FOREWORD: Back in the late ‘90s before emo got all sensitive on your saggy asses, there were a few really good semi-popular post-hardcore bands around that could rattle some bones without crying about the aftermath in song. Promise Ring was one of ‘em. Started in ’95 by Cap’n Jazz member, Davey von Bohlen, as a side project, Milwaukee’s Promise Ring hit on all cylinders for ‘99s Very Emergency, one of the key emotional hardcore recordings of its time. ‘02s wood/water fared less well, so von Bohlen and drummer Dan Didier began Maritime with Dismemberment Plan dissenters. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Influenced by DC hardcore (Fugazi, Minor Threat, Rites Of Spring) and conveniently lumped in with emo-core bands Jets To Brazil, Burning Airlines, and Dismemberment Plan by critics, Milwaukee’s Promise Ring gained widespread attention with their sophomore set, Nothing Feels Good. Their ascension continues with ‘99s provocative Very Emergency! (produced by former Jawbox leader J. Robbins).
Filled to the brim with swooping harmonies that tug at the heartstrings and cushion-y melodies that add tremendous emotional resonance, Very Emergency! slips gently from soft and vulnerable to loud and abrasive. Depressed post-teens will devour anthemic slacker ballads like “Jersey Shore,” “All Of My Everythings,” and the desolate “Living Around” (which offers the solemn chorus “it’s the end of the world today” and the verse “dropped a bomb on my birthday”).
On the upbeat side are the joyous celebration “Happiness Is All The Rage,” the urgent power pop blast, “Happy Hour,” and the Weezer-derived new wave ditty “Skips A Beat (Over You),” which features Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey on backup harmony. Another fave, the candy-coated kiddie-core come-on, “Arms And Danger,” is a cuddly rocker happily reminiscent of the Pixies or Jules Shear.
I spoke to guitarist/ vocalist Jason Gnewikow prior to the Promise Ring’s vibrant Knitting Factory set.
Is there a vital Milwaukee scene?
JASON: Yeah. The heyday was two years ago. (laughter) Most bands have been around the scene for years. They’re our age or older. There’s Compound Red. They broke up and then became Condition. Milwaukee is smaller and mellower than Chicago and New York City. When we go home, we’re lucky not to get surrounded by industry. On tour, with 500 or 600 fans per night, we see the affects of it. But no one knows us at home. There’s no fanfare. It’s pretty laid-back.
Does That ‘70s Show resemble real life in Wisconsin?
JASON: All those sitcoms like Happy Days and a few t.v. movies are set in Wisconsin. I guess it’s central America, the great median.
How did J. Robbins’ production affect Very Emergency?
JASON: He’s real good and easy to work with. He’s talented both musically and as a producer. Our personalities got along well. He brought out the best in us. It’s a combination of getting better and more prepared in the studio. We demoed songs and sent them to him beforehand. Instead of using big amps, he got us to use one speaker combo amps for parts we wanted to bring up, like percussion.
He seemed to bring up the vocals.
JASON: He worked on vocals for Davey (von Bohlen), getting him to do stretching exercises. I should add that Davey’s a brilliant writer. There’s a lot of artists who have the ‘eye.’ He’s one.
How did the siren title, Very Emergency, come about?
JASON: That came about as a matter of chance. A friend of ours got a phone call from someone who said, “It’s very emergency you call me back,” which was weird. When we picked song titles, we felt it was clever. The record feels ‘very emergency’ with its upbeat quirkiness. The song, “Emergency! Emergency!,” was one of the last songs we did. It was re-structured at the last second. I never thought it would turn out to be so good.
Along with your touring partners, Dismembership Plan, Burning Airlines, and Jets To Brazil, you are reluctant to be classified emo-core. Each band seems to share influences, but there are striking differences. Dismembership Plan seems to take more chances and be more experimental than Burning Airlines and Jets To Brazil, for instance.
JASON: They are our friends, our peer group. From our perspective, we just do whatever we do and let people have their perspective. Some bands are more similar or dissimilar. Your history brings you together more than the sound of your music. On a basic level, most bands do songs they think are worthy of being recorded and throw away what they don’t like. I went to a Francisco Clemente exhibit at the Guggenheim with a photographer friend recently. She was saying we know all these musicians and artists in our scene but it is possible when they are older, people will look back on their music like Warhol and Ginsberg. But those people know each other by chance. The public’s perception is different from those who created it. That’s what makes hero worship – crazy icons.