Swim when you’re winning
From their appreciation of pop culture, to their support of social issues: few bands are as clued up as SWMRS.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Alice Baxley.
The first proper look at SWMRS came with ‘Miley’. The debut cut from ‘Drive North’ celebrates Miley Cyrus as a “punk rock queen” after Cole Becker saw her, alongside Laura Jane Grace, covering The Replacements’ ‘Androgynous’ for her Happy Hippie Foundation. “It was crazy,” he says. “I used to watch her doing dumb TV shows and now she’s covering one of my favourite songs and she donated all the money to homeless LGBT relief.”
“It’s one of those things where it’s not necessarily about adoration as much as it’s an examination,” he ventures, furthering the statement the band made following the track’s release: “Our song ‘Miley’ is not intended as a sweeping intersectional feminist statement and in no way reflects an alignment with the more problematic things that Miley says.”
“She’s constantly piquing our interest. She went from that to somehow offending the whole world in a day and still manages to play sold out shows, y’know. She’s not really a punk rocker but neither are we. She’s doing what she wants and that’s something that speaks to us.”
In a previous life Miley Cyrus was Disney child-star Hannah Montana but she’s not the only one with a colourful past. In a parallel story, SWMRS used to be known as Emily’s Army. Formed in 2004 by Cole Becker and Joey Armstrong after watching School Of Rock, the pair recruited Cole’s brother Max and the band was born. Two albums – 2011’s ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ and 2013’s ‘Lost At Seventeen’ – a string of EPs and a couple of summers on the US Warped Tour followed, alongside an appearance at Reading & Leeds that saw the band spend more time signing and taking pictures with a mob of fans next to the Pit stage than they did playing on it. With Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong producing all their records (as well as being their drummer’s dad), you could already tell where this story was going.
However, the band weren’t interested in manufactured fairytales and pulled away. Despite the different spheres of influence, there are similarities between the evolution of Miley Cyrus and the evolution of SWMRS. “Both of us went through a transition of being young and not really grasping the breadth of the business we were working in, to growing up and figuring out how to find autonomy in the constructs we’d built around ourselves.”
Now, with a new name, a new bassist (Sebastian Mueller replaced Travis Neumann In 2014) and a new outlook, SWMRS are gearing up to release their debut album as an entirely new band.
‘Drive North’ is “the first SWMRS album,” Cole states. “The influences are a lot broader and it’s just a lot more mature. We’re a little more refined now. It’s in the same spirit as Emily’s Army but it’s a little more DIY.” The transition between the two bands just happened, without much public fanfare. “It’s been really smooth,” he explains. “At first people were confused because we kinda pulled a fast one on everyone by keeping our social media followers and just changing the name. We treated it as a new band though because the nature of the name change was born out of a desire to break with all the shortcomings of Emily’s Army.”
“We had a really terrible experience with the record label,” says Cole. “They knew the easiest way to market us was via hopping on things we didn’t want to be hopped on. It ended up that people saw us as almost a Green Day derivative, and we wanted to be our own band.”
It’s that struggle for self and the discovery that comes with it that rages at the heart of ‘Drive North’. “It’s very much a coming of age album. It’s about coming of age in a place that is the cultural other of somewhere like LA. When you’re in California, LA has so much visibility that you get envious and jealous of their scene.” From the opening of ‘Harry Dean’, through the recorded heart of ‘Figuring It Out’ to the title track, ‘Drive North’ is bigger than specific frustrations and isolation. “It’s about finding your own identity no matter where you’re from. It’s about feeling like I want to be where all the music is happening; I want to be from that scene but really, it’s not important. It’s more important to do what you love.”
The record, grittier, darker and more frank than anything they’ve gone near before, sees the band living up to their search for something more. “I think it’s quite evolutionary. We all got older, we all got tougher. Emily’s Army ended up just being about fun, and this is about fun too, but it’s also about something serious and so the sound had to follow that,” he offers. “This is what we love to do, we want to be able to do this until we die.”
‘Drive North’ is the first time the band have gone into the studio without Billie Joe Armstrong behind the desk. “He really helped us find out who we are as a band, and he introduced us to so much music – but it was important for us to break from everything we knew. That was the idea of SWMRS. We needed to do something completely on our own, without the comfort of what we grew up with. That was the idea behind breaking from Billie as a producer. It’s actually strengthened our relationship with him because now he can just watch us as we do our thing and it’s cool.”
Taking over was FIDLAR’s Zac Carper. He helped shape the sound of the record by discovering all the band’s left-field influences, and unlocking them. With a more free-flowing palette, SWMRS could build on their punk origins, which was handy because Cole doesn’t exactly rate his credentials.
“I’m not really that punk. I grew up in a suburb. We like who we like and sometimes that falls in line with punk.” SWMRS identify more with punk ethics, ”which are very progressive and forward thinking. I think we have a really good idea of what we want to accomplish as a band now, whereas with Emily’s Army we didn’t.” That doesn’t mean the band have settled on a sound – “it’s always going to be changing” – and while they don’t know where they’re heading next, they know what they want. “Everything is always going to come from a very punk spirit. What we like about punk is that it’s very activist and very visceral.”
It’s an idea the band have held close to their chests. From naming the first real edition of the band Emily’s Army to help raise awareness of Cystic Fibrosis – Max and Cole’s cousin Emily suffers from it – to Cole’s art-project-slash-magazine ‘Boyzine’ that aims to “talk about important issues, feminism and intersectionality to people on a grander scale.” There’s a desire to help people, to create conversations and craft a community in everything SWMRS do.
It’s a feeling Cole describes as “hard to avoid. We grew up in Berkeley, which is a very socially conscious place and, especially now in this global climate of activism and the world falling apart, it’s important for us to acknowledge that our influences didn’t just come from there. Part of our tax to the global community is to trying to elevate the voices of people who are marginalised and people who don’t have the same freedoms that we do.” It’s a sentiment echoed and cried by the likes of The Wonder Years, letlive. and The Hotelier.
The joy of ‘Drive North’ is weighed against the band’s activist desire and “it’s a hard line to balance,” admits Cole. “The more time you take to think about all the things that are happening in the world, the harder it gets to pause between them. When Max and I were writing this record, it seemed like the world was falling apart in a lot of ways. But at the end, there’s this hopeful message because a lot of our problems stem from older people and the generation before us. I think our generation has a really good handle on the world. In 15 years the world’s going to be in a better place by far,” he says with absolute conviction.
It’s a belief the band put to record. The message at the heart of their debut is that “you’re not alone. It’s really important that there are a lot of songs about being lonely, about being 17 years old and not really knowing what you want to do with your life. The takeaway is that it’s ok and even if you feel like people don’t understand you, it’s going to be ok.” This reassuring voice can be heard across ‘Drive North’’s frantic, reflective and hook laden bangerz.
“Sometimes having weird emotional idiosyncrasies can feel very isolating but in the end, everyone’s got some sort of problem like that. ‘Drive North’ is about breaking down people’s barriers from each other.” Parallel once more, on their debut album SWMRS are coming in like a wrecking ball.