Josh Caterer Keeps the Faith

At Metro on the night before Thanksgiving in 1998, Smoking Popes front man Josh Caterer came out alone for a final encore and played a song about Jesus. In a matter of months, he’d quit the band. “It’s not that it was a particularly evil band,” he told writer J.R. Jones later in a Reader cover story. “It’s just that it didn’t make any difference. What I was doing did not have eternal value.” Caterer said he intended to keep writing songs, but that his only subject would be his savior.

Caterer is still a born-again Christian, and his old bandmates still aren’t. But last Friday, three years and five days later, Caterer and two of the other three members were back on the Metro stage, headlining a six-band bill under the name Duvall for a house full of eager fans. “On becoming born-again, I very excitedly wanted to talk about it in a very forthright way, right off the bat,” he says now. “Eventually I came to grips with the fact that this was not the most effective way to present the gospel to people. You’re better off letting people know where you stand, letting them know that you’re a Christian–not cramming it down their throats, but being able to explain yourself when it comes up. Since that applied to conversations with people, I started to see that it would also apply to what I’m doing musically.”

For some time, Caterer was content to write country-tinged gospel ditties and perform them in church. Then, about a year ago, he was fooling around with a tune that seemed musically inappropriate for church, and after much hand-wringing, decided it was OK. “I came to the realization that my salvation and my spiritual well-being didn’t really depend on me sequestering myself in a small church setting and never venturing out and playing in the world at large,” he says. Unfortunately, his pastor at the Praise Tabernacle Church didn’t feel the same way, and earlier this year he switched to the Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows. In July he put together a one-off band that included his brother and former bandmate Eli to play the Cornerstone Festival, a five-day Christian music festival held near Bushnell, Illinois. “The feeling of getting up onstage and playing rock music with distorted guitars was pretty great,” he says. By August he’d assembled a more permanent band and was writing more pop songs.

As luck would have it, Popes drummer Mike Felumlee had just been booted from the Alkaline Trio and leapt at the opportunity to play with Caterer again. He brought in bassist John Sewell from Kidsnack, a band that’d recorded for Double Zero, the record label he’s operated since the Popes’ demise. Metro owner Joe Shanahan and his right-hand man Sean McDonough, who’d managed the Popes, agreed to manage Duvall, and in mid-October the trio recorded an EP, Standing at the Door, to be released on December 11 by Double Zero. The songs were good enough to persuade Eli to join on second guitar, and in early November the band spent a week on the road with Dashboard Confessional, the solo project of Christian emo hero Chris Carrabba. “The other guys are more comfortable with me singing songs about God and everybody is more inclined to think about God than we were in 1996,” says Caterer. “And I’m more comfortable not having to sing the name ‘Jesus’ in every song.”

There are no overt references to Jesus in the tunes on Standing at the Door, which are as good as anything Caterer ever wrote for the Popes. But the Beatles-esque “Time Is Gone” seems to be about Judgment Day, and the narrator in the title track blares music and TV to distract himself from the truth in his heart. The band’s 35-minute set at Metro included a new song called “Jesus Never Leaves Me,” and Caterer has added a few measures to the Popes’ “I Know You Love Me” to clarify that it’s about you-know-who. As far as I could tell, no one in the audience balked at any of this. “People generally admire you for getting up there and singing something that most people might not take so well,” Caterer says. “It sort of works like reverse psychology. Getting up there at a rock club and throwing a song in your set that is explicitly about having faith in Jesus Christ–most people will be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he’s doing that!'”

Caterer will perform solo at Schubas on December 27.

Rough Guide

Thursday, December 13, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of controversial British composer Cornelius Cardew, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident at age 45. Cardew’s short career can be divided into three phases. Initially a staunch disciple of Stockhausen, he remains best known for his struggle to find a more democratic approach to music. In this pursuit, he gradually embraced graphic notation, which not only let non-music readers play his works but also required a lot of input from the performers. As a Maoist in the mid-70s, he rejected the challenging, abstract work he’d produced during the second phase as elitist, and began writing deliberately accessible music.

Cardew’s oeuvre has been a subject of renewed interest for several years now; three CDs of his work have been issued in the past 12 months. The Great Learning (Cortical Foundation) is a rare document of his Scratch Orchestra, a large experimental-music ensemble formed in 1968 to take the music to the working class. Four Principles on Ireland and Other Pieces, a 1975 album reissued by the local Ampersand label, features Cardew playing solo piano pieces written during his third phase; on the brand-new We Sing for the Future! (New Albion) noted new-music pianist Frederic Rzewski performs two solo works from the same period.

A catalyst for all these projects was the first complete recording of Cardew’s 193-page graphic score Treatise (1963-’67), coordinated by Chicagoan Art Lange and performed by a raft of Chicago musicians for the Swiss Hat Art label in 1998. On Wednesday, December 12, at HotHouse, Lange–a poet, jazz producer, former editor of Down Beat magazine, and Columbia College professor–will honor Cardew’s memory by conducting some rarely heard works, including portions of Treatise. Among the performers will be Guillermo Gregorio, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jim Baker, Carrie Biolo, Jeff Parker, Amy Williams–a pianist whose father, Jan, worked with Cardew–and Lou Mallozzi.

The score gives no instruction as to how it should be interpreted, so Lange’s job, he says, is “outlining some specific parameters which will, hopefully, create a coherent but not predetermined environment….I may suggest some measures of ‘control’ in order to maintain a connection to the composer’s initial impulses, but in all cases what results is a collaboration between the composer and the participants.”


The Chicago Underground Quartet, which released a fine eponymously titled album on Thrill Jockey this summer, will be playing its first local gigs of 2001 this weekend–and it looks like they might be the last Underground gigs for some time. Cornetist Rob Mazurek, the ringleader of the Chicago Underground in all its incarnations and a member of Isotope 217, is moving next weekend to Brasilia, where his wife, a sociobiologist, recently took a job. He’ll continue to record and tour in the States, but he will no longer be based in Chicago. The quartet plays Saturday, December 8, as part of WNUR’s daylong Chicago Sounds Jazz Fest at Northwestern University in Evanston and Sunday, December 9, at the Empty Bottle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.