Headed to town for an all ages St. Patrick's Day set Thursday at Chop Shop, I spoke with SWMRS vocalist/guitarist Cole Becker about recording the new album Drive North with producer Zac Carper of FIDLAR, the philosophy behind the group's label Uncool Records, the importance of protecting creative interests through self release, what they learned from Chicago's own Rise Against and much more...
SWMRS has technically only existed for about the last year and a half - since bassist Seb Mueller joined drummer Joey Armstrong and guitar playing brothers Cole and Max Becker.
But the relationship between the band members goes back much further. Three of the four have worked together creating a pair of albums produced by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong (drummer Joey Armstrong's father) as Emily's Army since 2008 and they've known each other longer than that.
It's the type of longevity a lot of bands don't make it far enough to experience and a history most would envy heading into a third studio project. But it's especially impressive when put in context of the band's median age of only about 20 years old.
Self released this past February, Drive North technically marks the first album for SWMRS. Expanding upon the punk rock sounds that landed Emily's Army on Warped Tour in 2012 and 2013, Drive North finds the Oakland quartet exploring new musical territory under the guidance of producer Zac Carper of FIDLAR. Acoustic, electronic, new wave and more augment their core punk asthetic as Drive North follows the growth of a socially aware group beginning an exciting new chapter.
I spoke over the phone with guitarist and vocalist Cole Becker about working with Carper on the first SWMRS album, the advantages of a foray into the world of self release, how their history together impacts the new music as the band continues to mature, the importance of keeping rock and roll both inclusive and participatory and the struggle to make music a career. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below...
Q. The new album Drive North came out last month and you guys have been on the road for a few weeks now. How’s the reception been so far?
Cole Becker: It’s been amazing. We’re showing up to places that are really obscure, that we’ve never been so far, and there’s people – which is really all we could ask for. Going back to places we’ve played at before it’s been an amazing reception.
Q. Obviously one of the most notable changes moving from the two Emily’s Army albums into the first SWMRS record is the change of producer. What was it like working with someone other than Billie Joe Armstrong for the first time in Zac Carper of FIDLAR?
CB: It was great. Because when we were working with Billie he was really hands off. He was just kind of guiding us through but letting us make all the big decisions about production.
But with Zac, he’s really brainy and also really idiosyncratic. It was a live-in studio that we recorded at so he would spend entire nights just tweaking out songs and making really strange mixes of them. It was cool because we kind of had to find a middle ground between Zac wanting to be an electronic producer and wanting to make, somewhat, punk songs. It was cool though.
Q. This record begins a new chapter for you guys in a variety of ways – new band name, new music and, as you just alluded to, new sounds and different musical territory covered. There’s more electronic elements on Drive North while a song like “Turn Up” is largely acoustic. "Silver Bullet” has a bit of a new wave feel. Was it a concerted effort to try and shake things up this time around or is the finished product more the sound of a band growing and maturing?
CB: I think it was actually much more natural than anything we did with Emily’s Army.
At the end of the day, we listen to all sorts of music. We have Spotify so we can listen to any kind of music we want to at any moment in time. So it was really refreshing for us to just feel free.
Because Zac was so knowledgeable about ways to achieve certain sounds that weren’t just "rock and roll," it was really refreshing for us to be able to do everything we wanted to.
Q. In other interviews, I’ve seen you name check a lot of different artists – everything from The Clash to D’Angelo and A Tribe Called Quest to The Replacements. What are some of the sounds that have made an impact on you musically over the years that might be coming out in the SWMRS sound now?
CB: A lot of hip hop stuff. When we were growing up in the bay [area], one of the most common things for us to be listening to was old Hieroglyphics kind of stuff. So it was cool for us to finally find ways to put that influence in. So it was a lot of Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief, Del the Funky Homosapien kind of stuff – very localized, alternative hip hop. And then obviously De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Diggable Planets.
All that early 90s alternative hip hop is hugely influential.
Q. It’s interesting that you mention Spotify. I’ve talked to a lot of older musicians who, growing up, were only exposed to new music if it was being played on the radio or MTV - which obviously left out a lot of stuff. But, as you just said, you've essentially grown up with the entire history of recorded music at your fingertips. It's clear you've been influenced by a lot of different sounds over the years so how or where were you getting exposed to music?
CB: My sister has really good taste in music. My Mom’s favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival. So from very early on, I’ve had a very good sense of well thought out, beautifully written rock and roll songs.
My older sister and kids in high school, we’d always trade musical tastes. Going to punk shows growing up you’d meet a lot of people and see all the back patches and wonder, “Hmmm, I wonder who MDC is?” Then you’d look them up.
That was the biggest introduction to punk was seeing it on all these kids’ back patches.
Q. What I think is really interesting about the point your band is at right now – and obviously you guys are still pretty young – but I think what gets missed in the story is just how long you guys have been together. That’s a history now that goes back almost fifteen years, right?
CB: (Laughing) Technically speaking, yeah! SWMRS as a band has only really been a band for about a year and a half. We kind of started when [bassist] Seb [Mueller] joined. But, yeah, Max, Joey and I – and even Seb before he was playing bass was playing saxophone – we all go back about ten or twelve years. Our first concert as Emily’s Army was in 2008.
Q. That’s really interesting because that’s a point a lot of bands don’t even make it to, that kind of longevity. Bands twice your age often don’t have that kind of history going into making their third record together. What kind of an effect does that history have on the music you're making now or where you see it heading?
CB: I think just the writing process. Showing everybody a song that Max and I have written is just very natural. We’ve all grown together as musicians so it just feels very, very natural to play music with one another. I think that’s like the best thing we could’ve ever hoped for.
Q. Drive North is the first album you guys are self releasing via your own label Uncool Records. I would imagine that while that process might free you up a bit creatively, it also brings with it more responsibility. Has it been worth it so far?
CB: It’s been so worth it. It was one of those things where, we would like to release on a label but… we wanted to build stock so that we don’t get like another 360 deal. Some friends of ours are in the scariest kind of situations with labels. We just wanted to make sure that we can protect our creative interests.
So when we did the [Yves Saint Laurent] fashion show [at Paris Fashion Week 2015], we got some money for it and we were like, “Ok. What do we need to do to release this ourselves?” So we put together a budget: We needed publicity money and distribution money. So that was just all it came down to was really just figuring out digital distribution and hiring BB Gun Press.
It’s not that stressful but I think for our managers it’s a little bit more stressful. Because usually they just do management and they have labels figure out all the other stuff. But they’re helping us run our label which is really funny.
Q. I know that, at this point, Uncool Records exists more just as a vehicle for self release than it does anything else but, looking ahead, are there any plans to expand things and feature music from other artists?
CB: Absolutely. I don’t know if it will expand really as just a label but it is very indicative of our lifestyle and our personal philosophy about just focusing on the things that matter.
So I think Uncool is going to be around forever - whether it’s clothes or music or ‘zine distribution. That’s our entire philosophy put into one word.
So I think its longevity is definitely in its adaptability to every aspect of what we do.
Q. When you say that Uncool is focused on “the things that matter,” what are some of those things?
CB: In our song, “I Hate L.A.,” the reason that I’m calling out that city is because in the music scene down there there’s so many people who are focused on things that aren’t the music. They’re just focused on the superficial, really stupid stuff that is getting them attention.
All we want is for people to do what they love for the right reasons – not to be put in a fashion magazine, not to pick up on girls. If you make music, make music and do the best you can at it. If you make art, make it for the sake of making art.
And that’s just our philosophy. I think the value of people’s art gets co-opted too often. We want to bring it back to transparency.
Q. Staying with that philosophy, you’ve created Boyzine ("feminism for boys" as it's described on the Boyzine Facebook page) and in the new SWMRS song “Harry Dean,” you directly reference the Riot grrrl movement. In other interviews I’ve seen you mention support for both the Black Lives Matter movement as well as Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders… but as a band you guys haven’t really gone there yet in a song. Do you see a point where SWMRS starts to explore more of that politically motivated fare in song?
CB: It’s hard because, I think, a lot of times, it’s a really fine line to tow and you run the risk of just sounding really corny. I think the best thing musicians can do, especially in rock, is to use their influence to elevate the voices of more marginalized people.
I definitely allude to political things often but it’s more to just keep people always aware. I think our music, if not overtly political, is always getting at the heart of trying to create a safe space for people no matter where they come from – from gender, class, race, sexual orientation or whatever. We’re just trying to create a safe space for everybody to express their identity in a very positive way.
Because at the end of the day, rock and roll is all participatory and the value is in participation. So if you’re excluding people from participating in it then you’re dumb.
Q. Following your dates on Warped Tour a few years back, you guys did some touring with Chicago’s own Rise Against. Obviously, Rise Against is a band that’s not afraid to stand for something politically in their songs. In general, coming up as a band and watching a group like Rise Against operate, how much of a learning experience was it for you at such a young age touring with those guys?
CB: Oh my god, those guys rule. And what they really taught us is how to just really treat music like it’s your job. Other bands you see treat it like a nonstop party. And that’s cool – but at the end of the day, this is what we want to do. They just provided such a good example of somebody who treats it like a job that they love – not like a party and not like a job that they hate but like something that they love to do and want to do forever and be successful at.
That’s what I really loved about them: They work really hard and they’re really smart. They’re also one of those groups that uses their influence to fight the good fight.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Thursday's SWMRS concert below)
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Thursday, March 17, 2016
Doors open at 6:30PM
Show starts at 7PM
Also performing: The Frights and The Symposium
$10 in advance, $12 at the door
Click HERE to purchase tickets