Bring Back That Sunny Day

Sunny Day Real Estate is less a band than a psychodrama. Decisions aren't just made; they're agonized over. Relationships don't simply end; they shatter. Reunions aren't merely satisfying; they're life altering. With these guys there are no half measures. They're as openly creative and nakedly sincere as their songs, and if that means they endure a lot of pain as a result, well, that's the way it is. "If I'm not creating music with this band, I'm not happy," says drummer William Goldsmith. "Period."

The facts seem straightforward. Founded in Seattle in 1992, Sunny Day Real Estate originally featured Goldsmith, guitarist Dan Hoerner, guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Enigk, and bassist Nate Mendel. After two years these four released their debut album, Diary, but after recording a full-length followup in early 1995, the players went their separate ways. Enigk went on to issue a well-received solo disc, Return of the Frog Queen, and Goldsmith and Mendel signed up with the Foo Fighters, an outfit fronted by onetime Nirvana timekeeper Dave Grohl. Goldsmith subsequently left the Foo Fighters and reconnected with Enigk and Hoerner for a first-rate new Sunny Day Real Estate disc, How It Feels to Be Something On, released late last month by Sub Pop.

An utterly commonplace history, some might say, but in this case the details are more intriguing than the tale itself. Goldsmith, Hoerner, Enigk, and Mendel are complex characters, and their interactions have as much in common with an Edward Albee play as they do with rock and roll.

The roots of Sunny Day Real Estate can be traced to Reason for Hate, which starred both Goldsmith and Enigk. Goldsmith left that band to tour with another group, Positive Greed, and when he returned he became involved in several more ensembles, the most prominent of which was a Mendel-Hoerner project dubbed Chewbacca Kaboom. In 1993, under the name Sunny Day Real Estate, Goldsmith, Hoerner, and Mendel issued a seven-inch, Flatland Spider. Afterward, Enigk, who had filled in for Mendel on occasion, became a permanent member just before Sub Pop inked the combo. Diary quickly stirred interest among the emo-core faithful even though the musicians refused to do any interviews to support it.

"We kept that policy for the whole time we were a band before," Goldsmith says. "It just seemed like what each of us had to say individually was kind of pointless. We wanted to let the music speak for itself, I guess. There was a kind of mystique that was created because of that, but it wasn't really intentional. I actually did one interview by myself toward the end of things for this little fanzine. And when I read it, I thought, That's one of the dumbest things I've ever seen."

The Diary tour quickly established Sunny Day Real Estate as one of the Pacific Northwest's most emotional acts, but all that soul-baring took its toll. When it came time to record their self-titled second offering, identified by fans as "the pink album," tensions were high; they boiled over when Enigk suddenly declared himself a born-again Christian. Enigk's desire to sing about his conversion made Mendel uncomfortable and left Goldsmith feeling upset and confused.

"I don't think Jeremy and I ever hated each other," he says. "But my bitterness toward his new spirituality was a highly personal thing that went back to me being raised Catholic. I'd always been made to feel a tremendous amount of guilt because of that when I was growing up, but I'd managed to get away from it. Then, all of a sudden, Jeremy was into what felt like the same thing. Because of the things from my past, I became extremely frustrated with him. The band needed to break up anyway. I mean, we were definitely on our way to breaking up. But what was happening with Jeremy pushed it over the edge."

Sunny Day Real Estate, the second album, appeared during the second half of 1995, and most observers found it to be an even better disc than Diary, thanks to offerings such as "Waffle," a mini-epic built on a highly theatrical bass/guitar figure; "8," a slow-fast ditty that brings out the best of Enigk's supple art-rock voice; and the deliberate, quasi-meditative "J'Nuh." But by that time the Real Estaters had closed up shop. Enigk promptly dove into Frog Queen, which included contributions from a 21-piece orchestra, and Hoerner and his wife settled down in rural Washington on property that he still owns.

"It's not a till-up-the-earth, put-up-a-fence-and-get-a-cow kind of farm," Hoerner says. "It's more of a perma-cultural experiment, an attempt to create a sustainable ecosystem. We have a garden that we maintain, but what we're trying to do is invigorate the land rather than exploit it."

As for Goldsmith and Mendel, they moved directly from Sunny Day Real Estate to the Foo Fighters, the first group to emerge from Nirvana after the death of Kurt Cobain. Goldsmith had met chief Foo Dave Grohl at a gig in Seattle back when Nirvana was still a going proposition: "He'd actually come up to us and said, 'Good show,'" Goldsmith remembers. Grohl then disappeared into the night and didn't surface again until 1995, when he left a message for Goldsmith at a Washington, D.C., club where Sunny Day Real Estate was set to headline one of its final dates. "I called him back," Goldsmith notes, "and he said, 'So your band's in the shitter, huh?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Well, do you and Nate want to do a band with me and Pat [Smear, Nirvana sideman and former guitarist for the Germs]?' And I said, 'Sure, I guess.'"