SWMRS co-leader Cole Becker is hanging from the ceiling. The California punk rockers are charging through bracing, hook-y songs off their debut, Drive North, at a New York show. They even return to the stage after their allotted set time and keep rocking unplugged through a cover of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.” In classic punk fashion, the venue’s lack of compliance only encouraged them to play harder, and halfway through the song, the sound jolted back on.
SWMRS’ punk ethos is more Kathleen Hanna than Henry Rollins: As heard on Drive North, the subversion of patriarchy is part of what drives the band. They are a product of their respectively progressive upbringings in Oakland, where the young band members grew up loving riot grrrl and entrenched in feminist teachings. “I became aware at a pretty young age that I was benefiting too much from the patriarchy,” Becker, a current Berkeley student, explains. During their sold-out NYC show, he used his platform to encourage the band’s teenage, female fans to be the primary crowd surfers.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t think about it until you play a hundred shows and only see aggressive, hyper-masculine dudes crowd surfing on top of 14-year-old girls. We feel like it’s our duty to uplift the voices that aren’t as easily heard as ours.”
SWMRS rose from the ashes of teen-punk outfit Emily’s Army, a band they formed in middle school with assistance from drummer Joey Armstrong’s father – Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. “When we were 13 to 14, he was telling us to text every time we wrote a song,” says singer-guitarist Max Becker, Cole’s older brother. “He’s basically just another dad. … I mean, he is.”
Emily’s Army released two albums before changing their name and issuing 2015’s Miley/Uncool EP and this year’s Drive North with bassist Seb Mueller. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to start something new,” Max explains of the name change. “Emily’s Army was a pop-punk band and now we’re more of a modern rock & roll band.”
“It was almost like playing a sport or doing a summer camp,” Armstrong says of the former band’s fleeting nature. “We realized we actually want to be musicians full-time. This is what we like to do.”
For their debut as SWMRS, they linked up with FIDLAR’s Zac Carper, a member of their Burger Records family. Carper proclaims himself as the band’s “sensei,” though the boys talk about him like family, with Carper’s sister Alice even joining the mix and becoming their touring photographer. “They drove me absolutely crazy, but that’s because I’m getting old and they’re young,” Carper admits, lightly chastising their goofy nature.
“My favorite memory of the whole recording process was making [Max] cry,” the producer offers with diabolical mirth. “He wasn’t paying attention.”
“He made me cry like every day,” Becker admitted separately, with Armstrong calling him “very sensitive.”
Still, Carper admires the band’s willingness to try anything, an attribute that pushed SWMRS to experiment with different sounds, from the anthemic rock banger “Figuring It Out” – named for Tavi Gevinson’s TED Talk – and the moody synth ballad “Hannah,” created with help from Jeff Ellis, an engineer on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange who mixed Drive North and inspired more low-end presence in the band’s music. “This was the first time we went into a creative process and weren’t referencing anything,” Armstrong explains. “Zac made sure we kept on that tunnel-vision mindset where it was like, ‘Don’t focus on anything else besides what we’re going to create.'”
Even with their punk ethos, the band is unapologetically pop-culture savvy. Armstrong is obsessed with movies – “I have my own Rotten Tomatoes on my phone,” he explains – while Cole Becker found himself drawn to former Disney star turned pop music’s foremost weirdo Miley Cyrus. “I wrote an article about her entering that Quentin Jones movie in the New York City porn festival for [Berkeley’s] Daily Cal newspaper about a year ago, and that kind of sparked interest because I didn’t really pay attention to her when Bangerz came out,” Becker says, adding that learning about her work with homeless LGBT youth and duet with Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace fueled a desire to learn more, which led to “Miley,” their ode to the “Wrecking Ball” singer.
“[Miley] took something with her power that you get only for a certain amount of time as a Disney star and she did something with it,” Max adds.
SWMRS hope to do the same. The band is aiming for worldwide pop appeal, but their hearts lie in the Bay where they hope to continue creating a better, more diverse scene. Their love for Northern California is one of their album’s biggest inspirations, and they each remain their local scene’s biggest cheerleaders. “If I can be an active community member and give people positive experiences, then that’s all I care about,” Cole says sincerely. “If my music is doing really well and a lot of people love it, then that’s all for the better.”
While SWMRS are rooting for Oakland, the people around them continue to cheer on the band. Billie Joe Armstrong has taken a step back from his role as a producer, but he still offers support by encouraging the Becker brothers to channel their emotions into their songwriting. And even with all of his tough love in the studio, Zac Carper foresees a bright future for the quartet as they continue to establish their identity and style. “I think they have the potential to be ginormous,” Carper declares. “They just do whatever the fuck they want, and I want to see more of that in bands in general.”
From The Archives Issue 1262: June 2, 2016