By ERIC SCHELKOPF
The long wait is almost over for fans of Chicago band Smoking Popes.
On March 15, the band will release "This is Only a Test," its first CD of original material since 2008's "Stay Down."
Smoking Popes also will be busy touring in the next few months, including shows at 9 p.m. Feb. 19 at The Montrose Room, 5300 N. River Road, Rosemont, and at 10 p.m. Feb. 25 at Mojoes, 22 W. Cass St., Joliet.
For a full band schedule, go to www.smokingpopes.net.
Last year, I had the chance to talk to Smoking Popes lead singer Josh Caterer of Elgin about the new album, and how he is juggling being in a band with his responsibilities as worship leader at Harvest Bible Chapel and raising a family.
Q - It seems like things are going full steam ahead for the Smoking Popes. I see that your current record label is releasing some of the band's previous material.
Asian Man Records put out a CD for us in February which was a collection of all of our old 7'' releases. That had been stuff that had come out in various collections over the years or was out of print until this year.
Q - I suppose that some of your die hard fans would already have these songs, but was it cool to have that material out there for your newer fans?
Totally. It's kind of sad to think that some of our songs would just disappear. They're like kids, really, you know. You want the best for them.
You want them to have a productive life. If they just disappear, it makes you very sad and sort of uneasy.
Q - What should people expect from the new album?
Well, it's a concept album, written entirely from the point of view of a high school senior. The album is called "Teen Tragedies."
Q - Was this something you were mulling over for a while, to do a concept album?
I had never planned on doing a concept album, but once the idea hit me, it just all came like a flood. I started writing these songs really quickly.
Q - Is it autobiographical?
No, not really. It's inspired by some of my own thoughts and feelings as a teenager, but I definitely created a character other than myself to be the main character on the album. It gave me the freedom to express things that are not strictly from my own life.
But I was thinking one day about the fact that when we were a young band, I would never intentionally write songs from a teenage point of view.
I was always trying to pretend like I was more sophisticated. I was always listening to Frank Sinatra records and trying to capture his vibe.
It occurred to me that it would be funny if now that I am well into my 30s if I started writing songs from a teenage point of view. I had the first five songs for the album after coming up with the concept.
The ideas were there, and I just had to take the time to write them out.
Q - Has this process been freeing for you?
It is freeing, to sort of paint yourself into a corner a little bit. You don't have to decide what in the world am I going to write about. Your subject matter is a little more obvious once you put some borders around it.
Q - You are juggling a lot of things these days, including being a worship leader at Harvest Bible Chapel.
I am on staff full time, actually as a worship pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel. The Popes aren't actually any touring right now.
Right now, we are just playing a few times a month around the Midwest, always within a couple of hours of Chicago. So it's really not that much of a conflict. I can be at my office all week and lead worship on Sunday, and still go out and play shows with the Popes on Friday and Saturday nights.
If I had to choose between the two, I suppose I would choose worship leading.
Q - What do you like about being a worship leader?
Worship leading is better because it has eternal value. There is a verse in the book of First Corinthians that says, ''Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
So when I give myself to leading worship, I know that I am helping to build God's kingdom, and that it is something that is going to have value that lasts beyond even this life. The Smoking Popes are fun, but it is a fleeting thing.
Q - What about your side project Duvall? Is it still active?
Yeah, it was inactive for a few years. After the Popes got together, it sort of seemed Duvall evaporated. And a couple of months ago, we played a Duvall set at the Metro opening for our friends The Fold.
After that, we've gotten offers to play a couple of different shows, and we're supposed to do a set on JBTV next month. Once I got the ball rolling, it has just picked up momentum on its own.
Duvall is actually going to start leading worship at the youth ministry at Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows once a month.
Q - And Duvall is writing new songs as well?
Yeah, I've been writing some new stuff for Duvall. Back when we were making Duvall records before, that was my only band. I was sort of on the fence whether Duvall would be a Christian band, or whether it should function in the general market.
I think that my songwriting for that band was a little ambiguous because of that.
But now that the Popes are back together, my vision for Duvall is to make it a more explicitly Christian band, actually leading people in worship as a band.
Q - It seemed like labels kind of yanked the Popes around. Do you have any regrets about how things went in the past?
No, I don't. I think it was good that we were on Capitol Records. It got us a lot more exposure, and it helped us expand our fan base pretty quickly.
So that was beneficial. In the long run, I think we've always been an indie band. We're just more comfortable functioning on an independent label, because we have a pretty specific vision about how we want to approach making our music.
We really don't like having to deal with the corporate structure in order to make that happen.
Where we are at now is a better fit, but I don't regret working with Capitol. If nothing else, it was a valuable learning experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Q - Tickets sold out really fast for the Popes' reunion show in 2005. Was that a surprise?
We didn't know what to expect. We knew that there was a dedicated core following of fans out there. When Duvall was touring, I would always run into people across the country that were really excited and really devoted.
I figured there would be at least 100 really excited people at the show, but there was more like 1,100 really excited people at the show.
That night was really special for us. It was a lot of fun.
Q - For a while, the Chicago music scene was the big scene. What do you think of the Chicago music scene these day?.
Well, I live out in the suburbs and I work full time at my church, and I have two kids. I don't get out to a lot of shows. Pretty much the only shows I go to are the ones that I'm playing in. So I'm not an authority on the Chicago music scene.