Within the opening bars of SWMRS second LP comes a sea change. You think you’re in familiar rock territory with the Oakland-formed quartet when suddenly an electronic beat kicks in that throws you for a loop. The same thing happens throughout the ten tracks that make up Berkeley’s On Fire — the band’s most urgent, electrifying and groundbreaking record to date. “We started having conversations about how to make something brand new within the genre of rock,” says co-frontman and songwriter Cole Becker. “That’s what we talked about every single day.”
One of rock music’s biggest challenges is overcoming the understanding that it’s a genre heavily indebted to its own sense of history. Cole, alongside bandmates Max Becker (guitar, vocals), Joey Armstrong (drums) and Seb Mueller (bass), found that in fragmenting and deconstructing that history, there is new territory to be won and something brand new to be carved. “We have such a deep love for rock music,” says Max. When the Becker brothers were growing up and first heard the Ramones and The Clash they heard authenticity and rawness. “It had so much potential to change the way people think and feel.” Over the past decade, rock has become a dirty word for a variety of reasons, conjuring images of out of touch, unoriginal nostalgia. SWMRS want to reclaim the word, make it cool again. After all, the childhood friends have invested their whole lives in the art form, having started playing shows in their local Bay Area at the ripe age of 13.
In 2016, SWMRS put out their first record Drive North themselves on their own imprint, Uncool Records. The DIY move paid off in spades with acclaim from Rolling Stone, Noisey, Nylon and Billboard. They became the first unsigned band to perform on The Late Late Show With James Corden (also their late night debut) and their music reached as far as Paris Fashion Week on the Saint Laurent runway. After international headline tours and festival appearances the band signed with Fueled By Ramen who re-issued the record.
In Spring of 2018, the Oakland band drove south to Los Angeles to work with envelope-pushing producer Rich Costey (MUSE, At The Drive In, Death Cab for Cutie). Over two months they pushed and pulled the ideas they’d been working on since their last record, resulting in something you’ve never before heard from SWMRS — or any contemporary punk band for that matter. Costey took a sledgehammer to any preconceptions about what the foursome should or could be creating. Genres be-damned, sonic limitations out the window, this was an exercise in grand experimentation, and has more in common with the fun, experimental ethos behind Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, De La Soul,or ’90s Bay Area Hyphy rap music than it does any of the band’s prior peers. The diversity is indicative of a generation reared on streaming services. SWMRS make music as they consume it — hyperactively.
“There was so much more attention to detail,” recalls Cole, on the levels of perfectionism. A drum sound could take two weeks to find. Rather than it being a stressful endeavour, they were grateful for the time as they recycled past sounds to build this new pastiche that flits from pop rock (‘Too Much Coffee’) and breakbeat (‘Lose Lose Lose’) to emo punk (‘April In Houston’) and jangly power pop (‘Trashbag Baby’). “Everyone talks about rock being dead. That’s totally bullshit,” says Max. “We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg.”
After watching their hometown get engulfed in a media frenzy over a riot in 2017, SWMRS felt that it appropriate to call the record Berkeley’s On Fire. At a time when fire possesses so much vivid and painful imagery for Californians, SWMRS want to document the fears of their generation while emboldening the hope that a new world with optimistic possibilities might emerge from the ashes. Sick, like most young people, of being told that they are incapable of changing the world around them, SWMRS carry a torch for the idea that there is a future to fight for.
Overall, it’s a record about urgency during a time when the pressure is on the youth to carry America — and the world — forward. “When you travel around the world trying to communicate with people your own age you find really wild anonymous things in common,” says Max. “We all want the same thing. The world is smaller than you think.” The process of writing it in itself helped Max and Cole get over their own anxieties. ‘April In Houston’ is the most introspective the louder, more aggressively toned Cole has ever been. In ‘Too Much Coffee,’ Max documents his own struggles to get to a place of self-acceptance and its eventual conclusion, teaching him to trust in his own voice. For long-standing fans ‘Trashbag Baby’ is a particular treat; the first time both Beckers share vocals on a song. “I had been letting this song sit. The riff was cool but the vocal wasn’t as cool. What would make it as cool? Cole!,” shares Max. It’s a representation of how the pair have helped each other through their individual problems.
The band are chomping at the bit to feed the new material to their fanbase, with whom they have an immediate connection with via social media. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where SWMRS learn as much from their audience’s perspectives as their fans do from them. As for the lack of trendiness surrounding guitar-based music, the guys couldn’t care less. They’re encouraged by the freedom that offers them to try all manner of things. “This is somewhat of an experimental gamble,” says Max. “I’m tired of being bored by what I hear,” offers Cole. Through touring it they hope to create not just a safe space, but a welcoming community for anyone to feel love for one another and to express themselves to their fullest potential. “I want to give people the feeling I got when I went to my first punk rock show,” says Cole. “Floating above the world, feeling alive.”