After eight years and four albums, emo godfathers the Promise Ring have called it quits. According to the band members, the break was amicable. "It wasn't very rock & roll -- nobody overdosed or slept with each other's wives," insists guitarist Jason Gnewikow. "We just decided we'd been doing it long enough and it was time to move on." Frontman Davey von Bohlen added, "I just reached a point where I felt doing something new would make me most happy."
The band had been mulling its future for the past couple months, and Von Bohlen alluded to a breakup while onstage at a Plea for Peace show two weeks ago in Santa Cruz, California. "We discussed it a month or two ago as an option," Gnewikow says. "Once the idea was introduced, it couldn't really end up any other way; it was like a Pandora's box."
Formed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1994 from the remains of popular local groups Cap'n Jazz, Ceilishrine, and None Left Standing, the Promise Ring went on to refine those bands' taste for fuzzy power pop and soul-searching lyrics and help mold it into the indie rock subgenre known as emo. They became an underground phenomenon, collecting a devoted cult of fans and influencing scores of bands, including Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World.
The Promise Ring were often leery of the emo tag, however, and the mainstream notoriety that graced their progeny eluded them. "I think that's part of the whole game; it's happened a million times before, and it'll happen a million times again," says Gnewikow. "I feel at peace ending it where we ended."
In 2001, they left stalwart emo label Jade Tree for Epitaph's Anti-, joining distinctly non-emo acts like Tom Waits, Merle Haggard and Tricky. In April, Anti- released the Promise Ring's final release, Wood/Water.
In perhaps a last attempt to expand their musical horizons and their popular reach, they recruited famed Smiths producer Stephen Street to help Wood/Water transcend their emo roots, but the back-to-basics acoustic sound and generally downbeat arrangements alienated many of their core fans. At a recent concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, von Bohlen weathered a barrage of shouts for old songs and had to implore the audience not to boo the new material.
The shift in musical tone also came after von Bohlen's surgery in 2000 to remove a brain tumor. After suffering severe headaches, an MRI revealed that he had developed a benign tumor known as a menangioma, and doctors successfully removed the fist-sized growth. Much of Wood/Water dealt with the themes of change and re-evaluation, and songs like "Size of Your Life" and "Stop Playing Guitar" were direct departures from their energetic and increasingly pop-driven previous albums.
As for the band members' future plans, all plan to develop new musical projects, and Gnewikow hints at future collaborations with his former band mates. "We really just wanted to escape the cycles of being in an established band, and all that stuff dies with the structure of the band," says Gnewikow. "They're brilliant guys, and I really hope we can do stuff together."