Recent release “Berkley’s On Fire” may mark a new era for Oakland-based band, SWMRS. After releasing their “debut album” Drive North in 2016, the band has stayed on the road with acts like The Frights, The Interrupters, All Time Low, and Blink-182. Now, after a stint in europe and booking worldwide festival gigs, it’s possible the group is looking towards settling down for a while to work on a sophomore album.
Though technically formed as SWMRS in 2014, vocalist Cole Becker and drummer Joey Armstrong have been deadset on creating music since they watched School of Rock even before the age of ten. Recruiting Cole’s brother Max to play bass, the three boys formed “Emily’s Army” under the guidance of Joey’s father, Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. After releasing two full studio albums under the moniker, and the realization that this was what they wanted as a full-time job, they ditched the more teenage-fueled punk of Emily’s Army and became ‘new band’ SWMRS.
Even if SWMRS is a “modern rock & roll band”, Becker stated in an interview with Upset Magazine that “Everything is always going to come from a very punk spirit. What we like about punk is that it’s very activist and very visceral.” And that’s what makes SWMRS so special in the context of today’s music scene— their music may not be explicitly political, but as a group they stand for progress and inclusion. It’s the band’s existence outside of their musical releases that truly marks them as a one of a kind type of collective— one that aspiring musicians should look up to as an influence on how to use their space in the rock/punk rock community.
Growing up in liberal California gave each of these boys a homebase that exposed them at early ages to concepts like the patriarchy, privilege, and feminism. Their social media accounts are platforms they use to constantly spread the message of punk needing to be a safe place for women and, at their own shows, they practice what they preach. On their recent tour, they produced a free zine detailing their insight on how to stop abuse at gigs, stating “we will stop our set to stop abuse,” and encouraged bystanders (especially fellow cis men) to “call out your homies.” Outside of the band, Cole released a series of zines entitled “BOYZINE” that had the goal of teaching young boys about the basics of feminism. Punk gigs draw a diverse crowd, and often have a split audience of men and women. For young teenage girls, especially, it can be intimidating to enter a space that has for decades profited off of the pillars of masculinity. Despite having an all cis-male lineup, SWMRS promote feminine energy as much as possible at their shows, from encouraging girls to feel secure to crowdsurf, to donning floral dresses and painted nails onstage. It’s little things like this being inserted into the community that are making spaces more accessible to previously marginalized groups— and god knows the representation for non-cishet/non-white people is still lacking in modern rock & roll.
Despite previously remaining relatively apolitical on their first album, their newest drop “Berkley’s On Fire” departs from the coming-of-age theme they have explored and delves into a new tone. Centering around the nature of public protest and riots, it pays homage to the 2017 Berkley riots in reaction to Milo Yiannopolis being scheduled to speak on campus. Unafraid to call the white supremacist by name in their anthem, Cole sings “too many motherfuckers confusing this freedom speech with swastikas” which is met with “like Milo Yiannopolis” yelled in reponse. The song continues to address the argument that protests like these are just excuses for destruction by retorting “okay, so we broke a little window / little fight out in the street / but that’s our job / protect you from these slobs.” The entire second verse is a callout to biased news media that focuses on the aftermath of riots, instead of investigating the cause that made people react in such a visceral sense. The music video released alongside the single stars a diverse, nearly all-female led class that is pushed to express their pent up anger in a “non-ladylike” way: violence. I’ve had the track on repeat the past few days and in the current political climate, having “We’ll be alright” chanted into your ear is, frankly, empowering.
SWMRS have always been a band that deals with politics, but in a more nuanced way than writing about it in their songs. Sharing references about Black Lives Matter, mental health awareness, LGBTQ+ issues, and more on twitter is just the beginning of how they are activists in their scene. Consistently highlighting female-led bands as their openers and supporting female-led organizations is a business model for young bands to follow that begins to break the barriers for women to be involved in the punk community. I hope “Berkley’s On Fire” is marking a new direction for SWMRS, one that’s bringing their message into their music. I hope SWMRS continues to grow in their reach and popularity.
And I hope fellow rock bands look up to SWMRS as a blueprint on how to use your privilege and platform to be allies, because we need more non-trash men like them around if this generation of punks is going to make a change.