It's impossible to overstate Jeremy Enigk's influence on indie rock over the past decade. Sunny Day Real Estate, the Seattle-based quartet he fronted, was at the vanguard of the mid-'90s emo scene, inspiring countless disciples. With a sound that took the intensity of hardcore and infused it with soaring melodies, Sunny Day's music helped define -- if not launch -- an entire subgenre of music. In fact, prior to the release of the act's brilliant 1994 debut, Diary, the word "emo" didn't even exist in the indie-rock lexicon (although purists contend that the term was first invoked in reference to Rites of Spring, a Dischord act that preceded Sunny Day by more than a decade).
As Sunny Day readied its sophomore effort, LP2, Enigk converted to Christianity -- which created tension within the group and may have led to the band's three-year split. During that time, Sunny Day's legend grew larger than life, and Enigk released a solo album. A lushly orchestrated pop masterpiece, 1996's Return of the Frog Queen foreshadowed the literate chamber folk of acts like the Decemberists, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. Sunny Day eventually regrouped and went on to release two exceptional records, 1998's How It Feels to Be Something On and 2000's Rising Tide, before disbanding for good in 2001.
These days, Enigk helms the Fire Theft, an outfit he formed in 2003 with two of his former Sunny Day mates. With the band currently on hiatus, Enigk is preparing to release a new solo album, World Waits, on Lewis Hollow Records, his recently established imprint. We caught up with Enigk at his home in Seattle and asked about the disc, due in mid-October, and how he feels about being forever linked with emo, which has become a nebulous and often contemptible designation.
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Westword: Diary, in essence, helped launch the whole emo movement. Were you surprised by how profound of an impact that album had?
Jeremy Enigk: We were just making music. We didn't really feel that we were creating a genre. We thought that we were just sort of the evolution of a previous genre. We were just playing punk-rock music with melody, and the next thing I know, I hear that there are a bunch of bands that are heavily inspired by it, and then they started calling it "emo." Those bands are the ones that really created the genre, and we weren't really a part of that. So, yeah, it was a little surprising, because that wasn't our intent. We were just making music, you know? I felt like I was writing songs like U2 or any other band.
What music informed Sunny Day in the early days?
As far as inspiration? Dischord stuff, like Shudder to Think. Fugazi was a huge influence on our sound. Growing up, we had been going to punk-rock shows in Seattle at this place called the Party Hall; every weekend there were bands that would play. And just a whole shitload of different bands -- really just colleagues or peers or whatever -- that would play this fifty-capacity show, and that had a huge influence on our style, because we were used to that sort of hardcore, distorted guitars.
You guys had an acute sense of dynamics, with the loud/soft segues and great melodic sensibilities. How did all that come about?
I grew up listening to music with melody, like Bob Dylan and U2 and Sinéad O'Connor. Then we started to go to these punk shows. At one point, I just sort of put down melodic music and only wanted to listen to hardcore screaming. And then eventually, I was like, "You know, I really like music with melody." So I just started to sing to that hardcore edge, which bands like Shutter to Think really encouraged me to do. They gave me the courage to ultimately sing all high and pretty.
The emo tag has often been associated with Sunny Day. Is that something that you eventually embraced, or has it become an albatross over the years?
I never had to embrace it, because I never really felt like a part of it. I love the fact that people would consider us a creator of some sort of genre -- I mean, that's flattering, but I don't know that it's necessarily true. It doesn't bother me completely; it just really doesn't have anything to do with what we were doing. Honestly, it was just us playing music, singing and playing because we wanted to bring this chaos into order. We were just playing what we felt from our hearts.
When you did Return of the Frog Queen, it sounded like you were channeling your Beatles influences. Was that the case?
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There were a few different things that I was specifically inspired by at the time. The Beatles, of course, and Ludwig van Beethoven. I was listening to this huge orchestral music for a year-long period; I was obsessing with Beethoven and Mozart and I wanted to be able to graft that into what I was doing. And Prince -- Purple Rain was a huge influence on that record. And melodically, as far as vocal melodies, it was Gary Numan. Those are the four things when I was talking to Mark Nichols, the one who actually orchestrated the record, where I was like, "This is what I'm going for."
The lyrics on the new record seem a little more straightforward. It seems like you put more emphasis on the words than the music, which doesn't seem to be that big of a departure from the Fire Theft and Sunny Day. Was that purposeful?
I think musically this record is really just a culmination of everything I've done. I wrote fun songs, depressing songs, heavier songs and just sort of brought everything that I've ever done together.
In Sunny Day, Dan [Hoerner] was hugely responsible for the lyrics. We would sit down together and write them, but he ultimately brought the style of writing to the band. And with the Fire Theft, I was suddenly left having to write the lyrics myself, and I wanted to be smart about it. So I would sit down and just hit my head against the wall in order to try to say something that was somewhat profound. [On World Waits], really, I wanted to say something for once. Listening to the late John Lennon and how he was so plugged into the political and spiritual worlds -- that was important to me to sort of follow in his footsteps and make an actual literal impact with lyrics, as opposed to it being just about the melody, which it previously was with Sunny Day.