"Jesus isn't anything that I want to compromise with for he is far more important than this music, financial security or popularity could ever be.... It is no longer the financial freedom that once controlled me, but it is to expose people to truth for their sake and especially Jesus' sake. But who knows what is going to happen in the future. Every time I make a plan it gets changed. The future is the future."
-Jeremy Enigk, excerpt from a letter to a fan, 1994
For Jeremy Enigk, the future is now, and it's called The Fire Theft.
In that 1994 letter to a fan, he explained how finding God was indeed the reason for breaking up the band that would be credited as the father of "emo." Sunny Day Real Estate had formed in 1992 and signed to Sub Pop, then ground zero for grunge. With Enigk's delicate vocals and the band's emphasis on beauty over brutery, Sunny Day stuck out like Dylan Thomas in a hovel full of Bukowskis. It was pretty music done by punk rock's progeny.
To err on the side of understatement, Sunny Day was well-loved. Their 1994 debut, Diary, has since been heralded as one of the key albums that effeminized underground rock. It inspired a whole shift in posture.
"I've always enjoyed pretty music," Enigk says. "In a way, during the punk-rock days it was all about screaming and fast drums and heavy bass and guitar. But then Shudder to Think came out and Craig Wedren, the singer, has got a beautifully high-pitched, wonderful, very feminine voice. That definitely gave me the courage to say, "Hey, I'm a singer, and this is how I sing and like to sing.' I think that the local hardcore scene really appreciated it."
The sterile title of Sunny Day's second album-1994's LP2-was telling. There was no emotion left for the project. Enigk's newfound spirituality was the force that tipped the scales and broke the band.
"I had wanted to quit that band since the first tour," he explains. "We did two months in a van and [Christianity] ultimately gave me the strength to say, "No, I don't need this anymore.'
"I was 18 years old and suddenly found myself diving into this thing that was potentially going to get huge and take over my control of my life. I fought it."
Enigk signed a solo deal with Sub Pop, releasing one album, and is still under contract for two more ("they've been cool enough not to sue me," he says of his procrastination). Bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joined Dave Grohl in his new project, Foo Fighters. Guitarist-vocalist Dan Hoerner retreated to a Washington farm. After Enigk learned to moderate his religious zeal, the band would reform for two more studio albums, the last being 2000's The Rising Tide.
Now, however, Enigk-a guy who had "never listened to rock 'n' roll"-has heard Pete Townsend, and he, Goldsmith and Mendel are answering the call with The Fire Theft.
"William had played a certain song from Quadrophenia and it blew my mind," Enigk says. "It totally changed my whole direction and outlook on music... just the freedom of it. It was sort of intimidating at first because I had never tried a style like that and all of a sudden [I'm] diving into storytelling-type songs."
The inspiration led to The Fire Theft's eponymous debut, released Sept. 23 on Rykodisc. The Fire Theft is the logical apex of Enigk's development from punk stricture to tender indie-pop to epic, sweeping rock that borrows from the annals of bands like U2, Jane's Addiction and Rush.
Sure, it occasionally indulges in prog- rock opulence with string sections and lengthy instrumental passages. But the luminous moments overwhelm slight distractions, with Enigk's ethereal voice an even better rocket ship.
Forever billed as a mystery swallowed whole by enigma, the singer is forthcoming and optimistic on the eve of the band's second major U.S. tour. He sounds like a man who's been born again, again.
"We feel like we're starting from scratch," he says. "I'm hearing our songs on the radio, which I haven't heard in years. And it's sort of exciting to discover it again. I feel like, in a way, we're getting a second chance."
Enigk describes Sunny Day's dysfunctionality as "embarrassing." He lost friends. He made some back. Fire Theft charts a course that mirrors Enigk's own-it's an emotional phoenix for those who've found themselves in a gutter or two and spotted hope before it hit the drain.
"In the beginning of writing this, [I was] trying to sort of reinvent and rediscover who I was after the break up of Sunny Day," he explains. "Although I wanted it, I wasn't prepared for the change and it left me kind of uncertain of what I wanted to do next. It's really hard to take what you've built, demolish it, and start anew. It's really damaging and was very confusing.
"So at the beginning of this project it was a dark time. And then, progressively starting to build up my hope and my strength, I said, "Fuck it. I wanna live. I wanna be happy. I do not wanna live in the past and what could've been. I have a perfect opportunity right now to start fresh.'" ©
The Fire Theft perform with Laguardia at the Epicentre on Oct. 3. $15. 858-271-4000.