INTERVIEW: Harvey Danger

You may not know this, but Harvey Danger — the band responsible for the '97 alt-rock hit "Flagpole Sitta" — are also responsible for one of the best albums of the new millennium.

Following the release of "Flagpole Sitta" and its parent album, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, singer/frontman Sean Nelson and co. began working on what would eventually become King James Version, a sprawling, absolutely stunning lyrical and musical tour-de-force that has gone on to gain somewhat of a cult-classic status amongst devout fans. Yet, as is the case with most great music put out through a major label, the album bombed, despite a decent marketing push and a brand name to go off of. Though King James Version would eventually go out of print, people eventually wound up discovering it through friends, budget bins, and random recommendations, gradually sustaining the audience for a band that was all but doomed to Buzzcuts!-styled one-hit wonderdom. When the time came around to release their more pop-rooted third disc, Little By Little, the band decided to release it for free online, allowing fans to either download the entire thing for nothing or plopping down a few bucks to get the album in CD format with a bonus disc of outtakes and demos. Oh, and this was years before Radiohead released In Rainbows (wink).

Yet Sean Nelson hasn't exactly been quiet since then: he's guested on albums of friends (Long Winters, Death Cab for Cutie), began touring with longtime idol Robyn Hitchcock, dabbled in a slew of solo projects while keeping up his career as a writer, even penning a book about Joni Mitchell's classic LP Court and Spark. It's been a long, strange, and fantastic journey for Nelson, and here (with Evcat) he reflects on his accomplishments, his regrets, and the painful regret of saying "no" to Paul Shaffer ...


>>I remember when Little By Little first came out, a
nd you guys did something highly unconventional by releasing the album for free to all, allowing people to pay for the CD version with bonus disc if they so desired. Years later, of course, Radiohead did their famed In Rainbows experiment along with NIN and all those other people following in their footsteps. How do you envision releasing HD's music in the future now that this model has become somewhat commonplace?

Well, it wasn't exactly a radical new idea when we did it, but it was definitely novel, and hugely successful as an experiment for us. We spent way too much money to make the record, then gave ourselves a year to break even, and we did it in nine months, with less than a month of touring. More importantly, we reached a quarter of a million listeners. Now let's say only 10% of those people actually listened to and liked the record—that's still 25,000 human beings taking the time to examine the work you've done. That is inherently a massive success from my perspective. I personally know many bands who have to tour for years to reach half that many people. That's almost exactly the number of people who bought our second album, King James Version, which came out on a major label, and on which close to a million dollars was spent to make and market, all told. That record was deemed a crashing failure, but to me, 20,000, 25,000—that's a lot of people. More people than I can imagine knowing. More people than I would like to play to at once (though we have played to that many and more several times).

When we had a hit single 10 years ago, we found ourselves playing to lots of people who were very obviously waiting for the one song, and weren't concerned with the rest of our set, or any of the other things that matter about a band (to me, anyway). It was disorienting, but we came away from that experience and the subsequent years of wandering with the conviction that 'tis a far, far better thing to play to 300-600 people who really want to be there, who really care about the whole picture, than 1,000 people waiting to hear the one song they've heard on the radio or TV. (Not that those people are bad, they're just a bad audience, both easy to please and impossible to satisfy.) Anyway, the free record gambit sort of arose from that feeling, as well as the sense that we sort of made no sense within any existing version of the music business. Clearly, we don't belong on a major, since we're unlikely candidates for mass appeal, even in the unlikeliest scenario (even in the scenario in which we had mass appeal...). And we don't really belong on an indie either, because we're unwilling and unable to tour for any real length of time. (Being neither young nor cool represent further difficulties.) To let people just have the record we were so proud of was our way of removing all the boundaries that culture and industry and circumstance place between bands and listeners.

The idea was hatched by our guitar/piano player Jeff after a dispiriting trip down to SXSW just after we'd made the record. His plan was not simply to give the record away, but make a kind of event out of it, and thereby to give voice to a long-held feeling we all had that the way the music industry works with/against bands is a major problem. And he did almost all the hard work from a technical perspective, and it nearly broke him. But it didn't, and the record came out, and lots of people liked it and lots of people didn't, and now it's three years later; more people know about us in a good way, we play shows when we want, and we were able to feel the satisfaction of circumventing a business that was never a good fit for us. Also, it's gratifying to find that Harvey Danger gets mentioned in a lot of the business page articles about the higher profile free releases like Radiohead and NIN, bands that obviously represent a strong break with the old way— and that were a lot smarter about the way they constructed their download pages...

And people who argue against it are cynical idiots. I mean, if you don't want to do it, that's obviously fine, but the idea that Radiohead is killing music or devaluing it or whatever Gene Simmons and Lily Allen are saying is so plainly a corporate brainwash job. Clearly, it's a viable path for bands that have devoted followings who don't want to go through the nightmarish sausage grind of major label tempo and economics. Still, at this point, the philosophical underpinnings that were such a big part of it for us (see the non-manifesto on our site http://www.harveydanger.com/press/why.php) feel a little bedraggled, or at least obvious—like the reasoning has been transmogrified into a marketing device. Which is inevitable. It just isn't that inspiring. As for the future, I really don't know, because it will depend on what the music sounds like. And all we have now are fragments. Harvey Danger is a glacier, not a hydofoil. I would go the free route again happily, but I'd prefer a scenario in which someone else did enough of the back-end work that the band could really just make the music. I mean, labels may not be good for much, but they're good for that.

>>At your 10-year anniversary shows earlier this year, you dedicated one night to performing both Merrymaker and your various B-sides and rarities. Given how you were still pumping out B-sides for your Kill Rock Stars singles, do you feel that there's life to be found in B-side in age of iTunes?

"B-side" is clearly a euphemism, as the vinyl single isn't much of a commodity these days (though I still buy them and we did at last make one). But as for the notion of the non-album song having worth in the post-album age, I would say hell yes, maybe more than ever. The advent of the digital music store makes the orphan songs all the more appealing for reissues and deluxe versions, etc. They're the "free sticker with purchase" of the non-physical realm. But it's not just business. I know that our unreleased material is the stuff that still gnaws at me, the stuff I wish people could hear. Even though a song like "Defrocked" (say, not that anyone reading this is likely be familiar with it, but just play along) didn't make sense in the context of King James Version — largely because it would've competed with "Underground" (again, play along) — I still feel like it's maybe our most impressive recording. I mean a lot of songs get cut from albums because they just aren't that awesome, too. But if you love a band, chances are you're at least interested in hearing their lesser works too. They help you appreciate the better material more.

I cite R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office. Not many great songs, but a fucking lot of great parts, great ideas, and a cover of Aerosmith that I still prefer to the original. Plus the liner notes! Obviously, this shit is for nerds only. But nerds are my people. And to the people who have liked our band for a long time, whose desire for Harvey Danger music was too intense to be slaked by our three albums, those "B-sides" have become much beloved. It's very easy to be a music fan nowadays. Maybe too easy. I remember when you used to have to work to learn ANYTHING about the bands you liked; you really had to know where to look and whom to ask. Collectors were like mystics. A rare B-side or bootleg of an unreleased song or live show was a treasure. A treasure. Now it's just trash on a hard drive. It's probably better now that there are 50 websites publishing arcane gossip and news about every band imaginable several times a day. But the lost song is some tiny little throwback to the days when band artifacts had a bit more mystery than they do now. Of course, I say that with the full realization that every demo we ever recorded since 1993 is probably fully downloadable on a hundred different servers. SUCKERS!!!

>>You have acknowledged in your personal blog that King James Version has reached a cult-classic kind of status (and deservedly so). Does it feel strange having an album like that under your belt but not having many people hear it? Are there any plans to re-release it?

At various points, including the time before it came out originally, there have been plans to release or re-release KJV in a deluxe edition (including a bonus disc of B-sides, demos and rarities called "Dead Sea Scrolls") on Barsuk Records, a label that I am a partner in. But for a variety of boring businessy reasons (that can be blamed, predictably, on a major entertainment corporation), it seems like it isn't going to happen (which fucking kills me in all candor — I'd at least like to see a version of Tae Won Yu's cover art that employs the intended shade of blue). Maybe one day. If I were a gambling man, I'd say no. But like I said above, the unavailability makes it more precious. (Not that you can't buy it on iTunes for $10, though...)

>>Do you feel haunted by "Flagpole Sitta" at all?

Once every fortnight or so, someone — either a total stranger or a person I know — either makes some reference to it, or sings part of it to me, or tells me how much they love it, or tells me how much they hate it, or asks me if it made me rich, or assumes it's the reason I'm such a success in the music business or such a failure in the music business. In some ways it has helped me a lot to be the singer and co-writer of that song. In other ways, it has really shackled me to a certain time and identity that I don't relate to anymore. So I would say yes, I do feel haunted by it to a degree, or at least shadowed by it. Then again, the things I describe above used to happen every day (literally). So I guess I have made some progress. I don't necessarily run screaming from a room when it comes on. I do walk, though. The best thing about "Flagpole Sitta" so far is that it is the theme song to a really smart and funny British sitcom called Peep Show. It's the only pop culture item the song has been associated with that feels like a kindred spirit to the original attitude of the lyric anyway. It helps one remember that it did start out as just a fun little thing we did in our practice space. It felt good at first.

>>Harvey Danger have gradually evolved from a guitar-based alt-rock band (Merrymakers) to a more piano-oriented pop group (as evidenced by Little). Especially with your involvement with the Barsuk crowd (Long Winters, Death Cab), where do you see the Harvey Danger sound moving to in the immediate future?

Well, the move to piano for Little By Little... had a lot to do with me trying to coax Jeff into putting down the guitar so we could try something new. He has some training on the piano — but not as much as say, a Victor Borge — and as a result was always self-conscious about playing it in a rock context. But he has greater facility and a different (I think wider, though he may disagree) expressive range on the keys than on the guitar and the words I was coming up with around that time felt like they might benefit from a bit of that. Plus I always felt like the piano-cello-vocal ground we covered on "Pike Street/Park Slope," from the second album was really fertile. And sure enough, songs like "Wine, Women and Song," "Little Round Mirrors," "War Buddies," "Happiness Writes White," and "Moral Centralia" are the real powerhouse, stand-out songs from that album, whereas the guitar-driven numbers feel a little less killer for some reason. But then, after playing these things for a while, we are all longing to rock out more like we used to—in a live setting, the more thoughtful and melodically interesting songs go over fine, but it's older rockers like "Show Me the Hero," "Authenticity," "Terminal Annex," and "Carlotta Valdez" that really get people going. So I don't know: between the influences of This Year's Model and Odessey and Oracle there is a lot of room to maneuver.

As for the Barsuk connection ... we know those bands socially, and are basically friends with them, but there's no real sense of musical compatibility or community. The two bands you mentioned are in a totally different world from ours. I mean, Death Cab, obviously; they had the number one album in the country the other week — it's very pleasing to know I called it 10 years ago, but that doesn't bring us any closer to being peers in the way you suggest. Even when we played with them in the past, it was pretty obvious that we were coming from fundamentally different places (and that one day we would likely be a footnote in their history). The chief difference, of course, is that both those bands are full-time operations trying to make a living through music. That could never be us. We tried it. It was suicidal despair and alienation and rancor and self-doubt and mutual resentment from the minute we got in the van. Then we stopped and we were happier. Now, we play when we feel like it, and we are a lot better on stage then we ever were before. We write when we're ready to spend time together, and the fact that far fewer people are interested (but the ones who are are far more interested) allows us to take risks we wouldn't have otherwise. If we make another record, it will happen when we're up for it, which may not be for a while. By most indie rock band standards, we are ridiculously lazy. But then, Scritti Politti takes as much as 14 years between albums, and the last one was the best ever, so that's something to consider. At this point, the only reason to be in Harvey Danger is for the pleasure we ourselves derive from it — and we have to watch out because we all have radically different standards of what constitutes pleasure. One thing that affords no pleasure is trying to keep up with or otherwise sound like the sound of today. Especially now. It just seems irrelevant to our M.O. I know that's not exactly an answer to your question, but it's sort of an answer to mine.

>>Lastly: so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret and, conversely, what's been your proudest accomplishment?

From a professional standpoint I have so many regrets that it's actually painful to choose just one. But I daresay the one I have regretted the most acutely the greatest number of times, one we made collectively (as opposed to the things I fucked up personally on the band's behalf), was the time we played on The Late Show with David Letterman and Paul Shaffer asked us if we wanted him and his orchestra to sit in with us, and we said NO because we thought it would make us seem less "credible" or too corporate or something. The fucking idiocy. I mean making decisons based on that particular shoulder chip is stupid enough, but the absolute lack of imagination and showmanship when faced with the prospect of all those amazing players (including a whole horn section!) at our disposal to make what could have been a memorable spectacle... Of course, those were different times, as good old Lou Reed would remind us, but I'm not ashamed to say that decision has kept me up more than one night in the decade since we made it.

As for accomplishments, I think the making of Little By Little..., the internet release and license to Kill Rock Stars, the subsequent touring — however minimal — and the overall response to the album has given me a sense of self-determination I really lost during our major label period. More than that, it kind of closed the books on the life-altering disappointment that followed the sort of non-release of King James Version, which was an album that I personally and we collectively invested in completely. We really put all we had into it, and more, and just never lost faith that it was going to advance us artistically and somehow vindicate the compromised success of the first album. And then it was like it never happened. I'd met lots of people over the years who told me they knew of the album, had bought it for a penny on eBay, had found it one evening out someone's coffee table, had discovered an entire landfill made out of it, and it always made me grateful. But really going out into the world and seeing the way people had internalized the songs, knew every word, leaped for joy when the opening chords rang out—it simply alleviated several years' worth of compounded anxiety and allowed me to move on. And away from music in a certain regard. Not entirely, but certainly further away than I thought I ever would go. Moreover, I look back on the music we made (as opposed to the videos, the photos, the interviews, the live shows, etc.) and I'm proud to know that we always meant it—possibly because we didn't have the kind of skills required to be more crassly opportunistic, but more likely because there's a conscience in our music, befuddled though it may be at times. I suppose my proudest accomplishment is that I can still hear it.


All band photos taken by Ryan Schierling.

Visit Harvey Danger's website here.