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Q&A: Dan Hoerner of Sunny Day Real Estate

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Every kid who straps on an electric guitar and stands in front of his (or her) bedroom mirror before he or she can barely play an open chord is dreaming of universal acclaim. But when Sunny Day Real Estate's 1994 debut album Diary suddenly made them college rock darlings and found them branded with tags like the next Nirvana (an easy enough association since they were also from Seattle, even if they had little in common with grunge), the young band cracked and broke under the strain, with label Sub Pop barely managing to release a second album variously called LP2 or Pink or just Sunny Day Real Estate--it was submitted to the label without a title or artwork by the rapidly fracturing band. Members departed for the Foo Fighters (bassist Nate Mendel remains with them to this day) and solo careers before they returned in 1998 with How It Feels to Be Something On and 2000's The Rising Tide. Without Mendel, though, it wasn't the same band and soon they had broken up again.

But despite this turning away from the spotlight and their relatively short time together, Sunny Day Real Estate has become one of those touchstone bands that everyone from hipster indie kids to arena-ready emo rockers draw inspiration from. They're a band (like At the Drive-In or Neutral Milk Hotel) you either saw or didn't, a band too fiery and brilliant to last long. But if you missed them then, you're getting a second chance now because Sub Pop's decision to remaster and reissue both Diary and LP2 coincides with the original lineup's decision to reunite on a tour that will find them playing First Avenue here in Minneapolis tonight, September 23.

Guitarist Dan Hoerner was kind enough to answer a few of our fanboy questions.

What are you up to? Still in Seattle right now?

Yup, just about to head over to rehearsals in a little bit after we're done chatting.

Is it just going to be the four of you or do you have extra musicians?

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We don't need any extra musicians when you've got Nate [Mendel, bassist] in the band [laughs]. You can just go and do what you need to do. He's just awesome. It's just the four of us, it's the original sound, and it's rocking--it's pretty huge.

So has it been easy to get back into playing the old stuff?

Yeah, surprisingly, it's like this language you picked up when you were five years old and you sort of forgot it but you can talk the whole language again as soon as somebody starts speaking it to you. I don't know exactly how to put it, but it's like riding a bike. It takes a little bit to shake the dust off and get the rust out of some of the creaky parts, but it's sounding pretty epic right now.

Did you have any of those moments going over stuff where you just could not remember how to play it?

Oh my god, yes. I'm terrible. I can have just recorded something and the next day I'll be like, "What the fuck?! What was I just playing?!" So I'm probably the weakest link in terms of remembering things. William [Goldsmith, drummer], on the other hand, is like a freak of nature. He doesn't even rehearse. We'll say, "Learn everything from LP2." And we'll all have spent a month learning every song and William will sit down and we'll say, "Did you even listen to the record?" No, and he'll play it perfectly with every single beat and every single grace note and every pause all the way through without messing up one time. He's like a robot.

So what got you guys talking seriously about doing this reunion? What was the turning point?

I think the turning point was Nate. He had the opening in his schedule--Nate's very much involved with the Foo Fighters--and it was the perfect time for everybody and Nate was kind of the impetus. I had no inkling, no idea that it was even a possibility. If you had asked me even one day before Nate called me if I expected Nate to call me within the next five years, I would have laughed. So when he gave me the shout, what am I going to say? I'm busy? No: I was like, "YES! Tell me when!" It was Nate. Ultimately, everybody had the time and everybody was in the right place to do it, and to get the push from Nate and to know that Nate's got a whole team of people he works with now that are fantastic, so just all the stars aligned in the right way.

What kind of material from the records are you doing? Sub Pop is reissuing the first two records (Diary and LP2); are you mostly focusing on those?

Yeah, given that it's the four original guys, obviously we're going to do pretty much everything from Diary and LP2, minus a couple of clunkers that just don't work anymore, and then we're actually going to take a pretty sizable chunk from How It Feels and The Rising Tide as well. It's a monster list. When we rehearse, we look at the list and go, "My god: that's like 35 songs." So we're going to try and put together a really long set, which Sunny Day has kind of been famous for playing eight songs and then a two-song encore and that's just not going to fly for this. We would be murdered [laughs]. So we're going to try and put together a 25-song setlist and really try to give what everyone's going to want.

Back in the late '90s, there were a bunch of great bands--Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, Burning Airlines, Jets to Brazil, Braid--that were all called emo, and it seemed like a horrible name for some really quality music. But now it's an accurate name for some terrible music. At the time, did you feel any kind of connection to a scene or those other bands?

I definitely felt a connection with bands that cited Sunny Day as an influence from the sheer standpoint of being completely honored and completely blown away that somebody liked our music enough to consider it as something that inspired them. I never really looked at a band to see what they sounded like because every single band is just made up of monkeys with noisemakers who are just desperately trying to say something about their reality so it doesn't matter. Human beings have been making noise and trying to express themselves to each other as long as there's been human beings. So to me it's irrelevant whether they sound a little bit like this or a little bit like that.

My favorite band of all time is the Replacements, and if I could have played like Bobby Stinson and if I could have sung like Westerberg then I would have been in a Replacements cover band and I would have died perfectly happy. But unfortunately I suck on guitar compared to that guy and I couldn't do what those guys did. I couldn't play like The Edge, even though I wanted to, so I sort of banged on my noisemaker in a way that made sense to me and if you said to Paul Westerberg, does Sunny Day Real Estate sound like the Replacements, he'd be like, "Sunny Day what?" But that was a big influence on me, so I don't expect people who claim to have an influence [from us] to sound like us. I'm just honored that they like our music.

Given the history of the band, it seems like maybe Sunny Day was not ever a band that was super easy to be in. Is that fair?

We definitely had our ups and downs. We definitely made a lot of mistakes early on and got kind of overwhelmed early on. But you know, bands break up, man. It's hard for dudes to stay married to each other. How many bands can make it? For every U2 there are a million bands that were together for a year, made a record, and broke up. That's just what happens. But we definitely had some internal tensions of young guys who are not yet fully formed in their consciousnesses trying to live and relate to each other and deal with pressures so yes, totally: there were times when it was really really difficult and nobody was getting along. But all in all, I wouldn't trade it for anything because we got to make the music that we made and for whatever reason, the bond of love that we have has remained unbroken despite the years and whatever other forces that we've plowed into. So a little bit tough, but great. We're still together! We wrote a song yesterday! It's still happening and it sounds amazing. Whatever needed to happen in terms of time was what should have happened and everything was in the right place for us to make some timeless music.

So are there plans for making a new record?

Well, right now the mandate is just so clear: we've got to get ready for this tour. And that's a huge amount of work, so first and foremost we're focusing on the tour. Since we seem to be in this time where my wishes come true [laughs], I'm just going to go ahead and make the wish that we do get to record a new record. Officially, there's just the tour and the re-release of the first two records and that's plenty.

With the reissues, did you guys have much of a hand in working with them?

Oh yeah, it was wonderful. Wonderful to mend fences and rebuild relationships with Sub Pop and wonderful to see this all come together and know how much they care about our music. We had Brad Wood, the guy who recorded our first two records, involved in the project and he actually went back and remixed two new tracks for each record of these bonus songs that we had laying around and just made them fit perfectly. So each one of the records is going to have two bonus tracks and this writer named Jonathan Cohen had interviewed everybody in the band and all these auxiliary people and wrote this incredible history to go along with Diary and another one for LP2. It's just so cool to see everybody's perspective. It turned out fantastic, and for whatever reason, I think it's going to be another one of those Sunny Day things that's going to be worthy.

Are there any plans to reissue How It Feels To Be Something On or The Rising Tide?

As of right now, there are no plans, but I absolutely love How It Feels and in a lot of ways it may actually be my favorite Sunny Day record, even though it clearly lacks Nate and clearly lacks his touch, but there was a passionate time when me and Jeremy were writing those songs together that was just really magical. Some day, maybe, they'll get that same touch because I love that record.