When the ’90s began, the only bands being called emo were hardcore outfits with screaming singers, but that all changed when Sunny Day Real Estate issued Diary in 1994. Suddenly the emotion was being channeled through powerful rock songs teeming with melody, and when layered with Jeremy Enigk’s otherworldly vocals—which, yes, he sometimes screamed—the songs on the Seattle band’s debut helped launch the second wave of emo. But things soon went awry in the Sunny Day camp, and the band split prior to the release of its second album, commonly referred to as LP2.
Since then, the four members—Enigk, guitarist Dan Hoerner, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer William Goldsmith—have gone on to do things like play with Foo Fighters, release solo albums, farm in the sticks, get back together twice (the first time without Mendel), and start an entirely new project called The Fire Theft (without Hoerner). The current reunion is accompanied by reissues of the first two discs and a monthlong North American tour that commences Sept. 17 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The A.V. Club spoke with Hoerner and e-mailed with Enigk about the band’s tumultuous past, having all four original members back together for the first time since 1995, and how they feel about the current state of the genre they helped shape.
The A.V. Club: Dan, it seems like every time Sunny Day breaks up, we hear about you running off to a farm in rural Washington state. Where exactly is that?
Dan Hoerner: [Laughs.] That’s my underground lair in the mountain regions where I do my experiments. No—a long time ago, I got interested in some counterculture ideas and outdoor-lifestyle things, and I just got fascinated with the country and with farming and the rural lifestyle. So that was kind of a focus early on—as soon as I got two pennies that I could put together, I stashed them away to see if I could eventually get something going in the country. So it’s been something I’ve pursued for probably the last 10, 15 years. We’ve got properties all over eastern Washington, outside of towns. I’d say if you’re looking for a city that we’re closest to, we could say Spokane, because that’s really the only city of any size in eastern Washington. We’re probably two and a half hours outside of Spokane.
AVC: Back in the day, the band was known for having only one publicity photo. You didn’t give interviews, and most curious of all, Dan, you refused to play California. What was your problem with California?
DH: [Laughs.] I have no problem with California. I love California. And of course, we’ve subsequently played like 10,000 shows in California. It’s kind of in line with what Sunny Day wanted early on: to be an anti-establishment outfit. I think that’s why we decided that we didn’t want to play any of the games that we saw other bands trying to play to be popular. And I think we were pretty influenced by kind of that Fugazi, we-owe-you-nothing, you-have-no-control ethic. Like, “We’re gonna let you have one picture of us, we’re gonna do one interview, and we’re just gonna let our music speak for us, and that’s gonna be that.” Around that time, I think there was some music-industry dude who was courting Sunny Day. I don’t want to name any names, but I think the guy had said something to me about needing to play the game to have any lasting impact in music, and something must have stuck in my mind about this person saying, “You have to move to L.A., and you have to play in L.A., and you have to be popular in California before you can be a popular American rock band.” And I think being the dickish, arrogant, counterculture rebel that I was, I said, “Oh really? Well, fuck you, I’m never gonna play in California. I’m never even gonna go to California, and let’s see what happens.” [Laughs.] I stuck with it for quite a while, until I realized that it was just stupid and not really fair. Obviously, Sunny Day is renowned for making epically silly choices and doing crazy things, so I think that’s just part and parcel of the beauty of being this kind of broken-butterfly, twisted bunch of weirdoes that we are.
AVC: One of the rumors at the time was that there was a warrant out for your arrest.
DH: Nice! Yeah, totally! I heard there was like gang issues; I had my heart broken. Yeah, I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things. I’ve tried, over the course of time, to set the record straight, and I’ve done big interviews, you know, big magazines, and talked about this over the course of time, but you’ll notice that no matter how many times I talk about it or say, “Okay, well, this is what the thinking was”—the stories are permanent now. Despite what you write, despite what other people are gonna write, it’s not going to change anything: There’s going to be all kinds of weird stories about why we wouldn’t do it.
AVC: Does that mean these will be the first California shows to feature all four original members?
DH: Wow. You know, I really didn’t think about that, but you are exactly right. One time the other three dudes—during, I think, the Diary tour—they came in and played some KROQ festival and played a show in The Viper Room and stuff like that, but I wouldn’t come. [Laughs.] So yeah, this is actually going to be the first time that the four original gangstas are going to play together in California.
AVC: Jeremy, much was made about your conversion to Christianity, which you announced on the Internet in a letter that included lines like, “I want it to be what Sunny Day Real Estate is about, so that others out there will hear. But there are mixed feelings about what we could do about me wanting to sing about Christ.” So was it the religion that originally got in the way of the band?
Jeremy Enigk: It wasn’t the reason the band broke up, but it did influence my final decision in leaving the band. We were having some internal tensions and were on the verge of falling apart. Sadly, all the joy was sucked out due to numerous reasons that made playing an arduous task. Having a spiritual awakening gave me the courage and strength to move on and create a new path in my life.
AVC: The letter also stated, “One of the members doesn’t mind me singing about Christ, another is very uncomfortable with the idea of singing about Jesus, and one didn’t mind, but now all of the sudden does.” Dan, which one were you?
DH: I was the guy who didn’t care. I couldn’t give two shits about what Enigk was singing about, I just liked his voice, and I liked the passion. So no, for me it was not a problem at all, because I think that whatever moves a person, whether it’s the desire to talk about love or the desire to impress people or the desire to rip people’s faces off with your double-bass-drum, heavy-metal sounds, whatever desire that moves people to make music and express themselves is perfectly legitimate to me. Ultimately, I knew that wasn’t the thing standing between Sunny Day and moving forward. It was really just a side effect of some other stuff that was going on. So over the course of time, it’s sort of been like, “That’s the reason why Sunny Day broke up,” and the real answer is that, no, it’s not, it’s just something that was going on at the time, and kind of a part of Jeremy’s spiritual awakening.
I think what really happened was that the Internet was kind of new back then. Who knew back in the day that if you type a passionate letter and you’re a semi-public figure that that shit was going to stay online and in people’s consciousness forever? Anyone with a brain now wouldn’t put anything like that out on the Internet, where it would be constantly referred to and sort of become a defining moment in your life, when upon reflection it was probably something that could be privately thought and maybe discussed privately with people on a more intimate level. So I think the real story is that Jeremy was among the first victims of the Internet’s ability to immortalize every single thing you say or do.
AVC: In the letter, it sounds like that’s the first time you really expressed your feelings about your religion to anyone, including your bandmates and Sub Pop. Do you regret letting everyone know via an Internet post?
JE: I had no idea how massive the Internet was at the time. So I naïvely agreed for it to be displayed wherever as a uniform explanation as to why the band was breaking up. I certainly regret that it was made public. It created more confusion as to what really happened, and it wasn’t fair to the guys in the band for me to drag religion into the breakup. Which was a very personal thing and had little to do with the reasons for breaking up. But on the positive side, many people over the years have thanked me for it and said it somehow helped them.
AVC: So what was it that broke you up?
DH: I think it was a problem of four young men still trying to figure out how to be in the world and how to relate. You know, it’s four young men being married to each other, and breaking up. Bands break up because it’s hard for dudes to live together and to spend every waking moment together and go through the grind of touring and recording and all that stuff. It’s the really rare band that’s U2, Aerosmith, The Who, bands that manage to make it through and persist over a long period of time. Most bands break up because dudes are unstable, especially young, not-even-fully-formed personalities. It was just four dudes and internal tensions and yadda-yadda-yadda starts to happen, and you break up. I mean, that’s just the story of rock.
AVC: It’s surprising to hear that you’re the one who didn’t care if Jeremy wanted to start singing about Jesus, because you two collaborate on lyrics. How does that process work, and how have things changed over time?
DH: Our process was almost fully formed from like the first time we ever jammed together, in that either Jeremy or I will have some kind of seed of a musical idea, and then we’ll just start messing around with that, and it will develop and unfold and open up into new parts and evolve over time. And then lyrically, Jeremy will have the seed of a vocal idea, and then oftentimes we’ll flesh that out and take that concept and turn it into a whole song. And whether that means me sitting down and trying to write full lyrics, like I did a lot for The Rising Tide, or just keep it simple and have the lyrics be really sparse and minimalistic—that happens on a song-by-song basis—whatever the right thing needs to be is what happens.
JE: The collaboration has always happened in many different ways. Most of the time, I would sing a melody so many times that I began to form words in key parts of a song, but would leave gaps of unfinished lyrics to which Dan would come in and complete the thoughts with me on paper. It was also quite common for us to take a song with no concept at all and sit down with pen and paper and discuss the song’s meaning and write them out together. William was also with us on this method in the writing of many songs on How It Feels To Be Something On, which was a great source of comedy. Another method was that I would sing absolute gibberish with no real words at all, and Dan would accidentally hear these profound phrases that matched phonetically to my gibberish. This was occasionally pretty funny, as he would hear something totally offbeat and hilarious. During the recording of The Rising Tide, I was so busy recording most of the time that I didn’t have time to sit down and work out many of the concepts with him, so he spent hours writing entire songs that matched phonetically to my melodies. Basically, we wrote lyrics together whatever way got the job done.
AVC: But with Jeremy wanting to make religion a bigger part of his life, did that change the way you wrote together?
DH: No, actually it didn’t. Again, that thing is pretty overblown, and really has more to do with Jeremy getting caught by that machine—I don’t know, but I’m assuming that if he could go back and not have written that letter and had it be immortalized forever on the Internet, he probably would. But Jeremy has always been a spiritual guy, and he’s always been a seeker and somebody who was trying to figure out how to be a good person and how to express himself and how to experience the world. I mean, who isn’t trying to figure that shit out, right? [Laughs.] From the first day I met him, he was writing songs about God and spirituality and—I think that’s one of the things that is so cool about Sunny Day, is that we were unafraid from the get-go to talk about incredibly personal emotional things, both from the standpoint of love and the standpoint of trying to find truth and trying to find a higher reason for existence. So yeah, it’s not like Jeremy was one way and then hit this point in time where he became another way. He’s the same guy he always was.
AVC: And it’s not like the lyrics you’ve written since then have been overtly Christian.
JE: After the initial burst died down a bit, I didn’t want to blatantly sing about God from an exclusively Christian perspective, but more from a perspective of spiritual feeling that most people could relate with, and that I relate with. Songs that I’ve written about God, I am singing about in a language of my own heart, not one of an organized structure. I’ve always sought after God on a personal level so that I can understand for myself, and not simply because it was what I’ve been told by manmade religion. My lyrics really haven’t changed much over the years, when I really think about it. Perhaps the only thing is that I started to write a bit literally on and after the Fire Theft recording.
AVC: But when you guys broke up the first time, your fans really did get the impression that the cause was Jeremy’s conversion.
DH: How could it not, with the big letter? I mean, the fucking letter, the immortal letter that the dude probably wishes he never wrote. Of course. So by no means do I say to anyone who questions or wonders, there’s no sense of like, “Fuck you, you’ve got it all wrong,” because I completely understand. But if you knew Jeremy, you’d know that that was just a very, very small part of the picture. And really, it was a tiny fraction of what was tearing us apart, which had a lot more to do with our ages and external pressures and all kinds of other things. So it really became this whole focus of like, “This is the reason.” But no, from moment one, our first songs—one of the first songs we wrote as a band was called “Song About An Angel”! Are you kidding me? You don’t get it? We were trying to communicate about things that are deep in our souls, and we don’t even know how to talk about it, and hardly anybody knows how to talk about it intelligently. I love bands that are able to explore those things, that are able to get deep and talk about things that matter. I think that’s what we were trying to do, too.
AVC: When Sunny Day reunited in 1997, what changed in order to allow you guys to play with each other again?
DH: I think despite the fact that we broke up, there was a deep love that is sort of transcendent and kind of permanent. Jeremy made that wonderful Return Of The Frog Queen, which, in my opinion, was one of the better records of the decade, and I think he needed to make that and get a little perspective. I finally was able to pick up my first piece of land and start experimenting with some of that. And so a couple of years of that was fantastic, and then it was time to make some more Sunny Day music.
JE: I guess enough time had gone by to allow us to forget the old arguments and embrace the fact that when we get together, there is just some crazy musical connection that can’t be duplicated.
AVC: What changed again for the other guys to move on to The Fire Theft without you? Were you kicked out, or was that your decision?
DH: Once again, I think when Sunny Day Mark II reached the end of its line, all of us wanted to do other stuff. I had a young family starting—when we were touring The Rising Tide, my first son was in utero, so I think that it was just again time to take some time and explore other stuff and make some other music. At the time when that stuff started happening, and The Fire Theft started going, there just wasn’t even the contact or connection to see if anything could happen, and it probably wasn’t the right time for us to come together and have anything happen. So I don’t know that there was anything specific, I think it was just a matter of what was the right thing at the time. Those guys had that record in them that they wanted to make.
JE: I don’t really know what happened. I guess it felt like we were kicking a dead horse. When you’re wrapped up so deeply in something for so long, it’s hard to clear your mind and look at it from a fresh perspective. Which is probably what we needed to stop taking it for granted.
AVC: So what brought you guys back together this time?
DH: Well, now’s the right time. [Laughs.] I don’t know exactly how to say it. It was that Nate called me and said, “Hey, guess what? You wanna do Sunny Day?” And I said, “Fuck yeah! Let’s do it!” I think that getting that phone call from Nate was the exact right thing. I hadn’t talked to him in forever, and it did seem like the right time—there were the right openings in everyone’s schedule, and it was just kind of meant to be. It fell into place perfectly, which is what I like about Sunny Day: When something interesting is going to happen with Sunny Day, everything just lines up, and you get either a great record or a great tour or whatever out of the deal.
JE: Nate approached us about it in late 2007, but I was in the middle of writing and recording a new album, and William was in pre-production with his band Brawley Banks, so we put it on the back burner. The fact that Nate wanted and had time to do it was the most exciting thing for me. It was a difficult thing when we reunited without him for How It Feels To Be Something On and The Rising Tide. It never felt whole or complete. So the fact that we could unite again with all four of us was a no-brainer.
DH: It’s so much fun—and we’re playing stuff from How It Feels and The Rising Tide, too. Everything Jeremy and I write is always meant to have Nate play on it, really, so now to have him be able to come back and play on those songs that he was supposed to play on, just put his Nate-ness all over everything, is just fucking awesome.
AVC: Jeremy, before you guys got back together this time, you were quoted as saying, “The Sunny Day machine is such a monster! And it takes over, it has a momentum to it that none of the band members can really control.” What exactly does that mean, and why do you think that happens?
JE: For some reason, people respond to this band. The music industry’s gears start moving the moment we say we are jamming, and suddenly we have numerous tours and random requests on the table. It’s really quite an amazing blessing, but overwhelming when desiring a somewhat quiet life. The quote you mentioned was a response to the question, “Will Sunny Day ever get back together again?” I was ultimately trying to say that I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that giant responsibility. Looking at the big picture, knowing that one jam could easily turn into multiple recordings and tours, ’til expectations begin to get out of control.
AVC: Was it easier agreeing to reunite this time knowing you have a solo career to fall back on?
JE: Yes, and we all have separate obligations now that hopefully allow Sunny Day to remain a source of joy as opposed to our one and only job.
AVC: What does this mean to the future of The Fire Theft?
JE: Ha, well, if Sunny Day were to continue, I doubt there would be much point to The Fire Theft, but maybe Dan could join and we could record some weird techno music or something. I have thought about doing something extremely experimental with The Fire Theft, but obviously it’s not anytime soon. Who knows.
AVC: So what’s the future of Sunny Day Real Estate?
DH: I think right now the plan is to take it one step at a time. Nate is still in Foo Fighters, and that’s his main priority, and that’s a huge commitment, and Jeremy, he’s got his solo thing, which is cruising along—I thought OK Bear was really good. I think the public priority, the thing we’re talking about doing, is potentially doing a European tour and a Southeast Asian/Australia or New Zealand tour. Since we’re in the business of making my dreams come true, I’ll go ahead and wish that we could record another record. I can’t even imagine that happening, but it would be so amazing to be able to record with Nate again. But right now the mandate is: just get ready for the shows, get ready for the tour, and do the best we can do. But I would love to play new music.
AVC: So you won’t be playing new material on this tour.
DH: No, we don’t have any new songs that we’re planning on playing on this tour, but when we get together and we start rehearsing, inevitably we start writing songs and jamming and stuff. We actually have been jamming on quite a bit of new material, just purely out of fun, and kind of the same way that we did it in the Diary and LP2 era, which was like no expectations, no thought of success, no thought of doing anything other than just playing music because it feels awesome, and having fun. So we definitely do jam, and we always are making new sounds and creating new music and stuff, but up until the point when we were ready to record or maybe even had recorded, I think we would keep that pretty close to the chest anyway. Just not to build any expectations or anything that didn’t ultimately come to pass. But if I could have my druthers, I would love to make a new record. That would be insane.
AVC: Diary and LP2 helped create the template for the second wave of emo. Do you share the opinion of The Get Up Kids’ guitarist, who recently apologized to the world for influencing the current state of emo?
DH: [Laughs.] Fuck no. First of all, if Sunny Day’s music had a positive influence on even one person to play music or to express themselves in a different way, then I think we won the war. To look down on people who are currently making music because they have influences—are you kidding me? [Laughs.] I was trying to be The Edge. I just sucked at playing guitar, so I was not able to be The Edge. But if I could have been in a U2 cover band and played The Edge’s music perfectly, that’s probably the career path I would have taken. So I love the fact that people consider Sunny Day an influence—I don’t give a shit what kind of music they play. The fact that they’re trying to express themselves, that they’re gonna be these monkeys and get up onstage and bang on their noisemakers and try and say something about what they’re feeling—to me, that’s like the greatest compliment in the world. Because everyone’s got their own feelings. For me, it’s like the height of arrogance to say that what people are doing now is wrong or bad. They’re just trying to express themselves in whatever way they can. I hope that people continue to enjoy Sunny Day.
AVC: Your sound has evolved over the years, moving in a proggier direction. Was that a natural progression, or were you actively trying to get away from your roots?
JE: I believe it was a natural progression. The music has always been an extension of how we were feeling at the time. We didn’t take the time to actively achieve a certain sound. We just let the songs take form on their own. It’s really just a glorified form of meditation.