In 2010, Jeremy Enigk once again was adrift. His band, Sunny Day Real Estate, had just broken up for the third time, possibly for good, after an unsuccessful attempt to make a new album in the wake of a reunion tour.
“We weren’t a working band,” Enigk explained during a phone interview last week. “We did go into the studio for a couple weeks, but we didn’t really spend that much time developing, or redeveloping, our sound.”
In indie circles, Enigk is a mercurial cult figure, an apt figurehead for a star-crossed band that could be described as the Big Star of ’90s indie, given its haphazard career arc and the consistently beautiful and enduring music the band created in spite of all the hardships. Signed by Sub Pop when Enigk and his bandmates were still in their teens, Sunny Day Real Estate developed an enigmatic mythology almost immediately, shunning most interviews and mysteriously refusing to perform in the state of California, home to several of this country’s most important punk-rock markets, on its early tours. At the center was Enigk, a shy introvert with outsized charisma and an arresting voice capable of soaring from a numb mumble to a pulverizing banshee wail.
In the mid-’90s, Sunny Day Real Estate imploded for the first time in the wake of its 1994 debut, Diary, recognized last year by Rolling Stone as the greatest emo album of all time, in spite of Enigk’s long-standing aversion of the term “emo.” (He prefers “post-hardcore.”) At the time, the breakup was blamed on Enigk’s intense Christian convictions, though in reality Sunny Day Real Estate was pulled apart by the usual interpersonal difficulties that often crop up among young, immature men in rock bands. Sealing the band’s fate was Dave Grohl, who drafted Sunny Day’s rhythm section, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, for his new post-Nirvana group, Foo Fighters. (The group did manage to record an emotionally ravaged sophomore album, 1995’s LP2, before officially disbanding.)
Later in the decade, Sunny Day Real Estate reformed and released two excellent classic rock-indebted albums, 1998’s How It Feels To Be Something On and 2000’s The Rising Tide, that have arguably proven to be even more influential on modern punk and emo acts, taking the adolescent anthems of Diary in more grandiose, Zeppelin-esque directions. But when the band’s label was bankrupted on the eve of a European tour in support of The Rising Tide, Sunny Day Real Estate found itself waylaid and soon dissolved once again.
After Sunny Day’s third crushing setback in 2010 — which Enigk blames on communication issues and his refusal to front a “mail-in band” composed of members with other personal and professional priorities — he embarked on an extended period of introspection, moving to the country and spending time with his family. In 2015, Enigk finally emerged from this hiatus with intentions of re-establishing his solo career, soliciting fans on the artist-patron platform PledgeMusic to support the recording of a new album. Over the course of two years, Enigk worked on the album, which he called Ghosts, with collaborators in Virginia and Spain, wedding grand orchestrations to sweeping, acoustic-based songs that recall the gorgeously eccentric chamber-folk of his 1996 solo debut, Return Of The Frog Queen. It’s an impressive, occasionally awe-inspiring and definitively mature work by an artist still commonly associated with the bottomless angst of teens and 20-somethings.
Released in October, Ghosts would appear poised to be embraced by fans and critics that have championed the recent wave of so-called emo revival bands in the 2010s, given that it’s the first album in eight years by one of the scene’s most iconic artists. But Ghosts has garnered virtually no publicity or even cursory album reviews. It’s possible that the very same people who have pontificated on the greatness of Diary in retrospective emo features don’t even know it exists.
This is due in part to Enigk being a one-man operation these days — he has no manager, no publicist, and no record label. I sent him an email in early November via his Bandcamp page, and to my surprise, he responded while on a tour of intimate living-room shows up and down the west coast.
When I phoned a few days before Thanksgiving, Enigk said he was in the midst of boxing up vinyl records and sending them to fans who preordered Ghosts several weeks after the album was purportedly released. In the prime of Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk seemed like a young man stymied by contradictory impulses — he wrote songs that aspired to the emotional highs of U2, but he was ambivalent about embracing the life of a careerist musician. At 43, Enigk is still unsettled. Enigk knows he needs help in order for Ghosts to be heard by the audience it deserves. But while there are surely indie labels that would love to be in business with the lead singer of Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk says he hasn’t found the right fit yet. He wants to reboot his career, but only on his own uncompromising terms.
To be honest, it’s not clear what exactly Enigk wants. The same questing, eternally lost quality that makes Sunny Day Real Estate songs so haunting still seems very much present in Enigk’s current life. Read a condensed version of our conversation, which lightly touches on these themes among other questions about his new music and independent lifestyle, below.
What was it like playing living rooms?
It was a pretty new experience, I haven’t played living rooms since I was maybe 20 or something. It was a little bit nerve-wracking in some cases, going into a person’s home. But it turns out that everybody that hosted the shows were, of course, incredibly kind and welcoming and great hosts, so it was good.
I’ve been wanting to do a full band tour for the release of my record, and I was a little late on setting it up, so I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to do this as a precursor to a bigger tour.
I thought it was interesting that you played a bunch of shows in California, given that Sunny Day Real Estate initially refused to play California early on.
[Laughs] It wasn’t so much the band as it was Dan Hoerner, the guitar player. We really don’t know why — to this day he’s never really given much of an explanation — but we just thought it was kind of awesome at the time, like, ‘Yeah sure, we just won’t play California if you don’t want to.’ Then it became a funny, weird thing that ended up working for us. I don’t know.
It took you two years to complete Ghosts, and you now function as a one-man operation, managing yourself, booking your own shows, and even packaging up records and sending them to fans. I assume those additional duties slowed down the making of the record?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. I’m really in a lot of ways starting over again. Fortunately I have my foot in the door. I’m able to do shows, I do have a legacy still. But with no management, label, and all that kind of stuff, I do literally have to do everything myself. It’s a learning curve, I started off at 17, 18 years old, just plucked right out of the earth and was on top immediately, and everything was always taken care of for me. And now, things are a lot different. The music industry has changed. So yeah, that was a big part of it, not having the infrastructure.
Would you prefer to have some of that industry infrastructure? Surely there are managers that would want to work with you, and labels that would put out a record as accomplished as Ghosts?
I guess I’m really looking for the right scenario. The people that I have talked to, it hasn’t quite worked out. Some people are like, ‘Well, you haven’t put out a record in eight years, maybe it’ll be another eight years.”‘That’s one thing, but also I want a friendship and a relationship. I want to make sure that if I’m gonna sign on with somebody, that they’re gonna do the job that needs to be done, and that it’s gonna be a good fit and they’re gonna be happy with the way I look at the music business and what it is I’m doing.
I’m not the type of guy who likes to sell himself. I’m not comfortable with that, so I want alternative ways of doing things that don’t completely make me a sellout or something. That might not totally appeal to everybody who needs to have a financial bottom line.
When you say ‘alternative ways of doing things,’ do you have anything in mind specifically?
I guess one of the most common things that I’ve always run into — maybe this is a fault of mine — is that if you want to get ahead with your business, you do anything and everything that people throw at you: every interview, every show, every opportunity. Or you just settle for a certain kind of music video and just do everything the normal way. But I would like to do creative types of videos or something that’s not the mainstream, but something that’s artistic and creative. I don’t know.
That’s the best way I guess I can answer the question, I don’t like to be a sheep, I guess, probably to a fault. Yeah, probably to a fault.
You obviously put a lot of care into the recording of Ghosts — it sounds luminous and expansive. But it has received virtually no publicity since its release in October. Let’s say your ideal career situation materializes: What does that look like? I assume you don’t necessarily want to headline Coachella or something.
That would be amazing, I would never count out something like that, but I think it’s unlikely right now. Obviously, in order to do stuff like that, I would really need a team, which I am looking for and want to build, to make the bigger sort of things possible. But Ghosts to me is, first and foremost, I still would love to build that infrastructure and do as much as I can with Ghosts as possible. Just because it was released a month ago doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t have legs. I could probably work it another year and be totally fine. So finding and building an infrastructure would be amazing, and it’s something I’m in the process of doing right now.
When I started this record, my long-term goal was to use this album as a launching pad for the next three records. I want to do another one, by next year if possible, and then continue to put our music on a more consistent basis.
Do you really have three new albums in the works?
The reason why I say three records, it’s just like a three-year plan, or a five-year plan. It’s a tentative goal, to create a new base. I don’t want to flounder or just be pushed by the wind so much.
I don’t want to use the word ‘retire,’ but is it fair to say that you backed away from a music career for a while?
I never stop making music, I’m always writing at home. But publicly, yeah, I backed away. I didn’t really need to put anything out publicly. I’ve lived in the country for eight years. I spent a lot of time with family, I did a lot of soul-searching and looking within myself, and trying to figure out what it is I want to do with this next chapter of my life. From the moment I was 17, and signed on a label, I was just swept away by this huge wave Sunny Day created, and I rode that wave for a long time. But waves eventually start to get smaller and smaller. I had to stop, look at the legacy, and look at my life and who I am as a person. That’s ultimately what I was doing, I just slowed down and started looking within.
Did you ever find a new way to making a living, if only temporarily?
I’m not sure what else I could do. I have dreams of doing things other than… I don’t really know where to start. Whether it be something more along the lines of helping people who don’t have the advantages I have, or even just being a dishwasher. A bunch of the times I just want the mundane job of being a dishwasher — I don’t have to think, I don’t have to create, I can just meditate and just do the routine. But I think that would probably drive me crazy, just doing that.
Is Sunny Day Real Estate finished for good?
I don’t know. It was something I did 20, 25 years ago, and I’ll always love those songs and what we did. Those guys are my family. But we’ll see. It’s onward and upward. We all have different lives now, but we’re a family. We were swept away by a very unusual scenario, of four guys getting together very young, and you just get put in such a strange world so fast that you create just a crazy bond. But you leave this thing behind that just doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, it just seems to go away. But it’s amazing, it’s a great achievement I think.
Ghosts is out now. Get it via Lewis Hollow here.