Major Prospects

With sales of its recently released third album, Very Emergency–issued, like the band’s two previous records, on the Jade Tree label in Wilmington, Delaware–hovering around 46,000 copies and no current record contract in hand, the Promise Ring is at the proverbial crossroads. “I think the one thing that would make us sign with a major label is just to have a new experience,” says Chicago resident Jason Gnewikow, guitarist for the Milwaukee-based band, which in recent months has been pegged by Spin and other misguided trendspotters as the band that could make “emocore” (short for “emotional hardcore”) the next Next Big Thing. “We’ve been doing this for a while and it’s become really routine,” he says.

“This” is touring the country incessantly and churning out modest, guitar-driven, heart-on-sleeve pop anthems for a predominantly underage crowd. “Things are awesome because we’re selling enough records to make money, but it would be cool to just do something different,” Gnewikow says. But in fact the quartet already did something different–when it recorded Very Emergency last year. With producer J. Robbins, who played guitar in Jawbox, the band polished and pumped up the hooks of singer Davey vonBohlen, guaranteeing that the high notes didn’t exceed his limited range and making his lyrics less obscure. The album is the Promise Ring’s most accomplished and accessible yet–a shiny shot of melodic alt-rock with politely chugging guitars that has little in common with emo as defined by Rites of Spring or Fugazi or even vonBohlen’s previous band, Cap’n Jazz–and some longtime fans think the group has traded its punk roots for a 120 Minutes future.

Gnewikow thinks this is absurd. “We’ve become better musicians with each record,” he says, “and it’s funny to hear people say, ‘What are you doing? You’re not doing the same thing!’ We’re just trying to improve. This is the first record where the outcome is exactly what we wanted it to be.”

Very Emergency has outsold its 1997 predecessor, Nothing Feels Good, in just four months, but while Gnewikow would like to see the band attract an even larger following, he says his interest in signing with a major label stems less from a desire to tap into its powerful publicity and distribution networks than to just play around with the extra money in the studio. He’s aware that many like-minded indie bands have taken the risk and ended up buried or broken–the most relevant example being Jawbox–but he’s not troubled by the horror stories. “Every band knows what they’re getting into when they make that decision or they don’t,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve done it and it basically broke up their band, but they still said it was worth it because they didn’t have to work for several years.”

The Promise Ring plays Metro on Thursday, January 20.

Fred Knocks ‘Em Dead

Last month former Trenchmouth drummer Fred Armisen donned a baseball cap, eyeglasses, and a bulky winter coat to pay a visit to a guy known for sporting similar attire: Michael Moore. At Moore’s New York office, an assistant informed Armisen that an appointment was necessary to conduct an interview with the notoriously persistent filmmaker and gadfly. “I just stood there and said, ‘Can I go inside?'” says Armisen. “She said, ‘No! I told you you can’t come in here today.’ And then I said, ‘Can I wait here?’ and she said, ‘For what?’ and eventually she slammed the door shut on me, exactly the way people did to Michael Moore in Roger & Me.” A camera crew for the British TV production company Rapido got the encounter on tape and will show it on Yankee Panky, a program on England’s Sky One channel, in February.

The gag was part of Armisen’s new career as a television prankster. Though he studied film at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he gave it up for music and moved to Chicago with Trenchmouth in 1988. After that group broke up, he started his own salsa band, briefly joined Those Bastard Souls, got a steady job drumming for the local franchise of the Blue Man Group, and filled in with the Mekons–a gig that set him back on track almost accidentally. In March 1998, he attended the annual South by Southwest music conference in Austin, and when he wasn’t playing with one of several Mekons-related outfits, he tried to “make the trip interesting” by fooling around with a camcorder, playing the rube and asking stupid questions at the event’s daytime panel discussions. When Armisen returned to Chicago, he also taped himself interviewing largely unsuspecting artists like Steve Albini, the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan, and Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich, pretending variously to be blind, deaf, retarded, and German. He compiled these segments with his SXSW footage and premiered the results at Lounge Ax.

Pleased by the response he got locally, Armisen decided to take his act on the road, arranging to show the video at rock shows in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and selling copies of it for $10 a pop. “It was much more lucrative and I got way more press than I ever did playing in those same clubs with Trenchmouth,” says Armisen. A staffer at HBO’s music show Reverb saw the video in LA and asked for a copy, and in March 1999 Armisen got a call asking him to come to Brian Wilson’s concert at the Rosemont Theatre, which Reverb was in town to cover. “It was this insane ego night,” he says. “I didn’t know what they wanted but when I got there I discovered that they all knew every line from the video and they wanted to get me involved in the show.” He was quickly hired to conduct straight interviews with acts that performed on Reverb, including Blondie, Run-D.M.C., and Shootyz Groove. “It was kind of lame, but it was cool that I was being flown into San Diego or New York, and then they would pay me, like, $500.”

Meanwhile, O’Hagan had passed a copy of the tape on to a British pop-culture mag called Bizarre, which in November published an article on Armisen that caught the attention of the Rapido folks; next week Armisen will fly to London to discuss a series pilot with them. Copies of the video were also making the rounds at HBO, and in September Armisen was invited to the company’s New York offices. “The most I expected was for them to tell me that they were interested in my stuff, and let’s maybe sit down and talk someday,” he says. Instead he was offered a contract for five two- to four-minute bits to be shown between full-length programs during the channel’s Sunday-night “urban alternative” slot, HBO Zone–home to Reverb and The Chris Rock Show, among other things. In one he infiltrates a medical convention, bursting into seminars to ask if anyone knows where he can find a good hooker; in another, he poses as a priest and stops passersby to interview them, only to be interrupted by a cell-phone call that elicits a stream of obscenities. HBO has asked for 15 more sketches, and beginning next month they will be featured regularly.

Armisen is moving to Los Angeles to be closer to the entertainment industry, but he says he’ll be coming back to town regularly. “I’m going to shoot most of the pieces here in Chicago,” he explains. “People are less camera ready and a bit more naive here. Plus, there are more conventions here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Mueller.