When Sunny Day Real Estate broke up in 1995, it was a respected but obscure indie-rock band. At that stage, the group would have been happy to pack a club in its native Seattle.
Three years later, when the quartet decided to re-form, it found itself generating long lines a good six hours in advance of its August debut gig. Moreover, the venue that housed the show was Seattle's ornate Moore Theatre, a site that Sunny Day Real Estate could only have dreamed of playing in its first incarnation.
What had changed? The band had released no new music since its largely ignored, self-titled, posthumous 1995 sophomore album. Alt-rock radio hadn't belatedly seized upon the earnest charms of SDRE staples like "In Circles" or "Round." Yet the world of 1998 seemed primed for Sunny Day Real Estate to an extent that it never was before. You could chalk it up to publicity generated by the band's rhythm section of bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joining the Foo Fighters in 1995. Or you could connect it to the cultish fascination surrounding lead singer Jeremy Enigk's lush solo album.
But more than any other factor, the heightened interest in SDRE has been a slow burn, a delayed reaction to the band's self-conscious exploration of its own mystique. More than any '90s band, SDRE seemed to understand the power behind leaving questions unanswered, the potential for mythology to develop around even a flimsy in-joke.
The pre-breakup SDRE didn't pose for pictures or grant interviews, and it stirred laughably intense chat-room discussions over its strange refusal to play anywhere in California. When Enigk's Christian awakening caused him to leave the band in '95, he--consciously or not--made SDRE a greater source of obsession for fans.
So it's more than a bit surprising that the newly reloaded SDRE has adopted an altogether friendlier attitude toward cameras, reporters and Californians. When Enigk talks--with all the fragile, childlike enthusiasm his lyrics would suggest--about the band's stubbornly perverse earlier days, he sounds like he's talking about four characters that he knew in a previous life; characters that he finds amusing but a bit curious.
"For some reason, [guitarist] Dan [Hoerner] would say that he didn't want to play California," Enigk recalls, during a break in the band's start-and-stop tour schedule. "None of the rest of us knew why. Then it became a story. And our sales in California were better than everywhere else. So it became this funny kind of thing, because it's one of those places that's considered essential for every band to play."
Considering how arbitrary such decisions were, it's amusing to look back at old newsgroup discussions on the band, which treated the California boycott like it was a United Nations resolution. One fan posting in 1994 defended the band by offering that "as far as I can tell, California is Babylon." Another person got so worked up as to call the band a bunch of hypocrites for playing in Los Angeles at KROQ's acoustic Christmas show.
Ironically, the new-model SDRE seems to have abandoned much of the legendary mysterioso behavior that probably attracted the huge Moore Theatre crowd. The group now plays California without hesitation, and has been strangely cooperative with the press. Even Enigk (who skipped out on a CMJ story heralding the band's return) is going through a rare period of comfort with the interview process, possibly motivated by his sense of contentment with the band.
"I think we just missed each other," he says of the group's decision to reunite. "When we played together again, it was magical. It just happened so naturally. It was like being in love again."
If the band's original lineup was bonded by love, it was love of the most tempestuous, dysfunctional, George-and-Tammy kind. Band members feuded when Enigk decided that he not only was a Christian but wanted to sing and write about his devotion to Christ. For Enigk, his conversion might have meant a searchlight out of the darkness of his own bitterness and misery, but it created fresh hardship for his bandmates.
"God came into my life, and the guys didn't understand," he says. "They had a hard time with it, 'cause I wasn't the same person anymore and they didn't want me to change. It caused tension in the band. Things were very volatile with the band toward the end."
The second coming of SDRE has been a smoother ride not only personally but musically. The band's early work offered a modified take on the caustic emotional confessionals of emo-punk, with Hoerner's explosive sense of dynamics matching Enigk's go-for-broke wails. Particularly on the group's 1994 debut album, Diary, the results could be riveting: naked vulnerability framed by brawny guitar rock. Not for nothing was the band frequently compared to Nirvana, another band that started on Sub Pop Records.
The group's new album, How It Feels to Be Something On, isn't quite the radical departure some old fans have moaned about, but it is a decidedly prettier, less aggressive collection. For all the gut-wrenching, Cobainesque power that Enigk summoned on Diary, he's always had something of the young Michael Stipe about him, coming off as the shy, sensitive outcast who used his voice to convey what mere words couldn't explain. With How It Feels' backdrop of ringing guitar arpeggios and acoustic strumming, the connection seems even more apt. But Enigk reveals that it was the singer for another veteran superstar band who's been his greatest inspiration.
"I loved Bono's singing and his melodies," Enigk says. "I've always tried to do something like that as much as I could."
Like the idealistic '80s Bono (as opposed to archly camp '90s Bono), Enigk is an unabashedly romantic lyricist, seemingly willing to appear foolish in his quest to spill his deepest passions. Although the band's committed cult can find layers of profundity in Enigk's most opaque lyrics, an inelegant verse like "Roses in water/Wise men see/Move around before centuries/Later on we'll travel far" would never register if Enigk didn't have such magical banshee pipes to wrap around it.
There's little question that on this album Enigk is carrying out his commitment to celebrate his Christianity, but he's done so in language that's just vague enough not to alienate the unconverted. For his part, the agnostic Hoerner has staunchly supported his bandmate's spiritual commitment. In the November issue of CMJ, Hoerner says, "I like it when someone has something important in their life to talk about, something they really believe in. Because so many people are such cold fucking fish." With such mutual respect at work, it's not surprising that Hoerner and Enigk found that collaborating on songs was easier than ever on How It Feels.
"Songwriting has been similar but better," Enigk says. "For the first time, Dan and I got together with just two acoustic guitars and brought the songs to the band. Before, we would write the songs with the whole band there. This was so much easier."
The lone dark cloud hovering over the band's reunion has been Mendel's late-hour decision to stay with Foo Fighters and not rejoin SDRE. In his place is former Mommyheads bassist Jeff Palmer. But even a slightly altered SDRE is a precious thing to Hoerner and Enigk, who both say that they can't imagine playing with another band in the future. And, if final proof is needed that the band has learned from its volatile past, one only need look at the fact that SDRE now chooses to limit its tours to no more than three weeks at a time. To hear Enigk tell it, overly long tours did as much to drive the band's first incarnation apart as any religious divisiveness.
"We're trying to keep tours short so that we can have lives," he says. "You have to be able to maintain a life in order to be able to bring something to the music. Your life has to come first. If the music comes first, then you won't have any source of inspiration."
Sunny Day Real Estate is scheduled to perform on Thursday, November 19, at Jackson Hole, with 764-HERO. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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