With the indie upstarts’ ’97 debut finally getting a vinyl reissue, their frontman and chief songwriter reflects on the album and the wondrous one hit it spawned. But where does Harry Nilsson fit in to all this?
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Harvey Danger’s biggest hit, “Flagpole Sitta,” sounds little like the other nine tracks on the Seattle group’s 1997 indie rock debut for the Arena Rock label, Where Have All the Merry Makers Gone. And even though it turned out to be a relatively lucrative hit, frontman Sean Nelson clearly has a complicated relationship with the song. While the bulk of the songs on that record seemed more at home on college radio, the folks who ran the band’s label at the time thought that one slice of frantic power pop, kinda, sorta might work on mainstream radio.
Lo and behold, it did.
In fact, for about a year, 1997-98, you couldn’t turn on your car radio, flip past MTV or even go to the movies without very likely hearing Nelson bark “I’m not sick, but I’m not well!” The song was all over movie trailers and movie soundtracks and quickly soaked into the collective conscious of just about everyone with a set of functioning ears. A pretty impressive feat for a song on an album that was recorded for about $3,000 in a matter of days. But the band was never really equipped to go from playing to a few hundred people to playing in front of 5,000 over the course of just a couple of weeks.
“You know when a kid tells a joke at table full of adults and everybody laughs. And then the kid just constantly repeats that joke again and again to try and get the same reaction… We felt like we sort of were being asked to retell that same joke every night for the next 4-5 years,” Nelson said recently.
Fame was pretty ill-fitting for him and his bandmates—Jef Lin, Aaron Huffman and Evan Sult— from the beginning. They tried to make it work; made a couple of more records (some very good records, I should add); and tried to make peace with their insta-fame, while battling the One Hit Wonder label that was breathing down their collective neck. The band eventually called it a day in 2009 and Nelson went on to contribute music to and tour with a slew of great bands including The Long Winters, Death Cab For Cutie, Nada Surf and Robyn Hitchcock; he wrote a book, hosted a radio show, acted in movies and taught a songwriting class at the University of Washington.
And finally last year, after fits and starts for nearly a decade, he released Make Good Choices, his first solo album. But later this month, 17 years to the date of its initial release, Where Have All the Merry Makers Gone is finally coming out on vinyl, thanks to the indie punk rock label No Sleep. The knotty issues with “Flagpole Sitta” aside, Nelson is glad to see the record finding a new home on vinyl. He even penned the liner notes, and his bandmates worked to update the album cover for this reissue.
Nelson spoke recently about finally seeing the album on vinyl (a request he made with their initial label almost two decades ago), being a little more “I Melt With You” than “Creep” and revisiting Harry Nilsson’s songs in an upcoming album.
BLURT: So Where Have All the Merry Makers Gone is finally being put out on vinyl. How did this come about? Were you guys approached by No Sleep Records about doing this?
SEAN NELSON: Yeah, it was all their idea. We had pretty much given up on having anything to do with our old label. The contract has changed hands so many times due to corporate mergers and shuffling’s that we just have resigned ourselves to thinking that it’s in the past and [the music] reached a lot of people, it found its audience and everything else is just not in our hands. If we didn’t do that, it could still be full time work simply trying to find that one person at the label to deal with. So Chris [Hansen] from the label contacted me; I didn’t know him, but he seemed like a smart guy who was doing stuff for the right reasons – and that was important to us – and I was like, “Yeah, if you want to navigate the labyrinth of corporate America and try and get them to agree to license this, by my guest.” I didn’t think he would succeed, and low and behold he did and once they had it together we were pretty excited about it.
It’s never been on vinyl before?
It hasn’t and vinyl is the ultimate legitimizer nowadays.
I agree – a lot of the music I really liked came about in the ‘90s when most labels stopped making vinyl records.
Yeah, I’m in the same boat and I’m the same age. I think at the time, we might have even said “What about a vinyl pressing?” And the reaction was something like “why don’t you just set a pile of hundred dollar bills on fire?” Now it’s a much more viable format, which is great. As a nerd, I prefer vinyl.
Have you thought about putting King James Version and Little By Little out on vinyl after this one?
Well, Little By Little does exist on vinyl. It was put out in a fairly limited pressing by a local Seattle label called Skrocki Records, but King James Version is in the same kind of corporate miasma as Merry Makers, although a different branch. We actually thought about doing a CD reissue at a certain point for Barsuk (Records), and the initial approach… It was owned by Warner Bros. and the license fee was so large that you would have had to charge $40 per CD to make a profit for the label releasing it. It’s really heartbreaking to throw yourself back into that machine. If somebody wants to do it, it would mean a lot to us and it would be so exciting, even if it was a small pressing, but I feel like we have spent as much time and psychic energy as we are capable of.
Over the band’s brief lifespan, you were shuffled around on a number of different major labels. Is there some part of you that gets a little satisfaction in seeing how major labels are struggling to remain relevant today? Is there some sense schadenfreude in that situation?
Well, um, yeah. The lower emotional register of my consciousness definitely experiences a bit of schadenfreude with that situation. On a practical level, I see the conversation about the long slow decline and demise of the record industry. A lot of people talk about it like it’s such a terrible shame that this mighty industry has been felled by illegal file sharing and my feeling about it is that the labels are to blame for the rise in that technology because they squeezed their audience as hard as they could. Our album came out right as Napster was getting started. So the rise of Napster started right as Merrymakers was at its commercial peak.
I would go into a record store and see that the jewel box, major label version of our CD cost $20, whereas when it was on an independent label it cost $12.99. It’s not a lot of money, but considering that the customer base for major labels were children, the difference between $12.99 and $19.99 was huge. The reason the CDs wound up costing so much money was not because the cost of making them increased, it’s because the labels realized they could charge more and did. The ethics of that decision-making process totally skewed toward profit. I am not that naïve about capitalism; I get that that is how it naturally tends, but the rise of Napster, the rise of file sharing, was a free-market reaction to abuse on the part of label executives. The reason for the cost difference was that there were suddenly so many more middle men involved.
So to get an album in Tower Records, it couldn’t just go from the label to the distributor to the shelves, it had to go to a distributor, to an aggregator, to another distributor, to the store, and everyone takes their nickel. So the kid who wanted to buy that record in 1997, the only way you could get your hands on the song you liked was buying that $20 CD, so naturally it only took a certain amount of time for someone to make it a lot easier for that kid to get what he or she wanted. Yeah, I sort of do bemoan the bygone days when you had to go out and look for music and the file sharing world has affected music culture in a lot of really negative ways, but I can’t sign on to the version of that story that blames the nerds, the kids who set this up… Rather than discounting the CDs and trying to understand the issues facing the music-loving kids, they said “Ok, how are we going to prosecute and fine these children who have downloaded this music?”
It’s easy to make these generalities about the music business, because it was and probably is more so now, a really venal, cutthroat industry, but the reality is that there were a lot of really smart people who know a lot about and care a lot about music who work in that business. I’ve met a lot of them. But the industry as a whole was focused on hysterical profit margins because that’s what corporations do. Corporations are not in the business of selling records, they are in the business of selling millions of records.
In the liner notes to this vinyl re-release, you allude to your biggest hit, “Flagpole Sitta.” So many years after that song exploded, what’s your relationship with that song now? It certainly was responsible for getting a lot of attention for the band.
Yes. If this were a Facebook status, I would have to say “It’s Complicated.” We’ve all been through a very elaborate emotional process with that song because obviously, as I wrote in those liner notes, it’s the entire history and legacy of the band to most people who have ever heard of the band, and there are plenty of people who haven’t heard of the band, but are just familiar with the song. And that is more than most bands ever get and you never want to overlook that; you want to appreciate that, but if you are the band, clearly you have all this other stuff. There are people who know it, care about it, seek it out and have a relationship with it…
“Flagpole Sitta” may have been the thing that introduced them to the band. This has been one of the central preoccupations of my life: the sort of conflict between being grateful that that song found a big audience, to frustration that something that we did when we were young — I was 23 or 22 when we wrote that song, and so far of all the other stuff I’ve done (and at times I’ve kept myself neurotically productive to do other things) — it’s still the thing that when I close my eyes and imagine my tombstone, I can still, just imagine it will have “I’m not sick, but I’m not well” carved into it.
After a certain number of years, you have no choice but to make peace with that. But it’s bittersweet. People really like it still, they love it in fact, and I’m sure a lot of people really hate it too. We don’t hear from those people anymore because it’s now part just part of that mound of pop culture. It didn’t take a whole lot of time before I started having a whole lot of anxiety about it; my thought was, “Wait a minute, is this going to be like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ or ‘Creep’, where it’s one anomalous big hit in a catalogue of interesting music that leads people to a long, rich relationship with the band? Or is it going to be ‘I Ran’ or ‘I Melt With You,’ where it’s the only thing people have ever heard of by the band?”
It turns out “Flagpole Sitta” is way more “I Melt With You” than “She Don’t Use Jelly” or “Creep” and again, until you know how that story plays out, you spend a lot of time worrying about it and trying to engineer the version of the story that you want, which is a long, rich career and this is only the beginning, blah, blah, blah. It turns out we did not have sufficient resources, artistic or emotional, at our disposal to bring that about. So now we’re in the retinue of One Hit Wonder Bands with a cult following. It’s an interesting thing for a band. It’s not like we made just one record and disappeared; we disappeared from pop culture almost as quickly as we arrived in it. The other interesting thing to me is that we never really belonged in pop culture. There was nothing about the band that was likely for us to hit huge rock star status. In a way, we never belonged there and that song doesn’t sound like any of our other songs and none of our other songs jump out as hits like “Flagpole Sitta” does.
There’s also the fact that having hits and appealing to a huge audience for those three minutes, it’s lucrative, but it’s not interesting; it’s titillating, but it’s not enriching. Our interaction with the proper mainstream, I think, was disappointing for us and for the mainstream. We didn’t deliver in the way that bands are supposed to deliver. I’d like to say it was intentional, because we did do some stuff that inverted the expectations of big rock bands, but it was only intentional inasmuch as we were capable of doing anything intentionally. We were only really capable of sounding the way we sounded. It’s not like we could have had a jazz phase and we really believed in what we did and the songs we made, but we had a really weird process; our human interactions were weird and the way we performed was weird and our sense of ambition was weird. We were just a weird band and to some people that weirdness is appealing. To some people it just looks so lame and is just baffling.
Your first solo record, Make Good Choices, came out last year. Are you working on anything else?
The big thing on the near horizon, I made an album of Harry Nilsson songs, called Nelson Sings Nilsson.
I read about that project a few years ago and have been looking for that record ever since.
This is another record that I have been messing around with for years and been losing confidence in. When I started working on it I would tell people I was making a record of Harry Nilsson songs and was going to call it Nelson Sings Nilsson, thinking, “Oh everyone knows Harry Nilsson made a record of Randy Newman songs called Nilsson Sings Newman and they’re going to get that joke.” And for years, nobody I mentioned this to got that joke and most of the people had never heard of Harry Nilsson… and once I explained who Harry Nilsson was they would say “Why are you wasting your time working on this?”
All it took was one of those conversations for me to think, “Oh shit this is a stupid idea and I shouldn’t even bother with it,” even though I loved doing it. There’s a confidence deficient with me. But the record is really good I think. It’s done and being mastered and being put out on a Seattle label, a very small outfit, but they really believe in it and we’re going to do what we can do.