On March 8th, SWMRS was in concert in Paris to present their new album Berkeley’s On Fire live. Before the show, we had the opportunity to talk about this record with Cole Becker (vocals and guitar), Max Becker (guitar and vocals), Seb Mueller (bass) and Joey Armstrong (drums):
Your new album Berkeley’s On Fire is out. What was the main inspiration for this record?
Max: A lot of things! I’d say the best way to sum it all up was trying to make an album that speaks to as many different kinds of people that we can. So each song is speaking to whoever can hear it, as something that is for themselves. We have slow songs, fast songs, dance songs, heavy songs, they can all be for you or maybe one speaks to you more but that was the whole inspiration, to make an album that spreads over a bigger group of people.
Isn’t it hard to get into different musical directions when you’re making an album?
Max: You’d think yes
Seb: but it came pretty naturally.
Max: At the end of day, it was what we listen to already and I think lyrically we’ll always be ourselves so whatever the music is around it, as long as we’re careful, whatever we make will probably just sound like us.
Cole: Also, on any given day one of us is listening to a kind of music you wouldn’t expect a punk band to be listening to, but we like and listen to all sorts of music and we weren’t trying really hard to make it sound like every song was different, it just turned out that way. We wrote probably 30 songs for this album but we picked the 10 that were the best in each category.
Out of these 10 songs, which one was the hardest to finish?
Max: Steve Got Robbed was really hard to finish but only because we left it to the end. The hardest ones were either Berkeley’s On Fire or Lose Lose Lose because they were the biggest reach for us, they were the newest types of songs for us, so we really wanted to make sure that it was perfect. We re-recorded them both a lot, especially the guitars. It wasn’t until we found an amplifier for the 1940s that we were able to get the guitar sound in Berkeley’s On Fire. Those are statement songs for us, so we wanted to make sure they were a statement.
Speaking of statements, the song Berkeley’s On Fire is very political. Can you explain what is Berkeley and the message of the song for someone who isn’t American?
Cole: Berkeley is a city in California. We wanted to talk about something that happens a lot in France too, when there’s a demonstration and there’s 100 or 200 people there and it gets a little bit violent but not dangerous but then you turn on the TV and it looks like a war zone. We wanted to talk about how our news in America in particular likes to take that footage and divide people up. It keeps society working in a particular way, in a fearful way and we wanted to write music and create a space with our music where people weren’t afraid of each other and feel like they can be themselves.
So would you say that these bad news has an influence on you and your music?
Cole: I think so. Right now in America, our president is a total dumbass but he’s really good at always making the news interesting. You always want to be reading the news because he’s always doing something fucking stupid. I think all of us were so addicted to the news and that was on our mind every day when we were making this album and it kind of filtered into the lyrics.
You write songs with strong subjects, your lyrics are committed but do you put yourselves limits in your writing?
Cole: No !
Seb: No limits.
Cole: We always try to push each other to write something that isn’t a cliché and that is also very specific. We try to put as much of our own perspective and personality into our writing because if you don’t do that then a machine could have written it.
Max: A good example is the song Too Much Coffee, it could have been a very cliché song with the chorus « Don’t tell me how to sing this song » like « Fuck you! » but in the verse, if you start talking about specific things like coffee and dumplings or spending the night on a friend’s couch, these specific things make it less cliché, more individual. We try to push each other to do that with our lyrics.
You’re going to open for Muse for two dates in April during their American tour. How do you feel and what do you expect this opportunity to bring you as musicians?
Joey: Muse has been an influence on us for our whole career, for our whole life. We were talking about it the other day how Muse has been able to put out albums that sound so different from each other but they are always Muse records and I think that’s something that inspired us. We’re looking forward to watching them, learning how they pull up some of the stuff they do live because it’s super technical and they are very big shows.
Max: What is nice is it feels like a stamp of approval. We’re really trying to do something new and when you do that, when you put yourself out there, you gotta get freaked out. Hopefully people understand, luckily the press understands and the fans understand but for a really big band to also understand is a big deal for us. We are grateful. Also, hopefully they’ll like us and we can do more, we’d love to go on tour with them or something.
With Muse, you’ll be playing in arenas. You’ll be doing festivals this summer. How do you adapt going from small venues to bigger venues? How does your interaction with the crowd change?
Joey: I think it’s a lot easier for us because we’ve been preparing for this for a while. For us, it doesn’t matter who’s in front of us, we’re gonna give the same type of show which is high energy, precision and epicness. It doesn’t matter if there are 2 people or 300 or 20 000, we’re ready to play in front of all of them. As long as we bring the energy and the authenticity, we’ll get it in return.
Max: Our new layout – 5 instead of 4, Jakob (Joey’s brother) joined us to play guitar on stage – enables us to be more precised and to create this idea that Cole is bringing everybody in. Because he has no guitar anymore, he can use his hands, his body to come closer to the crowd.
Cole: I kind of think about it like there’s Jesus and I’m the pastor and the congregation is the crowd and I’m bringing the crowd closer to Jesus.
Joey: That’s the headline!
Max: He is the bridge between us and the crowd which we didn’t have much before and now I think we are more prepared than ever to play the biggest shows in the world.
Joey: When we were in the studio, we talked about what size space we wanted to write songs for and the size space we wrote these songs for is actually playing arena shows ourselves. So it’s a good opportunity for us to practice before we play them ourselves.
You’ve been a band for a long time now (since 2005 as Emily’s Army), isn’t it hard to stay focus and inspired?
Max: It’s what we’ve always done, we’ve been musicians most of our lives. We like taking our outside life and put it into our music and I think that cycle will never go away. It’s not really hard to be inspired, it just comes naturally.
You’re traveling, discovering cultures, how does it influence your life and how does it reflect on your music?
Joey: We talk about it all the time, those beautiful occasions where we are like « holy shit, this is fucking amazing ». This is inspiring, like Japan, France, Barcelona. And the music that comes from certain cultures, we try to do our best to learn from and study. Quincy Jones said » You have to study the past in order to create something new. » and for us it is very important to see everything we possibly can when we’re in a place.
Cole: And also when people come to the show, in a new country, they’re so welcoming to us. It’s just cool for us to watch how a French crowd reacts to something because that’s a very specific thing about French culture or a Japanese crowd reacts to a band. There’s no other way to see a large group of Japanese people react to music and enjoy themselves.
Are Japanese people really that quiet during concerts?
Cole: Oh my God, yes ! But they’re crazy during the songs.
Joey: I saw one of the craziest circle pits of my life in Japan at a Pennywise show. The crowd was going insane but as soon as the song is done, it’s total silence.
During the soundcheck, you sang a song in French and you recently sang one in Spanish. Do you try to listen to music in other languages and what do you gain from it musically?
Cole: Yes, we sang Le Temps de l’Amour by Françoise Hardy and we sang a Mexican song, Volver, Volver by Vicente Fernández during a live session.
Max: We do it by chance, we’re like « this sounds good ». There are no barriers with what we listen to, it’s not like we’re specifically trying or maybe if we’re in France, we’ll listen to some French music to get in the mood but even at home in America, we’re like « oh this sounds good ».
Joey: Yeah, it’s all about sounding good. When we were in the studio, there’s a playlist we listened to a lot, it was the coolest thing because there’s this group of people playing all these instruments and making it sound one. I think that’s really important, in world music especially there’s 15 to hundreds musicians playing as a unit and it’s something we really appreciate and we want to understand how it works. A good song is a good song.
If you could describe each other with one of your songs, which one would it be?
Joey: I’d say Cole is definitely April in Houston. Sonically, there’s a lot of different parts going on but it all works out. Not one part is too specific but the whole thing together is a very specific sound.
Max: I think Seb has a personality a lot like Steve Got Robbed, because it’s so strange and always will be strange
Joey: but people like it!
Max: There’s a lot of layers, a lot to discover about Seb overtime, he’s a really complex character. He’s weird but he’s perfect.
Joey: He’s an awesome character.
Cole: I think Steve Got Robbed is a very precise song and Seb is very precise and meticulous about everything he does.
Seb: Thank you boys!
Joey: I’d say Max is Too Much Coffee because musically it’s everything he’s ever thought on doing in one song, the lyrics are about him in certain locations, it’s pretty personal.
Max: Joey, I wouldn’t say lyrically you’re Lose Lose Lose, but I’d still say Lose Lose Lose cause the drumming on it.
Cole: This is the most accurate description of everything he can do.
Seb: He wants to be Hellboy but he’s Lose Lose Lose.
Max: No one wants to be Hellboy!
Max: There’s a little bit of us in every song, but if you were to talk about shining moments, Joey’s drumming in Lose Lose Lose for sure. Cole, personally I think he’s Berkeley’s On Fire and Seb’s bass line in Bad Allergies was like a shining moment for him.
SWMRS has now finished their European tour and is heading to their homecountry for another tour leg, though the band will be back in Europe for some festivals this summer. The message around the band and their music is something that is important and needed: they spread tolerance and equality, they openly root for minorities, making their shows a safe place. With their unique sound, the community they’re building and their will to make the punk scene a place where everyone is accepted and respected; we have a feeling this band is just getting started.
Bonus, here’s a little message from SWMRS to their French fans: