about all of it all the time. I feel like everything that I was doing in the band was done with this awareness of the weight of expectation that was on us because of the position that we were in. And it made it really difficult to enjoy being in the band and difficult to enjoy just being a person. I feel like it takes a long time to work through that. I know we’re in a different situation now, because we’re not on a major label.
“To your previous question, having to do with how high-profile this album is, I feel like I don’t look at that the same way I would have looked at that when I was in my 20s. If this is a high-profile album for us, I don’t feel a sense of pressure or expectation about that. I’m just excited that that means when we go out on the road and we play shows, that the audience is going to show up with a kind of a joy and a willingness to engage with us. And there are just going to be good shows. And I’m going to be able to enjoy those for what they are (laughs).
“This is kind of a transformation that has happened for me personally, is that, as the years have gone on, I have begun to be able to just savor the moment of being on stage playing this music in front of people. I’ve grown to love that more than I did when I was younger and to approach it with a kind of unencumbered embracing of life that I couldn’t do before.”
One significant development in the intervening years of Caterer’s life is his work as a pastor of worship and music ministries. I ask if he sees any connection between that role and the personal transformation he describes, especially as they involve distinct kinds of audience engagement. He replies, “Well I do think that my relationship with God enables me to appreciate performing music more, because I see music as a gift instead of something that I’m responsible for.
“I think that’s part of the pressure and the expectation that I was talking about before, is that I used to think about myself as a quote-unquote artist and feel this responsibility to create something meaningful and that the transcendent nature of music was something that was generated from the psyche of the artist, and I had to be in touch with that and able to work with that effectively in order to create something worthwhile. I think that there are elements of truth in all of those things. But I now see those as gifts that God gives. Like, God gives people the ability to do certain things in a certain way, and all you have to do is just live into that and trust that it’s happening.”
He continues, “I see music as something — I didn’t invent music. I didn’t even really invent the music of the Smoking Popes. It was just in there, part of it being my songwriting and singing and all that, but it’s also the combination of the four people that have come together in this band.
“A band is greater than the sum of its parts. Like you put all those ingredients together and all those people that play in it, and what you have is this other entity that has a personality that is dependent on all those that are participating in it. I’m just able to enjoy the fact that, I see that as something that God has brought together and I am enjoying it and seeing his glory and the creative power of God happening when we play. But I see that in music whether a person is a Christian or an atheist or whatever. When I see people doing things that they seem to have been made to do, I think the glory of God is displayed in that.
“I think about when I go see a band perform, if I go see Iggy Pop in concert, as far as I know he’s not a Christian, but when he gets on stage, he’s doing something that he’s uniquely wired and created to do and I think that God is glorified in that because God is the one who created Iggy Pop and who created the music, the musical ability and the performance ability that just sort of comes out of him when he’s up there. So when artists and creative people are letting those things happen and expressing those things in a genuine way, it’s an amazing tribute to the creative power of God. And I find that looking at it that way helps me to enjoy life more and enjoy music more and to not feel that pressure.”
Something else worth noting about Caterer’s calling as a worship pastor alongside Smoking Popes’ reemergence during this time is the way in which worship music has also transformed. I mention a recent visit to Hillsong Sydney and the rock concert energy on display there, which is different from the performance and reception of traditional church music. Of this evolution in Christian music, Caterer says, “I think it’s amazing and it’s long overdue that Christian music has finally come to a place where it doesn’t seem like it’s ten- or 15-years behind the times. Because, you know, what Hillsong United and other Contemporary Christian musical movements are doing is not only creating music that feels like it’s for today, it’s that they’ve found their own voice.
“Like, it was a joke in previous eras that Christian music seemed so — it either seemed so dated and out of touch and behind the times or all of Christian music felt like they were trying to create some Christian version of some other artist in secular culture that they were simply trying to mimic. Like, you’re not supposed to listen to Metallica, but you can find a Christian version of Metallica. But now, Christian music has kind of come into its own, like Hillsong United has created its own style, it has its own personality, creatively, which is sort of cool, whether you like it or not, you have to acknowledge it as an artistically valid contribution.”
Amid this discussion of the gift of music and the enjoyment thereof, the question arises, what is the “agony” of the album’s title? Caterer explains, “There’s a certain exploration of internal darkness that exists within the songs, particularly there’s a song on the album called ‘When You Want Something’, which is one of the singles that we’ve previewed already. The song is about Judy Garland, but it’s also about a person who is obsessed with Judy Garland. It’s sort of written from the point of view of a person who feels a psychic connection to Judy Garland. And this is why some of the lyrics of the song are a reference to one of her songs.
“There’s a song that she did in her version of A Star is Born called ‘The Man That Got Away’, and so some of the lines are pulled from that song and then extrapolated out into a new song. ‘The night is bitter / Stars have lost their glitter’ you know that song?”
I don’t know that song, and I didn’t previously perceive how significantly Garland had influenced the album’s concept. But there is a cover of “Get Happy”, which I noticed was a song that Garland famously performed, so I’m beginning to see how central a figure Garland is on this album. Caterer points out, “Those two songs are right next to each other in sequence. So it’s ‘When You Want Something’ followed by ‘Get Happy’. Those two songs, back to back, are both sort of an exploration, thematic exploration, of what Judy Garland was all about and what she was going through in her life. It’s an amazing, troubling, beautiful, heartbreaking story–her life. I consider her to be really the most altogether talented entertainer in the history of entertainment.”
He surveys her talents: “If you consider the power of her voice, you know, Academy Award-winning actress with dramatic and comedic skills, a dancer who could partner up with Fred Astaire and hold her own, you don’t find all of those gifts in one person. And there’s something exuberant and life-affirming about her on screen presence as a performer, and yet obviously there was a darkness and a pain – -a kind of wounded neediness within her, that caused her to behave self-destructively, and manifested itself in addiction that led to her early death.
“I’m obviously a huge Judy Garland fan and have been really impacted by her work. So this is one of those things where — the song isn’t, I don’t know, it’s hard to say whether it’s autobiographical and that it’s coming from my point of view. In a lot of songs that I write, I create a character who is kind of a version of myself but taken more to its logical conclusion.”
There’s a complex sense of conjecture in this approach to songwriting, both for Caterer the writer and Garland his subject. “If I allowed that part of myself to exist without restraint,” he wonders, “what would that look like? That’s the point of view that [I’m] writing the song from. And that’s what that song is about, sort of exploring, letting the Judy Garland obsession really take hold, and what would those feelings of connection with her look like, especially as I consider the darkness within her. And the soul-crushing desire to somehow go back and retroactively save her. If I had been born at a different time, could I have been a person who could have helped her break free of these demons and this darkness in her life, instead of allowing her to descend into the agony that ultimately killed her?”
Returning to the topic of spiritual reality, I remark that what resounded for me upon hearing “When You Want Something” for the first time was C.S. Lewis’s observation, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” I ask Caterer if he thinks that quotation rings true for artists that try in vain to fill that void. “Yes, I definitely believe that,” he answers, “and since we’re talking about Judy Garland, I think that she’s a perfect example of that. And linking it to what I was previously saying about talent being a God-given thing — people like her who are exceptionally, unusually talented, I think there’s a measure of the creative glory of God that is bestowed on a person. And for her to possess that but not to be spiritually connected to the giver of that gift must have been very difficult.
“It must have created in her — she had an innate sense of the grandeur of God in the beauty of the gift that she possessed. And so I think that would have stirred up within her – -this is all weird speculation on my part — but, it must have stirred up within her an even stronger-than-usual kind of hunger to know the source of that; or a kind of spiritual hunger that really can only be fulfilled through a relationship with God. Like in her case, she had an even more acute than normal desire for that, and not finding that in God because it seems from every indication that she didn’t have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and so she found or attempted to find fulfillment through a larger-than-normal consumption of what most people would turn to in life to fill that void.”
There are, of course, other musicians who suffuse their songs with such tales of yearning and over-consumption. Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, also back this year with a new album, comes to mind. In fact, for decades, two key themes of his work have been calling out to the “Lord” to be saved and simultaneously, resigning himself to unbelief. As the Rugby Advertiser succinctly described him in 2012, “He’s an atheist who sings constantly to God.” When I bring up this seeming contradiction in relationship to Caterer’s speculation about the war within Garland, he says, “That’s a weird grey area to be stuck in. I can relate to that, because I was there, briefly, before I dove in and became a Christian. There was a period of time where I became increasingly interested in Jesus and increasingly convinced that he was a significant and even helpful figure. Eventually that road led me to embracing him as Lord in the kind of Biblical sense. But you could get stuck in that grey area where you’re sort of trying to connect with Jesus without really connecting to the larger picture of what the Bible tells us about who Jesus is, being the Son of the Biblical Father.”
Despite the clarity with which Caterer shares his faith, Into the Agony is not an overtly religious album. In fact, it is political concerns, not religion, that drive the singles released so far. So we move on from religion to politics, thorny subjects to discuss, but very appropriate here, with a leadoff track (“Simmer Down”) proclaiming, “I don’t want to simmer down” over and over. I ask if the hopefulness that defines Caterer’s spiritual outlook contrasts with some degree of hopelessness concerning political realities. “Oh, I don’t know,” he responds and then laughs. “That’s an interesting question. That’s not something that I consciously thought about when writing those songs. I was only consciously thinking about the overall political climate that we’re living in, and the fact that there are a thousand things that it would be easy to be upset and outraged about. You see it every day, people having a lot of anger and frustration that they’re expressing about every new thing that comes down the pike, from the current administration. And I just decided that, for my own sanity and well-being, I can’t go there with all of those things. I just can’t take that ride.”
Caterer distinguishes “a couple of major, important, larger social issues that were at stake,” things that he describes as “under attack right now, in the immediate, from this administration that I felt almost a duty to say something about. Like if we’d put out a new album and we say nothing about anything that’s happening in our country right now, it would seem disingenuous, like I have my head in the sand as a songwriter. I mean, I’m seeing these things happen and I care about these things, and the big ones for me are the attack on the environment that’s taking place — so that’s what ‘Little Lump of Coal’ is about — and the whole issue of immigration and how do we as a country treat refugees and immigrants. The sense of goodness and benevolence that America has had, and has, a responsibility to display to other peoples of the world, that’s under direct attack in this administration. And I care about that, and so I wrote a song about that. I don’t know, it doesn’t necessarily directly connect to the Judy Garland idea (laughs). This just happens to be the collection of songs that are on this album.”
Describing what he sees as “a manipulation”, Caterer says, “I think that the fact that there’s a constant stream of things to be outraged about is intentional. That’s totally intentional. It distracts you. It creates in you an inability to keep up and an eventual kind of emotional fatigue, when like, if what I really am upset about is, you know, the dismantling of the EPA and the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and those things — if those are what’s important to me — the withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is like 200 outrageous things in the past, you know? If I’m upset about this environment thing, I’m not going to allow myself to also then be upset about what [Trump is] Tweeting. Or whatever stupid thing he’s doing and saying every single day. I’m just going to stick with, how can I focus on this environment thing because it really matters to me.
“So that’s why when we released the song ‘Little Lump of Coal’, we set it up with Mike Park at the label where he could funnel all the proceeds from that song to go to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Because we want to be tangibly doing something real, even if it’s a small thing, to say that we are participating in the fight, and allowing other people to do the same when they purchased that single. Maybe we’ll do something similar with the song ‘Melting America’, something positive directed towards where the fight is on that issue.”
I ask the singer if he’s seen Paul Schrader‘s 2018 movie First Reformed, a depiction of a pastor’s downward spiral, also mixing religious rumination with environmental concerns. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s not a feel-good movie… I feel like it would have been possible for him to keep the subject matter as real and as gritty as it was but to bring it to some level of conclusion, because there are things that you can do. There are ways that people can get involved that are hopeful. I mean, you kind of walked away from that movie feeling like it’s very bleak and the guy, the main character in that movie, wasn’t able to find any kind of redemptive hope in any of it, either in his faith or in his activism; when really, it is possible to have faith and activism work together in a meaningful and productive way in life. Not that it’s easy, but I sort of understand a lot of the inner turmoil that character was dealing with. But, you know, you would just hope that he could somehow have manifested it in a more productive way. Anyway, what do you expect from the guy that wrote Taxi Driver?”