“It’s cool how songs can take you on an emotional time machine back to a place and let you think about certain things when you hear those songs,” says Josh Caterer, 46, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of renowned Chicago suburbs-born pop-punk band the Smoking Popes. “It gives you a mental and emotional picture. We get to do that every time we play our songs.”
Despite the emotional time machine members have been riding since forming in 1991 —hiatuses, splits and lineup changes, new faith, growing up, having children — the band still has a core of brothers at its heart: Josh, Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass) Caterer. They grew up in Lake in the Hills, Illinois, listening to and learning to play music together, which Josh says is a definite advantage.
“A lot of our communication can be nonverbal when we’re arranging songs,” he explains. “Our instincts are similar. I’ll write a song and bring it to them, and everyone just jumps in and starts playing their parts.”
He says the brothers first got into AC/DC together but that quickly led to the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks. Almost paradoxically, Josh says they were also influenced by musicals, in particular The Music Man, which was on heavy rotation in their household.
“One of my favorite songs from that is ‘Goodnight My Someone,’ ” he says, pausing to sing a few bars. “That’s just a lovely melody with a lullaby vibe, and that carried over into a lot of our songs. To me, when I sing that, I feel like I could’ve written that song.”
He says he’s considered writing a musical himself one day, but for now, he’s content to be touring.
In 1997, the Smoking Popes released the album Destination Failure on Capitol Records. It came four years after the landmark debut Get Fired, and touched on melancholy tales of spurned lovers and youthful angst — along with a delightfully moody rendition of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Now, 20+ years later, the Smoking Popes will make a stop in Camarillo at Rock City Studios on May 1 on a tour looking back at that seminal album.
Josh says they’ll stay mostly true to the original arrangements. “You want to present a version of the song that’s recognizable, but then also feel the freedom within that to maybe improvise a little and make the performance inspired.”
In addition to tracks from Destination Failure, the band will be playing fan favorites and even some brand-new songs on this tour. While the Smoking Popes have continually added new material to their catalog, there are some songs they’ve been playing since the near beginning. “Ever since 1994, we’ve been playing ‘Need You Around’ at every show.”
“I feel like we’ve changed and some of our circumstances have changed, but a lot of these songs we have are like our old friends that are always with us,” Josh adds. “We keep bringing them along for the ride.”
Now in their mid-40s, some with adult children of their own (Josh’s teenage son plays drums with him at church), the Smoking Popes still practice in the basement of Mike Felumlee — the band’s original drummer, who returned in 2015. Fans may recognize that basement from the “Live! From The Rock Room” video series, where the bright orange and yellow panels on the wall lend a ’70s basement vibe.
In that basement the Popes have been practicing new songs for an album that should be coming out in the fall. For the first time ever for the band, a few of the songs have distinctly political undertones. (“Or is it overtones? Some sort of tones,” Josh says with a laugh.) He characterizes himself as having been a not-so-informed voter but recently began paying more attention to politics.
Even with this newfound political fire, emotional connections always remain key to Josh’s songwriting and the Smoking Popes’ style: “I find myself, for the first time in my life, having really strong feelings about political issues that are part of the discussion in our culture, so I’m able to weigh in on things that are more cultural than they are strictly personal.”
He adds, “That’s only a few songs on the record. Most of it still has to do with relationships and character studies of obsessive romantic problems like I’ve done in the past. So it’s anchored to the historic Popes, but it’s a solid step into new territory for us.”
Smoking Popes perform with Bad Cop/Bad Cop on Tuesday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Rock City Studios, 2258 Pickwick Drive, Camarillo. For tickets and more information call 383-3555 or visit www.rockcitystudios.net.