In February 2017, former Breitbart editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos arrived on the UC Berkeley campus and attempted to deliver a speech that was met by more than 1,500 protestors. For Cole Becker, the lead singer of Oakland punk group Swmrs who was among the protestors, it was a pivotal moment for both himself and the band.
“I don’t want to give him more face time by talking about it,” Becker admits while riding the L train to an album release show at Brooklyn record store and venue Rough Trade. “Basically there was a little fire set on campus. It was kind of intense, but then I got home and my mom called me saying, ‘What’s going on? Is Berkeley just burning down right now?'”
The media exaggeration and right-wing manipulation of that coverage helped inspire Swmrs’ latest album, Berkeley’s on Fire. Having grown tired of the relentless news cycle, the band wanted to make “positive media” with their songs that can leave their listeners re-energized.
“Ultimately we know how music works and we’re not here to pull out facts on people at our shows all the time,” Becker says. “We want people to feel like they’re ready to confront the real world positively when they leave the show.”
Swmrs’ sophomore album follows over three years of total upheaval for the group of Bay Area twentysomethings: their 2015 debut Drive North gave them a bigger audience than ever before, while their tours in support of more established acts like Fidlar and All Time Low brought them to increasingly bigger venues. Touring with All Time Low, especially during the 2016 election cycle, gave the band renewed purpose.
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“It was the first time we had seen teenage girls crying and hyper-focused on what was going on in front of them,” Becker says. They wanted to be that type of band for their fans. “We were taking what we were doing really seriously. It’s abstract what music does for people, but it’s clear people need music they care about, and for some people, we’re that band.”
This newfound inspiration meant that Swmrs couldn’t get into the studio and make any old album. They wanted to capture a feeling; one that was inspired by the shifting, non-rap influences inspiring many of the biggest and most innovative hip-hop acts of the moment like JuiceWRLD and Lil Uzi Vert.
“The last thing we actually listened to was punk music,” drummer Joey Armstrong says. “The moment we started writing this record in our heads was when we were standing side stage at [UK festival] Reading watching [grime collective] Boy Better Know and watching the crowd react to that kind of music.”
The crowd’s reaction reminded the group of their early punk days: a raw, mosh-and-dance-heavy energy that amplified the entire experience past just what’s happening onstage.
“Punk music is sometimes too fast to get a big group of people,” Armstrong says, adding that playing in bigger venues meant that it takes more to get a crowd moving. The songs on Berkeley’s on Fire ditched the “heavy-fast-loud” indulgences of their past and went for a slightly slower-than-usual punk tempo.
“The feeling I got the first time I went to a punk show was incredible. It was like I’m floating,” he says. “How do you do that for a bigger crowd of people because it only works in a small club?”
Swmrs also explored new methods of recording. Before he had gotten into the studio, Becker had been helping a friend record SoundCloud rap. Playing with Logic and other computer applications allowed him to explore new templates for Swmrs’ music. He would bring computer-crafted beats to Armstrong and bassist Seb Mueller, who would unearth new ways of playing their instruments based off the computer-created sounds’ rough draft.
“‘Berkeley’s on Fire’ is the first song that clicked [that we were using] a new process,” Becker states.
Lyrically, the band was pulling from their keen political awareness, something that was instilled in all of them from a young age thanks, in part, to the liberal area where they all grew up. All four members actively use their social media to promote political awareness and ways to take action, whether by protests, fundraising or reading material. (One of many, many examples: Becker’s 2018 Instagram post calling upon fans to “help protect the space and altar that has been created to mourn those families and individuals that have been affected by the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy.”)
They’ve also launched their own Swmrs Fund with their tour, which launches this week in North America. For each ticket sold, one dollar is donated to the foundation and every few months, the money is donated to a cause on “the frontlines of the issues they are addressing.” Some beneficiaries include National Bail Fund Network, Girls Rock Camp and Climate Justice Alliance.
“So many more people could be speaking out and using their platform, and we’re lucky we grew up in a place where we began versing ourselves in that kind of thing and the knowledge that you need,” Becker says. “We’re not trying to be the source of the knowledge; we’re just trying to distribute it to more people.”
“We come from a place where you’re taught really young how to act,” Armstrong continues. “You want to be able to bring that to someone in a state or a city that isn’t as vocal or educated on it.”
Being on the road for the boys has taught them just how necessary being vocal is; co-lead singer, guitarist and Cole’s older brother Max Becker compares touring to political campaign trails. “Like Beto [O’Rourke] in Texas, he did so well because he actually went and talked to people,” Becker explains. “We actually get to [tour] and meet people and now we can sing on behalf of them.”
Seeing more of the world means realizing that each scene or community’s definition of punk rock shifts and may not entirely reflect the one they were raised in. The quartet came to understand the privilege they had growing up with the liberal and socially conscious 924 Gilman Street scene and want to bring that venue’s ethos wherever they go.
“When your first punk rock experience is Gilman Street, you think punk is supposed to be a certain vessel for activism and political thought and how to carry yourself as a human person in the world,” Cole Becker explains. “Then in the greater U.S., punk takes on different meanings because people weren’t trying to reinforce [those ideals] and make it good. Warped Tour became this place where misogyny was spread to these young kids and marketed.”
Max Becker jumps in, recalling his own anger with what he witnessed on Warped. “T-shirts were being sold that said ‘I’m a slut’ on it! And it was like, what the hell?”
“Coming from Gilman and then going to that…
“…It backfired on us.”
The eldest Becker further hones in on the fact that as a band of cis, white-passing males, they must walk the walk as much as they talk the talk, citing the Swmrs Fund and the continued efforts to further educate themselves as much as they do their fans. They want that education reflected in both the shows and the music.
“We want to make music that can be listened to 100 years from now when all this groundwork has been put in,” Cole Becker emphatically adds.
His brother once more chimes in: “We’re thinking that far ahead!”