"A Song Isn't Finished Until People Hear It": An Interview with Sean Nelson
He was the frontman for Harvey Danger, and had his band's whole career be defined by their first hit. With an undiscovered masterpiece in tow, a surprising film career, and his first-ever solo album out now, Sean Nelson speaks to PopMatters in a manner that is unflinching, honest, and profoundly compelling.
"In a way it's hard because the very first thing I ever did reached a much bigger audience than anything I ever even thought was possible," notes Sean Nelson. "Literally: I did not believe it was possible to be listened to by that many people for me, for us. It was not plausible."
Yet there it was: Nelson and the rest of his Harvey Danger bandmates had scored a gigantic alternative rock hit with 1998's iconic "Flagpole Sitta", and while some are quick to lump it in with the sadly-overlooked crossover wonders that the late '90s produced (along with Semisonic, Soul Coughing, and Eve 6), Harvey Danger wound up persevering in their own way. Their sophomore album, King James Version, was a commercial flop, but over time, its slowly evolved into a cult classic in its own right, so much so that after a short hiatus following KJV, the band reunited for one last record (2005's Little By Little) before calling it quits in 2009. Following some great independent film work, Nelson has used 2013 to mark his return to releasing albums with his first-ever solo album, Make Good Choices, and 'lo and behold, it's actually quite, quite good.
In all honesty, the warm response his album has been receiving has genuinely surprised him: "It's been a good week. I'm unaccustomed to getting good reviews. It was my policy for a long time just not to read any [reviews], not because they were always bad -- they weren't always bad, they were often quite good -- but generally speaking you couldn't count on it, you know? But I found that I've been sort of depending on it so much, and so I'd be so disappointed if it wasn't good or if it wasn't good enough or if it wasn't good but in the wrong way. But this round, it's very different now 'cos it's just me and the guy putting out the record -- that's the whole apparatus. It makes a certain amount of sense to read it."
Speaking with Nelson, a quietly devout pop-culture obsessive, is intriguing. You can hear something in his voice: a hesitance to really talk about his work in a prideful sense 'lest he come of as a typical self-obsessed rock star. He can make a statement about how he "worked pretty hard on [Make Good Choices]" but immediately follows it up by admitting "I could've worked a lot harder," perpetually finding that careful balance between proud and humble, appreciative he has a chance to let his voice and his art be heard but, despite the value that he sees in his own work, he's never one to trumpet his own greatness outright.
For Nelson, this schism has existed for some time. Following Harvey Danger's amicable dissolution in 2009, Nelson said that despite the act of a physical output for several years, "I never actually stopped doing music: I just stopped pursuing it as avidly as I had for a long time. I got really, really burned out and I wasn't connected to listening music the way I had been, and it turned out that was the fuel for wanting to make music. It was my feeling of being part of a conversation with music and therefore with the culture and therefore some part of the world. [This] after spending several years of my adolescence feeling completely unconnected to the world and not understanding it and feeling like it wasn't for me. Once I got really, really into music when I was around 19, 20, I really did feel like 'Oh yeah, I belong to the world! This is so exciting! I always wondered what it'd be like to belong to the world!' As it turns out, 1> you always belong to the world, and 2> it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get along with the world."
This all manifested itself with the release of "Flagpole Sitta", a deviously smart song that soon became rather iconic, and has a surprising legacy that continues to this day, ranging from being the subject of viral lipdub videos to even becoming the theme song to a popular British TV show. Yet while none of the group's other songs took off the same way that "Flagpole Sitta" did, that didn't mean that Nelson's acidic wit wasn't relatable. I think back to the follow-up single to "Flagpole", a jaunty little track called "Private Helicopter" about traveling around with people you once were close to but no longer are, and you can see one of the connected themes in Nelson's songwriting (which is something that is writ all over Make Good Choices): failed relationships. While Harvey Danger's output may be viewed as a footnote by some in the Big Book of Rock History, there is still a passionate following around Nelson's oeuvre, no doubt because of his sharp, biting, and ultimately relatable writing style. He notes that I am not wrong in making drawing this parallel in his body of work:
Oh, absolutely. I wouldn't use the word "failure" though. I'd describe my "big theme" as being the limitations of friendship and the limitations of romantic love. What I mean by that is that yeah, people are disappointing and you are disappointing to people. That's not all you are. You are dazzling to people and people dazzle you. But where I think the songs are coming from is that moment when you kind of wake up in your own consciousness after having kind of sacrificed your own unconsciousness to this collaboration with a friend or girlfriend or whatever. At the beginning of those things you have this intense connection and you can feel you can lose yourself in this other person, and therefore find yourself. Yet you kind of wake up an realize there is no such thing as that. You are always you. It's hard to be frank in those kind of situations because people are sensitive and people's feelings are hurt and I am one of those people, too. I want people to be frank but I don't always like it when they are.
So the songs tend to be [like] that moment when you turn on a light in that dark room and it's too bright for a second and you're slightly taken back but your eyes adjust and you start to see what's actually there. The good ones of mine tend to be about small moments that reveal these kind of cracks. But because something is imperfect doesn't mean it's not important or valuable or beautiful. It is a lie to aspire to perfection. It's total self-defeat. And self-defeat has its place. At a certain point, if you don't let go of it, you are so fucked 'cos you're never gonna get it. It can't be done. It certainly can't be sustained. It's a thing that I really think about so much of the time and I think about it with melancholy and sometimes with real despair as I don't like being alone in the world. I have had many, intense close friendships that have either ended or been complicated, so complicated by these things. It's very hard to get to a point where you really understand each other. What's much worse is that you think you understand the other person, and in that way you feel like you can see through them. That's the worst of it: when somebody feels like they have your number and therefore they sort of "cracked the code" of your big problems. Whereas really knowing someone can involve cracking that code and loving them both despite and because of those flaws, 'cos we have them and they're universal. It just so happens that the songs are sung in the moment of stealing really strong visceral things about these kind of insights. Like, the moment you are disappointed in someone it hurts, you're lashing out. It's not the whole story, and I never mean for it to be the whole story, it's just a lot of the songs are driven by truths you're not allowed to say.
Of course, one hit song does not a career make, and although the band worked as hard as they could, Nelson admits to some of the difficulties that plagued the group after blowing up. "Our band could certainly have worked a fuck of a lot of harder the entire time we existed," he notes, "but what I regret the most always is not always being more comfortable with what we didn't know and didn't understand about the world, especially when we kind of entered the bigger music business fray, 'cos I feel like if we had been more curious and less afraid, we might have adapted to that role a bit more, and sustained ourselves as a band instead of exploded and died, basically.
"I like the level we eventually found for ourselves," he admits, "it felt very right. But we had this incredibly huge exposure after four years of total obscurity, and dreaming about having a career, or if we had a following and people cared about what we did -- and maybe we would be able to make money doing it and sustain our lives, that's our dream. And I feel like we got handed the opportunity to do it and I feel like the way we dealt with it was totally defined by terror, because we were terrified, although we acted as if we were above the fray. I feel like if we had been more confident or if we were there for each other, we could've kept it going and become better at what we did, rather than digging our feet in and saying 'No! This is what we are and this is all we are!' This is a conversation I've had with all of those guys a bunch of times and I think we all basically feel that way in some way, 'cos we were really close and -- it's very rare, I've found, since, to get four people who all had different ideas of how it should be or have different ways of going about it, but we are all entirely invested in that band and in that project. And nobody in the band had any qualms about making it the first priority in our lives, and maybe that's something you can only do when you're young, but I did not appreciate how rare that is, and I really miss it."
Yet even after the absolute boatload of work that went into that underappreciated second album (which Nelson describes as "a perfect reflection of four people scattering in 37 directions, right down to the cover art"), Nelson notes how, for him, this is where he began working on those solo songs, but even with all that he did, there were still some difficulties in turning those stray recordings around into a solid, cohesive record:
When we broke up from 2001-2004, in that time I was working on this record. It turned out to be way easier (against all odds) to get that band back together and write and record Little By Little than it is for me to believe that something I did on my own was, ya know, worth a damn. In a therapy way, I think what you say might be true, like I needed to call it "finished" and put it out with the help of friends. The thing that had to change was me. It certainly wasn't the band I was in and it certainly wasn't the culture -- it was me. And I did, and I've been working on myself as much as I've been working on this record (in fact, far more, to be totally blunt). That thing about having the non-negotiable existence -- it sounds really self-involved, and, again, let's be serious, it is obviously self-involved -- but we have ourselves. That's what we have to work on. So I felt like for a long time "I'll just let it languish. It doesn't matter if it ever comes out 'cos nobody cares, or even if somebody cares, they don't care that much, and really there's so many records and everybody has records and it doesn't matter ..."
But you can always find a reason not to do things, and as it happens, this is something I really wanted to do. But it wasn't to prove anything. I feel like the thing I learned in Harvey Danger is that you can have all your luck at once, and I think our band did. We had all of our luck in one big bang, and anything else that happened with us happened 'cos we figured out how to think about it, how to understand that experience. A lot of good things kept happening to us, but what was important was that we did it for the right reasons. So me putting out this record ... it's not jazz. It's not like I was in the Police and my bandmates wouldn't play jazz with me. It's the same basic DNA that Harvey Danger songs were. It's really hyper, verbal, and melodic songs about complicated feelings. But it's just a thing of being able to kind of be in the world and continue to have a sense of confidence that what I'm doing is worth doing, as I think it's good to check yourself on that all the time, but it's for me to say if that's true. It's not about the validation or even an audience or anything. And that's why I'm feeling more comfortable about reading reviews and it's gratifying that they're positive so far. But the rest of them could all be total slams and I could anticipate what they might say, but it doesn't matter: they will not shake my sense that this thing is of some value. It's not important that it be of world-changing, world-beating value. It's just another signal flare and an assertion of my own existence.
Thus, in many ways, Make Good Choices signals a new phase for Nelson. Now being married (with a wife who has encouraged him to put out the album from the get-go), he does occasional character actor film-work, gets to play with some of his idols now and again, and -- most importantly -- feels like the good will and momentum that Make Good Choices has generated may very well compel him to do another album before too long. He describes the feeling thusly: "The sense of accomplishment of finishing something and seeing it through -- that's a real thing. That's the best feeling that have access to. Writing a song? Writing a song is an incredible feeling. Singing a song to people at a show: also an incredible feeling, but not because of the applause or money or attention (though those things are nice), it's cos I really feel that a song isn't finished until people hear it. That's the little missing piece in everything. Until it is received by someone, it's not part of a conversation -- it's an inner-monologue. My inner-monologue is seemingly infinite. I've had enough of my inner-monologue and want to be part of a conversation again."
By starting that conversation again, it appears that he's heeded his own advice and making the best choice of all.