Josh Caterer: He’d rather have Jesus

By Mark Guarino

When musician Josh Caterer makes a point these days, he doesn’t reach for a guitar. He grabs a leather case and unzips a bible.

“Whoever believes in him avoids condemnation, but whoever does not believe is already condemned,” he reads.

Caterer was the leader of the Smoking Popes, a pop-punk band that “made it big” in the conventional sense: radioplay, videos, critical raves, national touring, major league albums.

He continues: “The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were wicked.”

A little over a year ago, Caterer saw a light he could never find onstage in those dark rock clubs late at night. So he walked offstage to follow it.

“He who acts in truth comes into the light,” he finishes, zipping the bible back snug into its neat, leather case.

That was it. He followed the light. The light said break up your band. He did it. The light said don’t go to rock clubs. He stopped. The light said stop playing rock music. He did. The light asked, so how do you feel?

 “Constantly amazed,” he smiles.

Early in his life Caterer discovered he was gifted with the voice of an angel.

His mother played old country crooners like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on the stereo. But when it was time to form his own band on his parents’ basement in Lake in the Hills, Caterer and his brothers Matt and Eli with friend Mike Felumlee, decided to crank up the guitars. Unlike most punk rock singers, though, Caterer didn’t scream. He crooned. The Smoking Popes (first named the Popes after a Chicago street gang, modified after they feared the real Popes might show up miffed at gigs) played basement parties in the neighborhood and started releasing seven-inch singles. In 1993, a local label released their first album, “Get Fired.”

At that time, Chicago was a hotbed for bands being scouted by larger labels. By then, the Smoking Popes were regularly booked at Metro, the city’s biggest rock club, and its owner, Joe Shanahan (SP?) had interest enough to become their manager.

A bidding war among labels started and Capital Records won. Immediately, they re-released the Popes’ second indie album, “Born To Quit” in 1995. “Our ship came in,” said Caterer.

Then they were sent on tour. The band had never experienced this before. Before, they saved up enough money to tour for maybe two weeks at a time. Now they were away three months. To make things worse, Caterer had just married Stephanie, his girlfriend he first met at Jacobs High School. A month later, he was gone.

He began discovering dents in his dream. A rock star lifestyle at that level, Caterer discovered, cannot be endured by the sensitive. So the solution was simple: stop being sensitive.

“I was very stubborn,” he admitted. “I was fairly full of myself. I really though I was this genius.”

“He was a jerk, he was smoking pot all the time,” Stephanie said.

“I certainly took to drinking excessively. I was smoking a lot of pot, doing a lot of other things that would come our way on the road,” he said.

In 1996, Caterer joked to a local music magazine that if their music didn’t make them stars, they could try another way: “I figure we could become famous if we were the first band to OD on pot.”

From all this reckless behavior came two troubling things. First, he started questioning what business he had in show business.

“It’s really exciting, especially if you’re going out in front of young people, there’s so much energy and they scream, you feel like you connect with them. Then you go off the stage and you go back to the hotel room and sit and watch Cinemax and you sort of wonder what’s it all about,” he laughed.

“You have to believe what you’re doing has some greater significance. That’s the pretense a lot of artists live by. Because so many people enjoy what you do, it has to have this almost this spiritual quality. I started to wonder, is that the case or am I just entertaining people and are people just looking for entertainment to distract themselves from asking themselves the big questions like ‘what’s the purpose of our lives, what’s going to happen to us when we die, am I wasting my life, what am I supposed to be doing here?’

“And when you have all your dreams come true in life and you realize none of those questions have been answered by your dreams, then you’re like, ‘okay, what do I do now? I guess I’ll start drinking heavily.’”

Then came his obsession with death.

On a tour with Local H, Caterer was staring out the van window at mountains as the band drove through the Southwest. Suddenly, he was flooded with a horrible realization: “no matter if we became hugely successful or we failed, no matter what happened, I was going to die.”

When he arrived at his hotel room, he dropped to his knees, started crying and prayed for the first time in his life. He asked God to stop his fear of death.

It didn’t work. Six months later he was partying through the night. Then he collapsed. His brother Eli could see his brother’s heart beating through his shirt. On the way to the hospital, he prayed a second time: “God, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but if you let me live through this, I won’t waste my life anymore…I’ll look for you.”

The Smoking Popes continued. In late 1997, they released their second album for Capitol, “Destination Failure.” Full of gloomy songs of romantic doom, the jacked-up guitars, punchy pop beats combined with Caterer’s smooth, nonchalant voice, made it one of the best rock records of the ‘90s.

The song “I Know You Love Me” became a big radio hit in the summer of 1998. “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,” he sang.

Everyone figured the song was just another one of Caterer’s songs about girls. But they were wrong. He wrote it for God.

He kept his new taste for the spiritual life a secret. He hadn’t done much investigation into it, either. Instead, he began “testing the limits of how much I could introduce Jesus into what we were doing,” he said.

He saved “I Know You Love Me” for the encore when the band played live. Before they played it, he tried explaining to the crowd about what Jesus meant to him.

The band was just “happy at that point I wasn’t quitting the band,” Caterer said. But soon he felt “something wasn’t right about it,” that, “it wasn’t connecting.” After all, who wants to hear about Jesus on a Friday night at midnight after tossing back a few beers?

Things got worse when the band toured with U.K. singer Morrissey, the prince of romantic doom Caterer was often compared to in the press.

Morrissey had the luxury tour bus while the Popes followed behind in a van and a station wagon Caterer bought to distance himself from the smokers in the band. Driving with his brother Eli and road guitarist Tom Coumihan, all three got into heavy philosophical discussions.

“(Josh) just started getting really introverted and keeping away from everybody,” said Counihan (SP), who recently released an album under the stage name Tom Daily with Caterer’s brothers.

“Ever since I’ve known him he’s been searching for something beyond worldly happiness. We talked a lot about it on that particular tour,” he said.

Morrissey, who is about 20 years older than the Popes, wasn’t the best role model for the touring lifestyle, either. Over the six-week tour, he only spoke to the band twice and was “very fidgety” and “very uncomfortable,” Caterer remembered. After every show, Morrissey would dart to his tour bus, making sure he bumped into no one.

“I was realizing that he had a bigger budget than we did, but he was basically on the same treadmill that we were on,” Caterer said. “It became a reality to us that this was going to be us, this was going to be me. It didn’t seem any more fulfilling for him than it was for me.”

So Caterer quit. He felt there was no choice. But it came with a price: “Once I came to the conclusion that Jesus is the truth, people didn’t seem to want to talk about it anymore.”

The band was on its last legs with its record company, too. They gave Capitol a covers album, but it was rejected. They were released from their contract.

“It wasn’t working,” Caterer said. “I felt like I was either going to have to go one way or another. I just felt what the Lord wanted me to do was use the talent He put into me and put it back to Him to glorify Him to advance the truth of Jesus Christ. Because everything else is a waste of time.”

Before the band broke up, Caterer was going to church. Not just one, many.

He looked up churches in the Yellow Pages and went down the list. Every Sunday, a new congregation to test out. He wasn’t raised with religion, so this was a whole new experience.

The seventh Sunday he walked into Christ Church Chicago, in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. It turned out the church is young — four years — and has a tight congregation of only 90. “It seemed more alive,” he thought to himself. “It seemed like all the people in the congregation really meant it.”

He knew nothing about doctrine. He just wanted a place to start. To test the strong feeling he felt spending time there, he left and tried out some other churches. He returned months later. All he had was a feeling, but he was soon learning feelings were the only thing he could trust.

“He was desperately searching, he expressed a void in the life he was living,” remembers Pastor Daniel Iampaglia. “We went easy. We followed his lead.”

But while embracing Christ and slowly becoming involved in his new church, Caterer was distancing himself from his wife. Their marriage was crumbling. “When I became a Christian, that was the last straw, we had nothing more in common,” he said. Counseling didn’t work. Stephanie stopped telling people she was even married. He started looking for an apartment in another state.

Then she came to his baptism. It was going to be their last night together. Afterwards, she told him how her job, a charity organization, needed someone to work for one day on a mailing. Besides, Josh could use the money. When he showed up, her boss was so impressed, he was hired full-time. Their desks — who knew it? — sat right next to the other.

Caterer considers this the miracle that saved their marriage. He felt now he could show her he “wasn’t some freaky, brainwashed dude and…was a lot nicer than (he) used to be.”

But by then, Caterer’s former rock star self had already taken its toll on Stephanie. She became a party girl when Caterer left on tour, drinking too much and waking up hung over many Sunday mornings as Josh was dressing for church. During their reconciliation, she attended a wedding there. “Everyone was so nice, I wasn’t scared to go to church anymore,” she said.

Caterer would read the bible to her, too, and soon, it became, for her, “like looking in the mirror.” “I remember saying to Josh, ‘no book I’ve ever read totally just pinpoints human nature exactly like the bible did.’ That convinced me.”

She finally gave up drinking. She also gave up her own passion — acting. Like rock music for her husband, working in theatre brought her near too many temptations, namely alcohol. For her, it became, simply, a “hotbed for sin.” So she quit, too.

Like most of us, Caterer has a day life and a night life. During the day, he works full-time at World Relief, where he helps resettle refuges arriving in Chicago. But at night, he doesn’t just plop down in front of the tube or maybe show up at the corner bar meeting friends for a drink.

He’s at church. At least four nights a week, Caterer and his wife, both 27, are at music ensemble practice, bible study, prayer meetings or services. “The rest of the time we do laundry,” he jokes.

This isn’t a hobby, either. Caterer is a convert and, at first conversion, converts usually want to soak up as much as they can as fast as they can.

“He’s insatiable,” says Pastor Iampaglia. “He’s rolled up his sleeves saying ‘what’s next?,’ ‘what can I do?’”

Such intensity requires focus. That meant Caterer had to look back at his past life and decide what had to go. Being a rock musician, the choice was simple: “I decided I wasn’t going to listen to that music anymore.”

Out went Led Zeppelin. This was heartwrenching. When he was a kid, Caterer was amazed when listening to drummer John Bonham. So when he listened now, he didn’t just hear the music, he heard “everything that band represented to me as a kid and all the pursuits that I followed.” So out it went.

Out went AC/DC. Was he ever seriously going to listen to “Highway to Hell” again?

Out went Merle Haggard. Was he ever seriously going to listen to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” again?

Elvis Costello remains a problem to this day. Caterer owns every album plus rarities. “I was obsessed,” he says. For now, that’s on hold.

Those that stayed on the shelf are the albums that could hint at Christianity in any way. So Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Bryan Ferry? They ended up redeemed.

He also stopped going to rock clubs. He’ll never perform his old music again. He just shrugs and views it as something he did “out of ignorance” and ultimately was “kind of an innocuous waste of time.”

In a way, Caterer is exactly the hard-liner most rock hipster types fear. It sounds like he’s saying you can have Jimi or Jesus. Not both.

But that’s not really the case. “I don’t think that it says anywhere in the bible you can’t listen to rock music. I don’t think it’s a doctrinal thing. I just think those kind of decisions come down to each person, where the Lord lays on your heart as far as where to draw the line,” he says. “I just needed to make a decision. It was a preoccupation for me that led nowhere. I (wanted) to spend my time and my energy…just by giving it to God.”

When artists change their style, say, go from acoustic to electric like Bob Dylan once did, some fans get put off, annoyed, even angry.

But what about when artists turn their back completely on their past music altogether? It seems the only artists who are allowed to summon their personal faith in their music are black artists, R&B singers from Sam Cooke to Kirk Franklin who regularly mix the secular and spiritual without anyone blinking an eye.

But in the rock world that’s typically dominated by middle class white suburban hipsters, it’s a different story. No one wants to be preached at Saturday night. That’s Christian rock. That’s not cool.

“I think a lot of people reacted really negatively to what Josh had to say,” said Coumihan. “I definitely think musicians don’t want to think about it.”

Caterer understands the reaction: “Rock and roll is all about rebellion and refusing to submit to authority and putting yourself on the pedestal. And being a Christian is about everything that’s the opposite.”

But some fans wrote him and said they supported him. Some even found out where he was singing and showed up Sunday morning. Pastor Iampaglia remembers a group of 15 “young ladies with spiked hair dressed in black” showing up several times to hear him sing. To him, that’s a good thing. “Whatever a person’s reason is for coming to the church is not my business,” he said.

Iampaglia has also received letters as far away as Canada and Hawaii from people trying to buy a copy of “Why Me,” a five-song EP Caterer self-released. It features traditional Christian spirituals but also covers by Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Presley. Instead of a rock band, Caterer is accompanied by only his guitar, a piano or a harmony singer from the church music ensemble he leads.

With such bare surroundings, Caterer’s mellow, matter-of-fact voice rings with an unfiltered clarity that is genuine and moving.

“The first time I played it on the radio, it was so good to hear him sing,” said Richard Milne of WXRT 93.1-FM’s local music show, “Local Anesthetic.” “He’s just finding his voice again.”

In fact, if the pillars of rock are individualism, Caterer is very much true to form. The songs are definite personal statements and are sung with an unabashed commitment.

His rendition of Elvis’ “I’d Rather Have Jesus” could be a testimonial: “I’d rather have Jesus than people’s applause/I’d rather be faithful to his dear cause/I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame/I’d rather be true to his holy name.”

For the future, Caterer is just interested in writing music for his ensemble and waiting to see how God wants him use him for His purpose. That can happen whether he’s “famous or not.”

He doesn’t know right now. He’ll pray and see.

“Why Me” can be purchased for $7. Send a check to Josh Caterer, P.O. Box 25469, Chicago IL 60625-0469.

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