Highway Stars

After fifteen years of ups and downs, Swell is on the rise again.

"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 thatearly: 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 Brothers 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.

Sean Kirkpatrick (left) and David Freel are Swell.
Sean Kirkpatrick (left) and David Freel are Swell.

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With the Czars and Porlolo, 9:30 p.m. Friday, January 23, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $9, 303-291-1107

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"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 them 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."

After the bottom fell out of their contract in 1996 due to 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."

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