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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Emotion and Intrigue of Sunny Day Real Estate

For The Ringer’s Emo Week, we’re calling up Ian Cohen and talking the kings of the Second Wave, Seattle’s finest non-grunge export

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 72 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re jumping head first into The Ringer’s Emo Week and exploring Sunny Day Real Estate with guest Ian Cohen.

This week we’re talking about “In Circles,” by Sunny Day Real Estate, from their debut album Diary, released in 1994. This is a somewhat less popular band and song, commercially, than our usual fare; this is not a radio or MTV hit on the order of “Smooth” or “Whoomp! (There It Is)” or whatever. So I’d better do the Bandsplain thing here. If you’ve never heard “In Circles” by Sunny Day Real Estate, it sounds like this:

All right, so I’m looking right now at what was, for several years, the only official press photo of the up-and-coming Seattle rock band Sunny Day Real Estate. It’s a live shot, black-and-white, lush but also, uh, blurry with motion, so as to accentuate their intensity. It’s candid. Original classic lineup: We got Jeremy Enigk on guitar and vocals, Dan Hoerner on guitar, Nate Mendel on bass, William Goldsmith on drums. Hardy and bookish-lookin’ fellas. This is one of the more Midwestern non-Midwestern bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. The fellas are dressed formally: white button-down shirts, ties, a couple suit vests (at least two; the drummer’s not really visible back there). This photo looks like the groomsmen at a wedding became so overcome with emotion that they attacked the wedding band and stole their instruments and commandeered the stage, and now they’re regaling the shocked and confused but also pretty psyched wedding party with fraught and ferocious and super-intimate post-hardcore songs with lyrics that use the word synapse a lot.

That’s unfair of me: I am not aware of any Sunny Day Real Estate songs that use the word synapse, I just always remember the time I was standing in a chattering circle of cool kids at a bar in San Francisco and my dear friend Nate started ranting about how emo bands shouldn’t be allowed to use the word synapse in their lyrics any more because the word synapse is, quote, “A pre-fucking-Fugazi fucking noun.” End quote. You had to be there. Here is a Death Cab for Cutie song from 2000 called “Company Calls Epilogue” that illustrates this alleged abuse of the word synapse:

That song’s about being sad at a wedding. I played that for you just now for four reasons: One, the synapse thing; two, the wedding thing; three, it’s a great song (OK, five reasons); four, I hear a lot of Sunny Day Real Estate in early Death Cab for Cutie, especially starting in the late ’90s, a lot of tonal similarities, the erudite arms-length intimacy, a bunch of stuff beyond just the wordy band names that I’m mildly embarrassed to say out loud; and the fifth reason, apparently I’m just extra loopy this week.

I am describing this Sunny Day press photo to you in such arduous detail because, roundabout 1994, this quasi-wedding-band pic was pretty close to the only available public information about the Seattle rock band Sunny Day Real Estate. Drop the needle on the old-timey Victrola record player with the giant horn, my friends, because Uncle Rob’s about to explain another thing from the past: For decades, pre-internet, if a rock band wasn’t plastered all over MTV and Rolling Stone and such, the only way you’d have any idea what they looked like, without buying their records or going to their shows, is if that band physically mailed out 8 1/2-by-11 glossy press photos of themselves to newspapers and alt-weeklies and smaller magazines and such. Ideally, these photos would also include the band logo—like preferably a death-metal band logo that’s so gnarly you can’t read the name at all, I love that shit—and captions naming the band’s individual members, just to inform you that the bassist is named Doug or whatever.

When I started interning for alt-weeklies and magazines, every arts section or music section I worked in had a dusty corner of the office devoted to three to five giant filing cabinets, those triple-stacked, busted-up, military-green, gratuitously rusting, perilously teetering filing cabinets with bullet holes in ’em for some reason, and these filing cabinets were filled to bursting with nothing but band photos. On thick, glossy paper. Alphabetized band photos, if you were lucky. The Afghan Whigs, Built to Spill, Corrosion of Conformity, Depeche Mode, E (the guy from the Eels), the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Girls Against Boys, Juliana Hatfield (but not the Juliana Hatfield Three—that goes under J), Ivy, the Juliana Hatfield Three, K’s Choice, Living Colour, Marcy Playground, New Wet Kojak, Orgy, Porno for Pyros, Quasi, Redd Kross, Sham 69, Twisted Sister, Unwound, Versus, the Waterboys, X, Young Marble Giants, and Zebrahead. Absolutely I just named those bands at random; once I got halfway through the alphabet, I was like, Why not.

Thousands upon thousands of band photos to be filed and later utilized for concert calendars and shit. Terrible for the environment, this system. Not, like, bitcoin-mining terrible, but not great. So the music editor’s hungover and grouchy, and he’s like, “Get me a photo of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, preferably with a motorcycle in it,” and the poor intern’s gotta shuffle off to the filing cabinets to flip through the M’s. These filing cabinets were so cumbersome and heavy you just knew that one day they would crash right through the floor, and thus through the ceiling of the next story down in the newspaper office, back when newspapers were big enough to justify having offices with multiple floors. At this point when I describe, out loud, life before the internet, even I don’t believe it anymore. So yeah, let’s say you hear this song somehow and you’re intrigued:

So this sounds appealing and accessible and not intimidatingly cool, even if you’re a square, oblivious, meat-and-potatoes alt-rock kid, right? This is a rock band from Seattle in 1994. A rock band on the famed Sub Pop Records. Former home of Nirvana, don’t cha know. Sunny Day Real Estate are not grunge, certainly, but they’re not desperate to not sound like grunge. Two guitars, bass, drums, and impassioned wailing. The classic formula. Comfort food. This music’s not trying to sneak up on you or trick you. It’s not a Trojan horse for something else. And yet there is something intangibly uncanny about it, right? There’s something uncanny about Jeremy Enigk’s voice in particular, yes? Something dense and abstruse and fascinating. If you’re dialed into this precise emotional frequency, this band fascinates you, immediately, because you don’t necessarily know what he’s singing, and you definitely don’t know what he means, and he doesn’t sound like a singer conventionally tuneful enough to get played to death on the radio.

But the genius of Sunny Day Real Estate is how much of that intrigue was left to your imagination. Just the one press photo. They did basically no interviews. They followed a bizarre and inconvenient moral and ethical code. For many years they refused to play shows in California. The state of California. The whole thing. Inscrutable lyrics, and comically inscrutable song titles. This is the first song on Diary. It’s called “Seven.” Seven spelled out. No explanation. Later they’ll put out a song called “8” as well. Numeral 8. “8” is not a sequel to “Seven.” Two of the other best songs on this record are called “47” and “48,” respectively. Numerals 47 and 48. Those songs aren’t right next to each other, and “48” ain’t a sequel either. This band is just a barrage of hyperspecificity and obscurity in random, beguiling combinations. You get it just enough right away to spend the rest of your life luxuriating in the parts you’ll never get.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.