(Re)Collection #23: Sunny Day Real Estate
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
I dreamed about being in a band criss-crossing the country in a dilapidated van, sleeping on floors, playing gritty clubs to indifferent crowds. I didn't know how I could ever do that, but I wanted to do it.
This romantic notion of being in a band. A band that toured. I almost missed the chance to taste that life. It took a few, interminable years but it happened. Just shy of my 29th birthday.
I could feel time swiftly slipping away in my 20s. I crashed out of graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1991 at the age of 24. My grandmother died. My dad's mom. I was very close to her. She was a replacement for my mom. A better, kinder alternative. She left me a little money. I paid off my remaining loan debt. I bought a drum set. I started to play again.
I sweated away in the basement of my group house. Then I rented a practice space and played there every night after work and on the weekends. I met people. People led to other people. I auditioned for bands. I joined bands. I started a record label with my girlfriend, Jane. I met the guys in Number One Cup through an article in New City by Ben Kim about Seth who was looking for a new band after the break up of his old one, Eliot. We played shows, recorded singles, got a fateful phone call from John Peel. Then we recorded and released Possum Trot Plan in 1995. We toured.
And we had a nice little go of it. We played our first out of town shows in cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, Madison and Ann Arbor. We did South By SouthWest in Austin and the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. It was the stuff of dreams to drive into New York City over a bridge or through a tunnel and then be on stage. Even now I can't believe it. There are so many variables that have to be right in order for it to happen to your band. We had beaten the considerable odds. It felt exhilarating.
In the Fall of 1995, we set out on our first big tour. A seven week circumnavigation of the country with some stops in Canada thrown in. We were invited to join Red Red Meat on their tour to support Bunny Gets Paid. We had just released Possum Trot Plan and the timing worked out. To be on tour with a band like Red Red Meat--we had made it. They were on Sub Pop which in and of itself was impressive to me. But they also had recently garnered heavy praise for their last Sub Pop LP, Jimmy Wine Majestic. They were a great band.
I was pretty naive about touring even though I had read so much about bands on tour. I didn't fully grasp the size of the country, the distance between shows, the sketchy accommodations, the drinking every night, the tension of being trapped in a moving, metal cage with 3 or 4 other people for extended periods of time. I am glad I didn't know what that would be like. I really, really enjoyed it.
But it can get kind of rough. I was not a teenager and had the sense and the ability to keep my behavior in check. I felt old already. I was aware of the pitfalls. We kept it pretty even- keeled. Naps, driving and rock and roll.
I had a lot of time for daydreaming. I read books, looked out the window at a constantly changing American landscape and listened to tons of music. I wrote songs in my head and sang them into a cassette recorder, took photos and kept a journal. I fantasized about the next tour, the next recording session, the next release.
Our van was a gray 1976 Chevy Vandura with a white racing stripe, captains chairs and tons of rust. We bought the van from Jane's parents in Nebraska. It had been their reliable family transport for many years. The van had a cassette player into which we inserted one of those inelegant cassette-to-line-in adapters. No phones or computers to distract us. Just the music on the stereo or in my headphones plugged into my Sony DiscMan.
Being in a band requires well-honed expectation management skills. You will get sick, play to no one, get ripped off, get pissed off and perhaps the van will break down or get broken into. Expect the worst, laugh about it when it comes true, things will be ok.
Our first show on that tour was in Madison on the day before Thanksgiving. At O'Cayz Corral on Wilson Street. It was across from the railroad tracks facing Lake Monona.
The last time I was in the club before this show was in 1988. I was there with Ben and he fell asleep with his head on the PA speaker. I still don't know how he did that. It was Agitpop and the Royal Crescent Mob. People were jumping up and down and dancing. I could feel the floor reciprocating much like a wooden trampoline. If I would have had more sense, I would have gotten out of there. But it was too much fun. Incidentally, the floor did later cave in--during a Royal Crescent Mob show! Then a few years later the club burned down. Some say it was an insurance scam.
The Royal Crescent Mob was quite a band. They played white boy funk. A ragtag, sweaty but totally engaging party band. The singer was dressed in what looked like a band uniform and was clutching a walking cane with a small skull for the handle. The stage was off to the left of the entrance to the club. The band had to go through the crowd to get on and off it.
After a raucous, spirited set, the crowd refused to let them get off stage. They kept asking for encore after encore. Finally, the band ran out of songs and pleaded to be released. The crowd relented but kept on chanting their name for quite a while after.
Our show was a very low key one by comparison. Nothing spectacular. Maybe 15 people. The best part was walking around Madison prior to it, shopping for records and checking out the college town scene--hippies, street performers, gutter punks with mangy dogs, panhandlers, preppy college kids, frat boys, stoic older midwesterners.
Off we went to the Twin Cities. Thanksgiving Day. Why did we plan it that way? We exited the van in front of the Uptown Club, and it was 20 plus degrees colder than it had been when we last got into the van. That upper Midwestern wind is like a scalpel. It is genuinely upsetting. How could it be so cold already?
We played a handful of shows on our way out to Seattle. That was where we were going to meet up with Red Red Meat and drop in on our record label, Flydaddy. Along the way we played in Morehead, Minnesota, Missoula, Montana and Twin Falls, Idaho. More on those shows at another time.
We played at the legendary Crocodile Club in Seattle. It was a fair to middling show although we were excited to be there. Our enthusiasm was in direct contrast to the folded arm reception by the locals. If you see enough shows, the parade of middle-class white dudes in bands on stage is probably a bit predictable. Here we are now, entertain us.
The highlight of that stop was our trip to the Sub Pop offices. Our label was affiliated with the label and shared distribution through ADA. This was good because ADA could get your records anywhere--if the store buyers wanted them. That is an important caveat. If the buyer doesn't hear about the band, they usually don't stock it. So you get out and play shows all over the place. Even today with the instant access of the internet, I think this still holds true.
The label person, maybe it was our publicist, gave us a tour of the offices. The best part was the swag closet on the 3rd floor. She invited us to take whatever we wanted. I think I grabbed Pond and Six Finger Satellite cds. But the real gem was the Pepto Bismal pink Sunny Day Real Estate cd. It was untitled and had next to no text anywhere on it. The cd itself was white adorned with a single fly which seemed to be resting on the disc. Ok. I was intrigued.
I had heard the Diary LP and thought it was ok. By comparison, that cover and liner notes featured Playmobile characters in distressing domestic situations. It struck me as a little too cute though. Their video for Circles was on heavy rotation on MTV. I have to admit that I was a little embarrassed to like it. It felt too teenage. But, they obviously were onto something.
LP2, the pink album, was different. First of all, the drumming. In pretty much every song, William Goldsmith plays variations of a swaying, seasawing beat. It feels analogous to the motion of a boat rocking back and forth on the waves. It is lullaby drumming.
The singing. It sounds like Jeremy Enigk is crying the lyrics. And I do not mean that as a dig. He drawls, croons and wails. I can't make out much of what he says, but I want to think I get the overarching sensibility. He is voicing struggle. Painting cryptically with a delicate forcefulness. For loud and sometimes heavy music, he provides no corresponding macho accompaniment. The dense, cyclical songs allow vulnerability to reign and dispel the need for resolution. I love that. Emotional music that does not spell it all out. A strained, angelic voice singing to itself. To expel the turmoil and usher in redemption.
I am the type who listens to records over and over again from front to back for weeks, months. If I find one I like, I lose myself. I want to be inside it. This is that kind of record. It is what I listened to for the rest of the tour.
I have never made music like this myself. I have wanted to in past years, but I instinctively knew I would be chasing something that has already been done so well. But I still wish that I could have been in a band like this. Or maybe it is good that I never was. I don't think I am cut out for the tumult.
Number One Cup recorded its follow up to Possum Trot Plan, Wrecked By Lions, with Brad Wood at Idful Studio. Brad recorded the pink album. I had to ask him about the session, the band and Jeremy. Without going into the details of someone else's band story, they were falling apart individually and as a band when they recorded it. Jeremy was in the process of being reborn as a Christian.
It makes sense. But I don't want to reduce the unsettling churn and burn of this record by attributing it just to that. I get the impression that, like many other records and books I love, it was about growing up, moving on and changing. Being born into a new life. And that process is ugly, beautiful and compelling. And sometimes, though rarely, the expression of that struggle attains a grace. This is a graceful record. I love it.