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“We were a total anomaly”—Sean Nelson reminisces about Harvey Danger and “Flagpole Sitta”

September 26, 2014
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It’s been nearly 20 years since the world was first introduced to HARVEY DANGER through the majesty of “Flagpole Sitta”—in this writer’s opinion, one of the greatest rock singles of the ’90s, taken from one of the best rock albums of the same decade, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?. The song took on a life of its own, taking this small Seattle quartet on a wild ride that resulted in a Gold record, a lot of indie-rock backlash and a sadly truncated career (which was later revived in the mid-’00s for a phenomenal final album, Little By Little). The band were more than just one song, though; their material has been covered by everyone from Chiodos to Mikey Erg, and their influence continues to live on as venerable indie label No Sleep Records just issued Merrymakers on vinyl for the first time, including in-depth liner notes from frontman SEAN NELSON. We caught up with Nelson as he navigated the streets of New York City to talk about some of the struggles he and his band went through.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should let people know that at one point in time, you wrote for Alternative Press.
I did, many years ago. From about 1996 to 1998. I was never on staff, but I was a freelancer. The main guy who was my editor, Dave Segal, now works at The Stranger in Seattle, which is where I was working when I was writing for AP. The world is very small. I only did a handful of stories, mostly record reviews.

A lot of what you were covering for us was in Seattle and the surrounding area. Unwound, Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, 764-HERO, that whole Pacific Northwest cabal. At that point, Harvey Danger had yet to break through, so how were you viewed in that scene?
Probably just as a loudmouth asshole. I wrote really glowing things about bands; I really loved that scene. Harvey Danger were sort of on the outside of everything back then. I would like to say it was by design, but it was just because we weren’t a cool or connected band. I was probably thought of more as a writer, if I was thought of at all. I took writing about music really seriously; this scene was blazing this new indie rock trail, and at the time, no one who read AP really knew about it. Well, not no one, but few people.

There were a lot less Gold records floating around that scene then there are now.
That’s for fuckin’ sure!

When you started playing in Harvey Danger and having people write about you as a musician, did coming into that as a writer yourself change how you read criticism?
It changed everything. Like anyone who writes about music a lot, I kind of lost perspective. The thing you hear in the music journalism business that you never hear anyone else say is, “Goddamn, all these fucking records coming out, I’m so sick of it!” In real life, nobody blames the records. But journalists and publicists, they are the ones you hear getting mad because so much music is out there they have to cover, and they wind up with this weird sense of entitlement, like, “All right, new music, you better show me what you got,” when the reality is, people like what they like and if they don’t, they don’t.

I had written harsh things with my tongue in my cheek at times; when I got negative reviews—which was really the bulk of our press once [Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?] came out on a major—we got good reviews when it initially came out on an indie, but when it came out a major, it was like, “Release the hounds.” [Laughs.] I knew what it was like, then, how utterly devastating it was to get a bad review. Even if you don’t agree, it was super-painful, and it changed my attitude about writing stuff and people in general. I think ultimately, you should be critical, but it’s how you do it—there’s a way to do it with a certain amount of respect. Saying you don’t like something and explaining why is a form of respect to art.

I remember a specific bad review where Tom Moon reviewed our record for Rolling Stone and suggested that we were a boy band, like a corporate package deal put together by lawyers or something. It was so off the mark, and it really stung because that’s back when Rolling Stone was an institution. It felt like we were treated unfairly. That’s the reason, when we were on Late Show With David Letterman a few weeks later, we didn’t accept Paul Shaffer’s invitation to play along with us. We thought, “If people think we’re a corporate shill, fabrication band, we need to do something to show we’re a real band.” I really hate that the self-doubt seeped into our groundwater, because it didn’t need to. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized you’re actually better off not knowing what people say about you in the press, and adopting Johnny Rotten’s policy of weighing the press instead of reading it.

The last assignment you ever turned into AP was on April 29, 1998—a month after Merrymakers had been re-released by a major label. At that point, things were happening for your band, but you were still making your deadlines for us, which I appreciate.
[Laughs.] Well, things were happening fast for our band, but it wasn’t like money was pouring in. I counted on those reviews to make my rent!

Take me through those first few months of 1998, when “Flagpole Sitta” was catching fire. Was there backlash?
There was some backlash locally in Seattle. The fundamental difference is between a little record you sort of find out about, then there’s the thing where I’m being completely bombarded by this fucking song. “Flagpole Sitta” wasn’t just played a lot; it was massively played. We were getting reports that in Atlanta, they played it three times in a row every day at 5 o’clock or something like that. I’m grateful, ultimately, but the radio programmers went apeshit with that song. [The incessant radio play] makes it so the half-life of the song being something you discover, it cuts it so short.

Also, it may be difficultto remember now, but in the ’90s, there was still a stigma about major labels vs. indie labels, commercial vs. underground. Critics tended to be wary of major labels trying to put one over on you. Even a band that later transcended all of that, Weezer: When they came out, everybody in my circle of my friends treated them like, “Oh, this is a fake, major-label band trying to court the Pavement-cool audience.” Everybody had a chip on their shoulder: “We have to slay the monster that is corporate rock.” The funny thing is, it was only a year or two later that all of this stuff became completely irrelevant, culturally speaking. The hangover of Nirvana was pretty strong, and they had introduced that topic into mainstream music discussion while themselves being on a corporate label. It’s interesting in retrospect, but there was some subtle indie-rock McCarthyism going on. You were not allowed to have any kind of ambition. Ambition was the ugliest trait a band could display. We, for sure, fell into that category. We signed onto that idea, but then we got all this success; it’s not like we didn’t want people to hear and like our band, but it’s how you went about it. In a way, we were a total anomaly. We didn’t go on tour and try to ram ourselves down peoples’ throats before we had success; we even thought that making T-shirts with our band’s name on it was in poor taste. Then we were in a situation where we were selling so many records—I think the biggest week we had was 30,000 records—and we wound up selling a half-million or so, of this record we made for $3,000, the initial pressing of it was a thousand copies. It was so small; all the covers were hand-screened on cardboard. It was about as small as it could be while still existing. By virtue of liking it, it got really popular. That should’ve been enough to satisfy us, but we didn’t necessarily have faith in everyone else recognizing that. That was, in a way, our downfall. We didn’t have the internal compass to deal with it. We went from being completely anonymous to totally overexposed in a month.

I mentioned to a friend of mine I was going to interview you and asked him if he had any suggestions for questions, and his response was, “Why are you interviewing him? That band only had one song.” And that blew my mind, that someone older than me that I consider more knowledgeable than me would think that. So I made him go to Spotify to listen to it, and literally as we’re talking right now, he just messages me and says, “Holy shit, you’re right, this record’s great. I love when this happens.” Is it frustrating that we are almost 20 years removed from “Flagpole Sitta” and people still have to convince other people that you were more than a one-hit wonder? If you look at Spotify, for example, there is literally 3.5 million plays’ difference between your No. 1 song and your No. 2 song.
It was really crippling at the time; we took everything we did seriously—maybe too seriously—but there was no way in our mind as a band that “Flagpole Sitta” was better or more important than any of the other songs on that record or any of the songs on subsequent records. They’re all equally meaningful to us. If you look at songs like kids, that’s the kid that got a full scholarship to Harvard, while the other kids are struggling to read. [Laughs.] Somehow, we accidentally lucked into writing and recording this incredibly catchy, commercial thing and it leapt off our record and got into the mainstream. Nothing else we did was a candidate for that kind of treatment. It doesn’t mean the other songs we did weren’t meaningful to us. A hit single is a different thing than a good song.

I don’t feel like I need everyone to recognize the rich tapestry of my body of work. [Laughs.] But people do. There are lots of people who I have contact with who are aware of the rest of our work, and who really love our second record and our third record and my solo work. It’s just never gonna be a million people. Having gone out and try to curry favor with the million-people idea, it’s not a very fun thing. It’s not what we’re built for. I’m never gonna go into a karaoke bar and hear someone sing “Wooly Muffler” or something, and that’s fine: I draw a distinction between music that I love and music I hear at a karaoke bar. I don’t feel like I’m much of a snob about it anymore, but most of the music I love—truly love—was never in the charts.

I loved the liner notes in the vinyl reissue of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?, because I’ve listened to this record 100,000 times and I never once realized that the band treated the bass as a lead instrument until you wrote that. It seems so forehead-slappingly obvious now, but I never made that connection when I was 16. It adds a new level of musicianship to the record. Have other elements of the record come out for you over time that impresses yourself?
That in particular, about the bass as a lead, melodic instrument, I always felt was a real mark of distinction for us. We didn’t then and don’t now sound like any other band I can think of. That element in particular, the bass playing, marked our band out as a cool little inversion that I think is super-interesting. We didn’t say to ourselves, “How do we become interesting?” That’s just how Aaron [Huffman] played the bass.

When I listen to that record, I hear our personality coming through. It doesn’t sound like a professional, regular band; it sounds like us, fumbling toward whatever sound we could put together. I really like that about it. We didn’t have our shit together enough to be calculated. We couldn’t write specific types of songs; we could only write what we wrote and play it how we played it. We weren’t a punk band, but what I drew inspiration from in punk rock had more to do with that than singing songs about Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. We played from the heart. Some of the lyrics on the record make me wince, but there’s nothing on it that makes me think, “Oh God, how embarrassing, I can’t believe I said that.” It feels like we came by it honestly, and that’s really the best thing I can say, looking back at the first thing any of us ever did.

A lot of Harvey Danger’s material functions well on both sides of the spectrum, where you could in theory re-do a rock song in a more piano-driven way, or vice versa. Look at Bomb The Music Industry!’s cover of “Pike St./Park Slope,” for example, which was probably a total mindfuck for you to hear.
It was pretty bizarre but totally awesome. The mere fact that anyone had even heard that song and was interested in covering it meant so much to us. We did do that with “Jack The Lion,” actually. We broke up for a few years, between 2000 and 2004, and when we got back together, we played “Jack The Lion” in a much quieter way, and much more of what the song was about came out. But when were making the record, it was an interesting thing to have these personal, poignant lyrics set to this really noisy, loud carnival of a song. At the time, we felt bashful about being too heart-on-our-sleeve about it. But then on our third record, we had a song called “Little Round Mirrors” which was one of the best things we ever did. It was pretty much night and day from “Flagpole Sitta,” which was all cheap thrills, but it’s just another arrow in the ol’ quiver.

Okay, final question: Given that Merrymakers went Gold, where is your Gold record?
It’s funny: We got them around the end of ’98, and I was so bashful of letting anyone see it, I kept it in its shrinkwrap behind a bookcase in my office for years. I got married a couple years ago, and when we moved in together, we were figuring out what to put on our walls, she saw my Gold record and was like, “You gotta put that up, are you crazy?” And I thought, it’s kind of embarrassing to put up on the wall because it seems like… My fear is you put it up on the wall and if anyone comes into your apartment, they think you’re bragging about having a Gold record. But it’s been such a long time now that it’s an interesting little totem of what is, in a sense, a former life. She insisted we put it on the wall along with a bunch of other stuff—I have a couple other Gold records from Death Cab For Cutie records I sang on—so it’s on the wall, but it’s on the lowest spot on the wall, next to a bunch of show flyers and stuff like that. It’s at about shin level. alt

Written by Scott Heisel