music

uncool halloween III – to berkeley and back

UNCOOL HALLOWEEN GALLERY

I’m sitting on my second flight of the night, from my layover in Los Angeles back into Nashville. I should be trying to sleep— I land at 4:44 AM and have to drive back to Alabama— but I can’t. This weekend, the cities I trecked through, the people I met, the community I was welcomed into… it’s all hitting me right now and suddenly I’m silently crying on this plane. My fever dream of crossing the country to see SWMRS host their third Uncool Halloween became a reality. And it changed my life.

I’ve written about SWMRS before, about who they are and what they mean as a band in the alt rock/punk scene. Uncool Halloween is an annual party thrown by the band born from a love of the holiday and a need to celebrate the freedom of (mostly) Bay Area musicians. But it’s become something more over it’s three years of tradition. People fly in from all over the country to meet best friends and sing their fucking hearts out with the confidence that they are in a place that’s safe enough to to let out your frustration and anger and sadness. In that 1400 person room at the UC Theatre, there was a sense of resounding solidarity from both the fans and musicians that I’ve never felt before.

Maybe it’s because I’m from alabama, where it’s impossible to know—even at punk shows— if the people around you harbor shitty ideals. Berkeley itself was a sort of culture shock to me in the best way possible. Seeing every business on University Avenue proudly display signs that stated “Berkeley is united against hate” among their other miscellaneous pride flags, black lives matter signs, and pro-immigrant sentiments was invigorating. Just walking to the venue I saw proudly gay couples holding hands and flyers for paid (PAID!!!!!) jobs that centered around activism in the surrounding areas. And when I saw the line outside the venue I saw people who looked just like me. Kids decked out in costumes, some in groups and some alone, but each one buzzing with excitement for what was to come.

Doors opened at six, and along with my new group of gal pals (big shoutouts to sarah and jillian!!!) we piled into the pit and secured our spots in the second row. This was the first officially themed Uncool, and being so, we were walking into the Great Hall of Hogwarts. Candles floated above our heads as a preshow playlist solely consisting of music from the score of the Harry Potter films was played from the theatre’s speakers.

I’d listened to three of the six acts on the roster before I even knew the lineup of this year’s show: Destroy Boys, Mt. Eddy, and SWMRS. The remaining three, Small Crush, Beach Goons, and Bleached were recently added to my Spotify, but have quickly become beloved by me. I’d actually seen Small Crush the night before too when I went to a DIY show at North Berkeley’s famous 924 Gilman Street, so I knew I was going to enjoy their set. Even though they were definitely the “lightest” act of the night, songs like “Chicken Noodle” and “Transparency” were still met with a decent amount of moshing in the pit which (in context) was a sign of approval from the audience. During Beach Goons I took a break from the pit and grabbed some water, watching them from the back of the pit and observing as kids and adults both took over the floor. Their opening song, “Tar” was a highlight and energized the entire crowd from the barricade to the seats in the back. As the last band before SWMRS, Bleached was faced with the challenge of pleasing an antsy crowd that had already watched four other acts— and they gave anyone with doubts a run for their money. Even though this was the band’s first live show in a year, they played with precision and enthusiasm that only got the crowd more excited for the headliners.

Destroy Boys, the second act of the night, were coming in hot having recently released their album Make Room on October 19th. The band is signed to the label ran by SWMR’s Cole Becker, Uncool Records, and has long been associated with fellow performers Mt. Eddy since playing early shows with them at the 924 Gilman. Remaining two original members Violet Mayugba (guitar) and Alexia Roditis (vox) officially welcomed new drummer Narsai Malik and bassist Falyn Walsh to the stage with their opening number “American River.” The quartet smashed through their set with a surprising sense of unity, even with recent additions to their lineup, and ushered in pure punk sounds that had every single head banging. Even as veterans to Uncool, Destroy Boys takes every opportunity to seize a new listener and is continually building a united front of fans from all walks of life.

Rest in fuckin peace, Mt. Eddy. On Instagram the night before Uncool Halloween, the band announced that this would be their last official show as a group, and they truly went out with a bang, leaving everything they had on the stage. Having seen them open up for Hockey Dad on tour this past June, I knew they were naturally gifted performers— but that was in a venue with a 300 cap. Here, in the 1400-person UC Theatre, the boys were given the space they deserved to deliver one last electric performance. Complete with a surprise cameo from vocalist Jakob’s father, Billy Joe Armstrong, fully decked out as Dumbledore as he came on stage to cheer on his youngest son, the set combined songs from the debut album, Chroma, with their 2018 self-titled EP. Jakob (dressed as, of course, Harry Potter) effortlessly partnered with bassist Kevin Judd (with newly dyed bright blue hair) on songs like “Zombie” to create haunting and echoing harmonies. As the bridge to the song builds, the instrumentals cut out and the crowd made itself known by joining in singing “But I know it’s hard to notice that I am really dead / And your exploding heart’s like a gun against my head” making it apparent just how many fans were saying their final goodbyes to Mt. Eddy. Somehow, though, the energy in the crowd wasn’t mournful, but instead there was an intense air of celebration. That spirit was curated just as much by the band as the audience— there were no drawn out epitaphic speeches or nostalgic reminiscence of memories past. Just one last all-out pit and rock n roll show. As the closing chords of their set faded, it only reinforced that even though Mt. Eddy was ending, these boys each have cemented their place in the scene as talents that will only grow from here on.

I’ve never been to LA— this was literally my first trip west of Chicago. But, somehow, SWMRS had me belting “I HATE LA!” during their opening number “Drive North” like I was a die hard Bay Area local. Dressed as the Golden Snitch, front-man Cole Becker wasted no time taking command of the crowd and coming right up in our faces to make sure we knew he and his band should be the only place our focus should be directed. In a SWMRS pit, there is no traditional “wall of death,” but instead a wall of “unity.” It’s where girls feel safe to crowdsurf and mosh, and where two (TWO!) separate strangers told me to get in front of them when they saw I’d had my share of running around the pit for the night. As I made my way in front of the two people to secure a basically barricade position, Cole looked into the crowd and asked for assurance that everyone was doing good and no one was acting inappropriately— and if anyone was being creepy or gropey, they could expect a swift punch in the face from anyone who was witness to their actions. This was one of the many mini-speeches relayed to the audience over the course of their set. Before performing “Berkeley’s on Fire”, it was insisted that this wasn’t a political song (“I fuckin’ HATE politicians!”), but was meant to emphasize that we have to listen to people who say they’re hurting. The traditional repeat-after-me chant of “I- JUST- WANT- TO BE- UNCOOL!” echoed before the opening chords of “Uncool” filled the room. “Wholesome rock n roll is not going to solve the Bay Areas problems, it’s not going to solve California’s problems, and it’s not gonna solve the USA’s goddamn fuckin problems— but it will help you and your friends to figure them out” was lamented by Becker before they played a long-time favorite of mine, “Figuring it Out.” Last, but not least, as the notes of Palm Trees faded behind him, the singer jumped down into the crowd to deliver one last message: “Goodnight Berkeley! We love you— but make sure you love yourself. It’s the most important thing! We love you! You are loved! YOU ARE LOVED!” 

At this point, I was silently crying my eyes out while simultaneously smiling wider than I had in a long time. Those words solidified the reassurance I felt from the whole of Uncool Halloween: these were the people I was meant to have surround me and guide me through these rapidly changing years of my life. Not just the bands, but the people and the values that come with Bay Area rock music, sincerely opened my eyes to a future I could actually envision myself existing in. As I talked to Max and Cole after the show outside the venue, there was such a mutual respect and appreciation flowing between us— me thanking them for what they’ve created and them thanking me for believing in them enough to travel the 2,000 miles for it. Here, on this plane, I’m welcoming back a sense of purpose I thought was long lost. I want to be back in the safe, progressive community of Oakland and Berkeley again. I want to work with bands like these to make sure their messages are spread to other teenagers who feel utterly lost and hopeless. I want punk and rock music to continue to cultivate a safe space for marginalized people and continue to save the lives of kids who need it most. And— for the first time in a long time— I want to be alive to see it happen.

 

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