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Breaking Out of the Emo Ghetto

Faced with health problems and a genre that felt confining, the Promise Ring chose a radical--and lush--new direction

June 09, 2002|MARC WEINGARTEN

Indie rock fans tend to believe that artists who don't toil for major labels are untethered by expectations and free to do just about anything they please. This may hold true for many artists, but for the Promise Ring, indie-rock fandom has been more of a crutch than a boon.

"It's nice to have a fan base, but it's hard to attract new fans if people already assume you have an audience," says the Milwaukee quartet's drummer, Dan Didier, 27. "But it's more important to make the band happy. If John in Kansas doesn't like the record, it's not gonna affect me."

This isn't hostile rock star ingratitude, just the pragmatic talk of a band trying to shed old expectations for new vistas. As one of the most prominent practitioners of the subgenre called emo, the Promise Ring has accrued a fan base that has grown comfortable with guitarist Davey von Bohlen's astringent pop songs. His cryptic lyrics sketch relationship troubles from the perspective of someone who would rather sing about his feelings than confront them.

The band's first four albums, beginning with 1996's "30 Degrees Everywhere," are full to bursting with frisky power-chord energy. But its latest, "Wood/Water," is either an act of career sabotage or a giant leap forward--perhaps both. Lush, melancholy, more ambitious and less callow than the Promise Ring's previous efforts, it sounds like nothing else in the band's oeuvre. To a man, the Promise Ring had grown weary of carrying the emo mantle for its fans and of trying to please its constituency before its own needs were met.

"You lose your perspective; you see you like everyone else sees you," says Von Bohlen, 27, sitting with his bandmates around the pool of a Hollywood hotel. "We were the band that goes up there and does emo, but there is a world of things you can do with a guitar."

As it turned out, the catalyst for the band's rebirth was something the members--especially Von Bohlen--could have done without.

"I recorded 'Very Emergency' from pill to pill," says the guitarist, referring to the band's 1999 album. "I was going through a bottle of headache pills every two days. That record hurt to record. Every show supporting it was just awful. Think about having a headache, then screaming and yelling for an hour."

After suffering from debilitating migraine headaches for more than a year, it got to the point where Von Bohlen couldn't see clearly or even walk, and in mid-2000 an MRI revealed a fist-sized brain tumor.

Didier and guitarist Jason Gnewikow feared for their friend's life and wondered if it was time to go back to their day jobs. "I thought, 'Well, we had our run, but it's over now,' " Didier says. "I didn't expect Davey to come back to the band. Not that I didn't have faith in him, but I thought that would be enough for him."

Von Bohlen underwent three operations in two years to remove the benign mass. In April he endured the final operation: A plastic prosthetic plate was inserted into his skull to replace an infected fragment the surgeons had removed. Although Von Bohlen is now headache-free and feels great, a deep declension near the front of his skull serves as a permanent war scar.

"I mean, it changed all of us," says Von Bohlen, who met Gnewikow and Didier when they were all playing in different high school punk bands. (Original bassist Scott Schoenbeck was replaced by Ryan Weber last year.)

"But it didn't change me any more than it changed these guys. What happens is, your spectrum of what you care about becomes much smaller. Like, I don't care if Spin gave this record a bad review. That might have bothered us before, when we thought career was everything."

Gnewikow and Didier felt emboldened by Von Bohlen's recovery. If their leader could survive a brain tumor, anything was possible.

Eager to shake things up, the Promise Ring left its label, Delaware-based Jade Tree, and signed with Anti, a division of L.A.'s Epitaph Records.

The move to one of the top U.S. independent labels figures to raise its commercial prospects. (No Promise Ring album has ever sold more than 45,000 units.) But just as important was the first decent recording budget in the band's career.

"It's hard to record an album in two days," Von Bohlen says. "We never had time in the past to put any extra stuff on our albums. If two people disagreed about something, that argument would have to end in five minutes."

Adds Didier, "The performances would have been better, because it's hard to record when you know every take has to be perfect."

The Promise Ring decamped to Farnham, a rural hamlet outside London, to live and record in a country house with Stephen Street, a producer whose credits include albums with the Smiths and Blur. Street helped the band explore new approaches to arranging tracks.

"We had a percussion loop that served as a click track for us to play to in the song 'What About April,' " Von Bohlen says, "and Stephen just thought it would be better to leave it in the final track. It changed the whole vibe of the song."

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