Since the release of the first Sunny Day Real Estate album Diary in 1994, singer-songwriter Jeremy Enigk has been an idol to legions of kids who were "emo" before "emo" really had a name. His full, rangy voice and introspective lyrics brought polish and drama to a music scene still absorbing the grunge revolution. Then, just as the band's career was ramping up, Enigk quit, ostensibly to pursue his renewed interest in Christianity, though he found time immediately after leaving Sunny Day to write and record Return Of The Frog Queen, a lushly orchestrated concept album. Upon reviving Sunny Day Real Estate in 1998, Enigk brought his new progressive sound and spirituality to bear on his mates' hard rock and pop leanings, and the result was the transcendent How It Feels To Be Something On, one of the best albums to emerge from Seattle in the '90s. After a not-bad major label debut, The Rising Tide, Sunny Day broke up again, and Enigk formed The Fire Theft with his old band's rhythm section. And now he's recorded World Waits, his second solo album, and his first to be released on his own label, Reincarnate. Enigk spoke with The A.V. Club about his start-stop career, his unusual approach to rock songwriting, and the pressures associated with being beloved for music he made a decade ago.
The A.V. Club: Does the title of World Waits refer to how long it's taken?
Jeremy Enigk: No. It's really about the world waiting in the position it's in now, politically. I feel like everybody knows the world isn't the happiest, most peaceful place. And though everybody has an idea of what's wrong, we're not changing it for the better. These songs are really about, "What are we waiting for?" This is breaking my heart. How are we going to make this a better place? It's mind-boggling. We have all the tools and we think we know the answers, but we're not doing it. Big business is killing us. The list goes on and on.
Not to be preachy. [Laughs]
AVC: The songs don't seem critical though. They seem hopeful.
JE: Yeah. And personal, too. It's how the world's state is affecting me. Because I'm always coming from the inside, from my own feelings about situations, as opposed to, like, specific quotes from the President. I'm not too literal. It's more about how if affects me personally. So no, it's not a political album. It's a personal album. How I deal with these issues.
AVC: What prompted you to start your own label to release World Waits?
JE: Basically Rykodisc, the label I was on with The Fire Theft, didn't exercise their option to keep us. I've been on three or four different labels in my career and I just felt like, you know, labels don't seem to be working out for me. [Laughs] Maybe I should start my own. It seems a lot more possible now with the Internet. A lot of bands are doing it, and given the position I'm in and the fan base I have, it seemed better for me to do it myself. So I just bit the bullet and did it.
AVC: Are you handling the day-to-day management yourself?
JE: No. My manager is dealing with most of that stuff. Which is good because I don't have a very good business sense. At this point. I'm trying to educate myself, but I've never really thought that way before. So, Steve Smith, my manager, is more or less a partner of the label.
AVC: How old are you?
AVC: Have you been to college?
JE: No. I didn't even graduate from high school. I quit high school to join Sunny Day Real Estate.
AVC: And it's been rock 'n' roll ever since?
AVC: Have you ever thought of going back to school?
JE: Yeah, I think about it. Of course, I'd have to get my GED, but… I'm a musician. It's what I do. Every once in a while I think it would be fun to go to college and study archaeology or something, really just for fun. Or learn a different language. But never anything for a serious career, just more for an education.
AVC: Would you describe yourself as somebody who reads a lot?
JE: No. I do read daily, but I don't sit down and read for hours. I use my relaxing time for music or hanging out with friends.
AVC: Why did you abandon the idea of making a proper sequel to your first solo album, Return Of The Frog Queen?
JE: Because Sunny Day got back together. Initially, we were going to do an odds-and-ends record, just a few new songs and a bunch of old tracks that we'd never released. In communicating with the band again, it all just snowballed and turned into two more records, spanning a four or five year period. And then The Fire Theft happened, and the next thing I knew, it's 10 years later, and I still hadn't made another solo record. [Laughs] I just had other priorities and obligations with the bands I've been a part of.
AVC: But you had more "Frog Queen" songs obviously, because a couple of them ended up on World Waits.
JE: Right. And a lot of my songs intended for that second solo album ended up going to Sunny Day. I write a handful of songs and I use them for whatever project I'm working with at that time.
AVC: Was it satisfying being able to complete your thought with Sunny Day Real Estate? You started off, did a couple of good records, and yet those last two records seem a lot more mature and accomplished than where you started.
JE: How It Feels To Be Something On is my favorite Sunny Day record. It was satisfying because I was proud of the music. Sunny Day went to a place we hadn't gone before. We had matured. We had a couple of years to acquire new influences and it felt good. Because we were very passionate about the band. We had just gotten back together, so it was like a fresh start.
AVC: What about moving to a major label for The Rising Tide? Still artistically satisfying or more obligatory?
JE: I felt that we started to go through the motions. Our hearts weren't there. Because we were always working on the band, and it became more about selling records than about writing and being passionate. That's why I ultimately lost interest. I don't want to speak for everybody, but I personally started to lose interest because we were doing it for the wrong reasons. It became monotony and it just wasn't fun anymore. Yeah, an obligation.
AVC: Back when you were with Sunny Day Real Estate, you guys purposefully ignored the media. Why was that?
JE: I can't speak for everybody, but originally it was because we wanted to be purely about the music. We had come from this punk rock, DIY sort of place and we just had an attitude, I guess. It's about selling the music, not selling the people. It's more about getting the music out there and doing something different and cool. And that's ultimately why we didn't talk. Over the years, I found I enjoy interviews. I enjoy the press and it doesn't hurt to have fun with it and roll with it. It doesn't need to be so punk rock that it's overkill.
AVC: Do you think Sunny Day Real Estate got too successful too fast?
JE: I couldn't be happier about that, because the fact that Diary got so much attention is probably what allowed me to continue working over the years. I'm proud of everything I've done with our band and the success that's made it possible to continue. I can never forget that.
AVC: But having that intense fan base also meant that when you left the band to go on your spiritual quest, some people took it as a personal affront. They weren't that forgiving about you "following your muse," as it were.
JE: Wow. I suppose so. I think Sunny Day would've gotten a lot bigger if I hadn't quit the band originally. Doing that totally killed the momentum. But at the same time, I think my leaving and coming back created a different vibe. Because it was the opposite of selling out. [Laughs] It was selling in. Cashing in for personal reasons. As far as bumming people out, I definitely bummed out the band. [Laughs] And the fans. But everyone seems to be pretty supportive, as long as I'm still playing music.
AVC: Musically, you keep expanding your song structures so that everything sprawls out and turns in unusual ways. How conscious are you of the directions in which your songs go?
JE: Well, I've tried to sit down and write pop hits, but when I start to do that, I think, "Oh, this is annoying." And then I'll intentionally fuck it up and throw in something completely wacky. Because that's what thrills me. And if I'm not thrilled, I don't want to play the song. And then I feel like I'm doing something I don't want to do. I don't want to so much make a product as I want the product to be from the heart first. Then you know you can't go wrong. If what you're doing is what you love, other people are going to love it.
AVC: For all the changes these songs go through, they're fairly short. Is that a conscious decison?
JE: That's just the way it ends up. It's a feeling thing. When the song feels like it's done, it's done.
AVC: As a songwriter, knowing you have this naturally strong singing voice to fall back on, does that give you license to not worry about everything being so tight?
JE: I don't know. I think either way it's important for it to be tight as possible. Just to present it the best way possible. I'm a perfectionist on that level. I want everything to align, to just be great. But live, you will hear the cracks in the voice. There are a few screw-ups.
AVC: Have you had any vocal training?
JE: I have, briefly. For one day I had a vocal trainer, the day before we went on tour for Diary. My voice had crashed and I needed immediate help and this woman here in Seattle taught me how to sing from my abdomen. Because I was always singing from my throat. I haven't had extensive training, but I've learned where to sing from. And also a fellow in New York, when Sunny Day was recording Rising Tide, spent about two hours with me and really taught me how to warm up my vocals. So, when it's crucial, from time to time, I'll do vocal warm-ups.
AVC: Does having a voice like yours bring any added sense of responsibility? Do you feel like you need to use it as opposed to, say, becoming a banker?
JE: Yeah, and sometimes that can bring a little pressure. Because it's important for me to say something, and with wisdom if I can. I don't think there's anything wrong with just going out there and having fun and goofing around. I want to experiment with that too. But yeah, I feel like I have a responsibility to produce something hopeful, and maybe inspirational to people. When people come up to be and tell me how my music has changed their lives, that only encourages me to take it more seriously. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself for getting too serious, but that's just what I need to do. We'll see. I'd like to experiment more with having fun.
AVC: A lot of your identity as a musician was created when you were a teenager and in your early 20s, when you were bound to be more intense.
JE: Yeah, the whole punk rock aspect of it. I started going to punk shows when I was 16 or 17, but I was musician before that. That was more pop music because I was more of a kid.
AVC: Do you think you'd still be a musician if you hadn't moved to Seattle when you were a kid?
JE: Yeah I would, but it would have been a completely different thing that I can't imagine. I doubt it would have been as big it is if I had stayed in Everett, Washington, where I grew up. But I was a musician then and I had intentions to play. I probably would have ended up in the Christian market or something, as a Christian Rock guy.
AVC: Would that have been okay with you?
JE: No. I mean, my reality would be different, so it would probably be okay with the me that had gone down that path. But the fact that I haven't is great. It's the best of both worlds. My music is music that Christians and Catholics can listen to. Muslims. Buddhists. And non-religious people as well. It's just music. You can look at the music in several different ways. It's music for everybody.