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Promise Keepers

A different kind of fellowship: The Promise Ring.

In the world of music, change is the only constant. Movements mutate. Yesterday's vogue is today's punchline is tomorrow's retro fad. Punk rock is, of course, not exempt from this fluctuation. The turnover of "wannabe" to "it band" to "has- been" can be just as rapid and precipitous as it is in pop or any other mainstream genre -- sometimes even more so.

"You're only the new, cool, fun band as long as you're the new, cool, fun band," says guitarist Jason Gnewikow of Milwaukee's pop champion, the Promise Ring. He should know: His band's debut album, 30 Degrees Everywhere, was a benchmark and a blueprint for the mid-'90s emo scene. Along with contemporaries such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral and Denver's own Christie Front Drive, the Promise Ring whipped up a fresh concoction of hardcore angst and indie-rock pep, mixing the sugar-spun melodic sound of bands like Hüsker Dü and the Pixies with the glacial tension of Fugazi or Drive Like Jehu. The kids ate it up like ice cream. After inking a deal with the up-and-coming independent label Jade Tree, the Promise Ring became the buzz band of a burgeoning scene.

"When we first signed with Jade Tree, it was so amazing. I remember being just over the moon about it, like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe it!' Everything was just so new to us," recalls Gnewikow. "That was a really fun time; I have really fond memories of it. There was always something exciting on the horizon."

The band's success accelerated after the 1997 release of its sophomore full-length, Nothing Feels Good. Erupting record sales, extensive tours of the U.S. and Europe and even a video that saw modest rotation on MTV all seemed to point up. The album itself was punchy and poetic -- too fidgety to toe the pop-punk party line, too fey to fulfill hardcore's compulsory stoicism.

"Nothing Feels Good was so totally honest and naive," says Gnewikow. "Back then, we didn't know quite how to play our instruments. It was as simple as throwing together some songs and going out on tour with our friends' bands. It wasn't like we were trying to get somewhere. We were just kind of going along with it."

But by 1999, when they released Very Emergency, the fractures in the Promise Ring's cheeky facade were beginning to show. "We were just getting bored with it," Gnewikow explains. "I think for a while, we were just going on autopilot." That indifference showed: Very Emergency plods along with the enthusiasm of a grounded ten-year-old. It also didn't help that the punk scene's violent backlash against emo was in full swing, triggered by the shallow posturing of Promise Ring ripoff bands like the Get Up Kids.

"We were sick of what the band had become," says Gnewikow. "It just got to be kind of a grind. The songs we were writing were really boring. Finally I just said, 'Fuck this -- if this is what we're going to do, then count me out.'"

The Promise Ring decided to take a breather. Gnewikow -- who had designed the band's distinctive album covers -- began concentrating on his day job as a graphic designer, engineering much of the visual identity of the rest of Jade Tree's roster. In the meantime, singer/guitarist Davey VonBohlen and drummer Dan Didier shifted their focus to a side project called Vermont.

"You can tell Vermont is just having fun," Gnewikow says, sounding almost envious. "Davey writes and records all that stuff just sitting around at home. They're not taking themselves too seriously." With Vermont, VonBohlen is able to toy with a much looser arrangement of acoustic guitars, haphazard instrumentation and folk-accented melody. Oddly enough, this approach parallels the path the Promise Ring took when it regrouped. As Gnewikow points out, "I think the impetus for Davey and Dan to do Vermont is getting smaller and smaller, because our band is just kind of taking over that territory."

After a few months on hiatus, the Promise Ring quietly reconvened with new bassist Scott Schoenback and began working on tentative demos for a new album. Their sound was more subdued and introspective, with less emphasis on cathartic distortion and puberty-racked bleating. The bandmembers also started fishing around for a new label. They found one with Anti-, a newborn subsidiary of Epitaph Records, the leviathan independent label run by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz. Formed as a more suitable residence for Gurewitz's recent left-of-center acquisitions, Anti- counterbalances Epitaph's testosterone-punk image.

"We had just finished up our contract with Jade Tree," says Gnewikow. "I never really felt restricted by Jade Tree, but looking back from the outside now, they do, as a record label, have such a strong identity. That's definitely one of the things I like about our new label, Anti-: There is no identity.

"Anti- has the most bizarre mixture of bands. Tom Waits, Tricky, Merle Haggard...and the Promise Ring," Gnewikow adds, pausing to savor the incongruity. "Maybe we'll get to go on tour with Merle Haggard to all the state fairs and NASCAR races!"

Joking aside, tours are becoming a serious concern for the Promise Ring. "Our tour situation since Very Emergency has been really weird," Gnewikow says. "Over the last two and a half years, we've basically only done a couple three-week trips, like that one with Bad Religion a couple years ago."

So, what was it like hitting the road with one of the most legendary and revered hardcore bands in punk history?

"It was fucking hell," Gnewikow says flatly. "It was miserable. I don't know what we were thinking. I think we were on drugs." It's not hard to see why the Promise Ring's coy, clever pop wouldn't go over with the knuckle-dragging crowd at a typical Bad Religion concert. "At the beginning, it was actually kind of comical," Gnewikow explains. "We had a few of the new songs that wound up on Wood/Water [the group's newest album] that we would pull out to torture the Bad Religion fans. We didn't really care if people liked us or not. At first it was just kind of funny." The constant heckling and apathy got old quickly, though. "By the end of the tour, it was like, 'Fine, we know you hate us, but we're already up here,'" he says. "What can we do, you know? I mean, we have to come out and play. It was pretty brutal."

Wood/Water is guaranteed to perplex the band's diehard fans as much as it will your average Bad Religion concert attendee. "The people who were picking up our albums five or six years ago probably won't like it," says Gnewikow. "There are some people who might have grown along with us, who will like it and totally get it. And then there are people who have probably moved past us and are like, 'I'm only into jazz now, bro.'"

While maintaining much of the upbeat yet pensive timbre of prior Promise Ring releases, Wood/Water stretches out its sound with restless arrangements, stratified production and -- dare it be said -- an almost grown-up air. "I guess this album sounds kind of like a more mature version of Nothing Feels Good," notes Gnewikow. "There are some more mellow songs, more of a dynamic." Hints of Wilco, Built to Spill and the Flaming Lips have worked their way into these new songs. Even VonBohlen's voice has been sanded down from its trademark rustic crackle: Now it purrs with a weary, heart-wrenched eloquence. Gnewikow chalks up a lot of this sonic polish to Wood/Water's producer, Stephen Street, who is better known as the studio technician behind the Brit-pop phenomenon Blur.

"Stephen Street is really mellow -- not businesslike or anything, just kind of no-nonsense. Very orderly," says Gnewikow. "It's kind of funny, 'cause he had never heard any of our records before working with us; we liked that. He didn't have any preconceived ideas of what we were supposed to sound like. We picked him specifically because he had done all the Blur stuff. That last album of theirs he produced, 13, was one of the best-sounding records, one of the most interesting-sounding records. It has a commercial side to it, but it's also very challenging. It's just really soulful, and that's kind of what we were going for."

In the '80s, Street also manned the mixing boards for the Smiths. This bit of trivia makes sense when listening to the Wood/Water track "On the Floor." The drumbeat and guitar riff are almost dead ringers for the Smiths' "Death of a Disco Dancer" -- a song that Street produced. "I never would have realized it if a lot of people hadn't mentioned it to me," says Gnewikow. "It's funny, because I've been listening to that Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come a lot lately. But it's totally a coincidence."

The flagship single off of Wood/Water is the simmering, bittersweet "Not Playing Guitar." The song is gooey with pop hooks and radio potential. "We've already made a video for 'Not Playing Guitar,'" says Gnewikow. "We're, like, building guitars in this guitar factory. I hate doing that stuff. It's just kind of a weird thing." Is this some latent form of punk-rock ethos manifesting itself? "No, I just can't stand the actual process of doing it. I like playing music, but making videos and stuff is the worst. If we ever do another video, I hope it's just some short film, some stand-alone art piece that doesn't have to have us in it."

Gnewikow seems to value his relative anonymity. With some of the knocks the Promise Ring has taken over the years, that's understandable. Perceived by many purists as poster children for everything wrong with punk rock today, the members of the Promise Ring have been blamed for conceiving the sassy, teeny-bopper pillow fight that emo has devolved into.

"Playing music doesn't have to have these huge social repercussions," says Gnewikow. "You know, it's great when you start out. No one cares about your band, so they don't care enough to talk shit about you. When a band isn't popular, they have no reason to analyze it. I purposefully don't read any press or reviews of our stuff. Of course, no one wants to hear bad things about themselves. It's ultimately not personal, so I don't take it personally. I mean, if I had a chance to actually sit down with each one of those people, I'm sure I could rationalize the last seven years of my life to them. But I don't really need to do that, you know? It's not like I'm going to come over and review their last three years of stamp collecting."

Still, Gnewikow tries to keep his perspective. "You get sort of jaded, I guess," he concedes. "It's impossible to recapture that innocence. You can only be untainted once. Not to say that we're some hugely successful band, by any stretch; it's not like I'm under the assumption that we're the greatest band in the world. It's really just impulsive and selfish. We're just doing this thing that we really like doing."

Gnewikow has learned the hard way that simply "doing what you really like doing" is sometimes all a band truly has. "Everyone's time comes. You have your moment in the sun, and it doesn't last forever," he offers sagely. He also harbors no illusions about the turbulent and arbitrary currents of popular opinion upon which the Promise Ring has cast itself.

"Although it was always our intent to make a departure with our new stuff, I don't think the outcome of the album itself was that deliberate," he says. "We just figured we'd stick our necks out and try something new. And if it sucks, it sucks. But at least it's different."