Swell is all about texture and mood — the hypnotic shuffle of the drums, the arch detachment of the vocals, the sensual strums of acoustic guitar, the uneasy enigma of the lyrics. It's a sound unmistakable and unique, yet somehow primal and familiar. Is there a key to the band's elusive magic ?
“Accidents, pure accidents,” shrugs bassist Monte Vallier, calling from his San Francisco home with singer/guitarist David Freel.
“We try to achieve the best sound we can, which is generally not that great,” Vallier continues with a laugh. “Usually, we're not happy with it. We're pushing.”
“We spend a lot of time on each song, making sure that it's got the right feel,” Freel adds. “It's very important. It's hard to explain how we do it — it just happens, I guess. We waste a lot of time. We just dick around until it works.”
‘Dicking around’ was nearly Swell's downfall during the gap between 1994's much-overlooked 41 and the group's new disc, Too Many Days Without Thinking. Indeed, the title says it all.
Originally, Swell intended to record their new album in Los Angeles. The group left the Bay in late 1994 and moved south, looking for a combination studio/home in which to create an organic masterpiece. Eleven months and two recording spaces later, Swell was left with deep creative frustration and an unsatisfactory batch of rough mixes.
“It was the songwriting,” explains Freel. “We still weren't happy with the songs, so we kept working on them. The production values naturally evolved and got better, just because we had more experience. But the songs weren't done.”
The group gave up and moved back to San Francisco, spending the next five months refining the songs on their home turf. Producer Kurt Ralske (ex-Ultra Vivid Scene) traveled west to offer mixing help, and soon convinced the band to return with him to New York to finish the record. Trouble was, Swell had already used up their budget and American Recordings didn't want to shell out any more funds. (Given the label's recent collapse, it's not hard to see why.) Going for broke, Swell borrowed some money and headed east to Ralske's Zabrisky Point studio, where they spent the next two months completing the album.
“[Ralske] was a sounding board,” Vallier says. “We had the songs basically done when we got to New York, but we fixed a couple of things. We bounced a few ideas off him and he would say, 'That works. That doesn't work.' And he definitely mixed the album.”
“He's a really nice guy,” remembers Freel. “He has a cool studio, and he allowed us to live there and just take over completely.” At last, the record was done. Swell submitted the tapes to American in May, 1996 and waited for a verdict. And waited. And waited. Two months later, they finally heard back from label head Rick Rubin. The record was a no-go.
“He actually liked it,” Vallier smirks. “He just said it wouldn't sell.”
“He said it was the best record we've ever done,” says Freel. “It was purely a financial decision, I think. The bottom line is that he couldn't afford to put it out.”
Swell was dropped, but the band quickly jumped to Beggars Banquet, the label that had already released 41 overseas. (In fact, 41 sold far better in Europe than in the States.) The result: Too Many Days Without Thinking is finally available, almost a year after its completion.
The wait may have been worth it. With its more spacious sound and wider dynamics, Too Many Days is easily the best of Swell's four albums. Where there was once mathematical iciness, there's now the soaring groove-rock of Throw The Wine, I Know (The Trip) and Make Mine You. Where vocals were once almost a muttered afterthought, there are now fully realized harmonies and even call-and-response lines. Other tracks like At Lennie's, What I Always Wanted and Fuck Even Flow add a newly discovered melodic flow. It's an impressive breakthrough — the sound which once Swelled has now Blossomed.
“The first three albums kinda can be grouped together,” says Vallier. “On this one, we wanted to break away completely. We didn't want it to sound the same. We wanted it to be a little more immediate. We wanted people to listen to it, and not have to hear it 500 times before they liked it.”
Freel listens, smiling. “That's the most common comment we ever get: 'I didn't really understand it the first three times I heard it. The fourth time, it started to sink in. The fifth time, I really started to like it. The sixth time, wow....'”
“We wanted to make a studio record,” he continues. “We're not trying to say, 'Here's what we sound like live.' We wanted to have fun in the studio, and use studio tricks. We went ahead and used some digital boxes. We used a lot of tape delay too. We did whatever we wanted to do this time. On 41, we were completing that type of sound. It was the pinnacle, or at least the end.”
As for the advances in songwriting, Vallier has a simple explanation: “We buy our songs. You know how they have ClipArt? Well, we buy ClipSongs. You get about 150 on a disk.”
Clearly, Swell is just as sardonic on the phone as on record. Such attitude is both a key to their allure and a barrier to commercial success. There's nothing friendly about Swell — the music demands that you embrace it on its own terms. Better at courting critics than fans, the group still has trouble just breaking even financially.
“If we could make money touring the US, that would be nice,” chuckles Freel. “That's probably our only goal, actually.”