Cast Off the Ego Scars: An Interview with Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson
The song was "Flagpole Sitta", and it was everywhere in the late '90s. Nearly two decades later, it finally gets the vinyl treatment.
"The first record, it requires less intense focus. It grabs you. Even though we were very serious about what we did, it wasn't at the cost of having fun. We were never particularly fun people. As we interacted with the music business, we were told all the time that we should be writing songs that were more like 'Flagpole Sitta', but we didn't really either know how to do it or want to do it because what we really wanted was to be taken seriously, which is a fatal flaw for a band."
-- Sean Nelson
In 1998, Harvey Danger appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. They performed "Flagpole Sitta", their super-catchy, subversively delicious radio hit that would ultimately catapult their tiny $3,000 debut album Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? into America's mainstream.
It was the band's network television debut, and looking back on it today, lead singer Sean Nelson bristles at the memories surrounding the appearance, despite hindsight's occasional ability to compromise regretful decisions. There were a few of them the Seattle quartet made that night, despite how hungry, energized and out-right bad-ass they looked, guitarist Jeff Lin seemingly breaking a string by song's end and drummer Evan Sult circling his kit during an extended bridge colored by cymbal rolls and elongated crooning from Nelson himself.
The whole thing looked like a band not giving a shit, but more importantly, the performance that night felt like a band not giving a shit. So much so, in fact, that the singer can only laugh now while reflecting on how it all went.
"My main memory of that was that my mom got mad at me because I sort of changed the phrasing of one of the lines," Nelson recalls over the phone. "I don't think I was particularly conscious of doing it, but I started to do that live to try and make it slightly more interesting for myself. I cannot tell you how sick of it I was at that time, but she was like, 'Why do you do that? Why did you ruin it? People want to hear it the way it is.'"
As the cache of counterbalance washes over him, you can almost touch the whispers of admissive sighs as he eventually follows the thought up: "She was, of course, correct."
The Harvey Danger singer has been in the mood to reminisce lately. Nearly 17 years after his band's breakthrough LP was originally released on Arena Rock Recordings, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? is receiving the vinyl treatment. On July 29, No Sleep Records will breathe new life into the cult-classic, adding updated artwork designed by the band (the original files are all lost) as well as a superbly written, love-letter of an essay penned by the singer that revisits not only the album, but the players involved in its production.
It's almost surreal to think the set is nearly two decades old, especially after listening to it in the modern day. From the rollicking opening bass line of "Carlotta Valdez", all the way to the loops that serve as a secret track long after the final notes of "Radio Silence" fade, Merrymakers continues to feel inherently fresh even after all these years.
"It's not like I had never once listened to it in the intervening years," Nelson explains, "but it's been a while since I listened to the whole thing, beginning to end. It was really exciting to listen to. It was so full of energy and excitement and it just made me remember the times during which we made it. There was no prospect of us ever going anywhere with the band. We were all really devoted to it, but no one else was. When we were writing those songs, we really were fueled by this naive enthusiasm for rock and roll and I can really hear that. There's a certain naiveté that you kind of want there to be on a first record. It reminded me of being in my early 20s. That record is really a chronicle of our first three or four years together; you can hear us learning how to write songs and how to be a band. It sounds so energetic."
The idea for the reissue came to the forefront about a year ago, when a few people from No Sleep approached the band. Nelson was excited at the prospect of finally getting the record pressed on vinyl (something he always wanted to do with Merrymakers, specifically, he says), but he couldn't get away from the thought that the suits at Universal, which owns the masters, might eventually provide enough roadblocks to kill the project. The singer saw this happen first-hand when he had a similar idea for the band's sophomore effort, King James Version, and watched the notion fade after succumbing to the endless loopholes that surround complicated licensing deals.
But this time, the people at No Sleep persisted and eventually got the green light from the songs' current owners. It's been enlightening to revisit those 10 tracks over the past several months, Nelson contends. Not once did anyone in the band ever seriously consider the prospect of becoming rock stars, though once "Flagpole Sitta" took off, the guys in Harvey Danger found themselves in a position that can be described as nothing less than precarious.
"The narrative of our band, in retrospect, has always been about the experience of 'Flagpole Sitta' becoming this out-of-nowhere hit and then it being our only hit," the singer says. "The history of the band, for most people, is just that one song. And the story that gets told again and again is our weird interaction with big time show biz."
Weird and at least somewhat heartbreaking. Surrounding that one hit is a slew of songs that sonically quench any intelligent indie nerd's thirst and verbally sum up the frustration that coming of age can bring, especially for those who aren't even sure what age means anymore. "Private Helicopter", the album's second single which was criminally overlooked by any label representative faking his way through actually working the album, is, as Nelson himself writes in the reissue's liner notes, "a confession that love can do more than just die" set to the tune of desperately aggressive post-rock ideals impossible to ignore. How the mainstream did just that -- especially considering the overwhelming success of "Flagpole" -- defies all logical comprehension.
Actually, how the mainstream refused to look further into any of those two songs' contemporaries is more of an indictment on popular culture's subliminal obsession with fickleness than it is on anything the four guys in Harvey Danger ever did or didn't do. Driven by the signature lead bass guitar that pops up on the majority of Merrymakers, "Old Hat", for instance, is irresistible with its youth and endearingly kitschy refrain of "Call me freaky/Call me childish/Call me Ishmael/Just call me back/Call me back/Call me back and I'll follow you around."
It's only one in a plethora of wise-and-pissed-beyond-years lyricism that shines brilliantly throughout each track. It's an approach from which Nelson has since had no interest in shying away.
"I have always been a look-on-the-dark-side-of-things kind of person," the singer admits. "Especially when it comes to emotional life. But I also feel like addressing that stuff with humor is a form of optimism. And even though a lot of the themes in the lyrics are pretty dour in some ways, and the words tend to be pretty caustic, I wouldn't say they are cynical only because I feel like the act of making the song is sort of against cynicism. Because if you were cynical you wouldn't even bother. There's a lot of sadness going on in there, and I have continued to go toward that side of the emotional spectrum, but I hear a lot of joy in that record. The way people responded to it, whether they were attuned to what the words were saying or not, that to me feels like the great achievement. For however hopeless and Nineties-ish we were as people and as a band, we really loved doing it because it was the only thing any of us ever had really stuck with and that record was the first thing any of us really finished.
"When it broke out and became a big success," he continues, "we lost sight of the character of that record because we had been living with it for so long. All we wanted to do was move past it and do something more ambitious. But the fact is that what is there is ... I think there's a good argument that it's the best thing we ever did."
It wouldn't be their last. After label reshuffling and far too many hiccups to profile in this particular article, King James Version, the Merrymakers follow-up, was released to wide critical acclaim in 2000, though it didn't produce another "Flagpole"-style hit. It wouldn't be until 2005 that the group would release Little By Little... after returning from a three-year hiatus. Then finally, in 2009, Harvey Danger announced the dissolution of the band for good, in effect putting to bed the legacy that Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? created.
Maybe that's why Nelson sounds so upbeat about the memories that surround the album today: If nothing else, time, distance and absence will forever allow perspective to cultivate, and in the case of Harvey Danger, at least, the singer seems to have no reason to look back on their formative years with any sense of regret. Or, well, for the most part, that is.
"I like all of them ... now," Nelson says while reflecting on the songs that make up his band's first record, the space between "them" and "now" far more than three simple dots could illustrate. "There are two songs that I feel like the lyrics are sort of undercooked, not quite finished: 'Problems And Bigger Ones' and 'Terminal Annex'. I really like those songs but part of it, I was experimenting for myself with trying to write in a slightly non-linear, slightly cut-up style, and I'm just not that good at that. So, a lot of the thoughts don't feel conclusive on those, but they happen to mean a lot to other people and that has changed my opinion about them. I don't like them as much as the others, but I do love them.
"'Carlotta Valdez' is such an exciting thing to listen to for me," he adds. "I think 'Wrecking Ball' is a really beautiful piece of music. It expresses something that's really sad that corresponds with the specific sadness of being 22, 23 years old, which to me was a surpassingly sad period of life. 'Radio Silence' has this expansive quality, but you can also hear rough spots in it and you can hear mistakes in it, and I like that. It's kind of a classic young person railing against society kind-of song and I was very happy that even though it's kind of naive in a way, it applies just as much today as it did then."
Oh, and as for that Letterman performance? Yeah, there's still one thing that haunts Nelson to this very day: Saying no to Paul Schaffer when the band director asked if his players could sit in on the "Flagpole Sitta" performance.
"That's the single biggest regret that I have as a performer in my life," the singer says lightly, but no less serious. "It's hard to even remember a time when I wasn't completely aware of David Letterman and Paul Schaffer. I grew up worshiping and loving them. What I really regret is the reason we didn't do it: We had just gotten this shitty review in Rolling Stone that basically said we weren't a real band or something along those lines and we felt it was incumbent upon us to demonstrate that we were the real thing.
"And that's such a stupid reason to do anything," Nelson admits. "Particularly because for us to have been accused of being a sort of industry-savvy, professional hack was super-outrageous because in fact we were rank amateurs and proud of it. Being amateur was a mark of real distinction to us. We knew who we were and the fact was that being able to perform that song with that caliber of an orchestra would have just been so fun. So, we limited ourselves out of this weird defensiveness. We were too scared; we were just young and we were afraid of what people would think about us. We felt like we had to demonstrate something, but frankly, no one has to demonstrate. You just are what you are or are not and unfortunately that is a lesson that you can really only learn by making mistakes."
Then, right as the conversation closes, he adds a thought all too insightful in the context of where, indeed, all the merrymakers might have gone: "Time goes by and you look back and you just can't believe what you thought was important.
"But that," he adds, "is what it's like to get older."