Fellowship of the Ring

Rebounding from health scares, the Promise Ring sheds its emo skin for a Brit-pop sheen

It's increasingly common of late to find indie (whether in fact or in spirit) rock artists in the mass media, whether it's Jimmy Eat World on Saturday Night Live, the White Stripes on MTV, or Dashboard Confessional songs on 103.9. You figure this must be a good thing; that rebellious spirit, ingenuity and (sometimes) superior craftsmanship infiltrating the American subconscious might take a chunk out of the psychological damage inflicted by Limp Bizkit, P. Diddy and their ilk.

In the current confused climate of the recording industry, this spate of underground artists going aboveground is new enough to lack a definitive methodology. There are several models working, though, exemplified by the artists mentioned above. There's the classic formula that Jimmy Eat World followed -- long-suffering (on more than one major label), persistent and, most important, backed by powerhouse management. On the strictly indie tip, Dashboard Confessional hit the big time with lowest-common-denominator heart-on-sleeve emo gushing, backed by the marketing machine of the biggest indie label in America, Vagrant (which has also sponsored Saves the Day's trip to the charts). Or you have the model initiated by the Strokes and perpetuated by the White Stripes -- get big in Europe first, and the Americans will catch up.

Since its sophomore release, Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring has appeared to be destined for similar mainstream crossover success, but it hasn't happened yet. Through three LPs and several EPs, the band has stayed on Delaware indie label Jade Tree, nearly always as its top-selling artist. Jade Tree became an arbiter of indie hipness in the late '90s, with a roster including Jets to Brazil, Joan of Arc, and Pedro the Lion, but was also pigeonholed as the quintessential emo label. Restricted by the limited resources of a label it funded considerably, the Promise Ring decided after its third album, Very Emergency, to jump ship.

The Promise Ring: On a new label, with a new sound, and a new commitment to satisfy themselves.
Steven Carty
The Promise Ring: On a new label, with a new sound, and a new commitment to satisfy themselves.

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The decision to sign to a more affluent recording company was preceded by tumult that almost ended the band; in May 2000, singer and guitarist Davey von Bohlen was diagnosed with meningioma, a non-cancerous, slow-growing encapsulated tumor arising from the meninges (outer brain covering) which often causes damage by pressing upon the brain. Brain surgery removed the tumor successfully.

"When I first heard that Davey was diagnosed, I thought the band probably isn't that important," drummer Dan Didier recalls. "Health and friends and family are probably more important right now, and how much can we actually take?" He's referring to the disastrous van accident the band experienced only months before von Bohlen's diagnosis, which left several members hospitalized. "But we all have this certain drive to continue what we've been doing and just see what happens. That's basically why we left Jade Tree, to shake things up and make it interesting for us again."

The band signed with Anti, an imprint of Epitaph Records, the kiddy-punk factory owned by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, which made a fortune off of the Offspring's success. In Anti's brief history, it's already signed a diverse roster of established artists, including Tricky, Tom Waits, and Merle Haggard. The Promise Ring released its fourth full-length album, Wood/Water, less than a month ago on the label.

After Very Emergency, an anthemic pop album with simple hooky melodies and a cuddly disposition, the Promise Ring's members were dissatisfied with the stylistics of its sound and the genre it was accused of representing. "At first when we started writing new songs, they sounded like Very Emergency songs, and we were just like, 'Ah, no, we can't do that to ourselves again,'" Didier says.

"We have this desire to not make the same record twice and keep things interesting for ourselves. I think we all have very short attention spans -- we have an idea, we do it, then it's gone. That's what Very Emergency was, this kind of quick idea, let's make this stripped-down rock record, no frills, and that was basically the end of it. We did it, toured it, were like, 'Ah, that probably wasn't such a good idea.' But it's history now, let's move on."

The boys in the band -- von Bohlen, Didier, Jason Gnewikow, and new members Ryan Weber and William Seidel -- bid adieu to their friends Darren Walters and Tim Owen, owners of Jade Tree. "They came up to Milwaukee and we made it very clear, we have these offers from other labels and we are going to pursue them and blah, blah, blah. They were like, 'That's cool, we love you guys'; there's nothing to be bitter about," Didier says.

Jade Tree's reputation as an emo powerhouse was also an issue for the Promise Ring. Didier explains, "There's a part of it, like if you say you're on Jade Tree, people know what kind of band you are. There's obviously gray area, but not that broad of gray area. When Anti came up and proposed for us to be on that label, it sounded appealing to us because if you can put Tricky and Tom Waits together on a label, that's pretty awesome. I totally respect that."

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