With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Writer Ian King reflects on Sunny Day Real Estate's How It Feels to Be Something On as the album turns 20 years old this month.
Three songs into the first show of Sunny Day Real Estate’s first reunion, on July 11th, 1998, a Saturday night at the Moore Theatre, guitarist Dan Hoerner spoke to the sold-out audience as the band tuned. “This is our new record, I hope you like it.” A warm response rang back at him, followed by scattered shouts from the crowd. “William!” “We love you, man!” “The new stuff sounds great!” “I think that’s the Goldsmith clan right there,” replied Hoerner, pointing up to the balcony, where toward the front there was a cluster of youngsters in matching brand new band t-shirts as if they had just come from Sunny Day Summer Camp.
The show that night was one of those that felt like an important event, not a mere concert. Word floating around the Moore Theatre was that people had traveled to Seattle from all over the country to be there, which didn’t sound like an exaggeration. The show had sold out quickly, and, as journalist Joe Ehrbar recalled in his cover interview with the band for The Rocket later that summer in '98, fans outside were offering as much as $50 for a ticket in, decent money for a single concert back then. “Inside,” he writes, “the band took the stage to a hero’s welcome before a hometown crowd of 1,300, about twice as big as any show the band had played in its first incarnation.”
Today, no one believes a band when they publicly declare that they have broken up for good, but back then they did. In the case of Sunny Day Real Estate, it was especially believable. Singer/guitarist Jeremy Enigk, drummer William Goldsmith, Hoerner, and original bassist Nate Mendel had built their reputation on intensity, and the first incarnation of the group in the early 1990s lived and died by that sword. In another 1998 cover interview, this time for Magnet, writer David Daley traced Sunny Day’s imminent dissolution to the frustrated climax of a set at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., at the end of 1994. Though it wasn’t public knowledge at the time, as far as the band was concerned, when they went into the studio with producer Brad Wood in 1995 to record the follow-up to their debut Diary, the self-titled second LP known as the Pink Album, they had already pretty much broken up.
Drastic changes for all four of them immediately followed: Mendel and Goldsmith were swooped up by Dave Grohl to be the Foo Fighters’ rhythm section, Enigk got to work on an indie chamber pop masterpiece, and Hoerner moved to Eastern Washington to start a self-sustaining farm. There was nothing vague about the ending of Sunny Day Real Estate. Fans who had seen the band play live suddenly had something that those who had missed out, either from being too young or just unlucky, never would. It was all very final, until one day suddenly it wasn’t, when in 1997 rumors (which were never far from the band’s side) that they might reunite started to circulate. The gossip eventually proved out -- except that Mendel, who opted to stay with the Foo Fighters, would be replaced by Jeff Palmer, formerly of San Francisco band the Mommyheads.
So -- after a couple of opening acts, one of which was another great local group, 764-Hero -- there they were: Enigk, Hoerner, Goldsmith, and Palmer (who departed the group shortly after), on stage at the Moore Theatre that evening, facing thirteen-hundred of the most fortunate rock fans in the world at that moment. Would they open with an obvious favorite, such as Diary’s “Seven” or “In Circles”? Or “8”, which had somehow made its way onto the mega-hit soundtrack album to the 1995 blockbuster, Batman Forever? As the crowd settled down Enigk began playing a gentle chord on his gold Gibson Les Paul with his fingers, and the others followed him into “Guitar and Video Games.”
That night, the audience was the first to be introduced to How It Feels to Be Something On (albeit out of sequence), which was headed for record store shelves that coming September. “Guitar and Video Games” was unknown. The second song, “100 Million,” was being put in front of the public for the first time ever, too. Same with the next, “Roses in Water.” After two more new ones, “Every Shining Time You Arrive” and “Pillars” -- and almost everyone in the room didn’t know these titles at the time -- it became clear that the band was far more interested in where they currently were than where they had been.
The Moore audience remained content to be in Sunny Day’s presence again, even as the wait for the familiar continued. When sequential calls for Diary songs “47” and “48” were made, Hoerner quietly played a few notes of “47” before Enigk demurred: “It’s been so long.” Finally, in the encore, they obliged with “In Circles” and the Pink Album’s “J’Nuh.” The reception was rapturous. Everyone wanted more, but that was it. Ehrbar’s piece in The Rocket acknowledged that when the band played the same set six days later at Irving Plaza in New York City, some show-goers were vocal about their disappointment with the lack of old material. It may not have been as noticeable as in New York, but at the Moore Theatre that night, too, you could hear a few scattered boos mingling with the fading applause as the house lights came up.
It speaks to the intensity of Sunny Day Real Estate fandom at the time, not so much to the band or the show itself, that some in the crowd would choose to boo their heroes at their own reunion show. Three-plus years away had only stoked the fires. “When Sunny Day Real Estate dissolved,” writes Ehrbar, “their reputation didn’t evaporate with them. It’s grown to the point that they’ve been mythologized, inside and outside the Northwest…. If anything, as emocore continues to knock on the door of wider appeal, Sunny Day Real Estate has only gotten more popular.”
The issue was that, while fans were clinging to their copies of Diary or the Pink Album, the band had done some growing up as they had grown apart and come back together. Grunge was gone, and the second wave of emo (back then still equally referred to as “emocore”) had risen up in the underground while Sunny Day was away, but the new music they were writing didn’t have as much to do with their hometown history or post-hardcore pedigree as the old songs. Even on first exposure at the Moore Theatre, it was clear that the new album wasn’t going to revisit former glories. The songs had more space, more delicacy, more color.
How It Feels to Be Something On also wasn’t as far removed from the old stuff as many felt at the time. True, Enigk and Hoerner were citing Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in practically every interview they did for the album, “Every Shining Time You Arrive” was led by an acoustic guitar, and “The Prophet” had a bit of a proggy structure. There was nothing as fast as “Shadows” or as heavy as “Sometimes.” However, the three musicians were still identifiably themselves: Goldsmith still hit with the same power and dexterity, Hoerner’s guitar work on songs like “Pillars” set a familiar mood, and no one could mistake Enigk’s captivating voice for anyone else’s. (Almost no one: a guy behind the counter one day back then at the old Sub Pop Mega Mart in Pike Place Market bemused this writer by comparing the album to Jane’s Addiction.)
The album didn’t so much divide Sunny Day fans as leave a segment of them preferring the early records, which is a natural and unavoidable result of any band moving forward creatively. The press at the time was less torn and largely viewed How It Feels... as a step forward. Daley called it their best effort by far, a record aware of their legacy but unafraid of new directions, which was a sentiment that others concurred with. Even as the band gradually began to rehearse more of the old songs and work them into their live sets (as captured by their Live album and video the following year), they weren’t interested in looking back. “There are going to be a lot of people that say, ‘I hate the new Sunny Day. I miss the old Sunny Day,’” Goldsmith told Daley. “Just wait. The next record will be a lot different from this one.”
At the time, the fact that they were giving interviews at all was a sign of how things had changed in the group. In the Diary days, their policy was not to talk to the media, and they also wouldn’t play shows as a full band in California, providing no specific reason for either decision. The simple answer was that the band simply didn’t think they had much to say the first time around and felt that the music said enough for them. (The California thing remains something of a mystery, though the objection to the Golden State apparently came from Hoerner.)
How It Feels..., then, is, among other things, the sound of a band realizing and accepting that they have a history as well as a future. The urgency of the moment isn’t diminished but tempered by experience. Their quiet-loud duality doesn’t smooth out but gives way to more complex textures. The angst may not have been running as high, but it is every bit as passionate and (yes) emotional as the two albums that came before it.
Twenty years on, as immediate differences diminish, a broader picture of the album’s context has come into view. For fans nowadays who were too young to be there for both the early 1990s and late 1990s eras, the difference between the two is of less significance, and How It Feels... is just as likely to be their favorite as one of the first two. Not too many major bands have attempted to cover Sunny Day over the years, but when Paramore chose to do a song, it was “Faces in Disguise” from their fourth and final studio album from 2000, The Rising Tide. The future that the band saw for themselves back in 1998 ultimately may not have stretched as far as everyone would have hoped, but without their conviction and optimism in the moment, How It Feels... would not have happened in the first place.
How It Feels to Be Something On is available via Sub Pop Records. Ian King is the author of Appetite for Definition: An A-Z Guide to Rock Genres, out November 6th via HarperCollins Books. He is also a contributor to websites The Line of Best Fit and PopMatters.
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