Jeremy Enigk On Sunny Day Real Estate, Return Of The Frog Queen, Challenges, And Ghosts
Written by JARVIS LEROUGE on August 3, 2018
Jeremy Enigk is backstage at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop, hours away from beginning the next chapter of his life. The singer-songwriter — and, as frontman of the now-defunct Sunny Day Real Estate, the critically dubbed “king of emo” — has spent the past year performing stripped-down acoustic shows in living rooms across the US. But with a newly recruited six-piece band including two string players and a keyboardist, he’s launching a month-long tour promoting two new projects: a remastered edition of his debut solo LP, 1996’s Return Of The Frog Queen, and his first album of new material in over eight years, 2017’s Ghosts.
“Right now, being in the midst of it, just getting offstage, having done an hour-and-a-half soundcheck, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is really intense,’” he says before the early June show.
But it’s a welcome burst of intensity for a career that, for several years, appeared to have slowed to a standstill. After releasing his third record, OK Bear, and reuniting for a tour (and aborted recording sessions) with Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk essentially retreated from the public eye, whittling away at new songs without any kind of traditional backing (manager, publicist, label) in place. Then, in 2015, he announced a Pledgemusic campaign in support of a new album. But no music arrived, for two long years, as he battled logistical and technical challenges, like finding the right producer. “At times,” he says, “It was like, ‘Am I even meant to do this?’”
“Times have changed,” he adds. “I’m an older person now, and no one’s rolling out the red carpet for me anymore. That’s the very simplified way of putting it: It was rolled out before, and now I’m putting on my shoes and tying them up and walking the path myself.”
It’s an apt time to look back: The label home of both SDRE and Frog Queen — Seattle’s Sub Pop Records — is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. (It was three decades ago yesterday that Sub Pop released Mudhoney’s debut single, “Touch Me I’m Sick.”) Enigk spoke to me about his recent career momentum, his uphill creative climb, Sunny Day Real Estate’s distinct musical fusion, and what exactly Popeye and Gary Numan have to do with Return Of The Frog Queen. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: Tonight is the first show of your Frog Queen tour. You’re coming off playing all those intimate solo living room shows. Does it feel weird getting back to the usual rock club/rock band setting?
JEREMY ENIGK: It’s really intense, especially when you have seven people in the band and everybody wants it to sound perfect. It’s a really arduous process, but it sounds really great once it’s dialed in. I was up there talking with Chris Staples, the bass player, and I was like “This is my job. I love this.” It’s an amazing thing if you can love your job.
STEREOGUM: Frog Queen was a pretty huge creative leap for you: It was slower and more acoustic-oriented, full of quirky orchestrations and keyboards and all these experimental production techniques. What brought you to that place, creatively? Were you just ready for a change after the heaviness of Sunny Day?
ENIGK: First and foremost, having been in Sunny Day, I knew that If I was going to embark upon a solo thing, with the name that Sunny Day had already built for themselves, it was imperative that I did something that did not sound like Sunny Day — or just like a lesser version of [that band]. I was hyper-aware of that for some reason as a young man. I wanted to make sure that it was something different, so I just went back to my actual influences. We all came from this post-hardcore, punk rock, DIY Sub Pop scene — that was the thing going on at the time, bubbling underneath grunge, which was the popular thing.
But I still had these influences like the Beatles and Tom Waits’ Night On Earth and [Harry Nilsson’s] soundtrack to the Popeye movie with Robin Williams, and all these rustic orchestrations using what sounded like broken trombones and things like that, pots and pans mixed with this carnivalesque 3/4 time, waltz vibe. I decided, “This is the fun stuff. This is the stuff that’s not so serious, even though there’s emotional content to it.” It’s not the emo or whatever everybody labeled us as, which was very serious music, the Sunny Day stuff. So that’s what I decided to embrace and just go for.
STEREOGUM: What prompted the Frog Queen reissue? Did it have anything to do with creative momentum? You finally finished Ghosts after years of delays, so the new release seems fitting.
ENIGK: That was Sub Pop. Maybe they’d seen that I’d kinda come back from hiding or whatever, and they’d seen that I was doing a record and was present and were like, “Hey, we should do this.” Tony from Sub Pop approached me and said, “We want to do this,” and I said, “Amazing, I’m there. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll tour it.” I have so much pride in this record, and the fact that it’s 20 years later is an amazing thing. I absolutely wanted to celebrate it. What really caused it was the Upstream Music Fest in Seattle last year. It was the first year of this new Seattle music festival, and I was asked to play Frog Queen, and I said, “Absolutely.” I think that also gave a little energy to the thing, and Sub Pop probably was like, “Yeah, let’s do this.”
STEREOGUM: In a 1999 interview with Tape Op, you mentioned you were after a “Gary Numan” sound with the orchestrations on the album. Do you recall exactly what that meant?
ENIGK: What I think I meant by that at the time was that I was very specific about notation. I didn’t really like blues chords and bands like the Who. But Gary Numan had a direct-to-the-punch approach about his note choices. It didn’t have a bluesy, bendy thing on it. It was like [sings robotically] “I -– dream -– of -– wires.” It was really direct. It was right to the notes. I didn’t want a lot of fuss in there.
STEREOGUM: That’s the most specific musical reference I’ve ever heard in my life. Only a real musician would say, “Give me the Gary Numan strings.”
ENIGK: [Laughs] Back then, I had a very small spectrum of influences. The older I get, the wider it gets, and the more washed out it gets. With any rock band, the longer they play, the more their sound gets washed out because the influences and everything change. It’s good to have a really specific thing in mind because it creates something really powerful.
STEREOGUM: In recent interviews, you’ve talked about aspiring to a hi-fi Peter Gabriel/Daniel Lanois-styled production for Ghosts. I find that fascinating because I’ve always sort of thought of you as some kind of musical descendant of Gabriel — in the emotional quality of the songwriting and the unique vocal timbre. Has he been a particularly big influence on you?
ENIGK: Absolutely. He’s absolutely amazing. He’s cool, but he can also do this direct pop music that stays very, very cool. He rides the line so perfectly in my world, but his career has also been amazing. Here he was in this intense, over-the-top band with Genesis, and he moved on to this solo career that just blew up. That’s a huge inspiration, as well, as an artist, aside from just the brilliance of the music and his really focused sound.
STEREOGUM: Now that you mention it, there’s an interesting parallel of sorts there between Peter Gabriel and Genesis and you and Sunny Day. You were both able to explore these really distinct, influential sounds in a band setting, but you were able to leave and navigate your own path successfully and switch up your approach.
ENIGK: I by no means compare myself to Peter Gabriel and his career, but it’s an inspiration. This is an inspiration I’d love to follow, and this is a model I can take inspiration from and hope to reach something special with.
STEREOGUM: You’ve talked numerous times about how Ghosts is the hardest album you’ve ever made. And clearly a lot of that frustration came from outside factors: finding a producer, figuring out the logistics, promoting it on your own without a traditional team in place. But were any of the frustrations creative? Did the delay get in your head at all? Sometimes if you take years to release an album, the pressure starts to build because the expectations continue to increase.
ENIGK: I definitely had doubts and frustrations the whole way through. At times it was like, “Am I even meant to do this?” My entire musical career, everything has been very easy. It’s been easy for me to find a producer, find a label, musicians. It sort of rolled out for me. This was the one time for me that it was like, “Nope. If you really want this, you have to fight for it.” I doubted. But because I’d done this Pledge campaign, people had already paid me the money! [Laughs] So I was in a position where I had to get this thing done fast because people were counting on me. So I did.
It wasn’t fast. But I finally just had to make a decision. All the avenues I’d put my faith in, I’d just met walls, and it wasn’t what I expected or wanted. Like, “This person’s not delivering; that person’s not delivering.” So I finally just went to Spain, to my guys who were just going to be able to get it done and make it great. In the end, if I’d just gone to them, I think it would have been done a lot sooner.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always found it interesting comparing your solo catalog and Sunny Day. You tend to get a lot heavier and darker in a band context than you do on your own. Maybe it’s partly because you have William Goldsmith and the other guys with you in Sunny Day, and it just naturally has a more aggressive, full-band feel. But have you ever thought much about that?
ENIGK: That’s exactly what it is: When you’re working with William Goldsmith, you raise to his level, or he takes what you’re doing and takes it to what he’s doing. Initially when I wrote [Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 track] “In Circles,” it was an acoustic song. It was a lovely, very sad, acoustic lament. And when I brought it to the band, when William got ahold of it, it became this powerful rock song. At first, I was like, “No, no, this isn’t what this is.” But everything that I write, no matter what it is, it seems like that band — with William, Dan [Hoerner], and Nate [Mendel] — just make it better.
They’re all so good at their instruments, and the combination raises it to a level that’s way beyond any of us. That’s the special thing about that band. Had these songs from Ghosts been introduced to that band, they would have been raised to a higher level, I think. But the darkness and the heaviness? Yeah, that’s William, man. And the really creative innovation, I would say, is Nate. And the power and the right-to-the-jugular aspect is Dan with his heavy guitars. He’ll play these big barred chords that just bring it into this space. And I am whatever I am — you be the judge.
STEREOGUM: Nobody from the band has commented much about “Lipton Witch” since it came out in 2014 as part of that Record Store Day split with Circa Survive. I know you guys wrote and recorded material. How did it come together?
ENIGK: We wrote it when we were doing the reunion. We had that year of reunion tours, and we decided we were going to take the time and write some songs, and that was one of them. To me, that was actually more of the spirit of Sunny Day and a direction we could have gone with a lot of other stuff where you don’t even really try. That was a song that, for me, even though we all put in a lot of hard work, it just sort of happened. That riff is just a fun riff. It’s not like I sat in a room and devised some genius guitar riff. It was just a thing we were having fun with, and that’s one of the reasons it was released because it just fell together so easily. It didn’t take a lot of extra, extra effort. And there are a whole bunch of other, other reasons why it was the only one … Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was just a fun, easy song.
STEREOGUM: There’s definitely a primal energy to that song. It makes me wonder why, if that one came together so easily, it’s the only song we heard from those sessions. Is it just the only one you all could agree was worth releasing?
ENIGK: I cant really go too much into it. I don’t want to reflect on that too much. Primarily I don’t want to get into trouble. But it was a long year. That one essentially happened because it was pretty much finished. Even the scratch vocals were like, “Wow, this is actually pretty strong.” A good friend of ours, John DeSpirito, mentioned that Circa Survive wanted to do a split. I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And I thought he meant Sunny Day, but he was actually referring to solo.
We had this song nearly done, and I didn’t really have the technology or a producer to really finish it, but it was so close. All I really needed to do was sing some backups on it. I didn’t have a final mix or anything — I just had a rough mix, and I sang these backup vocals on it to just glue it together real quick. I got the final mix to Aaron Sprinkle, and he mixed it. It was done within a couple weeks.
STEREOGUM: You guys also debuted the song “10” on tour. Did you end up recording that one?
ENIGK: Yeah, we started it.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about another one of your projects. I’ve always adored the Fire Theft album, and it’s really as much a Sunny Day Real Estate album as How It Feels To Be Something On or The Rising Tide since there are three members on it. Do you think reviving the Fire Theft might be a more appropriate way to dive back into a band process? You wouldn’t have the expectations of Sunny Day. Do those kind of labels matter to you?
ENIGK: A little bit — I kind of want them to stand separately. But yeah, it really is ultimately an extension of a Sunny Day record. I always thought in hindsight that it would be cool to maybe take that band — William at the time was saying, “We should have this person join, have this person join.” I was like, “Ah, I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of musical influence of coming outside and taking away this thing.” But in a way, I think he was onto something by turning the Fire Theft into more of an open band. I always thought it would be cool to bring in a bunch of different players. That’s not exactly what William was talking about, but I think he wanted to take it to a different musical place.
I think he was right about that. But opening it up and making it more of an open band where you can bring in all kinds of people would be a cool direction for the band if we could bring it all together. It’s a lot of work these days when you’re older and people have kids and responsibilities and jobs. Back in the day, you could just get together — you didn’t have that many responsibilities, so you just went down to the basement and jammed for hours. But when you’re older, things are a little more cumbersome, so it makes things a lot more complicated. It would take a lot more effort.
STEREOGUM: This may sound dumb, but a lot of songwriters stumble upon a trademark “sound” over the course of their career. We mentioned Peter Gabriel earlier, and he’s a great example with his distinct vocal delivery, his chord choices, his production style. You’re the same way. You have a certain grandiosity to your work, and it really cuts through all your songs. Do you feel like you’ve landed on a particular “thing” that’s all yours?
ENIGK: Oh sure, yeah. I was actually talking to Nate, and he was doing his Lieutenant project. He asked me to do a bunch of backing vocals on the project, and I said, “Here’s the thing, man: You should take all the ideas I do and re-do them with your own voice or with somebody else because I don’t want to be overbearing on this thing. My voice is very distinct, and if you put a bunch of me on there, it might take it away from where you really want it.” I did something on almost every song, and when I listened to the final thing, it was only like one song that he used something [of mine]. I was like, “Yes, this is perfect” because it would have taken it to this very distinct direction. I’m definitely aware of it.
STEREOGUM: In 2016, you told A.V. Club that when you finished Ghosts, you’d come out “spiritually, on the other side, as a new person.” Did you?
ENIGK: Wow, yeah. It was the absolute most pivotal past two or three years of my life. I’ve had more pivotal experiences, but this was the biggest trial I’ve ever had to deal with because I was sort of alone in it. Thats why it was so powerful for me: I was faced with so much that I had to deal with it on my own, face to face. That’s why it was so impactful and such a spiritual growth. It was like, again, if you want this, you’ve gotta fight for this. If you want to survive in the world, you have to do these things.
And I did. I was faced with challenges I’d never faced before, and I had to grow. The universe was telling me, “It’s time, man. You’re shedding your old skin and moving into this new world. You’re closing this chapter and turning to the next page.” I’m still dealing with these challenges. Times have changed. I’m an older person now, and no one’s rolling out the red carpet for me anymore. That’s the very simplified way of putting it: It was rolled out before, and now I’m putting on my shoes and tying them up and walking the path myself.
STEREOGUM: That has to be pretty satisfying, though, right? The new album’s out; the reissue’s out; you’re touring. You survived those challenges, and you seem to have a lot of momentum. Do you think you’ve reached some kind of new point in your career?
ENIGK: I think I’m on my way. Gotten to a new point? I guess I’m walking, and off in the horizon there’s a mountain, and you take one hill at a time. I got over a hill, and I’m climbing up another one. This is getting pretty cliché, but hopefully at some point you can reach the top of the hill and go down a little bit, ride it down.