David Pemberton speaks to the ex-Sunny Day Real Estate vocalist about his creative process, work ethic and new album, Ghosts.
By David Pemberton
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, especially when we apply it to music. It gives us the cruel tendency to fall in love with an album or song only to abandon the musicians who created it when their sound evolves. It’s why so many great artists fade away; not because they’re done with making music but because we’re done listening. It’s a tension that every successful musician will eventually struggle with, the fear that they’re just not as good as they used to be.
But maybe that tension is what makes Jeremy Enigk’s Ghosts — his first album in nine years — so damn good. The album is an honest and vulnerable examination of letting go, and for someone with a legacy as enduring as Enigk’s, that practice carries immense emotional resonance. “I used to not give a shit about what people thought, I just did what I did,” says Enigk. “But now enough time has passed and the legacy is stressful.”
Enigk is best known as the lead singer of Sunny Day Real Estate, an immensely prominent band in the early days of post-hardcore. It’s Sunny Day’s influence on second-wave emo that earned Enigk the frustratingly perennial moniker “the godfather of emo,” a label that sometimes overshadows his most current — and honestly, his best — work. “I’ll continue to do my best and hopefully people appreciate it,” says Enigk. “If not, that’s totally cool. There are tons of bands that I’ve listened to over the years who really moved me and what they’re doing now just doesn’t anymore.”
Produced by Santi Garcia, Ghosts is a surprisingly relatable album that is at once cinematic and intensely personal. “The song ‘Ancient Road’ reflects on fading out like a ghost,” says Enigk. “And I was thinking about wanting to move on and move into the next chapter of my life and leave the ghosts of the past behind.” That idea, of leaving the past in the past, is surely one that everyone can relate to in some way. But what’s impressive about Enigk is that even his most personal songs remain open to interpretation. “Some people have said that ‘Ancient Road’ reminds them of their father that has passed on, but for me it’s a love song. It’s about an old girlfriend, and seeing her again and having this odd experience, and knowing that there was something there even though we had moved on. It doesn’t say ‘she’ or anything like that, it’s left open for people to apply to their own life.”
It’s a difficult thing to do in any medium, but the songs on Ghosts capture broad emotional truths within the confines of melody. “I’ve always seen it as bringing chaos into order,” says Enigk. “I just go to the piano or guitar and bring the chaos that I’m feeling into a defined order. It’s like pulling out your emotions and putting them on the table so you can objectively look at them.”
Think of it as emotional alchemy. Enigk writes music by first identifying an emotion and then giving that emotion the room it needs to grow and evolve. Interestingly enough, this process begins with melody and ends with lyricism. “It’s more about pulling out the emotion of that moment, it’s about sinking into that feeling,” he explained. “And the lyrics just go away, like you don’t really need them when you’re expressing this feeling, and you’re pulling the chaos out of you and your sort of exorcising it out into this emotional imagery.”
It’s the creative process that Enigk built his career on – most notably with Sunny Day Real Estate’s LP2, which has no official lyrics. The songs are mostly Enigk singing wordless syllables, and while LP2 is one of Sunny Day Real Estate’s most interesting albums, it represents a style that Enigk has grown out of. “I’m not going to do the gibberish album, you know? But by the time I’m in the studio I’ve sang each song enough that the lyrics usually start to work themselves out anyways. After singing a song over and over again the words just shape themselves,” he continued. “There are guys like Bob Dylan or even like Eminem who are improvising. And they come up with these genius streams of English that are incredibly clear. I can’t do that, I just don’t have it, my mind doesn’t fire that fast, but occasionally I can get close.”
While this process might sound improvisational, it’s a product of Enigk’s commitment to melody. “I think it’s everything,” he says. “If you can lock the lyrics in with an emotional melody, then you’re golden. But that’s always a challenge.” It’s the kind of thing the musician obviously wrestles with, and the process of channeling an emotion through music and then allowing the words to write themselves isn’t always the fastest song writing method. “I take a long time to make records,” says Enigk. “World Waits took more than two years, The Fire Theft took three, the only difference with Ghosts was that it was in the public.”
Enigk launched a PledgeMusic campaign in 2015 that would eventually lead to the release of Ghosts almost two years later, marking the longest campaign that had ever run through the service. It should come as no surprise that fans were eager to support new music from Enigk. In fact, the project received more than double its required funding, but that support proved to be something of a double edged sword. “It was incredibly stressful, because typically when people do crowdfunds, their album is planned or already done,” says Enigk. “The songs were done, but I didn’t have a producer, and it took forever to try and find somebody. And it seemed like everything I did was a challenge, to the point where I questioned whether or not I should be doing this anymore because nothing came easy.”
Of course, Enigk sets high standards for the art he produces, and he is easily his own toughest critic. “I wish I could be as good as Bob Dylan or some other artist,” he says. “But I am what I am.” It’s an idea that he returns to often during the interview, that “he is who he is,” and by extension Ghosts is an album built on self acceptance. “U2 is ultimately the reason I wanted to become a musician. I actually sent a demo of Ghosts to Daniel Enqoah (who produced several of U2’s records). I was really shooting for the stars man. I sent it to Enqoah, but it was very reminiscent to a U2 production, and perhaps that’s why I didn’t hear back from him.” says Enigk. “I wanted to make a record that had the type of production that you’d hear on a Peter Gabriel record. I wanted that really high fidelity like Quincy Jones, kind of sort of pop. But I am who I am, I’m not Peter Gabriel, so I thought let’s make the record that Jeremy Enigk and Santi [Garcia] are gonna make and just settle for that.”
Though the process was long and difficult and, at times, demoralizing, Enigk finally released Ghosts on October 13th of this year. While the album has already proven itself to be one of Enigk’s most successful (in fact, it debut at #24 on Billboard’s indie charts), the artist remains reluctant to feel any relief. “I’m looking at a thousand boxes of CDs in my living room right now. So for me it’s not out,” says Enigk. “But I will be relieved as soon as my vinyl arrives. Once that’s shipped out I’ll think ‘ok, it’s released.’”
Alongside crowdfunding Ghosts, Enigk is supporting its release with an intimate living room tour. “[I haven’t been to a house show] since I was 20, at a friend’s house. This tour is with Undertow music, but I think David Bazan started it with his manager. And it’s become a thing. I had hoped to do a band tour, a full on club tour right after the release, but because I didn’t know when the release was I didn’t set up a band tour in time,” says Enigk. “This was a perfect opportunity to do something really special and intimate as a precursor to a band tour. I’m jumping in, and this is sort of an experiment for me and I think it’s going to be awesome. It’s another alternative means for a musician to survive. Hats off to David Bazan for championing the way.”
While house shows and crowd funding might seem like strange tactics for one of the 90s most influential artists, they’re evidence that Enigk has constantly been evolving. “This is the thing, to see if this experiment is something that I feel good about and that works within my flow. It’s all about that flow, if the flow is happening then I keep on doing it. If it’s not happening and I hit my head against a brick wall then fuck it,” he laughs. “I’m done.”
While the shadow of his legacy looms ever present, it doesn’t define him. “I hope that people would appreciate what I’m doing now for the fact that it’s what I’m doing now,” he says. And while some fans of Enigk’s past work are trapped within a cage of nostalgia, he doesn’t let that stop him from looking to the future. “It’s amazing, because we are possibly moving into a new evolution of the heart and the mind of the human. When people go to my Facebook and say something lame, I don’t delete it. I like to keep it up because they’re responsible for their words, I’m gonna let them stick around. Hopefully they’ll realize through that process what they’re doing, and then change it.”
The way Enigk approaches disappointed fans is the same way he approaches art, and that’s with an oddly resilient sense of optimism. His music isn’t perfect, but Enigk accepts that — he leans into it — and that’s part of what makes it great. “We really have an opportunity to start looking within ourselves and start making it a priority to really change for the better,” says Enigk. “It’s up to you to say who you’re going to become, and to not let that road rage take over and then become an angry asshole. If you can consciously say no, then you’re a step ahead. You’re a step ahead if you have self control. I certainly wish I had more.”
And maybe that’s the most interesting thing about talking with Jeremy Enigk. When he speaks about his past, and the fans who still cling to it, he always does so with a sense of personal responsibility. It’s this authenticity and, yes, longing that gives Ghosts the emotional backbone that makes it such a solid record. It’s not bitter, and neither is Enigk. Ghosts is as much an album about letting the past fade away as it is about moving on. It’s about accepting who you were and who you are — or, to put it it more simply, it’s about bringing chaos into order.