Diary Turns 20
“Where were you when you first heard Diary?”
It’s a question whose answer will always speak volumes of the era Diary emerged from, the generation it spoke to, and the legacy it left behind. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a question that just about anyone who has ever heard Sunny Day Real Estate can answer without hesitation. Hearing Diary for the first time — whether when it was originally released in May of 1994, or several months or years later — was not a passive experience; it wasn’t lazily clicking a link on a blog, it wasn’t stumbling upon “In Circles” while streaming a Pandora station at work, nor was it randomly seeing Chris Thompson’s iconic Fisher-Price artwork in a friend’s Spotify listening history. Diary was either purposefully sought out or it serendipitously found its way to you. But no matter your individual path to hearing Sunny Day Real Estate’s debut album, the experience would always be a revelation.
While preparing to write about Diary’s 20th anniversary, I spoke to some friends and acquaintances about their introductions to Sunny Day’s first full-length. The stories all varied, and yet each one has an underlying connection to the others. Jimmy first heard it when his older brother popped the cassette into his car’s tape deck as he drove them to school; thanks to a late-night radio show in Seattle (SDRE’s hometown), Kris obsessively listened to “In Circles” after his first serious break-up; Hilary found Diary on an early file-sharing program after reading that it was one of her favorite bands’ favorite bands, and was curious to hear a group with such an interesting and evocative name. Tom Mullen — who started the Washed Up Emo blog and podcast, as well as co-founded New York’s first emo party — remembers flipping out in his parents’ living room while watching SDRE perform “Seven” on The Jon Stewart Show. He said of his first listen of the album, “When I got [Diary] it was just instant. It was like, ‘This is what I want to hear.'” Similarly, John DeSpirito, the one-time webmaster of Sunny Day’s official website and founder of his own emo party in Philadelphia, discovered the music on a VHS recording he made of MTV’s 120 Minutes show the previous night. He remembers it all vividly, too:
This particular night it was Matt Pinfield hosting, and — for some reason I remember this — it was right after a Monster Magnet song that the video for “Seven” came on. At first I kept it on kind of a slight fast-forward, then I saw the [Fisher-Price] artwork, so I rewound it back to the beginning of the song because I thought it looked funny. Then I play it, and 30 seconds in my jaw is dropping. There were synapses in my brain saying, “This, this is for you. This is the best thing you’ve ever heard.” I must’ve rewound it and listened to it like three or four times. I went back to school on Monday, and I was in bio lab, talking to a friend who was pretty musically minded. I said, “Do you know who Sunny Day Real Estate is? Because I just heard them, and they’re mindblowing.” And he said yes. The next day, he brought me Diary on CD, and from start to finish I was mesmerized. I would go to bed with big headphones on, listening to it, and that was it. I had found my calling.
What connects each story is really quite simple: All of these soon-to-be superfans were teenagers when they first heard Diary. It’s an intensely formative time in anyone’s life, and through all of the difficulties and growing pains that one inevitably endures at that age, music might very well feel like the only thing you can truly connect with. Now, consider what other albums were roaming the cultural landscape in May of ’94. Aaliyah’s career-making Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, Bthe eastie Boys’ classic Ill Communication, and the second Seal LP, Seal II (you know, the one with “Kiss From A Rose” on it), were making their respective big splashes in the worlds of commercial hip-hop and R&B. Then there was Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and The Fall’s Middle Class Revolt keeping the flame of art-damaged punk alive. And of course, this was only two months from the massive success of Soundgarden’s Superunknown and one month after Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide — all of which is to say that the shadow of Seattle grunge still loomed large. During that time, the closest thing to Diary’s raw, guitar-lead introspection was a record that just barely skirted the unwanted “emo” tag to land in the hearts of nerds and outcasts the world over, Weezer’s Blue Album. What’s most interesting about these two albums, which — sort of unbelievably — just so happened to drop on the exact same day, is how they spoke much of the same kinds of things to the same kinds of people, but with entirely different languages. While Weezer channeled Kiss, the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, and Buddy Holly through their tuneful, garage-band rock ‘n roll for loners, Sunny Day Real Estate pulled from early U2, Slint’s Spiderland, Fugazi, the Jesus Lizard, Rites of Spring, and Liz Phair to make a more niche sound, an intimately powerful kind of rock music that thrives in solitude. No other album at the time had such a strong and specific resonance with a displaced youth who wanted something other than what mainstream culture could offer.
Diary will always be in a class of its own. It’s like the Thriller or the Nevermind of that punk-born subgenre called emo — insomuch that it has influenced countless albums to follow, and yet has never been one-upped or even adequately replicated. And maybe that’s because it’s never self-aware, never conscious of what supposedly is or isn’t “emo.” (To wit, the band has openly decried the implications of the genre’s title in a number of interviews.) Diary is simply a diverse collection of visceral, beautifully written music full of real pain, quiet wonderings, innate spirituality, and instrumentation that at once harnesses immediacy, contemplation, and downright catchiness. “Seven” pits the powerhouse of William Goldsmith’s rapidfire drum fills, Dan Hoerner’s chugging riffs, and Nate Mendel’s wandering basslines against the singular voice of Jeremy Enigk — that soft, elven rasp that speaks just as strongly in a whisper as it does a howl. It’s the perfect opener, as the song is essentially SDRE’s elevator pitch; if you’re not convinced before the final smash of guitar and drums, you should probably move on. But for those irrevocably blown away, there’s hardly a moment to steady yourself before hearing the unmistakable first notes of the band’s defining anthem, “In Circles.” The song speaks to a deeper part of you from the onset, offering a staggeringly simple guitar lick and an understated, half-time groove as its intro. Opening up further, the band dips into their first languid and dreamy verse with a loose tapestry of guitar plucks and Enigk’s wistful vocal melody. It’s already captivating stuff, but “In Circles” doesn’t completely deliver until the explosion of its chorus. Just after Enigk’s quiet intonation of the lyric “Throw myself into your door,” Hoerner gutturally screams from behind him, “Well I go,” and launches the band into a heavy dirge. Moments later, the lead singer coos his calm response over the drop-tuned guitars and smacking drums, singing, “In Circles.” Sure, the ideas sound simple enough now, but there was undeniably something game-changing at the core of “In Circles.” It was like Sunny Day Real Estate somehow found the undiscovered sweet spot of the loud-soft dynamic, pinpointing a vital element that would invigorate the current zeitgeist of underground rock. And that exact kind of musical push and pull is what would go on to define Diary — despite stylistic outliers like the piano-led “Phuerton Skeurto” and the haunting, quasi-psychedelic “Grendel” — not to mention the genre that it inadvertently gave a new identity to.
Like a Pavement for the post-hardcore set, Sunny Day Real Estate inspired countless bands with Diary’s unabashed earnestness and relatable DIY aesthetic. As John DeSpirito said during our conversation, “[Sunny Day Real Estate] was pretty avant-garde, and people like an underdog. They like that story. And on top of that, they’re awesome. There’s a story there that people latch on to, and they think, that could be my band.” Add to that the fact that the average age of Sunny Day Real Estate’s members was about 22 when the record was released via the very cool Sub Pop label, pushed on MTV, and made a fixture of college radio, and it’s enough to send navel-gazing sadsacks into a frenzy trying to write the world another anthem from the bottom of their bleeding hearts. But even if there isn’t a band that has gone on to replace Diary’s legacy, many of them have unquestionably created their own version of the album. Mineral’s The Power Of Failing couldn’t exist without the meditative chords and spaciousness of “Song About An Angel” or “47”‘s charming lead guitar hooks; “The Blankets Were The Stairs” has enough big, moody guitars and screeching vocals to sound like a spiritual predecessor of Deftones’ Adrenaline; and Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, well, let’s just say that album is about as close as it gets to the second coming of Diary.
As for me, I first heard Diary after a dinner party my parents hosted, when an older boy from one of the families asked me if I wanted to check out a cool band he’d just discovered. He went to his car, brought the CD into the living room, and handed me the jewel case and artwork as he put the disc into our player. I poured over the handmade paintings, gritty typewriter text, and cryptic lyrics in the liner notes, listening as the first moments of “In Circles” washed through my music-starved psyche. I specifically remember having two distinct thoughts: “I didn’t know bands could sound like this,” and “I need to start a band that sounds like this.” Thankfully, the older boy let me borrow the album, and I continued to listen to it night after night while I lay awake in bed, trying to unpack the mysteries that Sunny Day Real Estate so generously crafted Diary with. It drove me to need to dig deeper into their story, and so I hopped on my parents’ iMac G3, looking for message boards and fan pages where people could tell me more about them. It was there that I discovered the concept of emo, perhaps the first genre ever made popular by the internet, and there that I was able to dive head first into the catalogs of labels like Jade Tree, Polyvinyl, Crank!, Deep Elm, and Dischord. Not only did Diary change my life in and of itself, but it also changed the entire direction of my musical experience and opened me up to a new world of independent music. Over a decade later, while living in San Francisco in 2009, some friends and I decided to start a party that would primarily play music from, and inspired by, the ’90s emo and post-hardcore scenes. It went on to make for some of the most fun and fulfilling experiences of our young adult lives, and we couldn’t think of a single better name for it than Diary.