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."
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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.
"I think that the influences we draw on more are the ones we grew up with: Pink Floyd and the moodier '80s stuff like Love and Rockets and Bauhaus," he adds. (Coincidentally, Swell's last four studio albums were put out by the British label Beggars Banquet, which built its fortune on popular releases by Bauhaus and Love and Rockets.) "But early Pink Floyd is really the hugest inspiration on the both of us. Actually, I shouldn't say that early: I mean Animals, Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon. Those three records are just godlike."
But unlike a lot of bands nowadays, Swell makes music that is informed less by its musical environment and more by its personal, prosaic one. "We're influenced by life," Kirkpatrick contends. "I mean, I've been through a lot in the last couple years: I had a baby, and my sister came down with cancer. I know David's had a lot of his own ups and downs, just struggling as a musician. Of course, things like that infiltrate what we're doing as musicians." And as much as Swell's music is a source of creative sustenance to him, Kirkpatrick is far from being able to support himself solely through it; he makes his living mostly through his fine art and freelance Web design: "Between the two, I manage to stay afloat. Freelancing does get scary at times, but it allows for a lot of free time, a lot of surfing. As for David, he lives in Seattle now, and I think he's starting to think about what he can do to make a living outside of Swell. He's really good on the computer and with film editing, so he'll probably end up doing things like that."
If things had gone differently for the band a few years ago, though, Freel and Kirkpatrick might have found themselves in an entirely different situation today. After the sizable underground success of Swell's first two albums -- and in the midst of the alternative-rock feeding frenzy that major labels embarked upon post-Nirvana -- the humble outfit found itself aggressively pursued by some of the biggest record companies in the world. The outcome was 41, released on Def American/ Warner Bros. in 1994 at the height of the alt-rock explosion. Slightly more polished than its predecessors, 41 was nonetheless a rare, scintillating specimen of a genre that was swiftly becoming stale, bloated and riddled with corporate lameness. Naturally, such honesty and purity failed to manifest itself in units moved.
"We were so headstrong, so self-righteous at the time when we signed," Kirkpatrick recalls. "We were like, 'Fuck that major-label shit. We're just going to continue to do what we do: record and mix and produce our own records, do all our own artwork, make our own videos.' That was what our sound was; it was who we were. We actually fooled around with using big producers a couple times, but it just sounded fake. It wasn't us. So we bypassed the major-label approach and stuck with what we knew: lo-fi."
Regardless of the fact that Swell's intransigence kept it from being caught in the boom-and-bust cycle to which most '90s alternative acts fell victim, Kirkpatrick is wistful about the opportunities he and Freel passed on out of sheer stubbornness. "In retrospect, I have some regrets. I definitely do," he confesses. "We could have taken things that much further if we had recorded better. I wanted to make records that sold, but I don't think a lot of people could handle our sort of atmospheric, lo-fi quality. Commercial radio probably shied away from that, too. Not to take anything away from those albums now, 'cause I think they're great, and they represent a certain time period, but I think that had a slight effect on us, not letting us get as popular as we could have been."
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After the bottom fell out of their contract in 1996 because of label reorganization and lack of sales, Swell made the move back to Beggars Banquet and the indie world. At that point, though, the pressure became too much for Kirkpatrick; he took a hiatus from the group that turned into a six-year absence.
"We knew the label was falling apart and bands were getting dropped, so we wanted to make a killer record," he says, speaking of the act's fourth full-length, Too Many Days Without Thinking. "We remade that album many, many times; to me, it lost a lot of life by reworking it so much. And eventually that broke us up. I did a few musical endeavors while we were apart, but nothing really happened. I got kind of turned off by music for a while."
Reunited for the new album, Freel and Kirkpatrick seemed to have picked up right where they left off years earlier. But after the second honeymoon that was Whenever You're Ready, tension arose once more within the band. "I haven't talked to David in a while. He and I had a minor falling-out," Kirkpatrick says with more sadness than animosity. "We were supposed to tour Europe recently, but we kept fucking up, missing each other and not communicating well enough, and we ended up having to cancel it. I blame him and he blames me, so we're kind of not talking right now. I mean, I'm over it; I hope he is.
"It just takes time," he adds, then laughs at just how true his statement is in light of the long and arduous journey his group has undergone over the past decade and a half. "Classic Swell, I guess."