Highway Stars

After 15 years of ups and downs, Swell is on the rise again

 Special thanks to the forgotten towns and rolling hills along 101.

So states the thank-you list printed inside Whenever You're Ready, the latest release by the long-standing California band Swell. Made up primarily of singer-guitarist David Freel and drummer Sean Kirkpatrick, the group formed in 1989; soon after, Swell was being mentioned alongside Sebadoh and Pavement as progenitors of the lo-fi movement in indie rock, an aesthetic that eschews slick, professional production in favor of the intimate static of home recordings and vintage analog equipment. Fifteen years, eight albums and tens of thousands of touring miles later, the duo has settled down, maybe even grown apart a little. But, as Kirkpatrick will attest, being in Swell can still be a trip.

"David lived in the Bay Area, and I was down here," says the drummer from his studio in Ventura, just south of Santa Barbara on picturesque Highway 101. "It took almost two years to make this new record, and since we're five hours apart, we'd listen to the rough mixes while driving to visit each other. I think the 101 was a big influence on the album. Basically, that was the thread that connected the two of us; that road sort of helped us out in a weird way. It's the kind of road you can just cruise on."

Sean Kirkpatrick and David Freel are Swell.
Sean Kirkpatrick and David Freel are Swell.


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Accordingly, Whenever You're Ready is the kind of record you can just cruise on. Swept with meandering vocals and wide, acoustic vistas, the songs are sonic travelogues showcasing the lonelier, sadder provinces of the human psyche. The music faintly resembles the more soft-spoken moments of the Meat Puppets or Grandaddy, but Freel's immediately absorbable compositions are stripped chillingly bare of any flourish or artifice. On "Always Everything," minimal percussion creaks like dry bones inside a desiccated corpse of guitars and piano as the singer intones, "Seven days on the lam, water and sand / Waits for your hand, simple days on the run." Elsewhere, on "California, Arizona," a road-weary narrator gasps as his voice seeps out of him like steam from a leaky radiator: "California, Arizona, heaven holds us even closer / Racing down the road to God knows where / California, Arizona, put some distance in between us." Driving the whole motif home, the album is adorned with more than a dozen gorgeous landscapes painted by Kirkpatrick during his long commutes up and down the Pacific coast.

"A lot of the album was done in the summer and fall," he remembers. "It'd be 85, 90 degrees, and a warm breeze would be blowing. I would stop along the highway to do a painting or two and then pull off to get something to drink in one of these little towns. There are tons of them: San Ardo, Guadalupe. At one time, agriculture was big in that area, and they thought it would boom. But it never really did, so there are these old, funky towns out there with a population of 200, if that. It was just totally quiet. It's rare that you still get that in California."

Listening to Swell's collected output, it's easy to see Kirkpatrick's affinity for rustic, dusty quietude. The band's self-titled 1990 debut is a gem of droning, folk-infused pop on par with masterpieces from the period like Galaxie 500's On Fire and Mazzy Star's She Hangs Brightly. …Well? from 1991 was just as compelling. Many outtakes and B-sides from this period are compiled on a disc released last year called Bastards & Rarities, a treasure-unearthing rummage through Swell's trash can that proves once and for all the depth and consistency of the group's songwriting acumen.

Interestingly, some unused songs from this period surfaced on Whenever You're Ready. As Kirkpatrick explains, "Dave brought some old songs from the past into the mix, songs from when he and I first met, actually. A couple of the songs on the new album -- or at least their skeletons, anyway -- are from the late '80s."

Not too many bands could get away with sticking tracks it wrote 15 years before onto its current record. The fact that Swell was able to do so seamlessly and convincingly is a testament to the integrity -- not to mention durability -- of the duo's vision. "It's undatable, really," Kirkpatrick says of Swell's sound. "I hate to use the word 'timeless,' but we never really latched on to trends. We're sort of insular, I guess. We never really tried to emulate anyone. I think that's what keeps the songs kind of topical now."

Although Swell is considered by many to be one of the most important, if covert, influences on today's indie rock scene, its members aren't necessarily keeping tabs on all its bastard offspring. "To be honest with you, I don't really know what's contemporary right now," Kirkpatrick admits. "I don't listen to the radio very much, but when I do, it's a lot of big-band music and this one station that plays mostly reggae and dub stuff. The only stuff I listen to that's happening right now is Mogwai, and, um, that's about it, really. I don't think David listens to contemporary radio, either; he strikes me as more of an AM-radio guy, listening to old Burt Bacharach and stuff like that.

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