Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Posts.


I was excited to get to talk to lead singer Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate. Their album How It Feels To Be Something On (Sub Pop) has been worn out on my CD player. They recently played my hometown, San Francisco, and we loved the show. And there was all the controversy that had been stirred up over his religious beliefs. We started the interview with me raving about my favorite song on the album, “Roses in Water,” and asking about the inspiration the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was to the album.

 

Jeremy Enigk (right) of band Sunny Day Real Estate, photo courtesy of Wiki Commons


How did you get into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?

Basically through Dan, the guitarist. Dan was just turned on to him, I don’t know how, but he just told me to go and pick up a couple of albums…and I was blown away. Ever since then I’ve listened to it continuously.


How do you write your songs?

Hmmm… Well, Dan and I sit down a lot and basically write the skeleton of the song, the basic idea, and after that structure is written and a lot of the vocals, then we’ll take it to the band–to Willie, and Jeff at the time; we have a new bassist, but at the time it was Jeff.

 

What happened to that guy?

He was a member of Porch, on Alternative Tentacles, and my friends shared a practice space with them.


Jeff didn’t work out. Unfortunately. He was a great bass player, you know, it’s just he kind of wanted a lot more than we had to offer. I think he thought we were at a point that we weren’t really at.


Do you want to be a rock star?

I think he had a more business outlook on the band where we were a little more spiritual, a little bit more about the music end. And he wanted a lot more money than we were even getting. And we really aren’t at that point now that we make a lot of money. And that affected the relationship. It sucked. Then it just kind of got sour and it wasn’t worth doing any more. Even for him. So…


You don’t have a day job, do you?

No… I’ve gotten by so far. There’s definitely been months where I’ve scraped by. I make a good enough living and I’m happy. That’s the most important thing. I do pretty well, but I’m not loaded.


What do you do when you’re not on tour?

Play music and video games. (laughter)


Some of the Seattle bands are now really rich. Do you ever wish you guys made bucks like other bands have?

Yeah, sure, we definitely want to make money, we want to live comfortably. But I think it’s something that will come over time. It’s not…that we’re going to sacrifice any of our creativity or beliefs for money, you know, or integrity for money. But yeah, we totally want money.

 

Are you friends with Pearl Jam or any of those folks?

No, I really don’t know anybody from Seattle except for Sunny Day Real Estate–my band–and a handful of friends that aren’t even in bands, some are in bands but not in huge bands. I’ve never really met anybody.


Your band never really got into the scene?

No, no we haven’t. I don’t know if the bands like Pearl Jam or Nirvana hooked up in the past… We do our thing. We have our practices and we have our lives. We don’t really go out on the scene or on the town a lot. I definitely don’t really go to any shows. Plus, we haven’t really made it to a point where we might meet those people. William has actually hung out with Eddie Vedder, and he toured with them. He was in Foo Fighters.


Your San Francisco show was great. We were raving like. Everyone talked about how real you guys were and how genuinely touched by the audience you seemed. How come you didn’t want to come to California for so long? It’s really a mystery.


It was just kind of Dan’s idea. He had reasons not to want to go to California. I don’t think they were really intense reasons. He never really told us, he just never wanted to go.


You just went along with it?

If a member doesn’t want to go and really makes a point of that and he wouldn’t go if we went anyway, we had no choice. And it was fine. Over time it kind of became a cool kind of thing, after accepting that we weren’t going to California. “Yeah, this is kind of cool, anyway.” I mean, why would a band not play California? It’s one of the biggest places you should play, if you’re a band and want exposure. So we caught that kind of frame of mind eventually, like a “Wow! We don’t have to play it,” frame of mind. But then over time Dan let down his belief that he didn’t want to go to California. He said it was just, “Hey, it’s no big deal, it’s just something

 

I felt years ago, let’s bring music to the fans there,” because our records have sold in California more than any other place, aside from the Northwest, than Seattle. Lots of our fans are in California, so it’s a good thing to play there. 


You haven’t done a lot of interviews for this record, I guess.

Naw, I feel like I’ve done quite a few. I mean, there were two that the band did that I just didn’t feel like doing, for whatever reason… I don’t want to burn out people in the band. I don’t want it to get old. We used to not do interviews at all–we’d just do one interview until we all got back together. We’ve pretty much done every one we’ve been offered. I mean there’s four guys. If Dan doesn’t do one, I’ll do it. If I don’t do it, Willie or Dan will do it.


Religious questions are going to come up. Do you get tired of having to deal with that?

No, not at all. I do when people expect or judge me because of it. I’ve been judged, my personality has been judged, because of the choice that I made, when I became a Christian, and made that clear to whoever cared to listen. I can get tired of that–people that think I’m a certain way because I believe something. So when they’re interviewing you, they’re kind of like… I never get flack from interviewers. I mean interviewers are very respectful. It’s more like when I’m playing a show and fans or just random people will come up to me and want to have some ethical, spiritual battle. They believe in a totally opposite thing. I’m not here to fight. I just believe what I believe, I don’t know why, it’s just where I’m at in my life. But I never really get anything from interviewers.

 

When did you get into singing? When did you realize you could sing?

Well, I’ve always sang since I can remember. When I was in grade school I was given one of those tests that say what do you want to do when you grow up and I wrote singer or astronaut. Two totally opposite things. So I always kind of wanted to do it. I don’t know why I wanted to do it. I didn’t really want to do it bad until I was 13. I was in a band with some friends who were in a band, and I had a friend who played bass and that made me want to learn how to play a guitar. The guitarist was the genius of the band and he wrote all the music and I just sang the vocals. At times I would get frustrated with him because I had guitar ideas that he totally couldn’t figure out. So I picked up a guitar myself so I could have something to sing along with.


Did you study, or did you just pick it up?

I just picked it up. I had a chord book that my cousin had. He let me borrow his guitar and I let him borrow my skateboard. He gave me a chord book, and I just started figuring out U2 songs…and REM songs…which made it a lot easier to learn how to write a song. In some ways it was like studying, but it wasn’t schooled.


So you never really injured your throat or anything?

Yeah, definitely…it’s changed a lot. I’m a smoker. I quit smoking to help my voice, but what ended up happening was, I destroyed it because my voice was used to that nicotine buildup, and my voice would go over that nicotine. It was almost like a protecting throat-coat. After I quit, all that stuff was getting broken up and getting out of my system. And so it sounded like my voice was going into little crevasses that weren’t there before, that were filled with nicotine or whatever. It was kind of gross. So I totally lost my voice… I could talk, but I couldn’t hold a note. I did that for about five months and it didn’t really improve that much. And I started smoking again and my voice got a lot better. It’s pretty good now, but it would be better if I could wait for like two years and let it build up its strength again.


Heard a rumor that ya’ll signed to Virgin.

No, we haven’t signedwith Virgin.


So you’re not with a major label now?

No, we’re without a label right now.


What happened to Sub Pop?

Well, we basically fulfilled our contract with them, which was three albums. HowIt Feels To Be Something On was our last album on the label. Now we’re just looking for other labels.


Are you nervous about that?

No.


Are you going to go to Virgin?

I don’t know. We’re definitely stoked on Virgin, but there are other labels to look at. When we signed with Sub Pop, we were young and excited about Sub Pop, but we really didn’t know anything about contracts, so we just signed. Just a weird deal…without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. I think if we waited a little longer we could have gotten a better deal. We were a new band. At the time there were a lot of labels that were interested in us. And we could have gotten a better deal and a better signing bonus.


We really didn’t have a lot of money to record with on Sub Pop. We pulled it off, and we did a good job…


Don’t get me wrong. Sub Pop has always been good about helping us out whenever we needed it. I mean I’m not going off on Sub Pop. At the time we just weren’t really known. And Sub Pop was investing in an unknown band, too. If we had been huge I think Sub Pop would have given us a better deal, but they were taking a risk themselves.


There were a lot of other labels willing to take that risk.


Yeah, but Sub Pop was the first in the door, the first that approached us. Then all the other labels came. But I was stoked because Sub Pop got us to a point. They got us to a point that made us into a bigger name. We’re not huge; we’re not big, but people know who we are; but our records are just not out there.


So about the Christian thing…

My grandfather was a pretty well-known preacher, had a radio show. When I lived with him it was very strict. Read the Bible. Memorized the Bible. I street-preached. But he was also into beatin’s and all kinds of things, in the name of Our Lord. I guess in every religion there’s the pure message of it and there’s ways it kind of gets subverted. People turn it into their own thing. I guess when you’re a public person, and you have a message, say, making it known that you’re a Christian…that brings it out for discussion. When I heard you were a Christian my first reaction was, “Oh, no!” But then I read some interviews and I understood where you were coming from a little better. What do you think about some of those Christian bands like Jars of Clay?


I don’t know if I believe in labeling yourself a Christian band. I just know that for myself I don’t want to label myself secular or non-secular because the truth is that God gave me the choice to sing about whatever I want to sing about, whether it’s about himself, or myself, pain, love, the beautiful world of nature, whatever. And I think I have the choice, and I think I have good taste as to what I’m to sing about. Plus I’ve got three other band members who don’t believe as strongly as I believe.

 

What does it mean to you to be a Christian?

For me, personally, it’s to believe in the Bible.


Literally?

Sure. I mean, totally believing the Christ. I mean a Christian is basically a follower of Christ. That’s what the word means. And just basically believe that he was crucified, and his whole life was predicted and was fulfilled. Believing in him as being the Son of God. And after reading the Bible for a period in my life, it freaked me out. I couldn’t deny it. Not only did I believe it, but I want to believe it. There’s good people everywhere, excellent people, people that probably have kinder hearts than me, but I’m Christian.


Do you think, as a Christian, do you think it’s enough just to say you are a Christian? Or do you have a goal of living some kind of principles?

I think regardless if I decide to live in a certain principle or not, I still believe I’m going to do the same thing. And I still believe that I’m going to be a certain type of person. I believe I’m me regardless, and that I’m a human being and that I basically sin, do wrong or do good, regardless of what I believe in… When I’m lost I can be found. When I’m weary I can be rested.


You can turn to Jesus for strength.

Totally!

 

Does it inspire you to connect to people in a more spiritual way?

At times. At times that’s all I want to do. But then sometimes God is the last thing on my mind. Most of the time God is the last thing on my mind. I’m in here in my flesh. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I just know that’s the way I am. Some days I just wake up in the morning and I just don’t want to do it.


Don’t want to do…?

I don’t want to preach to the world… Not preach… I never want to preach. I just don’t really want to share. I think that’s just my choice.

 

Do you think that God put you in the band partially to spread his word?

Totally. And I think it’s gonna be used just as it already has been.


So you have to do it whether you want to or not?

Yeah, kind of. Well, yeah, totally. I think it’s a higher part of myself. If I don’t feel like doing it and if I wake up and I’m not thinking about God and an opportunity comes to tell somebody about what I believe, and I fail to use it, I still believe my choices whether wrong or right are still being used. And people who aren’t Christians can convert people to Christianity, from what I’ve seen.

 

What do you mean?

Just through situations. People who don’t believe can be talking about God and talking to them you can realize that you believe. Everybody’s got a free mind and everybody is led in their own way.


If a Christian label offered you guys to sign Sunny Day Real Estate, offering you substantial money and tours and all that, more than any other label was offering, would you guys take it?

We wouldn’t take it. Because the guys in the band aren’t Christian.

 

Would you want to if they were up for it?

I don’t think so. I don’t want to be put under a category that is already labeled. I mean, what’s better [than] to go out into the world, as you are, and talk about what you believe in or what you don’t believe in, or when you want to do it in the first place. And what better to do that rather than go into a place…, Yeah. Preach to a bunch of Christians who are freakin’ probably not Christians in the first place, whatever that means… I mean, people who live in the church and they’re kind of there socially, rather than truly believed in God. I’ve known people that have been in raised in church, and they hang out and go to church every Sunday, go to all the meetings, and they hang out with their friends that are Christians, but they’ve never tapped into it themselves. It’s just where they are in their life, it’s where they’ve been set.

 

How literally do you take the Bible? Like, say, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” or “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). And “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die” (Proverbs 23:13), which my grandfather used as reason to punish me. And everything from homosexuality to whatever… What are your takes on that?

Well, I don’t know. The truth is that I do what I do and hope that God is stoked. I am not here to, and this is true and right where I’m coming from, I’m not going to judge anybody. I really don’t know what is ultimately right or wrong, or what pisses God off or whatever…


I think it is important when someone in the public realm, like in a known band, makes a move like you have, declaring themselves Christian. Because when a fan is 12, 13 or even 16, and those band members are heroes, and they hear you’re
Christian, and say they were wrestling with feelings of being gay or whatever: If they thought you condemned that–because there’s enough condemnation of that in the world–it would be devastating. You do have a powerful pulpit. I guess my hope would be that your message would be one of inclusion, not exclusion.


What have you heard about the message?

Just you talking about loving Christ. What if someone came to you and said, hey, I’m gay…


Which has happened.


And how have you reacted?

Well, I basically told this person that I’m not here to sit here and judge him. He’s got his life and I’ve got mine. But he was like a person who was coming up to me and expecting an argument, and expecting me to disagree with him, and he was prepared to say I’m not going to listen to anything you ever do anymore because you are a Christian. And I was like, what? Who cares? Then don’t. He judged me before I judged him.


You must run into that a lot.

I do, but… I just believe it, I just caught a freakin’ vibe, a spiritual, uplifting thing that I could not deny. I do not have the answers. God has the answers.


Do you think this is kind of a test for you, like you’re having to deal with trials and tribulations, you’re going to get this constantly, people like me… Do you think it’s a test?

Or has a purpose. I don’t know if it’s a test. In some ways it could be something to remind me of what I really believe. What I’ve experienced when I’ve really talked to people I’ve disagreed with, and where I was lost before, and in disagreeing I’m realizing what they believe, it helps me realize, Wow, this is what I believe, and it made me even stronger in that belief, ’cause I can’t deny what I believe. I can’t not believe what I believe. I can’t take it back if it was ever sowed into my heart.

 

So on a day-to-day basis with the band I guess it just never comes up–or does it?

Yeah, it comes up, but it’s no longer a big ridiculous discussion where we’re just stupid human beings with these dangly arms and loose legs, where we’re having these in-depth conversations about what’s right and wrong. You’re not going to get anywhere. People believe what they believe. It’s more like we’re friends, I hang out and I’ll talk about my experiences, and God will come up a lot in what I talk about, or sometimes seldom, and they’ll just accept it, just like, “Yeah, right on.”


How does God come up?

Just like, “Hey, that’s funny, I was just talking to God about that situation today, and it was kind of funny.” And the guys will say, right on, that’s great. Everybody’s got their time, their own clock and schedule.

 

So did you try to bring them over?

Yeah, I did, in the beginning…but–


That must have pissed them off.

(laughter) It pissed them off. It really affected our relationship. But the truth is I was wretched, but I was doing it out of complete love. That’s one of the things… New Christians are so on fire and find this joy in this new thing, joy and peace, just a total change of life, and revelations that they want to share with their friends, they want their friends to have this joy, to have this happiness, [so much] that they’ll really be overbearing about it.


How long ago was this?

Three, four years ago.

 

What were you like prior to the revelation?

I was the same guy I just didn’t have this explosive thing happen to me.

 

Did you experiment with drugs and stuff?

Well, sure I did. I drank, and I got Cheeched, smoked pot and whatever…

 

You got what?

Cheeched. Cheech and Chong. (laughter) And even when I became Christian I would get stoned.


So you still get stoned?

No, I don’t. But if I did I wouldn’t tell you. (laughter) But aside from that I was the same guy and did the same things. It was a slow process. I started to change, and my heart ultimately started to change. I started to realize my actions affected people. I always believed, but I had questions. I had specific questions. I would get so specific that the questions were never going to be answered. Just reading the Bible or hearing the things you’re talking about–all this is pretty weird because the outlook on women is kind of weird in the Bible, never really being able to come up with a strong conclusion on that whole situation. But I had this experience that was aside from all that. It was on a higher level. I’m going back and forth here… I always had the belief. It just needed a little bit of water, a little bit of good soil to grow.


I read that groupies would be coming up to you wanting one thing and you’d be talking to them about God… And I actually thought that was cool, because a lot of girls and boys when they go to shows, they want to give away their power and a lot of rock stars totally take advantage. When the girls come to you and want to be sexually fulfilled, you try to fill them with Christ. I would love to see their faces.


That’s awesome man, glad you’re stoked. That’s what happens. I don’t do that anymore. That’s all I wanted before, but I never… In the first place I’ve never wanted that from anybody. If I ever was going to give myself to anyone it was someone that I was in love with. I couldn’t live using somebody like that. And plus I don’t want people to know me from what they hear.
I’m a totally different person from what the music is. It’s exactly like you’re saying, they don’t know me, and they’d be giving
themselves to somebody who just doesn’t work? I don’t want to do that with anybody. That’s not where I’m coming from and I don’t want to do music for that. I don’t want the 80s’ freakin’ sex drugs and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t believe in that. I come from a quiet, peaceful little area inside myself–who just wanted to hear pretty music. I don’t want to freakin’… I don’t like when people look at me that way. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking like through a veil that they’ve put up. They’re looking at a weird image that they’ve put up about me.


How do you deal with it when a girl comes on to you sexually?

It doesn’t happen often. I honestly don’t get a lot of that. There’s a lot more of younger girls, they’re just stoked. They just want to talk to me. I don’t get a lot of obvious sexual advances.


Do you ever get letters or people who ask for guidance or what they should do?

Not really. Most people write that they love the stuff and when’s the next stuff coming out.


Do you write back?

Yeah, once in a while, but I don’t write back much any more. Why? I mean there’s a lot of things to write. There’s a lot of letters, number one. Number two, I end up writing the same thing over and over. ’Cause it’s mainly the same thing the people write. Not anything against fans, I’m one guy, against however many. That’s just the way it goes. It’s not cruel.

 

It’s funny how the media and folks will really sort of support rock stars doing the sex drugs rock ’n’ roll scene, and you come out as a Christian and there is sort of an anger, a belligerence that you’re not toeing the rock ’n’ roll line. I guess if the rock star is living at the bottom of the cesspool people don’t have to worry that they’re gonna get judged by the rock star.


Someone should be strong enough in what they’re doing to not be worried about that. I mean I was stoked on U2 when I was younger, and I couldn’t care less what they thought, ’cause I knew I’d never meet ’em. Everybody should have their own thing and be confident enough in themselves. I totally understand the whole idolizing thing and I totally understand looking up to somebody. Like the gay fellow who came up to me, he had a set concept of what I was going to say and it affected his world. Totally changed his life, and he doesn’t have to do that. He should just hang out and do whatever makes him happy. And I’m
not saying whatever he’s doing is right or wrong, but I’m not doing any better. I’m not doing any better. ’Cause I don’t know. We’re just this lump of skin.

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