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"Beethoven is my hero," says Jeremy Enigk, Sunny Day Real Estate front man. "I mean, writing a song on his deathbed -- that's beautiful to me." He pauses, reflecting on what's placed him on the other end of the phone. "And that's kind of why I do it: for the music."
That's the music-as-cosmic-savior explanation, anyway, and Enigk's sticking to it. He's been sticking to it since his band broke up in 1995, after the startling success of its full-length debut, Diary. That's the year, just as the fanzines raved, Enigk dissolved the group because he'd found God and realized his bandmates couldn't measure up, leaving an obtuse, self-titled second album (often called The Pink Album) to be released posthumously by Sub Pop.
"For me," says Enigk, clarifying the role of his faith in the breakup, "that was what gave me the courage to actually say what everybody wanted to do. It was a miserable time, writing The Pink Album; I was terrified that the second album wasn't going to be better than the first."
A legitimate fear, given fans' passionate embrace of Diary. That record became a touchstone for trend watchers eager to baptize the second-generation emo movement: bands grabbing the baton from late-'80s Washington, D.C., outfits like Rites of Spring and Embrace that originally spiked punk rock's noisy assault with bare, personal-is-political emotion. Diary influenced countless bands and (willfully or, more likely, not) set the stage for a mid-'90s underground phenomenon. Tough stuff to match, that.
But Enigk felt like trying again in 1997, when he re-formed Sunny Day Real Estate (sans bassist Nate Mendel, who had defected to Dave Grohl's similarly lineup beleaguered Foo Fighters) and made How It Feels to Be Something On, a record that cemented the band's legendary status with the emo cognoscenti.
The Rising Tide, the band's just-released fourth album, is the record Enigk's wanted to make for a long time. Produced by veteran engineer Lou Giordano (Belly, Sugar), it's the band's biggest-sounding record to date, swathed in chewy clouds of reverb-drenched, multitracked guitars, weeping string sections and, most notably, Enigk's signature vocals.
"I think with our past albums," the singer explains, "due to time constraints and money, there's all kinds of things you want to do but you really don't have time. With this album it was very important for us to take the time to add the color and things we've always wanted."
That color invests Tide's songs with an impressive depth, but it also confirms the prog-rock tag the band's gotten since the second album. Critics have been mentioning Yes for years, and there are moments on the new album when, gulp, even Queensrÿche comes to mind. Enigk shrugs off the comparison.
"I'm not familiar with Queensrÿche, so I don't really have an opinion on that. Perhaps it's just the high vocals in some cases," he offers earnestly. Familiar or not, he, guitarist Dan Hoerner and drummer William Goldsmith have taken the emo genre to its logical conclusion, making unapologetically emotional music that, save for a few lachrymose missteps, speaks of a profoundly personal truth. They've even handled their potential wild card (that'd be Enigk's faith) deftly, avoiding DC Talk territory while not skirting the issue, either.
"I think the people that we are, we've always kind of looked within ourselves for our strength," Enigk explains. "I think that's where the spiritualism comes from. It's not empty and surface and saying, 'I wanna grab your ass,' even though --" he hesitates, searching for the right way to say what he's going to say, "we all love that part of life."
The record also signals a second -- or third, if you're really counting -- beginning of sorts for the band: new sound, new producer, new working methodology.
"A good chunk of the album was written as an actual three-piece," Enigk says. "I like to think of it as a triangle," he chuckles. "The writing process is so unbelievably easy now, without the fourth wheel."
It's the band's first album not recorded for Sub Pop, as well. Hoerner's been particularly outspoken in the press about the band's souring relationship with the label; last year's barely promoted live set hinted that the distaste was not one-sided. Having fulfilled its contract with the Seattle indie, the band went looking for a new home.
"There were a handful of major labels that were interested," Enigk admits, "but it definitely wasn't the way it was in the grunge days, when people were just trying to ride the train that Sub Pop discovered. There was some interest, but I think we were kind of a risky band to some of those labels, because of the breaking up and just the rocky, volatile beginning that we started with."
The trio signed with the BMG-distributed Time Bomb Recordings, because "the people were amazing and we felt that they understood where we were coming from on many different levels. I think they got it."
That's anybody's guess, of course, but the group did find a company willing to spend money and gamble on whether Sunny Day Real Estate will stay together for more than two records this time. For his part, Enigk's confident.