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.'"
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.'"