By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
The band members had come quite a way from the days when they "were completely, like, over the moon that someone would even want to put out our record." In 1996, when Delaware-based Jade Tree Records wanted to release The Promise Ring's debut, 30 Everywhere, that was enough: recording an album, finding a label, any label, to get it into stores, chasing the record around the country in a van, playing anywhere that would have you. And for the next two albums, 1997's Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency (both on Jade Tree), that's all they needed. Everything was Christmas morning, over and over again. Until, of course, the band figured out that Santa Claus was just the same drunk in every bar in every town on every tour. By the time they finished touring behind Very Emergency, it wasn't fun anymore. None of it.
"After a while, all those new things that kept it exciting had sort of ceased, and it hit a plateau," Gnewikow says. "And probably a lot of it had a lot to do with us, too. But we were just like, 'You know, let's just change everything up and change the way that we do things. Get a label, more money, spend more time making the record.' I think the songcraft and the quality of the record started to play a bigger part when the thrill of simply going on tour wore off. Well, I've been in Dallas. Been in Dallas a bunch of times. It's not exciting anymore. It's the same for every other city in the United States. You know, where it was like, 'I've never been to Seattle. I can't wait to go there. It's gonna be awesome!' Well, it's not so awesome anymore." He laughs. "I mean, it's cool, but the thrill is gone. So you start finding other things to be excited about."
For a while, there wasn't much to be excited about and plenty to be scared of; singer-guitarist Davey vonBohlen was diagnosed with a fist-sized brain tumor in April 2000. The tumor was benign, and four operations later, vonBohlen's noggin was up to code again. Naturally, The Promise Ring wasn't a priority for anyone during that time. It didn't take a backseat; it found a comfortable spot in the trunk. During the time off, the band (which also includes drummer Dan Didier and bassist Ryan Weber, who joined during the making of Wood/Water) had a chance to retrace its steps and decide which ones were worth taking again. Which is why, when they started writing and playing together again, they didn't like the songs that were surfacing. They felt like reheated leftovers from Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency, pop-rock-pop that hit you in the gut occasionally, but never really stuck around long enough to do much damage. The band had moved on and wanted the songs to join them.
"I think as you get older, your tastes change a little bit, and it's one of the hardest things about being in a band for a long time and sticking with the same band," Gnewikow says. "It would have been a lot easier to, like, change our name. And then you don't ever have to play any of the old songs that, while I don't necessarily think that they're bad, it's just, you know, maybe it's not what you're into now. You don't want to have to sort of be responsible for them every time you play. I think the outcome wasn't deliberate, but the starting point of, like, wanting to do something different was definitely deliberate. We didn't really know what we were going to do, but I think we were like, 'Let's sort of let the records that we really love have more of an effect or be a little bit more represented with the music that we're making.'"
Short of changing its name, The Promise Ring did everything it could to make a clean break from its past. They signed with Anti-, an eclectic spin-off of Epitaph Records, joining a roster that includes Tom Waits, Tricky and Merle Haggard. The move was mostly made, Gnewikow says, so the band could have more time and money to make a new record, but also because Jade Tree had become too associated with the style of music the group was trying to distance itself from. It had become a label in the other sense of the word, a brand they would have trouble shaking if they stayed put. And instead of booking time with Jawbox and Burning Airlines front man J. Robbins, who'd produced everything the group had released since 30 Everywhere, they went to L.A. to record a song (a "Hey Jude" update, "Say Goodbye Good," complete with singalong finale) with Beastie Boys co-conspirator Mario Caldato Jr., before finishing Wood/Water in England with Stephen Street, who's worked with The Smiths and Blur, among many others.
Working with new producers allowed the band to tinker and tamper more than it had in the past, to really start over; if they'd teamed up with Robbins again, it would have been like starting a crossword after someone had already filled in most of the clues. And along with Street and Caldato, the group had another collaborator: vonBohlen has joked that the doctors who worked on his head stole all of his fast songs, and Wood/Water, for the most part, backs him up. It makes sense that vonBohlen's meet-and-greet with his own mortality would pay off in a more reflective record. As in: "If I had a dime for every time I should have stopped playing guitar and put my nose in a book/Then my head would be healthy and my guitar would be dusty," he sings on "Stop Playing Guitar." Or: "It's been one cruel year/And we all feel better knowing that you're back here/You wouldn't believe it/So I might as well lie/I almost had to say goodbye," as he says in "Wake Up April."