A Shining Band

As its guitarist comes out of the closet, the Promise Ring has slipped into its best music yet.

Vilification on the 'Net has only increased the Promise Ring's indie cred.
Vilification on the 'Net has only increased the Promise Ring's indie cred.
You could forgive guitarist Jason Gnewikow if he sounds a bit nervous, because the Promise Ring is more often referred to, for better or worse, by another three-word phrase: Next Big Thing. You couldn't blame him if he were steeling himself for the oncoming onslaught of media hype and tripe.

But, no, that's not what is bothering Gnewikow today. In fact, at the moment, the release of the Promise Ring's third album, Very Emergency, is the least of his worries. Gnewikow and the rest of the band -- singer-guitarist-lyricist Davey von Bohlen, drummer Dan Didier, and bassist Scott Schoenbeck -- have had all summer to listen to the album, and it lives up to the only expectations that count: their own. It doesn't matter to them whether the band's press clippings arrive in the mail on glossy magazine stock or the smudged newsprint of homemade 'zines, or whether they even come at all. ("Oh my God, we finally made it! Teen People!" he laughs.) They made the record they only hinted at on their 1996 debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, and 1997's Nothing Feels Good, and they're ready for whatever happens next. But they aren't worried about it.

As Gnewikow sits in his Chicago apartment (the other members of the group reside in Milwaukee), it's his other job -- freelance graphic designer -- that is more of a concern. Specifically, it's the computer he uses to complete his design projects, mostly album covers, that has him frustrated. The Apple computer Gnewikow had been working with for years finally died, and the newer model that replaced it doesn't mesh with his scanner or printer. Gnewikow is learning firsthand that hyperbole can't make up for a product, such as Apple's iMac, that can't be easily plugged into wherever you want to put it. It's still too soon to tell whether the same thing could be said about the Promise Ring.

"Little did I know that the new Apple computers are not compatible with any of the old peripherals," Gnewikow says, seething. "They have all new ports and stuff. It was like a nightmare. I'm totally not a computer nerd, so I'm blindly feeling my way through this. I order this modem, and I'm like "All right, is this the right one?' And they're like "Yeah.' I get it today . . . not the right one. Fuck. I just bought this new printer and new scanner only three months ago, and I could've gotten ones that are compatible, but now I just spent all this fucking money."

Unfortunately, throwing good money at a bad computer would turn out to be the least of his computer difficulties, after Gnewikow decided to come out in an interview with The Advocate a month later, coinciding with Very Emergency's release. Gnewikow bravely joined a few other musicians, including Burning Airlines drummer Pete Moffett, former Braid guitarist Chris Broach, and Michael Brodeur and Vanessa Downing of the Wicked Farleys. Not that Gnewikow's sexual preference should matter to anyone one way or the other. He only made it public knowledge to quash the rumors that von Bohlen's lisp had prompted; everyone thought the lead singer was gay, not the guitarist.

Coming out was Gnewikow's choice, and it doesn't affect his guitar playing in the slightest or change the meaning to the lyrics of his band's songs. After all, he doesn't write any of the words anyway; von Bohlen handles that. It has nothing at all to do with the Promise Ring, other than the fact that Gnewikow is a member. Or so it would seem.

Yet in the realm of Internet message boards, every detail is open for discussion, debate, and all too often, derision, and nothing hits too close to home to be considered off-limits by the legion of anonymous posters hiding behind a keyboard and a phone line. Rumors become established facts without anyone ever bothering to establish the facts, and rarely does a band's music actually come into play. At best, songs run a distant second to their singers, as web board denizens are too busy crafting questionably spelled screeds against every group they hate, usually in the most insulting way imaginable. They are the perfect places to sharpen whatever ax you wish to grind, even if you don't like the bands being discussed. It's practically encouraged.

So when Very Emergency was released at the end of September, more people were talking about Gnewikow than about the 10 good-to-great pop songs on the album. Gnewikow's admission brought out the worst in a bad bunch, beginning website discussions of their label, Jade Tree, that proved just how narrow-minded some people still are. Jade Tree's owners, Darren Walters and Tim Owen, wisely decided to take the board down, replacing it with a list of links that "offer educational, political, and personal resources for gay and lesbian rights campaigns, anti-violence projects, and AIDS activism." And fortunately, Gnewikow didn't see any of the vitriol directed toward him, since he resolved a long time ago to ignore message boards completely.

"I've checked them out before, but I've decided that these web boards will be the downfall of independent music," Gnewikow says. "People can say whatever they want, and I think a lot of times, they maybe don't mean it as much. They can just be downright nasty and mean. I can just blow it off, but who wants to read really nasty things about themselves that aren't true? We played this show in New York not too long ago, and a friend of mine told me that he saw something on there about a girl complaining about the way that we looked.

""I don't know,'" he continues, assuming the voice of the band's antagonist. ""Jason had blond hair, and it was just really weird.' It's like what are you talking about? Are you typing this out and not realizing that it's totally irrational? Christ. It's a whole bunch of people who happen to have computers at their jobs [and] don't have anything to do, so they can afford to sit there and surf the web all day. It creates these little web scenes. It's twisted, totally wrong."

Gnewikow's decision to come out publicly was like a freedom ride through the Deep South, an announcement destined to lead to more than a few virtual hate crimes. After all, the Promise Ring is one of the most vilified bands on the Internet, starting more threads than a roomful of sewing machines. For instance, after the group wrecked its van last February -- resulting in a three-week stint in the hospital for Gnewikow, who suffered a broken collarbone, among other injuries -- someone had the nerve to post a message that read "The Promise Ring should have died in that van accident." And no one bothered to come to the band's defense.

The band won't help the situation much with Very Emergency, with its unabashed hooks and straightforward arrangements, which -- to the short-sighted message-board regulars -- signals a group ready to swing at the pitches the industry is throwing at it. Of course, that misses the point: If anything, Very Emergency signals a good band getting better, holding on to its strengths with a surer grip. Von Bohlen's lyrics are simple but not simplistic, getting more out of a few words ("Losing my voice just talking to you about talking to you," from "Living Around") than most writers can accomplish with entire verses, especially when delivered in his can't-quite-hit-the-note voice. Closing out Very Emergency, he perfectly sums up the hangover of heartbreak that comes with the end of a relationship on "All of My Everythings" with just one question: "Why did ever we part and give back our hands?"

And saying the disc is full of melodies is like saying a parking lot is full of cars, crammed with songs that don't so much pop as explode. "Emergency! Emergency!" looks to the early '80s to find just what it needs, while "Skips a Beat (Over You)" (with backing vocals by Tsunami's Jenny Toomey) is bike-ride breezy, the Wedding Present subbing for the Plimsouls in Valley Girl. Everything else on Very Emergency follows suit, each track a million miles away from 30 Degrees Everywhere, which undercut its rough-but-ready songs with shoddier production values than any movie starring Ron Jeremy. You practically need a shovel and a map to find the vocals on some songs on the band's debut, which apparently only had enough microphones to record the guitars.

"You wouldn't be the first person to say that," Gnewikow says, laughing. "I was having this discussion with my roommate last night. He was like "Well, no, your record is totally different, but it's different in a really good way.' I sort of realize that it's different, but I think it's hard to have an outside perspective on it, because it's not like I didn't hear anything from my own band for over a year, and then all of a sudden Davey goes, "Here's the CD.' I was there writing the songs and recording them, so I've had history with them by now, so it doesn't seem that weird."

It wouldn't be that weird, if the Promise Ring's first impression wasn't, unfortunately, such a lasting one. The rawness of 30 Degrees Everywhere was a necessity rather than an aesthetic, the sound of a band with too much talent and not enough studio time. Very Emergency, then, has more in common with Nothing Feels Good, on which the band landed with both feet on the pop side of the fence, aided and abetted by producer J. Robbins, who cleaned up the songs without sterilizing them. The hooks were always there; Robbins just made it easier to find them.

Yet not everyone heard it that way. Since the group first popped off on Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring's music has been mentioned only in relation to its supposed naked ambition to sell itself to the highest bidder. Of course, that doesn't explain why the band chose to stick with Jade Tree instead of abandoning it last year, when it had more than enough opportunities to do so. For Gnewikow, that's not even a consideration.

"It's been pretty awesome," he says. "I can't imagine a better situation, and I would have never guessed it would have happened. It feels really good to have totally grown with them. And we are totally responsible for each other's growth, I think. It definitely forms a stronger bond."

But Very Emergency is more than just proof of the group's commitment to sticking with Jade Tree; it's a testament to the Promise Ring's commitment to sticking around, period. Just in the last year, Gnewikow has seen friends and tourmates, such as Braid and Compound Red, split up, and he doesn't want the same to happen to his band. He knows all too well that "longevity" is more likely to be the name of a band than a word that could be applied to one, especially in the tenuous Midwest indie-rock scene of which the Promise Ring is a part, where bands rarely stay together long enough to record one album, let alone three. Gnewikow worried that it was all over a few years ago, when the group had to replace Scott Beschta, its first bass player, with Tim Burton. But since replacing Burton with Schoenbeck, Gnewikow has realized that losing a member doesn't mean losing a band. And unless he's the member getting lost, the Promise Ring isn't going away.

"I think seeing other bands break up definitely reinforces the fact that we feel we shouldn't," Gnewikow says. "We can't fall prey to whatever everyone else is falling prey to. I was actually really surprised about Braid. I knew the intricacies of the Compound Red thing, and that was pretty much beyond repair. But with Braid, they could have just gotten another guitar player. I understand the feeling. When we had to replace our first bass player, it was really scary, because it really feels like "Oh my God, this could be the end of our band.' Is it ethical to replace him or not? Knowing what I know now, it's just like . . . whatever. Fucking dime a dozen." He laughs. "Well, no, but I've put all this work into this band, and I'm not going to let it go just because I can't get along with this one person. No way."