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Sunny Day Real Estate | Rising Tide | interview | Dan Hoerner | indie | alternative | rock | Lollipop
Sunny Day Real Estate
The Rising Tide (Time Bomb)
An interview with guitarist Dan Hoerner
by Tim Den
As any indie rock fan should know by now, Sunny Day Real Estate is not simply a band: they're a myth, a legend. An outfit that, in its early years, suffered legal battles with the state of California (the full band hadn't played inside the state limits until recently), heated fights between its members, a messy break-up (and saw its rhythm section defect to Foo Fighters), all the while practically inventing the genre known as modern day "emo" (let's not forget their denial of all interviews and press photos) with their two records, Diary and LP2, practically turned into a religion amongst the underground. Sounds like a rock'n'roll fairy tale come true, huh? Well, like a fairy tale, this story has a happy ending, too.
The group, after a two-and-a-half year break-up, reformed in '97 (without bassist Nate Mendel, who still serves the Foos) and released their best record, How it Feels to Be Something On, to the praise of critics and fans. Sunny Day Real Estate was back - as unbelievable as that was to the legions of cult-like followers who bathed in the band's demise like a Lennonesque tragedy - and they were better than ever. Apparently, the band's time off was exactly what the two chief songwriters, Jeremy Enigk (guitar/vocals) and Dan Hoerner (guitar/backup vocals), needed. Transformed from the earlier cut-and-paste, riff-oriented (and often obtuse) material of the first two records, How it Feels to Be Something On was a fluid (emotionally, sonically, and melodically) output. From the track sequencing to the gorgeous packaging, this was the record that made Sunny Day Real Estate worthy of their status. Very few past believers thought it betrayed the loud-soft formula that the band trademarked, but most realized that the band was beyond mundane schticks by now. Sunny Day Real Estate today is a devastating emotional pop band, writing guitar-driven pop songs neither indie rock nor emo can afford to look in the eye. With Enigk's knack for finding the sneakiest (and tastiest) nooks and crannies for his vocal lines (something he began to focus on with his solo record, Return of the Frog Queen, made during the break-up years) and the band's often Middle Eastern-flavored, often harmony-layered riffing, Sunny Day Real Estate has proven once again that they are only going to get better with their new record, The Rising Tide. Very few, if any, bands have been able to be better than they originally were after a break-up.
When did you finish recording the new record?
Sometime around February, I think. We wrote the whole thing fast; it was great. It took about two to three months to write the material, and we did it as a three-piece (Jeremy played bass). It felt so old school, the three of us in the basement jamming. We felt like The Police. (laugh)
Didn't you start out as a three-piece?
Yeah, and a few of the songs on Diary were written as a three-piece, that's why making the new album felt like the old days. It's great to have the closeness of three people in each other's faces. And Jeremy, he did such an amazing job on the bass.
He works the bass like he works his vocals: he finds the craziest little corners to hide in (melodically). The playing's inventive like Nate, but definitely different in the places it discovers.
It doesn't sound like Nate because it's Jeremy. What he did doesn't sound like anyone but himself. He totally nailed it. The first day we started jamming, we were kind of nervous about how it was all going to work out. But we pretty much had "Killed by an Angel" by the time the jam ended, and it was just like (to Jeremy) "Okay. You obviously rule!"
Why were some of the songs on Diary written as a three-piece? Wasn't Jeremy in the band by that time?
Yes, but Nate was on tour for a while with his old band, Christ On A Crutch, so there were only three of us. Some of the stuff on Diary was also written before Jeremy joined the band.
Why did you give up the frontman position to someone joining the band?
Because Jeremy is great! Why settle for anything less when you can have a talented vocalist like him?
Do you sing at all?
I do live, but most of the vocals on the record are Jeremy's, just like on How it Feels to Be Something On. I'll tell you a sneaky secret though: on the first song ("Killed by an Angel"), I whisper the word "truth" really low.
Why didn't you keep Joe (Skyward, touring bassist/backup vocalist for the How it Feels to Be Something On tour)?
There was never any question that we needed to write and record as Sunny Day Real Estate and only Sunny Day Real Estate. Joe was great for the tour, but there was never any intention to keep him permanently as a member. He might've had a different idea, I don't know. We tried to find a fourth member during How it Feels to Be Something On, but it just didn't work. No one can fill Nate's shoes. With this record, I seriously believe that we'll never have a bass player unless it's Nate (or Jeremy doing the tracks). It's so exciting to be a three-piece now, a unit. It's almost impossible for someone new to step into this formula, so why force it? We just jammed, and it was totally awesome.
Jeremy's instrument is still guitar though, right? He's not going to be "the bass player" now, is he? What are you going to do live?
He'll be playing guitar live.
Who will play bass?
Um... we don't know yet. We haven't decided.
Maybe Joe again?
We're not sure. We've got a couple of guys interested, and we'll chose one of them to learn Jeremy's (and the old songs') bass lines. We're also bringing a keyboard player. Much of the new record's atmosphere is because of the keyboards, so we want to make the live shows just as powerful. We've got a fantastic guy lined up.
Joe did really great backups live...
This time we're not just going to have a bass player doing the backups, but also the keyboard guy. The harmonies are going to be crazy, just like on the new album.
Do any of you still talk to Nate or Jeff (Palmer, bassist on How it Feels to Be Something On)?
Willie (drummer) still talks to Nate a lot; they're pretty close. I haven't talked to Nate in years. He actually quit Foo Fighters for two days just to join us, but then he chickened out. It was either a guaranteed paycheck or an uncertain future with an extremely eclectic band that might or might not happen.
Sometimes it's painfully obvious that he's not 100% happy playing with Foo Fighters.
Oh, I think that's obvious. Nate's an amazing bassist. And knowing him like I do, he can't be 100% happy playing in a 4/4 pop rock band. His melodic tendencies are more than that. But I haven't communicated with him in a while. I probably don't even know him anymore. I still remember how torn up he was over this though. Jeff... he was just hired to play on the record. I don't think he was meant to be permanent either. How it Feels to Be Something On was us trying to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do; how we were going to be a band again.
I believe it was your best work to date. I saw it as a transformation -- possibly because of the time off -- of you from a post-hardcore, cut-and-paste riff band to a smooth, flowing pop machine.
Oh yeah! I think if you do something long enough, it becomes your thing. We do Sunny Day Real Estate. We're doing it better than we ever thought we could, and maybe back in the early days we were trying to be other people. It's hard not to be influenced by contemporaries who you look up to. Maybe I was trying to be The Edge or Ian McKaye. (laugh) I should pay Ian McKaye royalties for ripping him off so much. (laugh) But thank you! That means a lot. It's very encouraging. I believe we did progress, and I believe that it's important to keep progressing. That's why I think this record is even better. The Rising Tide is our best record. No question about it. It was great to produce How it Feels to Be Something On ourselves, finding our footing. But we got this unbelievable producer for The Rising Tide (Lou Giordano). He's just amazing. This record is us standing on two feet.
As far as songwriting goes, do you come up with ideas solely on jamming or does one of you bring an entire song in?
Mostly Jeremy and I will bring in ideas that are pretty well formed. Like I brought in the opening riff to "Killed by an Angel," then we jammed it and morphed it into what you hear now. Same thing with Jeremy's ideas: they'll be pretty well formed, but one of us will flesh it out. Willie will add his mark on it and such. I wrote a little more than half of the lyrics because Jeremy had so much to do on this album as it was: singing, playing guitar, bass, keyboards... it was nice for him to not have to worry about the words. I took home scratch tapes with his rough vocal lines and just sat down and put words to it. Songs like "Snibe" and "Killed by an Angel" are some of my favorites.
An emerging theme in your music has been a Middle Eastern undertone...
Jeremy and I are both huge fans of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who's sadly passed away. He's been a big influence on us not just melodically, but spiritually as well. My influences tend to change and shift often, but I can say for sure that Nusrat will always be a big part of my inspiration. You can hear the Middle Eastern sneaking in on "Fool in the Photograph" and "Roses in Water" very clearly.
How is Jeremy, mentally and spiritually (his conversion to Christianity was one of the reasons the band initially broke up)?
Fantastic. He does interviews once in a while, but I handle most of them. He's a bit of a recluse. He's wonderful: he's happy with the band but he doesn't like talking about it (analyzing it for interviews). It was difficult for him -- and all of us -- during the break-up. There was a lot of confusion and feeling lost. But now we all share a vision of doing something amazing, of having our music heard. We're counting our blessings to have reached this point, having gone through all the past. We're completely blown away by what we've already achieved
What happened with your old label, SubPop?
We wanted to get out of the deal. We finished our contract faithfully, completed our term without complaints. But they wouldn't let us go. Jeremy still had a solo thing signed with them, so they said we couldn't leave. It was a complete mess: total bullshit. They basically said "if you want to go, we'll make you jump through hoops, pay a shitload of money, and we'll screw you." They put out this... pornographic video of our live show. It was the worst quality. The CD that accompanied it is dogshit too. To all the people out there: please don't buy either. It looks like shit and it sounds even worse. Our fans are really gracious; they buy whatever has our name on it, and I feel horrible they're being exploited. It's just evil. We were forced to do it. And I'm sure we'll never see any royalties from it. They're still saying we owe money, but as it is, we're never going to recoup from any of the SubPop stuff. I don't think we'll ever get out of that hole. Again, I can't stress enough that we had no say in the creation of the live releases. If you're going to get it to complete a collection or something, that's one thing, but I'd hate for people to be introduced to us through those records.
Wow. I didn't know it was that complicated. I thought Time Bomb just bought out your contract.
Time Bomb didn't pay anything. We paid out of our own pockets. Personal cash, taken from us. It's unbelievable. As an artist, you make things for yourself, but it's painful when someone else owns it and can do anything with it. It's just wrong!!!
Alright, here's the dreaded question: What are your thoughts on the genre that claims to be inspired by Sunny Day Real Estate? As in "emo..."
Um... I really have no opinion on it. I don't know any emo bands. I mean, I know heavy metal. Metallica, Queensrÿche... you know they're heavy metal bands. Or swing bands are like Cherry Poppin' Daddys. But emo is sketchy. Who is emo? What does it sound like? I've never heard the music and I don't know any emo bands. I would say Sunny Day Real Estate is definitely rock, but in a class by itself. Not heavy metal, but not Backstreet Boys either. I guess we can be similar to U2 or REM in that we just want to be an amazing rock band. But people like labels. They like to pigeonhole something to make it easier to distinguish or recognize. If they want to call us emo because it's easier for them, I guess that's OK. It's not gonna kill me. It doesn't offend me. I don't hate any bands called emo 'cause I don't know them so I don't feel it's a diss. I know that, "back in the day," kids who liked Nirvana called them indie rock. But today indie means "you suck and you'll never go anywhere," like the kiss of death. (laugh) So we definitely don't want to be indie, but don't know what emo is either, so we don't want to be emo. We just want to be an amazing rock band. Sunny Day Real Estate, for us, is what we want to say. Music is a medium for us to express our ideas. Not just crap like "babybabybabybaby -- I want to fuck you -- babybabybaby," but passionate ideas.