30 Years Later, Timelessness and Forgiveness are the Newest Chapters in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary

The venerable Seattle band reflect on their origins and sudden success on arrival, the growth they’ve made amid years of breakups and clashes, and the new poignance their debut record holds on its anniversary.

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30 Years Later, Timelessness and Forgiveness are the Newest Chapters in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary

Sunny Day Real Estate can still vividly remember the magic of their earliest days. “I have a really visceral memory,” lead guitarist Dan Hoerner recounts, “of the first time that Jeremy, William and I played together. I had this frisson of electricity that just passed through my body. All the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck were standing up, and I was feeling like I was hearing the best music I had ever heard. I just knew there was something absolutely uncanny and electric happening.” Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Jeremy Enigk cherishes what the band captured at its outset with just as much wonderment: “It was like having magical powers, like a weird alchemy. We felt like wizards—or I did, anyway,” he says.

It’s 30 years to the day since the Seattle indie rockers released their landmark debut Diary through Sub Pop at the height of the label’s “Seattle sound” heyday, but the luster hasn’t faded for them in the slightest. They’re still just as enamored with it as their avid, intergenerational listeners, if their eager embrace of the 30th anniversary of Diary via touring and a live album weren’t evidence enough.

And it’s easy to see why: Diary is still a perfect storm of a record. Enigk’s voice elegantly cradles his most tender words in one moment, before charging into wrought screams of pure passion against Hoerner’s harmonies. Hoerner’s riffs grip with an urgency and force that’s matched by William Goldsmith’s precision behind the drums, each snare hit an emphatic punch that sucks the air out of the room, and former bassist Nate Mendel adds a whole melodic dimension of his own, as if creating ‘90s rock’s answer to John Entwhistle. The emphasis on patience and dynamics makes each refrain’s emergence all the more arresting—when a chorus hits on Diary, it explodes. The refrains on “Seven” and “In Circles” and “The Blankets Were the Stairs” wallop like a sandbag dropped on your skull, the sheer force and emotion put into their every syllable rendering them anthemic on arrival.

It’s no wonder a record this potent would see its reputation endure—and, arguably, only grow—with time, even if that reality seemed impossible for the band to fathom back in the early 1990s. Speaking with Hoerner, Enigk, and Goldsmith over Zoom before one of numerous legs in their extensive Diary anniversary tour, one can sense the disbelief still settling in. “I was still in high school,” Enigk says, “and we started to play as a three-piece when Nate was on tour, just for fun. We just wanted to get together. It was really just a thing we were doing in the basement for ourselves.” The three of them never once imagined the reach that these nascent songs they were crafting would have this lifespan, this wide of a reach. Instead, Enigk felt something more important stand out: “There was so much joy and laughter.”

The story and mythology of Sunny Day Real Estate have been well-documented at this point by fans gripped by the band’s idiosyncratic mystique, but hearing these three founding members recounting it and reminiscing is a joy unto itself. In the early ‘90s, Goldsmith was notorious for being in multiple bands at once, to the point where he was playing with Enigk in Reason for Hate while also drumming with Hoerner and Mendel in Empty Set, along with two other bands simultaneously. “There were always issues of bands fighting over who gets to have William,” Enigk says with a laugh. When he heard that Goldsmith was making music with Mendel, he jokingly mentions thinking, “‘We’ve lost William forever.’”Hoerner elaborates: “Nate was a rockstar back then.” Though still relatively young, Mendel already had a wealth of experience under his belt, through stints in Diddly Squat, Brotherhood and Christ on a Crutch. “All of us were just kids, but Nate was already an established god in the pantheon of punk in Seattle.”

Goldsmith describes his initial sessions with Hoerner and Mendel as “really inspired times and huge learning experiences,” comparing the experience to “trying to learn a more sophisticated version of air sculpture.” The worlds of Empty Set and Reason for Hate collided when Hoerner and Mendel heard Enigk performing solo, and brought him on to open for Empty Set at several shows. Soon after, Mendel went on tour with Christ on a Crutch, leaving Enigk, Hoerner and Goldsmith together for the first time. From the project this trio formed from those jams—Thief, Steal Me a Peach—came the earliest bones of what Sunny Day Real Estate would blossom into. “We ditched the 46 songs we wrote previously and then started fresh,” Goldsmith says. “The hardcore scene had a lot of screaming, so the focus on melody and storytelling as opposed to protest was an experiment.” When Mendel returned from tour, the three showed him what they had come up with in his absence, and the change in direction stuck.

From here, Sunny Day Real Estate’s breakthrough happened in a rush that took all involved by surprise. “It was a whirlwind,” Enigk recounts, still stunned. “The next thing we know, we play two shows and we’re already on a label with Sub Pop.” Sunny Day Real Estate played their first two shows at The Crocodile in Seattle, afforded the opportunity by future Sunn O))) guitarist Greg Anderson, whose punk band Engine Kid had to drop from the first of these gigs. Anderson put in a good word for Sunny Day Real Estate to venue booker Erik Soderstrom, and the group took Engine Kid’s place on the bill. “We played that show,” Goldsmith says, “and then Eric said, ‘As an experiment, I’m gonna put you playing first at the Sub Pop showcase that’s coming up.’” Though Goldsmith mentions only “one-and-a-half people” came to watch their subsequent set, one of those was Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop. “He came up and said, ‘Do you guys want to make a record?’ We laughed at first, because it’s a hard thing to process.”

“At the time, Sub Pop was the pinnacle,” Hoerner adds. By then, they had already more than made a name for themselves in the scene by—among other things—putting out Mudhoney’s first releases, reissuing the Wipers’ cult classic Is This Real? and, most significantly, being Nirvana’s first home and the label that released Bleach. “Everybody wanted to sound like Nirvana, and for good reason,” Hoerner continues. “In my opinion, there was no record label that had more cache, that was more important.”

“We didn’t even really look at the contract,” Enigk says. “We just signed it.”

When Diary dropped a mere two years after Sunny Day Real Estate’s formation, its most alluring qualities—and staggering distinction from any of the band’s peers—stood out immediately. One of those was the numbering that governed some of the track titles, such as “Seven,” “47” and “48,” which fans came to ascribe as reference to where each song fell sequentially in the band’s compositional history. (When Enigk joined the band, the mythology went, “48” was the last song to be named as such in the initial sequence; then, Sunny Day Real Estate reset the numbers, and started the count over.)

I sense this might be a good opportunity to ask the band what appealed to them about giving these tracks such simple names. “Laziness?” Enigk answers quizzically, ambiguously joking. “No! Not laziness!” Goldsmith interjects, unable to contain his laughter. Instead, he offers an even more matter-of-fact answer: “Oftentimes, the mistake would be made where someone would say, ‘William, what’s the song called?’”

Goldsmith follows by confirming the mythology: “Seven”—as well “8” and “9,” penned at the same time, despite not making it onto the Diary tracklist—were the seventh, eighth, and ninth songs written after Enigk joined the lineup. And though Goldsmith says the same of “47” and “48” being the final songs written pre-Enigk, Enigk chimes in with a fact that complicates the simplicity of that story: “But ‘47’ was technically the 10th song we had written with me in the band. But we were like, ‘We can’t call it “10”—we can’t keep on doing this! So let’s just call it “47.”’ Because we’re really smart and creative.”

Hoerner, Enigk and Goldsmith offer a few different nods to what compelled them to follow this naming scheme in a deeper sense, among them inspiration from Fugazi’s “Song #1.” Enigk mentions seeing it as a common juxtaposition of the time: a somewhat long band name, offset by an extremely short song name. “That was kind of an emo thing,” he says, before quickly adding, in a disclaimer the band has been accustomed to making, “but we weren’t emo.” But it’s Hoerner who sees it being even more multifaceted. “A lot of it is a punk rock aesthetic of letting the song speak for itself and not needing to put a noetic bow on top to be like, ‘This is what the song is about. And a lot of it is humor. You can’t underestimate what goofs we were. We don’t get enough credit for the hilarious comedians that we are, or find ourselves to be.” (Regarding the band’s deep cut “96,” which doesn’t follow the naming conventions of the numbered tracks whatsoever, Hoerner simply remarks, “We were kooks.”)

The band singles out “Seven” as a particularly special track in this regard—fitting, given its place as the thunderous opener on Diary, as well as the first song they wrote once Mandel returned from tour—and, therefore, the first song they wrote under the name Sunny Day Real Estate. Goldsmith notes that, serendipitously, the track took them about seven hours to finish writing and arranging, but Hoerner has another view on its title: “‘Seven’ looks cool, and also it’s lucky. It was our first real ‘kick down the door’ moment.” “Seven” fully announced Sunny Day Real Estate to the world: It barrels through its verses with emphatic shifts in volume, tone and syncopation, before rushing into its fiery chorus: “You’ll taste it / You’ll taste it / In time.” Even today, there’s something truly transcendental about how gargantuan the track sounds, and the band knew it so well even in their infancy that they had the song’s name evoke it. “And we didn’t use the number,” Hoerner notes. “We wrote it out. It was very intentional. It had to be written as the word.” Goldsmith cuts in: “But then we were so tired after writing it out that we just put the number ‘8.’”

Hearing the band talk about how enamored they still are with tracks like “Seven” to this day is captivating, and the same goes for hearing about their evolving relationships to the songs they wrote in their youth. Enigk, especially, finds himself constantly discovering new meanings in the lyrics that leave his mouth. He brings up a line from non-album cut “9” that still conjures the exact image he had in mind 30 years ago: “We laid out a circle of roses.” “I see the image of what that is,” Enigk muses. “I see the person I was in love with every time. But now, there are new associations that I can attach, here and there, that pull out an emotional response for me live. I didn’t expect that. There is an openness to the lyrics. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a breakup—it can be about a family member, or anything you want to associate with it.”

Hoerner’s reverence, meanwhile, takes an even wider view: “I think we unknowingly touched on a lot of different topics as kids that are timeless. We were talking about loss and love and heartbreak and hope and disillusionment and fear and overcoming it. They’re all still relevant. To me, they’re the themes that define what it is to exist. Even though some of the associations might be slightly different, the topics we were talking about were really transcendent and, honestly, ahead of our time for how young we were. I was a kid, William was a kid, Jeremy was a kid—and yet, we were talking about these really serious, deep things that still are very resonant today. That’s part of Diary’s timelessness—we somehow made this huge philosophical leap beyond the specific moment.” Goldsmith shares this view, in more succinct terms: “Sunny Day has always been about an honest documentation about the human experience through music. As painful as that is.”

The three see this as an opportunity to riff on how unhappy much of their music is, before the subject of “Round” comes up. Enigk and Goldsmith joke about how relatively exuberant it sounds, until Hoerner overpowers them, saying, “No, it’s totally dark! It’s about being stuck in an eternal cycle of pain! It’s totally not happy. It just sounds happy. They eventually settle on an agreement about the words “in time” in the chorus to “Seven” having a hopeful, if bittersweet, catharsis to it. “Bringing chaos into order is what I’ve always said,” Enigk adds. “There’s all that emotion, and this is a way—as an artist—to really define it, be able to look at it, and set it aside, and no longer have to hold onto it.”

The dynamic between Enigk, Hoerner and Goldsmith is so jovial—so prone to breaking out into quick-witted comical exchanges between the three—that one would be forgiven for forgetting Sunny Day Real Estate’s tumultuous history over the years. After all, this is a band who broke up the year after their debut LP dropped, and proceeded to then reunite and break up two more times before this current stint—not to mention the rocky, tenuous saga surrounding their never-released album recorded at the Dave Grohl-owned Studio 606. Yet, the three founding members still in the lineup—who rarely took part in interviews as a full band before now—appear to be in nothing but good spirits, as if they’ve existed in total harmony all these decades.

Hoerner doesn’t mince words as he reflects on where Sunny Day Real Estate is at the moment, after all the band has been through: “I think the reason why we’re in a golden era of Sunny Day is because we’ve reached a point where we’ve been through so much together. There’s this innate love that’s 30 years old—this friendship that’s 30 years old. We’ve gone through enough things—both individually and together—that we’ve come out the other side. And, for whatever reason, we’re a new entity.” With a smirk, he adds, with touchingly honest insight, “And, you know, we can get over shit a lot easier these days. We fix things. We talk. We’ve matured in our relationship to a point where things that may have broken us in the past are a momentary stumble that is easily fixed and moved beyond. We’re carrying this maturity now into this project. We get to be like kids, but we get to be kids who have the tools to actually talk about things and fix things and make plans. There’s a part of me that maybe wishes we could be this back in 1994, but maybe the only way we can be what we are now is to go through what we’ve gone through to get here. And where we are right now is honestly the best place we’ve ever been.”

“That’s actually the first time we’ve ever talked about it,” Enigk remarks. “That’s really the fire that caused this reunion: trying to bring that spirit of forgiveness back, and do it with goodwill and healing.” There’s a tangible hope and warmth to these words—in seeing the band confronting their shaky past with a newfound reconciliation. The current moment marks celebration for Sunny Day Real Estate, but it also marks an opportunity for Enigk, Hoerner and Goldsmith to grow—as artists and as people.

This outlook that the group shares now is already apparent in the sheer quality and productivity of their work since reuniting in 2022. The band is already on their third tour in as many years, and their plans for the Diary anniversary shows will take them through most of 2024. “I honestly think we sound better than we’ve ever sounded,” Hoerner says. “Jeremy’s voice is in a place where it’s reaching depths and heights that feel new. It honestly feels like back in the day, like those first moments—very powerful, very present, in the moment.”

Sunny Day Real Estate’s embrace of their new renaissance isn’t just being kept to touring, though. Just last month, the band put out an album from sessions at London Bridge Studio, which saw them playing through all of Diary, putting to record what these tracks sound like from a band wiser, more patient, and yet without an ounce of their ferocity lost to time. More forceful tracks like “Song About an Angel” and “47” sound just as immediate and invigorating as ever, and Enigk’s voice carries a weariness on Diary closer “Sometimes” that puts its lyrics about being unable to “lay down my past” in an entirely new light. The sound of the record was, in part, defined by a self-imposed time limit by the band, choosing to only give themselves six days to record the whole thing. “We didn’t want to [just] do a re-record,” Hoerner explains. “That’s not what this is about. We wanted to try to capture the live moment of what it is right now and how we’re doing it, not get bogged down in months of overdubs or trying to make it perfect. There’s tons of mistakes. The performance is off-the-cuff—some songs, we maybe played only one or two times.”

At the end of Diary at London Bridge Studio, however, is something entirely new: the first new Sunny Day Real Estate song in a decade. Digging through an old hard drive, Enigk came across a recording of “Novum Vetus” from May 1997, back when the group was getting together again for How It Feels to Be Something On, and showed it to the rest of the band, not expecting much from it. “But they were really adamant about continually practicing it at rehearsal,” he says. Hoerner zeroes in on the bass part for the song, one that Mandel had come up with way back in 1997, and calls it one of the elements that makes it pure “early Sunny Day.” “We got really excited about the fact that it was just this cool little gem from the past, and then it fit inside the concept of how we sound now.”

With Diary’s anniversary upon them and a slew of shows explicitly centering the record, Sunny Day Real Estate have more reason than ever to take note of how their listeners are responding, and who their listeners even are in this day and age. In brief: “Younger!” Goldsmith says. “How is it possible?” Hoerner laughs. “Half the crowd looks like they’re 18 years old or younger. It’s really mind-blowing.”

Goldsmith mentions that he sees it most immediately in his nine-year-old son, who has all the band’s albums on his iPad and frequently listens to all of them while “profoundly fascinated.” “There’s something in the music that he’s connecting with that’s beyond anything that words can explain,” he continues. To Goldsmith, his children’s connection and active investment in the music he made decades earlier is his main reason for all the work he puts into this current era of Sunny Day Real Estate. “It’s for the band, but the dimension of having children plays a big part in driving me to create. It’s the closest thing to being magic.”

Enigk mentions that it’s not just that the crowds are full of a new generation of teens. “The crowd is singing along, and a lot of them are kids, and they look absolutely thrilled to be there and sing along with those lyrics. I expected to see a lot of beards and beer bellies this time, but no, the crowd’s changed. It’s great. And it’s this iteration too. It wasn’t like this [when we last toured] in 2009.” Some pieces of Diary—as the band is seeing—are just that eternal, perpetually finding resonance in new adolescent listeners who see mirrors of themselves in what Enigk and Hoerner wrote around the same age.

When it comes to witnessing the ripples that Diary has left on musicians that followed Sunny Day Real Estate, it’s still something that the members are reckoning with, something they never could have imagined the scope of. “I’ve always just been constantly surprised when I find we’ve been an inspiration to any other bands,” Goldsmith remarks. “We’re humbled, but it’s also a surprise. For a long time, after the band had broken up the first time, people would say to me, ‘You know there’s a lot of people who listen to your old band?’ And I’d be like, ‘Huh, really? That’s weird.’”

Hoerner is the most eager of the three to take pride in the impact that Sunny Day Real Estate has left, arguing that the band has more than earned its reputation. “When we started Sunny Day,” he says, “we sounded relatively unique. And I know we’re all so heavily influenced by other musicians that it’s so easy for us to lay out the pathway for how we got here. But now, thirty years later, when I look at the arc of American music—with the extreme risk of being arrogant—so many popular bands sound like Sunny Day Real Estate, maybe even more than other, bigger bands of the time. There’s an undeniable influence there that’s humbling, like William said. We know we didn’t invent anything, but if I was a Rip Van Winkle and I woke up from 1994, I would look around and be like, ‘Holy shit, all this modern rock sounds like what I think Sunny Day was shooting for back in the day.’”

With a grin, he adds, “I think Sunny Day Real Estate deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—not for the ‘Fame’ part, and not for the record sales part, but for the influence part.” Goldsmith and Enigk quickly leap in with self-deprecating humor, modestly arguing that they’re more well-suited for just “the Rock and Roll Hall” or “the Hall of Infamy.” “Maybe we deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Parking Lot,” Hoerner concedes.

Seeing Sunny Day Real Estate at such a hopeful junction makes me wonder what kind of future the band sees for themselves, whether in continuing to perform together after their current tour or fostering their own interpersonal ties to each other. Goldsmith sarcastically quips, “In keeping up with tradition, we’re going to decapitate each other over an argument.” He laughs to himself, before adding with sincerity, “That’s a question only God can answer. Sunny Day Real Estate has always been unpredictable. But we all like and care about each other, so we’ll see what happens from there.”Enigk alludes to the question being one that the band has already “talked about discussing” further, elaborating by saying, “We really need to sit down and make a plan for next year and see what it is we want to do with where we are in our lives right now—if it’s gonna gel and feel good. No promises, but there’s a lot of ideas on the table.”

Hoerner answers with more of the fondness between bandmates that’s been tangible through the entire conversation: “Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without these guys in it. It’s just too much fun.” “And, by the way,” Enigk jokingly adds, “we never broke up. We just kinda took 10 year breaks.” “But now, you know, there isn’t enough time in the human lifespan left for us to take as long of a break as we used to,” Goldsmith says, playing along with the bit.

As my call with Sunny Day Real Estate comes to a close on this jocular note, there’s a pause after everyone signs off and says their goodbyes. Then, Goldsmith breaks the silence with one last comment to me: “And if you wanna soften the Hall of Fame thing…” Hoerner interrupts, cartoonishly overacting, “No, dude, don’t edit me! Fuck you, man!” He walks away, faking an outburst, exclaiming, “That’s it, I’m out! I quit! Fuck this!” To the very end, Sunny Day Real Estate carry their past with equal parts gravity and good humor, and build unprecedented stability in the process.

Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis with writing in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork and Little White Lies. She was previously as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She is always at the front of the pit. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.

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