Seventeen years ago, a young band from Seattle released Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, a definitive indie power pop punk record at a time and place where grunge reigned supreme. The album housed "Flagpole Sitta," a power chord-heavy anthem that would become a marker of the late '90s, with regular spins on Dawson's Creek and a place in a pivotal scene in American Pie. Harvey Danger was more than this song, and still is, and they want you to know it.
No Sleep Records will reissue the classic album on July 29, pressing it on vinyl for the first time ever. We sat down with frontman Sean Nelson to talk about the band's earliest days, their first record, "Flagpole Sitta," and the endless battle against the "one-hit wonder" title.
What made you decide to reissue Merrymakers now? Why not wait until the 20-year mark?
The answer is simply that we would have never reissued it at all. The guys from No Sleep [Records] really wanted to. They got in touch about a year ago and asked if we'd be up for letting them put it out on vinyl. People ask about things like this from time to time and my policy is to say yes, figuring that it won't happen anyway. It's just such a huge bureaucracy to deal with because we don't own the record anymore—it's owned by Universal. In not too much time they did it. The cool thing is that were going to get copies of our first record on vinyl which we've never had. That's as good a reason as any.
Why was it never pressed in the first place?
When it first came out in 1997, almost no one was doing vinyl pressings. It just wasn't done. Even in a super indie rock world, which is basically where we were, it was an unnecessary expense. Vinyl had not resurged yet. People still made 7-inches, but it was rare. There was a 7-inch pressing of "Flagpole Sitta" but it was extremely limited.
Did you have any idea how successful "Flagpole Sitta" would become?
Not at all. When we originally wrote it there were one hundred or two hundred people in the world who had ever even encountered our band. We had what I would call "modified ambition." We had dreams of reaching an audience, but our dreams had more to do with headlining a weekend show at a club in Seattle. That was all we wanted. All the stuff that happened with that song being popular … in way it was great; in a way it was incredibly limiting. Reissuing the record is, in a way, reclaiming the band's history, which for most people I know begins and ends with track two, side one. I can say now, in the 15 years since it happened, I'm okay with it because it opened up a lot of interesting doors in my life afterward. At the time I was super bummed because it was just so obvious that that was the track we were on. It would have taken a super human being and a lot of luck to break out of that mold, even though I knew perfectly well that we were a much weirder, cult art rock band. We obviously weren't a hit machine and we weren't pop stars. There were just lots of things that didn't fit us about that experience, but we had the experience nonetheless.
“Fate sometimes feels like it's conspiring for you and sometimes it feels like it's conspiring against you. The only kind of logical conclusion to draw is that fate doesn't exist.”
How did you deal with the one-hit wonder label?
We were really panicked about it. It's funny, because when you start off, you and all your friends’ bands are roughly at the same level. At that time it was such a mammoth undertaking to even make a record. We did; we got really rave reviews, it came out on a small pressing of about a thousand copies on a very small label. It felt like we were really doing the steps. Then the one song broke out, really organically. Fate sometimes feels like it's conspiring for you and sometimes it feels like it's conspiring against you. The only kind of logical conclusion to draw is that fate doesn't exist. Things happen and you have to respond to it. We didn't handle it gracefully. It's like you're on a boat and you think it might be sinking so you set it on fire.
That's very punk rock of you.
The part of punk rock that interests me is that willful negation of the commercial impulse. We did go along with a lot of things but we did say no to a lot of things. The Flaming Lips can make worldwide success seem incredibly interesting, but we weren't geniuses. We were just a good band. I think we wrote good songs and we loved doing it. There is a germ of punk in how we handled things.
There's something in punk rock history that some call fear of ambition and some call a will to make mischief. When we were starting out—all of us—we were very much in love with Nirvana. We were at that right age to be captivated by that music. I felt that I really understood that band and their torment. I think that's also what destroyed Kurt Cobain. I can't say it's good, but there was a certain amount of that self-consciousness and self-destructive impulse built into who were were. That time in music, everything started changing. Britney Spears' first video hit a couple months before or after "Flagpole Sitta." It started to be the age of Backstreet Boys on one side and Creed on the other, so the commercial world was s***tier than it had ever been.
And you were thrown into that world. Sounds exhausting.
It felt like dating someone and they say "I love you" during the first date. The thing I'm saddest about is we didn't stop and close ranks and say, "No, no, this is who we are and we are not comprising." I was the worst—I withdraw from people and I suffer from pretty terrible depression.
Being embraced by the world at large didn't feel that good because it wasn't for the right reasons. It really did feel like, "I shaved my legs for this?" They just wanted "Flagpole Sitta" or they didn't want anything. We never got dropped. None of those iconic failure markings ever happened to us. We just walked away because it didn't feel good anymore.
But Harvey Danger will always have a certain legacy.
"Flagpole Sitta" will never stop getting played. It's one of those songs that is always on somewhere. We stopped having it in crappy teenager movies—some of those were fine, but a lot were trashy. It got to be the theme song of Peep Show which obviously doesn't have the same kind of reach as American Pie, but it is so much cooler. It's genuinely a great comedy. That was a real turning point because it's not just filler in the montage of a movie. It's the theme song of a show that was way more like what our band is like and what that song is for. It led to a happy ending—not the happy ending where everybody buys a mansion but the happy ending where everyone didn't f--king want to kill themselves.
“Being a freak is misery.”
It wasn't the best time in any of our lives. Listening back on this record, for the first time in a long time, it reminded me that when we made it, there was nothing like that going on. We were very much a self-contained system. We had so much enthusiasm and excitement and joy for making songs and making our band because it was just ours. It was our weird little art project. We had all dedicated our lives to it. We lived in that house that's on the cover of the record. None of us have the strongest work ethic, I must say. It wasn't the greatest time in my life, but Harvey Danger was the greatest thing in my life. It's nice to have that commemorated, even just for us.
What was the music climate in Seattle like at the time? I mean, you had Nirvana, you had Sunny Day Real Estate…
There were never any bands that sounded like us in Seattle. We only sounded like us because we didn't know any other way to sound. As years have gone by, the things that made us so idiosyncratic are the things I feel happiest about. To me, that's what growing up is about if you're lucky. When you're a teenager, and you're awkward looking or gangly or fat or have braces or whatever, and you think, "God, why can't I just be like the popular jock?" Then your mom said, "Don't worry, you don't want to be like them. You're going to be happy that you're not like everybody else one day." Being a freak is misery. Then you realize, "I have grown up to be an interesting person." F--k everybody else. Not saying I want to be exactly like I am, but you do start to appreciate the things about yourself that make you feel weird or bad.
We were not cool in any tradition of the word. We were weirdos. Coolness is an abstract concept. There's no objective cool. Harvey Danger, in a small way, in an aesthetic way, was really influential to certain corners of the music world. It really matters when someone invests themselves in the work you make.