By Dan Weiss
Single Again is where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories, what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke to Sean Nelson, lead singer and songwriter of Harvey Danger about their anti-zeitgeist, post-grunge hit “Flagpole Sitta.” It’s off the album Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, which was reissued on vinyl this Spring for the first time ever.
Was “Flagpole Sitta” a blessing or a curse?
There’s nothing about it that’s a curse, and lots of things about it that were a blessing, so I try not to be too superstitious in life. I think about it like, if I had an opportunity to give my CD to a DJ again, like I did in 1998, would I do it? And I would. Of course it’s a bummer that none of the other stuff we did was as much of interest to the rest of the world but that’s hardly anyone’s fault.
How would you describe it to someone who was born after it?
Interestingly, they seem to all know the song anyway. The way I used to describe it was the Turtles meet Superchunk. But those references would mean nothing to anyone born after 1998 I’m sure. It’s like…OKCupid meets Friendster. I don’t know. I have no idea how to relate that.
Were you trying to write something self-consciously about the zeitgeist?
Well, the lyrics are very consciously anti-zeitgeist. It’s very much a criticism of a certain kind of vacuousness in the culture, but all sort of framed as…rather than sound like a criticism, I was trying to sound like I was actually embodying those things. All those little throwaway lines that are sort of like bumper stickers are actually impersonations. And musically, it had nothing to do with the times. We didn’t sound like any other bands at the time. And when it was a big hit on the radio, one of the striking things about it is that it didn’t sound like any of the other bands on the radio at the time. We weren’t from that world at all. But we didn’t sound like any of the bands in the underground either. In a sense, it was standing way apart from the culture but it was lobbing little grenades at it.
What was the straw that broke the camel’s back that made you want to write a song critiquing the culture?
There wasn’t like an exciting moment…it was just that feeling of looking around and feeling overwhelmed by how inane things seemed to be. It wasn’t like I wanted to stand on a mountaintop demanding people speak from their hearts or whatever. It was way more satisfying to stand up on a pile of garbage and say “this is stupid.”
When did you first realize the song was about to get a disproportionate amount of attention from the rest of the album?
It was clear to me the song had something special about it before it was released. We first recorded it with John Goodmanson in 1996 and I had the cassette tape and I had a really terrible car at the time, it was a 1982 Century. Sealant had rotted away off the windows a little bit, the windows weren’t fully sealed off. And it was Seattle so it would rain a lot, and water would get into the car once in a while and there would be mold and lichens on the dashboard. I was sitting in that car listening to it on the stereo — actually only one channel worked, the right channel was fried. So I was listening to it coming through the left channel only, and I was like, this sounds really, really good. I wonder, like, in some alternate universe, if this song could be as big as ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ by R.E.M., you know, it feels like it’s in that vein. And I would say that’s probably about how big it did get.
What line do the most people come up to you and mention?
Well, it used to be the line about piercing their tongue. People would come up to me and say, “I got my tongue pierced because of that song.” I mean a lot of people, in the hundreds —possibly in the thousands — said that to me. But since then it’s “only stupid people are breeding.” Which is funny because there was a bumper sticker that said “stupid people shouldn’t breed” and I just borrowed it from that.
Since you wrote the song as a parody of that culture, did it scare you to see people taking cues from it, like getting their tongue pierced?
Well, the youth weren’t burning their draft cards or anything like that. What was really interesting was that you look around and write a song about how everything is trash, in a trash culture, and then you become embraced as trash. The song became exactly the sort of disposable fodder that it was railing against. You almost have no choice in the matter once it’s happened; you can’t chain yourself to a radiator and say, “No! You must interpret the song as I meant it to be interpreted!” I’d say a huge portion of the audience missed the joke, but that’s true of every good joke in mass culture. I’m not even trying to big-up the song, you just can’t expect a bunch of people who don’t know any better to suddenly know better. In a way, the best joke of all was that all these people liked it while also embodying the very things the song was making fun of.
But I will say that at the time that was not satisfying at all and I felt lost in that world. There were times when we’d go and play on television or radio and they’d just want us to play that song. It wasn’t that people didn’t respond to our other music, it was just that everybody didn’t respond to it. It was a total anomaly, it wasn’t like we used that song to build a career on. It was like “Flagpole Sitta” was playing in a full sports arena and the rest of our music was playing in a mid-sized club.
At the time I was 23 or so, and I was way more concerned with what people weren’t responding to, than I was psyched about them liking that one song. I knew enough about pop music to know the trajectory we were on…we weren’t gonna have another single like that. I was pretty panicky because we went from having no success ever to having this massive success in a very narrow corridor. And everybody we were working with in the biz were working towards that. Playing radio festivals was the worst thing ever.
When you reach that point of going from zero to 100, did you try to sabotage the path you were on?
There was a lot of self-sabotage. We were very self-conscious about selling out, which was something that bands still fought about. But we tried to have a sense of decorum about who we were. When it came to having songs on film soundtracks and what we would and wouldn’t do, I think we were a little prissy about it. And I definitely led that charge. That song was definitely in a lot of really bad films, but it would’ve been in a lot more if we didn’t put our foot down a few times. But there are definitely things I wish I did differently. Not necessarily saying no to certain things, but there are a couple of those.
What were some of the things that you said no to?
Ummm…you know, it’s a little silly, but I prefer not to say. I don’t want to try and tarnish anyone. I can say with total clarity though, that the biggest regret I have in that department, was when we played on David Letterman—which I have to say was one of the greatest thrills of my life—Paul Schaffer asked if we wanted his orchestra to accompany us on the song. Which I guess is something that they don’t do with every act. And we said no, because frankly, we had gotten a bad review in Rolling Stone that had said we weren’t a “real band” or weren’t rock and roll. And we thought we would seem more authentically a garage band or something.
Many is the night I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking, man how great would that song have sounded with that band playing with us. We did the performance and it was okay, it was fine—we were never a great live band. But it’s more just the psychological framework of that decision that troubles me. The idea that we couldn’t do whatever we wanted. I think the only way we could assert control over our environment was to refuse to do things sometimes.