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Swell: Strange Bedfellows

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: January 20, 2004

w/ Fine Fine Automobiles & Kite Pilot
Jan 24, 9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

West Coast indie rock band Swell operates like your typical dysfunctional family.

Guitarist/Vocalist David Freel and Drummer Sean Kirkpatrick -- the band's two original members and creative core -- are like two very dissimilar brothers -- Freel, the sensible, responsible guy and Kirkpatrick, the hippy, free thinker. The combination has its advantages from a creative standpoint, but from a serious rock band perspective, it can mean trouble.

Take the cancellation of the band's last two tours -- including a European jaunt -- organized in support of Whenever You're Ready, Swell's new album on Beggars Banquet Records. "The tours were cancelled for some really dumb reasons," Freel said from his home near Seattle. "The last one was cancelled because Sean didn't have time to rehearse. The first time it was cancelled because Sean forgot that he was going to Hawaii."

In fact, Kirkpatrick won't be playing with Swell on the tour that brings them to Sokol Underground Jan. 24. Mat Mathews will be stepping in on drums because Kirkpatrick has a one-year-old at home and his wife doesn't want him to leave home, Freel said.




Frustrating? Despite it all, Freel seems downright understanding about Kirkpatrick's ever-shifting priorities. So much, in fact, that after recording the last couple Swell CDs without him, Freel welcomed Kirkpatrick back for Whenever You're Ready, even bending over backwards to overcome a geographic hurdle.

"I was in Milwaukee and Chicago for awhile and I sent Sean some tapes," Freel said, explaining how the new album came together. "He said he wanted to work again, so I came back to California and stayed in San Francisco. He lives in Santa Barbara, a scene that's too mellow for me."

The 300-miles separation forced Freel to drive down the coast to record the drum parts in Kirkpatrick's garage. "We tried doing it by tape, but that didn't work. I had to go down there and explain how the parts came together," Freel said. "All he does is the drum parts; that's it. We discuss them in depth all the way through the process. Aesthetically, the situation worked out between us."

There was a happy byproduct to the separation. Freel says he and Kirkpatrick both were influenced by the constant travel along Highway 101 -- a drive that rambles back and forth between the ocean, dry rolling hills, old missions, vineyards and some forgotten little towns. The product of two years of recording in five locations is a classic road trip album soaked in the color of a California sunset.

Standout tracks include the haunting "Next to Nothing" that syncs Freel's pounding acoustic strumming with Kirkpatrick's loose, scattershot drums and a forlorn, echoing keyboard line. That acoustic guitar-and-drums combination is the backbone behind Swell's sound, a laid-back beachnut vibe that would be right at home next to a camp fire or breaking surf. At the same time, there's a lush, film noir shadow that haunts their music, making it feel like a soundtrack to an edgy indie movie. Even when Freel brings on the electric guitars, the impact is more transcendental than heavy.

"To me, the album sort of distills the other six records we've recorded. It's a 'greatest moods' album," Freel said. Clocking in at around 66 minutes, that's a lot of moods. Did the band include so much material because they knew this could be their finale?

"I always feel that way about every record, that it could be the last one," Freel said. "And that's how I approach them. It explains why it's so long. We kept finding songs we wanted to work on, and kept putting them on there. We thought about cutting it, but figured, 'fuck it.'"


"To me, the album sort of distills the other six records we've recorded. It's a 'greatest moods' album."




"What am I going to do? Erase his tracks and start all over? Or have two drummers on one album? No."



Released last September, Freel said the record has received a lot of fan support. "I've gotten much more and better fanmail for this than any other record. That tells me that we need to get out there and get people to listen to it. And the best way to do that is to tour. I know how the whole marketplace works. I think we can win them over if they come to the show."

In addition to Freel and Mathews, this touring version of Swell will include keyboardist Greg Baldzikowski and bassist Doran Bastin, a native Nebraskan and former member of '90s band Such Sweet Thunder. Bastin, who is Freel's Seattle next door neighbor, got involved in Swell when his old band, Osmo, opened for them on a 1994 tour. "Swell has actually been one of my all-time favorite bands," he said. "This is a dream come true."

Bastin has signed on to tour with the band throughout Europe in April, that is if they can get the tour booked. "The cancellation of our last tour really hurt over there," Freel said.

A week after the interview, Freel e-mailed some additional biographical information, and asked if there were any more questions. What came to mind is how he's managed to continue working with Kirkpatrick without getting frustrated about the constant tour cancellations and their geographic separation. Most people wouldn't have the patience. How does he manage to keep his when things don't go right?

"Yes, well…" Freel responded. "I thought it might be fun to do a record with Sean again -- although it didn't work out that way -- it was good for awhile and then, what am I going to do? Erase his tracks and start all over? Or have two drummers on one album? No. I love the album but it was very hard to make. I tried not to care too much -- just let things go -- sort of 'Zen light.' Sean and I live in completely different worlds, but maybe working with life on other planets is good?"

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Published in The Omaha Reader Jan. 21, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.