Josh Caterer of Smoking Popes: Get Fired is Still Working, 30 Years Later

Josh Caterer of Smoking Popes: <em>Get Fired</em> is Still Working, 30 Years Later

Written by Andrew Daly

Josh Caterer is responsible for some of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and generally catchy pop/punk tunes of the 1990s. And while many old sayings still carry a lot of meaning, this time, the old saying is wrong because this old dog has certainly learned some new tricks.

A lot of you will remember Josh Caterer as the front man of alt-rock outfit Smoking Popes. Caterer and company are also celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Smoking Popes' debut record, Get Fired. The Popes have been busy once again in the studio, cooking up a fresh batch of songs, including a pair of digital singles: one of them being a guitar-driven new version of the Human League classic "Don't You Want Me" featuring Deanna Belos of Sincere Engineer on vocals, recorded at Million Yen Studios in Chicago, engineered by Andy Gerber, mixed by Jamie Woolford, and produced by Smoking Popes.


They also recorded an incendiary new original song, "Madison." In addition, Smoking Popes put together a 12-inch LP vinyl re-issue of their widely revered debut album Get Fired, which is being released August 17th, with tour dates to follow. During the pandemic, Josh also reworked some of the old Popes tunes and some of his other favorites during a live session, which has been released on vinyl, CD, and digital.

I dug in with Josh Caterer for a chat regarding the Smoking Popes' debut, their new music, and more.

Andrew Daly: How did Smoking Popes form?

Josh Caterer: My brothers Eli and Matt and I grew up playing music together. We had everything set up in the basement – drums, guitar amps, bass rig. We'd just go down there and jam together for hours, and sometimes friends would come over and watch, so there was sort of an audience there. The band is really just an extension of that. It was a natural progression that we'd eventually come up with a band name and start playing out.

AD: Can you recount the band's first gig?

JC: At first, we were calling ourselves Speedstick and played a couple of basement shows. But when we changed our name to Smoking Popes, the first show we played was in a loft in Crystal Lake, Illinois, with a few other local bands. That would have been the summer of 1991. I don't remember much about our set other than that we enjoyed it.


Josh Caterer. Courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media.


AD: How did the band end up being signed to Johann's Face Records?

JC: Marc Ruvalo, who ran Johann's Face, came to see us play at a place called Wrigleyside in Chicago. That's where I remember meeting him. He told us he had a label and offered to put out a record for us. It was all very exciting! We were just a bunch of suburban kids playing our first gig in the city, and now a real Chicago punk label wanted to put out our record. 

AD: Going into Sonic Iguana Studios, where you recorded Get Fired, how many songs did the band have?

JC: We only recorded the nine songs that ended up on the album, so there are no leftover tracks from those sessions. There was an acoustic demo of "Megan" that we had sent to [record producer] Mass Giorgini, but once we got into the studio, we decided to save that one for another album, and it ended up on Destination Failure a few years later. I know many bands like to go in and record a ton of songs and then pick the 10 best for the album, but we've never worked that way. We just come up with a batch of songs we feel good about, record them all and put them out. It's a very efficient approach. The only drawback is that you don't have bonus tracks later.  

AD: Which songs stand out most in terms of recording and writing?

JC: From a songwriting perspective, my favorite track is probably "Don't Be Afraid." I like how the melody and the lyrics work together to create a certain emotional atmosphere. It's sort of a glimpse of the direction our songs would take in the coming years.

AD: Did you have to change the songs much once in the studio?

JC: To my memory, we didn't change any of the songs very much. We had worked out the arrangements before we got there, and we played them pretty much live in the studio with minimal overdubs and relatively few takes.  

AD: What were some of the challenges and the most notable moments?

JC: We went and stayed with our producer, Mass Giorgini, over the weekend while we were recording. We had never met him before, but he let us crash at his place for a couple of days, so it could have gone either way. If we didn't get along, we'd be stuck in that situation, and it could have been a nightmare. But Mass is a great guy, and we really connected with him, and it was all very positive and focused. That was all part of the experience for us, being away from home, in sort of a bubble for a few days, just focusing on making a record with no distractions.

AD: What guitars, amps, and pedals played the most significant role?

JC: I was playing a Gibson SG through a Peavey combo amp. I don't recall using any pedals on this album. I've never been much of a pedal guy, although I do have a fuzz pedal I kick on during solos these days. Eli [Caterer] was playing a Gibson Les Paul Studio through a Randall solid-state head, also probably with no pedals. We like to use the natural distortion of the amp whenever possible. 

AD: Do you have any cringe factor when you listen back? Anything you'd change?

JC: When Mass was mixing the album, we insisted that he use a lot of reverb on the drums to make them sound more like Dinosaur Jr. You can hear it, especially on "Off My Mind." That's my only regret. We should have left him alone and let him mix it how he wanted. But I still think it sounds good, even in spite of that. Mass did a great job, especially considering the lack of time and resources involved. We recorded and mixed all of it in just a few days. 

AD: Tell me about the new tracks you’ve put out in celebration of your 30th anniversary.

JC: We did a version of the Human League song "Don't You Want Me," and Deanna [Belos] of Sincere Engineer sings it with me. She's got such an amazing voice! We even did a video for that song, which was a lot of fun to make. The other single is "Madison," and it’s sort of an up-tempo rocker. It's the first new original song we've recorded in about five years, so we wanted to come out swinging.


AD: How have Smoking Popes evolved most?

JC: We've learned to listen to each other over the years, and it's helped us to become more of a cohesive unit. When we play now, it feels like we're all part of a single organism rather than separate entities, so we're better able to serve the song than we used to be. When we recorded Get Fired, that process was just starting, we were on the cusp of being able to do that, but we were still pretty loose. Over the course of our next few albums, you can hear us getting tighter and tighter.

AD: And what's still the same?

JC: In that sense – us getting tighter and tighter – we've evolved, but the one thing that has stayed the same about our music is that it's all about the melody. The instrumentation and the chord patterns are all built around the vocal melody because that's how I write. Sometimes, you can tell when a band comes up with the music first, where the songs are built around a riff or a groove, and the vocals come afterward. I'm not saying music like that is always bad, but it's not our style, and it never will be. We've always taken more of the Irving Berlin approach. Everything serves the melody.  

AD: Do you still relate to those early songs? How has your own process changed from a songwriting and guitar-playing standpoint?

JC: I do still relate to those songs. Thankfully, I didn't write anything too juvenile back then that I'm embarrassed to sing now. My songwriting has become a bit more existential in recent years, but I feel like I can still connect with the romantic frustration of those early songs, which is fun. 

AD: What does Get Fired truly mean to you?

JC: This album takes me back to a certain point in time before we signed with Capitol Records and before we knew where the road would take us. I hear a kind of innocence in these songs, just a bunch of kids jamming in the basement, having fun, trying to be cool according to their own goofy standards of what "cool" means. I love that. Technically, it's not our best album because we got better as we went along, but this one has a special place in my heart.


Header image courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media.

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