FINDING EMO: Sunny Day provide a definitive link between the DC punk scene that gave birth to “emocore” and the mainstream pop product it has since become.
Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman still sounds amazed by the band he saw at Seattle’s Crocodile Café back in 1993.
“It was an immediately captivating thing,” says Poneman over the phone from Sub Pop headquarters. “They were very exuberant players, [and] there was a certain maturity to the songwriting and the arrangements that, frankly, wasn’t really that present in a lot of music that we were being exposed to at the time.” All this from the head of a label that sought “world domination” on the back of a little Northwest strain of rock that came to be known as grunge. Poneman — who has helped introduce Nirvana, the Shins, Iron & Wine, the Postal Service, and Fleet Foxes to the world — had resolved then and there to sign Sunny Day Real Estate, and they hadn’t even finished playing their second song.
SDRE (who have reunited for a tour that hits the House of Blues on Monday) were supposed to be the next Nirvana — but for many in Seattle, they represented something entirely different. As four kids brought up on hardcore punk, they distanced themselves from the grunge game by taking a vibrant post-hardcore sound that emerged from DC and transforming it with a mix of technical wizardry and frontman Jeremy Enigk’s haunting falsetto into an epic, pop-ready sound. Their style was unique and arresting, especially to a city that had suffered years of Mudhoney knockoffs.
“To me they’re this band that represents exactly what I embraced,” says KEXP Seattle DJ Marco Collins, an early supporter. “It’s the stuff that’s edgy as hell, but it’s still beautiful at the same time.”
Although Sunny Day never enjoyed the same success as Nirvana, listeners weren’t quite saying nevermind, either. The band’s debut album, 1994’s Diary, pushed them into the national spotlight thanks to consistent airplay of videos for “Seven” and “In Circles” on MTV, and it was the second-biggest seller for Sub Pop at the time. Their homonymous sophomore album is the stuff of myth among hardcore SDRE fans. With its barren pink cover and lack of any formal name — it’s often referred to as “The Pink Album,” though the label leans toward “LP2” — the nine-song record is as shrouded in mystery as it is forthright in its appeal. (Sub Pop recently reissued SDRE’s first two albums, in conjunction with the reunion.)
Just as fast as they’d blown up, the band broke up, in 1995, while on tour. But though it wasn’t long before they all landed in new projects — Enigk went to work on solo material while bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith staffed Dave Grohl’s new Foo Fighters — they found the pull of the past tough to break. Mendel stuck with Foo Fighters, but the trio of Enigk, Goldsmith, and guitarist Dan Hoerner regrouped Sunny Day, soldiering forward through a slew of bass players to produce the 1998 prog masterpiece How It Feels To Be Something On and then the underwhelming 2000 album The Rising Tide. That group disbanded soon after The Rising Tide receded, but their camaraderie remained, with Enigk, Mendel, and Goldsmith rebounding as the Fire Theft.
If Sunny Day didn’t exactly define a zeitgeist of their own, they certainly had a hand in launching the uncertain future of emo. “At the time, there was no notion of what emo was to become,” Poneman recalls. “There have been a lot of bands who have imitated them; there’s been bands who’ve imitated their imitators.” Indeed, Sunny Day provide a definitive link between Fugazi, Shudder To Think, Lungfish and the rest of the DC punk scene that birthed “emo-core” and the mainstream pop product it has since become.
“I’ve never really felt compelled to emulate an artist, but with them it gave me a platform from which to jump off,” notes Davey von Bohlen, former frontman for the Promise Ring. TPR were unofficially crowned emo’s scene bearers in the mid and late ’90s, when their mixture of cathartic, SDRE-inspired riffs and sweet-toothed pop hooks foreshadowed the genre’s impending boom. “The path they paved was instrumental in me finding out that even though I wasn’t destined to make their music, I did have a voice somewhere near there.”
With indie-band reunions reaching exhausting levels of vogue right now, SDRE’s decision seems guided primarily by a rare alignment of their schedules. “We began talking about reuniting in late 2007, I believe,” says Enigk in an e-mail. “I was clearly busy, as was William. So we put it on hold until Nate approached us again in early 2009, to which we quickly agreed. The fact that Nate was available was my biggest deciding factor. It wasn’t easy for us to record How It Feels To Be Something On and The Rising Tide without him. So the prospect of doing it again with all four of us, the way it should be, was a no-brainer.”