Sean Nelson still hasn’t made his peace with “Flagpole Sitta”.
You’d think, at 41, he’d have gotten some closure by now. It’s been nearly two decades, after all — an eternity in rock years — since the acerbic single launched his band Harvey Danger into a brief gambol with mainstream success. The band’s story stars themselves as victims of circumstance. In the span of a year, one song turned their burgeoning career into a roller coaster ride to the top: airplay, festival dates, television appearances. All of which, perhaps inevitably, paved the way for an excellent follow-up album that never charted, then another. It saddens Nelson, and fans like myself, that Clinton’s America will forever remember “Sitta” from that one scene in American Pie while the rest of Harvey Danger’s catalog sits in bargain bins. But that’s what happens when overnight success leaves you by the side of the road.
Harvey Danger’s flash in the pan is in no way unique, either; even Nelson wouldn’t contest that. This is 2014, where Smash Mouth raises eyebrows at college gigs and Mark Foster struggles to write something catchier than “Pumped Up Kicks”. Rock’s cavalcade of has-beens probably has enough problems of its own without lending Nelson any sympathy. A new year, a new disposable hit. Get in line.
On the surface, though, the singer and keyboardist seems unperturbed. Speaking with unhurried discursiveness, he’s nevertheless quick to mention how musically active he’s been since his outfit disbanded in 2009. From the lack of consternation in his voice, you’d be convinced he’s satisfied, if perhaps not thrilled, with a one-hit legacy. But this go-around — the second and more extensive of two interviews with Nelson — he’s beginning to open up. We’re on the phone to talk about the reissue of Harvey Danger’s debut album, 1997’s Where have all the merrymakers gone?, on vinyl later this month. Which we do, discussing early demos and the record’s no-budget production, until Nelson finally addresses the very perceptible elephant in the nonexistent room:
“Having a song that was a hit in that particular way is exactly like telling one joke, and then everywhere you go for at least a year — and in my case, long after that — lots of people say, ‘Tell that joke again! Tell it! Tell that joke!’ You just can’t enjoy that, you know? … And I really didn’t. We really didn’t.”
The four original members of Harvey Danger — Nelson, bassist Aaron Huffman, guitarist Jeff Lin, and drummer Evan Sult — were lucky Merrymakers even came about. Sharing a dingy, little house in 1996 (the very same one that appears on the album’s cover), the recent University of Washington graduates had been cutting their teeth in low-rent Seattle clubs for a few years, gaining local exposure but barely making enough money to keep the operation running. Their studio output consisted of only a self-released demo tape, which they sold at shows for $3 apiece. But that all changed when Nelson managed to get in touch with local wunder-producer John Goodmanson, and, by a stroke of good fortune, convinced him to record their next effort. Goodmanson was rising to prominence after working on Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out and Bikini Kill’s Reject All American.
“He seemed like sort of a messiah figure, in a way,” Nelson says, admiration seeping between the cracks in his adenoidal eloquence. “We had no connection to anyone, and we had been listening to a bunch of records that he had made. We just decided that he was the guy, and he miraculously agreed to work with us. It was the first time that someone we were in awe of validated us and recognized us as having potential.”
The collaboration’s resulting demo was rejected by every label who received a copy, save for one. London Records intern Greg Glover discovered the tape and, liking what he heard, asked the band if they’d like to release a 7’’ single. The quartet returned to the studio with Goodmanson, delivering Glover an additional three tracks — “Flagpole Sitta” among them. Glover was convinced, and a full-length offer from his newly formed Arena Rock Recording Company arrived shortly thereafter.
But even with Glover’s bankroll, Harvey Danger were short on cash. So, for their debut album, the band decided to record a handful of new tracks, then merge those with other tracks from their single and their older demos, compiling and editing Merrymakers over a couple of weekend sessions. The entire project cost about $3,000. For comparison, the budget for a typical ’90s record — say, Nirvana’s In Utero — amounted to more than eight times as much.
Nelson says the decision wasn’t so much about finances as it was integrity.
“We basically had what amounted to half an album,” he says. “We didn’t believe that there was going to be a situation where we could beat those demos. The idea of going into a studio situation and recording songs with an eye toward somehow re-recording them at another studio, it just seemed … I don’t know. I think what happened was just that we got it right.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?” I ask Nelson.
“And if you’re broke, you can’t fix it,” he fires back.
Where have all the merrymakers gone? was released July 29th, 1997. It sold modestly at first in the Pacific Northwest and other U.S. cities, receiving positive reviews from local publications and charting on college radio stations. By early 1998, however, the band were already thinking about calling it quits. Buzz surrounding the record was quickly fading, and in the five months since its release, Merrymakers hadn’t performed quite as well as everyone had hoped.
As a final promotional push before some time off, Nelson sent Seattle radio DJ Marco Collins a copy of the album. Requests for “Flagpole Sitta” on his station, KNDD, skyrocketed, and within weeks, the single was picked up by stations across the country. “Sitta” lodged itself in the Billboard Top 40, with its video making the rounds on MTV and VH1. All of a sudden, the band had gone from breaking up to breaking out. And whereas once they had looked at their album sales with disappointment, now they were selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
“It feels like you’re on a train and you’re the engineer, and at the same time, there is no engineer,” Nelson says of the experience. “It was like, ‘Oh, wow. I guess we sort of won a certain kind of lottery. And lost another kind of lottery at the same time.’”
Nelson’s loss came in the form of tedium and doubt. Headlining and supporting dates were falling into place for the young band, but in a way, the timing couldn’t have been worse. By the time they achieved worldwide success with “Sitta”, Harvey Danger had been playing the songs on Merrymakers for two or three years. “It was … our impulse to separate ourselves from [the album] at the time, and immediately afterward, for sure,” Nelson says. “We were well and truly sick of that material by the time we found ourselves having to play it every night and day.”
Additionally, Nelson says he felt unsure of what all the attention would mean for their career. Having surpassed in popularity the artists Harvey Danger looked to as contemporaries and inspirations, Nelson had no one to look to for guidance as he found himself fronting a far bigger outfit than he had anticipated.
“A lot of cool stuff came our way, but a lot more of it was super undignified and really lame,” Nelson says. “The problem is, you don’t really know how to navigate those things, and you don’t want to say no to too many of them because you’re also aware that they might not ever happen again, and also, you’re aware that they might lead to something way more interesting. In the absence of having any role models or any good advice, you’re just like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
Throughout the rest of the year, Nelson says the band members learned to cope by adopting a forward-thinking mentality. The mass popularity of “Sitta”, they felt, was helping to build anticipation for album number two. The hope was to beat the one-hit wonder phenomenon by releasing an acclaimed record that would outshine the first.
“Our impulse became — at least inside the band — it was very much like, ‘Okay, we’re playing these songs again and again; we’re still living with this record, but really, the purpose of this band — the purpose of this experience — is about the next record,’” Nelson says. “‘Wait until all of these people who are paying attention to us now see what we’re really capable of. We’re really going to make something astonishing next time.’”
That never happened. Well, it did — at least in terms of acclaim. 2000’s King James Version was, critical consensus holds, a good record. But following years in label purgatory and a canceled tour with the Pretenders, the album released to practically zero fanfare. Radio, TV, and the public had all moved on; as far as most were concerned, Harvey Danger were already over. Like “Sitta”, the band had arrived, made their diminutive mark on rock and roll and faded out of the public consciousness.
Nelson would play what he thought would be his final show with Harvey Danger in 2001, retracting from the semi-limelight and busying himself on low-key projects for the next four years with artists like Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists. Fans rejoiced over a new album (whose pay-what-you-want distribution model predated Radiohead’s) and a reunion tour, which carried the band again until 2009. But there’s little argument that the Harvey Danger of yore — the vigorous Seattleites who baked disaffection and pop culture into smart, guitar-driven music — ended around the same time as the ’90s.
So maybe’s Nelson’s malaise isn’t so surprising. The unforgiving world of pop music — the “well-appointed ghetto,” Nelson calls it — precluded his band from achieving anything greater than a song whose lyrics read, “If you’re bored, then you’re boring / The agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”
“All the attention was about one song,” he says dejectedly. “It wasn’t about the band.” Then his tone shifts, becoming matter-of-fact. “The net result of our little fame ride was that we sold records, we made money, we developed a pretty small but insanely devoted cult following and then millions of people in the world heard that one song. Our former manager, our former lawyer, our former label people … I still have some distant contact with some of the people who worked for the label via Facebook, but none of the people we were in business with would ever return a phone call from us now.”
“… So once the idea of actually reissuing the record became real, we all got excited and got on board with it,” he continues. “Because the truth of the matter is, we’re still all really proud of the work we did.”
Everything about No Sleep Records’ reissue of Merrymakers is a calculated risk. The $20 package sports nothing hardcore collectors don’t already have — some new artwork, sure, but no alternate takes or live recordings. You get the same 10 tracks on white vinyl, with expanded liner notes courtesy of Nelson, nothing more, nothing less. Aesthetics and good intentions aside, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would buy this thing. The product is unaltered and certainly obscure, and its next “neat” anniversary — its 20th — isn’t for another three years. In other words, it’s a total No Sleep move.
Allow me to explain: If Universal and Warner Music Groups are the buttoned-up executives, No Sleep is the surfer dude who hasn’t washed his hair in a week. The laid-back California indie label includes flyers espousing veganism in all its releases, but more importantly, it specializes in pet projects like this. And it’s pretty good at them, from what Nelson can tell.
“Frankly, I had never even heard of this label,” Nelson says. “When I got the email initially about them wanting to do the vinyl pressing, I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great. Uh, good luck with that. I’m not going to have anything to do with it. If you want to do 100 percent of the work to make it happen, by all means, have our blessing. But you’re never going to get through the gauntlet of Universal [Music Group].’”
No Sleep returned a short time later with all the licensed tracks.
The label’s diligence in pursuing the project made Nelson consider a potential reissue as something more genuine than the onslaught of novelty requests Harvey Danger regularly receive.
“We get weird offers like this all the time. Several times a year somebody will be like, ‘Hey, how would you like to reunite on the top of the Empire State Building?’ or ‘How would you like to be the first band that’s ever played in space?’ You get this stuff that’s very incongruous and weird, and exactly only the result of having this weird hit song.”
Even back in the ’90s, he says all that attention wasn’t enjoyable.
“The kiss of death for most rock bands — and, in a way, our rock band — is the impulse, the desire, even, to be taken seriously. When we got all that attention, it didn’t feel great. It was a huge validation in some ways, but … Our ambitions were not in that way. When we got vaulted into a really specific strand of pop culture, we were suddenly in this other world. It was really obvious that the zone we were in was kind of the lame version of rock stardom.”
This prompts me to mention, perhaps as consolation, how I discovered Harvey Danger — backwards, as it were, via Little by Little…, the band’s final record and a much more stately collection of songs than Merrymakers. It was only after finding a copy of their debut in a local thrift store that I learned of their checkered past — and their musical evolution.
Nelson says he’s heartened — that’s not something he and band hear all that often. “People were exposed to us first by this onslaught of being overplayed on commercial radio stations alongside beer ads and all these other shitty bands that I don’t even care to name,” Nelson responds. “There were a couple of good bands in that little crop, but most of it was garbage, as it always is. That’s not an attempt to be provocative; that’s just a fact. I like to think that we were an anomaly. But if you only heard us alongside those other songs in that playlist at that time, there’s no reason you would ever think that.”
So, this reissue, then, really is for the fans. At least that’s what Nelson seems to be getting at, since those who have been there all along not only sustain him and the band, but have helped him realize what made his music unique. For the majority of his career, he’s been lumped in with bands with which he feels no camaraderie. And he isn’t shy about saying it, either.
“A lot of the people who stuck around were true super fans who have expressed their admiration and appreciation for what we’ve done in the most heartrendingly meaningful way. They have really been ardent. I feel like it’s incumbent upon me to be more evolved than this, but it’s so hard for me to imagine the same experience applying to Lit or Sugar Ray or some band like that. It is one of the prime indignities of my life that I have to be associated with that kind of music, because not only do I not like it, but I think it’s corrupt and insulting and awful. But, nonetheless, that was a lot we drew. And so I take up comfort from the fact that it’s really on us to understand the difference between ourselves and the rest of what we were alongside.”
But why vinyl? Was it the band’s conscious choice to capitalize on ’90s revivalism in both sound and format? Nelson says it was the label’s decision, and he’s just as unsure — though strangely delighted — about it as I am.
“I’m sure we’d discussed the idea of pressing vinyl for [Merrymakers], but I didn’t know hardly anyone who had a record player in 1997. We had one in the house that we lived in together, but it was a shitty one that we bought at Value Village that was all solid state, and the speakers were inside of it. I loved it, but I was a minority within the minority of music aficionados. I was really attuned to what was then a vinyl superunderground.”
“Now,” he says, “it’s not so underground. It’s a pleasure to hear all this stuff on vinyl — vinyl is a very pleasing experience.”
One thing is clear after all of this: Nelson is a conflicted ego, full of quandaries situational and self-imposed. He’s appreciative of what he has and those who stand by him, but he distances himself from his contemporaries in a compulsive way. He feels cheated.
Out of all the frustration and questioning that went into this project, though, it seems that Nelson has at least come to terms with his legacy. History will say what it will about him, but he and his fans will always have his music. There is unsentimental, unshakable pride in him, and it’s apparent when I ask about the the album’s new liner notes. To prepare himself for the writing process, he says, he listened back to Merrymakers after not touching it for “some time.” What he learned caused him to reconsider the album that started it all.
“It’s weird, at the age of 41, to listen back to the stuff you were doing when you were in your very early 20s, which also was the first real try any of us had ever made at an art project that we stuck to,” Nelson says. “It was the first thing we had ever finished, any of us. Even where there are spots that are not great, they all feel earned. We came by that record honestly. We really, really loved what we were doing, and we desperately loved rock and roll, and we loved being in a band. We were the only ones who knew we were in that band for most of the time we were doing it. It was part of our weird personality as human beings that the minute anybody started paying attention, we started backpedaling.”
He laughs. “But that’s the folly of youth. The record’s still there, and it’s better than I remember it.”