Originally published on (1999)

It’s the eve of the release date for The Promise Ring’s third full-length, Very Emergency, when Swizzlestick catches up with the Milwaukee band in a small club in Columbus, Ohio. Hours before the show starts, the club has that ‘buzz’ to it, that ‘buzz’ that you feel when you are about to witness a performance that you will be telling your kids about years later (“I saw The Promise Ring back in ’99 when they were playing small clubs. Can you believe it?”).

Three of the four members of The Promise Ring are seated at a booth in the bagel restaurant that makes up the other half of the club where they will perform a few hours later. Many of the kids milling around don’t even recognize the band, and that’s because they look like normal guys (though, as you’ll read later, they long for the day that they become ‘rock stars’ and can wear leather pants on stage).

The following is a portion of the interview we conducted with vocalist/guitarist Davey van Bohlen, guitarist Jason Gnewikow, and drummer Dan Didier

If you were to make up a “perfect pop” mix tape, what songs would you include?

Davey Guess Who’s “These Eyes.”

Jason I like the Weezer/Fountains of Wayne type ‘90s pop.

How does it make you feel to know that kids are putting some of your songs on mix tapes  they make for people they are attracted to?

Davey They have much to learn. I don’t think about it.

Did you do it?

Davey Make mix tapes for people? Still do. I always put my own bands on there.


Davey No. Mix tapes are good though.

Are there songs that you always wind up using on mix tapes?

Davey There is for me, I can’t keep it off. I consciously try to not put “Strange Faces” by Matthew Sweet and every single damn time I put a mix tape together it finds it’s way on . . . I don’t even put it on there . . . and it’s there.

Jason I always do them by moods. One half will be pop, upbeat rock stuff and the other half will be late night, Everything But the Girl stuff.

Dan I made this one mix tape where I’ll kept part of a lyric in one song that goes with another one. Like I put Serge Gainsburg’s “Harley Davidson” on it and then I put Neil Young’s “Riding a Harley Davidson” and then a key word from that song. It doesn’t take that long. I always listen to music and I always pick up on those things. I always thought it would be a cool thing to do and then I did it. It took a while. At the end, it got really bad.

Davey I like to talk about making mix tapes, but I never make ‘em.

It seems like no matter what you do, even if it’s sneezing at a show, it ends up on somebody’s website or on somebody’s message board.

Dan Does it? I don’t know. It’s funny because I saw a picture of a set list on a website that I thought was really weird. It was when Tim Burton wrote out the set list. Why would that be interesting? It’s like “Check this out, I have a picture of a set list.”

Davey I’m ahead. I’m above the Internet.

Do you ever feel like you are a “band in a bubble”? People are always looking at you and judging you, you have to tour with certain bands, maintain a certain lifestyle, and put out records on certain labels.

Dan You mean do we feel any pressure? I don’t feel any pressure. I feel absolutely the opposite. I feel like this band is limitless because of the choices we’ve made. We can do basically whatever we want, whenever we want, I think. It’s not like we have to do this stuff and we have to do that stuff. It’s like we’re going to do this because we want to do this. I don’t find ourselves trapped in a bubble at all.

Davey Especially with the bands we tour with and play with because they are all people we know. I think there is a little bit of pressure, but none of it’s outside pressure. I think there is inside pressure where we haven’t written certain songs, or haven’t released certain songs, because they are a little bit skewed from what we are doing, but only on a real minor scale. Certainly there is no genre pressure and that would be sickening if we gave into that.

What are you going to do in 5, 6, 10 years, when the fans you have now move on to some other interests as far as music goes?

Jason We’re going to be like ZZ Top, never going to stop. We’ll be playing at county fairs. Hopefully, we’ll pack it in before people pack it in.

Davey You’ve got to leave them wanting more, in both the big picture and the small picture. We don’t think about that. We thought about it in the beginning, where it’s like, “Five years. We’ll go for five years.” At that point it’s like bands break up after six months. It’s coming up on five years for us. That’s pretty amazing in our minds. I don’t think that’s going to come up, like, “What are we going to do in the new millennium?”

It seems like you’ve grown as a band, do you think that reflects your fans’ tastes as well as your own?

Jason I don’t think so. Maybe somewhat, but that’s a coincidence. I think basically we have an idea that we are trying to achieve all the time. I actually think that this record maybe will end up turning some people off. It’s so hard to say. You can’t please everyone all the time.

Davey I don’t think we have evolved faster than our fans. I don’t think any band evolves faster than their fans. The 18-year-olds that are at our shows now were 13-years-old when we started this band. They couldn’t come see shows then. The 18-year-olds are now 23 and people have moved on to different genres.

Dan As some leave, some come. It’s not like these fans are ours forever.

Davey Yeah, totally. They move on, they go to college. Some people listen to techno, it’s huge now. People replace them.

It’s kind of like in Dazed and Confused, when Matthew McConaughey says something like “I keep getting older and they stay the same age.”

Jason It’s true. It’s like we’ll occupy the age group between 16 and 25 and you’ll either be in it or out of it.

Davey Hopefully we’ll change along with it. I’ve obsessed over three or four different musical genres in the life span of this band, and I’m not in the teenage group. I’m in a more settled group, in the early 20s. Those people have changed eight times since I’ve changed four. The older people have changed 20 since I’ve changed 4.

What do you think is going to maybe turn some people off about Very Emergency?

Jason It’s a lot more straightforward. I guess I don’t mean to say that the album itself will drive people away, but people’s perception of us might change. As much as you would hope that a band changes, there are certain types of people that don’t want that, when they actually probably do. There is always somebody that’s like the martyr for the preservation of indie rock. “You can’t change! You can’t do anything different! This band sucks.”

Davey Meanwhile, the past two years, while we’ve been changing and changing members and redefining what we think is good music, everyone else has been listening to our old records.

Do you try to stay out of the politics of the scene you are in?

Jason We aren’t really involved in the politics of the so-called “scene,” because they are all our friends. The perception of it is different depending on which side you are on.

I’m thinking specifically of when there was talk that the Get Up Kids might be signing to a major label.

Dan No. Don’t even care.

Jason That’s the kind of stuff that I might have paid attention to 5 years ago. We have a lot better things to worry about. It’s so funny because it’s music. It’s like, “Yeah, they are really doing the world a great disservice by signing to a major label. God forbid they try and live.” You know what? Fight for animal rights. Right for human rights. The record industry is pretty low on the totem pole.

Is that why you (Davey) stopped getting on the Internet?

Davey No, I was just kidding. I just don’t have anything to do with the Internet. When we were 18 and started this band it was like “MUSIC! MUSIC! MUSIC!” And then four years later you’re like “Please get me away from this music for ten seconds.” And you start thinking “God, there is so much else. I don’t care if the Get Up Kids sign to my label. What do I care?”

Jason People want things to talk about. It’s like engulfed in that scene. “This is how I’m defining myself and my identity. If all my friends like this thing, I like it too. If they stop liking it, then I probably will too.” That’s what people do” Once you grow up, you realize that people are going to leave college and have real lifelong friends. The Internet is totally the culprit in a lot of ways because of the anonymity on it.

Davey It can get really depressing if you take that seriously if, for some weird reason, you’re being talked about. It’s like, “Good God.”

Dan I think it’s a really sad state of affairs if anyone goes on the Internet to get news. That’s ridiculous.

Jason It’s so unbelievable. It’s like, “I heard . . . guess what? . . . it’s true, I heard it on the Internet.” Are you listening to yourself? How does that make it true? Last year there was one point where we had signed to every major label simultaneously. It’s like, “Whoo . . . we’re rich! We’re getting a check for Capitol, getting Geffen.”

Davey We had broken all boundaries. We were on every major label. Our manager paid us four million dollars to do it.

Jason It was the great rock and roll swindle.

Davey Meanwhile we are playing at bagel shops at midnight on a Monday night.

Jason It’s all very glamorous.

Have you had those offers though? Labels must have approached you.

Jason Never any concrete offers. We were sort of thinking about it. It’s such a gamble.

Davey It’s never been like, “Okay, here’s the contract you guys have to sign.”

Have you ever taken advantage of any of the labels to get free meals or CDs?

Davey Oh yeah, sure.

Jason Yeah, we’ve gone to dinner. The funny thing is people are always like, “Dude, did you get them to take you out to dinner for free?” And it’s like, “You know what, it’s not worth it having to sit and listen to some moron giving you the spiel. I can pay for my own dinner. It could never be that good.”

Davey And by the end you’re thinking, “Ten bucks. Get out of here. Here’s the money, get the hell away from me.”

Jason “I’ll buy your dinner!”

What was the album or artist that made you want to be a rock star?

Davey J. Robbins.

Jason J. Robbins. But actually, I was talking to Davey today about this. It’s like there is such this weird different scene. Our scene, it’s not okay to be like “I want to be a rock star.” I never really thought about it that way. I definitely saw it as “We’re going to play tonight! I want to be in a band.” You see you friends doing it and you want to do it.

Did you ever stand in front of the mirror and lip synch to your favorite songs?

Davey That was in high school – the first Jawbox single. I thought I could do that.

Jason This is so weird. I was never into other bands. That’s how I got into punk rock. I had this older friend, who actually plays guitar in Paris, Texas, and I used to be in a band with him. He was in a band. I lived outside of town and knew him from when I was really young. I just started hanging around him and that’s how I totally got into music. I knew he did it.

Davey I had the older brother into punk rock, and that got me into it.

Dan New wave. All my wanting to be a rock star came from Robert Smith and Morrissey. So that’s a little different side of being in a band. I guess I wanted to make my hair all messy or have a pompadour or whatever.

I was probably a bad older brother because I got my brother into bad heavy metal.

Dan Oh, I liked Motley Crue. Actually, what got me psyched on drums was Tommy Lee’s solo on the Theater of Pain tour. This was where the stage lifted up and he played facing the ground. That blew me away when I was a kid. I was like, “That’s cool. The drums are cool.”

So will we see that someday on a Promise Ring tour?

Dan Yeah! I do it now! I’m doing it tonight. No, just kidding.

Davey That’s the one thing that’s funny. You start thinking about yourself. At some point, if we keep growing, you have to start thinking we’re going to be a big band. And you start thinking of yourself like Dan, looking at the ground and strapped into his drum suit and playing a solo.

Dan I’m not talking about now, that was when I was a kid.

Davey Yeah, but when you’re a kid, that’s your goal, “I can’t wait to be a rock star.” Just to imagine ourselves in that role of rock star would be the worst failure. We’d be tuning on stage and be like, “Whoa, oh man” . . .

Dan I’d be dropping sticks. I probably wouldn’t strap myself in tight enough and be falling.

Davey There is no way I’ll ever be pro, even if there are pros behind me doing all the work. I’ll somehow mess it up. I can’t stop talking between songs. I’m a mess.

Jason And you have to wear leather pants – like the automatic rock outfit. At some point people just start wearing the leather. Even bands that just today are small and tomorrow get signed, next week you’ll see them in again in leather pants, crazy hair and shirts.

Davey That’s one thing I can’t imagine.

Jason All of a sudden we show up at our next show and are like, “We got signed last night and just went to a leather store to pick out pants.” It’s like you sign a contract and they are like, “Okay, there’s wardrobe, see you guys tonight.”

Davey It’s almost like the hand-me-downs. It’s like, “These pants were worn by . . .”

Jason “We took these pants back from Poison when they didn’t recoup on that last record.”

Davey “You’re not ready for the feather boa until your second album and until you get enough top five singles.”

Jason “We’re still waiting for the Counting Crows to break up so you can get that fringe, suede jacket and the hair extensions.”

Have you had any defining moment yet where you thought, “Hmm . . . maybe I am a rock star,” like somebody approaches you at the airport and asks for your autograph or something like that?

Jason I think the last time we were in Europe, we were in Spain and they are crazy shows. It’s so random. It wasn’t even like there were a lot of people there, but it seems like things come together. And it’s like, “I’m halfway around the world and people are screaming.”

Davey The further away you get from home, the weirder things are. There’s got to be some moments where you just felt like you’re larger than you actually are. It’s the old fifteen minutes of fame.

Jason I still think it’s really weird because I literally never expected to be in a band. The way I got into a band is that I was hanging out with all these people and their band had just broken up. They were like, “Here, you play bass.” I had never played music before. It just steamrolled and it hasn’t stopped. That’s how I got into it.

Davey I wanted to sing. That’s how I started. I think my brother once said, “No one needs a singer. Anybody can sing. You’ve got to learn to do something else to get in.” So I learned to play guitar. He’s a total heavy metal guy. He’s awesome. He’s forty times the guitarist that I am and has forty times the hair that I have, and he’s got leather pants, so he’s a rock star.

Dan A rock star without the contract.

Davey He’s an amazing guy. One of a kind. They broke the mold.

Last question. On the Promise Ring gravestone, what do you want it to say? How do you want people to remember you?

Dan Have a good time, all the time. No, wait, that’s on Spinal Tap’s gravestone.

Jason That one’s on loan from the Spinal Tap collection.

Davey Maybe, “Remember Promise Ring?” comma “that was the best.”

Jason “That was the best, man.”

Davey Yeah. “Remember Promise Ring?” comma “that was the best” comma “man.”

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