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.'"
Shortly thereafter, Goldsmith and Mendel found themselves smack in the middle of the alterna-rock event of the year -- a brief club tour in which indie legend Mike Watt was joined on-stage nightly by Grohl and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who was then at the height of his popularity. For Goldsmith "the whole thing was kind of blurry, because I think I was drumming for three sets a night. But it was a pretty memorable experience. I didn't really look at Grohl and Vedder as huge media rock stars; I just kind of looked at them as goofy people. So I enjoyed that. But pretty much everything after that blew."
According to Goldsmith, Grohl misled him about the Foo Fighters' mission. "It was my understanding that Dave just wanted to do music to be happy and he didn't want to tour that much. He wanted to keep it mellow. But then it turned into a world-domination thing that became really creatively stifling."
Foo Fighters, Grohl's first post-Nirvana recording, was pretty much a one-man show: With the exception of a cameo appearance by Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, Grohl did everything himself. When the disc became a hit, however, Grohl got together with Smear, Goldsmith, and Mendel, and once they'd learned his songs, the band hit the road -- and hit it hard. Goldsmith says he quickly grew tired of reproducing arrangements that he'd had no hand in shaping during shows at ever-larger venues. He believes that the killer schedule took its toll on his body as well. He blames a case of carpal tunnel syndrome on the constant pounding his hands took while backing Grohl. "I'm really concentrating and relaxing and not overexerting myself now," he says. "Otherwise, it gets really bad."
Worse for Goldsmith was the experience of making The Colour and the Shape, the first Foo Fighters disc to feature a full band. "Dave had me do 96 takes of one song, and I had to do thirteen hours' worth of takes on another one," he points out. "It just seemed that everything I did wasn't good enough for him, or anyone else. I think that everyone at the label wanted Dave to play drums on the record. The producer [Gil Norton] wanted him to play drums on the record, and it felt like everyone was trying to get me to quit. But I didn't quit. I played drums on pretty much the whole record. But then, behind my back, Dave re-recorded the whole record without telling me. I found out through Nate, who, well, I won't get into that. But I thought, This is bullshit."
Goldsmith walked out of the Foo Fighters over what he viewed as Grohl's betrayal just as the idea of a new Sunny Day Real Estate album was fermenting. In the beginning the disc was supposed to spotlight random unreleased and live tracks, but that changed after the original quartet reassembled. The four discovered that the conflicts that had driven them apart in 1995 didn't seem as unsolvable as they once had, and the sound they made together was as singular as ever. "All our problems had been personality based," Goldsmith says. "Musically, we never had a problem. And we still don't."
Before they knew it, the musicians had a handful of dynamic new songs, and Enigk, Hoerner, and Goldsmith were eager to hang the Real Estate shingle once more. The rub was Mendel. "Nate worked on the stuff with us, and he told us he wanted to be involved," Goldsmith says. "But he needed to quit the Foo Fighters for it to work. We waited about a year for him to do it, and finally he did. But then Grohl sweet-talked him into staying, telling him that he could make the Foo Fighters a side project, which was one thing I knew would never work, the way Grohl is. And since Nate has a mortgage to pay, he didn't want to take a chance on us without doing the Foo Fighters too. He was kind of wishy-washy about the whole thing, and in the end he just chickened out. It was a real disappointment. Nate still wanted to do the record, but I didn't want him to. If he wasn't committed to us, there was no way in hell he could do that."
This situation came to a head only a week before the date on which Sunny Day Real Estate was scheduled to enter a Seattle studio to cut How It Feels to Be Something On. Goldsmith and company responded by going into full scramble mode, and within days bassist Jeff Palmer, best known for his work in San Francisco's Mommyheads, was made a partner in the firm. But that job didn't last long. Between the recording of the disc and its release, the three longtimers realized that the logistics of having a bassist living in another city were too much to overcome. "Jeff was having a hard time with the practice schedule we wanted to keep," Goldsmith explains. "And he couldn't move up here, because he had some things he had to do in San Francisco. So we needed to find someone from here who could do it."
Today Seattle resident Joe Skyward is handling bass chores for Sunny Day Real Estate, but at least Palmer can look with pride at his contributions to the group's catalogue. The new disc is filled with idiosyncratic melodies and structures that refuse to head in predictable directions. "Roses in Water," for instance, begins with a serpentine guitar line that contrasts nicely with a rugged beat and an odd vocal chant that introduces Enigk, who enters atop an Eastern-flavored verse that will hit home with Zeppelin fans. "Pillars," meanwhile, includes a ghostly undertone, deliberate guitar picking, and passionate crooning that rises and falls on a sea of sound that's equally impressive whether it's sedate or squalling.
The band delivers everything from the sideways pop rock of "Two Promises" to the quasi-symphonic pomp of "The Shark's Own Private Fuck" with equal skill. Simpletons may regard such high-flown eclecticism as pretentious, and perhaps it is; at times, it's closer to the work of the late Jeff Buckley than it is to the played-out efforts of the band's early-Nineties Seattle peers. But the album is also consistently inventive and heartfelt in all the ways that too much of today's music isn't.
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"We're definitely not a hit factory," Goldsmith says. "We don't write songs for the radio. We write songs that become whatever they're going to become. Usually the songs write themselves. We get together in a room and play one part or one piece over and over again until it becomes hypnotic. And then the next thing pops up."
"That's what happened on 'The Prophet,'" says Hoerner, referencing another song on How It Feels. "My part of that song is something that I've played forever, a little acoustic meditation. I brought it in to Enigk, and we sat down together with acoustics and I started playing the riff, and the entire rest of the song played itself out in one session. It took as long to play it as the song is on the record right now. We just played, and it was the most amazing thing to watch Enigk sing it the first time through. All of the lyrics were totally improvised right there -- everything. It was very inspired, very beautiful. I felt like I was at a show watching, even though I was playing. I was a one-person audience watching this crazy kid channel the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. That's how it feels when it's good. It's effortless."
Because little else is easy for the men of Sunny Day Real Estate, it makes sense that they've dedicated themselves to the band for the long haul. "I just don't think any of us were really ready to be in this band before," Goldsmith says. "We really needed to have the last four years to appreciate what we have together and to be able to make this new record. And all of us plan on staying involved in this as long as we can."
Could this be a happy ending? Given that the musicians have loosened up enough to participate in articles like this one, it's possible. But with these guys, don't count on it. Fortunately, though, the latest chapter is a good one, and odds are strong that the next one will be worth reading too -- no matter how it turns out.