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September 2019
Cover story

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'

Rallying against the world around them, but with hope in their hearts, SWMRS’ second album proper isn’t so much a spark that starts a fire as a personal pledge.
Published: 11:30 am, May 16, 2019Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'

SWMRS' 2016 album ‘Drive North' was a caustic, beat-up record of hometown frustrations, daydreamed adventure and mirror image unease. They wanted to get away. They wanted to figure it out. They weren't even sure what ‘it' was, but it drove the band forward.

The confusion, self-doubt and anxiety that zig-zagged through the album wound its way around the self-belief that SWMRS were going to find their own way. If there were answers to be had, the band were going to unearth them themselves. Riding ‘Drive North' into the wild, SWMRS went out, them versus the world.

It turns out they weren't alone.

"We went through our early twenties during ‘Drive North' and those years are so transformative," starts guitarist/vocalist Max Becker, "not only on the human psyche but also where your position is at in the world, what kinda people you want to surround yourself with and what values you hold dear.

"We saw so many places and met so many people. We were really fortunate to come out of that whole process more well-rounded with a more global, big-picture perspective on things. You realise you have way more in common with everyone than you ever thought."

"We had this unique opportunity to explore all these different regions of the world and listen to people's stories," explains guitarist/vocalist Cole Becker. "When people go to a show, and they feel they can make themselves vulnerable to you, they tell you exactly what's going on in their life, and there's no guard. They don't have any filter. You learn so much about these kids, what everyone is experiencing and how they're interpreting the world around them as it feels like it's crashing down. That had a big impact on us."

"Going into ‘Drive North', we were asking ‘how do we do this?'" continues Max. "Now it's a case of 'we're in this'. It's not finished, it's not ever going to be finished, but we're now in this zone with so many people, and it feels like we're part of a big group because of that."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
“We want to headline Glastonbury. We want to headline Reading. We're ready”
Max Becker

Alongside bands like The Regrettes and Grandson, SWMRS are forging a path through the uncharted jungle of growing up in the throes of social media, Trump and global unease.

"We're essentially the people all our young fans look up to when they're going through the same space. It's like being the oldest sibling in a family. We have to do the hard shit and try to figure things out, so we can try and teach them and make it easier for them when they go through the same things."

SWMRS' first record as SWMRS was fiercely independent. Partly to prove they could do it by themselves, without help from famous dads or major labels, and partly because they didn't want anyone interfering with their vision. ‘Berkeley's On Fire' sees the band team up with Fueled By Ramen. It's a partnership that's opened doors and minds.

"What really shifted was when we started touring with All Time Low," explains Cole. "We started playing really big venues with them, and I realised that the songs on ‘Drive North' were written for 200 capacity punk clubs. Once we started playing with All Time Low, I realised that we had this potential to extend the reach and power of our music beyond that. We could invite anyone and everyone to enjoy the catharsis of a rock show."

That scope, along with their ever-blossoming fanbase, meant that SWMRS started to think larger on ‘Berkeley's On Fire'.

"We had big ideas and big hopes for it," beams Max, "but once we got into the studio with Rich Costey, he took everything we've ever done to not only the next level but ten levels past where we were.

"This record exceeded my expectations and every day we were in the studio, we just felt like the luckiest boys in the world. I've been waiting for this my whole life. I'm 25, but I'm pretty much 60. We've been doing this for so long; we're definitely ready.

"We're a very energetic group of guys, and we want to perform in front of as many people as possible. We want to headline Glastonbury. We want to headline Reading. We're ready."

"We've been doing 200 cap rooms since we were 12 years old with [former moniker] Emily's Army," continues Cole. "It felt like we had an opportunity to move on and not a lot of people get that. It felt time. I was definitely terrified.

"That's what ‘April In Houston' is all about, that opportunity to move forward and move into the unknown. You feel guilty because in punk rock, you're not supposed to be on the major label or whatever but the other side of it, is that now, you get more people to hear your music. Maybe one, or a thousand, or a million more people's lives are going to be better because they heard something in our music that they weren't going to hear anywhere else."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
“If you feel like pop music has nothing to offer you, then you'll probably like SWMRS”
Cole Becker

The band know they're not the only ones taking those risks and pushing things forward, but as with everything they do, it's a community endeavour. They want to be next in the long, interconnected line of bands pushing the envelope. They want to stand for something. They want to be there for kids like them.

"Teenage Shitpop, as well as being one of the potential titles for album, is the genre I would describe us as. It's not really pop music, but it's real energetic culture for teenagers who don't feel like pop music is speaking to them. If you feel like pop music has nothing to offer you, then you'll probably like SWMRS."

Most of ‘Drive North' saw Cole singing which established SWMRS as "having this epic punk ethos", but they finished the cycle with Max-penned ‘Lose It'. "All of a sudden people realised we had a soft side as well." While that first record established SWMRS as a gang, united by a dedicated vision and a lust for life, ‘Berkeley's On Fire' sees them comfortable as individuals.

"Being a band that functions as different people is fantastic," grins Max. "I often feel we're like a supergroup, but we've been doing it together since forever. Cole and I have known each other since I was 4."

For Cole, it was ‘April In Houston'. For Max, it was ‘Berkeley's On Fire'. Either way, somewhere in the creation of this record, something clicked between the four of them. SWMRS are a group of distinct personalities that celebrate being an individual. They all pile on and want to be heard, as the record roars with tragedy, triumph and glee. There's a power when it all aligns though.

"We know each other so well as musicians that we don't have to rely on a computer or a light show, or something extraneous," continues Max. "We just know the musical fusion that happens between the four of us" - five with drummer Joey Armstrong's brother Jakob joining them onstage - "radiates outwards so powerfully and so naturally.

"That's what makes our shows so special and, without tooting my own horn, really fucking good. We have this intense musical relationship that we can channel thousands and thousands of yards outwards into a field. People can feel the feelings we're exchanging between us and be invited to feel them as well."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
"The three years between ‘Drive North' and this album were far from easy"
Cole Becker

SWMRS sound bigger than they've ever dared to dream with ‘Berkeley's On Fire'. Deliberate and aiming high, it's still feelings first.

"The three years between ‘Drive North' and this album were far from easy. We weren't taking a break," grins Cole. "We were just taking our time to really craft the identity of these songs and turn them into something that not only we could understand, but that anyone can understand.

"That's what makes good music. It takes these abstract feelings that you didn't know had words or sounds and puts them in a song. All of a sudden, people can feel understood. That's the power of music. Sometimes language isn't enough. Sometimes the way we express ourselves every day isn't enough. Sometimes you need something like music to help you put a name to what you're feeling."

‘Berkeley's On Fire', despite planting its flag firmly in the ground, finds a balance between global anguish and private horror.

"That's what life is," starts Max. "There's a lot of crazy shit happening, and there's stuff right in front of you. You've gotta deal with both."

There's the solitary fear of ‘Lonely Ghosts', the admission that "I don't know if I've got this" in ‘Too Much Coffee' while ‘April In Houston' asks, "Is it wrong to be afraid of growing up?"

"I can't speak for older generations, but I can definitely say that people my age, we're getting a lot of panic attacks," says Max. "There's a lot of anxiety because we're inheriting this world that's got so many problems, from the environment to the social systems to healthcare. There's a list of things that are so overwhelming to think about. There's so much anxiety, and we wanted to tap into that. It's how we felt, and we knew a lot of other people feel the same way."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
“There's a lot of anxiety because we're inheriting this world that's got so many problems”
Max Becker

SWMRS have always been a band that believed in more than music. Yes, the first musical partnership between Joey and Cole came about after watching School of Rock, but their first proper band name, Emily's Army, was to help raise awareness of Cystic Fibrosis in honour of Max's cousin, who suffers from the disorder. From the word go, they've been loud, proud and fearless in their beliefs. ‘Berkeley's On Fire' is the first time they've been pointedly political in their music though.

"You can go so many different ways with political songs," offers Max. "You can be very literal - this is a revolution, fuck the man - but we felt that's been done a lot. We're not saying it's a bad thing, but we didn't think we'd make as big of an impact doing that. Instead, we tried to take very specific moments, like the Berkeley Riots, and make a song where people feel like they can apply it to their own lives, in their own way, and feel like it's a song about them."

"Everyone has Twitter these days," continues Cole. "You don't have to listen to music to know that what's going on in the world is fucked up. You don't have to hear that in a song, so it's important to talk about how it manifests in a personal way. Any machine could write a song about the political moment right now, but personality is what makes us human.

"The only reason we're talking about politics is that we want to make it ok for people to live their lives and be human. The light at the end of the tunnel is your own personal experience and how you're moving through the world."

"It took a long time for me to feel ready to speak out in a song, and immortalise the kind of discourse we're having," Max explains. "You don't want to get it wrong, you don't want to date yourself, and you certainly don't wanna speak on behalf of people who you really should be letting speak for themselves. That was the main hesitation, but we realised that we had this platform than kept growing, not because of the politics but because of the music.

"Just realising the power of the type of space that we allowed people to make in their lives for having a good time and feeling truly free was really big for us. We know we got our platform due to a lot of crazy circumstances which are historical and gnarly, so using our platform to uplift people who are marginalised make their own path in life is important."

"Dear Vladimir Putin, stop fucking up my shit ‘cos I know I can fuck it up faster," grins ‘Lose Lose Lose'. "[I'm] nervous to come out with that, because right now we have a gig in Moscow scheduled for June and I'm really hoping that we're still allowed to play," says Cole. That's one of the few downsides of being so vocal.

"You can't go to police states, or you have to be careful when you do. That man is so powerful; I doubt he'll care." But just in case - "Dear Vladimir Putin, if you're reading this, just know I didn't mean it, and I still wanna play in Moscow."

Across the record, there are little nods to bigger issues.

"A lot of people like to pour their entire heart out, and at a certain point, you start to ramble. People are smart enough to figure out what a line is going to mean to them on their own, without me having to explain it in every single line.

"That's what's so cool about making music now; I can put in all these references and then people, if they hear a more political or academic reference, they can go research it and find out how they can input their own two cents.

"At the end of the day, music is for that one moment of your whole week where you get to enjoy yourself. You don't want to give people a fuck ton of information; you want them to dance, sing, have a good time."

"A big theme on the record is trying to sift through what the world is shoving in your face. That's a big part of being in your twenties," explains Max, asking: "Who do I believe? Who do I trust? The news is very fear-driven, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. You can't trust everybody."

Never losing hope, SWMRS are adamant that there are people you can trust.

"Go find them. The world isn't as simple right now. There are so many little ways to get information - do your research, find something you trust and be a positive part of society. Contribute, and make the world a better place."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
“I'm not going to stop talking about it until people can finally go to any show and not get groped”
Cole Becker

The rich history of radicalism that can be found throughout Berkeley inspired ‘Lose Lose Lose', which acknowledges that while there's positive energy right now, "if shit doesn't start changing soon, then it's going to turn into negative energy. The idea of if I get pushed down one more fucking time, I swear to god I'm going to lose my mind."

Elsewhere ‘Hellboy' looks at school shooters, and what drives them to such extremes.

"One of the biggest and most horrifying things about growing up right now is the spectre of a school shooter coming to your school and murdering you. That's a real fear that everyone has growing up in the States. All the coverage of it is really stupid; we never talk about who is responsible. Obviously, these kids are sick, they're ill, but maybe because it happens so much, it's something that's in our culture, which happens to be a very violent culture.

"We've been at war for the past 60 years, pretty much continuously. For one reason or another, people have had the impulse to shoot up a school, and that's fucking horrifying. But if enough people have that feeling, maybe we should talk about why? I wanted to write a song that humanises that feeling without embracing it. Humanising it so we can move through it.

"Maybe if a kid hears that who's thinking about shooting up a school, maybe there's one less school shooter, and that's more than just putting out hopes and prayers for the people is going to fucking do."

There's a sense of loss that hangs in the shadows of ‘Berkeley's On Fire'. It acknowledges that somewhere, somehow we lost part of ourselves. A fracture in our collective soul, it's never really given a voice or takes to the spotlight, but it's there.

"You're in your early twenties, and you're not only losing your innocence, but as you get older people in your life who were a big part of it start to die. Things change. You're at the end of the first quarter and all of a sudden, you realise things don't stay the same. The loss, the uncertainty, it adds to the uneasiness of all the songs."

SWMRS aren't trying to mend wounds; they're just trying to hold it all together.

"The point of the record is that that's life. You still have to do your best to be a positive member of society and be a good family member. It's simple, but it's hard to juggle with all the crazy shit that's thrown at you."

The band still don't know the destination, but that forward momentum is vital.

"All you can do is keep going, and try and fall asleep at the end of the night without too much regret."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
“It's not about fame; I've just always wanted to be a good person”
Max Becker

Taking that to heart, SWMRS are constantly trying to be better; to do more. They've made a 'zine to help their shows become a safe space for all, which includes the perspective of a femme who grew up in the punk scene and works in a venue.

"That's the first step," explains Cole. "There are other things I can start doing to stop this from happening at our shows, but the first thing I know how to do is make a 'zine, and give it out for free so that everyone knows, and has all the information they can get on the subject.

"'Zines were the first way I learnt how to express myself, and express ideas to people and I wanted to extend that privilege. It's so fucking lazy to not talk about sexual assault at shows. It happens at every show. Even when we talk about it, it still happens. I'm not going to stop talking about it until people can finally go to any show and not get groped. People are such fuckers. They're gross, entitled mother fuckers but maybe, just maybe, we can stop at least one, and hopefully every fucking stray hand running around.

"I try and talk about it at every show because there's always some fucker in the crowd who thinks that it's cool to grab someone. It's not cool. You're fucking with someone's head; you're literally fucking someone up, it's so violent to do that to someone. If you haven't experienced sexual assault, it's a pretty abstract idea, and people don't wrap their head around how incredibly violent sexual assault is and how it works on a survivors brain."

It feels like things are shifting, though.

"Finally people are beginning to understand what sexual assault means. Finally, we're getting some discourse, and young men are starting to wrap their heads around how awful it is. As a white man who has a platform, I want to help build a new culture for these young kids. Ultimately what we're doing is trying to build a model of how to be a good fucking person. It's way easier to be a shitty person, but the responsibility for us is focusing on being the best version of ourselves."

Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
Music that matters, but isn't afraid to have fun: SWMRS delve into 'Berkeley's On Fire'
"Anybody who is making music from their heart is doing something so important"
Cole Becker

SWMRS are a band of brothers, blood or otherwise. Growing up in DIY culture, in DIY households, the four of them were always moving, always doing, always creating.

"We're restless," smiles Max. "It's not about fame; I've just always wanted to be a good person. As lame as that sounds, that's all I've ever wanted to do. I've been trying to do things and say things that others are afraid to say to push people towards a... not happier because life just is, it's happy, it's unhappy, and it's crazy. I want us to push people towards a better, more understanding way of life.

"That's what keeps me inspired, trying to reach as many people as possible with the band, help them and hold their hands through their daily life."

"Anybody who is making music from their heart, is doing something so important," continues Cole. "[I do sometimes believe that] I shouldn't be doing something so frivolous right now.

"I had an opportunity to get a college degree, and I could have used that degree to do outreach work with migrants on the border or something. If you're doing that, that's an amazing thing, but making music and sharing it with the world, that's such an important thing for people who don't get the time to make their own music.

"I want people to listen to this record and feel validated. I want people to feel that they're in a place where they can be 100% themselves, and they can embrace all their feelings. I want people to know they can come to our show and they can let it all the fuck out and just really rejoice.

"We don't have that much to look forward to, and to be happy about anymore so why not just be happy about the fact we can still dance and sing?"

Taken from the April issue of Upset. SWMRS' album 'Berkeley's On Fire' is out now.

April 2019
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