Promise Ring No Longer Making Music By Accident

Milwaukee pop-rockers take deliberate approach on third album, Very Emergency.

When members of the Promise Ring set out to craft their third album, Very Emergency, they sought to avoid the happy accidents that highlighted their second release, Nothing Feels Good (1997).

"The last album was just a lot more random, as far as songwriting goes," guitarist Jason Gnewikow said. "With that record, I felt like, if we had accomplished anything good, it wasn't necessarily by really trying — it was more just like a coincidence or a freak happening.

"If there's anything good on [Very Emergency], I feel like it was totally intentional, and that it came from us really trying hard. It feels like more of an accomplishment that way."

Gnewikow and singer/guitarist Davey vonBohlen credit several factors for the development of the Milwaukee pop-rock band's songwriting — the most obvious being simply that the bandmembers have grown closer.

"I think we've actually become a band in the last couple of years ... instead of a bunch of people who are just trying to keep from going to college," vonBohlen, 24, said.

The Promise Ring formed from the ashes of several Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., bands four years ago. Two studio albums and a singles collection on indie label Jade Tree Records, combined with an exhausting tour schedule, have earned the band a dedicated following.

The group's original bassist, Scott Beschta, left shortly before Nothing Feels Good was released. The band had relied heavily on Beschta for songwriting, so another reason Very Emergency might sound different from its predecessors is because the songwriting is now more of a team effort, vonBohlen said.

But the lyrics are still vonBohlen's task. And though he said he didn't set out to write an album around a singular theme, he sees a common thread running through Very Emergency's 10 tracks.

"These last two years I've been really lucky in life," vonBohlen said. "Things have just been so good. ... I have that refrigerator magnet poetry and I put that on the refrigerator — it says 'things just getting good.' I think it found its way into every one of the songs."

The lyrics set a positive tone from the outset. The disc begins with vonBohlen announcing, "I've got my body and my mind on the same page/ And honey, now happiness is all the rage" on "Happiness Is All the Rage" (RealAudio excerpt).

Very Emergency is also an album about "finding peace" and about not worrying over things you can't control, he said.

In the song "Deep South" (RealAudio excerpt), for example, vonBohlen sings, "I know that bridges and houses are learning to fly/ Only secretly, so we won't know why/ Good for them." As if to prove how little it bothers him, vonBohlen tosses in a casual "bop-a-do-bop."

"There's some really weird, out-of-control stuff going on and it's just not my business," he said. "That's the idea there."

One song, "Jersey Shore" (RealAudio excerpt), which vonBohlen wrote, started out as a slow, quiet musing, but turned into what is almost a sunny, upbeat anthem. He said that when he wrote the song, the feeling behind it was "just kind of motoring along, wheels moving slowly," but Gnewikow convinced him to "dig into it, get the rhythm out and make it a trashy rock song."

The finished track features whistling, a computer-voice chorus and a simple, fuzzy guitar riff as its foundation.

The computer voice came from a Macintosh computer's built-in sound-recording program. "It was really hard to do, because it had to be in time with the song," Gnewikow, 25, said. "We ended up spending a ridiculous amount of time on it. ... But it actually ended up working out and I think it sounds pretty cool."

Gnewikow's suggestions "definitely made the song catchier," vonBohlen said. "It also turned it from, like a deflating, upsetting song to 'Oh my God! New Jersey shore! Wassup?! Summer, MTV, let's party!' That was kind of funny, so it seemed like a really good idea."

Very Emergency's devotion to pop fundamentals (the song "Happy Hour" includes a breakdown complete with "woo-hoo-hoo!"s and hand claps) may help the Promise Ring shed the "emo-core" label with which journalists have long tagged the band.

"We're just a rock band, more or less," Gnewikow insisted. "Of course, 'emo' and 'emo-core' fall under the umbrella of rock music, and our intentions aren't all that different from a lot of other bands, but I guess it's all about timing. Musical subgenres will run their course and we'll forever be known as an emo band."

The band, which also includes drummer Dan Didier and bassist Scott Schoenbeck, is touring the United States through Nov. 24.