With the Covid-19 pandemic putting the breaks on regular plans and forcing musicians to get creative, Smoking Popes’ frontman Josh Caterer assembled a trio for a one-off live-streamed performance of the newly released The Hideout Sessions album. Teaming up with John San Juan (Hushdrops) and John Perrin (NRBQ), Caterer covers old songs such as “My Funny Valentine” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” and presents new versions of a few Smoking Popes tracks (including the breakthrough hit “Need You Around”). In a phone interview, Caterer discussed the inspiration and process behind The Hideout Sessions.
How did The Hideout Sessions album come about? I know the recording comes from a live-streamed concert you did last year. At that point, were you planning on recording it for an album release?
The plan was always to do an album. We went into it thinking of it not only as a virtual show, but sort of like we would live-stream the making of an album. That’s kind of how we were looking at it. It was something that was really born out of the COVID lockdown because all three of us involved in this project had other shows and things that had been canceled during 2020. And we were just sitting around bored and restless. I started to notice that there were some clubs in Chicago that were starting to do virtual shows, but this particular club, The Hideout, was doing a really good job of having a consistent online virtual presence.
And so I was impressed by that, and I wanted to do something to be a part of it. I called up my friends, John Perrin and John San Juan and asked them if they wanted to put something together that would result in a virtual performance that we could also record and release. So then we had to figure out where we were going to get together and practice. And would that be a space that would be big enough where we could have social distancing and we could feel safe doing it? So we worked all of that out and met for some masked practices and started to put these arrangements together.
How closely does the album represent the show? Does it contain all the songs you performed? In the same sequence?
It represents it very, very closely. The songs appear on the album in the order that they were performed at the show. It’s only that there was one song that we performed on the live-stream that didn’t make it onto the album. And there was one song that we performed after we turned the cameras off that we included on the album, but that was something that we announced at the show that we were doing. Like ‘here’s a song that’s just for you, people that are viewing right now. And then we’ll play another song that will be a special treat for when you buy the album. There’ll be a song on it that you didn’t see tonight.’ So it was sort of an enticement for people to eventually get the album. The song that we did on the video that’s not on the album, was a cover of the song ‘What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,’ which was written by Nick Lowe. The song that we included on the album that wasn’t on the live stream is a Smoking Popes song called ‘Someday I’ll Smile Again.’
What went into the overall song selection?
I knew that I wanted to continue to explore an idea that the Smoking Popes had introduced on our album called ‘The Party’s Over.’ That’s an album full of covers that were mostly old songs, like songs from the Frank Sinatra/Judy Garland era of songwriting. We would take those songs and sort of put them through The Smoking Pope’s filter and make them sound like our own songs. I loved the way that that album turned out, and it was really fun to do. So I wanted to continue to explore that concept, since there are so many wonderful songs that I love and just love singing and wanted to try to interpret them myself. There were even like a couple of songs that were in consideration when we did ‘The Party’s Over’ that just didn’t end up making the cut. I didn’t want to give up on those songs. Like, ‘What Kind of Fool Am I’ is a song that the Popes thought about including on ‘The Party’s Over,’ but for whatever reason, we couldn’t find an arrangement of it that we loved. I wanted to come back to that. So, out of the 10 songs on the album, six of them are covers of old songs. And then four of them are reinterpreted versions of Smoking Popes songs. I wanted to take some Popes songs and approach them as if they were cover songs and find a different way of doing them. Because any time you do a cover song, ideally you’re not just trying to recreate the way it was originally recorded. You want to sort of find the heart of the song, and then find some other groove for it, or just find some other way of approaching the song that feels different but preserves the essence of what the song is. I wanted to do that with some of the songs that I had written for the Smoking Popes, and that was really fun. Whenever you write a song, there’s a lot of ways you could approach it.
Were there any particular Smoking Popes songs that you feel took on a new life or direction?
Yeah. I think that the approach that we took to the song, ‘Megan,’ which is a Smoking Popes song that we recorded for our album ‘Destination Failure.’ We do the song here, and out of all of the reinterpretations of Popes’ songs that we do on this album, this one, I would say, is the closest to the original; the only thing we really changed about it was the tempo. We play it in half-time, but all the chord structures are the same. There’s a couple of parts in the song where we’ll emphasize something differently, but it’s mostly the same. But I was just sort of amazed at how much the song is transformed simply by playing it in a half-time tempo. It makes it to me feel like a completely different song.
What was the process like preparing for the performance?
We started getting together once a week, just playing through the songs. The song choices were mine. I would decide that I wanted to try to do a song and would record these demos at home, just on my phone, just like with an acoustic guitar. And then I would send those demos to John and John, and then when I came to practice, it would be like, ‘okay, well, let’s try it. Let’s try those and see if they work as a band.’ Sometimes I would sort of make notes on how I think we should approach things. But a lot of times, we came in and started playing it together and arrangement didn’t quite work. And so we had to find something else, a different way of approaching it, on the spot. John and John are both very, very creative kind of improvisational musicians who want to explore different approaches. I mean, they’re very inspired musicians. They’re almost, in that sense, I would say they’re almost like jazz musicians where — I don’t think the album is jazzy, but I do think that’s the kind of mentality in which this music was approached. John and John have like a jazz musician’s sort of approach to their instrument in that they’re constantly reaching for something. When you listen to jazz, the musicians always feel like they’re kind of like exploring; they’re trying to fill in. If there’s room for them to bring something extra to a moment in a song, they’ll do it. That’s what I feel like John and John are doing. So they’re really like filling out the sound so much and looking for whatever the magic is that you can find in a song. And so it was such a fun process to do these arrangements with them. It was just a joy, especially during late summer into the fall, when we were working on this. We were all kind of otherwise depressed because everything had been locked down, and we hadn’t had enough human contact over the course of the year. We all started looking forward to that weekly practice session, even though we had to stay at least six feet apart during the practices. Just to be interacting with each other through the music was so life-giving to us. I think it kept us from losing our minds during the lockdown.
Hear more of The Hideout Sessions and purchase it at pravdamusic.com.
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For more info on Smoking Popes, visit https://www.smokingpopesmusic.com/.