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Arts + CultureMusicSwell's reunion tour harkens back to SF's '90s indie...

Swell’s reunion tour harkens back to SF’s ’90s indie rock sanctuary

Band suffered the loss of lead singer David Freel—but with 300 unreleased tapes in the archive, it's ready to ride a new wave.

41 Turk Street looms large in the mythology of the San Francisco rock band Swell. The Tenderloin loft that the band shared from 1989 to 1993, in which they recorded their first three albums, is the namesake of their third album 41; the number even shows up in the URL of the band’s website. These days, it’s part of a massive boutique hotel, but more than three decades ago, it was the source of some of the best music to come out of SF’s fertile ‘90s indie rock scene.

“The atmosphere of the Tenderloin kind of seeped into the music a little bit,” says bassist Monte Vallier, who now lives in Seattle. “That tension in the streets. It was gritty, it was kind of dangerous, and we had a little sanctuary in the middle of it where we recorded and wrote songs.”

The three albums recorded at 41 Turk Street are the focus of the band’s upcoming four-date West Coast reunion tour, plus 1997’s acclaimed Too Many Days To Think About, recorded during a brief sojourn in Los Angeles. All the musicians who played on those records will be onstage on December 5 at the Independent—except for lead singer David Freel, who passed away in 2022.

At the time of his death, Freel lived in Oregon City and ran a custom on-demand vinyl-cutting business with his fiancée Jennifer Dawson. After Freel’s death, Vallier took over his job as mastering engineer for the company—“and so it’s odd, because now I’m sort of working with him, but he’s not there.”

Vallier also inherited approximately 300 tapes of unreleased Swell material, some of which will end up on a 30th anniversary reissue of 41 that’s still in the planning stage but will likely be released next year on the French label Talitres Records. This treasure trove includes alternate mixes and unfinished songs, many of them instrumentals to which Freel had yet to write melodies and lyrics.

“We always wrote as we recorded,” says Vallier. “Generally if David came up with a chord change, he would mumble a melody on top of it without any words, that would sit as a placeholder, and then we would write all the music around it. I have material with him just mumbling nonsense words.”

Freel and drummer Sean Kirkpatrick founded the band in 1989. Vallier and guitarist John Dettman-Lytle joined the following year for the band’s first show at defunct Haight Street venue the I-Beam opening for Mazzy Star, who would score one of the most enduring hits of the decade with 1994’s “Fade Into You.”

Swell’s John Dettman-Lytle at Boutanique in Brussels

“There were a lot of clubs, things were pretty cheap,” Vallier says of San Francisco at the time. “It was a super vibrant scene, and artists could still afford to live here. Friends of mine were buying houses in the Mission for $110,000.”

This was a fertile time for slow, sad indie rock. San Francisco’s American Music Club sowed the seeds of what would come to be called “slowcore” with their 1985 debut The Restless Stranger. Red House Painters came along a bit later in 1988, explicitly equating their somber style to the chilly local climate that seemed to seep into the very bones of their songs. Though these bands seem quintessentially SF, they owed much of their success to a unexpected audience.

“Swell was always more popular in Europe,” says Vallier. “We had a foothold there. We had really good distribution there and a really good agent. And the music, I think that people over there at that time really connected with it, especially in France—the kind of darker sadcore stuff was really popular there.”

John Peel, the great BBC radio DJ known as one of the great tastemakers in rock history, compared them to Nirvana and Pavement. English label Beggars Banquet signed them and marketed them successfully throughout Europe. When Vallier and Kirkpatrick decided to reform the band to pay tribute to Freel after his passing, it seemed natural to kick off their reunion with a European tour.

Swell’s Sean Kirkpatrick at Le Petit Bain

Swell played 13 dates in Europe last April, with Dettman-Lytle taking over the mantle of lead singer from Freel. “We thought we’d go over to Europe and we’d play some of the big cities and then that would be it,” says Vallier. “But then people really dug it and some shows were sold out and people kept talking about why don’t you play some shows in the US? There’s still a lot of fans here.”

Swell kicks off their four-date American tour in Los Angeles on December 4 before stopping at the Independent on December 5 and moving on to Portland on December 8 and Seattle on December 9. According to Vallier, this is unlikely to be the last hurrah for the band; another, longer European tour to celebrate the 41 reissue is in the works.

“We all talk about if maybe we would get together and try to write some songs and do some kind of new EP or something,” says Vallier. “But we’re just really enjoying reliving the music. I really want people to come to the show at the Independent, and all I can promise is that it’s gonna sound like the old Swell.”

SWELL plays December 5. The Independent, SF. Tickets and more information here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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