Promise Keepers

Recovering from a badly produced debut, the Promise Ring finally delivers the goods

It's an unusual story. A reputable hard-core label signs a pop band recommended by another band. The pop band tours, releases a shittily produced LP and becomes the darling of the American indie scene. So the band goes to a better studio with a better producer. The label releases the band's sugar-pop album with songs about Jesus and American nostalgia. The label's sales grow exponentially, and the label goes on an all-out publicity binge and decides to film a video from the LP to play on MTV and other outlets.

It sounds like a depressing sell-out scenario until you consider the players involved: Jade Tree Records released Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring's sophomore album, several weeks ago.

The band was formed by guitarist/vocalist Davey vonBohlen (formerly of emo-core giants Cap'n Jazz), guitarist Jason Gnewikow, bassist Scott Beschta and drummer Daniel Didier. After Revelation Records artist Texas Is the Reason recommended the band to Jade Tree, the label put out 30i Everywhere, the band's first LP. 30i had the potential to be a masterpiece, but sounded intentionally fuzzy and lo-fi. The band's stunning interlocked melodies and hushed charm are apparent despite the lack of gloss, but until the release of Nothing Feels Good, the only true Promise Ring experience could be had at the shows.

Nothing Feels Good does more than one-up 30i's production. This is the Promise Ring's defining moment. The recording brims with intricately gorgeous pop songs about Delaware, interstates, Chevys, phone booths outside Texaco stations, parks and pools in Indianapolis, pink chimneys in Maine, forget-me-nots and marigolds, Billy Ocean, Jesus fishing for men in Bethlehem--you get the picture. Soft stuff, but NFG transcends any hard-core/masculinity trips by virtue of its dynamics--this is pop music, but it's not The Softies.

The high points of the album--the title track, a wistfully strummed melody with a chorus that lullabies "And I don't know God/And I don't know anything/And I don't know God/And I don't know if anything at all will be all right"; "Make Me a Chevy," which consists of intricately weaved guitar play between Jason and Davey over a driving rhythm section that builds from a controlled orthodox pop tune to a manic outburst; "Why Did We Ever Meet" could be the best teeny-bop song in indie rock since Sleater-Kinney's "Little Babies"; and "A Broken Tenor" features a trampling bass line and explosive guitars that make sparks go off in your head like when you bite into a wintergreen Certs.

Since recording NFG, Beschta left the band and was replaced by Tim Burton (not the Batman director), who used to be in None Left Standing with Gnewikow. This hasn't slowed the guys, though. In September, they took off on a 10-week tour that lands them in Mesa later this month. Revolver had a chance to ring up Gnewikow while the band was holed up at Jade Tree's offices in Delaware. Here's the conversation:

Revolver: Tell me about recording Nothing Feels Good--you recorded at Easley Studios [a favorite of Pavement, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Sonic Youth] with J. Robbins [of DC's Jawbox] producing. How did that compare with recording 30i Everywhere?

Jason Gnewikow: It was like night and day (laughs). Easley was amazing. Everybody there is so nice and totally mellow. Doug Easley's recorded, like, huge bands, but doesn't act like it at all; whereas at Idful [where 30i was recorded] working with Casey [Rice], who I guess has done some big bands, too, but it seems like everybody in Chicago's got a really big attitude or ego, like they're better than everybody if they've done something cool; that's sort of the way we got treated there. It wasn't too much fun, we got rushed in and rushed out, and no one really seemed to care about making it good.

R: The production on this album blows the other one away.
JG: Yeah, I've listened to 30i like twice since we recorded it because I hated it so much. They just really didn't care, we'd go in and do a take and they'd be, like, "Oh, that's fine. You're a punk band. It's cool, that's what you're supposed to sound like." But it's not, y'know. After we recorded that, everyone was like, "Wow, your record doesn't sound anything like you do live." And it's like, "That's true, it sounds like shit" (laughs).

When we recorded the new record, J. totally put the screws to us. It was the exact opposite. We'd be like, "Well, that's good enough," and he'd be like, "Nope, get back in there." So it was awesome.

R: I know you're not the lyric guy, but can you fill me in somewhat on all the geographic references, Chevys and Texacos and all that? American nostalgia seems to be your biggest muse besides romance. That's a little unusual for a young band like yourselves. And the Jesus stuff, there are moments on the record that seem contemplative about religion. Is that an intended undertone?

JG: Like you said, I don't write the lyrics, it's completely and utterly Davey. He's into all that nostalgic stuff, John Steinbeck and Norman Rockwell.

We probably get asked about the religious thing more than anything else about the album. In Nothing Feels Good, there's the "I don't know God" lyric, it's more like a matter of coincidence than anything. The theme of the record is really just like what you do or don't know, or what you think you know and don't know. The theme is not knowing anything. The song is just a big list of things you may or may not know if they're real on different levels. But we're not specifically religious, not as a group anyway.

R: Until the record came out, your band was usually associated with the Midwestern emo thing, but listening to the new record I think it could be blamed on the production of 30i. Besides the Cap'n Jazz connection, why did you get stamped with the emo label?

JG: Well, we're from the Midwest, I guess. Probably at one time, the emo thing could have been true, when we started the band maybe. But it's like this thing where there's this big new sound in music, and bands get tagged with that. It's weird though, what people call "emo."

Four or five years ago, I would've been like, "Yeah, Fugazi," and someone would be like, "What do they sound like?" and I'd be, like, "Emo," using it in that reference. It's a really nonspecific term these days. It's like, we get called that and a band like Mineral will be called that, and we don't sound anything alike. But that's the nature of the beast, if you're going to describe bands, you need reference points.

R: Was the bassist transition easy?
JG: Yeah, it was awesome. Tim's an old friend of all of us, and it just made sense. It's been great ever since; it changed the band tremendously. We all get along a lot better. It could've been really traumatic, but, thank God, it wasn't. It's been easier than I could've ever imagined.

R: So are you happy with the record and Jade Tree's handling of your success?

JG: I love the record. I think it's the only thing I've ever done musically that I've been even remotely proud of. It was so much fun to record, I love all the songs, just a great experience overall.

Things are great at Jade Tree. As we've been growing, they're growing right with us at exactly the same rate. Every time there's something new that we need that we never needed before, they're like wanting to do it. Things change on a monthly basis, we kind of just go with it.

The Promise Ring is scheduled to perform on Monday, November 24, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Jimmy Eat World. Call 820-7117 for showtime.

The Three Mousketeers
Because of perpetual manufacturing delays, Modest Mouse's new double album, The Lonesome Crowded West, won't hit stores until November 18, four days after the band's show in Tempe. Which is a serious bummer, 'cause The Lonesome Crowded West is unrivaled as Revolver's album of the year thus far.

The three skinny twentysomethings (barely) from Issaquah, Washington, known as Modest Mouse have created a monstrous opus that exemplifies the creative plateau of late '90s indie rock.

This is the sound of the young men, cynical and edgy, darkly humorous and insightful, concurrently passionate and apathetic; this band tells the story of its life through situational filters--stories of trailer-park kids trying to pass high school, rock dealers in parking lots, renegade cowboys and apostles selling the savior for rings and sandals "with the style and strap that clings best."

Isaac Brock, guitarist and vocalist of MM, has commandeered the guitar precocity of Built to Spill's Doug Martsch and the angular lyrical sense of the Pixies. The band's schizophrenic song stylings prohibit a comprehensive description of the band; The Lonesome Crowded West has tastes of trip-hop ("Heart Cooks Brain"), fiddle-fueled country ("Jesus Christ Was an Only Child"), acoustic antifolk ("Bankrupt on Selling") and some serious Sabbath-style fucking rock 'n' roll ("Shit Luck").

The band's talent for capturing the intensity and emotion of being young and going nowhere is demonstrated best in Isaac's dropout manifesto--"Well, I'll go to college and I'll learn some big words, and I'll talk real loud, goddamn right, I'll be heard; you'll remember the guy who said all those big words he must've learned in college." (Up Records, P.O. Box 21328, Seattle, WA 98111-3328)

Modest Mouse is scheduled to perform on Friday, November 14, at Boston's in Tempe, with 764-HERO, Carissa's Weird, and Les Payne Product. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.

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