Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Promise Ring

It came to a point on tour one night—before or after a show in California, I don't remember—when we realized that the cons were outweighing the pros,” Davey von Bohlen says, remembering the break-up of his band the Promise Ring in 2002. “I remember the conversation was very not dramatic. We just kind of decided, 'Oh yeah, let's play our last show tomorrow night and that'll be that.' We all happily decided that this was the time to walk away. And who knows if we ignored that what could have happened, for better or worse—and probably both.”

The reason behind the Promise Ring's break-up seems both simple and excusable: Each of the band's members were developing lives and priorities outside the Promise Ring and, in response wanted to take the band in different directions. “And the band was changing a lot as a collective too,” he continues, “It's hard to [totally overhaul a situation] without everyone being unified on the goal.”

Wow, that seems sad, daddy,” a small voice comments, the singer's son, and suddenly the conversation warps a universe away from the smokey, bustling backstage at some club in California to the von Bohlen's dinner table in Milwaukee almost ten years later, where the clicks of silverware on plastic plates punctuate the discussion. Von Bohlen chuckles a little at his son's remark, perhaps recognizing the disparity between his reminiscence and present reality, before concluding his thought—that the end of the Promise Ring wasn't really sad, that it ended at the right time for the right reasons in the right way.

Guitarist Jason Genwikow's and drummer Dan Didier started the Promise Ring in 1995 with bassist Scott Beschta after their bands broke up. When these three asked von Bohlen to sing and play guitar for this new project, he agreed, but his role in the Promise Ring during its first month seemed distracted. “It was kind of terrible timing for me,” he remembers. “I had one foot out the door all the time, which caused a lot of trouble.” At the time, von Bohlen considered the Promise Ring secondary to Cap'n Jazz, the Chicago emo band for which he strummed a jangly, jittery guitar. “Cap'n Jazz was starting to go really well, so I didn't want to stop that,” he continues, “but that broke up that summer, so the Promise Ring seemed to solve all of our problems.”

Von Bohlen recgonizes when they wrote the song “Watertown Plank” as the moment when the Promise Ring finally found the sound for which it was looking. “They had maybe two songs when I walked in the door and, past that, we wrote maybe three or four more and had a set list,” he says. “That song was in there as one of the original six or seven songs, and it was definitely the song where I was like, 'This song is not like these others. It's not a punk-rock song. Can we play this for people?’”

Watertown Plank”, which alternates between a subdued, sticky riff and a chorus consisting of soaring, cloudy chords from which von Bohlen's voice sways, caught the attention of Jade Tree Records, which released a second seven-inch and 30 Degrees Everywhere, the band's first full-length. Though this debut served as an exciting an momentous occasion for the Promise Ring, von Bohlen remembers how eager the band was to immediately evolve. “The first record was just poor execution from start to finish,” he laughs. “I remember, even at the time, we were driving back from the studio and already discussing how to recover from it. Of course, it came from feeling self-important. Everything was either the best or the worst thing in the world. I mean, we were twenty, and that's kind of the experience of being twenty.”

For von Bohlen, the story of the Promise Ring is the story of four bandmates that became musicians, and Nothing Feels Good, the band's second full-length, serves as the initiator of that transformation. “It was kind of a perfect marriage of us starting to evolve into musicians,” he argues, “but there was a enough chaos going onto make it interesting and have a good amount of edge.”

Each track captures the edgy, angular, “un-punk” songwriting from the previous releases, but adds a pop sensibility—an element that, from that point forward, became a priority that both propelled and polarized them. “Why Did We Ever Meet” might capture this duality best. Genwikow's guitar buzzes alongside the murmur of Beschta's bassline and glimmers against von Bohlen's in a manner that's both melodic and obtuse. Didier's drum part is sharp and cuts through these three layers of chord with the clean precision of an X-Acto knife, shifting only during a playful, syncopated bridge in which von Bohlen's “ba bas” and “do dos” replace the previous poetic lines of lyrics.

Nothing Feels Good, according to von Bohlen, captured the band at its best—and its worst. “We were relating to each other in the best way,” he says. “We were clicking on all cylinders, and we were probably the best as a band at that point, even though we weren't the best band at that point. And, at the same point, we were on the verge of killing each other too.” Up to and during the recording process, the band's relationship with Beschta broke down, which ultimately led to him being asked to leave the band before Nothing Feels Good was even released.

Despite this setback, and a particularly terrifying van accident while on tour, the band rebounded with Very Emergency, the Promise Ring's third record and perhaps their roundest and most accessible. The one-two punch of “Happiness Is All the Rage” and “Emergency! Emergency!”, the record's opener and second song respectively, showcases von Bohlen's ability to craft a catchy hook and hang it from a simple, straight clothesline. “I think by the third record,” von Bohlen recalls, “we had gotten really good at that one thing we started to understand that we were good at. So that record has more perfect endings, but suffered from having less edge.

Most of this happened without any real conscious decision-making,” he continues, “which is probably why our sound really blew up by the fourth record; we couldn't literally look ourselves in the mirror and make another record that sounded like that.”

Of course, this wasn't the only reason why wood/water, the band's fourth full-length and first record away from Jade Tree, ended up sounding so different than the Promise Ring's previous output. Von Bohlen began suffering from headaches, which amplified during the recording of Very Emergency and escalated to a debilitating point. When it was discovered that von Bohlen had a brain tumor, it put the Promise Ring on hold for a while.

That sort of stopped us enough,” von Bohlen says, “We pretty much had been going a hundred miles an hour from when we were twenty until we were twenty-seven or eight. When I got sick and we had to cancel one tour, and we didn't really plan a tour after it, everybody for the first time in a decade focused on their personal lives. We had never been home long enough to curate relationships with other people. Anything you wanted to do outside of the music was a hobby, and not a hobby that you could spend any sort of time on because, if you did, it just got in the way, and that was not an option.

Though the band members were able to finally develop identities apart from the Promise Ring, their lives became obstacles when trying to put the pieces back together. “We probably made the record at least once, maybe twice, that would have fit nicely between Very Emergency and wood/water,” von Bohlen recalls, “but we didn't release it because we were at home; it was the first time we weren't touring and constantly putting out records. So when wood/water came it, it was a totally natural progression for us.”

Comprised of complex, mesmerizing ballads, wood/water was not a natural progression for many of the Promise Ring's fans. Though the songs exhibited Very Emergency's emphasis on pop, they were missing the crunch, edge, and energy of the band's previous releases. On “Become One Anything One Time”, von Bohlen's voice creaks at the brink of a whisper as acoustic guitars shuffle on either side. Similarly, on “Stop Playing Guitar”, a comparatively active track, Didier's drums are as simple as ever, but slower, setting the foundation (along with a piano's steady heartbeat) for Genwikow's cursive guitar lead as blooms into one of the few distorted chords on the album. Though the record is easily the most beautiful in the Promise Ring's discography, it's somehow the most startling and, shortly after its release, the band broke up.

As von Bohlen continues making music with Didier in Maritime—who released their fourth record, Human Hearts, in the spring of 2011—he's had time to ponder the impact of the Promise Ring. “The band was really polarizing when we were together,” von Bohlen says, “and it's continued—probably exponentially grown in both directions—in the time that we haven't been a band. When people come up to me and say, 'You guys are the biggest band and changed everything!' I assume that they're exaggerating our actual impact, since the only people who talk to us about it are in favor of us. In my mind, it's less than people say it is. But a lot of time has passed, too, so even we forget where it was.”

He will, however, receive a reminder soon. In November of 2011, a Twitter account called ThePromiseRing tweeted, “Hello, again...”, igniting excitement and speculation among fans and the music media alike. Less than a week later, Promise Ring tickets went on sale at two Midwestern venues—Turner Hall in Milwaukee and the Metro in Chicago—and Didier verified with AltPress that the band was releasing a rarities compilation on Dangerbird Records.

Considering the explosive response, announcing the Promise Ring reunion via Twitter seemed like a prudent PR maneuver. “After we started that whole little Twitter thing,” von Bohlen snickers, “Dan and I were talking to somebody who said, 'It seemed so calculated,' and I was like, 'Really?' Because when I think of calculated, I don't think of us.” In truth, the initial tweet, along with the week's worth of micro-blogging that followed, was posted on a playful whim; beyond the two confirmed shows and the rarities record, von Bohlen and his band hadn't yet solidified anything else.

It's funny,” he says relaxing at his empty dinner table, his two boys having removed themselves from the boring interview to play elsewhere in the house. “[The Promise Ring hasn't] actually been in the same room yet,” he laughs. “We'd like to play some shows throughout the year, but we don't really know how many.” It depends, he says, on what the rest of the Promise Ring wants from this reunion, and what their new lives will allow. Von Bohlen and his bandmates—including Scott Schoenbeck, who recorded bass on Very Emergency and toured in its support—have been rearranging their lives to allow for this reunion, and the timing, at least for von Bohlen, won't get better. “I would like to play with these guys again, but I don't really want to be an old guy playing the songs I wrote forty years ago,” he laughs. “If we're going to do it, I prefer to do it now while we're still relevant and capable musicians.”

If the story of the Promise Ring is the story of four bandmates that became musicians, as von Bohlen says it is, this reunion will write that last chapter—the one in which the members have moved on and learned to live happily ever after. “Hopefully,” he explains, “it will put a back cover on all this.”

Von Bohlen recorded these songs from his home in Milwaukee, WI around dinner time on the first evening of the year. Because his two boys were playing laundry-basketball, he performed the songs in the relative quiet of the bathroom (though one can still hear his boys playing and dog barking occasionally in the background).

"Skips a Beat (Over You)" appears on the Promise Ring's 1999 record titled Very Emergency, and "Bread & Coffee" appears on their 2002 wood/water. "Call Me Home" was recorded as a b-side for Maritime's 2006 We, the Vehicles and appeared on the record's vinyl release. "We Only Have Each Other in the Night" is a cover a song written by Mark Mallman (which whom von Bohlen went to high school); it originally appeared on Mallman's 2000 album I Lost My Life and Lived to Tell About It.

Visit the band's Facebook page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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