(A to Z correspondent Ryan Wasoba interviewed Sean Nelson, who is opening for Robyn Hitchcock this Wednesday night at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. Full disclosure: Wasoba's band played with Sean's band on a few shows back in the day.)
Links to Sean Nelson's MySpace page; and a page of his solo work, that includes MP3 demos to download.
You may know Sean Nelson. You may know him as the charismatic frontman of Seattle mainstays Harvey Danger. You may know him as the former keyboardist/vocalist of The Long Winters. You may know him as the author of the 33 1/3 series book Court and Spark, which analyzes the Joni Mitchell album of the same name.
St. Louisans who perhaps do not know Sean Nelson will soon know him as the opening act for Robyn Hitchcock at Blueberry Hill on November 7, however. I recently spoke with Sean about touring, performing solo, self-sufficient living and the stigma of that damn “Flagpole Sitta” song.
Is this your first solo tour? Yeah, it's just me. Just me playing piano and singing, and I'm not a very good piano player, and I think I'm a pretty good singer, but it's a really different experience to accompany yourself while singing.
Is it kind of scary performing solo after having the comfort of your bandmates? It's terrifying, it really is. I've been basically a professional or semi-professional singer for ten years, and I feel that when I'm singing in a band or when I'm a guest appearance onstage with Death Cab or Nada Surf or the Long Winters or Robyn Hitchcock or whatever, I feel supreme confidence. Probably more confident than I feel about anything else in the world. And then when i get onstage by myself with a piano, I do all I can not to crumble. It's terrifying, it's a completely different experience. And that's exactly why I want to do it. I'm wobbling like a toddler, and I make a lot of mistakes, but I feel like if I make mistakes and it's just me, I can acknowledge them. There's such a great one-on-one encounter with the audience.
Sean Nelson sings "The World Owes Me A Living And I Intend To Collect" earlier this year.
I know you don't tour a whole lot. What inspired you to do this solo tour with Robyn Hitchcock? Um...Robyn asked.
It was that simple? Yes. Harvey Danger can't tour very much because it's very expensive. Our last tour was really fun and it closed the book on a lot of problems that I had throughout the year with being in that band. I came out of that feeling sort of like I was ready to start again and do other stuff, and playing solo is one of those things I've wanted to do. I've tried half-heartedly before, and I definitely feel like I'm just starting out, but this time I feel like my show, my act or whatever, is getting there. So the opportunity to go out with Robyn Hitchcock, who is a good friend and a real songwriting, musical idol of mine…he's a huge influence on me on lots of different levels, so I'm really excited about this chance.
If you don't mind me asking, what were some of the things you felt like you needed closure with on that Harvey Danger tour? Well, the very first thing we ever did, the very first record I was ever involved in making [Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?], was a very huge success. I think that no matter what, that messes with your mind. It sort of destroys the natural proportions of things, and in the past ten years there was so much self-doubt. The problem is that anything you do after that has the potential in your mind, maybe only in your mind, to be just as successful. And then when it isn't, even if you knew all along that it wouldn't be, it makes you feel like you've failed. It's an instinctive thing that I was unable to get over it until we went out on tour and saw that there was an audience of people that knew about our other stuff.
Sean Nelson, "Moral Centralia"
This thing that happened to you -- where you made an album and the single [“Flagpole Sitta”] picked up on radio and exploded -- is this even possible now? I think some version of it is possible, definitely not with radio anymore. It's not like radio was this beacon of independence in 1997-98, there were still corporate morons running the radio back then. That's true now and it was true then, the only difference is that they hadn't actually put robots in the DJ booth. There was this possibility for human error, and we scored with human error! There's no way that song would have been played on the radio if I hadn't handed the CD to a DJ that I sort of vaguely knew, and he liked it and he played it a few times and people started calling in. It was all based on requests. It was sort of how you'd imagine it'd be in the ‘50s or 60s, even though back then the payola was even worse than it is now. It'd be considerably harder today, which is amazing because it was fucking almost impossible for us.
Are you proud of “Flagpole Sitta”? If I died today and there was an obituary about me, it would run in the local paper and it would say that I was the author of that song. I'm okay with it, but I'm definitely don't view it as an accomplishment because I view it as a strange fluke, and the fluke has nothing to do how good the song is. That song, for me, has transcended quality; it's just bizarre and perverse. It belongs to pop culture. What I meant when I wrote the words and melody doesn't matter at all anymore.
Going way back, what made you want to be a musician? I've always been a singer, but it didin't even occur to me that you could be a rock musician for real. I had no frame of reference for how rock music was constructed, and I was also alienated by it because it was so "cool." It was all about coolness, and little did I know that there was this whole underground happening in the ‘80s full of bands who were making it so that music could be about something other than being cool -- or at least about being cool in a way that was actually cool. Then when I moved to Seattle in 1991, everyone was in a band, and if you weren't in a band it was completely plausible that you would have a beer with somebody and they'd be like "Aw, man, we should start a band" and you'd be like "Yeah, totally!" and they'd go "No, seriously, let's go to my practice space right now." It was just like that, and this idea that "anyone could do it" was floating around. Eventually I heard that said enough times that I wasn't sure I completely believed it -- and I definitely don't believe it now -- but it was enough of an inspirational message that I tried it.
How did the Court and Spark book come about? Well it's such a cool series and I knew a couple people who had writen them, and I just really wanted to do one. I wrote the editor and said "Here's who I am, here's what I have written" and I gave him a list of 50 records that I'd be interested in writing about and he wrote back saying "I think Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell is the one." Leonard Cohen's Songs from a Room was my first choice, and I would have loved to do [Pavement’s] Crooked Rain Crooked Rain.
What's the worst part about being Sean Nelson? (laughs) I wish i had a perfect short thing to say. When it's humid, my hair doesn't do what I want it to do, but that seems a little glib. I mean, I've got a lot of problems, man. (laughs). I would say maybe the worst thing about being me is that nobody likes the person that thinks he's the smartest man in the room.
Inversely, what makes you the most proud about being Sean Nelson? I'm happy that i've been able to live a somewhat unconventional life. I don't have to work a job, I support myself with music and writing. I'm not chasing a career, I'm not trying to make a family. I'm not exactly interested in material gain. I don't believe in God, and even though i'm frustrated in my lfie sometimes, these things make me pretty happy to be alive.
You're pretty self-sufficient. Yes, and in a way that's original. Not completely original, but I get to determine what my life is.