Past Lives

Fifteen years after Sunny Day Real Estate's heyday Spokane native Dan Hoerner leaves a quiet life to play rock star again.

At the end, Dan Hoerner is smiling at the sky. He teeters on the edge of his sneakers as he throws himself into each guitar part, righting himself just in time to holler into the mic.

His vocals are competing with those of a sold-out crowd of a thousand Sunny Day Real Estate fans — fans who seem to know every word from Diary and the Pink Album forward, backward and out of order. Hoerner laughs at the volume of the crowd — playing harder and more fervently as security guards wrestle fans trying to jumping onstage with their vinyl Sunny Day records and uncapped Sharpies.

He casts his smile at the ceiling of Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, grinning his way in and out of the melodic dips and rises of “In Circles” — one of the band’s most popular songs, from way back in 1994.

That year, when Diary was still in its infancy, Sunny Day Real Estate fizzled. Bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joined the Foo Fighters with Nirvana’s Dave Grohl. Jeremy Enigk went on to begin a successful solo career. All three — Enigk, Mendel and Goldsmith — formed a new trio, the Fire Theft.

And Dan Hoerner came back to Spokane.

While Mendel and Goldsmith recorded the Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape, Hoerner bought a farm near Lake Roosevelt. As the Fire Theft became a band, Hoerner buried his father. He raised three children. He bought a house on Spokane’s South Hill. He worked a sales job at Comp USA at the fork of Division and Ruby.

For Hoerner, a Spokane resident and native, this isn’t just a reunion tour. It’s a visit to a past life — a life buried under births and deaths, under 9-to-5 jobs, long-gone fame and quiet anonymity.

I do love Spokane and, frankly, I loved working at CompUSA,” Hoerner says, laughing — something he seems to do a lot. “It’s weird to say because it was a sales job. And it’s a little strange to couple that with being in a really successful rock band.”

Hoerner, who graduated from Mead High School in 1987, grew up in Spokane, playing in bands like the Happy Dead Juans at 1-2-3 Arts and the Grotto Hall.

He moved westward to study at the University of Washington. It was there that Sunny Day formed in the insignificant way that most bands do, with just two guys (Hoerner and Mendel, then roommates) jamming. After adding Goldsmith, they played as a trio — quietly adding Enigk while Mendel was on tour with another band in Europe. Though the band was divided about adding him, it was a move that would soon solidify the Sunny Day sound and prove that they were more than just another college band.

They created a heavy, hardcore-inspired sound that flaunted Enigk’s high-pitched, almost girlish vocals and lyrics teeming with sadness and melodrama. Among the growling, grumbling man-vocals of Seattle grunge scene, that juxtaposition of light and heavy was the most punk rock thing a band could do.

And it caught on fast — something Hoerner says came as a huge shock to the band. Sunny Day Real Estate was hardly the founder of emo, but with Diary, the young basement-born quartet proved that they were certainly pioneers in the genre. Their mix of heart-wrought lyrics, emotional heavy-handedness and melodic punk would inspire generations of new emo bands — swelling into the mainstream in the early 2000s with bands like Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy.

“We didn’t think our music was going to leave the basement,” Hoerner says. “Sure, we had dreams — but it was just an added bonus that anyone cared. It was surprising.

“It was everything I could do to stay the course and finish college. I graduated and signed our deal with Sub Pop within three days of each other,” he says. “After we signed the deal, we go: ‘Thanks for signing us to your label — by the way, we’re going to do one press photo and we’re going to do it live. And we’re going to do one interview. They said, ‘F--- you, you’re not going to make it.’”

But they did. Sunny Day won fans with their punk-rock ethic. During their Diary tour, the band got what they wanted — one photo, one interview, no shows in California. No reason, really — just because.

“We wanted to be like more like Fugazi than New Kids on the Block,” Hoerner recalls.

“The fact that certain musicians refer to Sunny Day as an influence is the greatest compliment in the world,” he says. “We said something, and it moved people and impacted them. That, to me, is like, we won the game.”

Today, Dan is missing his routine. His wife, his kids, his morning run around Comstock Park. But over the phone from Washington, D.C. — before the 10th show of their current tour — Hoerner is still laughing and smiling like he was at the Portland show. He misses the quiet life that he and his family have built, but he can’t take this time on tour for granted.

Just days before, Sunny Day had played to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Terminal 5 — a venue that holds 3,000 people.

“Every day is better than the day before. We keep getting blown away,” Hoerner says. “We played to New York to our biggest crowd ever. We got to be on the Jimmy Fallon show, which was fun and really cool. Then we got recorded by NPR, like, for a long time. We were on the front page of for, like, two hours — I thought that was freaking bitchin’!”

Hoerner, now 40, obviously feels different than he did 15 years ago — the last time Sunny Day Real Estate toured with this original lineup. He’s like his normal-guy life. And he’s genuinely happy for Mendel, Goldsmith and Enigk’s continued success in music.

“Obviously the success that, say, Nate has had in the Foo Fighters — it’s just about as rare an occurrence that can possibly happen in the world. It’s impossible for me to imagine what’s that like — to have that kind of fame and success,” he says. “I definitely envy his massive success and his case full of Grammys. I’m completely blown away that he’s willing to play with us.”

He laughs: “Would I trade what I’ve got for super-success? The answer would be no. But believe me, I have a spot in my house that would perfectly fit some Grammys.”

Because of the success of the current tour, Hoerner says the band will continue to record new songs and play shows. There will still be the Foo Fighters and solo projects — just with a little Sunny Day thrown into the mix.

It’s a second chance at stardom for Hoerner. An opportunity to still be a dad and a husband and homeowner, but to also bring the musician that influenced a generation out of hibernation.

“The only [band] that I’ve ever been good at,” Hoerner says, “was Sunny Day, and that’s the only thing that I’ll ever be good at.”

Sunny Day Real Estate plays with the Jealous Sound at the Knitting Factory on Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7 pm. Tickets: $18. All-ages. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

Kyle Swaffard @ Seasons of Coeur d'Alene

Fri., June 25, 7-9 p.m.
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...