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Sunny Day Real Estate Struggle for Success

October 26, 1998 12:00 AM ET

By definition, being in a rock band is tragic. Rarely do groups with the stamina and talent to swim against the tide of mediocrity tread water long enough to reach the island of accomplishment. Never is their course free from sharks nipping at their toes, trying to bite away a piece of their credibility, originality or capability. And the ones that do crawl onto the shores of success, ready to brave the elements, are undoubtedly damaged goods. Sunny Day Real Estate is no exception.

Just seven months after their critically acclaimed debut, Diary, hit the racks in May of 1994, Sunny Day was over. In fact, according to guitarist Dan Hoerner, the band was history before they even entered the studio to record its self-titled, hard-to-find follow-up. "Sunny Day ended a long time before Sunny Day seemed to end to other people," says Hoerner from a pay phone at the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago while in the midst of the sold-out tour in support of SDRE's third effort, How It Feels to Be Something On. "The second record was made as a broken-up band, so it definitely has a certain tension to it. It's got this feeling to it that tells it was made by people who had given up associating with each other."

Amongst Sunny Day's loyal fans, the cause of the break up is legendary. Singer Jeremy Enigk's passion for the band was eclipsed by his love of Jesus; drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel were called upon by a higher power, as well -- namely mega-rock star Dave Grohl and his band the Foo Fighters. Hoerner had just gotten married and was planting his "living forest" farm on which he and his wife were building a self-sufficient lifestyle. Sunny Day Real Estate was hardly a happy and stable place to live.

"There was tension. Everyone was kind of infighting. So the break-up was definitely necessary," explains Hoerner. "It was the best thing that ever happened to us -- everybody got to do what they needed to do."

After a two-and-a-half year divorce, which saw the release of Enigk's glorious solo project, Return of the Frog Queen, and Foo Fighters' wild success, Enigk and Hoerner began packaging an album of SDRE odds and ends for the fans. They decided it was time to jam together, just once. Gathering Goldsmith and Mendel for a mini-reunion in their practice space, the temporary separation proved an unexpected cure to the band's infirmities. Hoerner and Enigk had no choice but to reunite the group permanently.

"We got together, and the spark was much more intense than either of us thought it would be," remembers Hoerner of that first session. "And we were pretty confident. We thought that Willie would quit the Foo Fighters to do it. And then, miraculously, Willie got screwed over by Dave Grohl, and had to quit. But Nate couldn't walk away. We waited for him forever. It became the theme of our lives -- waiting for Nate. It came down to the wire, and we were like, you've got to quit by this date. And he did, but then the next day he called and said, the anxiety is too great. I gotta stay where I know that I'm going to get paid. I don't think he understood that Sunny Day, musically and financially, was gonna be something big."

Attend a Sunny Day show, and you have to question Mendel's decision. SDRE's emotionally charged and powerful performances are sold out and packed with adoring fans who know all the words to Enigk's wounded lyrics. They rock along with Hoerner's soaring and crashing guitars, and bob their heads to Goldsmith's stop-start, furious percussion. Their fierce fragility is felt in every volatile chord.

In its first week in record stores, How It Feels to Be Something On sold 11,000 copies. "I don't know what happened -- we broke up, and we got about ten times bigger than we were before," Hoerner gushes. For a band that previously refused to do interviews and perform in the state of California (which is home to one-fifth of the nation's population), their spot at No. 132 on the Billboard chart was a thrilling surprise. Even with the departure of their second bassist, Jeff Palmer (he was replaced this week with former Posie Joe Bass for the remainder of the tour), SDRE's momentum shows no sign of waning.

Sunny Day have proven that damaged goods are a prized commodity.

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