Music News

Promise Keepers

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.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller