Coming in stronger and better than ever on their sophomore record was the goal of Oakland, California’s always evolving, yet still true to the core, beat-driven punk band, SWMRS. Their debut album, Drive North, saw the group make their mark back in 2016, but Berkeley’s on Fire takes everything good that Drive North had to offer and amplifies it like you wouldn’t believe.
Coming from a place of dedicated hard work and growth is only one reason as to why this record is as dynamic as it is. Its influence comes from witnessing the protests in Berkeley in 2017 first hand and then trying to understand the twisted way that media outlets depicted the event. Its political and social commentary is evident, but not overpowering—the band does that accordingly in all that they do, musical and otherwise. They don’t just fleetingly say things about what they want for the world either, they spark conversations and act on them; which not only showcases who these young men are as people, but it works hand in hand with this generation’s new wave of activists and advocates.
If you don’t already adore SWMRS and all that they do for modern music, their fans, and society, then maybe you should keep reading this candid conversation I had with inspired front man Cole Becker. Maybe then you’ll want to change into your finest swimwear and go join the aptly named “swm team.” (Ok, but at the very least, go see them play a stellar live show while they’re out on their World Tour.)
I was just reading your thread on Twitter about promoting inclusivity and safety at your shows for all people and all walks of life, delving into the “SWMRS is for the girls and the gays” concept that has been talked about before. For people that maybe don’t keep up with you guys constantly on social media, can you talk a little bit about what that means to you, the band, and maybe this genre of music as a whole?
Yeah, totally! I think it’s like how we grew up, you know? We grew up obsessed with punk rock and obsessed with music and just idolizing the ‘77 or the ‘88 punk era. It took a long time for us to realize that rock and punk music haven’t always been places for everyone and spaces where everyone is included. We just really want to try and address that with our music. I think we’re really lucky that we have a really close relationship with a lot of our fans who feel comfortable enough to pull us in and keep us informed on certain things, because I think that we have always wanted to make our shows a space where everyone can come and be themselves and let loose of all the fucking pressure of just being a person right now. We’ve all been really diligent in trying to study it and try and make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure people feel safe at our shows and feel like they can be their true self without being afraid of being assaulted or something.
Absolutely, and I know that the SWMRS Fund was just announced, as well, which takes that concept one step further by donating a portion of ticket sales and individual fan contributions to a plethora of important, on the rise organizations.
Yeah, we’re really excited about it!
Like you said, you really try to do as much as you can to put forth what you believe in— controversial or not—like releasing the limited edition “All I Want for Christmas is Gun Control” shirts and posting a recent social media video about protecting Title X. Did you always plan to implement your social and political stances into what you do? Or has having this platform given you the opportunity?
I think we just always knew that [music and political/social events] were just inextricably linked. Our heroes growing up were The Clash and Operation Ivy and Spitboy and all these bands that made amazing music, but also knew that in order to make music inclusive, you have to be political. If you want to make music reach people at the core of what it means to be alive and not be fucking corny, you have to talk about politics. You’re fighting an uphill battle against an entire global world order that is just built for one specific class of people and is built to keep everyone else out. If you make entertainment, you should be making it for the people who feel left out.
Right. You also want your music to have an impact and not just have songs with messages that are purposefully hidden or just go over people’s heads.
Yeah! Music is such an important thing to have be a part of your life. If you want to be a person, you have to sing, express yourself, reach out to others. If you want to really know what it is like to be alive, singing and dancing and having a relationship with music is really important for that.
Oh, without a doubt. Now going more into music and the music that SWMRS makes specifically, let’s talk a little bit about Berkeley’s on Fire—which is outstanding, by the way.
Why, thank you.
You’re welcome. So, you really seemed to keep your original style alive on this record, while still pushing boundaries and redefining your artistry over the time since Drive North was released in 2016. So, what was going into making this album like as compared to your debut?
We really took a lot of time on this one—intentionally. I think a lot of people, when they get the big opportunity to make a more expensive album and when they get to work with a label, they start to overthink it and go ‘Oh, man! We want to sound just like the last one because that’s what people liked,’ and they want to keep the ethos of the last one. For us, we got the label and they gave us the opportunity to work with someone who is the best of the best… and not the best of the best in the sense like he’s going to make us sound poppier, but in the sense that he will push us to make sure that we can make the best album we can make. I think we all just took a lot of extra time trying to prepare for that and tried to really become the best version of ourselves to put on the record.
I think that really came across, I have to say.
Wow, thank you. Truly.
Again, you’re so welcome. I also feel like being a punk rock band comes with a certain stigma around it about sticking to the “roots” of electric guitars and heavy drum lines. You incorporated a lot of different beats and sound elements into this record that I think only adds to the vocal trade-offs between you and Max [Becker]. What inspires this level of originality in your work?
I’m someone who loves all kinds of music. The last time that I was listening to just punk music I was, like, 15-years-old. It would be really strange if I were still making music that sounded traditionally punk, because what I listen to now is music that makes me feel alive and the music that has meaning in this time in my life is all over the place. You know, Max and I both love musicals. We love Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we also love everything else. My girlfriend is super-into reggaeton and we would just, like, listen to that all the time and I was like ‘Man, this is really cool music!’ It’s designed to make you dance. I think that is exactly why I loved punk music growing up: it made me want to dance. Kind of going about approaching different rhythms and different sounds is always us trying to chase that feeling of wanting to dance and feeling like music makes you stronger.
With this new album under your belt, you have even more songs to bring to life on stage. What are some of your favorite songs to perform live? I know that I, personally, cannot wait to hear “Lonely Ghosts” in person, but you might have another favorite.
That one actually is so good live. I’m really happy you said that one, because, it’s in the middle of the album, so it’s not one of the songs that maybe you would immediately think would be an insane live song, but when we were playing it…. Yeah, there was something about it that just feels really good live. It’s really exciting. That and “Too Much Coffee,” because I’m not playing guitar a lot on this album, which is bittersweet for me because I do love to dance. So, anyway, the few songs that I get to play guitar on are really fun for me.
As you continue to grow as a band, you’re truly selling out shows at even larger venues than ever before all across the globe. Do you have a favorite place to play or has there been a certain crowd in a certain city that just really stuck out to you?
Honestly, I’m really happy because I don’t have a favorite. Everywhere is different, because music means so much in so many different ways to so many different people. When we play in London, for example, it’s crazy—actually, anywhere in England. Everything they do just makes you feel like you’re at a soccer game. The way they sing along to music, alone, like ‘Are they singing the “Seven Nation Army” chant, right now?’ It’s just interesting and fun to play in England. I love playing in America. I love playing in the Midwest and the South, because a lot of people from California never get to spend time anywhere else in America—New York, too. You live in this bubble. Just being able to travel and interact with people in all different parts of the country is such an amazing privilege. I love getting to know people and the things they do every day in Louisville, Kentucky or in Natchitoches, Louisiana. I feel really lucky that we get to do that.
Oh, I bet. I can only imagine how rewarding and fun that is.
It is. The crowds everywhere are cool. I just love when people feel comfortable talking to me, because I truly do like to get to know people
Those new people you meet and the new places you visit can really be a source of creative influence and inspiration, as well.
Definitely! It’s really just a new perspective and a new way to shift your paradigm.
Right! And you are always bringing a lot of other creative forces on tour with you such as The Regrettes and Bay Area natives like Destroy Boys, so how important is it to really surround yourself with people and artists who have a similar, open-minded approach to both music and life?
It’s just really fun, honestly. I have so much fun being with other people who are as excited about making music and playing shows as I am. It really is infectious, and to be with a big group of people who are all just really excited to be doing what they are doing and the way that they are doing it… it’s the best.
On the topic of touring, I just saw the announcement that you’re going to be opening up for Muse on a few of their tour dates and that is so sick. How did that opportunity come about?
Yes! The guy who produced our album, Rich Costey, he made a lot of their albums with them. The band had to come in and mix something when we were in the studio, so we met them briefly, and then when our record came out, Rich sent it to them and I think they really liked it. That was one of the coolest things, because Muse, especially when I was growing up, was like the best fucking band. They were always just so good with their instruments, but not like nerdy. Just like so good. It’s a really big honor and exciting moment for us to be playing with Muse.
I hope you have the best time with them because that is truly amazing. And, like we were saying, surrounding yourself with those kinds of people and really being able to expand your musical horizons is an awesome experience in itself.
Ok, so it might be a bit off topic but since I am an only child, I have to ask: what is it like having two sets of brothers touring together? I know that you and Max have done it for years, but with Joey [Armstrong]’s brother Jakob [Armstrong] joining the touring lineup, there must be an interesting dynamic going on.
It’s so fun, honestly. I’m sure you, yourself, have friends that you’re probably really close to.
So, like, that’s just as important, because having people who will just be with you through thick and thin, with nothing to worry about with them, is the greatest feeling. Especially when you’re traveling, too. We’ve been traveling so much, so it gets really hard to be away from home for so long, but to have family with you is like the greatest gift.
S0, you must be able to be more open with each other when it comes to just about anything, but even more so when you’re bouncing ideas off of each other and maybe not feeling pressured to feel a certain way.
Yes, that’s exactly it and that’s what is so cool; our music comes from such a deep rooted place of family love. That’s why I think it’s so special.