By: Olivia Keasling
A look at the band’s record launch gigs in their hometown + how the tracks put them on a bold trajectory
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I listened to SWMR’s sophomore album Berkeley’s on Fire beginning to end, in full, for the first time as I cruised down a pitch black highway at 3AM on February 15th. I was on my way to the Nashville airport to catch a 9AM direct flight to San Francisco. The ten track album runs just over thirty minutes— meaning it barely made a dent in the upcoming nine hours of travel— but it clings onto you. It manages to swing through high-powered anthems, bubbly stories of lost love, and confrontational exposes in a way that never lets your adrenaline sink until the closing notes fade into silence and your brain is left reeling.
Only a few short hours after the flight touched down at SFO, my friend and I were huddled together outside of Rickshaw Stop as two different bouncers intently examined our IDs, apparently very determined to prove we were underage. Dripping from the spontaneous bursts of rain, we were finally allowed in to the 400 capacity club that toted a “SOLD OUT” sign posted at the doors (with our 21+ wristbands, thank you). This black box room was about a fourth of the size of the other venues I’d seen SWMRS at, and there was an undeniable hum of excitement from wall to wall. Opening was straight up punk rock trio, KUROMI, from Los Angeles who came out spitting through short jam songs like “EYELINER” and “STEAL ME SUM CANDY.” Lead vocalists Sophia and Grace carry a similar type of charm, as fellow California band Destroy Boys, and harken back to the sound of grunge riotgrrrl acts such as the classic Bikini Kill. The high energy on stage translated into the pit that formed in the crowd as kids began to soar over my head, carried by their peers. Soon enough, I found myself in the pit with none other than Cole Becker, the frontman of SWMRS. Just minutes before he was set to perform on stage, he was leaning on me in the pit for support as if the whole room wasn’t there to see his band premiere their brand new album.
I’m normally not one for album release shows— they often fall flat and end up being low-energy because of the audience’s lack of familiarity with the tracks. But here, you would have thought the album had been out for months. The four-piece (five if you count touring member Jakob Armstrong) walked out onto the stage as “Steve Got Robbed” — the experimental synth-punk/rap album closer— echoed over the speakers. One of the more risky releases on the album, the song feels like it could have come straight from British skate-punk rapper RAT BOY as it mixes a tech-ed up buzzing chorus with grungy 90’s-esque breakdowns on the verses. Before the song finished it’s run, it was interrupted by the zap of amps and microphones coming to life as the opening chords of the latest album single, “Trashbag Baby,” shot into the crowd. Even though the two lead vocalists Max and Cole Becker are brothers, their voices couldn’t be more opposite. A more pitched-up Max and gravely Cole performed the duet with surprising harmony, giving the show a kick-off that brought everyone in the venue towards the stage.
Mixing fan favorites from their debut album, Drive North, into their setlist kept the audience on their feet and singing along, but stand out performances of the night include two brand new releases: “Lose Lose Lose” and “Hellboy.” “Lose Lose Lose” is preachy, powerful, and frankly, political as hell. Like I adressed back when I wrote an article on SWMRS back in September, there was a hint to the leftist motifs that would be seen in the album with lead single Berkeley’s on Fire— but LLL kicks it up a notch. There are recurring references to the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left wing rights militia, with lines like “Oh, mama, no soy Patricia, soy Tania”, which is explained well by a user on the Genius lyric page for the song. Verse two, in particular, was a bit of a shock that left me giggling when Cole laments “2019 is a fucking disaster / Dear Vladimir Putin, stop fucking up my shit / Cause I know I can fuck it up faster”. Becker had an absolute party with this one live, and during the bridge “Death to the motherfucking facist insect / This shit makes me so sadistic” squared up and gave the most heartfelt high five to an incoming crowd surfer.
On first listen, “Hellboy” was the song that caught my attention, and it hasn’t let it go since. It’s a track that rings in your head as it fades and leaves you amped. Instead of a giggle-inducing shock, I found myself wide-eyed and stunned as the first verse drew a comparison between Charlie Manson and Jesus before tumbling into a pre-chorus that challenges the societal lenience towards rape culture and victim-shaming. Sprinkling wordplay of the title throughout the song cleverly keeps the listener digesting each word and therein makes sure they hear Cole calling out the continued neglect of the water crisis in Flint and the greed of the NRA and it’s supporters. The faux-ending pause that then rockets into the last bit of chorus repetition had the pit standing still for a moment, which Becker took advantage of. Leaning back as the music halted, he dove forward into the crowd as Joey kicked in on the drums. Corded microphone in hand, calling out the last lines of the song, Cole surfed his way to the front where he safely returned to his well-deserved center-stage position.
SWMRS had officially kicked off their release weekend with a bang and as they exited the stage with smiles, I left the venue curious as to what was to come at their record signing the next day.
1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland saw SWMRS in some of their earliest forms, from them begging the business to put their teenage demos on the shelves to giving them the space to perform in their infancy. Returning back to the tiny back room of the record store to a stage not six inches off the ground after playing sizable worldwide venues must have been surreal for these boys, because it already felt weirdly surreal to me. I’ve been to shows with less than thirty people at them before, but I’ve never been to a tiny black box room with low ceilings and dripping walls where people still had the balls to crowdsurf. All the time leading up to the event I assumed this was going to be the normal acoustic record store appearance that most bands do around release time— but I was met with an all-out set with full band backing. The level of comfort and versatility these boys have in any environment is outstanding, and the dedication some members have to an honest, open, humble relationships to fans is truly something special.
The more power-pop influenced songs of the set were valuable in such a packed space, giving the crowd a chance to breath and sway. On first listen, I wasn’t enamored with lighter tracks like “IKEA Date” or “Too Much Coffee,” but they’ve grown on me. To me, in their purest sense, SWMRS is a rock band with heavy punk influence, and this record challenged that perception for me. I’m not used to the automated, synth-flowy tone that “IKEA Date” carries with it, and I wasn’t expecting the bouncy reach of “Too Much Coffee.” I have to admire the work the band put into to expand their genre appeal of the record, but the risks taken on tracks like “Hellboy” seem to make the record more impactful while the foray into more pop based beats feel a bit empty.
Berkeley’s on Fire is a glimpse into the talent that SWMRS possess to create music that means something and makes a mark in the alt world, and I think it will carry them to wider audiences because of its sliding scale of intensity. The record has a solidity and longevity to it— the same feeling that kept the single “Berkeley’s on Fire” on repeat in my Spotify for months after it released. It was shaped in moldable years of the band’s life and the world’s timeline, and it does a good job representing the variety that everyone craves in media today. Kicking off their world tour as you read this, it’s obvious SWMRS has something special that isn’t rubbing off soon. At the end of it all, the boys of this band are just simply good people. I’ve talked to Max once in person, and as soon as I handed them my record to sign he remembered where I was from and what school I was going to and said that the band had talked about me (“do you know… Tua? that’s his name right?”) after I met them at Uncool. I told them about the impact that trip made on me, and that it’s one of the reasons I’ll be on the road with a band in March, learning how to manage a tour. Berkeley’s on Fire marked a turning point in my life, and I think it’s safe to assume that it’s about to set SWMRS on quite an adventure.