Grungy. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall”. 90s music was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era and why is it still important? 60 songs that explain the 90s is back for 30 more episodes to try and answer those questions. Rejoin Alarm Music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla walks 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—yes, you read that right, we’re jumping headfirst into The ringEmo week and explore Sunny Day Real Estate with guest Ian Cohen.
This week we’re talking about Sunny Day Real Estate’s “In Circles” from their debut album Diary, released in 1994. It’s a slightly less popular band and song, commercially, than our usual fare; it’s not a radio or MTV hit on the order of “Smooth” or “Whoomp! (It’s there)” or anything. So I better do Bandsplain thing here. If you’ve never heard “In Circles” by Sunny Day Real Estate, it sounds like this:
Alright, I’m looking right now at what was, for several years, the only official press photo of up-and-coming Seattle rock band Sunny Day Real Estate. It’s a direct shot, black and white, lush but also, uh, motion blur, just to accentuate their intensity. This is Candid. Original Classic Lineup: We have Jeremy Enigk on guitar and vocals, Dan Hoerner on guitar, Nate Mendel on bass, William Goldsmith on drums. Tough, bookish-looking guys. They are one of the most Midwestern non-Midwestern bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. The guys are dressed formally: white button-up shirts, ties, a few suit vests (at least two; the drummer isn’t really visible there). This photo makes it look like the groomsmen at a wedding have become so overwhelmed with emotion that they’ve attacked the wedding ring, stolen their instruments and commandeered the stage, and now they’re feasting the shocked wedding party and confused but also quite excited with a busy and fierce party and super intimate post-hardcore songs with lyrics that use the word synapse a lot.
It’s unfair of me: I don’t know of any Sunny Day Real Estate song that uses the word synapsei still remember the time i was standing in a gossip circle of cool kids in a bar in san francisco and my dear friend nate started ranting about how emo bands shouldn’t be allowed to use word synapse more in their lyrics because the word synapse is, in quotes, “A fucking pre-fucking-Fugazi name.” End of quote. You had to be there. Here is a Death Cab for Cutie song from 2000 titled “Company Calls Epilogue” which illustrates this alleged misuse of the word synapse:
This song is about being sad at a wedding. I played this to you earlier for four reasons: first, the synapse thing; two, the marriage thing; three, it’s a great song (OK, five reasons); four, I hear a lot about Sunny Day Real Estate in early Death Cab for Cutie, especially from the late 90s, lots of tonal similarities, erudite intimacy at arm’s length, a whole lot beyond the wordy band names that I’m slightly embarrassed to say out loud voice; and the fifth reason, apparently I’m just extra loopy this week.
I’m describing this Sunny Day press photo to you in so much detail because, circa 1994, this near-wedding photo was pretty close to the only publicly available information about Seattle rock band Sunny Day Real Estate. Throw the needle on the old Victrola record player with the giant horn, my friends, because Uncle Rob is about to explain another thing from the past: for decadespre-internet, if a rock band wasn’t plastered all over MTV and rolling stone and so the only way to get a sense of what they looked like, without buying their records or going to their gigs, is if that band physically mailed glossy 8 1/2 by 11 press photos to the newspapers and alt-weeklies and smaller and other magazines. Ideally these photos would also include the band’s logo – like preferably a death metal band logo that’s so gnarled you can’t read the name at all, I love that shit – and captions naming the individual members of the band, just to let you know the bassist’s name is Doug or whatever.
When I first started interning for alternative weeklies and magazines, every art section or music section I worked in had a dusty corner of the office devoted to three to five giant, tri-stacked, broken, military green binders. , free of rusty and dangerously wobbly filing cabinets with bullet holes for some reason, and those filing cabinets were filled to the brim with nothing but group pictures. On thick, glossy paper. Group photos listed alphabetically, if you were lucky. The Afghan Whigs, Built to Spill, Corrosion of Conformity, Depeche Mode, E (the Eels guy), the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Girls Against Boys, Juliana Hatfield (but not the Juliana Hatfield Three—which go under J), Ivy, the Juliana Hatfield Three, K’s Choice, Living Color, 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 these groups randomly; once i had half the alphabet, i was like, Why not.
Thousands upon thousands of band photos to file and use later for gig schedules and all. Terrible for the environment, this system. Not, like, terrible bitcoin mining, but not great. So the music publisher’s hungover and he’s grumpy, and he says, “Give me a picture of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, preferably with a motorcycle in it,” and the poor intern has to rush off to the binders to leaf through the M. . These filing cabinets were so bulky and heavy that you knew one day they would crash through the floor, and thus through the ceiling of the next floor into the newspaper office, back when newspapers were big enough to justify having multi-storey offices. . At this point, when I describe life before the internet out loud, even I don’t believe it anymore. So yeah, let’s say you hear this song somehow and you’re plot:
So it sounds appealing and approachable and not intimidatingly cool, even if you’re a square, oblivious, meat-and-potatoes alt-rock kid, right? It is a rock band from Seattle in 1994. A rock band on the famous Sub Pop Records. Former home of Nirvana, I don’t know. Sunny Day Real Estate is definitely not grunge, but they’re not desperate not to look grunge. Two guitars, bass, drums and passionate lament. The classic formula. Comfort food. This music does not try to surprise you or deceive you. It’s not a trojan for anything else. And yet, there’s something intangiblely strange about it, isn’t there? There’s something odd about Jeremy Enigk’s voice in particular, isn’t there? Something dense and abstruse and fascinating. If you are connected to this precise emotional frequency, this group fascinates you, immediately, because you don’t necessarily know what he sings, and you certainly don’t know what he meansand he doesn’t sound like a melodious enough singer to be played to death on the radio.
But the genius of Sunny Day Real Estate is the part of this plot that has been left to your imagination. A single press photo. They hardly did any 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 is called “Seven”. Seven stated. No explanation. Later, they will also release a song called “8”. Number 8. “8” is not a continuation of “Seven”. Two of the other best songs on this record are called “47” and “48” respectively. Numbers 47 and 48. These songs are not side by side, and “48” is not a sequel either. This group is just a barrage of hyperspecificity and darkness in random and alluring combinations. You get it just enough right away to spend the rest of your life basking in the parts you’ll never get.
To listen to the full episode Click here, and make sure to follow on Spotify and return every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.