Ahhhhh, Harvey Danger! You may remember them from such pop hits as "Flagpole Sitta" and...well...nothing else. See, back in that heady year of 1998, they were part of a very brief Power Pop revival, one that included bands like Third Eye Blind, Semisonic, Fastball and Vertical Horizon. Yeah, yeah, if you're old enough, you remember those songs, and you'll remember how they were overplayed. But if you go back and listen to them now, you'll discover something rather shocking: these songs are excellent. These bands wrote great songs in spite of their one-hit wonder status--and Harvey Danger was no exception.
But like these other bands, Harvey Danger's post-hit story is a little bit messy, and as you'll soon see, it caused the band to split. After releasing King James Version, an excellent record in every sense of the word, the band split, simply because...well, no one knew that they'd released a new record. But a well-received ten year reunion show prompted the band to consider reforming, leading them to record Little by Little.., the band's best record to date. It's a wonderful album--and to prove how good it is, they decided to give it away via download. It's a radical move, and one that's reaped them a great deal of attention--and rightly so. As you can see, Nelson has a lot to say, and it's an honor to present this brief but extensive interview with the man himself. It's insightful, it's telling, it's entertaining, and it's one of my favorite interviews to date.
If we could look back for a moment, what happened with King James Version? Could you describe some of the hassles that you had with the label at the time, and were these things responsible for Harvey Danger's break-up that followed?
The short answer is that the music business happened to it. Though I could tear open all the psychic wounds that have covered over that period in my mind, I think it best just to say that we signed up with the wrong label. Though, in all fairness, it wasn’t really their fault, exactly—not at first, anyway. Around the middle of 1998, when everything was going great guns with “Flagpole Sitta” and all we as a band could think about was how eager we were to get off the road, spread our wings, and make a new record (remember that Merrymakers was recorded in 1996, so by then it was very old for us), we started hearing about how some beverage company was buying some record company and how there was going to be some kind of merger or whatever. We thought very little of it because, frankly, we were too busy pretending that we weren’t really part of the music business because we preferred Pavement to Sugar Ray. But then, as we were making the second record, finally, in 1999, after 8 solid months of touring, the merger happened, our label was dissolved, and we had to spend almost two years wondering who owned our contract, which label would work with us, and, ultimately, how to get dropped so we could just put KJV (which we were and are fiercely proud of) out on Barsuk. It was a miserable time, easily the worst I’ve ever felt—all that success, tainted though it was by the cheapness of the inevitable one-hit wonder associations, felt like the big league dues we had to pay before we could drop what we felt like was a much more impressive and meaningful work on the world of “Flagpole” listeners/radio programmers/all-purpose haters. But it was not to be. By the time all the legal bullshit finally got sorted out, it was Fall of 2000, the radio and MTV had completed their transformation into Limp Bizkitry, and no one wanted to know about little HD anymore, industry-wise… which would have been fine if we hadn’t just spent so much time and effort immersed in that industry. It was just too heartbreaking, and none of us had the stamina to continue. We did a bit touring and got a lot of excellent press, but the prevailing sense was that the world had no idea KJV had even come out. Though it has gone on to be a legitimate cult record, and that is deeply gratifying, the anticlimax of its release was really what killed the band’s spirit. The body followed about seven months later. It was really sad.
What prompted you to rekindle the Harvey Danger torch? Was there a particular moment that made you think, "it's time...the world needs us!"?
I wish I felt like the world needed us! No, it’s way more like we decided that we needed the world, or rather, that we needed each other. There arose a shared conviction between me, Jeff, and Aaron that we still had work to do, that we could power through the angst of the past and make better music together than we could separately. That was all. I had worked with both Jeff and Aaron separately through the three years we were broken up, writing songs, sometimes doing impromptu performances with friends (I hosted a variety show called “All Things To All People” in Seattle for a couple of years, and we did a lot of stuff there). It was only a matter of time (and much, much hemming and hawing) before we all three tried to get some stuff going. Then, when I was in the throes of making my putative solo record (more on this below), we decided to take a couple of the songs we’d been working on into the studio, just for a day, just to get them down. They were “Wine, Women, and Song” and “I Missed It,” both of which wound up on Little By Little… (the latter is on the bonus disc). It just felt amazing and right, the way it hadn’t felt for years—either on my own in the studio or for the last few years of Harvey Danger. There was chemistry again. Ira from Nada Surf played drums. It was the day before The Long Winters were leaving on another tour, and I spent the whole time listening to those two songs. When I got back, I was pretty much resolved that no matter how we decided to do it, no matter what we called it or what form it took, the three of us were musically involved again. Fortunately, Jeff and Aaron felt the same. The 10th anniversary show we played in April of 2004 was what clinched it. It was an amazing sense of communion with the audience and each other, a line around the block, TV cameras, waterslides, laser tag, the whole thing. People flew in from all over the country. It was easily one of the highlights of my life. Though I’d met a lot of people while touring with the Long Winters who’d told me bashfully how much they missed Harvey Danger, and how much they loved King James Version, it didn’t really click until that night that there was a real audience out there who had a meaningful connection with the work we did, and not just the one song. Still, we decided to take it slowly. It wasn’t until we hooked up with Michael Welke, our new drummer, that it really made sense to get serious. The new record was an extension of the enthusiasm we rediscovered for playing together.
In visiting your fan forum, it seems as if your loyal and longtime fans are quick to dismiss 'the hit' and are even quicker to point out that there's more to Harvey Danger than that one moment seven years ago. Looking back, is it tempting to be dismissive or cynical about the success of "Flagpole Sitta?"
The fear isn’t that we’ll only ever be known for one song; that’s pretty much a certainty, since the circumstances that brought us to the national stage are unlikely ever to repeat themselves. The issue is that “Flagpole” belongs to the world (which, as The Smiths remind us, won’t listen) and the rest of the songs belong to us and the true fans. I think it’s the same with any band that has had a similar experience, but perhaps a bit more pronounced with us because “Flagpole Sitta” is kind of a stylistic anomaly among our other stuff—and certainly our new material. It’s always a little more satisfying when someone develops a relationship with the songs you know they had to seek out, whereas basically anyone in the world might have been exposed to “Flagpole.” With all that in mind, I’ve really come to terms with that song and its success. It’s well put together, catchy as hell, and it still makes me chuckle to think it was ever so freaking huge, since I still think the words are kind of subversive, at least for the commercial airwaves. And a surprising number of very cool people have expressed their admiration for what the song is really up to. Though I still have to leave the room most times it comes on the radio or jukebox or whatever, I’ve also started to enjoy playing it live—mainly because we now don’t have to do so every time we perform. There’s nothing like a hit to light up a room.
Have you been tempted to pull a Jacob Slichter and write a tell-all biography about your music biz experience? And, um, why haven't you? (Slichter is the drummer of Semisonic, who in 2004 published a very telling and often hilarious biography, So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star?)
It was actually Jake’s book that made me put away the 75 pages of detailed notes I had compiled with just such a project in mind. Not necessarily a tell-all, but a memoir. He did a great job with that book of his—though, it was really interesting to read his version of certain events at which I was actually physically present, and how different my perspective on them was (we toured with Semisonic for 3 weeks in ’98 at our mutual career peaks). I don’t know. It could happen. I sort of feel like making an effort to put all that stuff behind me rather than re-dredging it might be a more fruitful enterprise. Still, I appreciate the thought, and the tacit vote of confidence that comes with it.
From the very first notes of "Wine, Women & Song," it's obvious that Little by Little... heralds a new direction for Harvey Danger. Was it intentional that you made a mellower record--one with more intricate arrangements and a newfound prominence of piano--or were you just as surprised to find that this was the direction your muse decided to go?
It was definitely intentional on my part. I’d been trying to convince Jeff to play more piano for years, since “Pike St./Park Slope” had come together so nicely. He was reluctant, I think, because he associates it with his pre-rock period (childhood lessons and such). I just think he comes up with great, expressive piano parts, and that it would be interesting to try something different from what we’d grown accustomed to as a young band. It felt like a good challenge to confront. The main thing, though, in terms of the overall feel is that most of these songs were written in the living room of my apartment (where the piano lives), and therefore have a necessarily mellower sound—the sound of an apartment, where you can’t play too loud without pissing off the neighbors, as opposed to our previous records, which were written in basements and practice spaces, where you kind of want to piss off as many neighbors as possible. We’re just not like that anymore--though maybe we will be again. I know I’ve found myself reaching for This Year’s Model quite a bit lately, now that we’ve made our mellow, stately melodic record. The next batch of songs will likely be more rock.
The reasoning behind your decision to give away Little by Little is quite intriguing. At what point did you decide on such an unusual (at least for a much more well-known band like Harvey Danger) method of distribution? How has the reaction been so far; how many copies have been downloaded so far--and do you think this decision's helped?
The idea was hatched after we played a big successful showcase at SXSW just after we’d finished the record. We just couldn’t escape the conviction that none of the standard issue modes of being a band made sense to us. We don’t fit on majors and we don’t really fit on indies. We can’t do extensive touring, we’re not young and hot, and there’s weird baggage attached to our name. In addition, there’s the discomfort when working with labels of meeting other people’s expectations—even reasonable ones—and more to the point, their schedules. The main issue was that we wanted people to hear the record in a timely fashion, money be damned. We also reasoned that no matter what we did, we’d have to figure out some way of dealing with the—let’s call it skepticism (for charity’s sake)—that always plagues bands who try and make comebacks. The guys in Nada Surf dealt with it by 1) making their best record to date, and 2) touring their fucking asses off. We felt like we’d done #1, but for a variety of personal reasons, simply could not commit to doing #2. All of these factors were part of the decision. It also just feels weirdly right. And Jeff is a computer nerd, so he has really enjoyed masterminding the whole operation (with a little help from his friends). The key issue: We wanted to remove all obstacles to people hearing the record and developing a relationship with our music and our band. Working backwards from there, it wasn’t too hard to arrive at a free download model. Best of all, it seems to be working; by the time this gets printed, we’ll probably be sitting with around 100,000 downloads or so. And the hard copy version is also selling pretty well, especially in Seattle. We’ll be doing a bit of touring next year, so I guess that’ll be the real test, but for now, everything seems to be in its right place, to coin a phrase…
It's also rumored that you have a solo album waiting in the wings. What's the story behind that, who did you work with, and will it see the light of day any time soon?
In the three years that Harvey Danger was broken up, when I wasn’t busy touring with The Long Winters, I began no fewer than four solo or collaborative projects, all of which are in some stage of near-completion. They are, in no real order: 1) Sean Nelson and His Mortal Enemies—a collection of songs I’ve written alone and co-written with Peter Buck and Aaron from HD, and recorded with members of Centro-matic, Little Grizzly, and Okkervil River. Robyn Hitchcock also makes a cameo on one of the songs. 2) Nelson Sings Nilsson—an album of Harry Nilsson covers I’m making with Steve Fisk. 3) Society of the Golden West—a robot pop collaboration with Fisk and John Goodmanson (and just to give you a sense of how long we’ve been dicking around, this project actually pre-dates the Postal Service). 4) The Vernacular—me and Chris Walla making rock songs. I have no idea if or when any of this stuff will ever see the light of day. It’s complicated.
(At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’ve also been doing a lot of session work as a harmony singer. In the past few years, I’ve appeared on three Death Cab for Cutie records, as well as two by the Long Winters (duh), and one each by Nada Surf, The Decemberists, and Robyn Hitchcock. More to come. It’s really fun.)
Looking back over your experiences from the last eleven years, what advice would you give to young musicians and bands?
My/our experience is so bizarre that I kind of don’t feel qualified to give much advice. What I will say is that no force can destroy a band that knows what they want and who they are. It’s difficult sometimes to believe that the clichés of music can pertain to you, but they really can (and in many cases, they probably already do). My advice is to show up on time, keep challenging yourself, don’t ask/wait for anyone else’s permission to record or tour, and generally aim for self-sufficiency, because that’s the only thing that ends up being truly satisfying. And always bet on black…
Final question: so where have all the merrymakers gone?
Where, indeed! I think I saw them heading to your mom’s house…
Harvey Danger photo courtesy of Ryan Shierling