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."

The other attraction? "The money that Epitaph got from Offspring records," Didier says with no hesitation. "We just wanted, with Davey's surgery and the whole refocus of what we wanted, to just not play around and let's just do what makes us happy, and what would make us happy is to make the record we want to make, like Wood/Water.

"Wood/Water is the record we wanted to make; there's nothing in that record that we don't want. It was like, let's get a recording budget that we can record the record we want to make on, let's try to get Stephen Street or some other producer to do it. We just wanted to make ourselves happy."

The band got what it wanted, a recording budget sufficient to send them to the English countryside to record with Stephen Street, legendary producer of the Smiths and Morrissey, as well as Blur, the Cranberries, and many other Brit-rockers. The band's honest solicitations for a large budget earned it detractors amongst purists who didn't want to see the Promise Ring jump ship from Jade Tree, especially to the notoriously finance-minded Epitaph. Despite philosophical differences about the cookie-cutter punk rock Epitaph churns out, the band makes no apologies.

"If I like a band and I like their music, I could really care less if Bill Gates personally paid for that band's record," Didier says. "I don't care. That doesn't matter. The money they gave us to record this record probably came from the Offspring; that's fine. I really don't care. The problem is that a lot of people have issues with that, like 'that sucks you changed labels, that's so stupid, what were you thinking?' and it's so stupid. I don't care who paid for your college, I don't care where you work, give us a fucking break. Just let us do what we want to do. You're obviously not a fan of the music, you're a fan of something else, and we're not to code, apparently. Which is fine. Anti was totally appealing to us that way, not to be associated with some sort of scene, and to do what we wanted."

All vitriol aside, Wood/Water is a very accomplished, textured album of melancholic melodica, albeit sober in comparison to the band's previous kinetic work on Very Emergency. Street's production gives the album a Brit-rock shoegazer patina, and the one track not recorded by Street, "Say Goodbye Good," is an ambitious layered piece with strings and a gospel choir. The Promise Ring has successfully shed its old skin.

The shakeup caused by von Bohlen's illness gave the band a fresh perspective on songwriting, as did the addition of the Pro Tools digital recording program to the band's arsenal. "We spent every day in the studio last summer just working the songs out; we spent a lot of time on these songs," Didier says. "With the Pro Tools rig, we could go at any point in the day and just start adding stuff and playing with songs and seeing how they fit and seeing how they react to the other sounds. We wanted experimentation, we wanted to develop and find different textures that we could add.

"There weren't really any parameters, it was mainly just letting the songs speak for themselves. Like for 'Say Goodbye Good,' let's put a choir on there because if there wasn't, the song would be lacking. Or let's totally distort Davey's vocals on 'Size of Your Life' because if you didn't, the song would lack. We let the songs tell us what to do with them. Then when we went over to England, same thing with Stephen. He's great at finding pieces for songs, he has a great ear for that. When he listens to a song, he knows what's missing, so it's very easy for him to be like, 'Let's try to develop something in this part of the song.'"

Initially, the band wasn't sure that it could afford Street's services, even with an Offspring-funded budget. They expected to split the duties between Street and Beastie Boys cohort Mario Caldato Jr. "Say Goodbye Good" was recorded with Caldato before the band flew to England, and they planned to record any remaining material upon their return to the States. "When we went to England, the songs just kind of were there," Didier says. "The budget wasn't a problem; we overreacted about the money situation before we actually needed to."

The album's opener, "Size of Your Life," immediately puts the Promise Ring's previous work out of mind. The distortion leaves von Bohlen's voice unrecognizable, and the fuzzed jangle recalls Blur more than any emo outfits, while "Suffer Never" evokes the Stone Roses, circa '91. "Stop Playing Guitar" is similar to earlier work like "Why Did Ever We Meet," with weepy guitars and a multitude of "yeah" bridgework. Von Bohlen's lyrics on the song, written before his diagnosis, nearly predict his cranial condition: "So if I had a dime for every time I should've stopped playing guitar and put my nose in a book/Then my head would be healthy, my guitar would be dusty, and that might just save me from a bunch of bad songs." This is the track you'll likely hear on the radio, and its video's final edit was recently completed.

Most of Wood/Water is subdued washes of acoustica and navel-gazing melodies. For the emo kids who once made up most of the Promise Ring's audience, the album will likely disappoint. It's better lumped in with Adult Contemporary than indie rock.

Will it move units? Probably. MTV? Maybe. TRL? "Probably not, but that's not really up to us to decide. But if that would come up, that would be fine. That really doesn't bother me," Didier asserts. The Promise Ring is just happy to have made the record it wanted, free of constraints. Let Anti and Epitaph worry about sending them aboveground.

"They're doing whatever they have to do," Didier says. "The Tom Waits record was his biggest-selling record, so they know what they're doing. It's not even a concern for me because obviously I know that they're going to do their job because the more money we make, the more money they make and vice versa. They know what to do and they've done it before. They do their job and that doesn't concern me."

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