Truly one of the most unique voices to come out of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, Jeremy Enigk crafted a reputation as a dynamic and emotive singer fronting the band Sunny Day Real Estate. His first solo record was released back in 1996, but it took another decade for him to return to solo work. Now he’s back with his second solo album in three years, the lovely OK Bear, and he took a moment to sit down with Aquarium Drunkard to talk about improv on the new album, how it feels to be letting go, the legacy of Sunny Day and how he really doesn’t mean to offend Ringo, honest.
Aquarium Drunkard: The title of the new album is OK Bear. Can you tell me about the album title?
Jeremy Enigk: Well it’s sort of random. The whole record is random, which I like about it. But I was in the studio and joking around with the producers and the guys and doing my imitation of an opera singer singing in my fake Spanish, even though I don’t know Spanish, and I sang “vale oso.” And they said, “Hey, you just said ‘OK bear.'” That basically is Spanish – ‘vale oso’ – ‘OK Bear.’ I thought it was rad. So I just stuck with it and it kept coming up during the recording. So, why not? I can’t do anything better.
AD: You talk about a random feel to the record. Do you feel this is more of an album in a loose sense? Do the songs have a coherent feel to them or is it a smattering of a lot of things you’ve been working on grouped together under the heading of an album?
JE: The randomness, what I meant by that, was more the title. And also the cover is a picture of me as a kid and has no connection to any of the songs. But the music itself is all pretty cohesive and I think it sounds like it was recorded in the same place and yeah, there is a cohesiveness there. The way I feel with these collection of songs, it was all one thought.
AD: Has that been a common thing with your solo records?
JE: Yeah, there’s always a sort of theme and that’s easy to achieve because you’re working with a specific producer, a specific time frame and a specific studio. So all these elements come together and create a very specific feel for each record. But going into this record, I had absolutely no ideas, well, maybe three very loose ideas, of what I wanted to do. I flew to Spain and just sort of improvised the record. It seems like it would be pretty random, right? But it ended up actually sounding like a cohesive piece of work. And that’s because of the producers.
AD: When you say you improved the record, you mean you sort of wrote it off the cuff?
JE: Yeah, I basically wrote them off the top of my head. I spent about thirty minutes to work out the basic skeleton of the song and just made it up on the spot. The guys in the band would take the song and turn it into what direction they thought it should go, which was a lot of fun. I’ve always over-produced my music. I’ve always just thought about it so deeply and so strongly that you end up choking some of the life out of it while trying to perfect it. But in this case it was more about just letting it go and letting the muse speak through me and really not trying to strangle it. So the music is what it is.
AD: Does not working on it as much and letting it, as you said, be what it is, make you feel less accomplished when you’re done versus when you’ve put all this energy into really shaping it into a certain vision? Or is it a different sense of accomplishment or is it different at all?
JE: I don’t think it’s really different. I mean, I always work my hardest on something on some level. I always do my best. In the end, what you have is your best. There really is no better I can do. It is what it is and I have to let it go and accept that’s what it is. If I could’ve made a better record, I would have, but that’s what I made. It wasn’t too different.
But the one aspect I loved about it was that it was very liberating to let go. When you let go, it’s like saying “I don’t care. I’m going to let fate decide the success of this record.” And it’s really just about relieving yourself of the tension. It’s the greatest thing.
AD: Is that a radical departure from how you’ve done things in the past? For instance, how would you compare it to the recording process for your 2006 record World Waits?
JE: Well, this record was recorded in about six weeks. And I think World Waits was recorded in about a two year process. That was one of the major differences – it really takes a lot longer when you really put your head in it. But I’ve been doing it long enough that I think I can get away with not over thinking things.
AD: With approaching this record in a different way, did the influences that you pulled from change in any way?
JE: Well, yeah. I mean, I’m always listening to and discovering new music. I’ll definitely pull from things like this. The biggest influence on the sound of this record wasn’t really any music I was listening to, but the producers and the musicians who played. The producers actually were a part of the band. What I love is when producers actually sit down, listen to the song, re-write parts, write their own parts and really become another member of the music. They were the biggest influence on this record’s sound because they took it in as their own and took it very seriously. I talked about me not thinking about the songs too much, but they definitely thought about the songs. It definitely does sound like one piece of work, even though I’m still pushing it off as being sort of random, it really isn’t.
AD: At this point, so much of your career has been spent either in Sunny Day Real Estate or working with most of the members of that band in The Fire Theft. Even at this point, some six years after the only Fire Theft record and almost a decade since the last Sunny Day record, how does that legacy hang over you? How do you feel about that and how it affects your legacy as an artist?
JE: I’m totally fine with it now, but I think there was a point during World Waits where that constant reminder of Sunny Day would bother me because, hey, this is what I’m doing now. And I want to be recognized for what I’m doing now and I want what I’m doing now to be considered as great as. But now I’m at the point where I listen to Sunny Day and it was great. And it’s a part of me, too, and if people want to celebrate that and celebrate it even more, hey, I’m still a part of that and it’s an absolute honor to have been a part of that band. It’s all good, man. [laughs] I’m happy with everything I’ve done.
AD: Do you play Sunny Day songs solo, or do you stay away from that because you’d rather not, or how do you deal with that?
JE: I do play a handful of Sunny Day songs, but I always do it just by myself. If I have a band supporting me, I won’t do the songs with them, just out of respect for the other members. They wrote their own parts and they belong to them, not to me to sort of steal and give to a hired guitar player. There was a period where I absolutely did not play any Sunny Day because, as I said, I didn’t want to be recognized as Sunny Day only. I also kind of got annoyed, no offense to Ringo, but I got annoyed when he’d play Beatles songs solo. [laughs] And I didn’t want to become an older musician hashing out weird versions of what was once a great song, and with absolutely all respect to Ringo, I shouldn’t even be saying it, but I didn’t want to do that. As time went on, I began to appreciate the songs and just wanted to play them again. They are songs I wrote and I want to share them with fans because they love it and it makes me feel good and in the end it’s all good.
AD: At this point in your career, what sort of goal is there behind your art? What are you aiming for when you go record a record or take it out on tour? What does your art do for you?
JE: First and foremost, it’s about the joy of music and what I get out of this sort of meditation of sitting down with a piano or a guitar and organizing my feelings into songs. It’s an incredible therapy. It brings a joy and a peace within me. But on a mechanical side, my goal is to sell as many records as possible. I want to be successful and I would like to continue making a living off of what I love. That’s always an ongoing goal – having more people listening and sharing this introspection that comes with my music and hoping that they can benefit from it and feel as good as I do when I’m actually writing the songs. words/ j. neas