Smoking Popes celebrate their ‘Failure’ after 20 years
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It’s taken 20 years for the Smoking Popes to find their “Destination” again. The power-pop-punk band — originally hailing from Lake in the Hills and finding success in the early ’90s echelon of Chicago’s alt-rock scene — is finally ready to celebrate the two-decade anniversary of their third album, “Destination Failure.”
When: 8 p.m. May 11 & 12
Where: Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St.
The album was released in 1997 after the Popes had gained considerable popularity from a tour with Green Day as well as the placement of their ’95 hit “Need You Around” in the “Clueless” movie soundtrack. “Destination Failure” was a beauty in its own right, with songs like “I Know You Love Me” imbued with the characteristic melodic punch, catchy lyrics, jangly guitars, bolstering drums and croon-worthy vocals — what Morrissey might sound like covering The Ramones — that had filled up their two earlier albums, 1993’s “Get Fired” and 1995’s “Born to Quit.”
Yet “Destination Failure” would be the last in many ways for the band — the last album on their major-label deal with Capitol Records and the last before the group disbanded in 1998 due to label disputes and frontman Josh Caterer’s growing focus on his faith. (He’s now a worship leader at the Village Church of Barrington.)
Though the Smoking Popes technically reunited in 2005, they have been only sparsely active up until recently and are currently working on new material for a 2018 release as well as a pair of special shows at Bottom Lounge this weekend that will pay homage to “Destination Failure” on night one and “Born to Quit” and “Get Fired” on night two. The shows will also have the first-ever vinyl pressing of “Destination Failure” available for purchase. The double album will include three as-of-yet unreleased tracks from the original recording sessions plus liner notes written by the band’s contemporaries (all signed by every member of the band), which includes brothers Josh (vocals/guitar), Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass) Caterer and drummer Mike Felumlee.
“We really wanted to see ‘Destination Failure’ pressed on vinyl, since we never got a chance to do that in the first place,” says Josh Caterer. “We wanted people to be able to hold something in their hands and really connect with the music through this [re-release]. There is something really wonderful about the way that a piece of music or album can take you back to the time in your life and you can see it on people’s faces as they’re listening to us play these songs.”
Some of the good energy that has befallen the Popes as of late, says Caterer, can be attributed to the return of Felumlee in 2015, rounding out the lineup of original members once again.
“We had a series of fantastic drummers we played with over the years, and all of them brought something special to the band, but as soon as we connected with Mike again and started playing the first song in the first rehearsal, it felt like this was how it’s meant to be,” admits Caterer. “It has breathed new life into the band in a way that we couldn’t have even imagined. We feel like we are really the Popes again.”
To that point, the band is branding the upcoming shows as the “Live from the Rock Room Fest,” a nod to the popular video series back in their heyday that featured performances and interviews with touring acts recorded from Felumlee’s basement, aka the “Rock Room,” where the Popes still hold regular rehearsals.
“It was like a punk rock version of ‘Live From Daryl’s House,’ ” Caterer jokes, noting that all the bands on the bill this weekend (including The Mr. T Experience and Red City Radio) are alumni of the “Rock Room” series.
The Smoking Popes are also looking ahead with new material tentatively scheduled for release in late 2018 that will slightly divert from the love longings on some of the band’s songs to focus on political themes.
“I don’t want to turn us into the Dead Kennedys or anything,” says Caterer, “but times have changed and it’s almost impossible not to be politically aware. There’s so many things to freak out about and be shouting about and I wanted to just touch on a couple of specific issues that I was genuinely fired up about, communicating those hopefully in a poetic way.”
The upcoming album will also feature a new mystery showtune cover, following the band’s classic take on “Pure Imagination” (from the “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”) that was originally featured on “Destination Failure” and harkens back to a childhood spent watching musicals.
Though Caterer cautions that the Smoking Popes try to toe the line of nostalgia, they do have some special events planned for the future, including the possibility of scheduling a show at the very first venue they played — a no-frills arts studio in Crystal Lake that had no stage or PA.
“It would be fun to have a show there again,” says Caterer, “and see if anyone from the first show actually wanted to come back.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.