Interview: Eric Olsen of Swale

Words by Jess Slayton. Photo by SHEM ROOSE.

I met up with Eric Olsen of Burlington-based Swale at Stone Soup Tuesday afternoon to learn more about one of the individuals behind the band. Over a selection of hot bar items and a vegan club sandwich, I learned that he works independently as a web developer and designer right above the café. Olsen, the guitarist and contributing vocalist in the quartet, told me that the band formed in 2002, after he was asked to help with the musical direction for a burlesque cabaret. All of the band members—Olsen, Amanda Gustafson, Jeremy Frederick, and Tyler Bolles—played a part in the Spielpalast Cabaret. Although they had known of each other before hand, this is what brought them together and created that which is Swale. When asked to decribe their music, Olsen said that they are not necessarily flamboyant, but are certainly playful despite having a concern with things of the soul. This dimension of the group’s artistry can definitely be accredited to their burlesque roots.

Although all four members of Swale hail from various places, Olsen said that the Burlington music scene has definitely had an impact on the communal focus that pervades their music. From a superficial standpoint, the tight knit and small Burlington community has provided them with the opportunity to play mostly for smaller audiences and on smaller sound systems—it’s therefore a matter of adjusting when they play on larger stages. More importantly, however, is the fact that the Burlington music scene has caused them to place more value on the connection between their audience, themselves, and the music, than on virtuosity and technique. This focus on the community is part of who they are—they are interested in being an enjoyable part of the community, and know that eventually they will be heard due to the small community and their tenacity.

From a sound standpoint, Olsen explained that they have evolved from a slow-core band with a quiet and intense sound to one with much more variation. They purposely label themselves as simply a “rock” band due to the wide variety of sub-styles that they work with. They also love working with other local artists, and letting them have full artistic freedom in doing so. One thing that I really admired about Olsen was his commitment to unstructured art—he said, “We’re not a band to adhere to, but rather are interested in the art of collaboration.” They choose to play with others who they trust and consider great artists in their own right, and choose to see what they have to offer rather than feeding them musical pieces that they expect them to play. Part of this comes from the fact that over the years, Olsen said that he feels that he has become much more generous of an artist. Althought it was an extensive process, he said that he became less concerned about how he and his bandmates were viewed, and more concerned with what they could offer their audience. It became more acceptable to go off script because the moment was there, and gave him more opportunities to reflect on his own art rather than worrying about what would be the most impressive. This has allowed Olsen, as well as the music of Swale, to grow into what it is today.

Swale just released The Next Instead as a double vinyl last year, and has no intention to stop churning out songs. According to Olsen, they have no shortage of material, and are hoping to write the theme song for Vermont Edition and maybe form a partnership with Vermont Public Radio. Check them out this Saturday at the Magic Hat Brewery for Heavyfest. Olsen insists that you come hang out with them. Find more at