Along with Green Day and Jimmy Eat World, Chicago's Smoking Popes helped pioneer the melodic pop-punk movement of the early 1990s. In 2011, they are sounding as youthful as ever. That's due in part to This Is Only a Test, a new album that shines a light on life from a teenager's perspective. The album's 10 songs take on love, danger, music, sports, college and diaries with upbeat punk tempos and plenty of catchy hooks.
The Popes took a six-year break from music starting in 1999, soon after lead singer Josh Caterer became a Christian. On the eve of their Oct. 15 performance at the High Noon Saloon, I asked him about his new album, how Christianity has changed his approach to music and what fans don't know about time he's spent in Madison.
What inspired the decision to write an album about a fictional high schooler?
I realized I had never really written from a teenage point of view, because when I was younger I always tried to adopt the perspective of the older artists I was listening to, like Frank Sinatra. So I thought it would be funny if now, in my 30s, I started writing about teenage life. I almost dismissed the idea as being too goofy, but then I started getting the inspiration for all these songs.
What about This Is Only a Test distinguishes it from other albums you've made?
This is the first time that I've written an entire collection of songs as a fictional character. That's not to say that all my songs up till now have been autobiographical. They haven't.
What do you see as the most fundamental way your commitment to Christianity has changed your songwriting?
I used to see songwriting as a process of self-realization that would help me make sense of my life and help me extend myself into a kind of immortality, because my work would live on after I was gone. Now I know that only Jesus can really make sense of a person's life, and he is the answer to that longing for immortality, because only in him can we have eternal life. So now I have a more realistic perspective. Songwriting is meaningful and satisfying, but it's not my life. Jesus is my life.
Your music career started before the Internet was big. Is it harder to be successful "post-record industry"?
The Internet has definitely changed things. In many ways, I think things are better now. You don't need a big record company anymore to get your music out. You can make the music you want to without having to bow down to the man. The only thing is, it's harder to make money off your recorded music because people can get it for free. So it's less about selling CDs and more about playing shows, which is fine for us because we enjoy playing shows more now than we ever did before.
Being just down the road from Madison, what's one of your favorite memories of time spent here?
My wife went to college in Madison. One time, she told me to meet her outside behind the student union. There was a free concert happening there. So I met her there and I didn't even pay attention to the band. We hung out for a little while and left. I found out later the band was Uncle Tupelo, which didn't mean anything to me at the time, but eventually I wished I'd paid a little more attention.