Interview: Dan Hoerner of Sunny Day Real Estate

words by Jackson Ellis | photo by Cayte Nobles
| Thursday, January 2nd, 2003

DanPreviously published in Verbicide issue #7

The year is 1993, the city is Seattle, Washington, and a rock outfit named Sunny Day Real Estate is poised to become the first great post-grunge, post-punk, post-hardcore act of the 1990s with their full-length Sub Pop debut, Diary. The album was remarkably ahead of its time. Sunny Day paved the way for a generation of imitators and an underground insurgence of moody and melodic music awash with furious, distorted hardcore intensity.

In the thick of this revolution was Dan Hoerner, lead guitarist and co-writer of some of the best songs of the past decade. Though Sunny Day have seemingly ceased for good, Dan (as well as the other former members of the band) have continued to forge ahead with new projects, musical as well as not. Adding to his list of accomplishments, Dan co-founded The Art Conspiracy with webmaster John DeSpirito in 1999. The first site of its kind, The Art Conspiracy is a community of artists, writers, photographers, and musicians sharing their crafts with the world. With more than 1,800 members and 36,000 pieces of artwork, the “AC” is a beacon of pride and a source of hope for anyone who’s ever thought young, independent artists were waning in numbers. I had the fortune of speaking to Dan on the afternoon of September 28, 2002 about Sunny Day, The Art Conspiracy, and everything in between.

Testing, testing — is this thing on? Okay, it’s going.
Good…this is Dan Hoerner, and how are you doing? (laughter) I just burnt my fingers getting my toast out…

So, what is the great Dan Hoerner having for lunch today?
Today I’m having a very humble peanut butter and honey sandwich.

On toast, no less.
A little bit of garlic thrown in. And carrot juice.

Sounds like the meal of a champion farmer. Are you into subsistence or commercial farming?
Well, we’re [Dan and his wife] not doing any commercial stuff. This was just a farm before we bought it, and we have a pretty big garden that’s probably at least an acre or so…but we’re not doing anything to actually deserve the title of “farmer.” (laughter) We just hang out here, basically — and I mostly write my music here. Pretty much all the music I’ve written since 1997 was written out here. We used to go into town and practice or do stuff for Sunny Day out in Seattle, and we’d come back here before going out on tour.

Are you close to Seattle?
No, we’re like six, six and a half hours from Seattle.

Oh wow. How long ago did Sunny Day Real Estate start? Around 1992?
Yes, ’92 I think.

So back then, were you living that far out of the city?
Oh no, we didn’t get the farm until after Sunny Day broke up the first time. That was when I bought the farm, around 1995.

Did you know they actually wrote about that in Rolling Stone in 1996?
They wrote about what in Rolling Stone?

That you live on a farm.
Really?!

Yeah, I don’t know why it stuck with me for so long. It was when I was 16 and in 10th grade. It was in an article in October of 1996 and it had the Foo Fighters on the cover — two former members of Nirvana and two Sunny Day expatriates… So, moving on, tell me about your most recent project, the Art Conspiracy (www.artconspiracy.com). When did you start this, what inspired it, and what are you motivations behind it?
John Despirito and I started it right around the end of 1999. I don’t know what the idea was, really. I have some friends who are artists — some painters, some who write poetry, a couple screenwriters — and I had never really done anything with the Internet before. I wasn’t very Internet savvy. But I just thought that I could make a place where all these good people could put there work up, at the same time and location, and maybe if someone came to look at one person’s work, they could look at another person’s as well. It was just an idea of trying to get exposure to the artists by having something to generate traffic. And then, of course, it evolved.

Originally it was just going to be a few friends; it wasn’t going to be anything that you joined or was available to the public, it was just going to be a page of my friends that, whenever I got a chance, I would tell people about it.

That sounds sort of like how Verbicide and Scissor Press and terraspatial — our online zine — started off. Verbicide was a cut-and-paste poetry zine for two issues. It’s akin to the Art Conspiracy in that way; good things catch on after a while!
Yeah, it was really organic! We didn’t have a preconceived idea of how we wanted it to go. Once we started it and more people became interested in joining, we thought, jeez, we should open this up and make it a site that you can log onto and do everything remotely.

In the beginning, John was doing everything: he was creating everybody’s page, putting everyone’s art in, things like that. I really had no idea what the public reception would be, because I didn’t understand then how technically savvy people — especially young people — are today. I had no idea that people would know how to log in, upload their images, all that stuff. John has made it a really easy process, but we had no idea that anyone would want to join. We thought, whatever, maybe if we get 30 members we’ll be stoked. Now we have over 1,800 users and 30,000-plus pieces of art, and we are adding 15 new people every day, sometimes up to 30.

It’s really starting to grow quite quickly; in fact, it completely outgrew the server we had for it. It was expensive to start it, but now, looking back on it, it was nothing. We were spending about $200 a month on web-hosting and complaining and crying, and trying to figure out ways to get our users to help us pay for it. And now we’re spending like $750 a month just paying for the bandwidth!

So how are you guys turning that money to pay for it? Advertising, donations?
No, it’s like a big knife in my chest, drawing my blood every month! (laughter) We have some wonderful users who have given us donations that have really helped.

I saw the “wall of fame” on your site, listing the users and how much they donated.
Yeah, that really helps, but if you look at the wall of fame and add up the numbers, and then look at the fact that we’re spending $750 a month just on bandwidth, it’s not quite making the cut! We started making t-shirts too, pretty much because users constantly ask about it. We just started them, and again…I’m not the best businessman in the world; it’s kind of been proven over and over that my business savvy sucks, and so we bought a bunch of shirts and we’re way in the hole on t-shirts, right now at least…it’s pretty expensive on the front-end, but we’re hoping that, over time, enough people will buy them as the site grows.

So those are the two ways we’ve been getting ads to offset any bandwidth cost. There’s a definite growth-curve to it; it’s really increasing in traffic. The prognosis for the long-term looks good, but it’s so hard to start up a web site. I don’t know if there really is any kind of company like this that makes money, have you heard of any?

I don’t think there is any, really. I imagine some of the bigger punk rock sites can charge a lot for advertising, but it’s hell to try to pay for bandwidth alone.
Yeah, it’s tough, but it’s a labor of love.

Exactly.
Personally, I really, really enjoy the Art Conspiracy. I’m constantly blown away by some of these artists! It’s amazing, we have some really incredible artists! It’s a cool, broad mix of people, and the community is really friendly too, it seems like everyone gets along with each other, and they seem to be having a lot of fun with it. That’s the bottom line. Like I said, when we first started it, the idea was to have a static page with some of my friends, so I’ve never had any intention of making money off of it. I’d really just like it to get to the point where it pays for itself and doesn’t drain me.

Now, you mentioned John DeSpirito as on person involved with the Art Conspiracy; is he the guy who was involved with the Makeoutclub?
No, one guy who was involved with the Makeoutclub is Marc Debiak. Marc started his own web site called “A Social Disease” closely tied in with the Art Conspiracy. Those guys are really cool; they do Magnifold Design, Eyeball Records…they’ve been really awesome to the Art Conspiracy — and Eyeball Records is really cool, I like all their bands.

They put out the first Thursday record, right?
Yeah, I really want to do a record with those guys.

That would be bizarre!
You think so?

Well, at least, quite a departure from your previous bands.
They definitely have their own sound — they don’t sound like Sunny Day, but some of their stuff is pretty melodic, and some of their changes are reminiscent of a similar vibe.

(At this point, Dan and I start discussing what I’ve been listening to recently, and that’s just not important. But it led into a new discussion.)

My last CD purchase, actually, was a Sunny Day bootleg from the last time I saw you guys [October 17, 2000 at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut].
No way!

Yeah, I bought it at Brass City Records in Waterbury, Connecticut about a month ago.
Wow!…how do we sound?

It’s really good, for an audience bootleg! And it was a double CD, only $10.
Well I’m glad somebody’s making money off of Sunny Day! (laughter) I kind of wanted to do a bootleg for Sunny Day and sell them…

That would be pretty funny if you got busted for bootlegging your own band!
And I would, too, for sure, because I think Sub Pop immediately tracks down anybody who does a bootleg.

What’s your relationship with them?
Oh, we don’t really have a relationship; this was years ago that we were on Sub Pop, and then we kind of had a struggle to get off, and it was kind of ugly.

I heard that you hate them.
(laughter) I don’t hate them, that’s too strong! I definitely am so over it, it doesn’t matter.

Well this won’t be part of the interview, so don’t worry—
No, it’s okay, I want everybody to know that I don’t have any kind of grudges or anything. It was a shame how everything worked out, but the fault was everybody’s. I don’t have some crazy axe to grind against Sub Pop; I think they were a good record label. Everyone was confused…it is a little bit of a shame that Sunny Day has sold a good amount of record, but because of some of our problems we were in, and lawsuits, and just the way that things worked out, we don’t really get royalties from Sunny Day.

It’s weird to go into a place like Target and see every Sunny Day record for sale, but then realize that you’ll never see royalties from your music. Everyone else is selling your music, and you’ll never get any money.

(We then began to randomly discuss independent media versus mass media, and how, unless one is involved, it is difficult to understand the imbalance of societal penetration the “giants” have versus the independents.)

To be an independent musician is to embrace obscurity, because there is no way for any independent musician to reach a mass audience. You have to be picked up by the machine, in some way or another, to be distributed — I guess that exceptions do occur, but it seems that, in general, the rule is that the marketplace is dominated by the giants.

Is that thinking what instigated Sunny Day Real Estate’s leap to Time Bomb Records [for their final studio album, The Rising Tide], or was it your problems with Sub Pop?
Gosh…this was a while ago, so I’m trying to remember our reasoning…if I could go back in time, I probably would have said to us, “Just stay on Sub Pop! It doesn’t matter!” Of course, Time Bomb folded a month into the release of our record—

They folded? I had thought they were bought out.
No, they folded, completely! They had backing by Arista when they signed us, and there was this mystical forty million dollars…that number was thrown around so much when they signed us. Forty million dollars was the well they had to draw from, that they were going to use to break Sunny Day (whispers)…Fortymeelliondollars!

Wow, they were totally BS-ing you.
(laughter) Oh, I know, dude, we were so stupid! We were so gullible! I mean, the history of Sunny Day is a history of idiocy, and just being so gullible, making every possible bad choice. But, you know, it doesn’t really matter, because the records were pretty good, and that’s all that really matters. But, yeah, we were so stupid in business that we made bad choice after bad choice, and I have to totally take a mass share of the blame. I’m a pretty driven person, and I’m definitely the kind of guy who, if I think I see the way to go, I’ll say, “Okay, we gotta do this, we gotta do this! This is great, this is going to be the one!” And invariably I’m wrong. (laughter) In fact, if you could have me give you advice, and then do exactly the opposite of what I say, in every way, you’ll probably be a huge millionaire success! (laughter) That’s how bad I am, I’m like a barometer for failure…

That’s what sucks about the business aspect. Between November of 1998 and the time when Sunny Day broke up, I saw your band three times in three different cities, and each time I thought, wow, look at the throngs of people who come out to see Sunny Day. Your fan base was huge; especially for a band on a smaller label that didn’t have the power of, say, Columbia or Arista. To me, a fan, not giving a crap about business or record sales, just being a fan, it seems like Sunny Day was such a success. It’s a harsh reality to hear you say it was a failure.
Absolutely, but I think that Sunny Day Real Estate was a success! It was a success and a failure…I think Sunny Day was a success because we made some pretty solid records — definitely a couple good songs on every record — and we tried to give really good live shows…I think that we had good shows. But, we were failures as far as selling our records—

Or, at least making money off of your record sales, and you have to wonder how much of that is your fault and how much is the industry’s fault.
Yeah, by getting good deals with our people, and getting good contracts…we were just confused, and, like I said, I bear a large majority of the responsibility for making some really stupid business choices. But, it doesn’t matter. I’m not bummed about it! Shit comes and goes, and you can’t dwell in the past saying, “Oh no, if only we would done this or that!” Everybody moves on, and I think that, overall, if I had a chance to be in Sunny Day again and take the same route, I would do it. It was a personal success, and we created something pretty timeless: music that definitely was not pandering to anyone in particular; we were just making the music because we liked it. I think it has an honesty to it.

I never really thought it was music that pandered to any genre or any specific group of people; I think it was pigeonholed a certain way because that’s the nature of people, not the nature of the music.
Yes, I agree with that.

I think people who’d never seen you play before, who expecting some overtly emotional display, were taken aback at how much fun you seemed to be having on stage.
I always had fun! Though, I’ve always gotten a lot of jabs and whatnot for my onstage presence, because I tend to have a big stupid smile on my face the whole time. It doesn’t look very cool! I think that was another thing I brought to the band: an extreme level of uncoolness. (laughter) I think we never could have been big famous rock stars on MTV because I look like such a total dork.

Well, I don’t know, I think the dreads and the “serious” expression in the two Sunny Day music videos were pretty “cool!” (laughter) I’ve always wondered, where were the videos for “In Circles” and “Seven” filmed?
Both were shot in Seattle, first of all, and they were both shot by the same guy, Russ was his name. The “Seven” video was shot in some warehouse in Georgetown, I think, but I know that the “In Circles” video was shot at the old Rainier Brewery — some old ice plant, a really gothic, concrete, broken-down structure. It was really neat. I think they were called the “ice houses,” big old broken-down buildings in Seattle.

Cool.
You know what? I haven’t seen either of those videos probably since they were made. I would love to see those if you ever got a copy of them, you gotta send them to me!

I’ve got them on tape! They’re on the Live video that Sub Pop released; they’re included at the very end.
Oh, okay!

(Ed. note: Due to Dan’s admission of notoriously losing things, we cannot accept the blame that the man still doesn’t have a copy of his own videos! This note also marks the part of the interview where I had to flip the tape over.)

This is going to be the side of the tape that makes the difference in the interview. This is where we get to the nitty-gritty, and stop talking all this bullshit, and we get down to the facts! (laughter)

Well then, it’s time for a random opinion. What was your personal favorite Sunny Day song, or, at least, the one that you feel best captures the essence of Sunny Day?
Without a doubt, “Grendel.”

That’s one of my favorite songs, and one of my all-time favorite books, too. I’ve read it many times.
Yeah, by John Gardner. It was a big inspiration to me. It really meant a lot to me, and when I first read it, it changed my life. So that song was about that book, and I think that Jeremy delivers the best vocal performance of Sunny Day. He’s always awesome, so it’s hard to say, but I think that song was our shining moment. It’s so funny, because it’s a song that we wrote in the studio! It was very random and thrown together.

What is Jeremy whispering in the background of the song?
Oh, I don’t know, all kinds of weird shit. It’s really dark.

I’ve heard all kinds of things, like they were Latin phrases spoken backwards…something strange like that.
No, no, he was — at the time — trying to learn how to speak Greek, and he had this Greek phrasebook, so we translated some of the lines in the song into Greek. I think he was saying, “It is raining,” and “I have lost my way home,” stuff like that. So, it was Greek! That’s the big revealing, right there!

Why did Jeremy’s voice change between the pink album (LP2) and How It Feels To Be Something On?
I think that people just change over time. I don’t know — his voice just changed!

I just always wondered if it was a conscious decision, or if he lost his ability to scream.
You know, I’m not sure…it just kind of changed. He definitely had the ultimate scream, I’ll say that! I loved his scream. But I have to say, that’s hard on a voice, and that might have been part of it. That kind of rapes your voice after a time. You can’t just keep doing that through the years — some people can, but I think that, in part, maybe it was just too painful to sing like that.

I’ve always thought the chorus to “Song About An Angel” must have ripped his vocal cords apart!
Yeah…definitely! That was a good tune, too, boy, I like that one a lot! We wrote that as a three-piece, actually. That was one that I was playing bass on and singing, and Jeremy was playing guitar and singing. [William Goldsmith played drums, as always.]

Oh, I always thought Jeremy was the last to join the band.
Yes, he was! But Nate was also in another band — which is kind of Nate’s “modus operandi.” Through the years, I think he’s always been “in another band.” He was in a band called “Christ on a Crutch,” and they had gone to Europe for a month and a half. William and I were desperate to play, so we invited Jeremy to sit in and play with us. I played bass and Jeremy played guitar, and that was how we wrote five or six of the songs that ended up on Diary. It was back when I sang, too, and it was a lot of fun.

Really, that was probably the most fun that I ever had in Sunny Day; when I played bass and with Jeremy and me both singing. It was so free; we didn’t have any preconceptions about what we were doing. We just wrote songs, and it was a blast! I’m a terrible bass player, though, so you can tell the songs that I wrote because the bass lines are really simple step-downs. But then Nate would come in and, of course, make them amazing.

One of the first interviews I ever did, a couple years ago [in Verbicide issue 2], was with Joe Howard, aka, Joe “Bass.” Whatever happened to him?
Yeah, Joe Howard. Man, is he a good bass player, holy shit, he’s amazing!

I asked him in the interview over two years why he wasn’t in Sunny Day after the How It Feels To Be Something On tour ended, and he said, “I don’t know, I like those guys, but I heard they thought was too old to be in the band!” (laughter) What was the real reason?
We had a really good friend step in who was an amazing bass player. He was a close friend of William’s and it was just time for a change. We had tried to write some tunes with Joe and there was just nothing there. You know, you can kind of tell right off the bat if there’s some chemistry, but there wasn’t any — Joe’s a great songwriter, and he’s got a great style, but we were in a place where it just didn’t match.

I saw one show that he played with your and I thought, man, this guy can play.
I think that he picked up a whole set up songs and learned them in like three days before the tour. It was really fast; he’s incredible. There just wasn’t any chemistry during the songwriting, and I know Jeremy wanted to try playing bass on The Rising Tide. Jeremy played bass on that whole album, except for one song that I played bass on. We just wanted to be a three-piece for a while.

At least in the studio.
Yes, we wrote The Rising Tide as a three-piece, and that was fun to be stripped-down and not have to worry about getting someone else in who would match our style. We had a weird writing style, so we just wanted to keep it stripped-down.

Aside from the Art Conspiracy, you also have a publishing company called “Clearly The Underdog.” What is your advice for aspiring publishers? I asked Henry Rollins and he said, “don’t.”
(laughter) My advice would be, go the other way! Do something else! — no, burn your money! Burn your money, and tell your authors that they will never have financial security! That’s the way to publish… (laughter)

Brutal honesty.
Yeah, I have no idea how it’s done, but people do it. It will always blindside you, but if you think you can make something happen, you should totally do it. I’ve felt a sense of accomplishment about it, putting something into the world.

So what happened to Clearly The Underdog? Is it dead?
We sort of folded it into the Art Conspiracy. I still own Clearly The Underdog Publishing — it’s still my company. But the publishing deals I did with my writers was like, “You, the writer, pay for the manufacturing of the book, and then I will give you the place to sell it.” Initially, I was taking about 10 percent, and they would keep all their sales, and I would give them the ISBN number…but I’ve never actually paid for the manufacturing of the book; I’ve never done real publishing.

Back to music: supposedly, the other three original members of Sunny Day are working on a new band called “The Fire Theft.” So why don’t you fit in? Why not just reform Sunny Day?
Well, I don’t know to what point they are taking this. I know that Nate is in the Foo Fighters still, and he’s touring with them — that’s pretty much a 365 days a year type thing. I’m not sure what they’re thing is, but as far as me, the last time Sunny Day broke up, we all really wanted to go our separate ways and try different stuff. I know when they started doing The Fire Theft, it kind of morphed out of Jeremy’s solo project — William and Jeremy live together, so think that they started working together. We were broken up for good, and for a good thing.

I’m dying to hear it; I can’t wait till someone I know gets a hold of some songs. I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot different than Sunny Day. It’s not like it’s going to be Sunny Day Real Estate, Part II, it’s going to be a new thing — hence the new name. I think, ultimately, we’re broken up for good.

You don’t see a reunion in the near or distant future?
You know, stranger things have happened, so I can’t say 100 percent “no,” but I’d say probably not. I’d say the vast majority of my bet would be “not reforming.”

Well I thought you could act like the Eagles and say, “when hell freezes over!”
I’m pretty open! And I love to play, so I’ll definitely be amenable if the time ever comes, but it’s not the time right now.

Was the breakup something that you foresaw on your last tour? The last time I saw you, it seemed like a “greatest hits” set.
Yeah, I think we did know it was the last tour. We knew the record label had tanked, and we had to pay for the last tour ourselves.

But what about the forty million dollars?
I know! Forty million dollars! We didn’t even get a fraction! You know, you asked before, why did we break up…at some point you kind of realize, somebody is trying to tell you something. You keep on failing, somebody’s trying to let you know you’re done. But, I think on our last tour, we knew at least that we weren’t going to be on Time Bomb.

Did that create contractual problems?
No, Time Bomb was pretty cool about letting us go when they tanked. But there was no promotion. To make a record work, you have to try and sell it. Especially a sleeper band like Sunny Day — we’re not going to get one song on the radio and become the next “big thing.” Sunny Day is a long haul — you have to try and introduce people to the overall package, as opposed to just one song.

Musically, what are you doing these days? In their most recent news update, Sunnydayrealestate.net reports: “Dan is scoring the soundtrack to a new independent film titled Someone & Someone Incorporated, and “Other possible big news is coming up for Dan Hoerner musically.” What is the big news?
Well, I have been talking to these guys at Eyeball Records about doing a record and having some of the guys in this band called My Chemical Romance play on it, and maybe some of the guys from Thursday. It would be a fun record — I’ve got all these tunes written, but I haven’t found a band, and I need a guitar player.

So would it be a solo album?
Yeah, it would be a solo album, but I’d have other people play on it.

How about vocals, would you do any singing?
No, I don’t think so. Maybe a little, but I’ve come to be pretty skeptical about my voice. When I was younger, I could sing, sing, sing, but I don’t really have that anymore. This guy from My Chemical Romance has a really good voice. The record’s just been talked about; it’s not anything “real,” but Jeff from Thursday has talked a little bit about doing some vocals on it, but we haven’t gotten anywhere near that being a reality. I really like Thursday a lot; Jeff’s got a good melodic sense. There probably won’t be much of that hardcore screaming — I’m much more influenced by, say, Radiohead now. It will be more melodic. I hope that it happens! I’m not sure that it will happen — but if it does, it will be a lot of fun!

Well, if you ever make a demo, send it to me and I’ll burn some bootlegs, and we can continue the trend of other people making money off of your music.
Yes, absolutely! (laughter) If there’s any way I can make money for somebody else off of my artistic endeavors, I love to do that! That’s the long and the short of my musical career. I’d love to play guitar in a good band, but it’s really tough, though, to find a good thing. I’m kind of out of the scene. I come in for a while, and I go out for a while, and right now, I’m really out of the loop. I hope this record thing goes through, because I’d love to put out a solo record and make money off it! I’d love to actually get paid for something I made!

  • JwithK

    I know this was 12 years ago… but good interview. Here are some pointless questions that will never be answered or even possibly read:

    1. I wonder why Hoerner didn’t join the other guys with Fire Theft.

    2. “I’m dying to hear it; I can’t wait till someone I know gets a hold of some songs”–he couldn’t just call Jeremy or Nate or William? Hmm…

    3. Where is this “farm” in Washington (where I live)?

    4. Did he ever make a record with My Chemical Romance? That would be… strange.

    5. Are the members of Sunny Day aware of how awesome they were and how mediocre the bands they “inspired” are (ie. My Chemical Romance)?

    6. How much money did he make from SDRE? How much money does the “average” great Indie rock outfit make in general?

    7. What is Dan Hoerner doing now?

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