GHOSTS OF THE PAST Sunny Day Real Estate

In which frontman
Jeremy Enigk confronts the breakup, the reunion, the subsequent breakup, and
now the recent reunion.

 

BY CHRIS PARKER

 

Having outgrown the hardcore acts that had preceded it,
Sunny Day Real Estate’s members sought to make something more majestic and
emotional powerful. The product outstripped their intent, with chewy rhythms
reminiscent math rock, swooning, crashing guitars like footlights for singer
Jeremy Enigk impassioned, aching croon. Yet they weren’t even able to fully
complete their second album before breaking up in ‘95. Enigk has confessed to
not finishing vocals for several tracks, leaving gibberish placeholders
awaiting real lyrics. It even lacked cover art until drummer William Goldsmith,
absent feedback from his former bandmates, suggested to Sub Pop that they make
it pink. In a much publicized break-up note, Enigk cited his discovery of
Christianity as an influence on the dissolution, though there were other
probably more salient reasons.

 

They reformed a couple years later, minus bassist Nate
Mendel, who had joined the Foo Fighters along with Goldsmith after the break-up.
(Goldsmith quit about 18 months later in a dispute with leader Dave Grohl.)
Even at this point it was clear the impact SDRE had made on the indie rock
community, codifying the emotional and post-punk undercurrents of what was then
known as “emo.” While the band continued to evolve on the subsequent two
albums, the absence of Mendel was felt. After their 1998’s How To Be Something On, they jumped to Time Bomb recordings, but
their fiduciary promises were empty (allegedly due to overspending on former
Squirrel Bait leader Peter Searcy’s solo debut, Could You Please and Thank You), and the label folded less than a
year after the release of Rising Tide.

 

Again the band closed shop, and guitarist Dan Hoerner
returned to his rural Washington
state home to be with his family. Mendel, Goldsmith and Enigk reunited in the
Fire Theft, releasing a self-titled album in 2003. After a promotional tour,
the band went on hiatus, and things have remained in a state of stasis for the
members ever since. Enigk’s gone on to release three solo albums since then,
but Sunny Day’s musical legacy’s continued to grow in their absence. Finally,
with Foo Fighters slowing down, and some time opening up, Mendel contacted
Enigk about reuniting SDRE. Though initially rebuffed because Enigk was busy working
on his most recent solo album, OK Bear,
Mendel persisted, and the reunion happened this Spring. It’s been joined by the
remastering and re-release of their first two legendary albums, which have been
featured prominently on tour.

 

Each of the members has noted that the musical spirit they’ve
always shared remains vibrant – so much so that they wrote a new song during
rehearsals, which they’ve been test-driving live. Hoerner’s noted the energy
Mendel brings to the band suggesting it’s like a minivan turning into a Ferrari
overnight. Signs are looking good for a new album, and judging from the string
of sold-out shows on their recent tour (the September concert in Portland is
reviewed here) it’s poised to achieve a success prior albums have only enjoyed
posthumously.

 

We spoke to Jeremy Enigk in an email interview.

 

***

 

How did the reunion
come to happen? I understand Nate first approached you last year?

 

Nate approached me about the idea in late 2007 just before I
went to Spain
to record “OK Bear”. I was definitely into doing it, but obviously
had obligations with solo stuff. So we put it on the back burner until time was
freed up.

 

Which do you think
was more instrumental in the band’s break-up – the grind of the road and music
biz struggle, or the nature of young men trying to negotiate these things?

 

I’d have to say the combination of all those things. High
expectations created a pressure that as a young man I wasn’t ready to deal
with. I had hardly explored what it was like to be an individual let alone what
others thought I was. And I didn’t have the wisdom to understand the blessing
that was before me.

 

Obviously the
break-up letter became something much bigger than you intended. Would you
explain your thoughts on it?

 

Yes it has become much bigger than I intended. What was
supposed to be a simple letter to a fan and a few people at Sub Pop has become
a staple in SDRE’s strange history. It’s unfortunate because it created more
confusion and was unfair to the guys for dragging religion into the break up.
Which really had nothing to do with the band. I just wanted a pulpit to express
my passion. I am no longer the boy I once was, but I would not be who I am
today without the lessons learned from his choices. I don’t see things with the
same sword and fire as I once did, but with more of a gentle love, patience and
grace. I don’t agree with my methods back then, but am amazed I had the guts to
put it all on the line.

 

What ended the first dissolution?
How did it happen – I understand it had something to do with some older
recordings?

 

The original idea was from our previous manager Greg
Williamson who thought it would be cool to release an SDRE album containing
various recordings that never made it on any cd. As we discussed the details we
decided to write a couple new songs to add to the mix. During the writing process
Dan and I ended up writing the basics for an entire record in a week. So we
just decided to reunite and record what is now “How It Feels To Be
Something On”

 

What happened to end
SDRE II and commence The Fire Theft? What of The Fire Theft? Is there a DVD
coming?

 

 For one, our label
went under so in turn had to drop SDRE. The idea of shopping labels again
seemed exhausting. Especially after going through all the extensive legal
strains of changing labels. I guess it was time for us to move on and try something
new. So William and I started talking about TFT with the idea of starting from
a clean slate. We left The Fire Theft with the idea that it will always be
there to pick up again when it feels right. A sort of casual recording project.  I’m hoping one day to record another album,
but do something way off the beaten path. We will see. We all have other
obligations anyway. As for the DVD, there were plans to have it edited by a
company, but they never got back to us. I have seriously considered grabbing all
the footage and editing it myself.

 

What prompted the
changing vocal dynamics between LP2 and How
It Feels To Be Something On
. Did your work on Return of Frog Queen influence it at all?

 

It’s funny now that I look at it, the vocals are
dramatically different. For me it was just an unintentional natural evolution
and progression. I never saw it change being so close to it.

 

What’s your writing
process like, begin out of jams or home-brought melodies? How do lyrics come
together?

 

The songs always start with one cool riff on guitar or piano
and then the appropriate second and third parts follow. During the process of
playing these riffs over and over, I experiment with the vocal melodies using
gibberish as words. Usually words or phrases will pop out from singing it
repeatedly which tend to give the song it’s lyrical meaning. Finalizing the
lyrics is the last piece of the puzzle. In SDRE, it’s at this point that Dan
usually comes in and offers his help to complete the lyrics.

 

Apparently a new song
has already crept into the set? Tell me about that.

 

We didn’t set out to write any new material when rehearsing
for the reunion tours. It’s just something that happened. It’s impossible to
stand in the room as SDRE and not try something new. It’s like the music is
just waiting there in the air for us to try it out. The new song (still
untitled) was a basic jam I wrote one night after rehearsal and casually
brought to the band the next day. What was a decent song idea the night before
was instantly transformed into something much better…An SDRE song.

 

What are your
feelings on the posthumous appreciation – though obviously that was happening
prior to the first reunion to a significant extent – it seems to have only
grown?

 

It’s amazing. Every night we play a show I can’t help but be
thankful for the incredible blessing it is that so many years later this music
still affects people.

 

You’ve provided the
impassioned emotional voice of SDRE – and obviously had an impact on what’s
been subsequently described as emo – what initially galvanized/inspired your
vocal and lyrical approach?

 

First off, I grew up singing every Sunday at church. It was
just a part of life. I loved listening to individuals in the congregation and
imitate their voices for me and my cousin’s entertainment. This probably had a
huge impact on developing a love for it. Later, around 13 years old, music
became something that affected me deeply. After listening to U2’s “The
Joshua Tree” for the first time, I knew that I wanted play music with the
same passion. Songs lyrically about real issues. Over all, the most inspiring
motivation for playing was life experience. The ability to bring my emotional
chaos into order of music. Simply put.. singing the blues.

 

Le Plus Ca Change, Le
Plus la meme. What’s changed and what’s the same about the band and touring,
now that you’re older.

 

What’s changed? We are able to appreciate it more now and
not take it for granted. What’s the same? When we get into that practice room
there is still the same musical connection we had so many years ago.

 

How is it to revisit
the older material? How easily/difficult? Is it a bit like vacationing in a
different era?

 

I am especially enjoying the first 2 records. It wasn’t very
difficult stepping back in time and getting in that old mind set.

 

How has the tour made
you feel about the chance that you’ll overcome the various inertias and
obstacles to produce a new album together?

 

It seems to get clearer every night we play that we have to
record a new album. It’s like someone wants to give you a free Ferrari with no
strings attached and all you have to say is yes.

 

 

 

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