Welcome to the first installment of “Tracking Down,” a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute. We’re kicking off this series with Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson, whose classic single “Flagpole Sitta” turns 20 years old tomorrow. Enjoy!
It’s been a while since the mainstream has heard from Sean Nelson, despite the enduring ubiquity of “Flagpole Sitta,” the song that made his band Harvey Danger briefly famous during a time when many bands became briefly famous. The song first appeared on the band’s debut LP Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? (released 7/29/97) but blew up the following summer. Even though the oddly titled, memorably quotable (“I want to pierce my tongue / It doesn’t hurt, it feels fine”) anti-anthem has been heard everywhere from Peep Show to the first viral “lip dub” video, Nelson’s mostly well-known in the indie-rock world as a touring mate for the Long Winters, Robyn Hitchcock, and others, in addition to having co-founded the label Barsuk, which launched Death Cab For Cutie and more.
But he’s also the rare musician who’s held an extensive career on the other side of the review, as the arts editor for The Stranger, a paper he’s worked at, on and off, since 1996, author of the 33 1/3 book about Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark, and a sometime speaker at the annual EMP Pop Conference. He’s done plenty of acting as well. Nelson spoke to Stereogum about his hit song, as well as the weirdness of fleeting fame that followed, and most importantly, what came after — as both a writer and a rocker.
STEREOGUM: Are you prepared for 20 years of “Flagpole Sitta”?
NELSON: It’s funny because the culture has sort of revved up into more of an, uh, anniversary-conscious mode over the past 20 years, and so with kind of each five-year increment I’ve been increasingly aware of how people use that as an occasion to care about something. So I’ve sort of seen this one coming for a while.
STEREOGUM: And being in arts journalism yourself, I’m sure it’s weird being on both sides of it.
NELSON: Yeah. It is weird, but it’s always felt very separate because show business and journalism have never had less to do with each other than they do now. You know, when they had more business ramifications; if something got written about, it would affect its box office potential, and I don’t think that’s true now, not in the same way.
STEREOGUM: With this song in particular it’s interesting, because the song sums up its own era in all these ways, so it’s like an “anniversary of” something else that’s kind of like a time capsule.
NELSON: It almost makes a person want to, like, add a new verse about the 20th anniversary of itself.
STEREOGUM: Is that a hint?
NELSON: No, no, I won’t be doing that. But I mean it was very intentional that “Flagpole Sitta” was about the times, but it’s just interesting that I wouldn’t say those times have necessarily changed for the better. I wouldn’t say that culture has become less vacuous, or that people have become, you know, less self-important and self-involved.
STEREOGUM: It’s so weird to even think of how “Flagpole Sitta” fits into the social media era. It would require a lot more than one new verse to take that apart.
NELSON: It’s true that it was ahead of that particular curve, though there were songs that were about the “all is vanity”-ness of life in the modern age. “Range Life” [by Pavement] was sort of that, although it was a little less literalistic than ours was. There’s mischief in the way [Stephen Malkmus] shouted out those band names, but he could also just say those band names and some people would be like, “Oh my God! I love Smashing Pumpkins!” And some people would be like, “Oh my God, that’s such a perfect slam of Smashing Pumpkins, who I hate.” He always had the greatest kind of ability to hang back and let you decide what he meant.
STEREOGUM: Looking back, there were a lot of hits from that era that tried to capture or critique the zeitgeist a little bit. For instance, Smash Mouth’s “Walking On The Sun” and New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” also had this State Of The Union feel in commenting on culture.
NELSON: I hadn’t thought of the Smash Mouth thing [Laughs.] For obvious reasons. But yeah, that New Radicals song definitely seemed like it was in that same mode. The thing that makes me most comfortable about the fact that “Flagpole Sitta” has stuck around is that it is really conscious of the fact it is a piece of garbage in the same way that everything in pop culture is a piece of garbage. I don’t mean to say our song that we wrote in our practice space in 1996 is a piece of garbage, because we loved it. We took what we did pretty seriously, maybe more seriously than we deserved to, but, like, once a thing is on the radio and on MTV, it’s a piece of garbage, because that’s how it is consumed. I mean, the last time I remember seeing Smash Mouth, their faces were on a box of candy called Sourz, like the word “sour” but with a “z.” And instead of the candies, it was just the faces of the people from Smash Mouth. It’s almost too perfect. Though it’s not like Harvey Danger is Mr. Credibility.
STEREOGUM: I think that the way people treat “garbage” now is… very loving. What you said about how people are very “anniversary-ready” at this point –
NELSON: Another thing I’ve seen up close over the last 20 years is that the old biases are just not being tapped anymore. Obviously, being on a major label versus an indie label is not a meaningful distinction anymore. But in 1998 it still seemed to a lot of people that it was. I was one of those people. I used to walk around with a real… I wouldn’t say shame, but I was always ready for somebody to recognize me from Harvey Danger and say, “I hate that fucking song. I hate that fucking band.” And that did happen once or twice in my life, but what started happening around, I don’t know, 10, 12, 15 years ago, is that people started saying, “Oh my God, Harvey Danger. I love that fucking song.” I can’t believe it. I’m not going to talk shit about my own work, but the way it was exposed to the world was insanely aggressive and it was such an out-of-nowhere big hit that it was overexposed, and that leads people to dislike things.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember what the impetus was to come up with the song?
NELSON: The thing I really remember is, the one thing I didn’t have was the chorus. The chorus for most of the first year we had the song that we were playing it was just the backing vocal bits, which I always thought of as very much in line with the Turtles or something. But we had recorded the song and I thought, “Well, there needs to be words in the chorus. It can’t just be this.” So I went desperately flailing through my notebook and I found that line: “I’m not sick but I’m not well,” which was from another song, and then I basically just sang it and made up the other words on the mic. And I’m glad that I did, though I wish I had had the fucking sense to change the name of the song. “I’m Not Sick But I’m Not Well” is what everybody calls it. And if I had done that instead of thinking it was somehow less artistic, less honest, or whatever, to change the name of the song after we had already played it in front of the 87 people we were playing to in those days, we’d be having this conversation on my yacht.
STEREOGUM: Was the title something you came up with in five seconds and just left it, or was there a joke to it?
NELSON: There was definitely a joke to it. It was sort of about people wrestling with the idea of wanting to be authentic while both not being authentic and expressing themselves in a way that made authenticity sound idiotic. So I thought, what is a conspicuous example of a trend that once existed and exists no more? And I thought about the fact that people used to stuff themselves inside of telephone booths. And then I thought of how, in the ’20s, people would balance on top of a flagpole. There’s something Groucho Marx says in the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers where he makes reference to being a flagpole sitter. And then having the “sitta” S-I-T-T-A was just because the song only existed for us, in our room, we thought it was funny to spell things that way because you know two of our favorite records were always, Slanted And Enchanted which had “Fame Throwa” on it.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about “Fame Throwa.” I was just going to ask.
NELSON: And Straight Outta Compton was one of the other really important records to all of us so it was like, that’s how you write it down on the chalkboard in your practice space and then it just sort of stays that way because why wouldn’t it? Our greatest aspiration was to play a weekend show at the Crocodile Café in Seattle, and then we found ourselves you know on television and stuff.
STEREOGUM: Did the label get quizzical about the title, or they just left you guys be with that?
NELSON: Well, it started being a hit before we were even signed to a label, and all these labels came after us. So it was like, you know, no one wants to change the one thing that’s working. But on all their marketing materials and stuff like that, they always made sure to print the words of the chorus on everything they could. Because it’s not simply that it is an uncommercial title for a song, it’s like the opposite of commercial, it’s anti-commercial. It would be hard to pick a name for a song that had less to do with what the song was.
STEREOGUM: Did the song’s success, like, distort your guys’ perceptions of what the followups and what the rest of your major label career would be like, or were you kind of ready for the fallout there?
NELSON: I would characterize our response to it as being, uh, really, uh, bifurcated. We all felt intensely embarrassed by the amount of attention we got, but it was because we got all this attention so obviously about this one song, like, none of us were ignorant of the ways of popular culture and it was impossible not to know what the trajectory is for bands that have a single hit song. We sort of dreamed ourselves into this situation where, “Well, that’s not going to be our story, because if you look around, there’s always exceptions to all these rules. Like the Flaming Lips.” The real problem was that OK Computer came out right around that time. And we all just went insane for OK Computer, not just because it was a great album, which it was, but because it was like the ultimate one-hit-wonder redemption narrative.
NELSON: So we started believing that what we needed to do was make a great leap forward, artistically, and do something really ambitious. But, of course, zero of the members of our band had any idea how to do that. And our music was just not that kind of music; we were not virtuosos, we were not deconstructionists, we were quite literally a garage band. The record that came out of it, which is called King James Version, is a record of us pulling against and apart from each other and eventually pulling towards each other. It’s a fucking weird record, but it certainly was no OK Computer, though there are a couple of moments where we obviously are reaching for that kind of faux-epic sound. I’ve listened to King James Version a lot and I don’t know what the hell it sounds like.
At that time, we came out of the studio and they were like “Great! Keep working on it, there’s been a merger.” Our company got swallowed by another company, and then basically it was a full year that followed during which no one knew who owned our contract, we weren’t allowed to tour, we weren’t allowed to record, we were owed literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, so like, we went right from the very best case scenario for putting out a record on a major label to the very worst, with no transition time and also no warning.
STEREOGUM: In retrospect, if you guys went on tour and did something to violate the contract, at least you would have found out who owned it because they would be suing you.
NELSON: Yeah, that’s true. We got offered a tour opening for the Pretenders during that time, and I really love the Pretenders. And, even more than that, I really loved the idea that someone, somewhere, thought of us as not a band that should be on tour with Lit. [Laughs.] I did make some friends and I did see some bands that were better than I thought and learned valuable lessons from playing shows with, but for the most part the music I saw and experienced in that time just affirmed all my biases about that whole culture that I always just never really liked or identified with.
STEREOGUM: Which of those bands surprised you and made you rethink your preconceived notions?
NELSON: There were two that I can think of off the bat; obviously I became very, very close friends with the guys in Nada Surf years later, but at that time I was like, “Oh, Nada Surf, I don’t want what happened to them to happen to us.” And then years later, when we put out their comeback record Let Go on Barsuk, I thought, “My God, I hope what happened to them happens to us.” [Laughs.] I had been on tour with them a bunch and found that not only were they a truly great rock band, truly great live band, the best people, and also they had the best attitude, but they were just not obsessive about the vicissitudes of the rock ‘n’ roll business, they just liked being in a band and they liked playing and they liked touring and they just kept trying. And I thought that was really beautiful. But the band that surprised me the most was when we did three weeks on tour with Semisonic.
I definitely walked into that tour, as I’m sure they did, like, “Oh boy, here we go.” They had “Closing Time” and we had “Flagpole Sitta” and even though those songs were really stylistically different, they would be back-to-back on MTV and I was really, really uneasy about it. I understood the impetus, and it made sense, but I definitely was very sniffy, like, “Well, we’re not that kind of band.” And what I learned, from the very first show, was that we weren’t that kind of band, because they were incredibly professional, incredibly talented players, their songs were really good, way better than I had given them credit for, because I had just made assumptions based on… the same exact thing that I was desperately afraid people were doing with us. And, of course, they had all been doing it for many years at that point. Dan Wilson had been in Trip Shakespeare, and they were all veterans, and they did not seem to be all fucked up about the fact that they were getting attention but not the exact kind they wanted.
I wound up watching them every single night from beginning to end, and their music has really stayed with me through the years. And obviously Dan Wilson has become one of the major-league pop songwriting doctors in what’s left of the music business. It’s not like they let you do that because you have an influential uncle or something. He only did that because his music means something to people.
Also — this is probably tangential — I know that he had just recently had a child, who I think was born with some big health problem, and it coincided with the time of his first kind of really big success doing music, and it wasn’t as though his response was to be like, “All right. Take care of it. See you later.” It was like, “I have to do this to lay the groundwork, to make the money that will help take care of my child who needs medical attention.” And I remember being struck by how difficult that must have been for him, and how that reflected a kind of life that was so far beyond mine at that point, so they gave me a peek into what it meant to be an adult musician, and to care slightly less about the sort of cool points factor that I already shouldn’t have cared about anymore, because, you know, we lost that lottery.
STEREOGUM: You won other interesting and random lotteries.
NELSON: That was another major lesson: The things you think are important may not be important, or certainly won’t be in the same way in five years, or in 10 years, or indeed, in 20 years.
STEREOGUM: Just because Semisonic is in my head now, I’m thinking, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
NELSON: Yeah, isn’t it the truth. I believe they say that’s a little “on the nose” in the narrative film business.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask about how you began the transition into writing about music, because it was much earlier for you than I would have expected. You’ve been working at The Stranger since 1996?
NELSON: Yeah. Off and on. The Stranger has been the job that I have been able to come back to a bunch of times. Harvey Danger was formed around all of us being at the student paper at University Of Washington, and I met Evan [Sult] who was the drummer and my best friend, because he was the editor of the Arts section, and I started writing about film for him, at 19, maybe 20. The idea of writing critical essays for money instead of working at a movie theater, which is what I was doing, just seemed like an unbelievable dream. It wasn’t just writing about music, though I did end up writing a fair amount about music. But I never have felt comfortable being in charge of writing about music as I’ve gotten older, especially because I find that I don’t like having to weigh in on everything. When you’re 43, about to be 44, and someone says, “What do you think of the new Harry Styles?” my response is, like, “Please don’t make me need to form an opinion about it.”
NELSON: But, um, I did form an opinion about it, and I did my job for the period. [Laughs.]
STEREOGUM: You also did a 33 1/3 book on Court And Spark a little over a decade ago.
NELSON: Oh God, yeah. I don’t actually have a copy of that. Um, here’s what I know. One, I really would love a chance to revise it [laughs], even just copyediting, just one little revision. The other thing I know is that it has consistently, ever since it was published, been in the bottom 10 of the sales of the 33 1/3 series.
STEREOGUM: You’re kidding.
NELSON: No, it’s really… well, I met someone from 33 1/3 the other day, and she said it’s not true, but I remember seeing the lists [at the time]. And I’ve seen my royalty statements, which are hilarious. One consequence of me living the way I have lived is that I get a lot of really hilarious royalty statements where the dollar amount is less than a dollar.
STEREOGUM: For the music, too?
NELSON: The music ones are a little better. Harvey Danger is still not enough to live on, but it’s certainly enough that I don’t have to worry about making rent. It just wouldn’t pay the rent on its own.
STEREOGUM: Since Harvey Danger called it quits, have you continued doing musical projects?
NELSON: I put out a solo record in 2013. My friend Jeff Rosenstock put it out, and technically it did reasonably well, like I have received royalties from it, it’s in profit, um, but, you know, you are writing a piece about me, and you didn’t know it existed. People don’t know it exists, and that does not keep me up at night. But it does strike me that the difference between putting out a record and not putting out a record has gotten so small, that the amount of hassle and anxiety and just like, emotional sturm und drang that goes along with releasing music is almost not … it might not be worth it.
I have another record that’s completely done, that I worked on for 10 years, that I spent many, many thousands of dollars on just because I wanted to get it right. On the solo album, I wrote some songs with Chris Walla, formerly of Death Cab, Peter Buck and I have a collaboration on it, and then some that I wrote by myself, and there’s a lot of good people on it. But I made a record of Harry Nilsson songs that I started tracking in 2006 with a 27-piece orchestra.
STEREOGUM: Oh wow.
NELSON: It’s called Nelson Sings Nilsson, of course. Which was, you know, half the reason I even wanted to do it, because that title just seemed so great. But I’m sitting on it. I’m really proud of it, and there are times when I get like, God, this seems like the kind of record that could be really…not like, huge, but…I know there’s an audience for it. I have zero idea how to reach that audience or even who would know how to reach that audience, and I don’t have $30,000 to basically buy that audience. I play it for people every once in a while and they are taken with it. I don’t have a main music project right now — Aaron Huffman, [Harvey Danger’s] bass player, died last year.
STEREOGUM: That’s very sad, I’m sorry.
NELSON: Yeah, it was really very sad. And really hit all of us hard. I had been doing solo shows, and we would do maybe a couple of Harvey Danger songs, and Aaron had been playing in that band with me, and I have to say that, though I’ve had a lot of great experiences doing music, nothing ever felt quite as perfectly, tuning-fork right as it felt when he was playing bass. And so for the year since he died I have not been feeling especially eager to do stuff. I’ve done a couple things. My other kind-of almost main thing is that I sing harmonies with Robyn Hitchcock a lot. I’m performing with him on a tour with the Psychedelic Furs, which I’m very excited about. But yeah, my energies in that world are pretty scattered.
STEREOGUM: I can see that. But at least it’ll keep the fraction-of-a-cent royalty checks coming in.
NELSON: [Laughs.] Exactly. It’ll keep my dogs in bully sticks.
one last heist for the old crew: breaking into the Ft. Knox of Feelings to steal the world’s largest treble knob pic.twitter.com/zKLmdgiOIB
— Sean Nelson (@seantroversy) October 6, 2015