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August 2020
Best of 2019

Track by Track: SWMRS - Berkeley's on Fire

Max and Cole from SWMRS talk us through Upset's Album of 2019, 'Berkeley's on Fire'.
Published: 10:00 am, December 20, 2019
Track by Track: SWMRS - Berkeley's on Fire

Cole: 'Berkeley's on Fire' came together very deliberately. After years of approaching the recording process as an extension of our craft as live performers, we decided that our first album on a bigger label was a good opportunity to dig deep into our music and deconstruct our playing in order to make a body of work whose sound was entirely its own. We talked a lot about the idea of metamodernism; the idea that by cutting together fragments of very disparate influences ranging from J. Dilla to Alanis Morrissette, we could produce music that sounded like nothing we had ever heard before. Given the nature of the songs we wrote going into the studio, this felt like the only path forward: Max and I both had been writing a lot about the personal feelings that accompanied us and the young people we interact with at shows as we navigate a world that seems to be crashing down all around us. Recreating the past is no longer an option for all of us young people who are marching haphazardly toward an uncertain future. How do you grow up healthy in a world that might not exist in a few years? Of course, the question is rhetorical, because none of us really have a fucking clue. We made this album because we knew that by creating a space for people to sing and dance through that question, we could take a break from all the worry for a second just to enjoy the fact that we're alive and we're not alone. And who knows, we might just come out of that space renewed with the energy we need to fight for our future.

Berkeley's On Fire

Cole: In 2017, I went to a protest with some friends in Berkeley to protect free speech. The UC Berkeley Fascist Club (aka Berkeley College Republicans) had booked A Right-Wing pundit named Milo Yiannopoulos (maybe you've seen him on TV) to come speak with the explicit intention of antagonizing students of color, queer students, and feminists to make the case that keeping students safe from hate speech and the violence that accompanies it is somehow OK and should be sanctioned by the University. Really stupid shit.

Anyways, the protest got rowdy, and a group of antifascists had lit a small fire in the centre. Nothing super serious. When I got home, my mom had the television on, and the local news was playing what looked like combat footage. I was confused, and then I was angry. Someone was pulling strings to paralyze us with fear. It made me realize how insidious our news cycle really is-- They make things look scary to strike fear into your heart, so much fear that you don't have any energy left to fight for your future. TV NEWS is BAD FOR YOU appeared in my brain, and I kept repeating it to myself. My friend Owen inverted it for me, pointing out too that BAD TV is NEWS FOR YOU these days too. BERKELEY was ON FIRE apparently, and I knew then that it was time to retell the story of that night without striking fear into people's hearts, but instead emboldening them, making them FEARLESS and ready to fight for the future.

Too Much Coffee

Max: This is a song about making a life decision and never really knowing if it was the right or wrong thing to do. Anxiety is so common among millennials and gen Z, and I wanted to write a song that clearly depicts having anxiety, but I wanted to pair it with instrumentation that feels uplifting. I tried to connect it to a topic that many people can relate too: having too much coffee.

Trashbag Baby

Max: This is a song about eavesdropping on a breakup (true story! Was quite uncomfortable), but the song is all about the play by play. I want people, young people especially, to think about the amount of baggage, or garbage, that they bestow upon their significant other or their friends, and I want to reconsider its distribution. I also wanted a guitar riff that would get stuck in the listeners head within seconds of pressing play.


Cole: Let's be real. It feels like we're losing all the time. In 2016 and 2017 the fascists won a lot of big victories in their quest to exploit people and the planet. I wanted to sing about this because I got so tired of the idea that we have to beat these people in order to survive. I am tired of losing to these motherfuckers, and tired of being forced to play by their rules. LOSE LOSE LOSE is about defining the world for yourself, not letting your life become a chess piece in a game you didn't ask to play.

April in Houston

Cole: Fragmenting the past! This song has a guitar riff I recorded on my voice memos as its main hook. It has hi-hat samples from a trap music sound pack. We recorded Jakob (from Ultra Q) saying "Drums in my ear just what I need" because we had heard a clip of Marvin Gaye saying that before recording "Heard It Through The Grapevine". When life gets hectic, sometimes drums in your ear are the only way of subdividing time to give order and form to the chaos. When it seems like everybody wants something from you that you haven't figured out how to give yourself, rhythm moves your needle a bit closer to the solution.

Lonely Ghosts

Cole: No matter how lonely you feel, there's always someone who feels the same way. That's why I love playing shows-- you get to connect with people and see people connect with each other in a way you might not have realized was possible. This song is an ode to loneliness in all its forms and to all my lonely ghosts out there.

IKEA date

Max: This is a song about being in a long-distance relationship. Heavily inspired by Interpol and New Order, we wanted to provide an avenue for people to daydream during the song. It's a song about having a dream that you are with your significant other in Ikea, playing house, only to wake up and realize that you are very far away from them.


Cole: In America, we have a really intense gun problem. I can't count the amount of times I have had to make peace with the possibility of experiencing a mass shooting; it's part of being a young person in the states. I wanted to explore the explanation story that Americans tell every time a mass shooting happens. Often times it seems like we make excuses for the "misunderstood" shooter, treating it as if it's a fluke that this angry white teenager decided to shoot up a school. How could it be a fluke if these shootings are carbon replicas of the one before? Why are white teenage boys so susceptible to this hateful violence? A lot of it has to do with toxic masculinity, and how we never teach boys healthy ways of expressing emotion. That's why this song is so heavy; punk music was always an emotional release for us when we were growing up. I believe that these kids aren't acting for themselves, but instead in response to the violence we absorb every day on our television, that the NRA and its associated churches, politicians and corporations actively profit from (rifle sales go up every time a shooting is carried out), because we teach American kids to put away negative emotions, to beat them into submission, make them disappear instead of talk through them, so it's no wonder these kids think killing people is going to solve their problems.

Bad Allergies

Max: This is about recognizing that no one is perfect. Everybody has "allergies" or something they are dealing with. It's important to communicate these things (if you are comfortable) with the people you are close with, so they can understand where you are coming from.

Steve Got Robbed

Cole: I was listening to a lot of Mexican Ranchera music and was really inspired by how strong the narrative structure in the songs was. I wanted to write a song that was a story, that you could follow from beginning to end, leaving space for the listener to imagine the imagery as the song moved forward. Our friend Steve, who we make a lot of videos with and has been a friend of the band since we were kids, got robbed twice in one night; his car got broken into, and then he was later robbed at gunpoint. Unfortunately getting robbed is a pretty common experience in Oakland. It's very uncommon, however, to get robbed successively in such a short interval, so I thought it was kind of a funny story to tell. Also, we recorded all the music on an sp-1200 (the production unit RZA made all of Wu-Tang's beats on), which was such a fun and rewarding experience. Steve is doing better now.

Taken from the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Upset.

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