Rock & roll just ain't what it used to be. Despite the simplicity of rock's essential formula (a good backbeat and dose of rebellion) it's impossible to strap on guitars without being corraled into one of the myriad categories imposed on the genre by the "Industry." It's a problem that Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson knows all too well, despite his band's status as newcomers to the field.
"I know that we're a mainstream band," Nelson acknowledges, "and I have to come to terms with that, 'cause all of my favorite bands are indie rock. Artistically, that would be my goal."
At the moment, Harvey Danger are walking a fine line. After five years of playing house parties and club dates in Seattle, last May they released their debut album, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?, on the tiny Arena Rock Recording Company. Local radio station KNDD -- soon to be famous as the setting for this fall's The Real World on MTV -- picked up on "Flagpole Sitta," the album's infectious first single, and other stations soon started spinning the song as well.
A bidding war for the band's services resulted in a new home for Harvey Danger: Slash/London Records, a major label with an indie-jones and a roster that has included iconoclasts X, the Dream Syndicate, Faith No More, and the Violent Femmes. Now "Flagpole Sitta" is a genuine burgeoning hit single. The band will be shooting a video for the song this coming weekend and it's garnering impressive airtime in so-called "tastemaker" markets like New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and L.A.
If "Flagpole Sitta" does become the band's breakthrough song, it won't be without a touch of irony. "I wanna publish 'zines and rage against machines," Nelson sings over the bridge. "I want to pierce my tongue, it doesn't hurt, it feels fine."
But if the lyrics point up that ugly indie-meets-mainstream quandary yet again, the music itself is unerringly direct: straight-ahead, high-energy guitar rock plied with liberal use of a distortion pedal. Perhaps that's because Harvey Danger got their start when the four members (Nelson, bassist Aaron Huffman, guitarist Jeff J. Lin and drummer Evan Sult), all students at the University of Washington, struck upon the idea of playing Mudhoney and Nirvana covers at parties.
"For all intents and purposes, we've never left Seattle," Nelson says on the eve of their first extended tour, a jaunt down the West Coast. "And we've just barely left our basement."
Still, it would be a mistake to call their sound a bastardization of grunge. Merrymakers draws upon the pop sensibilities of bands like Ben Folds Five, the Posies and the Presidents of the United States of America.
For Nelson, the growing hype and comparisons are just part of the adjustment process. Since completing the album, he's started playing keyboards -- and now he has to carry them along on tour. "I'm playing a Crumar Traveler organ, from the Seventies. I don't know why they call it a Traveler, 'cause it's really, really heavy."