SWMRS Talk Positivity, Politics, and Being The Voice Of A Generation

Berkeley punks SWMRS are out to inspire young people...

SWMRS Talk Positivity, Politics, and Being The Voice Of A Generation
James Hickie
Jonathan Weiner

It wasn’t just Berkeley that was on fire – the sky was too. It was 2017, and the first of a series of blazes devastating the forests of northern California had caused thick patches of smoke to coalesce into a dense cloud over San Francisco’s Bay Area. It’s where Cole Becker calls home, but even he struggled to recognise his surroundings at the time – the apocalyptic skyline of suffocating darkness akin to the vision of the future in Blade Runner.

“It was terrifying to see,” recalls Cole today, sat in the West London offices of his record label with his SWMRS bandmates. It’s a room of impractically large sofas and shiny glass coffee tables, not dissimilar to where the band met producer Rich Costey that fateful smoky day. Back then, Berkeley’s On Fire was little more than the excitable ideas of four young men in need of a singular outlet. They’d formed as Emily’s Army in 2004, with their two albums, Don’t Be A Dick (2011) and Lost At Seventeen (2013), providing a more sprightly take on the punk birthed in the area during the ‘80s, married to the musings of teenage boys. Despite garnering fans and plaudits for their efforts, in 2014 Emily’s Army became SWMRS, a name change telegraphing a shift into the more omnivorous material on their ‘debut’, 2016’s Drive North.

In 2017, having shared ideas with Rich, the man responsible for helming classic albums by Muse and Biffy Clyro, SWMRS felt creatively charged. Even stepping out into the “Beijing-level air quality” caused by the fires didn’t dampen their mood – the gloomy conditions, in fact, inspired a “gnarly, industrial” riff. In need of a lyric to pair it with, Cole consulted his journals. That February, the “Republican douchebags” (his words) at the University of California, Berkeley had organised a speech by British right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Many were understandably unhappy with the idea, given Milo was the senior editor for Breitbart News, the so-called ‘Huffington Post of the right’ popular with supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Milo was forced to resign from Breitbart that same month over reported comments suggesting ‘younger boys’ could have consensual sex with older men. In light of the highly controversial booking, some expressed their displeasure destructively. As well as reportedly causing some $100,000 worth of damage to property, the protest that followed resulted in the cancellation of Milo’s scheduled appearance.

Cole had chronicled it all. He’d noted the small fire that was lit on the campus, and how the attending news crews had fixated on it, filming in extreme close-up. Cole wrote, too, about seeing that same small fire on the TV later, and how it seemed to engulf the whole screen. He was struck by how the scene had been so grossly exaggerated, but more so by the spark it lit within him. Ideas of outrage and exaggeration, of disharmony and dissatisfaction coursed through him as he read the headline alongside the imagery: ‘Berkeley’s On Fire!’ That’s when the words came.

The lyrics on Berkeley’s On Fire, the album, stick with you, whether it’s the deftness of Trashbag Baby (‘The words cut through her lips like a Japanese knife’) or the provocation of Hellboy (‘Charlie Manson is alright / He ain’t no worse than all the violence you say Jesus like’). Perhaps the finest example comes during Lose Lose Lose, a cluster bomb of styles and unquestionably the most danceable track of the year to feature the words: ‘2019 is a fuckin’ disaster / Dear Vladimir Putin stop fuckin’ up my shit coz I know I can fuck it up faster.

“It’s not always obvious that the political climate is affecting your life personally, and it can happen in funny ways like us getting shorter with each other,” says Cole by way of explanation. “Things were happening that weren’t necessarily attributable to, y’know… Russian collusion,” he continues, pausing for the laughter of his bandmates, “but you feel a weight inside you like a big black cloud, and we wanted to talk about how that works on your psyche.”

“Even though it’s a very big statement, it’s probably the most general one on the record,” explains Cole’s brother Max. At 25, he’s two years his senior, but joined the band a few weeks after his younger sibling, sharing vocal and guitar duties with him. Max leans forward as he speaks, trying to avoid the bar of sunlight scanning his face like a radio searching for a signal. “Some will interpret the daily life aspect [of Lose Lose Lose], but if Trump hears it he might say, ‘Fuck – he’s right, man!’ But I don’t want anything to do with that guy.”

“There’s a reason the line is ‘fucking up my shit’,” explains Cole. “We talk about it as this abstract thing, but on a day-to-day level, when you’re hearing negative news all the time, it makes you a worse person.”

“I think there’s a stigma on our generation,” says drummer Joey Armstrong, throwing another quandary into the mix. “If you speak up, you’re outspoken, and if you don’t speak up then you’re a slacker. It’s a fine line; we do what we want to do, but we put the work in to make sure what we do is accurate.”

“The older generation will judge,” continues Joey – a fascinating thought, considering the generation in question includes his own father, Green Day legend Billie Joe. “I think everyone should have a voice, but there are some people who like to be in the background on things, so we speak for them.”

This isn’t simply a band that changed their sound, then, but one that’s broadening their horizons, too.

Given San Francisco’s status as the ground zero of American counterculture, it’s not surprising many consider Berkeley a kindred spirit. SWMRS’ hometown, situated over the Oakland Bay Bridge and some 10 miles from its giant neighbour, is like a less-glamorous but equally open-minded cousin. Seb Mueller, the band’s thoughtful, softly spoken bassist, says there are pictures of him as a baby accompanying his parents on protests more peaceful than the one Cole had written about.

“The Bay Area is a homegrown roots community that tries to stand up and fight for what’s right,” explains Seb of a characteristic that’s clearly permeated his band. Some musicians are resigned to the world burning and are cheerfully on hand to provide the soundtrack to the inferno, but SWMRS are defined by their belief that this planet, and its people, are worth fighting for. Small wonder, given they’ve grown up in a place characterised by multiculturalism, liberal attitudes to sexuality, and areas of great natural beauty, that they’ve made an album to that effect.

“This might sound elitist, and it’s not meant to, but we have this huge connection with nature where we’re at,” explains Max. “We’re close to the mountains, we’re close to the ocean, and we have national parks around us, so every day we enjoy this greater appreciation for the planet. If you don’t grow up with these things around you, why would you care about them? If you get to surf in the ocean, why would you want to pollute it? If you grew up near the Castro [district in San Francisco, one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the U.S.], why would you be mean to gay people?”

“Most white kids don’t know who the Black Panthers are until they’re about 25,” adds Cole. “That movement started down the street from where we grew up, so that’s something we always knew about and appreciated for what it was, not what people try to tell you they are – that it was a terrorist group. It wasn’t; it was a socialist group that fed kids and cared about education.”

“We’re exposed to everything in the Bay Area,” agrees Joey. “You learn what’s right early on – and if you don’t know then you’re taught very quickly.”

"There’s so much unkindness in the world, especially in America"

Cole Becker

Not everyone has access to such positive surroundings in their formative years, though. When did SWMRS realise not everyone thought the same way they do?

“So late,” laughs Cole, perhaps at their naivety.

The most striking thing about the members of SWMRS, aside from their wisdom beyond their years, is how free of ego they are. Take Joey, for instance; despite being the son of punk rock royalty, his feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

“You’re a fool if you’re a drummer and you just go in and you’re just trying to do your thing,” he explains, black roots beneath blonde curls making him the spitting image of his father circa Green Day’s 2000 album, Warning. “They’re their songs,” he says of the 10 tracks on Berkeley’s On Fire, motioning towards Cole and Max. “How do I treat their songs? We were working on a cover the other day and Cole gets on the kit to show me what he hears in his head. I don’t sit there and songs suddenly come to me. That’s not my skill; I’m a cog in the machine they’re creating. I put my spark on it by playing in my style what they’re hearing.”

Such level-headedness extends to the four’s non-judgemental view of those who don’t share their liberal upbringing, and the belief system that’s evolved from it.

“Why chastise them?” asks Max. “They may have grown up in a small, closed-off town – of course they’re not going to know many of these things! What happens with a lot of people where we’re from is that they say, ‘Oh, well everyone is stupid – fuck them! Why are we not our own power, given that [California is] the sixth-largest economy in the world and self-sustaining?’ That’s a bad angle; there are people all over the South [in the U.S.] who are inherently good people but grew up among crazy people.”

“People in, say, Texas have so much more on the line by living out their beliefs,” says Cole. “We’re not having to sever ties with family members for what we believe.”

As well as introducing their debut (as SWMRS) to audiences around the world, Drive North and its two-year touring cycle allowed the band to take a collective pulse among the young people set to inherit that world.

“We went to places that people don’t usually go, and got these unique microcosm perspectives,” says Cole. “Making this record was about connecting those dots: Jenny in Nebraska is feeling this way, so is Tom in London. What’s going on in the world that’s making us all feel this way?”

Not that Berkeley’s On Fire is all about global politics, mind. Much of it skews the minutiae of life – a characteristic certainly carried over from the group’s Emily’s Army days. The new song Too Much Coffee is, in part at least, quite literally about Max overindulging on the black stuff. He doesn’t react well to it, he says, so opts for English breakfast tea instead.

“It might be someone having to do homework, or taking out the trash,” says Max, returning to his point. “They’re the problems right in front of us at that time.”

In America right now, the rise of nationalism is sadly becoming one of the most pressing everyday concerns, but Cole says that’s countered by a pervading sense of shame among those who have to bear witness to it.

“A lot of people are weirdly ashamed to be American right now, which is disheartening,” says Cole. “It makes it so hard for people to look forward.”

“It’s not limited to America though,” adds Max, constructively rather than defensively. “You go to Poland and they’re saying, ‘Oh man – our government!’ and then you come [to the UK] and it’s, ‘Oh man – Brexit!’ The thing they can all relate to is the problem of nationalism.”

“The older I get the more responsible I feel,” says Joey. “And what I can do is be accepting of other cultures and learn about them – we all have a responsibility to do that.”

“And just to be kind at the baseline of it,” smiles Cole. “There’s so much unkindness in the world, especially in America. You can either say, ‘Fuck it, I’m moving to Canada’, or you can say, ‘How do we make it so we can try and enforce some positive change?’ We’re not going to give up.”

It’s fair to say SWMRS fans aren’t your average rock devotees. Only this week, Cole tells us, one got in touch to vent about kids in his hometown not knowing who Nancy Pelosi is. And while it’s odd that someone be ostracised for being able to identify the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the story illustrates just how different SWMRS’ listeners are.

It’s a relationship between band and audience that’s more mutually beneficial than most. In December, Max showed his appreciation for the passionate, communicative support they receive by telling his 39,500 Twitter followers he’s jealous of SWMRS for their fans, despite being in SWMRS. In return, those beloved fans look to the band for support in everyday lives that may be testing, for guidance in what their heroes say as much as what they play.

“This is how fucked-up parts of America are,” explains Cole. “Us, a group of straight white dudes, have become the queer icons for those kids who don’t have access to gay culture. These kids see us supporting the LGBTQ community and say, ‘Fuck it – I’m going to come out to my dad now.’ We’re trying to make a space for them to feel accepted. That’s what music does.”

The question of just what SWMRS’ music sounds like was one Berkeley’s On Fire had to provide a definitive answer to. This seems particularly important to Joey, who explains he’d grown weary of “stagnant” pop and the underground’s preoccupation with nostalgia – as well as assumptions about what he should be doing, based on his parentage.

“It’s something I’ve grown up with,” he explains. “You’re expected to do certain things, know certain things, and play certain things. Am I supposed to wear all black and listen to emo? Fuck you – I don’t do that! My entire life I’ve thought, ‘How do I do something different?’”

Max agrees. He and his bandmates can only cite two bands, Blur and The Clash, other than their own that they can all agree on. The four men’s musical educations have been entirely different; Cole proudly rocks a Missy Elliott T-shirt today, while Max fondly recalls performing in Les Misérables at high school.

“None of us are the same at all, so why make music that’s in one box when we represent four completely different worlds?” says Max, grandly. “So why not create our own borderless box?”

“If you’re putting up walls to block out sound then you’re being obtuse,” is Cole’s take.

Thankfully Rich Costey was on hand to assist with the demolition work. Mr Armstrong senior had produced the band’s two albums as Emily’s Army, while Drive North saw FIDLAR singer-guitarist Zac Carper help them realise their change of course. This time around, however, it was decided a more experienced head was needed to assist SWMRS in realising their place in the musical landscape.

During the band’s search, the four gauged the success of meetings with prospective producers on how quickly the time passed. Most encounters, they admit, felt as long as they were, if not longer, so were no-goes. Then came Rich, a man they describe as “a demigod” and “Wikipedia for music and sounds”, who questioned the band about what made the music they love special. Only later did the boys register the breezy exchange had lasted four hours. They knew then they’d found their man – and a tough one at that. Rich’s honesty sometimes resulted in reactions to the band’s efforts ranging from, “Well that sucked”, to, worse, complete silence, but his dogged aversion to recreating anything that’s come before proved an effective filter for them.

“He was the final piece of the puzzle,” says Joey, who reveals he got through multiple snare drums after his initial offerings were nixed by the producer for sounding “too pop” and “too rock”.

“We were all over the place,” says Max of those initial efforts. “We had all the different pieces, but Rich helped us put them together.”

“This is exactly what we wanted it to be,” says Max of Berkeley’s On Fire’s convergence of diverse sounds, unusual arrangements and observations big and small. “Whatever other bands want to do is cool, but this is what we’re doing. You can go play a dad show.”

This comment, joke though it is, does raise an important final question. If SWMRS are trying to speak for, with and to factions of young people without a voice around the world, does this mean that, for all their restless ambition, they aren’t trying to get to everyone? Does this politically conscious band think some minds can’t be reached?

“We’ll certainly always try,” promises Cole.

“Identifying your fan base is one of the most important things you can do,” suggests Joey. “If you come to one of our shows, you’ll see 12 to 25-year-old people, and that’s the coolest thing.”

“I hold a couple of bands really dear to my heart as a fan from when I was between the ages of 15 and 22,” Max says. “Those are the years when you change so much as a person. I want to be that band for people, because that band will stick with you in a special way for the rest of your life.”

And while that’s looking far ahead, on a more short-term basis there’s the everyday good SWMRS can bring to a world facing an uncertain future.

“Music is everything, and it makes you feel,” beams Cole. “The more you can feel, the better you’re going to be as a person. And only when you feel like a better person can you help with bringing about real change. That’s what music does.”

Berkeley's On Fire is out now via Fueled By Ramen. SWMRS play Reading & Leeds in August.

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