The Popes: Hello Again Or
Story and photo by Daniel Coston
You should have seen them, you should have heard them. For many years, this statement has been used by many to describe the Popes. In 1988, the Chapel Hill-based quartet released their debut EP, Hi We’re The Popes. At a time when very few bands in the region were even releasing a single, the Popes self-released a six-song record that felt like the lost link between the Merseybeat-inspired melodies of the past, and the restless energy that would soon infuse so many younger bands. The band then sent the record across the country, gathering national interest from magazines, and many deejays.
What should have been a blazing start to the band’s career, however would eventually become the best known document of this band’s potential. After working for three years to secure a record deal, the band recorded an entire album for RCA subsidiary First Warning, only to have the deal fall apart. The band folded soon after, leaving behind a few spare songs on hard-to-find cassette compilations. While members of the Popes eventually found their way into new projects such as the Lovely Lads, Stumble, and the Public Good, a reunion as the Popes didn’t seen to be in the cards.
In 2011, Hi We’re The Popes was re-released on CD, finally giving many fans the chance to hear what the fuss had been all about. “I think it was because we listened to the EP when it got digitized, and we were surprised at how good it sounded,” says Popes guitarist and vocalist John Elderkin, sitting at the band’s first rehearsal in over twenty years. “And then people actually bought it.”
“We then thought that everybody else has been reuniting, so why not us?” adds fellow guitarist and vocalist Steve Ruppenthal.
On February 4th, the Popes- Elderkin and Ruppenthal on guitar and vocals, and Henry Pharr on bass, with new drummer Chris Garges- will return to Chapel Hill with a headlining show at Local 506. There are no set plans for the group beyond this show, although the band seems open to continuing this new chapter of the band. “Maybe a Charlotte show, and then New York,” says Elderkin with a laugh. “Who knows?”
Having already played together in high school, Elderkin and Ruppenthal put together the Popes with a clear idea of its sound. “I always thought of the Popes as this cross between Clash sensibility, and Beatles sensibility,” says Elderkin. “It was a 50/50 thing. To me, the Clash were a pop band.”
Joining forces with Pharr and original drummer Albert Nisbet (followed by Jim Rumley, who replaced Nisbet after the EP’s release), the band soon put together their first EP. “We had written these songs,” says Ruppenthal, “[Producer] John Plymale was very nice, and worked with us, but we were clueless about the whole studio process. The songs were a snapshot of college life, with a twist.”
“Steve and I had never been in a studio,” adds Elderkin.
“I had been in a studio long enough to rehearse,” follows Pharr. “I remember we ran through four or five songs, and Plymale saying, ‘It’s sounds disjointed.’ It wasn’t until we played ‘Not Beautiful’, and that finally kicked it in.”
When asked about hearing that EP today, Ruppenthal says, “I didn’t want to listen to [those songs] for a long time,” admitting that the feeling was somewhat fueled by disappointment with the band’s outcome. “There were also these themes that I couldn’t relate to, anymore. It wasn’t until we remastered them, that I heard them again. Now, I think they sound really good.”
“When we put that EP out,” says Elderkin, “people were surprised that we were serious about making a record, and promoting it. Nobody else in the area was doing that. Soon after, Dillon Fence, the Veldt, and others started making records.”
Over the next three years, the band toured constantly. However, the band’s only release during that time would be the six song cassette, Afar. Their focus had turned to getting a record deal. “That’s the way it seemed to be going,” says Elderkin. “It seemed to be moving towards that. We spent a lot of time recording demos, to get a label deal, but we never released any of that officially. Now, that seems unfortunate, but that was our thinking, at the time.”
While the future of the Popes is undetermined at this point, the reunion has already succeeded in giving fans the chance to hear the band in person, instead of traded CDs, and well-worn cassettes. It’s also given the band some perspective on what they did, and still can accomplish. “We realize now that they were good songs,” adds Ruppenthal, “that we should get together, and play these songs for people that like them.”