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.”
“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.
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.