Long before local boys Nirvana brought the spotlight to the Pacific Northwest, Seattle had already established itself as a city of sound.
By the time the 1990s and Nevermind rolled around, live music was a mainstay of any mid-week house party and it seemed like everyone was in a band or three. Then University of Washington student Jeff Lin was no exception. Lin was inspired by a small doodle on an office wall, when he and a few fellow UW student newspaper staffers formed their own group around 1994 and christened themselves Harvey Danger.
For years, the band was something they did for fun, playing parties and dive bars around town.
“We worked at it, but not in a careerist way. Like you think your songs are good, but maybe they could be better. Then you think maybe you could record a demo. Then maybe record more songs and release an EP. You set goals, reach them and set more. Then suddenly a radio station picks up a song and you’re popular.”
Their single, Flagpole Sitta (occasionally mistitled “I’m Not Sick But I’m Not Well”), debuted in the top 50 on Billboard Hot 100, six months after its 1998 album release. What initially started off as a hobby turned into a way to make a living, seemingly overnight. Success on this scale surprised everyone, particularly its members. Lin recalls being at a mall in Ottowa and glancing over at the adjacent Sony store. “I saw my face on the wall of screens. It was completely surreal.”
The trip down the rabbit hole lasted 15 years. After three albums, hundreds of shows and one brief hiatus, Harvey Danger disbanded for good in 2009, playing their final set at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Café.
Looking back, Lin’s success in the indie rock scene is nearly as noteworthy as another, more recent Taiwanese American “J. Lin.” Asian American faces are only marginally less rare on the popular music front than they are in professional basketball. Lin acknowledges how seminal his presence was, but is hesitant to accept any credit for racial groundbreaking. “As an artist, you want to be evaluated on the work itself, without any qualifiers. It’s good or it’s not. It makes you feel something or it doesn’t. I don’t use Asian American instruments or make Asian American music—I don’t even know what that is.” But he noted the handful of Asian American kids in the Harvey Danger audience and identified with them, remembering what it was like to be the only non-white person in the crowd. “If they saw me up there, they probably had the sense that ‘Hey, I can be in a band, too. Look at that guy.’ It’s been affirmed a couple of times and that’s been great.”
When asked if he had any advice for up and coming bands, Lin’s answer was immediate: Do it because you love it.
“We’d get the crappiest gigs on a Sunday night and we were excited just to play. We met so many people who almost got the brass ring but didn’t, and they were always bitter. If you’re doing it to be famous or whatever, you’re bound to be disappointed. The work itself must be its own reward.”
After a brief pause, he added that perhaps this type of privilege, the ability to commit to a labor of love, is part of the culture too. Immigrant parents come to America and scrape and sacrifice so their children can have better opportunities; following their own dreams would have been an indulgence that meant not sending their kids to school.
These days, Lin describes his life as much more typical: he is a co-founder of a start-up and recently relocated with his wife from Seattle to San Francisco—”an area where the stereotypes work in my favor,” he jokes. Despite being firmly ensconced in the creative process of making something from nothing, Lin admits to the occasional pangs of indie rock star nostalgia. But he has no real desire to relive those days.
“Loading stuff into cars at 3 a.m., lousy diner food at 4 a.m., then crashing on someone’s floor sounded awesome in my twenties but sounds awful in my thirties.”
But there are late night twinges he gives into, listening to the songs, just to see if they stand the test of time. And happily, they still do.
Jeff Lin is the current co-mastermind behind Captricity (www.captricity.com).