Tag Archives: Nothing Feels Good

Interview with Chris Simpson

It’s an absolute pleasure to bring Chris Simpson into the America Is Just A World fold.

Part of my inclination for adding more interviews and material to what I’ve already written for the book is to really uncover the narratives that have been overlooked, and no band’s lifetime has the same mixture of mild coverage and crass disregard for the group’s actual story like Mineral. For many, Mineral was a pre-eminent mid-90s emo act, if not the pre-eminent act of the time. And yet, a large portion of their story is generally unknown, despite the band’s importance on future generations of C chord pluckers.

Andy Greenwald dedicates three pages or so to the band in Nothing Feels Gooda whole three pages! On Greenwald’s terms, that’s an infinite space for a band to take up if the name of their project doesn’t start with a “Dashboard”. Without speaking to Simpson, Jeremy Gomez (bass), Scott McCarver (guitar), or Gabriel Wiley (drums), Greenwald conveniently tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Fortunately, Simpson has been kind enough to lend some time to this ongoing project of mine, and was able to jot down some answers to my endless stream of email questions. As you can see from just a sampling of this material, his perspective will be genuinely helpful for the final version of America Is Just A Word.

Here goes:

Tell me about your personal experience growing up. When did music first hit you, or was it something that was always a part of your life? When did you start playing music?

Chris Simpson: “I lived in Denver, CO from the age of 4-17, so it feels like where I grew up for the most part. I was really into sports as a kid and got into skateboarding in my early teens. My mom was very passionate about music and we always had to listen to whatever she was hot for at the time. My first musical loves were Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow. The first record I bought with my own money was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. At about 14 I think I ditched the sports and skating and decided to go full-on into the music.”

How did Mineral form?

CS: “I finished my last year and a half of high school in Houston, TX. I had met a few friends during school there from going to a lot of shows
and playing solo sets at clubs and coffee shops. I knew I wanted a band and not to perform on my own ultimately. I moved to Austin with my then girlfriend and some other people who were involved in music. Soon after doing so I met Scott and we started trying to write together. We had a very difficult time finding common ground at first. I remember that summer that two records came out that sort of
crystallized our direction, The Catherine Wheel’s Chrome and Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream. We were huge into U2 and Sugar and
Buffalo Tom and Superchunk, etc. We started out playing with a different bassist and drummer calling the band ‘I The Worm’ which was
an awful thing to call a band. Soon after this we started playing with Jeremy and our friend Matt who had also moved to Austin from Houston
that summer, and eventually Gabe took Matt’s place and Mineral, as it was known was begun.”

With The Power of Failing, the album artwork has such a stark, minimalist layout – just a white cover with a little text and a photo and a black inner-cover with a little liner notes here and there: is there any particular reason (artistically, economically, etc) why you decided to go with such a format?

CS: “I think there was a general aesthetic amongst all the bands we found ourselves peers with— Texas is the Reason, The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, Boys Life, Knapsack, etc. Everyone seemed to be interested in art work that was minimal I guess. I think we were just
more interested in letting the music speak for itself.”

Why did Mineral break up?

CS: “As we started writing the second record, I began to feel like we were growing apart as writers and personally. I just wasn’t excited about working together anymore. It didn’t feel free or inspiring. It’s like any young relationship I guess. You assume at 19 that the relationships you have in your life will always be there, but realistically, as you get older you start to move in different directions. It was basically me and Jeremy’s decision at the time to quit the band. It was not something that the other guys wanted or liked, so things were pretty sad at the end between all of us. I have ultimate respect for Scott and Gabe as people and bandmates and was sorry to be the driving force behind the end of the band, but you have to follow your heart and instincts.”

What are your thoughts on “emo” in general? When did you first hear it used in combination with describing the music you made (be it with Mineral, the Gloria Record, or Zookeeper)?

CS: “I’m confused and uninspired by it. I remember when I first heard it was when I gave a tape of Mineral to someone I respected who was also a musician and he asked what sort of stuff it was. I guess maybe I mentioned Sunny Day Real Estate as a reference and he said, “Oh, so it’s kind of emo?” I was confused and thought he was referring to the club Emo’s here in Austin where we played a lot in those days. I couldn’t figure out what he could mean by that as a description because as far as the bands who played at Emo’s at the time, I don’t think we were the norm. It was much more of a crusty, garagey, sort of punk sound for the most part. Soon after I realized what it was he was saying and that a lot of other people were saying it too. And they were referring to a lot of predecessors like Rites of Spring, etc that I was unfamiliar with. There was also a real tie to the hardcore scene, which seemed to me to be the farthest from what I identified Mineral with. So, yeah…”

In Andy Greenwald’s book Nothing Feels Good, he pegs Mineral as “a quartet of deathly serious young men,” yet, all lyrical connotations
aside, it doesn’t seem to be the case – the liner notes to the Power of Failing include a description that states “Mineral = pizza boys
gone rock.” Do you feel that the label of “emo” has done something of a dis-service to you (and various others) and your music?

CS: “My friend Chris Colbert said it was belittling to the content of the music, and I think that’s an accurate assessment. It was fun for a bit
to feel that there was this movement that we were considered a part of, but pretty soon you start to realize the danger such classifications pose to creative freedom. The fact is that it was a movement, but not one we were going through so much as one the people who listened to us and came to our shows were going through. As far as Andy Greenwald, I haven’t read the book but I think he was communicating something that a lot of people were also echoing. There was a seriousness and intensity to the material which was not necessarily mirrored in us personally. But most outsiders would have had no way of knowing it. We were, as the liner notes said, actually four pizza boys gone rock.”

List-less Once Again

Another day, another quizzical top ten list. This time it’s curtsey of Justin Jacbos at Paste magazine, with a piece entitled “10 Bands That Prove That Emo Wasn’t Always For The Hot Topic Tween Set.” The newsworthiness of the piece is due to the two fall reunion tours by emo 2nd wave forefathers Sunny Day Real Estate and 2nd wavers The Get Up Kids.

I do have to give Jacobs a solid round for putting The Promise Ring at the top: considering the type of emo-tive image Jacobs is shooting for, and the band’s impact on the future of the genre. Still, Jacobs does go for the condescending route while observing the genre in list form, even praising Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good (Jacobs’ perspective was revealed fairly clearly when he called the book a “must-read manifesto.”)

Still, a big odd spot of confusion: Fugazi. Or the lack thereof. Great to mention Rites of Spring (though as proto-emo? Come on, the term was first used to describe that very band!), but not even a hint at Fugazi? And instead name check Minor Threat when describing the band? Yes, they are the go-to hardcore band, but Rites were a post-hardcore act, evading many of the redundancies of hardcore and doing things dramatically different than Minor Threat.

But the real kicker with the lack of any Fugazi-inclusion is Cursive. Alright, I get that most people don’t like to include Fugazi into the whole emo arrangement because that either A) messes with their ideals of the band itself or B) invades their definition of emo with something more multidimensional. But to mention a band who’s entire first record literally sounds like a take on the early part of Fugazi’s discography – aka Cursive – without mentioning the inspirational band is just odd.

And no At The Drive-In? That’s just surprising.

The Promise Ring – “12 Sweaters Red”:

Interview with Geoff Farina

I’d been meaning to post this up for quite a while, and here goes…

I met up with Geoff Farina, frontman of the now-defunct and beloved band Karate, for an interview to be included in America Is Just A Word. Karate is one of a handful of bands that really challenged the ideals for what emo can do and where it can go. Where other bands stayed their ground, traveling in much of the same sonic ranges, tempos, and even cliches that emo had wrought in the mid-90s, Karate moved into areas of jazz, indie, and slowcore all while growing to an organic stop at 2004’s Pockets. In the emoverse, there really is no other band like Karate.

In terms of how the band is perceived in the realm of emo, it’s a pretty close-focused view. Andy Greenwald halts the band’s evolution down to zero in Nothing Feels Good, hardly mentioning the band outside of their early roots in Allston and their first record. It’s with a certain frustration towards Greenwald’s single-mindedness towards emo that was, in part, a reason I decided to expand America Is Just A Word and get in touch with Geoff Farina in the first place. So much can be said for the depth, breadth, and places emo can go with the entire Karate catalogue, and they’re a fantastic band to put to print for the argument that emo is more than just melodramatic pop-punk rife with suburban angst.

In June, I met up with Geoff Farina at the Porter Exchange, a mall in Porter Square filled with tiny restaurants that specialize in various Southeast Asian cuisines. Farina is an intelligent, humble guy with plenty to say, and a lot of wise commentary to throw into the America Is Just A Word mix. Below are a couple of selections from the interview, with some pretty heavy stuff in the second clip. Enjoy!

On getting into music:

On inspiration for songwriting and personal experience versus autobiographical in song:

SDRE + The Jealous Sound…

The Jealous Sound have confirmed a rumor I tracked down a little while ago: they are in fact touring with Sunny Day Real Estate and sharing bass players, one Nate Mendel.

Whoa, is Mendel trying to one-up his bandmate Dave Grohl on the how-many-bands-can-I-perform-in-at-one-time? So far, Mendel’s got Foo Fighters, SDRE, and The Jealous Sound… I think Grohl’s got him beat though (Foos, Queens of the Stone Age, Killing Joke, Garbage, Nine Inch Nails, Probot… and who knows what else.)

Anyway, here’s the down-lo, from the band’s myspace:

Ok, even though that is true, i am writing to tell you that Nate Mendel and Asher Simon are writing and recording our new record with us. Blair and I couldn’t be happier. Nate is possibly one of the greatest bass players i have ever heard live or recorded and Asher is absolutely destroying and bringing something very new and special to the band. We have been hearing all sorts of crazy rumors about who is and isn’t playing with us as well as some other insane rumors about us going on tour with this band from Seattle called Sunny Day Real Estate. Wait, that one is also true…. I should cut this short, Kanye is going OFF next door and we have been playing this new song over and over trying to get it just right… I think we are super close. This would bring our current song count up to about 5 fully finished and another 5 or 6 only wearing their skeletons. Everything is in it’s place friends so, again, thanks for being here and being a part of our lives. It is an amazing feeling indeed. I am assuming we will see you in a couple months, no?

Andy Greenwald posted it on Twitter the other day:

Picture 25

But, several blogs (if you check my “Tracking SDRE  Reunion Rumors” and “More SDRE Reunion Rumors” posts, I’ve got them linked) beat you to it. Like this one.

That’s for the awfulness of Nothing Feels Good!

Unfortunately, I don’t have the Village Voice music blog listening to me on Twitter.

Touche Andy Greenwald, touche.

Passion Pit = Electronic-Rock’s Jimmy Eat World?

I rarely mention Pitchfork in the guise of this blog… I won’t go into great details, and I will admit it’s easily one of the best aggregators for independent-related music information, so I do visit the site regularly. But when it comes to reviews, I try to stray from their pieces. Yes, the Pitchfork writers are clearly intelligent, and are articulate… and yet, they voraciously dispense their harshest vocabulary upon criticisms of acts that don’t so much reveal what is necessarily “good” or “bad” about an album, but really display the reviewers’ own unkempt contempt for a particular genre or band. It often feels at times as if they choose a critic who’s distaste towards a musician far outweighs anyone else on staff to give a record its “proper” review.

So I stay wary of Pitchfork reviews. Granted, if one album gets the “Best New Music” seal-of-approval, I’ll check it out; Pitchfork has a select taste, and it’s good. But I’ll also be sure to take a peek at records that get trashed. After all, it doesn’t hurt one to look into a band – it hurts when you purchase the album to find out you hate it. I’ve enjoyed many an act that’s sustained Pitchfork’s wrath and many that have received their praise.

But one genre that never seems to get much respect is emo. Sure, Pitchfork loves the indie-established emo acts – to a point. Fugazi is always tops for them, Sunny Day Real Estate has done well (with the exception of The Rising Tide, though it does get a fair “ok” from em), The Appleseed Cast and Cursive fluctuate on the P-fork scale, and The Promise Ring managed to sneak in with Nothing Feels Good (only for their later material to get trampled).

But a band like Jimmy Eat World? They’re toast, put on a pedastil of emo in its worst essence and burnt to the ground. They’ve yet to achieve a good review from the site… and this isn’t even including the skewering that Clarity received that was less a review and more a transcribed taunt at all the bubbling stereotypes that were about to burst to the surface.

So I’m a little baffled with the introduction to Pitchfork’s weekly music pick on ABC. When describing Passion Pit’s Manners, Ian Cohen praises the group by saying:

What Passion Pit does is update a real passionate, really sincere, almost emo sound of the early 2000s like a band like Jimmy Eat World, and applies it to an electronic-dance sound.

Strange. He goes further in his review on the site:

Most of the time, singer Michael Angelakos’ half-eunuch/half-Jeremy Enigk voice is likely voicing some sort of commentary on his feelings. There’s an almost archaic belief that a record should have at least four singles and the nagging feeling that Passion Pit could just be another garage/emo band that traded in their guitars for samplers. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, just about all of this works in Manners‘ favor, as it’s the sort of heart-to-heart populist record that’s every bit as sincere as it is infectious– though Angelakos sings in a manner rarely heard outside of a shower with unpredictable temperature control, it feels symbolic of a band that’s completely unashamed, not shameless, in its pursuit of a human connection.

I’m sorry. What? Honestly, that is every bit as revealing of Cohen’s distaste of emo out of sheer blind-hatred than anything about Passion Pit’s music. The description that Cohen gives matches that of many a great emo act – I would hardly call Jim Adkin’s lyrics shameless… perhaps later on “not great,” but it’s sheerly “unashamed in its pursuit of a human connection.”

So why does Passion Pit get the go ahead? Well, it’s not emo for one – it exemplifies many a trait, but the band’s choice to do so with electronic music gives it something of an ironic twist, even in its sincerity. After all, the band was originally nothing more than a cute few ditties made from looped samples by Michael Angelakos for his girlfriend on Valentines Day. It was humorous and cute in its creation, and in many ways continues to be. Because the band doesn’t muddle in familiar musical antics that so many emo bands do, it’s a bit refreshing. And, again, there’s a bit of irony to bringing high-pitched falsetto to over-the-top love ditties. It gives it a twist that some may be able to stomach in a different sonic plane than in a guitar-based state. While it seems purely superficial done with three-chords and loud and noisy, for some reason, it’s high-hopes and dreams are matched with Passion Pit’s sound.

But, as is my interpretation of Cohen’s love of the band and not, well, emo.

As for my take? Well, I like them, but I’m certainly not over-enthusiastic about them. “Sleepyhead” is nearly-impossible to not get stuck in your head and enjoy… but the rest of Manners is up and down and doesn’t seem to have the same, well, passion as their single or a few of the other songs on Chunk Of Change. But, it’s nice to see a Boston band do well for itself; considering the mass of bands and music communities festering in this city, whatever gets any of the odder bands more attention because they’re from the same city as Passion Pit or any other band of the moment that’s cropping up from this town ain’t too bad.

Passion Pit – “Sleepyhead” (video):

Amazon is soooooooo emo

Amazon released their list of the 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Times. As with any “definitive” list, Amazon’s has some flaws, and some seem to stand out like sore thumbs, especially moving from one individual’s taste to the next. As a side note, yes, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is a great album and will no doubt be at the top of many an end of the year list, but isn’t it a bit too early to put it in the category of top anything of all time? I mean, the album came out two months ago…

The rules and regulations for the list were rather confusing, and when you consider the concept of indie rock vs independent rock music (many an early blues/rock label were, by way of creation, independent, but there’s not a mention of any Chess Records release or otherwise on the list), it’s all the more perplexing. And, the list does bring to light the confounding question of “is emo indie?” which seems to be brought up more often nowadays in a fashion sense than a musical sense. Still, a good chunk of emo produced today is independent and fits into the ambiguous aesthetic of “indie,” and in the past, emo was a strong component of the 90s emo scene.

Don’t believe it? Take a look at where some big-name emo acts landed on the Amazon list:

84. Hearts Of Oak – Ted Leo & The Pharmacists

83. Save Yourself – Make Up

80. The Ugly Organ – Cursive

78. Nothing Feels Good – The Promise Ring

45. How Memory Works – Joan Of Arc

31. Repeater + 3 Songs – Fugazi

29. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy – Jawbreaker

If you’re confused about the placement of some of these albums in relation to one another, you might not want to look at the full list… it’s rather… well, odd. But, I do have to give them some props for including The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good33 1/3, take a look at that list!

America Is Just A Word: The Book

Last night, Public Enemy’s Chuck D dropped some knowledge at Harvard. Among the many insightful and brilliant things D had to say, one struck me in particular:

“People need to write books. People need to write more books, now, more than ever. Write books and the cream will rise to the top.”

That’s a bit of an abridged statement of what D said (I didn’t get the talk on tape), but that concept hit right home. The past year I’ve been attempting to publish my own book, and it’s gone slower than I’ve anticipated. Though there’s no definite publisher at the moment, I would like to announce that my work, America Is Just A Word: Post-Hardcore, Emo And American Culture will be published. Whether it’s done through a book publisher or if it will be self-published hasn’t been determined, but, in any case, the words I’ve created will find their way to some bound collection of paper in the near future.

Like this blog, America Is Just A Word focuses on the world of emo, but from a multi-faceted angle. Rather than providing a straight-forward narrative of the bands, individuals, and songs that shaped the genre from its early roots into its mainstream limelighters, America Is Just A Word focuses on emo from the perspective of its connection to and reflection of American culture. Comparisons between artists and American literary figures, cultural critics, and societal concepts are drawn, observed, and left open to interpretation. Unlike the two other popularly-produced books on emo (Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good and the joke guide to emo Everybody Hurts), America Is Just A Word doesn’t crucify the word emo for a stereotypical and easy-to-use term for commercial use and popular representation. Rather, the book carefully observes the changes in definition, the concepts surrounding the genre, and the ambiguities, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies that have informed emo for nearly twenty five years.

Needless to say, this book isn’t your usual “oral history” that seem to be published en mass lately. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with oral histories, but with some books, the creativity is nearly absent (though it certainly takes a lot of work to morph the words of others into a concise narrative and it’s certainly informed by those putting said narrative together). So, in the coming months, I hope to have updates about progress on the publication of America Is Just A Word: Post-Hardcore, Emo And American Culture. I’ve begun a Twitter account for means of getting word about the book out in another forum; in the coming months, expect to see additions to this blog that are connected to the book. And for those eager to see what my 33 1/3 book on The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good may have looked like, you’ll be happy to know there’s an entire chapter/section devoted to the band, with a healthy amount of input from singer/guitarist Davey Von Bohlen.

 

There will be more info to come soon. Until then, keep reading this blog and checking Twitter for updates, and I’ll leave you with a video of the song that inspired the title of my book.

Fugazi – “Stacks” (Live in Louisville):

Just Short…

So, for folks who’ve been following along in this blog, I submitted a proposal to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series to write a book about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good. Series editor David Barker emailed everyone who submitted a proposal today concerning those he picked to make it to the shortlist, the final compilation short of the 20 or so that Continuum will select to be turned into fully-fleshed out books (you can check out the shortlist). Unfortunately, my proposal wasn’t chosen for this list, for simple space reasons on the shortlist (I emailed David to find out specifics of why my proposal was turned down and it turns out it was one of a handful that barely missed the cut). In any case, I really enjoyed writing this proposal and speaking to those involved in creating the album about the process of writing a book on Nothing Feels Good. Rather than let it go to waste, I’ve decided to post my proposal here, below, for your enjoyment, complete with some multimedia elements that could not have been included in what was submitted to 33 1/3, but are helpful illustrators nonetheless. Enjoy it… and if anyone has any interest in further pursuing this project with me in some other forum, please feel free to contact me:

33 1/3 Book Proposal:

The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good

Guilty pleasures tend to rear their heads in an interview with music’s next big thing. So when a VBS TV correspondent was chatting it up with No Age, the uber-hip and critically acclaimed experimental punk duo from L.A., singer/drummer Dean Spunt interrupted guitarist Randy Randall’s ruminations on MC Hammer with a shocking revelation:

“I used to like The Promise Ring.”
Beat.
“Yeah, so did I,” replied the stylish interviewer.
The three guys proceeded to awkwardly chuckle and talk over each other until the interviewer brought up his stunning thought:
“Is it really at the point where MC Hammer is less embarrassing than The Promise Ring?”

Great question. And not unlike one I ask myself just about every time I crank up my stereo while playing 30 Degrees Everywhere or Wood/Water. What’s so embarrassing about The Promise Ring? It could be the band’s association with emo, the now-repugnant term for a post-hardcore genre that’s all but taken over the Billboard charts. It was the release of 1997’s Nothing Feels Good that the four “averages Joes” that made up The Promise Ring were presented with the title of poster boys of a genre once thought to be six feet under. The rest of the trials and tribulations of emo remain embedded in our international conscience thanks to numerous pop-punk acts influenced by The Promise Ring. Say what you will about your Fall Out Boys, My Chemical Romances, Dashboard Confessionals, Cute Is What We Aim Fors, Thrices, Taking Back Sundays, Panic! at the Discos, Saves the Days, Coheed & Cambrias, Alexisonfires, New Found Glorys, and Underoaths; when push comes to shove, most of these bands don’t come close to the potent passion, intelligence, and vibrancy of The Promise Ring and their sophomore effort, Nothing Feels Good.

Embarrassment aside, Spunt should have nothing to be ashamed of for name-dropping The Promise Ring as a band that’s clearly influenced the critically-lauded musician. The Promise Ring’s back catalog is filled with nugget and gems of post-hardcore-meets-pop bliss, and much like when No Age’s current work combining elements of pop with hardcore, the results are fantastic. Nothing Feels Good is The Promise Ring’s best and most succinct work, an anthemic, passionate burst of homegrown pop-punk, filtered through tales of existential crises, cross-country road trips, and references to modern Americana. The hooks are sharp, the lyrics poignant, and the performance still as unbelievably urgent as the day the original tapes were mastered over a decade ago.

Part of what’s so phenomenal about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good is the impact the album had when it hit record stores in the fall of 1997. Neatly-packaged emo-pop amalgams are a dime a dozen these days, but there was nothing “neat” about Nothing Feels Good when it was released. Although the album’s music has the sugary-sweet taste of bubblegum pop that numerous artists today no doubt want to tap into, the band’s sound subverts the pretenses of slick pop on Nothing Feels Good with quick bursts of hardcore-influenced instrumentation that seem intent on spilling out of each track marking and into the life of the listener. To mis-quote The Promise Ring, it displays a sense that the band had of having no defined sense or absolute understanding of the world around them, but simply enjoying the view. Life’s peculiarities, ambiguities, and “big questions” aren’t shunned, but brought to the surface with keen observation. In frontman Davey von Bohlen’s hands and sweetly contorted lisp – a performance factor that only makes the music on Nothing Feels Good sound an umpteenth more sincere – The Promise Ring made an album of daring proportions and a musical document to the banalities, every day norms, and even celebrations of human existence not heard since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Nothing Feels Good cover

Nothing Feels Good cover

Part of the story behind Nothing Feels Good is known, but little of it has a concentrated focus on the actual album or the band behind it. Beyond the musical content, Nothing Feels Good was a smashing success. For Jade Tree – The Promise Ring’s label – it meant financial stability, as the album surpassed their modest predictions and allowed the company to flourish, something of a miracle in the years following the alternative music buyout which had left many independent record labels for dead. For the national emo scene – a ragtag, ambiguous assemblage of independent artists around the U.S. – it legitimized their work in the face of the post-grunge milieu that ruled the radio waves and crippled mainstream creativity. For the members of The Promise Ring, it meant video premiers on MTV, critical acclamation, a position as one of the most creative bands operating in America’s underground music scene, and, much later, a place in cult-music lore for having inspired countless musicians to take emo (or whatever genre they called their own) in new and distinctly personal directions.

Although we’re still feeling the impact of Nothing Feels Good today, the known-narrative of the album’s creation is bare. What inspired the dozen songs on the album, and what transpired in their evolution from muddled creative concept into full-blown pop gold? What about the practices that hammered out the hooks, high-hats, and lo-fi hits in The Promise Ring’s oeuvre? What about the guys behind the instruments, their day-to-day existences and thoughts that no doubt burrowed their way into the band’s sophomore album? What were the moments before, during, and after 1997 that made Nothing Feels Good stand out from a mass of other bands and recordings that make up emo’s so-called second wave? What about each member’s upbringing, their lives in the Milwaukee area, relationships with friends, family, and significant-others? What made four young men band together to form The Promise Ring and create such a phenomenal release as heard in Nothing Feels Good?

These are the pivotal questions I’m seeking to answer with my book on The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good for Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Here is an album and a band who’s impact on music today in innumerable. Part of the unknown quality of The Promise Ring’s importance is due to the fact that these deep-seated questions have never been asked – or rather, published – on such a large-scale forum. Considering the fans that the band amassed since forming in 1995, a list that no doubt has been growing with every article, band, or cultural critic name-checking the quartet as one of indie rock’s great cult bands, The Promise Ring are more than due for their proper place in the rock narrative limelight. And the 33 1/3 series is the place I would like to bring the tale of The Promise Ring’s best album.

For this project, I plan on writing the kind of book that exemplifies the credence imbued in Nothing Feels Good. My model for this manuscript isn’t confined to the band-nostalgically-reminiscing-on-a-piece-of-the-past-type writing you may see in a lot of oral histories or straightforward music books out there. Certainly my work will represent the mold that previous 33 1/3 books have upheld, but I’m also inspired by the writing styles of the great new journalists and literary non-fiction pieces. In essence, I’m looking to produce a book that lives, breathes, eats, speaks, and plays music the way that the members of The Promise Ring did when they made Nothing Feels Good. I want to make someone who’s never heard the album feel as though they’ve been following the band since Day One, that they’re back in 1997 and sprinting to the record store in order to merely touch an album by a band that has touched them. Essentially, I want to write a book about The Promise Ring in the same way the band created their music.

My main informants for this project will be the members of The Promise Ring; as I want to get into their heads and extract information about their environment, attitudes, and memories, they will be my go-to source for the book. I’ve been in touch with Promise Ring singer/guitarist Davey von Bohlen for well over a year, having recruited his current band (Maritime) for a concert and Davey himself for a previous writing project. I have been corresponding with von Bohlen about this proposal for well over a month, and he has given this project his supportive and enthusiastic seal of approval, and has gotten me in touch with the other members of The Promise Ring. At the moment that I’ve submitted this proposal, I’ve been in touch with two other Promise Ring members, Jason Gnewikow (guitar) and Dan Didier (drums), and both are quite enthusiastic about the project. I plan on having extensive interviews with these three members, as well as the two bass players who played in The Promise Ring during their Nothing Feels Good era, Scott Schoenbeck and Scott Beschta.

Although interviews with the members of The Promise Ring will constitute a large portion of my research, I plan on culling information from as many sources as possible in order to make the narrative more vibrant and colorful. I plan on soliciting interviews with not only those closely associated to the band, but also their detractors and adoring fans. Alongside a list that includes friends and family, I plan on speaking to Tim Owen and Darren Walters (Jade Tree owners), J. Robbins (Nothing Feels Good producer), Stuart Sikes (Nothing Feels Good engineer), Jessica Hopper (former publicist), Tim Edwards (former booking agent), Josh Modell (creator of Milk Magazine and close friend), along with musicians who’ve worked with, influenced, or been influenced by The Promise Ring, including Tim and Mike Kinsella (Cap’n Jazz), Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World), Bob Nanna (Braid), Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate), Matthew Pryor (The Get Up Kids), Eric Richter (Christie Front Drive), Eric Axelson (The Dismemberment Plan/Maritime), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Chris Simpson (Mineral), Chris Conley (Saves the Day), Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), and countless others for their involvement in this project. Although not everyone listed is guaranteed to be involved, with my personal connections to some of the people previously listed and with the help from the former Promise Ring members, I will have an enormous number of people contributing to the book’s dialog.

Interviews aside, I plan on digging through swaths of information to aide in the creation of the book. Included will be the usual sources of information; articles on the band, reviews of their albums, zines, blogs, and any other published work that would enhance the narrative. But, I plan to go beyond those musings as well. I will approach the band members to see if I could use personal paraphernalia to help me spin a more personal yarn. This would include anything from old photographs, letters, journal entries, lyric sheets, music sheets, and even doodles scratched into scraps of paper they’ve kept through the years. I will also approach the narrative from the direction of an informed anthropologist by researching the socio-economic background of The Promise Ring’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Through census information, background information on area high school and college education systems, and the resources for youth in Wisconsin that was available at the same time Nothing Feels Good was in the making, I hope to gain a better sense of The Promise Ring’s background. I’ll also dig up information on American society’s views of Wisconsin and the Mid West and how that was reflected in the actions of those who lived there. It may seem onerous, but the brief scene in Wayne’s World that takes place in Milwaukee speaks volumes about the international perception of the place where The Promise Ring was formed. Throughout all of this, I hope to get a sense of why The Promise Ring did what they did, but from an entirely different perspective than the usual interview could warrant.

What I hope to accomplish after 15 months of research and writing is a work that can live up to how I felt after first popping Nothing Feels Good on the stereo, and something that will be as powerful as each subsequent listen to that album. My work may lack the aural quality of the album, but I hope it will be able to bring an entirely new sense of being to Nothing Feels Good, and one that will only boost the listening experience of longtime Promise Ring enthusiasts and bring some new fans to the album as well.

597-Way Tie For Most Eclectic Proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

The 33 1/3 blog released the final list of the nearly 600 potential books on a wide variety of albums that Continuum received after the call for open proposals a little while ago.

Needless to say, it’s quite a list. It’s interesting to see what albums people are passionate enough about to fill an entire book, and think about numerous individuals (who most likely don’t know one another) who came together at the same entry period and wrote a proposal about the same record (Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and Slint’s Spiderland got a lot of props).

Perhaps what’s great to see is the number of emo albums that have been proposed. In general, it’s a generous heaping of bands in the large arc of emo’s narrative. There’s Fugazi (who received numerous proposals from their discography), Lungfish, Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, Say Anything, and (of course) Fall Out Boy.

Now, I must admit, I submitted a proposal too. Mine is for The Promise Ring’s 1997 album, Nothing Feels Good.

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

From the looks of all the proposals, it sure must be tough to choose 20 or so out of hundreds of great ideas. But, I’ve got my fingers crossed for my idea. And it’s not just because I am the one who wrote and worked on the proposal. Rather, I feel it’s record that needs to be discussed, and one that hasn’t had the proper opportunity to be carefully observed and thoughtfully written about in the thorough manner that every 33 1/3 book requires. Nothing Feels Good is still as astounding today as the day it was released (nearly) twelve years ago, and its impact on popular music today is equaled by a handful of other albums. Hell, even the folks at Pitchfork who frequently turn their nose down on emo acts and albums loved The Promise Ring’s sophomore disc. If that doesn’t show some middle ground between mainstream popular music listening (to which TPR has had undeniable influence over and certainly had an appeal towards, despite the indie circuit with which they traveled in) and elitist-leaning tastemaking, I don’t know what does.

Hopefully, the editors of the series will think so as well. And one of the first handful of comments sure gave me some hope:

Anonymous Anonymous said…
I thought pitching a book on the Hold Steady was a long shot, but the fact that there were two other proposals for Separation Sunday puts some of my fears to rest…

I appreciate seeing some of my high school staples getting pitched: 24 hour revenge, clarity, nothing feels good… I can, indeed, still feel the butterflies…

tw

2:21 PM

Good luck to everyone who worked hard to get those proposals in on time, and same to the Continuum folks who no doubt will have a lot of hard thinking to do!

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):