The Sun Also Rises: An Interview with William Goldsmith of
Sunny Day Real Estate
William Goldsmith, 27-year old drummer for Seattle’s favorite sons, Sunny Day Real Estate, left a message on my voicemail. Goldsmith asked if we could change the time of our interview, so he could attend a yoga class. Being a yoga enthusiast myself, and having a flexible schedule, I called him back to let him know we could talk later in the week. As it turns out, Goldsmith isn’t becoming what he jokingly referred to as “Yoga Guy.” Rather, his yoga classes are part of a rigorous treatment plan to combat the debilitating effects of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Goldsmith recalls that the first symptoms of Carpal Tunnel manifested themselves as “really intense, sharp pains in my arms” and “numbness in my hands,” especially upon waking from a night’s sleep. “I could still play, but it had gotten to the point where it was always really painful. It made [playing] music not much fun, because it hurt so bad.” Goldsmith was quickly diagnosed with the repetitive stress disorder (along with tendinitis and bursitis in the shoulders), via acupuncture he was undergoing to alleviate lower back problems. Without treatment, Goldsmith was informed his career as a drummer would be over within two years.
“I was asking for it, because I’m self taught and never really learned any technique. I play more with my arms, and that’s not good.” A vital part of Goldsmith’s rehabilitation therapy includes two acupuncture sessions weekly, plus a five-nights-a week regimen of Bikram Yoga, a physically intensive modality involving 90 minutes of continuous postures in a room heated to 102 degrees. “It’s not for everybody, it’s definitely one of the most horrifying things I’ve done in my life,” he says. “You have to be careful, and between moves, you have to stay really still. The first couple of times I went, I almost threw up several times. It’s an unbelievable work out. With that, plus playing drums… and quitting drinking, I’m feeling pretty good.” Goldsmith says, he feels “fortunate to have the chance to try and repair some of the damage I’ve done over the years.”
In June, Sunny Day Real Estate – the trio of Goldsmith, Dan Hoerner on guitar, and the charismatic singer/lyricist Jeremy Enigk – released their fifth album, The Rising Tide. This is the band’s most progressive album to-date, outshining even their critically acclaimed 1998 release, How It Feels to Be Something On. To those unfamiliar with the band, music as urbane and experimental as that found on The Rising Tide is not what you’d expect from a band with the rather mundane moniker of Sunny Day Real Estate. “That’s the curse of having our name, is that people think we’re going to be some fucking wanky pop punk band,” says Goldsmith. “People file us under “emo” and I don’t quite understand [it]. What’s “emo”? How long has it been that people have been playing rock and roll music with emotion behind it?” William Goldsmith explains the creative force behind his band’s music, while reflecting on the past and looking to the future in an interview that turned out to be not at all what I expected.
How did you start playing drums?
Well, I started by my brother, Brian telling me that you could be, try, do, and say anything you wanted. I don’t think I ever really knew that. I think I was 13, and he was in his mid-twenties. He sat me down and played me Quadrophenia. Then he played me Rush, and got me into the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello and Talking Heads… just all this music, the Who and Led Zeppelin. The next thing I knew I was lost in it… and I have been ever since (laughs).
How have you changed your routine since being diagnosed and beginning this treatment?
I’ve been putting all of my energy into trying to relax. It sounds weird to put energy into trying to relax. A long time ago – it was actually years ago, when Sunny Day broke up the first time – I’d already gotten to the point where I was losing my range of motion with my arms. I’d always have to put my cymbals right in front of me because I couldn’t spread my arms very wide, so I’d just have to hit straight forward. It really sucked, it was really limiting, but I just did it.
And you probably did more damage.
I did a lot more damage. I toured for about six months after that – not straight. I like touring, but not to the point where it drives songs into the ground and they don’t even make sense to you anymore. I’m really excited to tour with this record, though. I’m really, really proud of it.
Didn’t you also just release a live CD not that long ago?
Yeah, that was a contractual obligation [to Sub Pop records] that we had to do, but, I mean, it’s cool. Actually, we never had any interest in releasing a live record at all. We thought it was kind of a pretentious thing, like “Ooh, us live! We’ve got three whole records out!” But we had to do it, so we did.
How do you think The Rising Tide differs from How It Feels to Be Something On?
[It’s] light years beyond it. The production is light years beyond it and the performance is – sonically – just so much better, the songwriting is more efficient… it has more of the punch that Diary had, but a lot of the focus from How It Feels…, and it just moves really nicely. The songwriting is the most efficient songwriting we’ve ever done. I’m really happy with the drum arrangements that I did. Jeremy actually plays drums on one song, and it’s a really beautiful sound he produced. He plays drums on one song and he plays the floor on another song — they miked the floor…
Jeremy is a percussionist also?
Jeremy is an “everything-ist” (laughs). He’s a really talented guy. He’s a singer, guitar player, bass player, and keyboard player (laughs). We write and arrange the music together, but he’s a very multi-talented guy, and he is great at picking up instruments and adding a lot of really great colors. But we just got a bass player for the tour, a friend of ours, Nick McCrea, one of the best bass players I know, from Chicago. I’m really, really excited about that.
Jeremy’s vocals really remind me of Perry Ferrell a little bit. I’ve said that to people and they get all bent like ‘He does not fucking sound like Perry Ferrell!
I’ve heard that before, and I can see what you mean. I’d never thought about it but when people have said it I can see where they’re coming from. Strangely enough, the comparison we get [most often] is to early Genesis with Peter Gabriel, which is really strange.
I noticed that after I listened to the CD a few times. I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan.
We’ve been getting that over and over again, when we look at different reviews, from this record and also How It Feels…, people say we sound like early Genesis. We hadn’t really thought about that. I mean, I like early Genesis…
I think it’s a high compliment.
It’s a HUGE compliment, but I haven’t quite seen it, I don’t know. But if you like How It Feels to Be Something On, you’re really going to like The Rising Tide. You might not really want to listen to that record after this one (laughs).
How has the dynamic in SDRE changed since breaking up and reforming?
I guess the only way that the dynamic has changed is [that we] have changed [as individuals]. I’ve changed a lot, I think we’ve all changed a lot. The music sort of shows [that change]. From Diary to The Pink Record to How It Feels to this record, you can hear the individuals growing, from record to record as musicians and as people. It’s pretty obvious if you listen to the record, especially. Our performances are a little better and the songwriting is more mature. But the dynamic between the band… it’s weird because now we’re pretty much a three piece. We were always a four piece, but now we decided to do this last record with just the three of us, so Jeremy played bass. It was really cool, because that’s how we wrote our first record, Diary. It was pretty much with Jeremy and Dan and I, except that Dan was playing bass and Jeremy was playing guitar. It had that same energy when we were writing and it was really inspiring and fun. It was hard on Jeremy though, because he works so hard on the bass parts and he worked hard on the songs. When we got in the studio, he didn’t have very much time to work on the vocals and the guitar parts.
[For me], after leaving the last band that I was in, I was very drained and very disenchanted. I was trying to find whatever it was going to be, something to try to re-inspire me, to get me interested in creating again. I mean, I was sucked dry in every single way. When Sunny Day got back together it gave me a whole new life. It’s a great feeling, where I’m in control of what I’m doing.
The album title, The Rising Tide, sounds like it could be spiritually influenced. Do you think these songs have a spiritual edge to them?
All of our music – it may sound cheesy – is very spiritually influenced. There’s just something weird about the band… something strange about it. And there’s something weird about our songs, they sort of seem to write themselves. It’s just strange, it’s just weird. We get moved by things all around us. It’s not often that you have that kind of a connection. The way we write [the songs] is spiritual, the way we record it is spiritual, everything. We just hit moments where there is something in the air that’s not us. It’s a good feeling. The highs outweigh the lows by far, definitely.
Your playing is very passionate, but at the same time, it seems very restrained.
Yeah, well it didn’t use to be. That’s one thing I’ve really been working on, to become more restrained: to really lay back and make the same point more efficiently. When I was a kid, I wanted to be exactly like Keith Moon, and that’s how I played for a long time, just completely insane. Now I’m really starting to enjoy simplicity. If you hear the new record, the drumming is way better, as far as how far I’ve come as a player, since How It Feels.
Unfortunately, there’s stuff that Sunny Day did – before we were even Sunny Day, that was never even recorded – that was completely insane and totally chaotic. I also played hardcore [punk] for a long time, I mean, we all did – everybody in the band comes from hardcore – and [doing SDRE] was an experiment. It was like a bunch of hardcore guys experimenting with trying to play slow. It was really hard for me to learn how to not fill up the space (laughs), you know? Diary was the first phase of the experiment. If you hear The Pink Record, it’s the same thing, very little restraint. Brad Wood, the producer, had to come in and ask me not to do fills. He’s like, “Dude, just play the song.” I was young and my playing was immature, but I was very inspired.
But definitely, on How It Feels I was like a different drummer. If you check out those first two records, and then these two records, it’s like [I’m a] completely different drummer. I’m much happier with the way I play now, the way I arrange drum parts now. I just don’t like playing things that are unnecessary. I really want to leave room for all the colors to really swirl around me.
I like the way you put that.
I guess I just like the feeling of being able to push all this beauty together with more efficient, simple drum parts – efficiently written and strategically placed… I’m very careful with the subtleties.
You know, although a lot of Sunny Day songs are kind of slow, they still rock.
That’s what I really have a passion for, is playing really slow and very, very heavy, with lots of swirling colors. That’s what turns me on and really gets going. That’s my favorite thing.
And all three of you write together?
The music, yeah. Dan and Jeremy usually focus on the lyrics and we all work on the arrangements. That’s one really great thing about our new record is the lyrics. It’s lyrically rich and definitely powerful, the strongest lyrics that we have [written] yet. It’s really, very creepy but also hopeful. It definitely tells a story.
You seem to have a really positive attitude.
Well, I put myself through a lot and allowed things to happen to me and made things worse for myself. I just made a decision that I wanted to be happy and start doing things the right way… and [I realized] that things didn’t have to be fucked and that you could take control and completely change your life. My girlfriend has had a huge part in that. She’s a nutritionist, so she helped me change my diet and that plays a huge part, to cut out dairy and caffeine.
Ooh, no caffeine, that’s pretty scary.
Once you don’t drink it anymore, once you don’t have caffeine anymore, you [don’t miss it]. I wake up and I have energy. It’s a weird feeling. There was a long period of time where that was not the case. I’d have to say that coffee was the easiest to stop drinking.
Even in Seattle, where there’s a Starbucks on every block?
I think that’s the thing, you know, you take coffee for granted, but it’s a good thing to give it up.
Sunny Day Real Estate are currently on tour in support of The Rising Tide.