The Promise Ring
The Promise Ring
The Milwaukee-based alternative punk band the Promise Ring, whose members include lead vocalist and guitarist Davey Von Bohlen, drummer Daniel (Dan) Didier, guitarist Jason Gnewikow, and bassist Scott Schoenbeck became one of the leading “emocore,” outfits of the late 1990s. The term emocore, which is short for “emotional hardcore,” arose as a way to label a sub-genre of hard-core punk music popular in the Midwest and Washington, D.C., that combined the speed and music of the punk sound with more thoughtful, less angry words. Along with other emotionally-driven punk acts such as Rainer Maria (named for a 19th-century German poet), Dismemberment Plan, Jets to Brazil, and Jimmy Eats World, the Promise Ring was influenced by Washington, D.C., groups like Jawbox, Fugazi, and the Rites of Spring. However, such a label sometimes brings with it negative assumptions. “The minute you know what to call a scene you’re in a museum with a tag around you,” J. Robbins, the former leader of Jawbox, told Jeff Salamon in a 1999 interview for Spin magazine. “Maybe the problem is that ‘emocore’ isn’t a cool sounding name. It doesn’t feel cool.,” Nonetheless, the Promise Ring took the emocore label in stride, and became one of the few bands to remain on an independent label and gain mainstream media attention. By the time they released their second album, 1997’s Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring had realized that they had more to offer, beyond their speed-punk signature, with more thought-provoking lyrics.
All of the members of the Promise Ring grew up playing in various hard-core punk bands that favored loudness and speed above all else. Davey Von Bohlen once played guitar for Cap’n Jazz, a Chicago-based alternative punk band. The other members of the group included lyricist Tim Kinsella and his brother, drummer Mike Kinsella. Although Cap’n Jazz stood apart from their counterparts in the Midwest for their unique brand of hyper-driven suburbia punk, Von Bohlen started to contemplate a side project. In early 1995, he started rehearsing with drummer Dan Didier, guitarist Jason Gnewikow, and original bassist Scott Beschta (later replaced by Tim Burton, who was replaced by Scott Schoenbeck) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the Promise Ring, though he remained uncertain at the time if he really wanted to take much time away from his current group. Likewise, his collaborators were busy with other punk acts. However, when Cap’n Jazz disintegrated shortly thereafter, Von Bohlen found time to dedicate to his new band, and Didier, Gnewikow, and Beschta decided to join full-time as well. After the Cap’n Jazz split in 1995, the Kinsella brothers formed Joan of Arc, for whom Gnewikow does graphic work. Both Joan of Arc and the Promise Ring later became label mates on Jade Tree Records, and in 1998 Jade Tree, based in Wilmington, Delaware, released a comprehensive, two-disc collection of Cap’n Jazz songs entitled Analphabepolotho, a compilation that became a sacred text of the Midwest alternative punk scene.
Soon after officially forming in 1995, the Promise Ring recorded their first seven-inch single, which was issued by Foresight Records and later went out of print. The single, along with their reputation for performing, came to the attention of Jade Tree Records, and the small, independent label signed the Promise Ring in late 1995. Early in 1996, the group released their first seven-inch single for Jade Tree entitled “Falsetto Keeps Time,” which became an instant localhit. Next, they joined another group, Texas Is the Reason, to release a seven-inch split record with that band. During the summer of 1996, the Promise Ring spent time touring, and while in Chicago recorded their first fulllength album, 30 Degrees Everywhere, which sold around 12,000 copies. The band rounded out 1996 with The Horse Latitudes EP, a CD-only singles compilation that included their single for Foresight, as well as their split with Texas is the Reason, “Falsetto Keeps Time,” and two new songs. With these releases, the Promise Ring quickly became a favorite with college audiences, and their first two seven-inch singles sold in excess of 8,000 units. In addition, the group earned a spot performing at the CMJ (College Music Journal) Music Festival, a showcase of new, rising talent held in New York. The band also enjoyed widespread “fanzine,” coverage, appearing in both Alternative Press and Raygun.
Members include Scott Beschta (left band c. 1998), bass; Tim Burton (joined and left band c. 1998), bass; Daniel Didier, drums; Jason Gnewikow (born c. 1974), guitar; Scott Schoenbeck (joined band c. 1999), bass; Davey Von Bohlen (former member of Cap’n Jazz), vocals, guitar.
Formed band, 1995; signed with Jade Tree Records, released debut album 30 Degrees Everywhere, 1996; released Nothing Feels Good, 1997; released Very Emergency, 1999.
Awards: SESAC award for Very Emergency, 1999.
Addresses: Home —The Promise Ring, 2016 N. Booth, Milwaukee, WI 53212. Record company —Jade Tree Records, 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE 19810, (302) 656-5856.
Now an underground sensation, the Promise Ring returned in October of 1997 with their second full-length album, Nothing Feels Good, and started breaking through into mainstream publications with mention in music magazines such as Spin. Recorded in June 1997 under the guidance of producer J. Robbins (leader of the Burning Airlines, the now defunct group Jawbox) and mixing engineers Stuart Sikes, Doug Easley, and David McCain, the album generated considerable attention. Full of fast-paced, intense rock and roll, as well as a wry sense of humor in terms of lyrical content, Nothing Feels Good showcased the band’s confident sound. For the record, the group experimented with more radio-friendly songs as well with the tracks “Red & Blue Jeans,” “Forget Me,” and “Is This Thing On?,” These songs, wrote Jon M. Gilbertson for Let’s Go Online/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “ride straightforward, beautiful pop melodies as von Bohlen’s desperate voice conveys the album’s central theme of vagueness and confusion.,”
Von Bohlen further explained the basic premise behind the album. “The basic idea is that you think you know things, but really you never know,” he told Gilbertson. “’Nothing Feels Good’ means that life is really bizarre, but at the same time, it feels totally good not to feel as if you know things.,” Guitarist Gnewikow also discussed the group’s decision to add a sense of feeling to the traditional punk ethic. “When we started this band we were getting older,” he recalled to Salamon in Spin. “We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do,” added Von Bohlen. “It was the end of this tight-knit Madison-Milwaukee punk scene and a lot of people were moving away or growing up.,” Upon the success of Nothing Feels Good, one of the act’s fans, video director Darren Doane, known for his work for Blink 182, MxPx, and the Descendents, directed two videos for the song “Why Did Ever We Meet,” from the album. He shot one of the videos free of charge as a concept project.
Although major record labels continued to call, the Promise Ring opted to stay with Jade Tree, selling approximately 30,000 units per album. In 1999, the band released their third album, Very Emergency, which earned favorable reviews and greater mainstream attention and firmly established Promise Ring as the day’s most prominent of “emocore,” bands. The lyrics of Very Emergency ‘told stories of lost love and nostalgic memories set to catchy punk music, exemplified in the opening track “Happiness Is All the Rage,” where Von Bohlen sings, “I’ve got my body and my mind on the same page/And, honey, now happiness is all the rage.,” Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune described the opening song as “a perfect pop moment that somehow also feels like the antithesis of pop: private, confessional, awkward.,” Other highlights, such as “Happy Hour,” and “Skips A Beat,” were sure to make Very Emergency another college chartfavorite. The release earned industry recognition as well, and in November of 1999 the Promise Ring won an SESAC (a performing rights organization) award in the alternative rock category for Very Emergency.
“Falsetto Keeps Time,” (single), Jade Tree, 1996.
The Horse Latitudes, (EP), Jade Tree, 1996.
30 Degrees Everywhere, Jade Tree, 1996.
Nothing Feels Good, Jade Tree, 1997.
Very Emergency, Jade Tree, 1999.
Advocate, September 28, 1999.
Billboard, November 29, 1997; November 20, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1999.
Magnet, October/November 1999, p. 88.
Spin, November 1999, pp. 145-148.
Village Voice, July 21, 1998.
Let’s Go Online/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com/daily/0918promisering.stm (January 18, 2000).
MTV Online, http://www.mtv.com (January 18, 2000).
The Promise Ring at Jade Tree Records, http://www.jadetree.com (January 18, 2000).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (January 18, 2000).
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