Everything changed in an instant. Promise Ring vocalist Davey von Bohlen had been getting headaches for awhile—evil ones that left him fetal in bed. They were so bad the group had to cancel its European tour in 2000. He couldn’t go on stage; the pain was too intense. Even so, no one expected a fist-sized tumor in his brain. It was just unthinkable. He was young, only in his late 20s. The group was doing great. Everything seemed to be perfect, even despite the fact that tag of “emo” followed the group around like a stalker.
But there it was, nestled in among the gray matter, punching at his skull with all its might. And it had to come out. It didn’t matter that the band was supposed to start work on a follow-up to its breakthrough, Very Emergency!, or that those tour dates had to be made up. That stuff was all trivial now. All that mattered was that von Bohlen was OK.
“It [the tumor] made the band not important,” says drummer Dan Didier. “When we all found out it was like, ‘Fuck the band. We have a friend in the hospital.’ The band became this whatever. It didn’t matter.”
Everything went smooth. The tumor turned out to be benign. Doctors still operated and now, a couple years later, von Bohlen is feeling fine. But Didier says the effects the tumor had, at least on the band, still linger. The idea of death can change people. It might sound cheesy, but von Bohlen’s brush with the big sleep made the entire quartet reconsider what they were doing.
“We realized that we had to make ourselves happy with what we were doing,” Didier says. “I know what it sounds like, but we had to take stock in what made us happy.”
And to be happy, The Promise Ring had to change everything: the approach, the songwriting, the band’s entire attitude. Since The Promise Ring’s inception in Milwaukee in 1995, the group had always written a song and then tested it on the road. Fans would react. Things would change. It seemed to work. Every album the group released, from 1996’s 30 Degrees Everywhere to 1999’s emo opus Very Emergency!, forced critics to push the synonym limits of fabulous.
For things to work in the new model, though, the group couldn’t do that. There had to be a different approach. The band locked themselves in a studio in Milwaukee and recorded demos. Any that sounded vaguely like old material were quickly trashed. It had to be stripped down, less distorted, more personal. Like von Bohlen says on “Get On the Floor”: “No more guitar songs/It’s just nervous energy.”
“Basically, if we had recorded Very Emergency! II, we wouldn’t be a band anymore,” Didier says. “It’s not that it’s a bad record. Writing Very Emergency! was a good thing. But touring it got so tiring, so emotionally draining. If we did that again, there was no way we would be happy. We needed to separate from that. We needed to find a new perspective, to explore something new.”
Wood/Water (Anti/Epitaph) is drastically different for The Promise Ring. Moody, lush and spacey, the disc sounds like the Flaming Lips tapping into their inner high school counselors. It’s like The Ring have kicked the core right out of emo, cranking up the sensitivity without turning up their guitars. While no songs deal directly with von Bohlen’s tumor—the closest would be the somber “Stop Playing Guitar,” in which von Bohlen wonders if he stopped playing if “my head would be healthy.” None are coated with the optimism of survival, either. Instead, most of the album is quiet, cryptic and ambiguous. Sure, there’s a couple shockingly simple sing-alongs, like the Brit-pop of “Size of Your Life” and the mega-hook of “Say Goodbye Good.” But otherwise, Wood/Water begs for hushed and huggy contemplation.
Yet even despite the band’s serious leap away from what has traditionally been labeled as emo, a good portion of which is based on The Promise Ring’s earlier albums, Didier says he thinks the group will never escape its past. “I don’t think we’ll ever break away from the emo tag,” he says, “which shows you just how ludicrous the labeling thing is. I don’t even know what emo is. We joke about it. It’s not anything; it means nothing. But people need something to grab hold of, and emo has a hold on us, for better or worse.”