DS Exclusive: Josh Caterer on “Into The Agony,” Smoking Popes’ first ‘original lineup’ album in two decades

Sometimes when I conduct an interview with an artist I’m a fan of, I find it best to pull out a few noteworthy quotes, craft them into a story that I find interesting, and then allow the reader to click through to read our full conversation to provide some level of context. Usually, this finds me asking the subject a number of sort-of fleshed out questions and engaging in a conversation that goes somewhat as planned, and I can almost start to write part of the story in my head as we’re talking. I try to go in with more material than I need, and don’t always get to touch on all of it. But even by my own standards, I had a lot of questions for Josh Caterer.

I’ve been a fan of seminal Chicago band Smoking Popes for the last couple of decades, So when the opportunity presented itself to chat with the band’s songwriter, frontman and principle voice about their new album, Into The Agony, I jumped, even though it came with little in the way of lead time. Given that we’ve never spoken for Dying Scene before, there’s a lot of subject matter to mine: obviously I wanted to talk about the new album, because it’s stellar and upbeat and incredibly melancholy at the same time. And obviously I wanted to talk about the changes in band dynamics that came with founding drummer Mike Felumlee’s return to the band a couple years ago after a decade out of the fold. And about their sticking with Asian Man Records. And my daughter wanted to know if he actually ever broke his arm on stage. And I wanted to ask about issues of faith and politics and punk rock, particularly in the present sociopolitical climate in this country. And about the idea that Smoking Popes seem to exist at that curious intersection of “Bands That Are Immensely Influential Avenue” and “Bands That Are Wildly Underrated Boulevard.” And maybe even his thoughts on whether or not Smoking Popes were miscategorized as a “punk” band early on, particularly when held up against some of the more noteworthy alternative bands that they came through the ranks with. And while we did touch on a few of those things, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.

That funny thing, as it turned out, was Judy Garland.

In hindsight, had I been paying close enough attention, I should have seen it coming. A black and white picture of Garland serves as the focal piece of the cover art of Into The Agony, and the album’s halfway point is marked by a cover of “Get Happy,” a tune first popularized by Garland in the 1950 movie Summer Stock. But Garland’s presence on this album runs far, far deeper than that. It might be presumptuous to assume that most readers of Dying Scene are primarily aware of Garland due to her iconic performance as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the “child star” nature of the early part of her life, Garland would go on to have a career that spanned more than four decades, though she became a quintessentially tragic figure (much to her chagrin), long battling issues of an unstable home life, chaotic and at times abusive interpersonal relationships, alcoholism and substance addiction, mental health and more all while desperately trying to put on a brave, happy face and bring joy to the masses through her art.

Stylistic differences aside, that’s a profile ripe for exploration by a punk rock songwriter, especially one with a penchant for crafting poetic tales of love – albeit sometimes unrequited – and loss and hope and heartbreak all with a tremendous pop sensibility. Now rest assured Popes fans; Into The Agony is not a Judy Garland-themed rock opera, not by any stretch. While the idea of diving into the agony might be the central thread that ties the album together, it finds specific inspiration from issues that are both macro and micro, political and personal. There’s despair, for sure – these are desperate times – but there’s a trademark Smoking Popes sense of optimism present in droves, sometimes defiantly so.

With that as a bit of a teaser, I decided in this case to just let our conversation stand for itself, because I found it one of the most interesting chats I’ve had in the roughly 100 interviews I’ve run here at Dying Scene. It was challenging, thoughtful (and thought-provoking), funny, and a little melancholy. We talk about the specifics behind a few tracks, for sure, and also talk about the nervousness that comes with actually revealing the backstory to a song, thereby stripping the listener of the context they’ve provided to the song. And we of course talked a little about the band’s history and the renewed energy they’ve found since Felumlee rejoined the ranks. Head below to check out our full conversation with Josh Caterer. You can also head here to check out Into The Agony for yourself, and head here to see where you can catch the Popes on the road!

*The following has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.*

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Congratulations on the new album! It is really, really fun, and it’s really enjoyable and it’s one of my favorite albums of the year already.

Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes): Thank you! I’m glad to hear that!

And it is a little bit interesting to call it a fun and enjoyable album because it’s called Into The Agony and, boy, is there some gut wrenching material on there. But it’s so fun and gut-wrenching!

Well, I guess that’s what we’re striving for! (*both laugh*) We’re hoping that our music isn’t something that leaves people in a bleak and hopeless place, even if we’re dealing sometimes with heavy or dark things. I feel like as a songwriter, I have an underlying sense of hope about existence that probably shines through?

I think so. Although I will say that I feel like “Someday I’ll Smile Again,” on its surface, is supposed to be a hopeful song. But it just also sounds like a guy that knows he’s grasping for the brass ring that he’s never going to get? I heard it for the first time when you guys were here in the Boston area on the tour with Chris Farren, and I remember you playing that song and I was thinking at the time “boy, this sounds like it’s supposed to be hopeful, but man, I feel like there’s this other side to it, where the guy just knows he’s not going to get there.” I don’t know if that’s implied or if that’s me reading into it. Especially as a way to close out the album…

(*laughs*) Well, when you get to that point, you have to flip it back over and listen to “Simmer Down,” and then you’ll be okay.

I wanted to talk about the title of the album, Into The Agony, first. There are sort of a few different types of agony that the album touches on. There’s that “unrequited love” thing, there’s a real loneliness on songs like “I WIsh I Didn’t Love You,” there’s the global despair piece on songs like “Lump Of Coal” and “Melting America.” At what point when you were writing did you realize that was the overall theme? It’s not a ‘concept album,’ per se, but there’s definitely a theme.

Yeah, it’s not a concept album, but I guess that serves as a through line to the album, a kind of exploration of darkness, and the darkness within us. The title, especially, is in reference to the song “When You Want Something.” It’s not a line from the song, but I feel like, to me, that song is the centerpiece of the album. It’s a song about being obsessed with Judy Garland…

Oh, interesting!

It touches a little bit on the darkness that was in her life — and she definitely had some demons that eventually destroyed her — but it’s mostly about observing that darkness in her years into the future, and feeling a kind of possible psychic connection, but being unable to bridge the gap. The song is sort of like the movie “Somewhere In Time,” where you fall in love with someone posthumously and wish that you could go back. But then I think there’s an attempt to draw this connection between your own longing for that person from the past and connecting it to whatever longing they felt, and imagining that that longing was a longing for some person in the future that they hadn’t met yet. So, on either side, it’s an unfillable longing for a person that doesn’t exist in the same time frame as you.

So it’s more than just an “unrequited love,” as I had heard it, but it’s a love that couldn’t possibly be “requited” based on time and space.

Right. But it’s a mutual acknowledgement that some kind of link exists, and the inability to fulfill that connection is tearing both people apart. I guess that’s the subtext of the song, but just thinking about the tragic story of Judy Garland’s life is where that title came from, Into The Agony. She obviously was struggling with some very serious pain for seemingly most of her life. Now, all that said, I also don’t want to overthink it (*both laugh*). Part of it is just that I was thinking of Judy Garland and that phrase popped into my head, “into the agony,” and it just sorta felt right, so we went with it.

Is that song in particular, then, written in the context of someone who knows that “boy, if only we had been able to connect, then maybe I could have taken some of her agony away”?

Yeah.

That’s a fascinating concept. And in some ways, I thought that song was sort of heart-breaking – and your voice does a brilliant job of evoking that, in a lot of Popes songs that aren’t just on this album – but understanding that context makes it even more heartbreaking. Which I mean in a good way!

What you’re saying is that my description of the song makes it more heartbreaking than you previously thought it was?

Yeah, exactly.

Wow! Okay, that’s great! Because I’m always afraid that if I explain a song, it’s going to make it less powerful, you know what I mean? The most powerful thing is to experience some piece of art and for there to be an air of mystery about it, but you observe certain things and you are convinced that you have realized what they are trying to communicate without them having to tell it to you, especially if you think that maybe not everybody is able to make that same observation. I feel like I heard somebody say that in an interview one time, or describe that general concept, and I can’t remember who. Somebody was talking about the Mona Lisa, that people are so intrigued by her vague hint of a smile, but if the artist had painted a caption at the bottom of the picture that said “She’s smiling because she’s thinking about the sandwich that she ate for lunch,” that would ruin it, and people wouldn’t still be talking about it.

And I honestly go back and forth with myself about whether to ask people where the motivation for certain songs comes from, because I know that that stuff allows us to put our own meaning to a particular song, and so it’s interesting, and I’m glad you gave that explanation. I put my own meaning to it, and I listened to it from a certain perspective, and I think that that melancholy part that I particularly enjoy came through, because I can relate to it. Yet the way that you explained it is way more of a punch in the stomach than I was even putting to it. Like I said, not just that it’s unrequited love, which is a thing that I think a lot of people have experienced in their lives, but it’s a connection that could never possible be reciprocated and that maybe you could have helped. That’s really, really sad in the most simple terms.

It is really sad! (*both laugh*) It’s also a ridiculous thing, really, to be sot of in love with someone who died before you were born. You don’t get anything out of it! (*laughs*) There’s no fruition that it could possibly come to. But…even that is able to afford a sort of strange pleasure. People revel in their unhappiness, which is another thing that appealed to me about the title Into The Agony. It works on that level. It’s a descent into agony, but at the same time, I’m digging the agony. But again, you print that and it ruins the title for everybody!

Oh, see I don’t think that at all! I think the title is pretty on the nose, in a good way. I think that if you listen to the album and you enjoy it and then you look back at the title of the album, it’s pretty easy to connect that “we’re diving into the thick of it here, kids,” and that’s what people get drawn to lyrics. Not just in Smoking Popes lyrics; I was at a Brian Fallon show in Brooklyn the other night. He’s happily married and has a couple of kids, and the lead single off his latest album is about basically an instruction manual to his wife if he were to die. In case part of his soul was still lingering, he wants her to come visit him, and bring a tape of those “melancholy songs that somehow made us feel a whole lot better.” I think that sort of concept is pretty easily accessible on Into The Agony as well, for sure. I think that’s what a lot of us are drawn to. Although, then you’ve got “Get Happy” as the very next song, so you can’t stay stuck in the mire for too long (*laughs*).

Right! That song is fascinating to me. It’s an odd song. Obviously, we chose it in large part because it’s a Judy Garland song, so it’s connected in sequence to the song that comes before it, but I’ve always thought that was a strange song for her to choose to do, because of not only the spiritual component of the song, but that it’s a Gospel song that, at first glance, seems to be uplifting, but then it focuses on the Judgement Day. It’s exhorting the listener to be ready for that. I’ve never known a song quite like it. If a song is going to be focusing on the impending judgement of God, it wouldn’t seem that the way that you’d respond to that is to get happy.

There’s a weird kind of dancing in the face of doom that’s conveyed in the lyric of that song that I think speaks to the nature of who Judy Garland was. Probably there was this cauldron of spiritual and existential dread that was happening within her, but maybe in spite of that or as a reaction to it, she just had such a buoyant, vibrant persona that seemed so in love with the idea of entertainment. She seemed like a person who had some deep need to be entertaining people, as if that was a life and death thing. Particularly, if you watch some of her live performances, some of the songs she was doing on the TV show, where there was footage of her performing in front of an audience, there’s like a kind of desperate vitality to her performance that is really inspiring and yet there is a sadness. Even when she’s dancing and she’s got a smile on her face, and you’re so impressed with just how talented she is, at the same time, there’s a sort of sadness running through it that maybe makes her performances all the more powerful.

At some level, that is sort of depression in a nutshell, right? Trying to put a brave face on and to soldier on and to help everyone else around you knowing that when that judgement day comes, that this part is over…the hard part is over. So you’re not necessarily wishing for it, but you’re also not running away from it because it’s going to make the hard part go away. And so maybe that’s where some of that desperation you were talking about comes from; the demons she was hoping to put behind her. That’s really depression in a nutshell. So then, “No Tomorrow Tonight” coming immediately after that is a thing I hadn’t really connected before this conversation but is probably the perfect song to come right after all that.

Yeah, it probably is, and I would like to say that that is an intentional continuation of the theme of the two songs before it, but it wasn’t totally intentional. The only thing I knew sequence-wise beforehand was that “Get Happy” had to follow “When You Want Something.” Beyond that, I figured that “Someday I’ll Smile Again” was probably going to be the last song on the album, because it just feels like a finale. The rest of it, we just had to put the songs in different orders and listen to them all the way through and see how it felt, and swap a couple of the songs around and then do it again. So, you’re going mostly by feel. The way that that shook out, that song ended up lyrically being a continuation of what was being explored there, so that’s right in the middle of the album. The end of side A and the beginning of side B, the real core of the album is this kind of psychological profile of Judy Garland (*both laugh*) as a person who represents depression and a self-destructive bent, and an attempt to fight that or wrestle with it, and to find some escape from the horror of it all. (*pauses*) Boy, the more we talk about this, the more bummed out I’m getting.

(*laughs*) But I did start the conversation by saying it’s a fun and enjoyable and positive album! This is all within that context!

The song “No Tomorrow Tonight” is unique among songs I’ve written, in that it’s the only song I can think of in the Smoking Popes’ catalog where I wrote the lyrics first as a poem. I’ve always had the music first and then I write the lyrics later, because music comes a lot more quickly, so I have a chord pattern and a melody in mind, and then I’ll take the time to come up with a set of lyrics that seem to fit well into that music. In this case, I wrote three stanzas of this poem and set about putting it to music. I had a couple of different incarnations of what the tune would be. So, I enjoyed that.

I was going to say, did you like changing it up on yourself like that?

I don’t even know why I did it that way. It wasn’t a conscious decision to try a different approach to songwriting, I think it was that I had the line “there is no tomorrow tonight” pop into my head, so I just immediately started to flesh out the idea before I had a chance to put music to it.

How long did this album take to put together? I know a couple of the tracks were out for a year or so now on a seven-inch, but how long did it take the rest of it to come together and at what point was putting out a new album, especially with Mike back in the fold, the goal?

Mike was back in the fold I think in the Spring of 2015, and pretty soon after that, a couple of songs just naturally popped out. “Simmer Down” and “Someday I’ll Smile Again” were borne out of the excitement and inspiration of having the original lineup back together again. It felt very natural to be playing with him again; it felt like we had rediscovered our identity as a band. The songs came very naturally. I demoed them and played them for the guys and they got really excited about it. They were excited about incorporating into our catalog. It just was obvious that we should start working on an album, I was just like “okay, well I’ll keep writing them.” It wasn’t difficult to write. I feel like the album that we made right after our reunion…(*pauses*) In 2005, we got back together for our reunion show and we hadn’t played together in years, and we started touring with a different drummer, and it felt different. When you change drummers, it changes the musical voice of the band. So I felt like I was trying to find a voice in my songwriting that was what the Smoking Popes were supposed to be, even though it felt a little different. That was a bit of a laborious task.

Whereas, writing the songs for this album came very naturally. We would work on the arrangements and pretty quickly come to a place where it felt right. The process of developing these songs was just very fun and natural. So, that was great. But it did take us a while to record. We didn’t go into the studio with ten songs and bang it all out. We took the approach that we took on Born To Quit, which was that we’d go into the studio with two songs at a time, and we would record those, and then maybe a month later we’d go in with two more songs. When we started that process, I hadn’t written all the songs on the album. We probably had six songs written when we started recording, but that piecemeal approach is pretty good. I like it, because it allows you time to listen to the rough mixes and live with them for a while and then to make any changes and then when you go back in to record to more, you can go back in and record a different guitar part to what you did last time. It probably took us six months or something to do that, and I really enjoyed it. There was probably another thing about the previous albums, Stay Down and This Is Only A Test…they were both recorded in these week-long studio sessions where we’re in there grinding everything out, and I find that to be a stressful way to record. I’d like to keep doing it this way in the future; to go in with a couple of songs and tinker with them and go back later.

Was that out of necessity doing it that way, either because of label issues or band deadlines, or was that just the approach at the time?

In the case of Stay Down, we had been looking for a label for a long time. It took us a couple years to find a label that was going to put that album out, and during that process, we ended up changing management, and eventually we got to the point where we’d been telling people that we’re going to have a new album coming out, and we’d been playing a lot of those songs in our live set saying “these are songs that’ll be on our next album,” so we just had to go in and record the thing. Just get it over with. And we wound up putting it out on an indie label that went out of business less than a year after we put the album out. At which point, we decided that “we should just go back to Asian Man!” It’s where we belong, and Mike Park is a fantastic guy,and why did we feel the need to look for anything else? Maybe it’s because Mike Park is a fairly self-deprecating person, and he’s always encouraging us to find some better label (*both laugh*) But we’re not listening to that anymore! We’re like, “you can tell us to find a label as much as you want to, but we’re sticking with you, buddy!” (*both laugh*)

How is the dynamic now with Mike back in the band versus what it was twenty years ago, the first time around? What has changed about that? Fans of the band, myself included, got pretty excited when Mike was announced as back in the band, but does it feel like the old days or have things changed and matured as you might expect it would after twenty years?

Yeah, I think we’re all much more mature, and so any of the problems we might have had with each other just kind of evaporated over time. And we’re enjoying it a lot more than we did twenty years ago. I think that we enjoy performing a lot more than we did twenty years ago. I don’t know if you saw us in the 90’s, but did we seem like we were enjoying it? Because I can tell you that feedback we get from people a lot since we got back together is that “you guys look like you’re having a really good time up there.”

I will say that that is categorically true. Having seen you a couple times just this last year, that’s categorically true.

That’s because we are. People never used to say that to us in the 90’s, because we did not enjoy performing back then as much as we do now. Part of that is that we took a break for seven years, during which time we figured out that we really missed it. So, coming back to the band, just some of the stuff that we used to complain about or thought we didn’t like about touring, we had all that sort of baggage back in the 90’s, but it’s sort of that whole “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” thing, where you quit the band, you take seven years off, and then you sort of realize that you lived doing that, you just didn’t realize that you loved doing it. And another part is that when you’re in your twenties, it’s a very self-conscious time. I felt very inhibited about being a person. I feel like I didn’t actually start enjoying life until I was in my 30’s. You’re always worrying about whether people are going to think you’re cool when you’re younger, and then at a certain point, you’re in your thirties and you realize “I’m not cool, and it really doesn’t matter if people think I am or not, so I’m going to stop worrying about that and just live my life and be who I am and enjoy it!” That is the backdrop of us entering the phase of our musical life where we enjoy playing music. Now, it’s just a question of trying to stay in shape so that you can perform without getting winded. I’ve had other conversations with people in their 40’s, and it’s possible to put on great performances into your 70’s, but it just takes a little effort now that you’re in your 40’s!”


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