Ghost of David : an interview with SWELL

Interview en V.O (2023)
                    One year and a day after David FREEL's tragic passing, we met with the surviving members of SWELL in Lyon on April 13 for their European tour commemorating the loss of their band leader.




         The band's core, which had not played together since 1998, chose to accomplish the difficult task of paying a final tribute to their friend. Despite the emotional toll involving playing songs live without their creator, SWELL was as good as ever on stage and didn't shy away from sharing fond memories of David FREEL with the audience. John DETTMAN softly sang and played guitar with an appropriate reverence, Sean KIRKPATRICK brought back his trademark drumming, while Monte VALLIER coolly held the whole thing together on bass. And last but not least, Niko WENNER did wonders on keyboards and guitar, especially with his mind-blowing bottleneck parts. No one tried to steal the show and the result was perfectly cohesive and emotional. Just before having diner, the band was gracious enough to open up on a tour unlike any they ever did before.


I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W


"It was really hard getting anything going in the States"

Sean KIRKPATRICK : You know SWELL much at all ?

Yes, for sure. I've been listening to you guys for so many years. I actually saw the band live in 1998 in Rennes, which was really good because there was this showcase in a Virgin Megastore before the show. It was quite fun meeting you guys and getting a double dose of the band. The show was at the Ubu...

Monte VALLIER : I remember. I remember playing at the store for way too long, we played for an hour and a half or something, like we gave up the whole show...

Well it was great being able to witness both since those gigs were played under fairly different settings and circumstances. Getting more SWELL was always a pleasure. Speaking of which, the band has always been quite popular in France compared to other countries, like the United States for example. How do you explain that ?

The US is really difficult to do anything in, it's too big and all the scenes are really tight. We started touring in Europe first, our agent is Belgian and so we got licensing deals, we had stuff happening here. It was really hard getting anything going in the States. We just kinda capitalized on that, we had licensing in France, a label in Germany, a label in Benelux, a label in the UK and they were all doing their separate promotion. We were selling records in each territory and we toured a lot. We also got a lot of good press and all of a sudden we had all this support with John PEEL and people like that. We had Melody Maker awarding us with a single of the week. In the States we were doing fine, we were doing good on college radio, getting pretty good press, but it's so spread out. But if you don't have a major label or a big indie... and back in 1990 it was really difficult to find.
SK : I think just by chance it happened here first. I met someone in Belgium and he just fell in love with the record and laid the ground work for us. Since we were so busy with that we started booking shows and finding a distribution, etc. We didn't have enough energy to apply or tour in the States as well. And I also think Virgin did a great job promoting us, they really helped 41 explode.
MV : We had Labels in France...

Which doesn't exist anymore.

Yes, but in Paris we'll see some people who worked there and put out the show. That will be great to see them.

As you just mentioned, there was a lot of great press for SWELL, but did it also translate in terms of sales ?

It depends on what you mean by sales. There was a point where we were selling a lot of records, I think we might have slightly charted in a couple of places, just creeping on, which doesn't mean a lot. I mean we had no hits, we were a totally underground culty kind of band. We sold enough records to keep the record companies interested but not enough for them to pull out all the stops and really take care of us.


"There's nothing quite like SWELL "

Did you feel close to the other bands from San Francisco that were emerging at the same time as you did ? I'm thinking of MAZZY STAR or RED HOUSE PAINTERS for example.

SK : I think we've always sort of felt on our own and part of that was because we were so busy in Europe touring, we didn't really tour or play in the States and we didn't play much in San Francisco so it was hard for us to align with the scene there although I like all those bands. But we never really played with them or hung out much.
MV : I hung out with some of those people, I toured with Mark EITZEL [AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB], there was a lot of other bands that weren't famous in San Francisco or Europe but they were really good. There was a cohesive scene but it wasn't like we hung with the RED HOUSE PAINTERS because we were just part of the whole scene. And Niko was too with OXBOW.

In a different style I guess.

Niko WENNER : Yeah, at that time I was playing with OXBOW and hanging out with another band called JELLYFISH which was a power-pop band as opposed to whatever pop is. I was on either extreme with SWELL in the middle I'd say. Then we you talk about JELLYFISH you talk about other San Francisco-type bands, like this guy with the great big beard and they had a keyboard player, I can't remember their name [GRANDADDY ?], but a more pop scene. Between us we covered the spectrum.

How did you get to join SWELL ?

Monte and I had been friends for a long time and I knew Sean, we had a lot of mutual friends, but I didn't know him as well as Monte, probably from drinking beer at the flat or something and they went through a couple of guitar players and then it was my turn...
MV : He was busy !
NW : I stuck around.

Was it a big departure for you playing guitar with SWELL compared to what you did in OXBOW ?

Hmm, yes and no. I love pop music and I love this style that SWELL does, so I had not played this exactly but there's nothing quite like SWELL so it was part of what was appealing to me. In the end I think that kind of emotional intensity is expressed differently but the concept and the intention is the same as with OXBOW. So that just resonated with me.

And you probably had more peaceful shows as well ?

Well I joke that with SWELL the drama was offstage, but with OXBOW it's on stage. But after months and months of touring, you lose your mind a little bit and we had some fun.

This tour is of course very particular, with David not being around anymore. How does it feel playing his songs without him ?

SK : It's quite surreal for me personally. I didn't think it would happen ever again. I have bothered David maybe once a year for the last ten years, saying “Hey, let's try to do it one more time, I'd love to tour.” He would think about it then say “No, it's not worth it, the fan-base isn't here anymore, I'm too tired.” And in 2017 I think, we booked a tour and at the last minute he backed out. So then that was it, I thought it was done. Ironically I think with David's passing it was the only way SWELL could ever tour again you know ? Sad as it is, it's great to be back and play the SWELL songs for the SWELL fans. But I miss playing with David live.
MV : And also David wrote the lyrics and he wrote a lot of concepts in the early stuff but the second, third and fourth albums were very collaborative. And so we feel really connected with the songs. It's really great playing them for us too but it's been really emotionally heavy playing them without David.

Especially with your show yesterday marking the one year anniversary of his passing...

It was a tough night.

Was it a different show for you ?

It was hard to get through some of the songs, and I'm sure it will be tonight. Every night. When we're in Paris and we see all of our old friends there, it's going to be rough.

I suppose you have many memories of him coming back when you're playing on stage ?

Oh, totally !
SK : Definitely.

If you had to choose one memory of him, what would it be ?

For me it would be making music together. We just really gelled well. It was just really fun, we lost ourselves in the studio at 41 above the streets of the Tenderloin for hours. We would just connect when we were making music on those four records. That's what I miss and they were the best memories I have. But he was also funny, he could be a prankster on tour.
MV : He was ridiculously hilarious. I miss that a lot, and it would be so dry, so cutting and so deadpan. He would just look at you or say one word and you would just crack up. It was so perfectly right to the heart of what was happening. John, do you have any favorite David moments ?
John DETTMAN : Going down to club Charleston, hanging out with him and playing some pool.
SK : It was a bar right around the corner from the studio.
JD : I spent a lot of time with him and his girlfriend Cynthia so I got to see a little bit more of his tender side because he was spending equal time with her.



"Trying to play the songs pretty true to the records
                                                   and to the spirit of David"

Do you feel any pressure being the one who's singing his songs ?

Yes and no. I mean the pressure is kinda pointless.

But can you avoid it ?

Yeah... I really enjoyed learning his parts, it got me playing guitar again. I always loved the songs. I've been listening to them for three decades without stopping.

I didn't check Youtube for videos of this tour to avoid any spoilers, but are you trying to emulate what David was doing or are you just trying to do your own thing ?

Yes sure, there are things like how he sings certain words with an accent or a drawl, you want to do a little bit of that.

Is it difficult for you remembering the songs because, as you said, you haven't played them in ages ?

MV : At first, we hadn't played together and just practiced on our own a little bit and learned them. Then once we started rehearsing, after a couple rehearsals, it's muscle memory. It just starts coming back, it's like “Oh wow !” Niko and I played these songs three hundred times or something. But we still forget the details, also because we're old.

Does it mean the songs will be a bit different than when you last toured them ?

Probably a little bit. But we're trying to play them pretty true to the records and to the spirit of David. We didn't want to come out and redo things, to make it different like “Here's the new thing !” We wanted to be really respectful and really true, you know ?
JD : I think that's also in part to the fact that I had to learn to play them by listening to the records. I didn't have much time with the limited amount of time we had to practice. So I listened to the records and even after hearing them all those years so many times, when it came down to actually learning all the guitar parts I started hearing all this new stuff. Every time I listen to it I hear new stuff. Yesterday I heard a new thing that I had never heard before. I wondered when that would stop but it just makes me keep going because there's so much going on in the guitar playing, you know there really is so I had to learn to the best of my abilities how to do that. So I hope people can appreciate that and I think people appreciate that the songs will sound pretty close to the records. Personally that's what I like when I see a band.
NW : For me it's been an amazing exercise to have those memories, to remember how to play those songs. Being on stage has been the most strong memory, then it feels right. Rehearsal is just rehearsal but when you're all together and you have monitors, then the feeling comes back and it's easy in a sense. And in a way this tour is a gift to those of us that survived. It's kind of what you do, none of us are young men anymore, strong and virile, and that's what you get, you know ? If you live then you have this experience. It's really wonderful to get to hang out as friends again and play the music and it's too bad we couldn't do it before but here we are !


You're only focusing on the first four albums and 41 is one of my favorites, but it felt like something shifted when you recorded the album after that, Too many days without thinking. It's not like it was the record of a totally different band but it had new elements.

SK : Yes, it was intentional because we were over San Francisco at the time, the Tenderloin and 41 studio.
MV : The first three albums were like a trilogy and we wanted to move on.
SK : I mean even in the artwork if you look at the first three, it's the same colors, the same sort of moodiness. And the fourth record for me personally was spotty because we had moved so much, we were in three different studios in LA. Leaving San Francisco was sort of challenging at first, we couldn't take that vibe with us. That was the beginning of the end for me and David as well. That album was remade in my eyes three or four times. The first version was great I thought and then it kept changing and changing, David and I kept fighting about that. So yeah, the first three records and that record are what we are representing because we're emotionally tied to those more than the other records of course.

I don't know if you agree, but the last song on the album, Sunshine Everyday may be your best-known song...

MV : I don't know, is it ?

Well it was the one that was always on music magazine samplers at the time and I felt when I saw you live that it was the song that got the biggest reaction from the audience.

It's funny because there's always a song like that. For the second album it was At long last, for the third it was Forget about Jesus, Song 7 or something... Kinda stoned... There's always one where people go “That's THE song from the album that we want !” So we don't know, I mean I feel like all the songs are really strong and they're all tied together in such a way we put together the set so it would kind of flow through time a little bit and just be comfortable, classic and super swelly. I guess as swelly as you can get.

Like a wave ?



"I just take care of the kids and make diner"

Do you actually have a favorite SWELL song ?

MV : It changes a lot.
SK : Playing live ? Do you guys have any that you prefer ?
NW : I like the tearjerkers, What I always wanted, but also Down. Down to me is really emotional for some reason.

I think it has a really great guitar part too.

Yeah, so that's fun to do.

Let's come back on the subject of France. Do you guys follow any French bands ?

SK : I don't know any, but I would. I mean I heard some on the tour when we were in Vendôme rehearsing for three days. We heard some music and I kept asking “Who's this ?” and they were all French.

I was asking because there's this guy you might not know called RED who released a song called Life's great, which was a tribute to David FREEL, and he also did another song that stated David was his hero, rather than David BOWIE.

MV : We don't know that, but that's great !

And there's also a local band where I live, in Valence, which is an hour away from here, that has been covering Forget about Jesus quite a lot.

Oh really ? Which band ?


Oh I know that one ! They sent me that. I was in touch with them, they sent it to me and said “Is this ok, do you mind ?” I told them it's great, that's an awesome version, better than our version.

Really ?

Yes !
SK : There's that one SWELL album, 41, that a lot of French bands covered, right ?
MV : That's pretty great to listen to.
SK : It's so cool ! Actually we did an interview the other day and one of the guys was involved in that and we said “Hey, anybody that's on that record gets to come to any of our shows for free” so he'll be here tonight !
JD : Was that the Bandcamp one ?
SK : Huh huh. Yeah, it's weird because, I don't know, I'm so busy with life that I don't pay attention much, but some people text or email me like “Do you guys realize that you're cult heroes ?” It doesn't even resonate. I just can't fathom what that means.

So you just get on with your life ?

Yes, I just take care of the kids and make diner.


"We've always enjoyed the French audiences"

I understand that you have no plans of releasing any new music as SWELL, but what about rereleasing your old albums ? They're being sold for crazy money on Discogs and all...
MV : We don't own the rights. Warner, Virgin and Beggars' Banquet do. I mean, we could bootleg them.
SK : Don't say that on this tape !
MV : Shhh... Erase that part. But we also have an archive that I've been going through of master tapes, I have hundreds of DAT tapes and reel to reel tapes that go back to 1986 up through when we stopped using tape. And there's a lot of things that we never finished, a lot of things that were never mixed. There's four or five songs that David, Sean and I were working on in 2015 that we're trying to do, like a new EP. And I'm still searching archives and hard drives to find David's vocals for those. And so the plan is to find some songs that were never finished and maybe we finish them together with David's vocals and just do some kind of release. Or we get the rights back to all our songs and try to do like a boxset, just the definitive... some live stuff, just put it all in a nice package and put a bow on it and just be “That's it, there's no going to be any more releases.”

That sounds nice, hopefully you can get it done. Is there anything that you would like to add ?
We really enjoy playing in France, we've always enjoyed the French audiences. We always enjoyed the depth that journalists find in the music and their questions and it's always been a pleasure to be a part of the whole French scene.

Do you plan on making up new songs in French ?
Oui !

I remember watching this show that you did at La Route du Rock in 1997 on a VHS...
Oh, shit !

I mean I watched that tape so many times I basically wore it out. At one point you improvised a song in French, saying that even though France is smaller than Texas it holds a bigger place in your heart.
Yeah, that was pretty cheesy.

Well it worked well judging from the audience's reaction !
Yeah, I don't know. French is pretty rough for us but I'm working on it. Je travaille beaucoup.

Sounds good !
SK : I think I speak for all of us when I say it's a true honor to be able to do this again. It's so weird for us. It doesn't really make sense. I think we're partly tired from all that driving and jetlag so it hasn't really sunk in like “Wow, we're really here and playing”. For me it's like we're in a daze or something. But when I get home I'm gonna be like “God ! That was amazing !”
MV : It is amazing to be playing the songs and look out and see all these people who are there because of our songs. Like it's not someone random off the street who's like “Oh, I want to go to the disco tonight... But who is the band ?” Everybody knows the songs and they're emotionally attached. And it was never like that before, obviously this is sad because it's a memorial every night but it's been very cool and very hard. It feels good but it's also heavy.
JD : I'd like to thank Monte and Sean for trusting me to do this and for thinking that I was the natural choice to do it. I spent countless hours to try to do this and I'm thankful that it has actually come to pass, that it actually happened through the ebbs and flows of the coordination of it all. It's just hard to be ultimately standing there in his place and singing those songs.
SK : It was the idea of the tour when it first came about, we didn't know what we were gonna do, who we'd have sing, and we talked about it Monte and I, and we thought “Shit ! It has to be John” you know, he's learned how to play guitar through David and lived with David. I've known John since I was nineteen and I knew he could channel him. I know his work ethic, when he puts his mind to something, he just does it. And he did an amazing job learning the songs...
MV : So good !
SK : Applying his own craftsmanship and paid so much attention to all the details.

So the hard work paid off ?
JD : Yeah... I mean, I had to learn to play and sing at the same time, but I did it. I had never really ever done that before. I've done some studio work, multi-tracking and all that, but never this. And I haven't been on a stage in thirty years.

Wow ! That's very brave !
But I'm with the veterans so it's all good ! I enjoy being a newbie on this thing.

Well, thank you very much guys !

After the show, John DETTMAN insisted on adding how honored he felt being asked to fill in for his dear friend. He sure did make a great job of it. Even though he managed to add his personal touch to David FREEL's songs, one could still hear shades of the ghost of David in his vocals.



Interview by Eric F.

(May 05, 2023)





Go further

pSychoSpecificMusic : Bandcamp 

SWELL : Everyday Sunshine in Lyon
France loves SWELL and vice versa
SWELL loves you all


In our radio archives :
Rock à la Casbah #773 (04/05/2023)

In our written archives :
Le fantôme de David, 
                    this interview in French version (XX/05/23)

Photography : Estelle & Eric F.