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Smoking Popes Believe in Mixing Musical Faiths

Pop music: The band, which blends punk with love songs, is just as enamored of Frank Sinatra as it is of the Buzzcocks. It plays Thursday at the Galaxy.

September 25, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever wonder what a traditional saloon singer would sound like backed up by a punk band?

The Smoking Popes take that concept one step further: They've created a unique kind of music that some listeners are describing as "hyperkinetic tear-jerkers."

One has to admire a band that's as enamored of Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson as it is of the Buzzcocks and AC/DC. Josh Caterer, the Popes' 24-year-old lyricist, singer and lead guitarist, says he understands the value of thoughtful songwriting, strong melodies and subtle vocal dynamics.

As a songsmith, Caterer--one of three brothers in the quartet--gravitates toward good-old-fashioned love songs. When his adrenalized band tosses in some explosive guitar riffs and potent rhythms, you might think you're listening to Johnny Mathis backed by Elvis Costello.

"We started out as a punky, garage-y rock band that made a lot of noise just like a bunch of other punky, garage-y bands," Caterer said on the phone from Seattle, where the Popes were playing on an alternative-rock bill with label-mates the Figgs and Jimmy Eat World. The three bands will be at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday night.

"But we've found that the best bet is to be completely oblivious to what's hot in contemporary music and just follow our own muse," Caterer continued. "We prefer a conglomeration of older styles, and I thought, 'Why not listen to the older stuff and squeeze something more sincere out of it?' Our style just kind of happened naturally, really. We're fans of Sinatra and the Ramones, so why not take the best from both worlds?

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"Melody is the basis of all the songs we write. If you don't have one to begin with, then I don't believe you really ever have a song. Once we've got the melody down, we try to play the song in a rough-edged, contemporary way."

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As high school students in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, the Popes banged out punk rock in any number of garages, basements and bowling alleys, eventually releasing two 45s and, in 1993, an album called "Get Fired" on the indie Johann's Face label out of Chicago.

Signed to Capitol records in '94, the band released "Born to Quit," which includes "Need You Around," a track that has been given considerable local airplay on KROQ and KSCA. A new CD, "Destination Failure," is due in February.

Though the band's signature style is characterized by the tension between its edgy instrumentation and tender vocals, Carter said his main focus is on lyrics, on touching others as a storyteller. He said he finds both relaxation and inspiration in novels and in watching old Cary Grant and Marlon Brando movies on cable's American Movie Classics channel.

"It's a constant challenge to write meaningful songs," he said. "I strive for whatever is going to be the most moving lyrically. I guess romantic relationships just seem to win out over all the other topics."

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Meanwhile, the Popes remain true to their independent roots onstage, trying to provide something unexpected at each show, such as sincerely played covers of Willie Nelson nuggets and new versions of their own songs.

"We tend to change our songs around with different rhythms and shifting tempos," said Caterer, who is joined by brothers Eli, 21, on guitar, Matt, 25, on bass and Mike Felumlee, 21, on drums. "Some fans have voiced their disappointment, but I think hearing alternate versions adds an exciting element in concert. That's one of the things I've always admired about Elvis Costello. He didn't stop the creativity of a song just because it was already recorded."

* The Smoking Popes, the Figgs and Jimmy Eat World play Thursday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $5-7. (714) 957-0600.

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