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Swell, another story of 1990s American rock

David Freel, who died on April 12 at the age of 64, founded the group Swell, whose psychedelic noise pop of noir romance remains one of the treasures of US indie rock.

There’s always a cold wind blowing over San Francisco. A microclimate that prevents the Californian sun from completely warming the bones of those who have been stranded there since the post-war period in search of a better life. The city has always cultivated two sides in a rather schizophrenic way: hippie and conservative, psychedelic and depressed, gentrified and welcoming court of miracles.

In its own way, the group Swell reflects this duality from its beginnings in 1989, when David Freel came across drummer Sean Kirkpatrick through a classified ad posted at a record store. On the program: a new group that would mix the influences of Cocteau Twins and Killing Joke. David Freel breaks with a pre-determined life and rushes headlong into this project, devoured as he is by an irrepressible need to record the pieces that inhabit him and which he then sleeps on a small Tascam recorder.

“After scientific studies, I worked for a long time in video, for car companies, for investment companies. I was making $10,000 a month, traveling non-stop, staying at the best hotels. I wore a shirt with the company logo on it, I was supposed to be self-sufficient, tough on business and, above all, never, absolutely never screw up.” he confided to Unbreakable in 1998.

After his meeting with Kirkpatrick, the musician takes the social elevator upside down and presses the “basement” button. If he is tortured and lunar, he finds in the drummer with the pleasant personality and a little hippie a form of unexpected counterpart. Swell’s first tracks released on the 1990 album of the same name by the two musicians’ own label, pSychosPecific, hint at the formula that will make the band successful.

Electrified folk guitars and reverberant vocals are placed on a drum set that quivers, that tips over into the void, that takes the place of an instrument leader more than just rhythm. Swell does not want to write rock songs like the others and affirms a unique talent for dark atmospheres and surprising arrangements (harmonica, slide guitars, choirs bluesy) that we would imagine more readily in a Sergio Leone film than on an alternative rock record. The whole thing might seem wobbly but holds its own thanks to the creative alchemy that unites Freel and Kirkpatrick.

Blank check

Housed in a warehouse in a seedy San Francisco neighborhood at 41 Turk Street (which will partly give the title to the band’s third album), Freel hones his songwriting as junkies and homeless quarrel over the filthy sidewalks of Frisco. The musician does not choose the easy way, far from it. His lyrics evoke a worried but cryptic view of the world around him.

While the music business swept through major American cities in search of songwriters capable of seducing teenagers all over the world, Swell confused the cards with his puzzling and noisy pop, less funny than that of the Pixies and less seductive than that of Mazzy Star. This does not prevent John Peel from asserting in 1991: “Nirvana is hugely successful right now and Pavement is ‘the next big thing’, but ‘the next next big thing’ is Swell.”

The group then received an offer from Rick Rubin’s pachydermic label, American Recordings, which signed a blank check (in the literal sense of the term, another era when you think about it). Freel and Kirkpatrick, joined at that time by bassist Monte Vallier, spent eighteen months fleeing the white page syndrome by sailing from studio to studio (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco), and exhausted the producers (including Frank Black) along with the not-so-infinite resources of the tall bearded man.

Accustomed to the simplicity of underground creation, Swell seems to struggle to release a third album surrounded by pressure. Sign of the cursed fate that awaits the group, its title don’t give is included on the film’s soundtrack Showgirls by Paul Verhoeven, a critical and commercial fiasco (which has become cult in recent years). And yet, on 41, Swell has never been so accessible. Titles like Is That Important?, Kinda Stoned Where Forget About Jesus have retained all the complexity of the duo’s previous works, but open the window a little to let in the light by relying on some rubble of 60s psychedelic pop brought up to date. Success does not point his nose but in Europe, Freel and his acolytes discover enamored fans.

Back to basement

Too Many Days Spent Without Thinking (1997) confirms that Swell has definitely left lo-fi lands to embrace dark electric rock, backed by string arrangements and the personal darkness of David Freel. This record places the group in the category of essential outsiders of the swan song of the alternative rock wave (which gives way to new trends that are much less complex and more commercial, such as neo-metal or melodic punk).

Now hosted by Beggars Banquet, David Freel’s project seems to have come to terms with mainstream success. “I wanted to pray alone/I name you in this prayer/I wanted this day alone/I blame you in this prayer”, sings the lonely Californian on the title What I Always Wanted. His pen is moving further and further away from pop to join that of the burnt-out American literature who spends the days contemplating their regrets and their nights chasing away evil spirits with dark spirits. Fuck Even Flow is a vengeful tirade addressed to Pearl Jam and those bands that won the post-Cobain bonanza. The pain remains.

The rest of Freel’s career is more discreet but no less essential. For All The Beautiful People and Everybody Wants To Know (recorded by Freel alone and crushed by US critics) reinforce the pariah hero halo of the leader of Swell. Regularly rediscovered (notably thanks to the work of the Bordeaux label Talitres), his intransigent writing, his labyrinthine riffs and his tarred voice have influenced a plethora of formations on both sides of the Atlantic (Deerhunter, Alex G., Pinback, Motorama or Midlake are more or less direct heirs).

A belated return to self-production, David Freel had moved to Portland, another icy Mecca of indie rock, to run a small-scale vinyl press with his wife. He leaves behind a body of work unsubdued to the canons of the industry which has survived as a well-kept secret exchanged by those who, like David Freel, preferred darkness to light. In recent days, it is not only in San Francisco that the bite of the cold is painful.

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