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Members include Tim Adams , (member 1989-1990), bass; John Dettman , (member 1989-92), electric guitar; Rob Ellis , (member 1997-present), drums; David Freel, (member 1989-present), acoustic guitar; Tom Hays, (member 1992), guitar; Ethyl Johnson, (member 1999-present), drums; Sean Kirkpatrick, (member 1989-97), drums; Hélène Renaud, (member 1997-present), vocals; Mark Signorelli, (member 1990), bass; Monte Vallier (member 1990-present), bass; Pete Voigl, guitar; Clem Waldman, (member 1996-97), drums; Niko Wenner, (member 1997-present), electric guitar, vocals. Addresses: Record company--Beggars Banquet, 580 Broadway, Suite 1004, New York, NY 10012.

Swell debuted in the late 1980s and evolved by 2000 into a distinctive and unpredictable force in popular music. The band, with its eclectic charisma, is comprised of a dynamic combination of musicians, anchored by stalwart founder, guitarist/vocalist David Freel. Swell took root originally in San Francisco, California, and landed ultimately in New York City in an endless search for fresh inspiration and new sounds. With the release of each successive album over the course of a decade, Freel and his perennial partner--bassist Monte Vallier--along with a succession of colleagues repeatedly defied categorization. The unpredictable turnover among Swell band members and subsequent abandonment by a contracted record label proved to be blessings in disguise for the erstwhile Freel and Vallier. They reversed the adversities and nurtured the dynamic musical organization through a series of disappointing setbacks throughout the 1990s to successfully endow their music with a creative vision, replete with ample serendipity.

The emergence of Swell as a cohesive group of musicians began when Freel and bassist Tim Adams connected in San Francisco in the late 1980s. For nearly two years they considered forming a band, and their decision materialized when drummer Sean Kirkpatrick joined the cause. The three musicians determined to cut a recording, and by April of 1990 had established the Psycho/Specific record label and released 433 copies of a self-titled album, although bassist Adams abandoned the project at that time and was replaced by Mark Signorelli. Monte Vallier--a former Kirkpatrick collaborator--joined the effort in the capacity of record promoter in the United States, while Freel, Signorelli, and Kirkpatrick spent the following summer touring Europe as buskers(street musicians).

When Swell returned from overseas, Vallier joined the band as a bass player and production engineer, as did John Dettman (later known as John Lytle) on electric guitar. The upstart quartet performed with limited expectations, presenting a unique brand of so-called neo-psychedelic music, frequently at the I-Beam club in San Francisco. In its first live United States show Swell opened for Mazzy Star in August of 1990. Afterward the group appeared in small venues along the California coast. The four spent the following summer working on a second album, also for release on the Psycho/Specific record label. The release, called ... Well?, was published also in the United Kingdom on the Mean record label, as was the original Swellalbum. Swell subsequently left for Europe, where it performed a concert in Norway in October of 1991. Guitarist Dettman had departed Swell by the time the follow-up album appeared early in 1992. He was replaced initially by Tom Hays, the first in an ongoing succession of Swell guitarists that failed to stabilize during the band's rise to prominence. Pete Voigl in fact stepped in to replace Hays by April of 1992, when the band returned to Europe once more.

As the self-made group met with unanticipated success, they worked toward creating a recognizable style. They garnered their following largely in Europe, although unwavering perseverance ultimately contributed to the band's ability to secure a recording contract with a United States record label DefAmerican. With a contract in hand, Swell prepared to release a third album in November of 1993. The final product, entitled 41, was ultimately denser and less vibrant than Swell's earlier work and placed significantly greater emphasis on the strains of Freel's acoustic guitar in the wake of electric guitarist Dettman's departure. Swell fans dispersed into limbo, at least in the United States, and the future of Swell remained uncertain for a time.

The dedicated and stalwart Swell founder, Freel, and his cohort, Vallier, endured the uncertainty of the situation and assumed a fixed posture within the band, establishing themselves firmly at the core of Swell. Kirkpatrick for a time remained a steady contributor on drums, but the perennial turnover of guitarists on the electric side continued. Although the band retained Raymond Coffer and Andy Gershon briefly to manage the group, frugality dictated that Vallier double in that capacity whenever possible, for lack of financial backing. Regardless, the musicians continued their track record of reversing adversity and turning it into an advantage. Freel expanded his repertoire of acoustic guitar patterns, while Vallier continued as producer, engineer, and bassist. The two occupied themselves in refining Swell's trademark sound and admirably weathered the temporary slump even in the face of a wilting reception from the recording industry. The unlikely but viable Swell combination of acoustic and electric strings matured and continued to defy classification, with delicate, lilting tones based in a solid psychedelic meter. Alistair Fitchett commented on the Swell sound in Tangents,"It's the juxtapositions that they pull off which make them so cool, ... that ... knack for marrying some sweet melodies with bitter lyrics and darker noises."

It became increasingly clear by 1994 that the third Swell album had fallen disappointingly flat, and the subtle ambiguities of style that emerged in that album ultimately disappointed the pre-contracted publisher. Swell packed up baggage and abandoned its headquarters in San Francisco, which up until that time had served as both a home and an inspiration for Freel and Vallier. They set out to Southern California in search of a fresh outlook. There were "too many ghosts in San Francisco," as Freel confessed to Jason Ferguson in Magnet. Yet, after relocating their home base into a massive warehouse in Los Angeles, inspiration for a fourth Swell album remained elusive. Less than one year passed, and they rebounded back to San Francisco for some months in a renewed effort to regroup. Before long, Swell acknowledged its need to outsource the production responsibilities, regardless of cost. That timely shift of strategy led Swell to New York City in 1996. There they took up residence at Zabriskie Point, the private studio of producer Kurt Ralske. Fitzpatrick also endured the eastward move.

In New York, Freel and Vallier continued in the mode of struggling artists, sleeping on the studio floor for three months in a devoted effort to complete a fourth album under the guidance of Ralske, who contributed feedback, along with engineering and mixing skills, while artistic control remained with Swell. With harsh winter winds whipping the city streets outside the studio, Freel and Vallier reveled in their newfound luxury of having the assistance of a professional to address the technical details of the taping process. With Ralske's aid, the stalled fourth album lurched toward completion. The completed score combined "... a sturdy blend of wispy melancholy and pseudo-psychedelia," according to Ferguson, who rated the record as Swell's best effort. Too Many Days Without Thinkingmarked the maturity of the Swell style with its rare combination of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Def American nevertheless rejected the album. The style, which continued to elude categorization by the music industry, teased at both country and pop styles, while rejecting the trademark characteristics of rock music. Additionally the album features distinctively Freel-style lyrics that resound with an overly generous interspersion of expletives, although parental advisories typically brand every Swell release. Freel, according to Ferguson, dubbed the overall style, "hippie heavy metal."

After Def American rejected the album, Beggars Banquet agreed to publish the recording because earlier Swell releases had proven profitable for that label in the United Kingdom. The rejection by Def American Records did create one other setback, however, as Swell's pre-arranged song publishing deal remained contingent on the release of the record on the label.

Too Many Days Without Thinkingmarked the first transition of Swell drummers, with Kirkpatrick featured on some tracks while stand-in Clem Waldman is heard on others. Either way, the idiosyncrasies of Swell's slant on music continued to dominate the band's hallmark style. Such was seen in the curious digital rhythm on the Too Many Days Without Thinkingtrack called "Make Mine You." The piece was written, according to Freel, to follow the digitally driven meter of a beeping telephone recorder after repeated attempts to disable the answering machine in the recording studio failed one day. He resolved the annoyance by playing his guitar to the rhythm of the beep of the machine, and a song was born.

Late in 1997 and with characteristic fortitude, Freel and Vallier laid plans to record a follow-up release for Beggars Banquet. The album, called For All the Beautiful People,appeared in 1998 and featured Rob Ellis on drums. Kirkpatrick by that time had completely severed ties with Swell when in August of 1997 he rejoined former Swell guitarist, John Lytle--formerly Dettman--in a duo, called Brothers of Different Mothers. In addition to Ellis, For All the Beautiful Peoplefeatured Hélène Renaud on vocals, backed by Niko Wenner on electric guitar and vocals. The band scheduled an appearance at Belgium's Pukklepop Festival in late August of that year, to coincide with the album's European release. Two tracks, "Everything is Good," and Make up Your Mind," were each issued separately as singles from that album as well.

In February of 1999, Swell began the painstaking work of preparing a sixth album for release. Also in 1999, Texas drummer Ethyl Johnson appeared with the band in Europe. Among the group's appearances that year was a booking at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill, and as always, Swell spent a great deal of time performing in Europe. They performed at the twelfth annual Rock au Max festival near Thiers in south central France that summer--despite the duress of sweltering heat and technical problems. The European excursion of 1999 brought Swell also to Lisbon, Portugal, and to Belgium.

by Gloria Cooksey

Swell's Career

Formed in San Francisco, CA, 1987-89; released two self-produced recordings, 1989-92; signed with Def American Records, 1996; signed with Beggars Banquet, 1997.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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