Emo's Gay Dad
By Barry Walters
People talk about emo now as if it is the gayest thing to ever hit rock. But in the early evolution of this hardcore punk offshoot, emo wasn't about guyliner and flat-ironed hair -- as Jason Gnewikow, the gay former guitarist and graphic designer of the band the Promise Ring, well knows. Ten years ago, he became he first notable musician on the emo scene to come out, and was greeted with a mixed reaction from fans. The irony was that many had already perceived the band's lispy singer Davey von Bohlen to be gay. (He's not.)
The Milwaukee-based quartet also proved its trailblazing muster when it transitioned from punk's abrasive blare to power-pop and beyond: The combination of sugar-soaked hooks and distorted guitars on its 1999 album Very Emergency plays like the prototype for radio-friendly 21st century emo phenomenons like Fall Out Boy, while the Promise Ring's serious and much slower 2002 swansong wood/water reveals finessed balladry akin to later-day R.E.M. Its commercial failure helped bring about the band's demise soon after, but it proved how far emo could stretch years before Panic at the Disco.
Out gave Gnewikow a call in his Brooklyn studio to get this pioneer's 20/20 hindsight on Promise Ring's break-up, how his coming out affected the group, and what he thinks of bands that play gay.
Out: What's your perspective on the Promise Ring now?
Jason Gnewikow: It took up my entire 20s and I did lots of crazy things that most people don't have the chance to do -- touring all over Europe, Japan, playing on TV [Conan O'Brien]. In hindsight, I don't think it was something that creatively was completely flawless all the time, but I think things that seem cool at the time seem less cool later.
Is there something you wish you could've done over?
I wish we could've taken it less seriously towards the end. At the beginning of the band, we took it really seriously and it worked. But, like any band that nobody cares about, all the things you care about, nobody's looking at, so it's more your own obsession. We wanted to pay attention to every detail, and what that yielded was wholesome and good because it wasn't done with anyone [else] paying attention. We all came from this political punk rock background that was kind of miserable, but we liked all these other things that didn't exist in hardcore punk at the time. We wanted to be poppy and have fun. That was our weird obsession.
What do you think was the band's greatest achievement?
We went to England and recorded wood/water with Stephen Street, who did the Smiths' stuff. We were like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe we're here two months and living in this recording studio!'
Why did the band break up?
Gosh. A hundred reasons. Mostly we'd just grown apart creatively, but also after doing it for eight years I think we just -- [He stops himself.] There's a point in any relationship where you're kind of like, 'Is this really what I want?' We knew how to push each other's buttons and it had become an unhealthy thing. It was time for everyone to move on.
How did your coming out happen?
Someone from Spin asked me [if I was gay] and no one had asked me in an interview.
I'd read that there was some homophobic responses toward the band even before you came out.
We did this whole tour with Bad Religion that was completely miserable. There was one show in particular, somewhere like Iowa, where I think we stopped playing.
Do you have a sense of how your being gay affected the band?
I don't think it impacted us from a commercial standpoint. It probably had more of an effect on our personal relationships -- my happiness or unhappiness being projected onto everyone else. There were times when I was like, 'God, I'm living in the Midwest, playing in a touring band completely surrounded by hetero dudes.' As a gay man, that's not very fun. I can totally relate to that [straight rock] stuff and do it all, but at some point, you're like, 'I'm not living a full life and how can I reconcile that?' It took awhile.
Apparently the chat on your band's web site got so ugly following your coming out that your label replaced the entire message board with information about gay rights and anti-violence.
Yeah, yeah. That's true.
Was there anything positive about your coming out?
Yeah, definitely. One of the best things for me was that it made interviewers not ask ridiculous questions like, 'Who's your ideal girl?'
Did you gain any gay fans after coming out?
Not that many! I thought, 'I'm going to get tons of dates now, it's going to be fantastic!' I don't think I ever did! Actually, I did meet some people. Someone who became one of my best friends read that Spin article, saw me at a show, struck up a friendship, and I've now known him for eight years.
Do you think it's any easier for musicians to come out nowadays?
I definitely think so, but I still don't think it's that easy. I have a band that's just a hobby thing, House & Parish, and we went on tour in the fall. Everyone I'm touring with knows I'm gay. But just the day-to-day aspect of being in a band and dealing with road crews -- that's probably still pretty hard.