Analogue Music | Josh Caterer of Smoking Popes

Josh Caterer of Smoking Popes

By Matt Conner

Like every other band alive, the Smoking Popes had nothing to do.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the only thing a touring band like the Popes can do is to sit and wait or to generate new creative ideas to bide their time. For front man Josh Caterer, it was the ideal season to turn to some musical colleagues and try out a new project, one that would scratch a new itch or two while staying true to his sonic roots.

The Hideout Sessions is the result of his creative efforts during much of the last year off. It's a live amalgam of new musical friendships, Popes covers, and older tunes that showcase that Caterer does so well. We recently sat down with him to talk about the genesis of such a project, trusting new players, and wrestling with downtime that you never asked for.

Analogue: A live album release from the pandemic is so interesting. Where did the idea come from?

Josh Caterer: This is definitely a project born out of the pandemic shutdown. The Smoking Popes had some shows booked in 2020 that obviously had to be canceled. So the band was on the same imposed hiatus that so many bands are on.

During the summer in what would otherwise have been an active season for shows, I started getting reckless. I thought, ‘I have to do something. There’s gotta be something I can do.’ Then I started to notice that The Hideout in Chicago had a series of virtual shows they were doing. Various clubs around town and the country are doing that, but it seems like, as far as Chicago clubs were concerned, the Hideout did a good job of establishing that pretty quickly and they were doing a great job of it. It just seemed like a cool thing I wanted to be a part of.

So I thought, ‘Maybe I can do one of those virtual Hideout shows.’ Then it struck me that it wouldn’t be something the Popes would do just because one of our band members moved out of state. So it’s hard to get together for practices and things. We’d usually only do that if we had something significant—a long series of shows or recording an album. We would get together for that.

So I thought this won’t be a Popes thing but a solo thing, which would give me an opportunity to play with guys I don’t get the chance to play with. There are two guys right off the bat that I thought of. My friend John Perrin, who plays drums for NRBQ, is such a great, inspired drummer that I’ve thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to play with this guy.’

Credit: Paul Beaty
Credit: Paul Beaty

Then John San Juan, who is the singer and guitarist for The Hushdrops, is someone I’ve seen perform on different instruments. I know he’s a multi-instrumentalist and I just love his style. He’s a genius in his own right. So I asked him to play bass and we started talking about whether we could figure out a way to get together and start working on material where we can be socially distanced and safe. We had to figure that out.

Then the last strand that got woven into this idea is what will the material be. I knew I wanted to explore an idea that the Popes were working on back in the ‘90s. We put out an album called The Party’s Over which was an album of covers. Most of the songs on that album are old, from the Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra-era of songwriting. We tried to approach that material in a way that sounded like the Popes.

That’s always been one of my favorite project that the Popes ever did and I wanted to keep going in that direction. About half the song on this album are covers of old songs, like 70-year-old songs, but the other half, I would describe them as “covers of Smoking Popes songs.” I tried to approach Smoking Popes songs in the way I would approach doing a new arrangement for a cover song. You try to find the soul of the song and give it a new body to walk around in. You keep the melody intact and try to find a different groove. You try to find a way to bring out a new emotional side of a song.

I thought by putting those two things together—the old songs I love so much and Smoking Popes songs—it would show some of the continuity between that old classic songwriting and my songwriting. Even though most people think of Smoking Popes as a punk band or a pop punk band, what’s happening in the songwriting is actually inspired by things that aren’t punk at all. I thought we might highlight by putting those songs together on this project.

Analogue: Was that idea all along that you would capture this for a live release and not just partner up for a live stream or something?

Josh: Yes, that was part of the plan from the beginning. The Popes have made live albums before, so that wasn’t a daunting thought. You just bring in some recording equipment and do it. The only difference is that this was a live album without an audience. [Laughs] There were only a few people in the room—a couple engineers and a sound person. My brother Eli was there for moral support. But he didn’t clap. That was the agreement.

So it’s halfway between a live album and a studio album. It has the energy of a live album because the performances were complete takes without overdubs performed in a club. But without the crowd noise, you get more of a clean recording and it worked better.

"I was just so delighted and surprised and exhilarated by what the collective musical voice of this combo ended up being."

Analogue: Did that mess with your head during the show? Do you remember internal thoughts of how weird it is to be there without the audience dynamic?

Josh: No the thing I was thinking about during the recording was the audio aspect of things. I was just trying to play well. I didn’t want to hit any wrong notes. That would be a problem. [Laughs]

So I was a little more restrained in my physical performance than I normally would be in a live show. Normally you’re going for this exchange of energy between the band and the audience. You give yourself a wider margin for inaccuracy. There’s that quote from Keith Moon where he said, “Eighty percent of what people hear at a concert is what they see.” You can get away with a lot of mistakes that way, but here I knew it had to be right.

Analogue: Did you have a good history of playing alongside either of these guys before this?

Josh: We had never played together before.

Analogue: That seems risky. I’d think you’d at least have some experience with one of them.

Josh: I’d played on the same bill as bands that they’d been in. John Perrin had been in a band called The Loveshots that the Popes played with multiple times. I’d played gigs with John San Juan, so I knew how good they were. When you have musicians who are to a certain level of skill and talent, you don’t worry about that.

'The Hideout Sessions'
'The Hideout Sessions'

When you put together a combination of musicians, you don’t know what the exact personality of that combination is going to be. A band has its own musical voice that’s larger than the sum of its parts, and you don’t know what that voice will sound like until you try it. I was just so delighted and surprised and exhilarated by what the collective musical voice of this combo ended up being.

It ended up a lot heavier than I thought it would be. I went into it thinking these interpretations would be a little lighter or mellower or gentler. That’s just what I had in my head, but as soon as we started playing together, it went in a different direction. It was more energized and rock than I thought it would be. I was fine with it. I wanted to be what it is. The point is to let everyone do their own thing and bring their own creative talents to the table.

Those guys, it really did feel to me like they’ve been playing together for years. They’d played together one other time in a Beatles cover set, for which they had not rehearsed. They’d gotten on stage together without rehearsing and they both knew so many Beatles songs that they could just get on stage and play. That was the extent of their musical history together.

But they were so in sync together. I listen to mixes of the album now and I’m hearing these moments where they’re so locked in together. You usually only achieve that at the end of a tour or something, when you’ve played together every night for a month or something. But they got it right off the bat.

Analogue: Beyond this album release, you have anything else you’re excited about these days, creatively speaking?

Josh: I’m so excited about this record that I’m thinking of doing another one. When this thing comes out, I want to do a virtual release show. But if we record that, we’ll have another album in the can. So that’s where my head is at now.

VISIT: Smoking Popes

Photo: Paul Beaty