By J.R. Jones
No matter how many times they'd sold out the Metro, the Smoking Popes always worried that when the lights came up the house would be empty. Backstage the night before Thanksgiving 1998, they could hear that the room was packed, but they were still a little nervous. Three years earlier the winsome punk poppers had looked like the next big band out of Chicago: a number one single on Q101, glowing reviews in the national press, a three-album deal with Capitol Records. Now their last album, Destination Failure, had nearly been shelved by the label, and they'd recently extracted themselves from their contract. They were excited to be back at Metro; they'd rehearsed all week and hired a mobile unit to record the show for a possible independent release. But Josh, the lead singer, wanted to end the show with a special solo number, and his bandmates knew what was coming.
The Popes opened with a pounding instrumental version of the MC5's "Ramblin' Rose," a favorite of the three Caterer brothers--Josh, bassist Matt, and guitarist Eli--when they were growing up in McHenry County. They segued into "Off My Mind," which Matt and Josh had written while the Popes were honing their sound in the suburban punk scene, and completed the medley with "Need You Around," the peculiar combination of barroom balladry and guitar frenzy that had broken the band on commercial radio in March 1995. The crowd erupted as soon as it had a chance, but drummer Mike Felumlee kicked right into "Star Struck One," the complex ballad that opens Destination Failure. Over the next hour and a half the band zigzagged across their nine-year career, resurrecting songs from their earliest seven-inch singles and dipping into each of their three albums. They'd rarely sustained such a long, polished set, but at times it seemed less a rock 'n' roll show than an evening spent paging through a family photo album.
For the final encore, Josh walked out with a black acoustic guitar. He strummed it a few times. "This is a little love song," he announced. "It's my favorite Smoking Popes song, actually. The song is called 'I Know You Love Me.' It's a song about my relationship with Jesus. And that's what I think about every time I sing it. Because it's the most significant relationship that I've ever had, it's transformed my life."
I knew the song well--it was the most popular cut from Destination Failure--but I'd always heard it as another of Josh's slightly overwrought romantic reveries: "This world is freezing cold, I long for you to hold me in your arms / This world is burning and I'm waiting for your hand to lead me home." Now, stripped to bare bones, it had become a prayer: "This world is frightening, I see lightning in the sky, I hear the wind howl / Please help me to be strong, I know it won't be long till I'm with you / I know that you love me / Oh, I know you love me."
By mid-February, Josh had quit the band, canceling a two-week tour, and without him the others had no choice but to call it a day. Now 28, he works at World Relief, an international Christian charity based in Wheaton, and spends most of his time driving around the northwest suburbs, picking up donated furniture and delivering it to families in need. He's also an active member of Praise Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church on Irving Park near Ashland where he plays piano for services and sings in the choir.
"I got the sense that if I was to go further--if I was to write songs that weren't only about Jesus but actually mentioned his name--it would have made the rest of the band uncomfortable, and it just wouldn't work," he says. "And if I'd taken that thought process to its logical extension, and really incorporated my faith into the band, a lot of things would have to change. It would make a lot more sense just to start over. I mean, I would personally love to play with Matt and Eli and Mike if the three of them would give their heart to the Lord and say, 'OK, let's glorify him, let's start over, let's think up a new name, and write a new batch of songs.' But I can't talk them into that!" He chuckles. "It's got to be the Holy Spirit that touches them. You know?"
He's still writing songs, which he performs in church, and at some point, he says, he'll get around to recording them. He's also pondering the possibility of a career in Christian music, but for now he says he's content. "I used to be fascinated with music itself," he says. "It meant so much that I can't even really describe what it meant....For a long time music was my religion. If you're gonna dedicate yourself to something, and really channel all your energy towards it, and expect it to give meaning and substance to your life, that's religion, basically. It just turned out to be a false religion."
The Caterer family never attended church. When Josh was a boy he got hold of his father's dog tags from the army and saw them stamped protestant. Is that what we are? he asked his father. Am I Protestant? Yes, his father replied, we're Protestants. That was the end of his religious training.
Cran Caterer had grown up in an Episcopalian household but lost interest in Christianity after leaving home for Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant. There he met Cindy Dixon, an education major; they married in late 1967 and had Matt in May 1968. Cindy had already begun teaching elementary school, and Cran was working part-time for Dow Chemical while he finished his degree. He'd drawn a low number in the draft lottery, but in 1972 it came up, and he was assigned to Arlington National Cemetery as a chaplain's assistant. He and Cindy found an apartment in Virginia, and he spent his days burying the dead as they streamed back from Vietnam. That April Josh was born.
After Cran was discharged the family moved back to Michigan, and in 1974 Dow transferred him to Chicago to sell medical products. The Caterers bought a three-bedroom house in Carpentersville, an affordable suburb north of Elgin, and in October 1975 Eli was born. By the time he was ten the family was able to move into a house in Lake in the Hills, just south of Crystal Lake.
Cran had an old acoustic guitar, and some nights he would play rock and pop from his songbooks while the children sang along. His large record collection included the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Albert King, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Josh remembers listening to Muddy Waters's "Mannish Boy" over and over again and screaming along with Johnny Winter. Cindy started tuning in country radio in the late 70s, and the kids grew up listening to her favorites too: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton. When Matt was old enough to buy his own records he and Josh discovered AC/DC: "Hey Satan, payin' my dues / Playin' in a rockin' band / Hey mama, look at me / I'm on my way to the promised land / I'm on the highway to hell!"
When Josh was 12 his parents caught him experimenting with pot and alcohol and freaked out. Cran and Cindy had never been big drinkers, but they got rid of every bottle of booze in the house. They signed Josh up for a rehab program and dragged all three brothers in for family counseling.
As part of the program Josh had to attend AA meetings, an experience that forced him to think about God for the first time. "It's part of the 12 steps to admit that a power greater than yourself can help you," he explains. "But they tend to speak in very general terms, and when they say God, always in italics afterwards it's 'as you understand him.' There was some praying involved, but nothing to do with Jesus. Everything that I knew about Christianity I was getting from television and movies--which does not paint a pretty picture! I was convinced that Christianity was just a big scam to sucker weak-minded people out of their money."
If the Caterer brothers believed in a higher power, it was rock 'n' roll. Matt discovered punk after seeing Rock 'n' Roll High School on TV, and their cousin Brian Bowie (who drums for the ska band Gangster Fun) turned them on to the Stooges, the MC5, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. Eli remembers washing the dinner dishes at age seven while Matt and Josh blasted the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady and the Circle Jerks' Golden Shower of Hits. When Matt was 12 their parents bought him an electric guitar; then Josh had to have a bass so he and Matt could jam together. Eventually the boys got a cheap set of drums that Eli learned to play, and they'd switch off instruments, jumping around in their basement as they banged out songs by Zeppelin and the Who.
In January 1990, when Eli was a freshman, Josh was a senior, and Matt was driving a delivery van for a microfilm company, Josh landed them a gig at a party in Algonquin. He and Matt threw together ten original songs in a week, novelty punk stuff with titles like "Missile Head," "Scrotum Sack Lunch," and "Preparation H-Bomb." Matt played drums, Josh guitar, and Eli bass. They called themselves Speedstick. Another party followed, but then Cran and Cindy lowered the boom: Eli was only 14, and they didn't want him going to parties with the older kids. Matt switched to bass, and he and Josh lined up a drummer, Dave Martens.
Before long Speedstick was gigging at McGregor's, a tavern on the border between Elmhurst and Addison. During the week it booked cover bands and heavy metal for the regulars, but on Sunday nights it hosted all-ages shows, and it quickly became a locus for the growing suburban punk scene. Speedstick began to build a substantial following--at a high school battle of the bands later that year, Cran and Cindy watched in amazement as young fans mobbed the stage--and Matt and Josh realized they'd found their calling. In school they'd been quick-witted slackers, testing into honors classes but inevitably dropping out after a few weeks. Music seemed like a cool alternative: underground acts like Fugazi played what they wanted to play, released their own records, sold their own merchandise, and lived reasonably comfortable lives. Why couldn't they do the same?
Josh quickly took the lead as songwriter, and Matt never tried to catch up with him: Josh's tunes were really good and there were plenty of them. He'd been at it for a while already, making two-track demos by playing the drums into one boombox, patching it into a second, and overdubbing guitar and vocals. He soon tired of the joke songs he and Matt had written for their first show and began coming up with wired, sardonic pop heavily inspired by their new hero Elvis Costello. In "Sandra" he was a crazed fan stalking Sandra Bernhard, and in "Brand New Hairstyle" he pined, "I need a brand new outlook / To face a brand new day / I need a brand new hairstyle / In a big way."
Martens wasn't interested in pop--he wanted to play hardcore--but Matt and Josh overruled him, and the band recorded a batch of Josh's new songs at Curved Air Studios in Crystal Lake. Now that they'd changed gears musically, the name had to go: Martens wanted to call the band Squid Friendly, but Matt and Josh spent weeks compiling a long list of names that ended suddenly and definitively with the Smoking Popes. Matt had taken "Popes" from a favorite movie, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Josh supplied "Smoking," since they were both nicotine fiends. Before long Martens stopped showing up for rehearsals, so Matt and Josh recruited Mike Felumlee, whose band Article One had opened for the newly christened Popes a few months earlier. He would become Josh's foil in the band, his hammering rhythms powering the other's distinctive melodies.
Matt and Josh pressed a seven-inch EP of tracks they'd recorded with Martens and released it as Inoculator. (The lettering on the sleeve replaced the t with a crucifix.) It sold well at their shows, and with Mike they began working up material for another one, The Smoking Popes Break Up. The new songs, like "Down the Street," were decidedly more personal: "Everything good comes to an end / I know you'll say that we still can be friends / I will understand / Just tell me that I'm the only man / Who can touch you."
Josh's girlfriend, Stef Weisbrod, had been a year ahead of him at Jacobs High School, though they were the same age. She'd made the first move, at a Christmas dance in 1986. She knew he played the guitar, and she was intrigued by his dark side--word was out about his stint in AA. "He was totally different from anybody else," she says. "He had this really funny sense of humor that didn't come from anywhere. He was an original." They dated until the following summer, when she decided he was a little too original: she couldn't understand what he was saying half the time, with his sarcasm and bizarre little inside jokes. But that fall he invited her to an Iggy Pop concert, and they stuck together for three more years.
Stef attended Columbia College for a semester, but by the next fall she'd enrolled enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The idea of spending the rest of her life with a high school sweetheart seemed hopelessly provincial, so she'd broken it off with Josh. They still saw each other occasionally, but she was dating other people. On "First Time," which would appear on the band's third seven-inch, Smoking Popes 2, Josh anguishes over "the thought of another arm around her shoulder / Where my arm used to rest so comfortably."
For a year and a half after his high school graduation, Josh lived with his parents, but they finally booted him because he was staying up all night and sleeping until two in the afternoon. So he moved in with the Felumlees, who loved Josh and Matt and extended the Popes an open invitation to rehearse in their basement. Josh signed on for a while as lead guitarist with Apocalypse Hoboken, a Glen Ellyn band, and through them met Phil Bonnet, a recording engineer at Solid Sound in Hoffman Estates. Bonnet played guitar with a group of prog-rock pranksters called Cheer-Accident, and he'd been recording bands since the early 80s. Josh recommended him to Matt and Mike when they were ready to record The Smoking Popes Break Up, and the band took to him instantly.
"He was really into, not producing, but using the studio as taking a snapshot of a band," Matt recalls. "He wasn't gonna get in there and fuck around with stuff too much. He wanted to set up the mikes, have the band do what they do, and get that on tape. Which really appealed to us, coming from a super punk-rock background."
Yet by then punk rock had become a highly commercial property. Gary Gersh, an A and R man for Geffen Records, had reeled in Nirvana with an advance of more than a quarter of a million dollars, and the band's slick new album, Nevermind, had stayed on the pop charts for most of 1992. All that seemed a million miles away from McGregor's, where the biggest bands, like Pegboy, Screeching Weasel, and a Bay Area trio called Green Day, were still banging it out for five or six hundred kids. But Nirvana had started out in the same underground of indie releases and fanzines and college radio, with no greater expectations, and now here was Kurt Cobain on the back of the CD booklet, giving the whole world the finger.
Eli was working at Pizza Hut one night in the autumn of '92 when Josh strolled in and asked him to join the Smoking Popes. The trio had decided it needed a rhythm guitarist, and Eli was a senior now, old enough to play with the band. Since childhood Eli had looked up to Josh, and ever since he'd been yanked from the lineup he'd tagged along to their shows and recording sessions. He leaped at the invitation, and adding a third Caterer seemed to exponentially increase the Popes' sonic punch. "At a good show you could look up and all their hands would be moving up and down right in sync with one another," remembers Mike. "They're not even looking at each other or anything. It's just the brother thing--they all have the same internal rhythm."
Offstage they weren't always so synchronous. "They would deny it in interviews, like everything's cool, it's all cool that we're brothers," Mike says. "I remember very early on when I got in the band Matt not being able to show up for practice and Josh calling him and yelling at him, and then, the last few years, Matt getting angry at Josh for not wanting to do certain shows. So there's a little something there. And Eli, there's never really been much tension between Eli and anybody. He's just laid-back, he's very easy to get along with. But Matt and Josh are a lot more stubborn and stuck in their ways." All four were resolutely passive-aggressive; conflicts would smolder for days or weeks. Yet for the most part they did get along famously: they'd stay up all night playing chess, smoking, drinking Mountain Dew, and planning their next move.
The band was picking up steam. Smoking Popes 2, recorded with Bonnet in late 1992, was a quartet of neatly crafted love songs that balanced on the knife's edge between sincerity and irony. "Writing a Letter" parodied the cliches of pop songwriting even as it celebrated them: the singer announces that he's writing to his sweetheart far away, but the letter's contents, revealed in the song's exuberantly hooky chorus, turn out to be a string of nonsense syllables that would shame Little Richard. Even the Caterers' mother loved it. "The first time I knew they were really going to succeed was when I heard 'Writing a Letter,'" says Cindy. "I thought, 'They're gonna do this. This song is very commercial.'" Josh's vocal register had dropped from the strained tenor of the earlier records to a dry, wistful baritone colored by his father's Sinatra and Torme records. As both a singer and a songwriter, he was beginning to find his voice.
Each of the seven-inches had enlarged the Popes' following, and they'd made road trips to Nashville and Indiana. They did what they could to crack Chicago, playing loft parties and shows at the Wrigleyside. They submitted demo tapes to Metro, which had recently helped propel Smashing Pumpkins to the national level, but Metro wasn't interested; one tape of acoustic tunes, including Josh's lovely "Megan," was rejected with a letter suggesting that they work on their songwriting. The Popes all agreed that if they wanted to be taken seriously they'd have to make an album.
Screeching Weasel had become a flag bearer for the suburban punk scene, and bandleader Ben Weasel liked the Popes. He hooked them up with Underdog Records, an indie run out of a loft in Ukrainian Village, and Sonic Iguana Studios, which was owned by his friend Mass Giorgini in Lafayette, Indiana. The band drove down to Lafayette and spent two days and $300 recording and mixing nine songs, but the mix was a mess. They wanted the drums to sound massive, as on Dinosaur Jr's Green Mind, but the guitars needed to be huge as well. At their insistence Giorgini loaded the tracks with reverb, and they sounded cheap and gritty. Mike sounded like he was trying to pummel his way through a cement wall.
Still, it was an album, and it had its highlights, in particular "Let's Hear It for Love," Josh's three-and-a-half-minute sarcastic ode to romance. "Let's hear it for heartache, let's hear it for pain," he sings. "Let's hear it for poison tears that wash your dreams down the drain...Pick your heart up off the floor / This is what you've been waiting for / Let's hear it for love." And the finale, "Days Just Wave Goodbye," tore a page out of the Buzzocks' book with its endless, angular riff undercut by moody chord changes. A fair number of songs suffered from schizophrenia, Josh's nuanced vocals interrupted by sledgehammer riffs, but on power-pop tunes like "Can't Find It" and "Don't Be Afraid" they sounded like a songwriter with an extraordinary gift for melody supported by an increasingly fluid and assured band.
The deal with Underdog fell apart over a dispute about the CD packaging, but Johann's Face, a label run by Gar Brandt and No Empathy vocalist Marc Ruvolo, released the album in the fall of 1993 as The Smoking Popes Get Fired. Ruvolo began to get them weeknight shows at Metro, on the stage where they'd seen their idols perform, and that summer they opened for a band called the Bollweevils on a three-week tour. Matt took time off from his job, and the Popes rented a Chevy station wagon from a friend of Mike's. But the tour was a hassle, a series of badly planned shows spread out across the map. One night they played a party in someone's living room and were paid with a bucket of loose change collected from the guests.
The experience left them disillusioned--maybe this wasn't going to pan out after all. Josh had moved out of the Felumlees' house to share a one-bedroom apartment in Woodstock with a girlfriend, but she moved out and Matt and his girlfriend moved in. Then Matt's girlfriend moved out and Eli moved in. They were driving each other crazy--and it didn't help that all three of them were now smoking pot. Matt was still working for the microfilm company, and Josh and Eli had temporary jobs in factories, while all around them local bands were getting signed and moving on. Smashing Pumpkins' second album, Siamese Dream, had entered the charts at number ten and gone platinum. Liz Phair was drawing rave reviews for her first album, Exile in Guyville. Stabbing Westward had signed to Elektra; Urge Overkill had released Saturation on Geffen. All kinds of money was being thrown around, and under the circumstances they could see how a little of it might come in handy.
The Popes began to gear up for another album on Johann's Face. But this one would be different, not a two-bit punk record but a well-made pop album, something good enough to get played on the radio. They would go back to Bonnet, and instead of racing through the songs in two days they'd take their time and record it a couple songs at a go, scheduling a session whenever they'd saved enough money from shows. "Need You Around," recorded in December 1993, crystallized the mix of punk vigor and pop smarts that characterized the band. Josh had come up with the languid melody in the car one day; with its moody lyrics and his luxuriant vibrato, it sounded like Old Blue Eyes at the end of a particularly dark night. But when he brought it in for rehearsal, the band backed it up with a thrashing, double-time rhythm, creating a sound with no real precedent--a kind of lounge punk. The tension between the two elements was what made the Popes smoke.
Melodies bubbled up out of Josh, and he began knocking out love songs more ardent and pure than anything he'd ever written. Compared to the songs on Get Fired, "Mrs. You and Me" was positively moony, a midtempo pop tune about the doubts, fears, and delicious suspense of preparing to pop the question. "They say we're too young," Josh croons, "But I never listen to what I've been told / And I'd rather be too young than too old / To feel the way I do about you." The caustic overtones of his earlier songs faded; tunes like "Midnight Moon" and "My Lucky Day" were so sweet and sunny they might have been sung on Broadway 60 years earlier. He was drawing on a wider spectrum of influences than many of his peers on the suburban scene, less interested in striking the studied poses of punk than in writing songs that would stick emotionally. Willie Nelson, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson--the genre didn't matter. Iggy Pop and Bon Scott connected with people on a gut level, but so did Judy Garland and Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. When Josh listened to the radio now, he usually tuned in dusties.
One evening toward the end of March 1994, Matt came home with a copy of the Tribune and stuck it in Eli's face: a display ad announced that they were playing at the Vic, opening for Green Day. They figured it had to be a mistake, but it wasn't--tapes of their seven-inches had been circulating on the west coast, and Green Day, who'd just released Dookie on Reprise, had requested the Popes as an opening act. The promoter, Sean Duffy, had gone ahead and put them on the bill, assuming they wouldn't mind. He was right.
The show was sold out, and the Popes brought the house down with newer songs like "Need You Around," "Rubella," and "Mrs. You and Me." They felt like heroes, like rock stars.
A week later, Kurt Cobain stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out.
After the Green Day show the Popes could feel the momentum building. In April they headlined a Friday night Johann's Face showcase at Metro and 900 people turned out. In June they headlined on a Saturday night and sold out the 1,100-seat room, a triumph for a local band on a local label with no airplay. Club owner Joe Shanahan caught the show and liked what he saw. He paid the band a visit in the dressing room, thanked them, and urged them to give him a call if they ever needed any sort of assistance. They could hardly contain themselves--this was the guy who'd helped Smashing Pumpkins get their deal with Virgin, and here he was putting himself at their disposal. They finished the new record, Born to Quit, and Shanahan scheduled a show in August to celebrate the release.
The Caterers knew Born to Quit could be a hit. They convinced their parents to take them back in for a while, and Matt and Josh quit their jobs. "It seemed to me that they really had a dream," says Cindy, "and Cran and I finally decided that they were determined to do this, so we would support them." But it wouldn't be easy. That summer the band went on another miserable tour: the dates were clustered around weekends, and at one point the Popes found themselves holed up in a motel room outside Atlanta for four days, watching TV and arguing over whether to spend the few bucks they had on food or cigarettes.
But that fall, after the record came out, the pieces began falling into place. Josh hadn't spoken to Stef in almost a year, but she began writing him letters and asked him to meet her at one of their old hangouts over her Thanksgiving break: she wanted to get back together. He was on the phone with her one day when a call came in on the other line: Green Day's managers, Jeff Salzman and Elliot Cahn, were starting a label called 510 Records that they planned to affiliate with one of the majors. They wanted to sign the band and reissue Born to Quit. The Popes held off on signing anything, but Johann's Face sold 510 the rights to the album without consulting them.
Sensing that things were about to get complicated, they asked Shanahan to help them find a lawyer, and when they asked him to manage the band, he agreed. He'd been a booster for many local acts over the years, but this was the first time he'd ever signed a formal management agreement. "At that time in my life my wife and I didn't have any kids," he recalls. "My relationships with major labels and major agencies on both coasts were strong, and I felt that could really help the guys. And I felt that it would be worth it on a creative and financial side for me to work with them."
The climate was in his favor: Dookie had gone multiplatinum, and major labels were scrambling to sign the next Green Day. Shanahan placed the Popes with Creative Artists Agency, the high-powered west-coast talent agency. Then he called Phil Costello, a radio promotions exec who'd been his in at Virgin when he sent Smashing Pumpkins there. Costello had since moved to Capitol, and Capitol had made a bid for cutting-edge credibility by naming as its new president Gary Gersh, the man who'd signed Nirvana. Costello passed the Popes' CD to Gersh, and when Gersh asked about the band at an A and R meeting, one of his representatives, Matt Aberle, piped up immediately: he'd heard the Smoking Popes, they were a great little pop band from the Chicago suburbs. The next day Aberle flew to Chicago, where he met with Shanahan and the band. Soon the other majors got wind of Capitol's interest, and Shanahan's phone started ringing.
"Everybody was interested," says Shanahan. "Epic, Sony, Warner Brothers, Reprise--they all came." Q101 had added "Need You Around" to its weekly rotation, and so had KROQ in Los Angeles. By March 1995 it was the number one song on both stations, which meant it was getting played eight times a day.
Shanahan gave the band a choice booking at his Wicker Park club the Double Door, opening a highly anticipated show by the new British band Elastica, and most of the labels sent scouts to the show. The Popes were pistol hot, tearing through "Let's Hear It for Love" and most of Born to Quit. But Matt and Eli don't remember much about it. "We were so fucking ripped," Matt recalls. "I've never been--well, that's not true." He laughs. "But we were so fucked-up, man. Good God. We were totally stoned. I was so stoned I thought I was gonna start hallucinating."
When the offers began to roll in, Matt and Josh thought long and hard about the commitment they were about to make. They knew it would be a departure from the punk ideals of indie entrepreneurship and creative autonomy. But the crummy tours had changed their worldview: they needed a certain amount of cash to play full-time. They'd ruled out the deal with 510 because the label seemed disorganized, and none of the indie offers they'd gotten were much better. With a major label they'd have tour support and radio promotion and all the other practical things that could keep a band afloat for a while. And Capitol was offering them a six-figure signing bonus.
"Matt and I came to the conclusion that it was something we should do because it was too good an opportunity to pass up," says Josh, "but that we should take great pains to make sure that we had complete control over everything and could determine how things were gonna be. And we got a manager who was pretty good at fighting for our right to do that. He was a really good middleman because he was totally on our side but he also had a pretty good understanding of their side, because he's a businessman and an entrepreneur."
After the Double Door show they decided to go with Capitol. Shanahan was sold on the label, and though the Popes had only met Gersh once, he'd struck the right chord. "He was saying that they wanted to develop a band that would have a career instead of just some overnight success," says Mike. "He cited R.E.M. and the Pixies, which were bands that we liked--especially the Pixies, I've always been attached to them. And how he wanted to develop us through the college ranks so we'd develop a following of loyal fans as opposed to being an overnight sensation and then gone." At the same time, Gersh predicted that with Capitol behind it, Born to Quit might debut in the top 20. It all sounded pretty good to Josh. He and Stef drove to Las Vegas, and on March 14, 1995, they got married.
"Certain big dreams were coming true," Josh recalls. "This was the girl who I had fallen in love with as a freshman in high school, and we'd gone out for years and then broken up for a couple years, and it had been rocky, but she was my absolute true love. I never thought it was gonna work out, but then it did, and we got married and it was like, bliss. I couldn't have asked for a better situation. And then I get signed, and I've got money all of a sudden....I was like, This is great, I should be happy. But for some reason I wasn't."
None of the Popes was prepared for the pressures of being signed to a major label. Shanahan had come back from the contract negotiations in LA with everything they'd asked for. But once they signed on the dotted line, the Smoking Popes were no longer just a band--they were a corporate product. "It's just so big that you can't stay on top of everything," Josh explains. "There's all these different people all over the building who are working on different aspects of your project. They're all throwing ideas at you and involving you in these various promotional things. And I had the tendency at first to be very uncooperative. Whatever was thrown at me, my first reaction was to just say no."
The deal with Capitol had elevated him to the position of bandleader, a responsibility he didn't particularly want. In the past the Popes had always held a meeting whenever they wanted to discuss their next move--even if Matt and Josh had already decided what was going to happen. But once the pace began to accelerate, Shanahan needed a point man. "I learned very early in working with the band that it was important to make sure Josh understood everything that was going on," says Shanahan, chuckling. "Matt needed to know as much about the business as possible, and Mike was also very interested in the numbers, how many records were selling every week and what's going on with these dates. But the creative direction of the band was really Josh."
As the most reclusive person in the band, however, Josh was the least suited to the job, and the other guys weren't exactly master communicators either. Decisions were made in a haze of marijuana smoke. Often everyone would shrug and Josh would get his way; sometimes Matt agreed with his brother simply because it seemed preferable to siding with some suit at the label. Shanahan found himself the buffer between Capitol and a band that the label inevitably began to consider unreasonable.
The first order of business was filming a video for "Need You Around." Capitol showered the band with treatments from different directors, but they all seemed to follow the same MTV kiddie-punk formula. "There were all these silly ideas," recalls Eli, "really stupid ideas, like one where we were playing by a swimming pool, and all these punk kids come riding on little minibikes and jumping in the pool, and then they all get out and start dancing and moshing." Instead they went with local director Bill Ward, who shot a simple performance of them playing in Metro's fourth-floor theater and intercut it with a fanciful sequence of a cable being plugged into a truck's cigarette lighter and leading into the building to power the band's amps. It wasn't embarrassing, but neither was it memorable.
Capitol, keen to capitalize on the song's radio success, hired Offspring producer Thom Wilson to remix the song and released it as a single. Josh's publishing company, Polygram, placed it on the sound track for the teen comedy Clueless. Unfortunately, just as it was peaking on radio, Born to Quit was becoming a collector's item. Capitol had bought the album from 510, but there would be a lag of at least four months before the label pressed and shipped its own version of the record. It offered to let Johann's Face press more copies as long as the Capitol logo was added to the package, but Ruvolo declined.
Meanwhile, with their signing bonus, the Popes bought new instruments, new amps, and a van. Shanahan found them a tour manager--Erik Anderson, a staffer at Metro--and lined up a six-week tour to begin in mid-June. It would take them down to Texas and out to the west coast, where they would hook up with the Goo Goo Dolls for a trip back across the continent to New York City. After taping an appearance for MTV's 120 Minutes, they'd hit the road again.
Though better funded and better organized, this tour wasn't much more fun than the earlier ones. Most days they would check out of their motel around noon, drive for five or six hours, load in, sound check, sit around in some dark room with a case of beer until 11 or midnight, play their set, load out, pick a town midway to the next gig, and burn off the adrenaline driving to a motel there. If they were lucky, they'd draw a good crowd and get a jolt from playing the show. But there were a lot of small college towns between Chicago and Austin, Austin and LA, and LA and Denver where Capitol Recording Artists The Smoking Popes were just one more unknown band passing through. Josh took it harder than the others when the Popes went over like a lead balloon: these were the best songs he'd ever written, maybe the best he would ever write. Pretty soon he'd have to cough up a dozen more for the new album, and if he couldn't deliver the goods, by this time next year they'd all be working at Starbucks.
Dan Glomski, another Metro veteran, was hired as the Popes' soundman when they reached New York, which put a sixth person in the already cramped van. They all did what they could to dispel the tedium. Mike was always looking for a ball game on TV, and he arranged to have record-sales reports delivered to him periodically. Matt, a pop-culture junkie, devoured magazines. Josh always had a stack of books with him, and Eli would draw in his sketchbook. But mostly they got high. "If we were awake, pretty much, we were smoking pot," Glomski says. "They'd dealt with alcohol and drugs when they were younger, so they had a willingness to jump into that and get crazy. If they were going there, they were going all the way. Then that would be followed by a period of, Why are we doing this, I feel like crap, I'm getting worn down. So it'd be cut off 100 percent, nothing."
The cycle repeated itself over and over. Once the Caterers got going they smoked like chimneys, and though Mike didn't like pot, he could slam eight beers at the drop of a hat. Matt, Josh, and Eli became even more antisocial and frustrated with each other, and everyone was terribly homesick. One night the others were partying in a motel room when they heard a crash outside: Mike had lost his girlfriend's phone number and was so upset he'd put his fist through one of the van's rear windows.
More than anything Josh just wanted to be left alone, but as the front man he had to be a public personality onstage and off. The band needed exposure, which meant talking to TV, radio, and print journalists--some pleasant and smart, others ignorant and obnoxious. Often they phrased their questions like topic headings, as if he were supposed to roll out some pat, 30-second reply that ended in a punch line. He felt like a salesman, some bullshit artist talking himself up and clapping people on the back. Sometimes words simply deserted him. He'd sit there trying to figure out what the person could really be asking and how his answer might be perceived, until the dead air made everyone nervous and he blurted out some arch or cryptic response.
"In certain situations if you meet him he's really friendly and comfortable and outgoing," says Eli. "But a lot of people that have met him thought he was an asshole, 'cause he was just really uncomfortable. Me and Josh, definitely more than Matt, have a tendency to clam up in situations we're uncomfortable in. Matt will talk--he'll talk just to talk." Matt tried to help Josh out at first, but after a while he was so embarrassed by his brother's squirming that he gave up.
One sunny afternoon during the tour with the Goo Goo Dolls, they were driving through Pennsylvania on their way to a show when Josh asked if they could pull over. He was having trouble breathing, and his heart was racing; he thought he might be having a heart attack. On the side of the road he got out. Anderson, who'd worked as a paramedic, followed him, asking questions and trying to give advice. Josh wasn't sure what was happening, but he couldn't get back in the van. At a nearby emergency room, the doctors couldn't find anything wrong, and after an hour or two they released him.
He had another panic attack a few weeks later, while the band was driving to Milwaukee to play a festival. They cleared a space in the back of the van for him to lie down, and he spent the trip on his back, sweating and gasping for air. Matt and Eli were frantic, thinking Josh was going to die. But Mike was steamed. "I knew it was bullshit. He had one before, we went to the hospital, they're like, It's nothing. If you can't breathe, then what the hell are you doing smoking pot five times a day?"
Whatever the cause, the attacks brought Josh face to face with his own mortality. What if he were to die on the road, miles from Stef and his parents? Screaming down the highway eight hours a day, week after week, month after month, the odds were against them. D. Boon of the Minutemen had died in a van accident. What if someone took his eyes off the road to light a cigarette and crashed into a tree? There'd be nothing left of him but one of those crosses they often passed on the highway, decorated with snapshots and dead flowers.
Stef had married Josh so they could spend the rest of their lives together, but so far they'd barely seen each other. For the first two months they'd lived separately, she with her folks at their bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin and he with Cran and Cindy. In May they moved to an apartment in Wrigleyville, but then the band hit the road. Stef found herself living alone and sliding into depression. At first she sat in the apartment for days on end, drinking wine and watching movies, then finally she got a secretarial job at the Chicago Theater.
Josh was touring for five of the last seven months of 1995, and even when he was home he'd be so stoned he wouldn't have much to say. "He was smoking an insane amount of pot, and I would always try and keep up with the guys," Stef says. "That was really destructive. I mean, the amount of pot those guys smoked--I can't believe it now. When we did see each other--like I would go to Florida for the weekend or I would drive down to Saint Louis--there was always that weird drug tension thing, where you're not connecting. Especially me. I didn't like pot, I don't like it. I always got paranoid. I smoked it every day and got paranoid."
The Popes finished up with the Goo Goo Dolls and spent another two months opening for Tripping Daisy. By the end of the year they were exhausted. "Need You Around" had slipped off the radio playlists, and the second single, "Rubella," had failed to take its place. Three more songs had been placed on sound-track albums--"My Lucky Day" on Tommy Boy, "Mrs. You and Me" on Angus, and "Gotta Know Right Now" on Boys--but the exposure hadn't done anything for Born to Quit. According to Mike, the album ultimately sold about 60,000 copies, excellent for an indie release but a bomb to the bean counters at Capitol Records.
The band's only new recording for 1995 was "O Holy Night," a Christmas song Josh had cut alone on acoustic guitar for WXRT's Local Anesthetic. It seemed like a corny thing to do, but he loved the solemn melody; it evoked a peace that was completely absent from the whirlwind of his life. He'd picked up a Bible from a used-book store earlier that year and would thumb through it once in a while. "It just occurred to me that I was 23 and I didn't know the story of Jesus," he explains. "The only thing I knew about his life was that he was born in a manger in Bethlehem and that he died on a cross, and everybody said that he died for my sins but I had no idea what that meant. Jesus is one of the most important figures in history; every time you'd read a book or read poetry these writers would always refer to the Bible. I felt like that was just something I should know as an intelligent person."
The difficulty of selling records on a large scale while maintaining one's integrity was becoming increasingly evident. Shanahan was approached about the Popes taking part in a Coca-Cola commercial. It would have paid a ton of money and aired all over Europe and America, but they turned it down.
They also walked away from a chance to open for Alanis Morissette. "Josh didn't want to do it," says Shanahan, "and I was like, This is a great opportunity. You're gonna be in front of a whole lot of people. Possibly your perfect demographic. But they felt that it was not the direction for them. They guarded their reputation, and I commend them for that, 'cause they really didn't sell out. They stayed true to ticket prices that were always right, they toured with the bands they wanted to tour with--we never did a tour with a band that we didn't feel was the right thing."
The line was hard to locate. The sound tracks had seemed like a sellout at first, but now one of them was finally bearing fruit: a radio station in London had picked up "Need You Around" from the Clueless CD, and Capitol's parent company, EMI, was releasing the song on Parlophone, the Beatles' old British label. After Shanahan talked Capitol into sending the band to the UK, the Popes spent the last two weeks of February 1996 playing England and Scotland, and Melody Maker and New Musical Express gave them the flavor-of-the-month treatment.
Back home the Popes went out again, this time opening for Jawbreaker, another punk band straddling the fence between underground ideals and major-label marketing. The Popes loved Jawbreaker--Josh in particular admired Blake Schwarzenbach's searching, poetic lyrics--but the San Francisco band had released Dear You on DGC the previous year, and both acts got a chilly reception from punk purists. For Jawbreaker this resentment was the flip side of an almost irrational devotion: the kids that clustered around Schwarzenbach after every show treated the singer like some kind of guru.
"There would be a group of them around him," says Josh, "saying these insanely deep, emotional things to him about the effect that his music had had on them. Like: 'You got me through high school!' 'I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for your music!' I would stand a few feet behind him and just listen to these crazy things people would say. And I was totally stunned by it. To think that these young people had allowed his music to have that kind of an importance in their life, and they had elevated him to the pedestal of a god! It was quite fascinating."
The experience provided Josh with a lyric of his own--the singer of "You Spoke to Me," which ended up on Destination Failure, tells his hero, "I drove all the way from Carpentersville to see you here tonight / And it was worth it." In the chorus he declares, "I don't know if you actually saved my life / But you changed it, that's for sure / Yeah, you spoke to me."
Josh wound up on the receiving end of that gushing affection a few times himself, and while it burnished his ego, it also began to seem faintly ridiculous. So what if his songs lived on? He would die, the people hearing them would die, and sooner or later the whole world would be snuffed out like a candle. "It wasn't gonna matter if I had written 15 albums' worth of brilliant songs or if I had been a bum laying in the gutter and died at an early age," he says. "Once you're dead, you're dead. So you might as well just start shooting up, live fast, die young."
After the Jawbreaker tour the Popes started rehearsing for their third album. The heat was on now that Born to Quit had tanked. Capitol hadn't given them all that money so they could sit around getting high: they wanted a monster hit out of this new record. But Josh was two years older than when he wrote "Need You Around." He aspired to be a serious songwriter, and the Popes wanted to make a more accomplished album, one that would prove they weren't some skate-punk fad. They had "some insane amount of money to record with," as Matt puts it, and a three-month lockout at Chicago Recording Company, the city's premier pro studio.
Originally the band wanted to record the album at Solid Sound, with Bonnet producing, but Gersh put his foot down: Bonnet had never recorded a major-label album, and Capitol had too much riding on this project to entrust it to some guy in Hoffman Estates. The Popes caved and handed the assignment to Jerry Finn, the LA producer who'd mixed Dookie and produced Rancid's And Out Come the Wolves. They would let him produce the album, they told Shanahan, as long as Bonnet engineered. Capitol tried to veto this plan as well, insisting on an engineer with a big-time track record, but the Popes dug in their heels--there wasn't going to be any album unless Phil was involved.
They owed him. "There's times that we would go in and record for a 12-hour session, and he would just charge us $200," explains Josh. "Which is nothing, for a 12-hour session in a quality studio like Solid Sound." But more important, "it was a high-pressure time for us, and he was like our security blanket. He was so obsessed with music in a real way--he was so not about money, and not about fame and being an LA producer guy, or anything like that. With him the music was the thing, right down to the core. So we knew that he was completely trustworthy, and we needed a guy like that to go with us into a completely Hollywood situation."
They recorded a handful of demos with Bonnet at Solid Sound, songs they'd already worked out as part of their live set. "Star Struck One," which would open the record, was more ambitious than anything they'd ever attempted, a pensive melody in 4/4 that stretched out over 21 measures and then repeated, with no chorus. It was a lovely but elusive tune, not exactly the radio hit the label was after. "I Love You, Paul" (listed on the album as "Paul") was more conventionally structured, but its long and shapely melody hugged a series of chord changes that sounded more like Gershwin than Green Day. And "One Way Down" was a long, strange confessional in which the sunny romance of Josh's earlier songs crumbled into something dark, complicated, and irresolvable.
It would go through numerous arrangements and ultimately emerged on the album as "Pretty Pathetic," a four-minute opus that unfolds like a short story. As it opens the singer is reeling from a devastating remark his lover has made, which is never disclosed. He reminisces about their idyllic past but then decides that's too depressing. "Let's move on," he suggests, "to the part where I begin to sense her distance / I panic and hold on tighter, but that makes it worse / How am I supposed to take it when she said: / 'This is something I'm going through, it's got nothing to do with you'?" He plans a special evening with her, hoping to reawaken their love, but it turns into a mess. "I must have sounded pretty pathetic," he admits. "That's why I don't blame her for what she said."
Josh's marriage was in trouble. Not only was he constantly stoned, but Stef was drinking too much. She was sick of playing the muse to his suffering artist and felt like she couldn't relate to him anymore: he was locked inside himself, wrestling with panic and self-doubt, and his attacks frightened her. They seemed to strike whenever he had too much time to think. They'd be getting ready to go out to breakfast, and Josh would start freaking out. One time she called 911. My husband is having an attack, she told the operator, his heart is racing and he can't breathe. Did his left arm hurt? the operator asked. She relayed the question to Josh, who told her no. Was his vision all right? His vision was fine. How old was he? Twenty-four. There's nothing wrong with him, the operator said. Tell him to get up and walk around.
He made up rules for himself to stave off the attacks: driving would set him off, so for a week he refused to get into a car. He'd jump out of bed in the middle of the night, get dressed, and walk around and around the block. He'd disappear all day, roaming the city. As the recording date drew near, he'd check into a hotel room with his guitar and a bunch of half-baked songs, rewriting and rewriting, trying to come up with enough material. The ten songs on Born to Quit had clocked in at 28 minutes, but that wouldn't cut it this time.
Shanahan gave the Popes the fourth-floor theater at Metro to use as a practice space, and they spent weeks arranging the new songs, trying them this way and that. "That was fun, that was a blast," Matt recalls. "It was supercreative." They rearranged "Can't Find It" from Get Fired and worked up covers of "Stormy Weather" and "Pure Imagination," from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Matt Aberle, their A and R man, thought "Let's Hear It for Love" could be a hit and suggested that they rerecord it for the album, but Josh thought one remake was enough. He'd talk to Aberle on the phone every week or so, and Aberle would badger him about the arrangements. They needed a single, he reminded Josh. Come up with a catchy chorus, something simple that people can remember, and repeat it over and over.
"Oh, the conflict that we would have trying to determine the number of choruses that were gonna be on our songs," says Josh. "On 'I Love You, Paul,' when it was originally submitted I intentionally only put one chorus on the end, because I knew that it needed two. I also knew that he would ask for an additional chorus, and that if I agreed and added the second chorus, I would appear to be very cooperative. Little did he know that I was gonna do that from the beginning."
Josh wasn't the only one feeling the pressure. Mike was afraid that he wouldn't measure up to the exacting standards of a major-label producer and that Finn would replace him with another drummer. It could happen: George Martin sacked Pete Best as soon as the Beatles started making records, and longtime Soul Asylum drummer Grant Young had been replaced in the studio when the band recorded its Columbia debut, Grave Dancers Union. Mike and Josh went back to Solid Sound and did demos of the entire record. But none of them really knew what to expect when Finn flew in from LA.
From the beginning, the sessions were unlike anything they'd ever experienced. Finn liked the songs, and aside from trimming a guitar solo here and there, he didn't have much to say about the arrangements. But he was fanatical about the technical execution of the tracks. On their earlier records the Popes had cut almost everything live, overdubbing vocals and guitar solos later. Now they would record the basic tracks as a band, but then every instrument except the drums would be stripped away, and they would overdub each element separately, building up the song as they went along.
They had a drum tech who brought along six different snares, and Mike would whap away at each one until Finn got exactly the sound he wanted for a particular song. The producer would time him, and if his tempo increased more than two beats per minute by the end of the song he'd have to play with a click track--a metronomic signal in his headphones. Finn listened closely to each drum fill, and he'd ask Mike to record two or three fills to a click so he could edit in the one he liked later. For guitar parts they'd borrow half a dozen amplifiers from a music store and try them all out, comparing one to the other until they found precisely the right tone. And he was maniacal about pitch, says Josh. "Half the time we spent in the studio was just tuning!"
In the past they'd always built up momentum as they worked--it was all about the vibe. Now every part seemed to take forever. "It really destroyed a lot of spontaneity," says Matt. "It's a very cookie-cutter way to work." But eventually they fell into the slower rhythm, and it forced them to listen to themselves and each other more closely than they ever had before. "It was interesting to be able to work like that, the way they make records in Hollywood. It's professional show business. It was a learning experience. We got a lot tighter as a band, 'cause I don't think we realized that level of perfection even existed."
They all took to Finn personally, but they were glad they'd fought to keep Bonnet on the project. Bonnet believed in the human factor: if some weird noise occurred during a take, he'd argue to keep it, whereas Finn was focused on radio airplay and wanted everything done by the numbers. Yet Bonnet was so genial that he and Finn got along despite their creative differences, and he relished the opportunity to pick Finn's brain about different recording gear. If the Popes had a disagreement with Finn, they'd ask Bonnet what he thought, and they knew they could count on his judgment one way or the other.
By mid-August the new album was finished, and Finn did a rough mix to send to Gary Gersh at Capitol. Despite its pristine sound, it was decidedly inconsistent. "Star Struck One," "Pure Imagination," "Paul," and "Megan" were more colorful and mature than anything the band had ever recorded. But no amount of studio polish could salvage hack work like "Capital Cristine," "I Was Right," or "End of Your Time." The lyrics seemed split between the boy-loses-girl melancholy of Josh's older songs and a deep sense of spiritual crisis, the two strains dovetailing on the final track, "Follow the Sound"--a simple but ethereal ballad decorated with chiming, double-tracked guitars and a jazzy, vaguely Latin guitar solo. Josh imagined two lovers embracing as they died in a car crash, their souls drifting into the stratosphere. The singer is glad to leave the nightmarish world behind but worries that he and his partner will be separated. "We should figure out a signal we can find," he suggests, "if the light we're heading into makes us blind / If at first it seems as though I'm not around / Follow the sound, follow the sound."
In September 1996 the Popes left for New York to begin a two-week club tour with fellow Capitol bands the Figgs and Jimmy Eat World. The God Bless America tour was cosponsored by Tower Records, Rolling Stone, and Calvin Klein; reps handed out free perfume samples while the bands played in-store sets at Tower branches in the afternoons. "That was our big sellout tour," Eli admits. Josh had balked at first, but Matt, Mike, and Shanahan joined forces and broke down his resistance. It wasn't such a horrible crime, he finally conceded. The Calvin Klein thing was pretty slimy, but they would get plenty of promotion and a free bus, which was infinitely more comfortable than the van.
The store gigs were a drag: they had to play at low volume under fluorescent light, and the crowds were miserable. But the bus almost made touring a pleasure. If they had time to kill before the evening show, they could read or take a nap. They got a lot of press, which helped a great deal since they had no new release, and Rolling Stone published their picture for the first time. Back home Reader columnist Peter Margasak took a poke at the blatantly commercial setup-- "What's that smell?" read the caption beneath the Popes' photo--but then at that point the Reader had never given them the time of day, even when they were selling out the Metro, so it didn't bother them much.
After that they took a much-needed break and went their separate ways. Born to Quit was played out, so there was no point in hitting the road again, and with the money left over from their recording budget they could coast for a while. The new album, Destination Failure, was scheduled for release on Valentine's Day 1997, and after that they'd probably be out for another year solid, which none of them even wanted to think about. The Caterers had quit smoking pot: Matt and Eli had suffered panic attacks too. Josh had plenty of time to think, and now that the band activity had died down he began to wonder where his life was going.
Since his teens he'd thought that making a living as a musician would make him happy and fulfilled. Yet here he was, doing it, and he felt empty. So what was the purpose of his time here on earth? What would happen to him after he died? He decided there was no way to separate the two questions; they were really part of the same mystery. "The truth--finding out the truth was my mission," he explains. "And it seemed to me like a pretty good place to look would be the Bible, because most of humankind seems to feel that there's some truth there and that this guy Jesus, that somehow...that whatever the truth is, he knew what it was."
The vacation ended abruptly when Gary Gersh delivered his verdict on the record. There was no single, he'd decided, nothing strong enough to break through on commercial radio, to warrant a video and a big marketing push. The Popes were to go back and record more songs. The February release date was canceled, and the band booked time with Finn at Conway Studios in Hollywood for early 1997. They were angry--Capitol, they were convinced, just wanted them to spend down their budget--but they didn't have much of a choice.
Josh went back to the drawing board, and Aberle started in again with "Let's Hear It for Love." In December the Popes and Dan Glomski repaired to Uberstudio in Humboldt Park to make some more demos. "Pasted" and "Do Something" weren't any better than the filler they'd already cut for the album. Mike's swaggering drums powered "Before I'm Gone," a relic they'd dug up from the Inoculator sessions, but they needed something better. If Josh didn't come up with a winner soon, they might end up with "Let's Hear It for Love" as their calling card for 1997, and that would be downright humiliating.
Shortly before the sessions were to begin, Josh showed up with one last song. The band set up on the big stage at Metro one afternoon to make a live demo, and Glomski recorded a cassette tape right off the sound board. From the first run-through, he loved the song. The verse was elegant but memorable, and the chorus rocked: "I know that you love me / Oh-oh-oh, I know you love me." It was a world-weary lament, seemingly addressed to a lover far away, and after too many months on the road it really hit him where he lived. "Here I am, wandering down a darkened road / Your love shines always in my heart, always in my heart." Then that wailing chorus again, Mike pounding away at the beat: "Oh-oh-oh, I know you love me."
Since he'd stopped smoking pot, Josh had started drinking heavily. He thought alcohol might quell the anxiety that gripped him like a fist, choking off his breath. And if he and Stef could share nothing else, at least they could share a bottle of wine. They'd tried counseling but couldn't seem to reconnect, and they'd begun to talk about separating. After studying acting for a year, she was landing roles in off-Loop plays, and her relationship with Josh had become a chore. All she wanted to do was go to a party or a club or a movie without worrying about whether her husband was about to start hyperventilating. And they fought: they'd go out for dinner, drink not one bottle of wine but two, and end up in a knock-down-drag-out argument.
In February the band headed for the west coast to record the additional tracks, playing dates with Local H along the way and ending the short tour at the Roxy in Los Angeles. After Chicago, LA was the Popes' stronghold, but they were never particularly comfortable there, and this visit would be even more tense: everyone from Capitol would be there, and the club would be packed with industry people. Josh started drinking early, and by the time they went on he was three sheets to the wind. He sang off-key throughout the set, his voice cracking. He treated the microphone as if it were going to bite him, and when Glomski tried to turn up his vocals in the PA the mike would feed back. "He couldn't sing at all," remembers Mike. "I think that show sealed our fate with that record company."
Later that night the band was spirited away to a party, where Josh stayed up till dawn snorting coke. He and Matt went back to the condo where they were staying, and Josh tried to relax, but he felt sick. He asked Matt to take his pulse. "I don't need to take your pulse," said Matt. "I can see your heart beating through your shirt." He called an ambulance, and Josh lay down outside on the patio. He began to cry: this time he'd really gone too far. "God," he prayed, "I know you've heard this one before. But if you let me live through this, I swear I won't waste the rest of my life. I swear I'll spend the rest of my life seeking you."
The band cut three more tunes at Conway: "Before I'm Gone," "I Know You Love Me," and "Let's Hear It for Love." They'd finally capitulated on the last number; it didn't really fit in with the other stuff, but it was a good song, and since they controlled the sequencing of the album they could make sure it was placed unobtrusively (it would be the tenth of sixteen tracks). They'd grown as a band during the earlier sessions--Mike's sense of tempo had sharpened to the point where he could now complete a take without following a click--and Finn turned all three songs into heavy-duty rock 'n' roll.
Then the bottom fell out.
In early March, Joe Shanahan was in Jamaica with his wife and his newborn daughter, celebrating his 40th birthday, when he got a call from Aberle. "Matt said that he had been let go," remembers Shanahan. "It was on the eve of the record being delivered. He had gotten into an argument or some discussion with Gary, and they didn't see eye-to-eye on something. And Matt left the company; Gary didn't renew his contract." Shanahan had heard rumors that Aberle was having problems at Capitol, but Aberle, knowing the news would rattle the Popes as they were trying to finish the record, had kept it to himself until they were done.
Shanahan knew what that meant: when your A and R man gets canned, your record is an orphan. Despite all the commercial pressure Aberle had applied to Josh, he was the band's biggest cheerleader at Capitol, and he'd worked up a generous promotional budget for Destination Failure. Once he was gone his plan was scrapped and the band was assigned to another representative with his own priorities. Soon Shanahan got even worse news: Capitol was putting a "freeze" on the album. Its release would be postponed indefinitely.
The punk-pop craze was over, and the kids had moved on to ska-punk bands like No Doubt. For the college audience, Beck's Odelay had ushered in the sound of postmodern dance pop, and now Capitol's great white hope was the British band Radiohead. The previous year, the label had struck up a distribution agreement with the New York indie Matador Records, whose roster--including Liz Phair, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Pavement--was way hipper than the Popes. And Capitol itself had bigger fish to fry: the Foo Fighters, the Beastie Boys, and Paul McCartney all had new projects coming down the pike, and a singer-songwriter named Meredith Brooks had a single called "Bitch" that sounded like a surefire hit.
If the Smoking Popes album came out now, Shanahan was told, it would get lost in the shuffle. Better to wait until Capitol could pay some attention to the release. "We weren't a priority, was the actual quote," he says. "When they start to prioritize, then you know your record's in trouble." Triple Fast Action, another Chicago band signed to the label, had recorded their Capitol debut, Broadcaster, in early 1995, and it collected dust for more than a year. When it finally came out, it vanished without a trace. The Popes needed a release date: they hadn't put out a record in almost three years, and if Destination Failure were shelved after all that work, the band might simply evaporate.
Shanahan began to call Gersh directly, pleading the band's case. Just package it, ship it, and give us minimal tour support, he urged, and we'll take our chances. The Popes agreed with their manager; better to get the thing into stores and do what they could on their end than to sit around wondering if it would ever see the light of day. They could try to build up some interest in the midwest, where their following was strongest, and maybe later, if Q101 or KROQ picked up on the record, Capitol might put some money behind it. Gersh relented, and in May advance copies of the CD were sent out with a press sheet listing a release date in late August. For the time being, there would be no single.
Destination Failure came out, as promised, on August 26. Shanahan did what he could to generate some excitement for the release in town, scheduling back-to-back shows at Metro and the Double Door. On the afternoon before the Double Door show I met Josh to do a short interview for a piece I was writing about the album. We talked mostly about the pop singers of the 40s and 50s, but one offhand remark stayed with me. When I asked him what music he'd been listening to lately, he said, "Nothing." Really? I asked. "Yeah," he said. "When we're on the road we're listening to music in the van all day. Then you're listening to music in the club all night. After I while I just begin to crave silence."
He wasn't going to get much. In late October the Popes drove to Tucson to begin a five-week tour opening for Morrissey. The melancholy Mancunian hadn't released an album in two years, but he commanded a hysterical cult following, and he'd taken a shine to the Popes, praising an advance copy of Destination Failure during an interview on KROQ that summer. Josh had really wanted the tour: they'd be exposed to an older audience than the high school and college kids who usually turned out to see them, and they'd be playing large rooms, with crowds ranging from a thousand to nearly six thousand people. That spring the Popes had changed their lineup for the first time in four years, hiring Tom Daily (ne Counihan) as a touring guitarist. Josh had begun playing acoustic on a few of the new songs, and on the others he wanted to concentrate on his crooning. Daily had grown up in Addison a few minutes from McGregor's, and his band Not Rebecca had released two albums on Johann's Face. He and Eli had struck up a friendship after Eli moved to an apartment near Daily's in Wicker Park. He got on well with everyone, but the new arrangement seriously blunted the band's stage show. Josh had been a fiery lead guitarist, and while Eli learned most of his brother's solos note for note, he lacked his fluidity.
But for once everyone was excited to be hitting the road, even though the drives were more brutal than before. With Daily in tow they now had seven people, so Josh bought a Taurus station wagon from Daily's father, a Ford dealer; Josh and Eli had quit smoking cigarettes too, so they and Daily rode in the wagon while the smokers took the van, pulling the gear behind them in a trailer. Morrissey's outfit had three tour buses: one for the band, one for the road crew, and one for the star. "We'd play a show, and they'd hop on the bus and fall asleep and their bus driver would drive all night," Daily recalls. "But we'd have to stay up all night and follow the bus. We went from, like, the LA area to Salt Lake City the next day--that kind of thing, where it was like 800-mile drives. Trying to chase that bus all over the United States was really hard."
Morrissey chatted with Josh a few times and said hello to the band once, but he was extremely guarded when he was around at all. Usually his bus would pull up to the venue 15 minutes before his set, and he'd disappear again as soon as the show was over. "There was some weird, weird mayhem that went on at a lot of those shows," says Daily. "People throwing themselves up on the stage and grabbing his clothes and stuff, like he was Elvis." Sometimes they'd play in theaters, and the Popes would have to put their set across while the Morrissey fans were milling around and finding their seats, but other times they'd play to standing crowds and get a great reception.
The tour would bolster their career more than any other event; when Mike reviewed the SoundScan figures for the new album he found that sales were strongest in towns where they'd opened for Morrissey, and about 80 percent of the band's current E-mail list are people who discovered them on that tour. It would have been the perfect opportunity for Capitol to get behind the record and help them break through on the radio, but no one at the label was paying attention.
Josh had been working his way through the New Testament, but he was starting to get frustrated. He had read Matthew and Mark and Luke, and they were all filled with miracles. Jesus had healed the sick and raised the dead and cast out demons; he had walked on water and fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. He had been crucified and risen from the dead. It was a moving story, but he just couldn't figure out how it applied to him personally.
"By the time I got done with Luke, I sort of put it down, and I was like, man, maybe I'll read about Buddhism or something," he says. "Then I started reading John, and I was like, Wait a minute--why is this so different? There's all this amazing stuff in there. You somehow get more inside the mind of Christ. He says a lot more enigmatic things in John. And he talks a lot more about the Holy Spirit, he makes a lot more references to himself being the Son of God, and he talks a lot more about eternal life and resurrection."
In John a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and Jesus tells him he must be born again to see the kingdom of God. "How can a man be born when he is old?" asks Nicodemus. "Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" No, says Jesus, but those who worship God's son will be reborn. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son," Jesus explains, "that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him....And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God."
Josh read the passage over and over. "It really struck me," he says. "Because I started, for one thing, thinking: What does he mean, eternal life? Is that like a metaphor? Does he mean that your spirit lives on? I became really drawn towards finding out. I mean, he makes such incredible statements that if they're not true, he must have been out of his mind."
But even as the gospel drew him in, its consequences repelled him. "He who does what is true comes to the light." That could only mean one thing--making good on his promise, becoming a Christian, devoting his life to Jesus. His brothers would think he was some kind of lunatic. His wife would leave him. And what if he got sucked into some weird religious cult? Jesus meant so many things to so many people, and some heinous crimes had been perpetrated in his name. How could he know who to trust?
He kept reading and thinking. It seemed so immense that he could never hope to comprehend it, yet he couldn't back away from it either. One night he felt so frustrated by it all that he had to get out of the house. He walked to a nearby park and stood in the center of the baseball diamond, staring up into the sky.
"God," he prayed, "I need you to show me what the truth is. I know there's truth here in Jesus. I need to know if he's your son, and if so, what bearing does that have on my life? What do you want me to do with that information? And I want you to protect me from being brainwashed by these freaky people! Just protect me from that--if you're God and you're almighty, I'm sure that you don't want me to be confused. You want me to know the truth. If you sent him here for a purpose, I'm sure you want me to know what that purpose is, and you don't want me to be led astray by charlatans. Somehow, show me what the deal is."
But there was no heavenly voice, no column of light, no dove fluttering down with a handwritten note. Josh walked back across the street and went to bed.
After the Morrissey tour the Popes went back to Shanahan's game plan, building up the record in the midwest, going back again and again to Minneapolis, Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Saint Louis, and every college campus in between. At least the drives were shorter. Most nights they'd just go back to the motel after the show. Mike was married now, and in July his wife, Meghan, had given birth to a boy, Jack. Mike would phone her every night, then he'd watch the Sports Channel and go to sleep, or he and Matt might stay up till dawn, talking and smoking. They'd still have a couple beers once in a while, but Josh had quit drinking entirely, and after the sound check he'd usually go off somewhere by himself.
His bandmates knew something was up, and one by one they all guessed what he'd really been singing about on "I Know You Love Me." "The very first time my brother heard it he knew what it was," recalls Mike. "Then once I listened to it a couple more times I was like, Yeah, you're totally right." And Josh came clean to Eli about the song during the Morrissey tour. "He hadn't found Christianity specifically at that point," says Eli. "He was still looking around, totally in turmoil, just looking for something, some spiritual or religious answers."
"The funny thing is, Matt's the one that seems to have the hardest time accepting Josh's choice," says Dan Glomski, "and he's the one that was eternally reading the Bible in all the hotel rooms that we would stay in. That was his bathroom reading material. But he would get into it--he would think about it long and hard, and every now and then he'd bring something up about it."
In January 1998, Josh got hold of a book that would finally throw some light across his path. Mere Christianity was published in 1952, assembled by C.S. Lewis from radio addresses he'd given in the early 40s. The Oxford scholar and author of the thinly veiled Bible stories "The Chronicles of Narnia" wanted to make the belief structure of Christianity sensible to common people, to explain in clear, reasonable language why Christians think and behave as they do. All the great cultures of history, he points out, have recognized a universal moral law that's separate and distinct from human impulse. The line between good and evil may vary slightly from culture to culture, but the poles of good and evil are beyond question, because without one we wouldn't be able to identify the other. This moral law separating good and evil can't be a function of human impulse because it so often tells us to do things we'd rather not. It must originate somewhere, and that somewhere is what we call God.
If God favors good, why would he create evil? He didn't--he created free will, which is good, and using that freedom one of his own angels broke away from him to become "the Power behind death and disease, and sin." Now the universe is torn by civil war, and "we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory--that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage."
The ultimate act of sabotage, Lewis argues, was the crucifixion, when Jesus allowed himself to be put to death to pay for our sins--but only God himself could presume to make such a sacrifice. "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell." So Jesus arrived as a teacher, but his real mission was to suffer and die so we could be saved from damnation.
"This light went on in my head," says Josh, "and I was like, He's right! That's it! I've never heard anybody explain it that logically and rationally. I knew C.S. Lewis wasn't trying to brainwash me. He was trying to sympathize with the fact that this stuff is hard to believe. And yet he was laying out the fact that, if you really look at it, it's undeniable. So I was like: OK! I can accept that. That's it. Now I know what the truth is, I have to somehow live according to it."
He and Stef were driving home one day when he made up his mind to reveal what was going on inside him. They parked the car a little south of the park where he'd asked God for a sign and he told her he had something to say. Then he spilled his guts: his panic attacks, his fear of death, his search for meaning, his realization that Jesus held the key to eternal life.
Stef was stunned. He'd been reading the Bible lately, but he'd also been reading books about Buddhism, all sorts of stuff. She didn't know what to say. "Whatever!" she replied. "See you later." She got out of the car, leaving him there, and walked to her favorite bar, where she sat with a drink, wondering what the hell was going on. "I just thought he was so far gone that he was grasping at anything," she says.
The Winter Dance Party was a package tour with the Popes, Triple Fast Action, and Menthol, a band from Champaign that also debuted on Capitol in '95. Throughout February and March they played the midwest and a handful of dates on the east coast, traveling in short legs of a couple weeks at a time. The crowds were good. Two and a half years of touring had begun to pay off; now the Popes could actually roll into Dallas or Kansas City or D.C. and pack a small club.
After the tour they had a band meeting to talk about the future. Since Capitol had abandoned Destination Failure there was no point in continuing the relationship. Matt Aberle was working for Reprise now, and he'd probably sign the Popes again, but they didn't want another major-label deal. The thing to do was sign with a big independent label, one that would take the long view and help them build on what they'd already achieved with Capitol.
They also decided to drop Daily. Josh had never been entirely comfortable fronting the band with only a mike between him and the audience, and recently he'd started playing more guitar. They all liked Daily, but now he was superfluous. "I've remained friends with all of them," Daily says, "and I wouldn't have not done it for anything. I really loved playing in the band. Josh just wanted to play guitar again, and he's clearly an incredible lead player. It seemed fitting that they go back to doing that." Daily played his last show with them in late April, opening for Cheap Trick at Metro the night they performed their entire Budokan album.
In the Popes' three-album deal with Capitol, the rerelease of Born to Quit had counted as the first, Destination Failure as the second. They were contractually obligated to submit a third record, and Josh suggested they do a covers album. For years they'd played songs like Willie Nelson's "Valentine" and "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," and after all, before the Beatles and Bob Dylan established the singer-songwriter norm, all pop vocalists had interpreted other artists' tunes, just like jazz musicians.
But Josh had an ulterior motive: as a songwriter, he could only express what was close to him, and there was no way he could start showing up at rehearsal with songs about Jesus. Stef had rejected him, and so would they. What had he gotten himself into? "I just looked at the situation I was in," he says. "I was the only person who was even close to being a Christian. Nobody I knew was gonna dig the fact that I was a born-again Christian. But I had to do it, because it was the truth."
Two weeks after the Cheap Trick show he made it official. Someone had given him a devotional pamphlet, and part of it was a prayer to receive Jesus as his savior. He wanted to make the full commitment, to turn the page once and for all. He got down on his knees and recited the prayer, pledging his life to Jesus Christ. Then he signed the prayer and dated it--May 13, 1998.
"That was a remarkable change," he says. "I really felt different. I felt like it went from my head to my whole being. I don't know if I can describe in words the difference between not knowing--just wondering in your head if there is a God--and then getting to the point where you feel the presence of God, and that's a presence that you take with you in your daily life, and you experience the fact that, like...your life is not just some meaningless, random thing that's gonna be squashed out like a flame. It's in the hands of God. And that your death, your physical death, is just the beginning. I mean, to say that it's a joy is an understatement."
Even as the band was pondering the next phase of its career, Josh was puzzling out how he could serve the Lord. He needed to find a church, a community that would reinforce his faith instead of wearing it down, yet he'd never attended church as a child, and he didn't know one denomination from the next. So he looked in the yellow pages. There were hundreds of churches listed: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian. He attended a different service every Sunday, asking God to let him know when he was in the right place. As the weather warmed up he began walking all over town, praying to God to guide him down the right path.
Christ Church Chicago was hardly majestic: it was located in an old office space on Irving Park, and you had to enter from the side through a pair of thick metal doors. But once Josh was inside he felt welcome. The congregation was racially mixed--black, white, and Latino--and the service was lively. People raised their arms in devotion and called out when the spirit moved them. Most of the preachers he'd met had seemed cool or pious or patronizing, but the pastor here seemed like a regular guy, friendly and blunt--the sort of guy who might show up at your door to fix your hot-water heater.
"I got the immediate impression that the people--not only the preacher, but also the people in the congregation, as a body of people--they all meant it," says Josh. "They were there because they really believed in Jesus. They were worshiping him as if he was there in the room. And that's what I was drawn to, because I'd been going to these churches where it just seemed like people were there because that's what you do on a Sunday. And you know, you pick up your hymnal and you read, and then you sit down. It's just like this ritual. I was looking for life. And I found it at this church."
The pastor, Daniel Iampaglia, had grown up in Brooklyn and was ordained as a minister by the Independent Assemblies of God. He spent his 20s as a missionary in Argentina, where he married; his wife emigrated to New York with him in 1977, after the military dictatorship took power, and in 1990 they moved with their son and three daughters to Chicago so the pastor could take a job at Philadelphia Church in Andersonville. Iampaglia left a few years later to start his own congregation, feeling the community needed a bilingual church that was more diverse racially. He and his flock of 60 moved into the Irving Park building in 1996, and since then the church has grown to about 100 worshipers. The congregation recently changed the name to Praise Tabernacle.
The church, Iampaglia explains, is nondenominational but Pentecostal in character. "We believe in a Pentecostal experience according to the Book of Acts in Chapter Two. And we believe in speaking in tongues as the Holy Spirit gives utterance, we believe in the gifts of the spirit, miracles, as are recorded in the Bible. But we consider ourselves nondenominational because we feel it leaves the door open for anyone and everyone to come in. There are no requirements for attendance other than you want to attend. And we welcome everyone, regardless of their background, where they are right now in life, their intellectual, economical, racial status--it means nothing to us. We're here for people. And if we can be of help to people, then we want people to come."
Josh visited a few more churches, but Christ Church seemed to be the one for him, and he began attending every week. He joined the choir and volunteered to play guitar for all the services. He invited Stef to come with him, but she wasn't interested. "Don't start in on me," she'd say if he began to act self-righteous. "I don't want to be saved." Figuring she wouldn't be Josh's wife much longer, she'd changed her stage name to "Fanny Madison," and she'd complain to her fellow thespians about her Jesus-freak husband.
Singing with the choir, Josh was filled with joy, and by contrast his own music began to seem pretty pointless. One night in June the Popes had played a gig at Metro opening for Eve 6, who'd recently had a hit video--Shanahan was still trying to pump them up any way he could. Looking out into the audience, Josh saw every face in the room focused on him, and kids who knew his songs by heart were singing along. It was all about him, him and his precious melancholy. But what was he giving them, really? What were they all celebrating? "Let's hear it for jealousy, let's hear it for hate / Let's hear it for an apology before it's too late / Let's hear it for cigarettes--baby, you were great / Let's hear it for lo-o-o-ove..." He felt like he'd never known what love was until now.
What he needed most was humility; he'd been grooving on his own greatness for far too long. The kids who'd gathered at Blake Schwarzenbach's feet, the lonely souls who'd lunged at Morrissey, the grieving Nirvana fans who'd killed themselves after Cobain died--they were in darkness. But somehow he'd managed to find his way into the light. God had given him a talent for music, and he had a responsibility to put it at God's disposal, to glorify Jesus instead of himself, to spread the good news. And he didn't want to face the fact, because it was so tough, and because he loved Mike and his brothers, but he could no longer deny where this was all leading: he would have to quit the Smoking Popes.
Because he earned publishing royalties on the Popes' songs, Josh usually had more income than the other three, so he bankrolled the recording session for the covers album. It was just like old times: they arranged the tunes in Mike's parents' basement and polished them onstage, and the whole album was recorded and mixed at Solid Sound in four days. At their invitation Bonnet took a more active role as producer and mixed the record by himself. For the first time they'd name an album after one of its songs, and the choice said it all: The Party's Over.
The album may have been a throwaway, but it allowed the band to explore their own strange alchemy, adapting the songs' piano-based chord structures to their driving guitar sound. In some cases the results were embarrassing: soaring ballads like "Stormy Weather" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" are bludgeoned to death. But the Popes are razor sharp on the title song and "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and their lovely reading of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" shows how broad their emotional range had become.
The final track was "Why Me," a Christian song by Kris Kristofferson that Josh remembered from one of his mother's old albums. He recorded it on acoustic, with Iampaglia's daughter Karen Tierney harmonizing on the chorus and Eli contributing a short, spare electric guitar solo. There was no bass or drums. "He didn't even want to try to get those guys to play on it," says Eli. At some point during the sessions Matt mentioned an idea for a future project to Josh, and Josh replied that from now on he'd be writing only songs about the gospel. "I was like, 'Hmm, that might be a little bit much to ask the Smoking Popes fans to accept,'" Matt recalls. "That was the first time I really understood that he was that hard-core about that stuff."
While the others respected Josh's feelings, there was never any chance of them becoming a Christian rock band. "None of us have any interest in Christianity whatsoever, like, pursuing that as a lifestyle," says Eli. "And it is his lifestyle. Jesus is his savior, and he believes that Jesus died and came back to life, and that's a fact to him. He takes the Bible literally--the Bible is the truth. He's a pretty extreme guy; he doesn't do anything halfway. We're all kind of like that, Matt and myself." The same single-mindedness that had fueled their music and driven a suburban punk-rock band to the national stage now made the Smoking Popes impossible.
Josh and Stef had finally agreed to separate; she was looking at apartments, and he was planning to move to Missouri and just start over. He'd visited some churches in Saint Louis while the Popes were down there playing, and the area appealed to him. Yet he was emotionally involved in The Party's Over and wanted to see it through, which would mean one last tour. He agreed to stay in the band for a few months so they could fulfill their obligations to the label, but then, he told them, he'd be leaving.
In a way, says Mike, it was a relief. "There was no communication ever between us and Josh," he says. "There'd be times when it's like a Friday night, and Josh would call and go, 'Well, we're going on tour Monday for three weeks.' Uh...OK. For me personally, it was good that the band broke up, because I can't have that kind of chaos anymore, having a child. Josh would know about things way in advance, and then he wouldn't ever call and tell us, he would tell us a month after he knew. I probably would have done it forever because I loved the music, but that was just exhausting."
In August, Josh asked to be baptized at Christ Church. Stef reluctantly agreed to attend the service, and Matt and Eli showed up as well. (Their parents had recently relocated to a suburb of Minneapolis.) A waist-high tub had been placed at the front of the sanctuary, the participants in the ceremony dressed in jeans and T-shirts. To Josh's surprise, the associate pastor stuck the microphone in his hand and asked him to say a few words. Josh swallowed hard and told the congregation about his cocaine binge in LA, how he'd lain on the patio begging for his life and spent the last year and a half trying to keep the promise he'd made. From her pew Stef watched the pastor lower Josh into the water and thought: There goes my husband.
The night after he was baptized, Stef asked him to help her out at work with a mailing. She was working at Jam Productions and they needed someone to stuff envelopes for a day. Josh agreed, and Stef's boss liked him so much that she offered him a full-time job. They had to share a desk, which forced them to spend their days together. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, but something unexpected happened: they began to get along. The work gave them something in common to talk and laugh about, and as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, they began to fall in love again.
Now that he'd been saved Josh seemed like a different person; everyone noticed the change, but Stef saw it up close. His panic attacks were a thing of the past; now he was relaxed and happy. He seemed to have relinquished all his ambition and self-doubt; he didn't tie himself up in knots anymore. He was full of love for his parents and his brothers--and for her. Their marriage was healing, almost in spite of them. "It's one of the many reasons why I know that God is real," says Josh. "Because what he did was, I asked him where he wanted me to go, and he put me in the same cubicle as my wife, day after day. And I don't know, everything started to change. God just totally changed everything."
A few weeks after the baptism Josh asked Stef to come back to church: he was singing a song and wanted her to hear it. She agreed, and the pastor's sermon struck a nerve. She began to go every week. Every time Josh quoted Scripture, the words would echo in her mind for days.
She pulled back. She was having too much fun to become a choirboy like Josh. She'd seen how her theater friends reacted when she told them he'd been born again, and she was afraid to open herself up to the same scorn. Yet her life felt empty. She'd wake up in the morning with a vicious hangover, swearing she was done drinking, but by nightfall she'd be doing it again. Every time she went to church, she felt as if the pastor were speaking directly to her, addressing her worst fears and deepest longings. How could he know what she was feeling? "Every time I went, I cried," she recalls. "I was so stricken with the truth that every time I went to church it just hit me."
She began to read Josh's Bible. She'd been a bookworm all her life and fancied herself a student of human nature, but she'd never read anything like this before. "I remember saying to Josh, 'No other book can describe what it is to be a human being more than this book.' It was like looking into a mirror. There were so many Scripture verses that totally spoke to me. It's either something you've been praying about, or something you've been anxious about, and then you read one Scripture verse, and you're like, Ohhh...that's for me. And two weeks later it doesn't mean that, but right then you know the reason you read that was because of your prayer or your anxiety."
She began to wonder if the Bible were God's own voice, as Josh kept telling her. If it weren't, how could it have such a profound effect on her? She saw what it had done for him, for their marriage. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that God was leading her away from the theater. There was nothing sinful about acting per se, but the off-Loop theater scene had a lot in common with the rock scene: sex, drugs, drinking, narcissism. Plus, with her raven hair and feline eyes she always seemed to get cast as some kind of slut: she'd played a vampire for Defiant, and most recently she'd been a lesbian hoodlum in Devil Girls, a no-budget film some people were shooting from an unearthed Ed Wood script. Doing this stuff and then showing up at Christ Church on Sunday, she increasingly felt like she was living in two different worlds.
Capitol rejected The Party's Over, to no one's surprise; the label could hardly be expected to market an album of covers by a relatively obscure band. At the Popes' request, Shanahan asked that they be released from their contract, and Capitol agreed. The label may not have shepherded the band's career as well as it had promised, but the severance was more than fair--the Popes were both paid for the album and given the rights to it. They'd always been conservative in their spending, and when the settlement came through they all went home with some money to live on while they figured out what to do with themselves.
Mike, Matt, and Eli decided to start a label, Double Zero Records. Rights to the first Popes' album, Get Fired, had reverted to the band after its agreement with Johann's Face expired, and their fans had been bugging them for years to rerelease the seven-inches on CD. A compilation of old Popes stuff might bring in enough revenue to get the label going, and if so they could follow it with The Party's Over, maybe even a live album if they got a good show on tape. After that they could release their own solo projects and sign other bands. Mike had the best head for business, and he quickly took the initiative, assembling the first release, Smoking Popes 1991-1998.
The label gave them something to hang on to in the face of an uncertain future. There was no possibility of carrying on without Josh--his voice and his songs had defined the Smoking Popes. Mike was a dynamite drummer, and good drummers are always in demand. But neither Matt nor Eli had any track record outside the Popes, or even much job experience. Matt had turned 30 that year, and aside from driving a van he'd never done anything but play music. Eli had left Pizza Hut to join the Popes before he finished high school. Without Josh, they'd be just two more guitarists floating around town.
In early November, Shanahan and the band drove to New York for the CMJ Music Marathon, a series of showcases for up-and-coming bands. Then, on the night before Thanksgiving, Josh sat down in front of the screaming hordes at Metro and told them he loved Jesus.
The Popes' final tour, to promote 1991-1998, was scheduled for March 1999: two weeks' worth of dates in the midwest and along the east coast. It would be followed by two farewell shows, one out in the northwest burbs and then a last waltz at Metro. Now that Capitol had released the Popes from their contract, CAA was no longer handling their tours, but Sean McDonough, a staffer at Metro, had stepped up to the plate and booked the forthcoming dates. The Popes hadn't been on a full-fledged tour since the Winter Dance Party a year earlier, and even Josh began to get excited.
Yet his own excitement bothered him. Something about it didn't feel right. He'd agreed to stay in the band so they could promote The Party's Over, hoping one last tour would help him let go of the Popes. Now that album had been pushed back in favor of an oldies compilation, and by adding all this ancient stuff to their set they seemed to be clinging to the past. He'd pledged his life to Christ, yet here he was looking forward to the glory of the spotlight again. He could argue that he was on a mission to carry the gospel into the dark corners of the world. But what if that were just a ploy to soothe his conscience?
He kept thinking about the parable of the sower. Jesus tells the story of a sower scattering seeds; some of the seeds sprouted and grew wild, but others were choked by thorns. "The sower sows the word," Jesus explains to his disciples later, but some people lose it in the thorns: "They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."
Finally Josh decided to ask the pastor's advice. Speaking privately with Iampaglia, he laid out the whole conflict. The pastor asked him why he thought he needed to leave the band in the first place. "Because I want to serve God," Josh replied. "Because I want to glorify him and not seek my own glory." He realized he was answering his own question.
"He sought our counsel," says Iampaglia, "and we just felt to tell him, Look, if two don't agree, how can they walk together? The band was comprised of his brothers, and that was a relationship that cannot be severed, should not be severed. But the goals were totally different. He never had peace, as he himself would say, doing what he was doing--not that he didn't enjoy it, he just didn't have peace. And he was successful, as the band was, and they obviously had a following. You're with a band, you've been there since its inception, they're your brothers. You had camaraderie, you had a lot going together. But if there's no perfect peace, then you have to make a decision."
Iampaglia gave him some verses to read, and they all confirmed Josh's doubts. "I think it's in the Gospel of Matthew," Josh says, "where Jesus said that he who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of God. The plow being your commitment to Christ. I mean, it's all over the Bible. You cannot serve both God and man. You cannot serve two masters. You cannot love the world and love God." He continued to pray, but he already knew what he had to do. "I just came to this personal realization that if I didn't make an immediate and complete break from the band, it was like, speak now or forever hold your peace. Because I wasn't gonna be able to let go, it was like I was gonna be sucked back in."
He told his bandmates in person--Eli first, then Matt. "Josh had some kind of crazy religious revelation where the Lord spoke to him and told him that he couldn't go on tour," Matt recalls. "He said that he was reading something in the Bible, and it told him that he shouldn't go on that tour. I was just like, All right, dude, whatever." Josh drove out to Algonquin to tell Mike, who'd bought a town house with his wife there, and finally he went over to Metro to talk to Shanahan. As usual the office was a madhouse, so he left and broke the news to him over the phone the next day.
His bandmates were livid: Mike had already announced the dates on a band Web page and distributed the itinerary by E-mail. For years they'd put up with Josh's stubbornness, only to be rewarded like this at the very end. "It was kind of rude," says Matt. "Poor Sean at Metro--he's not a booker, that's not his job, and he went out of his way to book some shows for us. But, whatever. The thing was imploding at that point anyway, so it's probably better we
didn't go on that tour. It just wouldn't have been any fun."
Stef sided with the pastor. "He told Josh exactly what Josh didn't want to hear. You almost know when it's the truth, when you don't want to hear it, and it bothers you. So I think it's really admirable that Josh followed what he thought was right. And it was not the easy way out. The easy way would have been to do the three or four shows or whatever and then said good-bye after that, you know, had his last hurrah. But something would have happened, something bad would have happened; he would have gotten sucked back into it. So it was a little test. He passed."
Since then the Smoking Popes have receded into local music history. Josh recorded an EP of gospel covers at Solid Sound, but Phil Bonnet would never see the finished CD; he died of a brain aneurysm in February 1999. Matt, Mike, and Eli served as Tom Daily's backing band for a while, but Matt soon lost interest and Mike quit earlier this year to join the Alkaline Trio. Eli has started his own band, the Men's Group, and Matt has been jamming with friends and writing material for a solo project. Double Zero just released a CD of the Popes' 1998 Thanksgiving concert. "I've been having a fucking blast," says Matt, "and I don't see that ending anytime soon."
But the resentment lingers. When Eli, Matt, and Mike were assembling the live CD, Eli solicited Josh's input, but Josh told him he didn't care what songs appeared on the album as long as they included his introduction to "I Know You Love Me." "Josh has put the Smoking Popes behind him completely," Eli says. "He's only interested in glorifying God in music anymore, and the Smoking Popes, he really doesn't hold any feelings for it. It doesn't mean anything to him anymore. We did it for so long, and it was his band too, he wrote the songs. We put all this hard work into it and dedicated our lives to it, and now he's just...how could you just leave it, just put it behind you, so cleanly cut this part of your life and just set it to the side?"
"There's no moderation in anything that he does," says Mike. "It's being addicted to one thing and replacing it with another thing. You smoke pot all day, then you drink all day, and then you quit everything else and go to church every day. So it's just one thing for the next. I guess it's better for him, 'cause if you have to be addicted to something, that's probably about the best thing."
Josh would find that equation preposterous. For him, life cleaves neatly into two halves--before and after he was saved. "I see the years I spent in the Smoking Popes as something I did out of ignorance of the truth," he says. "It's not that it was a particularly evil band; it's just that it didn't make any difference. What I was doing did not have any eternal value, because I didn't believe that anything had eternal value. But now I've found out that's not true. There's one thing that does, so now I go in that direction. It's the only thing that makes sense."
Stef faced a "test" of her own not long after Josh quit the band. Earlier that winter she'd nabbed the title role in Circle Theatre's staging of Salome, the Oscar Wilde play about the biblical character who asks for the head of John the Baptist. The production updated the action to the present, setting it in a nightclub, and the court of King Herod became a crew of promiscuous coke-snorting hipsters. Stef dyed her hair green for the role. Near the end of the play Salome entertains Herod with an erotic dance, stripping nude to the strains of Fiona Apple's "Criminal," and after the prophet's head is served to her on a platter, she kisses it on the lips.
"A couple of times I walked into church with green hair," Stef recalls. "But they were all wonderful! They didn't care. God doesn't care what color my hair is, as long as I'm there." Salome was her last off-Loop play. "I couldn't fathom spending five or six days a week in rehearsal and then four days a week in performance, taking three months out of my life, for something that I just did not care about. There's a hymn we sing at church that goes something like, 'When you start to know Jesus, the things of the world grow strangely dim.' And that's what happened to me. The lure of theater and the lure of fame and the lure of creative accomplishment grew strangely dim to me, because I had found the meaning of life. And it's not theater and it's not art. Art is entertainment. So many people don't want for you to say that. But it is."
She prayed for help with her drinking problem, and she says her prayers were answered. A year after Josh was lowered into the font, she asked to be baptized, and earlier this year she and Josh were officially recognized as members of Praise Tabernacle. They're expecting their first child in September. These days they funnel most of their creative energy into the church: Stef has started a drama ministry for which she writes and directs plays, and Josh has written about a half dozen worship songs, southern-gospel numbers that he can play at services. On the verses he likes to throw in something odd--an unexpected chord, a measure of 5/4--but the choruses need to be simpler so the congregation can join in. "All the stuff that our A and R guy tried to get me to do all along, but I would never cooperate, I'm now doing for the Lord," he says, laughing. "Repeat the chorus--make it a really simple, catchy hook, and just repeat it!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.