At some point in the ’90s, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk received the label “The Godfather Of Emo.” It’s a moniker that has always seemed insufficient, if not solely for the obvious fact that Jeremy Enigk isn’t an emo musician, and Sunny Day Real Estate isn’t an emo band. If anything, it would be more accurate to describe Enigk’s signature growl and Sunny Day’s mystic-meets-melodic aesthetic as “post-hardcore,” even if Sunny Day was—and continues to be—a band that defies genre.
Consider 1998’s How It Feels To Be Something On, an expansive effort that began as a rarities collection after the band’s first major breakup. Sure, it’s an album comprised of the base primordial ingredients of emo: some melodies, some screaming, some power, some ballad. But at its core, How It Feels feels markedly singular compared to its emo contemporaries. And maybe that’s as close as we can get to asserting that Sunny Day created emo—that it was created as a result of other musicians attempting to imitate it. On the occasion of Sub Pop reissuing How It Feels To Be Something On some 18 years after its initial run, The A.V. Club spoke to Enigk about its lasting influence, the tumultuous time in Sunny Day’s life that led to its creation, and the merits of being “punk,” even as its ideals are being coopted to sell Nordstrom clothes.
The A.V. Club: Sunny Day broke up just before the release of LP2, then it went on to release Return Of The Frog Queen. Some time after that, you released How It Feels To Be Something On. What convinced the band to get back together?
Jeremy Enigk: Sub Pop approached us, because we had a few miscellaneous songs that we hadn’t released on anything. I think one was “Bucket Of Chicken”—which is a weird name; it’s weird to say it out loud—and there was some stuff for the soundtrack for The Crow II, and a few songs that Sub Pop wanted to release. They asked if we wanted to do something called The Odds And Ends, like an EP or something. But we realized that we didn’t really have that much material. So Dan [Hoerner, guitarist] and I decided to get together and just write a couple of songs. We ended up writing pretty much all of How It Feels in just a couple of weeks. I had a bunch of stuff planned for my next solo record, and he had a bunch of material that he had been working on. And we brought it together and the next thing you know, we said, “Let’s just get together and make this a full record.”
AVC: Was it hard working together again after everything that had happened?
JE: It was probably the most fluid process of writing a record that we ever had. I mean, Diary was pretty fluid too, but this was really easygoing. Dan and I just got together on acoustics and wrote it just, like, face to face. And then we brought it to William [Goldsmith, drummer], which was just easy, because he can sync into anything. It was a really fluid and easy process.
AVC: The reissue of How It Feels is pressed in a really beautiful yellow splatter. Have you gotten your hands on a copy?
JE: No, not yet. I hope that they saved a few of the yellow splatter. Someone took a picture and put it on Twitter and I thought, “Okay, I want one.” And, I mean, Sub Pop didn’t even tell me that they were going to reissue it. I found out literally two days before it came out.
AVC: Have you listened to it recently? What does it mean to you now?
JE: I don’t listen to my own stuff unless I’ve been drinking a lot. [Laughs.] And then it’s like I go down to this weird dark place and I want to listen to all the old Sunny Day and solo stuff and judge myself.
But what does it mean? It means everything. I mean, it was a whole period of my life. I have the cover tattooed on my arm.
AVC: Which came first, the tattoo or the cover?
JE: It was actually before I joined Sunny Day Real Estate. We released this thing called Thief Steal Me A Peach, and Dan did this drawing, and I always loved it. I always connected to it. He thought I was crazy for putting it on my arm, but I was a kid and I loved it. Then we asked Chris Thompson to color it in. I wanted it to be filled with the colors of the sun. So I had had that tattoo long before the record, and I always loved that image, and I asked the guys if maybe we should use it for the cover. I had imagined it with a black background—just huge, unusual, and not like a normal record cover.
Dan and I were into it, then William and Jeff Palmer wanted another picture that Chris Thompson had drawn of a wheat field. Sunny Day has always been a democracy, so we literally flipped a coin, and Dan and I won.
AVC: There have been rumors that “The Prophet” was recorded in one take and improvised.
JE: No. Almost everything I do, especially later on, is really very scripted. And I do it over and over again until it’s perfect. “The Prophet” was inspired by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who Dan had introduced me to. It was written in that two-week period where Dan and I wrote all the songs.
At the beginning of the song, there is this chanting, and that was improvised. But it’s not that elaborate. It’s just me trying to be, I don’t know… chanty. It just felt like there was empty space in that song, and I wanted to fill it. Now I look back and I think, well, we didn’t really need it. But it is what it is.
AVC: What about “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck”?
JE: William titled it, and he titled it “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck,” because we wanted it to be about sacrificing your beliefs for money. I mean, that’s what I got out of it when the lyrics were written.
We didn’t deliberately set out for it to be controversial, but I loved that it was a swear. I was hoping that we would get a parental advisory sticker, but we didn’t… Because we’re white? [Laughs.] I don’t know. Or maybe it’s because we weren’t so extreme, or it wasn’t a very big selling record, so it just sort of went under the radar. I think ultimately that Will put the word there to express something, and there are times when saying “fuck” is really important and valuable.
AVC: In “Guitar And Video Games,” you sing about refusing to follow the rules of fashion. Did you see yourself as explicitly counterculture artists?
JE: We were punk rockers, and from the outset that was where we came from. Not following the mainstream was in our blood. I relate to that line fully because I have an aversion to conformity. Even when I am forced to conform—we all are on many levels—that line is definitive. It says exactly what it means: Be an individual, you know? Be yourself.
AVC: Speaking of being coopted by the mainstream, there’s this infamous Nordstrom ad that’s always been something of a mystery…
JE: We had just signed to Sub Pop, it was super exciting, and we were literally just in the office. And the press guy back then said “Hey, so I just got a call from Nordstrom, and they’re looking for a new and upcoming grunge band on Sub Pop to pose as models.” We just said, “Are they gonna pay?” We were all broke. I was like 17 or 18. But we didn’t want to be called Sunny Day Real Estate. We were going to play a big trick on Nordstrom, this big corporation. So we asked if we could do it but if we could call ourselves Flatin Ber-Da. And for some reason, Sub Pop said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we set the photo shoot up and we played along like we were this band called Flatin Ber-Da.
AVC: But the ad says “Sunny Day Real Estate.” How did they figure it out?
JE: One day, Nate [Mendel, bassist] was talking to somebody from Nordstrom—just talking about whatever—and he let it slip out that we were Sunny Day Real Estate. So we got caught in our own game. Eventually, they ended up putting our own name in the ad. We got caught trying to be devious. We were just punkers trying to jack the corporation, and then it was just instant karma. In the end, we were wrong and we got hit for it. And it doesn’t matter if they’re a corporation—it was still dishonest, right? And we got hit. But it didn’t do any harm to our “cool guy” reputations, in the end.
AVC: It seems like Sunny Day always worked hard to maintain that mystique—you were averse to doing any press, for example. You had one press photo and you never did interviews. Why was that?
JE: To be honest, they are nerve-racking and annoying. We were focused on making music. We wanted to get together and go into the basement—because in Seattle, where you rehearsed in those days was in the basements of houses—and make music. We just wanted to bring our passion and our conflict and our joy into this musical form. And it was a truly magical experience.
AVC: You can really hear that on How It Feels, which has an almost-mystical element. It has a very Eastern sound to it—almost religious at times.
JE: That started because Dan introduced me to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, this amazing Pakistani spiritual singer who’s got arguably one of the greatest voices recorded. We were listening to a lot of this stuff, and we just wanted to go in a new direction. That’s right where the influence came from with that Eastern vibe.
AVC: You referred to yourselves as “punk rockers.” Did you consider How It Feels to be a punk record?
JE: We came out of it, but no, we didn’t consider Sunny Day a punk rock band. But we came out of the underground—Seattle punk rock shows and hardcore shows. And we were primarily a part of the punk rock and hardcore stuff going on in Seattle. But we carried those punk rock sensibilities with us. So yeah, I think we were punk, but we didn’t consider our style punk rock. And we certainly didn’t consider ourselves emo. I think if anything we were hardcore.
AVC: “Post-hardcore” is a term that gets thrown around a lot—and then, everyone seems to love to refer to you as the “Godfather Of Emo.”
JE: It’s never been shaken. The jury—they voted, man. And we can’t get away from it. Rolling Stone recently did a “Top Emo Albums” of all time list, and then South Park did an episode with us in it, and it’s like… Okay. Yep. We may as well embrace it.
AVC: Once South Park gets you…
JE: Exactly. It’s in the culture. There are bands now, and for years, that called themselves emo. I never followed that stuff. But I recently went on tour with Into It. Over It. and did a little acoustic thing, and I guess that could have been called emo. Maybe “emo revival.”
AVC: The last full album you put out was OK Bear in 2009, and then, in 2014, “Lipton Witch” was released on a split with Circa Survive.
AVC: You sound bummed out by that. Is it because it’s been a while since you’ve put out new music? As of this morning, your Pledge Music campaign for a new album is 167 percent funded. That’s got to feel pretty good, right?
JE: But still, you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have tons of money to make the record. I set the bar pretty low, just to be able to get it. In all honesty, this has been the most difficult record I’ve ever had to make. I don’t have a label, I don’t have a manager, I’m doing everything myself. And doing that alone has been really, really difficult. Trying to be creative, yet having to deal with the day to day—I mean, there is a lot of stuff to deal with. Like sitting at the computer and sending emails. I’ve never had to deal with that before.
It’s been really difficult, but I believe that—because of the length of time that it’s taking, and because I refuse to put out something shitty—I think in the end it’s going to pay off. And I think that it’s going to be really special, and I’m going through this sort of tedious process for a reason. I’m going to come out, spiritually, on the other side as a new person. It’s a life trial.
It’s really heavy, and I think it’s going to show in the music. In fact, you were speaking of OK Bear. I am likely going to be going to Spain where I recorded OK Bear. I don’t know for sure yet, but Santi—the producer—and I talked about heading out there soon and finishing the record. Because Santi is an amazing producer, and Victor Garcia, his brother, is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with. So yeah, it’s a no-brainer.
AVC: One thing that really stands out in your Pledge Music campaign is that your fans have the ability to send you messages and comments, and you’ve actually taken the time to respond to many of them. What’s that been like for you?
JE: It’s what redeems the whole process. I recently released a new sound check of a new song, and I don’t know how people are going to feel. There are fans of Sunny Day, and there are fans of Diary, and the pink record, and fans who love only The Rising Tide, or How It Feels, and there are fans who love the solo stuff, and they want Frog Queen and they want OK Bear. And when I released this new song, the comments were just reaffirming and amazing. When I get the comments back, and they’re into it, it feels great. It’s the really personal, deep things, like when they say things really resonate deep within them. That’s what really brings it home for me, and it reminds me why I continue to do this.
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