Interview: Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger

Harvey Danger is calling it quits… for real this time. They have a final series of shows scheduled, the last taking place at The Crocodile on August 29 (sold out – watch The Croc’s site for an earlier show that same day). I sat down with frontman Sean Nelson recently to talk about the band and his post-Harvey Danger plans.

Question: You have extremely loyal fans, and keep acquiring new ones. What would they be surprised to learn about you?

Sean Nelson: It’s true that the people who are into the band are incredibly loyal, and it’s always been interesting because we went from knowing personally everybody who was into us – there were about a hundred of them in the world – to then suddenly we were broadcast really everywhere and so we were being exposed to literally millions of people and it never felt real. It never felt organic. It never felt like anything to do with what we wanted as a band.

I mean, it was great to sell a lot of records and it was great to make some money and more than anything it was great to be validated in a way by going from Nowheresville to Everywheresville. The thing that was interesting was along the way we would play in these places where we would be playing to a thousand people and then outside the show there would be kids maybe sniffing glue out of a bag or whatever and they would come up and talk to you and you would have this sense of a connection and one of them would express something about their appreciation of the music and not just the one single. It was really like a lifeline for me in those days. To find people who were not only just aware that we had other stuff, but that stuff was meaningful to them. I’m sure that no more than ten per cent of people that bought our first record are still interested in the band in any way, but that’s still ten per cent of half a million people, so it’s a lot. It’s a respectable number in the world of indie rock, but it’s also more people than I can imagine.

And I don’t know what they’d be surprised to learn about me. I feel like I’m sort of an open book. It can’t be a surprise that I’m insecure and it can’t be a surprise that I live in my head. I don’t know, but I wish I’d learned a trade. I wish I had stayed in college. 
 
Question: I like that you released the album Little By Little as a free download as well as a fairly priced CD. I get the impression that profit is not Harvey Danger’s top priority. Did you know what to expect and did it turn out as expected?

Sean Nelson: It’s absolutely true that profit’s not our top priority. In a way, we have run from making money way more than run towards it. We turned down literally over a million dollars in the old days. I feel like we were being careful. I don’t know that we had such a strong code of ethics but we wanted to make sure we didn’t violate a code of ethics that we might have. It was very theoretical. I wish that we had said yes to a lot more things than we did, but we for sure didn’t compromise ourselves any more than the inherent compromise in releasing music to the world. Putting the third record out the way we did was an experiment. We didn’t feel like we fit into any of the systems that existed in the world. We don’t make sense as a major label band. We don’t make sense as an indie rock band because we’re not built for touring in vans and sleeping on floors. We can’t do it. We could do it and we did it and we hated it. It’s just not what we’re about. I like it personally, but as a band, it just doesn’t work.

And so it was an experiment to see if we could do it without subscribing to the orthodoxies of rock music. And it worked. It worked brilliantly. We spent more money making the record than we should have, but we gave ourselves a year to break even. That was the experiment and we broke even in nine months. Three hundred thousand people downloaded the record. It was way more than I thought that we would get. And people who listened to it had really interesting things to say, both positive and negative, but they seemed to engage with it. It was a real victory for us. It was incredibly, again, validating, and it made it seem like the whole idea that we were still together, even though we had broken up and we got back together… it seemed like that was the right choice.

I think the best thing about being in a band is where you seek your own identity, whatever it might be. It takes a long time for some people to find it.

Amelia: That would be a hard way to do that, I would think.

Sean Nelson: Some people just have such an inherent sense of themselves that whatever they do, it’s going to reflect their identities. Some people are straddling identities.

A lot of bands have a look or a style of music that’s very discernable and very obvious. A rockabilly band is going to have a rockabilly identity – there’s really no other way for them to be. But with us, we didn’t belong to a school of music. We just loved all these different kinds of music and tried to combine them into something that was our own. And so once we did it, our identity never fit with any of the standard issue things and it also didn’t fit with any of the obvious forms of rebellion against the standard issue things. We didn’t have a persona.

So having this third record come out as well as it did… and it’s significant that the guy on the cover is hiding his face… it feels like a victory. You can’t say we were anonymous because we were overexposed, but at the same time the real germ or the kernel of inspiration or truth that was in the middle of what we did was very hard to find. You had to go look for it. It’s very natural for people to just take what they are given by their TVs or radios and it’s not wrong, but if it’s your little secret identity that you are hoping someone will discover and approve of, it’s very painful. So, Little By Little was a huge chapter for us. It was the thing that we needed after the disaster of the second album, which was in fact, a disaster.

Question: What are your non-musical influences?

Sean Nelson: The main thing I do in my spare time when I’m not working on something is watch films. I watch a lot of movies and I read. I feel like film is the master art form because it actually contains writing and it contains acting and it contains music and it contains dance. That’s what I gravitate towards and it makes its way into the music in a certain way, though I couldn’t really say how.

Question: How many shows did you play at the old Croc? New Croc?

Sean Nelson: We have never played at the new Croc. This will be our first time and it was very important that the last show be there. We played so many shows at the old Croc, even long before we got a career. We were referred to by people who worked there as sort of the house band. They weren’t always that psyched that we were the house band. I later played in a band with a guy who’d been a bartender there and then I also went on a few tours with a guy who worked there doing security and they both told me that was our identity. We loved that. It was our favorite place. I don’t know why, because on reflection, it kind of sucked, physically. The physical space was really kind of half-assed. It sounded good and the stage was fine, and there was no backstage. It was just exactly that intersection of run-down and fancy and official that made us feel like we were legit when we were a young band, because it was a lot better than the places we were playing before, like the Lake Union Pub, which is now gone. We played there a lot. And the Ditto Tavern, which I think is gone forever.

It almost felt like we were putting on a costume, playing a lot of clubs.  It’s part of that thing of not making sense in the context of what a rock band is supposed to be. We didn’t wear the right clothes and we didn’t have the right attitude. We were completely isolated for so long. We still are, really. We never really were part of a community. We had friends in bands and when we had a little bit of influence we’d try to be as generous as we could with our exposure in showing other bands to the world too. I see bands who are buddies with each other and do everything together and socialize and we never did any of that. We’re not really social creatures. We’re pretty insular.

Amelia: Plus, there were no other bands like you then that I remember. 

Sean Nelson: Right. I think that’s true. We wanted a community. We wanted that more than anything. There were bands that we would meet and there were friendships of convenience and we would play on each other’s bills but it never really felt like when I got wise to what was going on in Bellingham, for example.

Around that time – 1997, 1998, we met Death Cab for Cutie and The Revolutionary Hydra and all these other weird bands like Pacer. I’m spacing on other names, but there were tons of bands in this one little area and they were really entertaining one another. I was really intoxicated by that scene. Much as I was when I’d go to Olympia to see shows and I didn’t know anyone there but I felt like what was going on there was the most exciting. And it was because they didn’t care about anything other than what they were doing. They weren’t seeking anyone’s approval or asking anyone’s permission. They made communities. But that is predicated on a certain personality type. You have to be able to make friends to be able to make a community of friends. The individuals that made up Harvey Danger were never good at making friends. I think in all walks of our various lives we always had one or two friends but always felt excluded from what normal people did. And we felt excluded from what freaks did. We were kind of just off to the side. We were lucky to find each other.

That was the whole premise of the band for the first four or five years – none of us knew anything about how to play music or how to write songs or how to be a band and we all desperately wanted to. We were just in love with the music that was coming out of specifically Seattle and the northwest. Seattle, Portland and Olympia were incredibly fertile. The other thing was we knew no one was going to help us do it and so we decided to help each other. Once we committed to that idea, we really were there for each other, even though we also came to resent each other and all the things that happen in any marriage, happened in our marriage.

We also, fortunately, had the project. If we were angry or resentful we could turn away from that and turn towards the project of making music. It was interesting and really lonely but also thrilling to be able to do it. To have this thing in your hand and then the frustration was no one knew about it and you didn’t know how to get anyone to know about it and it seemed impossible that anyone would ever listen to anything you ever did under any circumstances.

So it just seemed like a ridiculous fantasy until we met John Goodmanson. It was my job in the band to seek out those types of relationships with people who could help us. I met John and told him about our band and he listed to a tape and he just said, “Yeah. Let’s make a record.” It was that simple. That moment, him deciding it was okay, changed everything. Forever. In all of our lives, really. In a weird way, because before that, it was the four of us and we like what we do. Then here’s a guy who really knows something and he likes it too. I think as a result we got a lot better. He was completely invaluable. He was the George Martin figure that you want, you dream of.

Question: According to your website, you played your first shows in 1994, at the frenzied height of grunge. How were you received back then, before Harvey Danger was a household name? Did you sound anything like you do now?

Sean Nelson: I have a photograph of our first show at the Lake Union Pub and it’s really funny. I’m wearing jeans and a flannel shirt over a Built to Spill t-shirt. Jeff is wearing a turtleneck, Evan, the original drummer had a ponytail and Aaron was… I can’t remember how Aaron was dressed, but it was normal. We looked normal. The fashion that was about to become hipster normalized with Weezer and Pavement… we basically looked like that.

Amelia: That’s how we all dressed then, wasn’t it?

Sean Nelson: I thought so. Bands didn’t. Bands had looks. Bands had outfits. I saw it and my first thought was to be baffled and my second thought was, oh yeah, I get it. It’s a uniform to communicate that you are one unit. I always rejected stuff like that. I still do in my own personal taste. I don’t like it when people have ‘looks’. It always seems like they just dialed it up out of a catalogue instead of actually doing something original with themselves.

In 1994 when we started playing, we absolutely unreservedly sucked. So bad.

Amelia: So you did not sound like you do now.

Sean Nelson: No, we didn’t. We were really really bad. We were bad because it was everybody’s first band. We had only really been playing our instruments for less than a year when we played our first show. Jeff the guitar player had been classically trained on piano and violin a bit as a child of age four or something. But with guitar and bass and drums, no. None of us had ever done it.

Amelia: You had to have been a singer, though.

Sean Nelson: I sang in drama and choir in junior high and high school, but that’s fundamentally different from singing rock and roll. I did get some good training, but I had to undo a lot of that training in order to do good rock singing. And I didn’t realize that until I heard our first recording. It’s really difficult to be totally unlike everybody else. We were not outcasts in the classic sense. We weren’t like the weirdo kid – we were the invisible kid, using the analogy of what high school kids were like. People didn’t pay any attention, which is good because we didn’t deserve attention yet.

But then it felt like, what do we have to do to get attention? You don’t know that you suck when you suck. And then we eventually kept at it because it felt good to write songs together. We believed in each other. And then every so often we’d write a new song and it would feel like such a breakthrough.

Question: What bands were you listening to back then? Were you influenced by Seattle’s grungey heavy-hitters?

Sean Nelson: Everybody in our band loved Nirvana, kind of above all others. It’s rare for there to be bands that just sort of change everything and they changed everything. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we would never have been a band had it not been for Nirvana. Jeff never would have bought a guitar; Aaron probably would not have bought a bass. I would not have moved to Seattle. I didn’t move to Seattle because of Nirvana, but there was a sense that Seattle was the epicenter of the entire important world and that had a lot to do with Nirvana. Our first show was the week after Kurt Cobain killed himself. It was April 21, 1994 – our first show.

We all lived in the same house so everybody heard what everybody else was doing. We all agreed on the standards. The Beatles- we all listened to The Beatles incessantly and then we would follow each other through phases of Bob Dylan and The Stones and stuff like that. But then Pavement and Sebadoh were really essential. Superchunk, The Grifters, Archers of Loaf. Polvo, maybe one notch down, but still really essential.

And then we would splinter off. Jeff got into Radiohead before anybody else. He was fully into them by The Bends. We all didn’t get on board until OK Computer. Evan was particularly into Red Red Meat. Aaron was into more cleaner pop stuff and I was into Neutral Milk Hotel. Their record was a really powerful experience for me. More than the specific stuff we were listening to was the sense that we were all listening to the same stuff. There was a central radio in the middle of the house that everybody was kind of tuned into.

Other than Nirvana, none of us were super into any of the big Seattle bands. We liked them okay. We liked Soundgarden quite a bit. But we didn’t like Pearl Jam and we didn’t like Alice in Chains. It wasn’t just because things were from Seattle. Stuff like The Young Fresh Fellows and later The Minus 5 and The Fastbacks – those things were all really important. We were super into The Presidents before they blew up. They would play at the College Inn Pub and it was thrilling.

Amelia: Presidents of the United States of America.

Sean Nelson: Yes. And then they got so big and it was kind of stunning because we all thought, they’re great, but who would have thought that those weird songs and that party style would be so compelling to so many people? But then it was like, of course it is. You cannot get those songs out of your head. And they are way smarter than they seem like they would be. It’s also true that suddenly it wasn’t as fun to be into them anymore, because it wasn’t just going to see them at Moe with it the most crowded it had ever been. You’d have to go to a stadium to see them and then it was not as fun.

Of course what happened with us happened, I’d say, on a moderately smaller scale, we never got as big as The Presidents did, nor were we big locally before the way they were. But at the same time, we did go from obscure local band to suddenly local band that seems like they’re on the verge of being big to national band that’s everywhere. I think between the second two… being on the verge of big and then being big – that was the most exciting time ever. It really seemed like there was no end of possibilities and therefore no regrets. (laughs.)

We played two shows on Valentine’s Day that year and they were both sold out and they were at different clubs and the big thing that changed was that after we went national and the song was a proper hit, we didn’t recognize any colleagues or peers in the audience, at all. We didn’t know who we were playing to. You were encouraged to not think of the audience as people but just think of them as customers. I just can’t do it. Performing is really great. It’s an important interaction and the performer is only half of the interaction, so if you’re thinking of the people in the crowd as marks, then you’re never going to be great. More importantly, the people in the crowd were young – way younger than us in a lot of cases and you suddenly understood how starved American teenagers are for anything that is cultural. Anything that is meaningful. They will do anything to be entertained. I don’t know why I didn’t know it before.

It sounds cynical to say it, not about the kids, but America. Better people than me have said it, but they exist on a diet that’s counterfeit – with no nutrition in it. I found myself getting emotionally and intellectually paralyzed by understanding that we were now part of that process. Trying to think of ways to be more interesting or to subvert that process while absolutely being in the middle of it was madness. It’s completely ridiculous because I really don’t think you can. Maybe you can – we couldn’t. It wasn’t our job. We had made one record and we were all kind of tired of it before it went national. Then when it went national we had to play it every fucking night. Sometimes we had to play “Flagpole Sitta” three or four times a day. Get up at seven and go to the radio station and play it, and there was always another person that wanted to hear you doing that song. On the scale of things you can complain about in the world, pretty small. Granted I completely understand it. I understood it then, but it was also the center of my universe and my universe was tiny.

Instead of it being what I thought it would be to be a famous rock and roll singer… I thought it would be like the universe expands and the world is infinite and everything is there to be discovered and everything you do is interesting. Suddenly you’re more attractive and you have personal worth and merit. Not so, as it turns out. Really, the opposite. You become penned in and you become predefined and if you don’t like how you’re defined it doesn’t even really matter. You don’t get to choose who you are anymore. And the whole thing about being in a band is choosing who you are. Defining yourself by what you do. So that was a bummer. That whole period was a bummer even though we got to do all this cool shit that we had always wondered what it would be like to be able to do.

I don’t mean like riding around in limousines, but being on tour for a long time and playing on television and being part of the conversation, I guess. Everywhere you went people knew that song, at least, but you had that sense that maybe they would know more and it would become part of a larger conversation. And it didn’t, which at that time was a relief. By the time our second record came along we really found ourselves wondering what had even happened. But I’m glad to say that I can listen back to both of those records now and even though there’s stuff I like and stuff I don’t like I believe that we meant all of it. It was absolutely sincere, even when it was a little cuckoo. We meant it and that counts for a lot for me. 

Question: Where’s the most unexpected place one of your songs landed?

Sean Nelson: We got ahold of a bootleg of the song – this was back when CDs were still the only way. There were MP3s but this was not widespread. There was a CD that came out of Florida – it was just a cover of the song. There wasn’t a CD single of “Flagpole Sitta”. It was just a cover of it by some bootleg group that sold CDs off of a cart on a streetcorner. The group was called Hairy Canary. And it was a really bad cover of it.

Amelia: Do you still have it?

Sean Nelson: Yes I do, as a matter of fact. I bought it.

That song went everywhere. It was played during the seventh inning stretch of the World Series, it was in the bumper music on Friends. And weirdly, it still is everywhere. I was at a pizza parlor in northern California off the highway – either the 1 or the 101. I went in and there was a jukebox with about twenty songs on it on vinyl and one of the songs was “Flagpole Sitta” with the B side of “Private Helicopter”. I never in a million years would have expected to see that. It made me really happy in that moment. There are times when having that song be what it was is interestingly advantageous. My favorite thing ever was– did you see that lip dub video that was made?

Amelia: Yes, I did. I love that video.

Sean Nelson: It was an office full of really attractive nerds kind of singing and dancing to the song. That’s my favorite thing that ever happened.

Amelia: They put a lot of time into it.

Sean Nelson: They really did. It’s really good – it’s so much better than the video we made, which is a whole other story. And then it’s also the theme song to a really funny British sitcom that’s now going into its sixth season called Peep Show. I’m very proud of that association, because it was in a lot of terrible films. But now it’s on this really good show in England.

Question: Most surreal show you played?

Sean Nelson: Well, we did play on a cruise ship with the Barenaked Ladies on the Gulf of Mexico. We played on a barge – another boat show – we played on a barge on a pond outside of a shopping mall in Boston. The pond was a little estuary of the Charles River and they drove us in to that barge on a police boat. A huge Miami Vice speedboat, down the Charles and into this little harbor and then we climbed onto this boat and played a show for a bunch of people who had won a contest who were on the bank of the pond. That was surreal because like so many things that are affiliated with radio stations or contests, it is such a bad idea and there’s no dignity anywhere near it.

We played some very weird messed up situations. But we also played at RFK stadium in front of 85,000 people as part of a radio festival. We played all these huge shows that weren’t just for us, but we played them. We were there – it was official. All of the shows in 1998 can be fairly described as surreal.

Buffalo was strangely good to us. Atlanta was amazing always. We had great shows in lots of places. Chicago – the last tour we did in 2006, I sang myself out on the first night. There was a really bad PA at this college we played and I was really screwed. We were going to have to cancel the show. I rested up and I took these steroids that the doctor prescribed for me and just didn’t speak for the whole day. I was like, guys, we have to cancel the show, and they were like, okay, we’ll take care of it. Just come back here around show time and we’ll see. When I got there it was completely sold out – they hadn’t cancelled it – and basically I was going to have to get up onstage and have no voice.

And I got up onstage and I was petrified. Chicago had been one of the places that liked us the most, weirdly enough. So I got up onstage and said, “Listen, I don’t have much voice, so I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to sing. Bear with me and let’s see what happens.” And they gave back what I can only describe as a sort of wall of love and support that I had never experienced in my life up to then. Plenty of applause and people have liked stuff I’ve done and I’ve felt really good about that. I’d be lying if I said that isn’t part of what I like about being a performer. But this was a different thing – it was like this room full of people saying we care about what you do but we also care about you and we’re in it with you – lean back into us. That’s what you dream of having when you’re in a band. Maybe not everybody does. Maybe other people dream about being rich or getting their dick sucked or whatever. But for me, it really is way more about that exact thing – we’re in it with you.

I sang and my voice was there. It wasn’t a hundred per cent but it was there. And every song ended with this incredible gratitude and a reiteration of the support and the feeling of love. I was incredibly humbled by it. I still can remember what it felt like. That was coming out of three years where the band had broken up and I wondered what it all had been for and I wondered if any of what we did mattered to anyone. That night was a real big part of the understanding that yeah, there were some people who cared about what we did. It doesn’t have to be millions of people. It can be two hundred people in one room. It could be twenty people in one room. That was about as good as it can be. There’s tons of little ironies about it too, to go through the experience of all this overexposure so that you can wind up in this small club feeling like people appreciate your music. That night meant so much more than all the shiny accolades.

Question: What changed? You’ve broken up before. Do you feel a sense of finality that didn’t exist when you first broke up?

Sean Nelson: When we broke up in 2001, it was more like I just quit. I sensed things that were broken and I didn’t think it was possible to fix them.  It felt like what was wrong was that we just hated each other and resented each other. It was absolutely no fun whatsoever. So I was like, we don’t have to do it. And so we didn’t. I was really determined that that was going to be it. But then over the years that followed I played music quite a bit and I was in this band, The Long Winters, and that was a really important learning experience for me. I gained a lot from being in that band and I gave a lot to it, but it was someone else’s band.

I hated the feeling that Harvey Danger had been unfinished – that it just kind of fizzled after all we went through to build it. It just kind of fell apart with no sense of occasion, even. And so gradually we started talking and started playing together very unofficially and as soon as we got serious about it, it all just fell into place right away. The idea of playing a show – okay, we’ll play a show. Well, what if we made a record? Alright, let’s make a record. How are we going to put it out? Well, let’s put it out ourselves for free. How are we going to promote it? Let’s do a little tour that we can actually enjoy. Every step of the way, we were self-determined. And every step of the way, people really responded to it on a much more reasonable human scale than they had the first time.

That took us from April 2004 to New Years Eve 2006. Then from New Years Day 2007 to now we have barely written a new song; we’ve played just a couple shows. I think everything we needed to prove to ourselves was proved and we’ve been coasting a bit. I have a really strong desire to keep making music and I want to try and learn how to do it another way than this. Doing it this way has been great but it also has severe limitations. The limitations are also the strengths. Jeff and Aaron and I, although we are friends and we care about each other, we don’t even really like the same kind of music anymore. We’re certainly not tuned into that frequency anymore. We don’t relate in that way.

I didn’t want it to be like, fuck you guys, I’m outta here, because I don’t have any animosity for them. I have nothing but respect for them and I’m proud of what we did. But I had this intense reckoning recently and I realized we were not in the present tense anymore… that we haven’t been for a couple of years, as a project. All we do is play old songs when we have shows. Nobody has an interest in playing anything new and I just don’t want to do that.

What’s different is I feel we sort of dotted our i’s and now I feel that keeping on playing with the absence of new material does harm to the integrity of what we’ve done before. I don’t want to be an oldies band. None of us does, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years. It’s only been five or six shows all told, but that’s plenty to know.

If the offer arose to go and play internationally a little bit, we would do that. Other than that, this really is for real it. It’s just time. It’s been 15 years. That’s a long time for a band. I really do feel that letting go of it is an important part of doing it.

Question: Do you have post-Harvey Danger plans yet? I saw you with “Awesome” for indie rock’s funeral, which was wonderful, and would love to know more fun collaborations like that may be in the works.

Sean Nelson: The only plans I have are I’ve been acting in films and I’m going to do some more of that. I made a movie with Lynn Shelton a couple of years ago called My Effortless Brilliance and we’re making a couple more. There’s a thing for MTV called $5 Cover and I have a role in that and we’re collaborating on a film later this year with me and her and Sherman Alexie. I was in another movie that we shot in April called The Freebie with Dax Shepard. I would like to do more of that. It’s really fun.

And then I have a solo record that I think is coming out on Misra Records either by the end of this year or early next. And I love doing stuff with “Awesome”.

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