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.
"When we broke up, it was absolutely the most necessary thing in the world," Hoerner says. "We just needed that time, and some distance. We had just developed really dysfunctional communication. You know, like when you get some shit started, and you just don't deal with it, or you deal with it in the wrong way and keep putting it back. I don't know. We didn't know how to talk to each other. We fought about stupid, stupid shit. It definitely got to the point where just about the only thing that could help us get over it was the distance."
So, after releasing its second album and heading out on the road for one last tour, Sunny Day Real Estate called it quits, and its members went their separate ways. Enigk released a beautiful solo album, 1996's Return of the Frog Queen, nine lush pop songs that found the singer backed by a 21-piece orchestra. Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel signed on with the Foo Fighters, hired hands joining ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl on the road to support his self-recorded debut album. Hoerner, on the other hand, dropped out of the music scene entirely, joining his wife, Dawson, on a farm in eastern Washington.
All of the members stayed on good terms, even after the tumultuous end of the band, but rarely talked. Meanwhile, Sunny Day Real Estate's continuing--and increasing--popularity convinced the band's label, Sub Pop Records, to release a compilation disc of unreleased and live material. The company approached Enigk about recording a couple of new tracks for inclusion on the album. The singer liked the sound of the idea, and when Goldsmith left the Foo Fighters at the beginning of 1997, he used the opportunity to contact the other members of the band about playing together again.
Enigk, Goldsmith, Hoerner, and Mendel reconvened that summer to see if there was any life left in the band they had walked away from, to see if they could remember why Sunny Day Real Estate had been together in the first place. And all it took was one time, one rehearsal for the band to be reborn. They wouldn't just record a few tracks for an odds-and-sods compilation. They had to record another album.
"When we did get back together and play, man, whoooo, it was the shit," Hoerner recalls. "It was definitely the right thing to do. We just jammed for, like, six hours. It was amazing. We played and played and played. It was really fun. We just immediately, immediately knew we had to play. Everyone was into it."
Goldsmith agrees. "It took actually sitting down and playing with them to remember why I appreciated playing with them originally," he says. "It took that time to remember why I wanted to play with them before, and to make me appreciate it now."
Unfortunately, Mendel wasn't so easy to convince. He was torn between his love for Sunny Day Real Estate and his lucrative full-time gig with the Foo Fighters. He stayed with Sunny Day until a week before the band recorded the new album, but ultimately he couldn't leave the Foo Fighters behind. The money was too good to ignore, especially when he had been burned by the same group of guys before. He couldn't risk being burned again. After all, broken promises don't pay mortgages.
"It was so disappointing, because he had strung us along for about nine months," Hoerner says. "The theme of our lives was waiting for Nate. He was always going to leave just after this next thing. Finally, at Christmastime, he quit. He was like, 'All right, I told Dave I quit, and I'm coming.' He called back the next day, and he was like, 'Dude, I can't quit.' He couldn't do it. But even though he didn't quit, he was actually going to still play on the new record, but Willie just didn't want anything that had to do with the Foo Fighters to be a part of Sunny Day. So we said no."
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With ex-Mommyheads bassist Jeff Palmer in tow, the band entered Seattle's Robert Lang Studios this spring to record How It Feels To Be Something On. The result is their best effort to date, splitting the difference between the soft-loud dynamics of Diary and Sunny Day Real Estate and the opulent pop of Enigk's solo album. Again, Enigk's tortured falsetto is the highlight of the album, soaring on "Roses in Water," regressing to an angry snarl on "Pillars." Actually, his voice is one of the only recognizable aspects of the album. The heavy, chugging riffs and roller-coaster tempos of the first two albums have been replaced by hypnotic, snake-charmer guitar lines floating above complicated rhythms, sometimes sounding like two songs being played simultaneously.
Even the band agrees that Sunny Day Real Estate Mark II is much different than its original incarnation. The songs are different, and so is the band. In fact, the three remaining members even briefly considered giving themselves a new name, symbolizing the changes in lineup and outlook.
"Yeah, we thought about it, actually," Hoerner says. "And then we thought, 'Why?' What would the point of that be? It's definitely Sunny Day Real Estate, you know. It's something that persists without Nate. It was hard not to have him as a part of the band, though, man. Believe me, it sucks. But I think when you wait for over a year to have all original members, when you're that patient, you're kind of allowed to carry on. We earned it."
Sunny Day Real Estate performs November 17 at Deep Ellum Live. 764-Hero opens.