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Papal Sugar

Eight years ago, Chicago-based pop-punkers the Smoking Popes found themselves signed to Capitol Records and touring with no lesser bands than the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day. The Popes had sold out countless venues and garnered a glowing reputation for their fusion of punk rock with a big-band sound. Then Popes' Josh Caterer did what so many rock 'n' roll frontmen before him have done — he found God. And at age 26, Caterer gave up the rock and picked up the Book.

"It really changed everything about the way that I looked at life," 34-year-old Caterer explains over the phone of his decision to leave his band. "I tended to look at the Christian life in really black and white terms because it was sort of all my brain could handle at that time. Part of that was simply saying that the Popes had been part of my old life, and now I was a new person. I needed to renounce [what] was in my old life and embrace my new life. And therefore, I left the Popes."

But Caterer recently realized he could still front a rock band while saying his amens. So he did, and the Smoking Popes reunited.

"I eventually got to a point where I realized that I had come along far enough in my faith that I could do something like put the Smoking Popes back together without jeopardizing or compromising my faith."

The new band is comprised of Caterer; his two brothers, Matt on bass and Eli on guitar; and Ryan Chavez on drums. With influences ranging from Mel Tormé to Elvis Costello, the Popes aren't afraid to color outside the usual pop-punk lines. But it's not just songwriting. Caterer's distinctive, crooning voice has proven to be a key aspect of the band's success. His vocal style emerged while the band was recording its debut album, 1993's Get Fired, released on the independent label Johann's Face. The album fell into the hands of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, who then asked the band to open for a gig in 1994. Shortly after that, the Popes released a second album on Johann's Face, Born to Quit, which was rereleased by Capitol Records when the band signed to the label that same year. The Capitol Records deal led to the Popes tour with Goo Goo Dolls as well as a song ("Need You Around") in the movie Clueless.

But the Popes didn't fare as well financially as Capitol had hoped. The band's third album, Destination Failure, was almost permanently shelved before being released in August 1997. In October of the same year, the Popes began touring with Morrissey. That's when Josh Caterer began doubting his success.

"After the band got signed and we started to become successful back there in '95 or '97, a lot of my personal goals were being realized and I was just wondering why I still wasn't happy," he says. "I sort of became preoccupied with death and the fact that all of this was meaningless, like I should be happy that this is happening to me, but it's just so meaningless because we all die. I started to think about that a lot, and it got me down to the point I couldn't go on without finding some sort of connection with God."

Caterer began studying different religions in his spare time, visiting Buddhist temples, meditating, and reading the Bible. Once he decided el Cristo was his man, Caterer figured the only way to embrace him was to go all the way — meaning no band, no record deal, and lots of time in the pew. Caterer recorded religious-themed acoustic songs before beginning a Christian rock band, Duvall, with his brother Eli on bass and Rob Kellenberger on drums.

"Nobody could really relate to where I was coming from," Caterer says. "I think they all thought I was slightly insane, especially my own wife."

Though Caterer's decision to bring back the Popes was a recent one, he doesn't feel like any of the time he spent contemplating life was a waste.

"Looking back, it was the right thing to do at that time. I needed to take time off. I have been fundamentally changed by Jesus Christ, and that isn't threatened by getting up and singing 'I Need You Around. '"

After deciding a Popes reunion would be OK with the Big J., it wasn't difficult for Caterer to get the go-ahead from his bandmates. He had already been playing with Eli in Duvall, and Matt was happy to return to the Popes with his siblings. They recruited Duvall drummer Kellenberger instead of Felumlee and began rehearsing. (Chavez would later replace Kellenberger.)

"As we got together and started rehearsing again, we were having so much fun and it just felt so natural that probably after our second rehearsal, we knew it was something we'd want to continue with and run with," Caterer says.

But the band did have one concern — whether the fans would care about the reunion. The Popes had plenty of success in the past, but it had been years since they performed any of their songs for a live audience. However, when tickets went on sale for last November's reunion show at the Metro in Chicago, they sold out in about a half hour — a good sign, indeed.

When trying to explain how the Popes managed to stay fresh after so many years, Caterer can only respond with what he's heard about his band from other people.

"There's something about what has been expressed through a song that hits people at a genuine gut level and makes them want to listen to it ten years later," he says. "I don't have a formula for it; I'm only really glad that's the case. I'm really glad to be doing this."

And there are plenty of Popes fans who'll say "Amen" to that.

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Jake Nelson