Everyone should have been asleep by then or, at least, getting there, and most had called it a night long ago, stumbling back to their hotels and homes. It was late even by rock-and-roll standards, closing in on 5 a.m., but no one inside Austin's new Acoustic Café was ready to turn in just yet, filling up on free grub and Jim Beam and American Spirits instead of watching the clock. Or the band onstage, really.
On a normal Friday in Austin, it would be hard to imagine why a band would want to play so late, even harder to figure out why anyone would want to (sort of) watch them do it. But this Friday night (or Saturday morning, if you prefer) was during South by Southwest, and if you're a musician, you have to do anything you can to stand out, force someone to look up from his drink long enough to hear your songs. Which is why The Promise Ring was gamely working through its set at an after-hours party hosted by Blender (the music-mag offshoot of Maxim) not long before the morning papers went out, even though it had played the night before to a much more attentive audience at Emo's. And besides, everyone stays out past his/her bedtime during the music industry's spring break. Whether they want to or not.
"That was pretty brutal," remembers Jason Gnewikow, guitarist for The Promise Ring. It's early April, a few weeks before The Promise Ring's fourth album, Wood/Water, hits stores. "It wasn't nearly as bad as I think it could have been. There were too many variables in there that were unsure or uncertain. I was like, 'I could be a drunken mess at 3 in the morning, and chances are, I probably will be.' I mean, I knew it was booked and everything. I just had no idea what that was gonna be like or feel like. Even when we got there, like, a couple of days before, I was just like, 'I can't even really imagine us doing that.'"
The Promise Ring with The Weakerthans and Reubens Accomplice
A year or so earlier, Gnewikow was having trouble imagining The Promise Ring doing anything at all. They didn't see each other much and were playing together even less. Back then, he would have been happy giving it all up, walking away. Well, not happy, necessarily, but he would have been OK, just fine, thanks for asking. Gnewikow would have managed, and already was, pretty much: He had a career, designing album covers and such through his graphics company PUBLIC. Didn't really need another one. He was making good money and doing what he loved, which is more than most people have. So he was fine.
Thing is, though, The Promise Ring, the band Gnewikow helped form seven years ago, wasn't something he could turn his back on without feeling a sharp tap on his shoulder, a strong tug on his elbow. It was his past and present, and he still wanted it to be his future, or part of it, anyway. But he was having trouble finding a map that didn't point him toward the nearest exit, and the rest of the band wasn't far behind him.
Two years after The Promise Ring released 1999's Very Emergency, its most successful album yet, the group was starting to write songs for a follow-up, and it was going nowhere. Actually, it was going in the exact same direction as Very Emergency, which was why that album's title had a new job description: status report for the band's future. While it wasn't looking, the group had become a Promise Ring cover band. They barely had enough interest to go through the motions anymore.
Happens all the time. Bands shake up, break up and make up like high school sweethearts, and usually it's only two out of three. Not as dramatic as, say, building a house from scratch and swinging a wrecking ball at the frame as soon as the last shingle is on the roof. Or, maybe, dropping your kid off at soccer practice and never turning the minivan around. This wasn't anything like that. What was happening to The Promise Ring wasn't even as tense as this kind of thing usually is. No one had a coke problem. The singer wasn't banging the drummer's girlfriend. They were just bored.
"You know, it's fucking, like, who wants to do the same band forever?" Gnewikow says. "And our band had become a total grind. Like, we'd ostensibly ceased practicing. Because it wasn't exciting. I don't want to do things that aren't exciting to me. We've, you know, we've been making a living off the band, but it's not such a great living that we couldn't go do something else. I'm a graphic designer as well, and in the two years that we had off, I'd been working a lot. When we started writing songs and they were sounding a lot like Very Emergency, I was like, 'You know what? I don't need to do this to live. I can probably have a way more lucrative career doing this other thing that I really love doing, so if the love isn't there, you know, then probably neither will I.'"
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.
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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."
The music matches the mood, slow but not always low, often acoustic but always electric. And in the end, not all that different than some of the band's old songs. Difference is, those were just sketches; Wood/Water is the finished painting, all the details carefully in place, all the colors just right. "We don't think that we're Pink Floyd or anything," Gnewikow says, with a laugh. "We're not under the illusion that we're making groundbreaking music. It's just different for us. Not different for music."
Now that Wood/Water is finished, the band will have to reacquaint itself with the old songs in the rearview mirror and drive to all those cities it's been to a dozen times, the places that no longer hold the same thrills. The funny thing is, though, since they've been avoiding it all for so long, it's exciting again. Sort of.
"For me, the hardest thing is going out and playing the old songs," Gnewikow admits. "It's not that I don't like 'em, and I completely understand the impulse to go and see bands and want to hear songs that you're familiar with. I do it, too. But we haven't been on tour in forever, so I think the sheer excitement of going out and playing the new songs is impetus enough. It's weird, now that we have half a new band almost--a new bass player and a keyboard player. There's a bunch of exciting things out there on the horizon, and I think that's impetus enough to go out. We'll probably be sick of it by the end of the year. By the end of the summer, maybe. But it's part of it. And there is that element of no responsibility on tour. You know what I mean? What's hard about it?" He laughs. "Get out, play for an hour, party." Hard to walk away from that.