Brightness falls

Sunny Day, everything's A-OK with the band three years after a miserable break-up

Breaking up, it seems, was the most successful thing Sunny Day Real Estate ever did. Four years ago, it could not have played a place like Seattle's Moore Theatre; the band never even would have attempted it. The venue, with its 1,700-plus capacity, was much too big for the group, even though its debut album (1994's Diary) was a college-radio staple, the kind of underground hit that had made stars out of lesser groups. For the most part, Sunny Day Real Estate was just another band then, another face in the crowd in post-Nirvana Seattle. During its brief existence, the largest audience the band had ever played in front of, even in its hometown, would have filled only about a third of the theater.

Yet when the band performed there last August--its first show in more than three years--you couldn't have gotten in without a badge and a gun. Fans from as far away as San Francisco and Los Angeles crammed into the building, and another 600 or so clustered on the street outside, unable to get in but unwilling to leave. It wasn't just a concert; it was an event, the homecoming show bands often dream about but rarely get to play. As the band stood onstage that night surveying the crowd, they were stunned at the number of people looking back at them.

"I thought when we were getting back together, this was just going to be some kind of thing where we put together a new record for our friends and family and us," reflects guitarist Dan Hoerner. "It was amazing, and it was scary as hell, because we had decided that we wanted to play the whole new record [How It Feels To Be Something On, released in September] at people. I'm sure that everyone came wanting to hear old stuff. But we didn't play anything old until the encore."

It was the old stuff that had spawned so many new admirers of the band, even several years after its collapse. Diary and 1995's Sunny Day Real Estate (variously referred to as LP2 and "the pink one" because of its minimalist all-pink design) are underappreciated gems, the kind of albums where every riff and every word seems like the most important thing in the world at that moment. They're thrilling records, full of tempos that toss and turn as though they were sleeping on a couch, and dual guitar lines that intertwine and become one like a young couple holding hands.

The most astonishing aspect of the albums was singer-guitarist Jeremy Enigk's voice, which packed so much emotion into every word--and sometimes they were just sounds, not words--you could almost hear him wiping away tears. It felt like he wasn't singing on a record; he was singing to you, letting you in on a secret he wouldn't share with anyone else. The lyrics he sang were vague, open-to-interpretation couplets that became one of the biggest sources of debate on the Internet newsgroups that supported the band in its absence.

On those Internet newsgroups and in the pages of Xerox-and-staple fanzines, Sunny Day Real Estate became more a myth than a band, a legend adored more in death than in life. Following its abrupt split in 1995, the band's popularity increased exponentially. Every detail concerning the band--no matter how trivial--was pulled apart and examined, debated and deliberated by a devoted following that seemed to grow by the dozens with each passing week. Fans traded rumors like baseball cards until they were accepted as facts, and new gossip sprang up in their place. Of course, since there wasn't much to work with (the notoriously close-mouthed band had consented to only one interview before it broke up), it led to so much misinformation, you'd think the band had employed the CIA as a publicist.

The main source of speculation was the band's puzzling breakup. No one knew for sure why it happened, or even exactly when it did. Some believed it happened after the band's performance on the long-since-canceled Jon Stewart Show, when Enigk, a devout Christian, inserted a religious reference into the song the band was playing, angering the other members and touching off a shouting match when the cameras cut away. Others thought it occurred as the band was recording its self-titled second album, and a minor disagreement became a permanent rift. All anyone had to go on was a cryptic message Enigk posted to the band's newsgroup in December 1994, discussing his strong religious beliefs and how they were affecting the band.

"There are mixed feelings about what we could do about me wanting to sing about Christ," Enigk's post said. "One of the members doesn't mind me singing about Christ, another is very uncomfortable with the idea of singing about Christ, and one didn't mind but now all of the sudden does. Well I understand where they are coming from because I was there. Jesus isn't anything that I want to compromise with for he is far more important then [sic] this music, financial security or popularity could ever be."

Since getting back together, the band's interview policy has softened. On the phone from the band's practice space at drummer William Goldsmith's house, Hoerner says that Enigk's Christianity was a factor in the band's demise, but it was just one of many. In his opinion, the band would have broken up anyway, regardless of the singer's beliefs. In fact, he believes they needed to.

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