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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Smoking Popes at the Castle Theatre is more than just ‘90s nostalgia — they’re a band on top of their game

Two men smile and laugh standing beside a drum set in a recording studio.
Lauren Warnecke
/
WGLT
Bombsight Studios owner David Rossi, right, is a huge Smoking Popes fan and was shocked to receive an email from drummer Mike Felumlee, now based in Bloomington. The band recently recorded tracks for a new album and will play a live show Sunday night at the Castle Theatre.

Chicago rock band Smoking Popes is back in Bloomington this weekend for a one-night-only set at the Castle. It’s their first appearance since selling out Nightshop in 2019.

The ‘90s post-punk band achieved early success opening for Green Day, propelled into the spotlight with a hit song on the “Clueless” soundtrack. But a deal with Capitol Records went south three records in and by the turn of the century, Smoking Popes was done.

The band reunited in 2005, initially with drummer Rob Kellenberger on the roster with brothers Josh, Matt and Eli Caterer. Neil Hennessy replaced Kellenberger in 2008 until Mike Felumlee rejoined in 2015. The Smoking Popes got their start in a far northwest Chicago suburb and keep a home base near the city, but Felumlee moved to Bloomington three years ago — which is how Bombsight Studios owner David Rossi found himself in his west Bloomington recording studio with his favorite band as they laid down tracks for a new album.

“It was unbelievable,” Rossi said.

While a student at Olympia High School, Rossi first saw Smoking Popes at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center.

“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “So then watching in the studio, I was hesitating to not stare at them, but it’s so radical to record someone of that talent. It’s just unbelievable to me.”

Felumlee said the band typically meets up halfway in Aurora, renting a studio for a couple hours for a brush up. But he convinced the brothers to venture south to record at Bombsight. They’re slowly writing new songs — the last release was "Into the Agony" in 2018 and a single, "Madison," dropped this summer. But most rehearsals serve a different purpose now.

“We’ve played most these songs thousands of times,” Felumlee said in an interview at Bombsight. “It’s more for cardio —because we’re old.”

Felumlee, 49, has known his bandmates since high school. He spent the time away from Smoking Popes playing in Alkaline Trio. He said the interpersonal dynamics are pretty much the same as they were three decades ago.

“I’m kind of like the fourth brother,” said Felumlee, who's noticed intergenerational crowds at recent Smoking Popes shows.

“We played Connecticut a few months back and there was a guy who had his 20-year-old son with him,” he said. “It’s kind of neat to see people who fell in love with you in college and they now have kids.”

As Millennials and Gen Z-ers increasingly pop up in the crowd, the Smoking Popes is finding new fans and new songs are in the hopper. But Felumlee said they get the most gratification from playing the songs people know and love.

“A lot of the cities we play, we only get there once every few years,” he said. “People are singing every word, some people cry. That’s the most rewarding part.”

It’s not just nostalgic. Thirty years on, Smoking Popes are on top of their game.

“The recording session we did down here was remarkable,” said Rossi, who opened Bombsight’s new location in the 800 block of West Chestnut in May. The boutique studio is outfitted with top-of-the-line gear and a gorgeous live room.

“As a band, we are far better now than we ever were,” Felumlee said. “There’s not a tighter band in the world than our band when we’re on it.”

Smoking Popes play Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Castle Theatre, 209 E. Washington St., Bloomington. Doors open at 7 p.m. with opening acts Teenage Halloween and Devon Kay & the Solutions starting at 8 p.m. Tickets $17 at thecastletheatre.com.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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