Where have all the merrymakers gone? Well, in Sean Nelson‘s case, there is life after Harvey Danger.
The singer, songwriter and keyboardist pursued his solo dream full-time after the Seattle alt-rock band played its last show in 2009. After just three albums, Harvey Danger had run its course … but not before it rose to cult status with the infectious Top 40 hit “Flagpole Sitta” (1998).
Now Nelson is making “Make Good Choices,” his full-length debut solo album, released on June 4 via Really Records. Produced by Matt Pence, Steve Fisk and Adam Selzer, the album features contributions from Peter Buck, Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie), Scott Danbom (Centro-Matic, Sarah Jaffe), Kyle O’Quin (Portugal the Man, Kay Kay & His Weathered Underground) and Rachel Blumberg (Decemberists).
From the comfort of his own home, Nelson is ready, willing and able to talk up his big leap.
Pause & Play: Congrats on being the “solo guy.” How does it feel?
Nelson: Thank you, and it feels really nice, though “solo” is a bit inaccurate. The record has collaborations from lots of incredibly talented people, as both writers and players. Not to mention the fantastic band I’ve begun playing with to support the album. It’s more like I’ve assembled this huge collective of people, working in various combinations and I’m the only fixed point. It’s daunting and humbling, but also really gratifying to have so many people willing to commit their energy and work. I tried to think of the perfect band name for a long time, because it’s cooler (you think of Smog or Palace or Cat Power or Telekinesis or Mountain Goats or Neutral Milk Hotel or St. Vincent and of course you want to be part of that tradition) and it just seemed more useful than having another first and last name for people to have to remember, but none of them really felt right. Finally, my wife (and bandmate) Shenandoah Davis convinced me that it was truer to the songs and more in keeping with the whole idea of the project to just call it Sean Nelson.
P&P: Some of these songs have been stewing for nearly 10 years. How did you keep them fresh in your mind?
Nelson: One of the only benefits of being very good at holding grudges is that is that I’m also good at maintaining, or at least reigniting, enthusiasm for unfinished projects. I always felt like these songs were good and that one day it would be time to see if other people thought so, too. And it wasn’t like they were time-stamped with sounds of some fleeting microgenre trend. If I’d had whole bunch of reggaeton jams, I would feel like such a sucker for having sat on it this long… Also, I always had other things going on—it was less a question of keeping the songs fresh than of waiting till I felt confident enough to put something with my name above the title into the world. In a way, the answer is in the question, because these were the solo songs that stuck around long enough to make it onto the hypothetical record that was always in the slow cooker of my mind. Plenty of others got the boot.
P&P: Was it easy to get all your friends on board for this project?
Nelson: Every single person who helped me make this album did so with total commitment and generosity of spirit. (And even though everyone got paid something there was no way I could have possibly afforded to pay them all what they were worth.) Sometimes, in the case of Chris Walla and Peter Buck, it meant allowing me to finish pieces they had begun working on. With Matt Pence and Scott Danbom from Centro-Matic, it was a more straightforward studio/engineer/player arrangement, but the quality and depth of their contributions was a total revelation to me, partly because I had been in the studio many times before those sessions, but never as the sole decision maker. There are lots of ways for that dynamic to go horribly wrong on both sides of the equation, but with those guys it was just like finding a $20 bill every time you put your hand in your pocket.
P&P: What was your manifesto for this, a goal you wanted to achieve?
Nelson: Really, just to make something that felt like a cogent, coherent record, with songs that sounded like me. There’s quite a tradition of first albums by former band singers and a lot of ways to blow it. Lou Reed’s first solo album? Kind of a botch. Paul McCartney’s? Kind of a masterpiece. But knowing all that tends to paralyze more than inspire you. In the end, I knew it didn’t matter what I did because at no point has the world been waiting for the debut solo album of the-guy-who-used-to-be-in-Harvey-Danger-and-later-maybe-also-did-other-things. So then it became what do I want it to be? And that was years right there. The fact that ‘Make Good Choices’ exists is really the only milestone that mattered to me. I hope some people hear it and like it, but—not to sound all therapy—the job of calling it done was really the big project here. Plus, I mean, the songs are all about things that matter to me and feel real and underrepresented in the thematic underbrush of contemporary pop music. I like that they’re verbal and melodic, emotional but analytical, complex but also simple in the way pop songs always are. Also, I like that there’s a Badfinger cover, because I love Badfinger.
P&P: “Flagpole Sitta,” great song, hugely popular … but a double-edged sword?
Nelson: Oh, at least double. A hit is a good thing to have if you’re a band, and it’s amazing to me how durable that song has become. Still (and it’s not something one should ever complain about in public, or maybe even in private), there is a tiny sting that comes from knowing that no matter how many records I make, or shows I play, or films I act in, or (god forbid) books I write, or even conversations I have, it’s basically a certainty that one song I helped make with my first band when I was 23 will be the only thing of mine that most anyone will ever know about. There are worse problems to have, but as my controversial TV show creator friend once told me, suffering is relative. There’s some consolation in getting a nickel every time someone sings it at karaoke, though…
P&P: Shameless plug for Pauseandplay.com, you say you’re a fan of the site (thank you!), what would say about it to those who’ve never visited it?
Nelson: The demise of the record store is one of the saddest things to befall our culture, and all too often music-related websites just seem like Top-40 radio stations. What I like about Pause & Play is that, yes, it’s exhaustive (the kind of person who will happily spend the whole day clicking on the link that says “See what’s coming next!”), but it’s also obviously curated, and allows you to dig as deep as you want—it’s probably the only site I can think of that puts you in an ideal position for going down a Burton Cummings rabbit hole, for example—or just skim if that’s what you need to do.
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc