Nothing Feels Emo

Emo this, emo that. Everything, it seems, recorded since the Eagles’ reunion has been tagged with the emo buzzword at least once in the past few months. Much to the chagrin of the members of the Promise Ring, their band is continually harnessed with the elusive emo label.

“I would never use that term. A lot of people do. It’s kind of like you have to give in to it,” bemoaned Promise Ring guitarist Jason Gnewikow. “The way people use it, it doesn’t really describe anything, because you will hear different arguments. Somebody will say Fugazi is an emo band and someone will say the Get Up Kids. They don’t sound anything alike!”

Whatever its sound—pop, emo or something else—the Promise Ring’s blend of upbeat, melodic tunes with minimalist, though strangely expressive, lyrics slowly built the band a reputation as one of today’s most promising indie-label bands. Building a nationwide following with a hectic touring schedule as well as cropping up in the Spin reviews section and on MTV, the Promise Ring leads the pack of the “we’re not emo” bands.

Like many of his contemporaries, Gnewikow fiercely dodges the emo label, though has little advice for serving up a description of his band. “I don’t know what I’d describe us as. That’s a hard thing to do,” he said.

Regardless of the poor state of rock terminology lumping Gnewikow and Ian MacKaye into the same boat, the Promise Ring certainly has cut the right profile in recent months. With the recently released Boys and Girls EP (Jade Tree) following up 1997’s Nothing Feels Good (Jade Tree), the band continues its ascent to the top of the imnotemo scene. Predictably, with the success of bands with a sound such as the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World, a huge new wave of imitator bands are starting to spring up across the country. Gnewikow takes it in stride, recognizing it as a fact of life in the music industry.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” he said. “Bands will do that. Things you are listening to totally have an affect on things you write.”

Last year’s hardcore and punk bands now feature a more streamlined look, trashing the phony Cockney accents and belabored three-chord progressions for complex melodies and gut-wrenching lyrics, largely because of acts like the Promise Ring. With countless minor acts jumping the Promise Ring train, many other bands would be at least a little peeved at the frequency their sound was cropping up in other bands’ sets. Not Gnewikow.

“I wouldn’t say it ticks me off. I don’t really care,” he said after a moment of near-zen introspection. “It has no fact or bearing on my life.”

Gnewikow’s philosophic wanings wear a bit thin, however, after given a moment to consider the rate at which hardcore kids have dropped their hard-edged mantles in favor of a more emotive identity. While the music climate tends to follow certain sounds, like Gnewikow mentioned, with bands influencing each other, he does take issue with bands modifying their sounds with a cold and calculated eye on the season’s latest fashions.

“It depends on the band,” Gnewikow said. “Specific cases are really pathetic and embarrassing when you see bands that see something and take it. It’s like ripping someone off because you think it’s going to get you somewhere.”

The higher profile of bands sporting a style similar to the Promise Ring has helped the band rope in a few more fans over the past few months. In the past, most of the band’s shows were attended by punk and hardcore cliques, though the band’s recent mainstream exposure lured more mainstream fans to the band’s shows.

“That’s something I actually like,” Gnewikow said. “It’s nice to be playing for other people.”

While the band’s sound is more accessible than many of its more abrasive punk counterparts, Gnewikow said the sound is still too novel for easy mainstream acceptance.

“Punk kids will say `Promise Ring’s new record is so mainstream,’ but, really if you think about it it’s not at all. If you play it for someone who only listens to the radio they’d be like `What is this weird stuff?’” he said.

Sitting on the fence between the standard driving sounds of punk rock and less spicy mainstream alternative rockers such as Third Eye Blind has put the band in a position where it must continually battle to get new fans. “We’re kind of in the Bermuda Triangle of rock,” Gnewikow laughed, describing his band’s position in the modern music world.

The band’s higher mainstream profile has helped the band lure fans to shows without having a social aspect climate such as the punk scene to tie it to. Gnewikow said, relating a story about fans they talked to after a show who came out to see them after catching the band’s video on MTV earlier in the month.

“A lot of people would think that’s kind of lame, but it’s actually pretty awesome,” he said. “The means they just saw it, liked it and had no frame of reference for it and genuinely were like `Hey, that’s cool.’”

Now in the midst of a European tour, the Promise Ring plans to head back into the studio to record its next LP for Jade Tree soon after the band’s homecoming. Scheduled to hit shelves Sept. 11 and tentatively titled Very Emergency, it will be the band’s first full-length release in almost two years, though the its hiatus was more a matter of fate than a self-imposed exile from the studio or a dry spell in songwriting. Between the band’s heavy touring schedule and recovering from an auto accident, it also had to contend with replacing its bassist twice since the last tour.

“It kind of made it so we couldn’t really write much,” Gnewikow said. “Practice meant teaching the bass player old songs.”

With 15 songs demoed, the band plans to weed their catalog down to 10 choice tracks for the album. Very Emergency will also feature a much more dynamic sound, Gnewikow said.

“This record is a lot more aggressive,” he said. “It’s poppier too. A lot of the stuff is really fast. We just decided we wanted a really rocking record.”

The Promise Ring’s future? Don’t ask Gnewikow, who is just content to focus on the moment and enjoy the fruits of his band’s work.

“At this point we’ve done way more stuff than we thought we would, so it’s just like go along for the ride,” he said.

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