Interview by Cassandra Turner-Goldsmith
Photos: Sarah Rodriguez
SWMRS are on the cover of our October issue-read/grab a copy here! https://www.galaxy-mag.com/product-page/galaxy-october-2019-swmrs
Photo credit: Phoebe Fox
A rock band out of Oakland, California, SWMRS has been on the tip of the tongues of music fans everywhere since their first release in 2016. Previously under the name Emily’s Army, the group has been jamming together since 2004, and is currently prepping for an upcoming fall tour that will hit the West Coast, state of Texas, Canada and Mexico. Guitarist Max Becker has taken time to chat with me about opening for bands like Muse and The 1975, how their band fits into the rapidly changing music industry, and big plans for a new decade.
So, tell me where you’re at currently with touring, shows, and all of that. I heard that the upcoming L.A. show was just cancelled.
We are all spread out around the country right now with our girlfriends. Just because, you know, gotta put the time in! And also, we wanted to see them. Joey was just in New York, Seb and Cole are in Oakland, and we did cancel the L.A. show. Are you based in L.A.?
Yes, we are, and we have people all over. I’m in L.A.
Okay, cool. So, we canceled the L.A. show. The biggest show we had played up until that point was 1,400 at The Belasco, and it seemed since the beginning like too big of a jump. We felt like we weren’t ready. So, it’s not like we actually hate L.A., I know we say that in the song, but we were actually really bummed because we were looking forward to it. We may or may not be doing something in the New Year…
But we will be playing there, like in L.A. or something. Look, we’ve done the research and we’ve done all the stats. Not that it’s all about stats, but our biggest fanbase is in Southern California.
Speaking of exploring bigger venues, you just opened for Muse recently and are about to open for The 1975 and Catfish & The Bottlemen. When you compare experiences, an arena vs. a club, are you excited to just get bigger and bigger or do you really prefer the intimacy of smaller venues?
You know, I’d say a lot of people will always love the intimacy of a show. I like playing small shows, but we started playing shows together as a band 15 years ago. We’ve done so many small shows at this point that I don’t have the same nostalgia for them that a lot of people do, just because I’m kind of ready to do bigger and bigger shows. Joey and I, we’re the people that want to play stadiums someday, so we’re on the end of just getting excited for bigger and bigger things. However, I do think there is a very special place for intimate shows, especially while we’re still young. Seeing really big established artists do a small show is kind of tough because it’s hard to get a ticket, and usually the people there are super fans with a phone camera and it’s not that same wild experience as when you’re first starting out. Right now, we still do get that wild experience, and hopefully continue to get it, so I do like the small shows. I’m just ready for massive ones. And at the new shows we’re like “Dang, this is what it’s like,” you know? Here’s the job, let’s get it done.
You’ve been playing since 2004, as Emily’s Army at first, correct?
What are some of the differences between then and now? What are the lessons you’ve learned, and how do you approach things differently now than you did before?
Oh my gosh we’ve learned so much. Mainly because I was 11 in 2004, and I’m 26 now. I think there are a couple main things we’ve learned by getting this very different experience than most people get. We learned a lot of things the hard way. We learned a lot about tour and why tour is important, and that is still something we very much believe in. I think all the lessons we’ve learned about – budgeting your per diems on tour, saving money at gas stations and hotels and all that kind of stuff – I think the main thing that we’ve learned, especially about our music, is that we grow as a band when we tour. It’s always worked. That is perhaps the most important thing about what we do. Actually, I’d say it might even be more important than the music itself. A lot of what we do is more of this like culty, pseudo-spiritual kind of show that we’re giving people, and I think music aids that. But the real show, like the real thing that people come for I think is the live experience. And maybe the culture online. Maybe that’s part of it too, but I’d say the pinnacle of what we do, the best thing our band does, is play the live shows. That’s something that we have learned through sixteen years of playing, and it’s influencing us more than ever before. Next year we’re going to be doing a lot of really cool things that I can’t talk about yet.
Is there anything you want to share about plans for new music, or not yet?
Yeah, I can talk about it! So pretty much, January 1st is not only the start of a new year but it’s the start of a new decade, as you know. I and the rest of the band have been thinking about this for the entire year, okay? We haven’t gotten huge or anything yet, so if we get huge in the twenty-twenties that means that we’re gonna be a band of the twenty-twenties, which is really exciting to think about. New fresh decade. We will definitely be releasing some new music next year, and some really cool concepts on how to reach more of our fanbase and really create this kind of one-of-a-kind storyline with what we do. Part of that has to do with this idea that a new decade is coming, and we want to use that as a means to really orchestrate something just kind of amazing. We want to orchestrate something amazing! I think a new decade will give us a chance, and we’ve been working a lot on these really fun ways to go about the music industry in the United States.
Everything you do as a band is very distinct and unique. You have your own sound, your own stage presence, your own theme to everything. How much do your fans influence your direction, whether that be business-wise, or creatively as you’re making the music? Or is it more of a self-absorbed process of what you want to put out there?
That’s a really good question. I think everyone in the music industry kind of thinks of this in one of two ways, like how you described. Is it about people paying attention to what you do as a musician, or is it about you as a musician paying attention to what other people do? We are the latter. I think we’re entirely focused on the lives of our fans and their well-being, and they influence more than they know. There’s no way of explaining how much they really do for us but pretty much, we feel like a member of the house of representatives and they’re our constituents, if that makes sense. Like, the way we interact with them on Twitter and on social media and even after shows! We do that a little bit foreign thing where we stay for like four hours after every show and talk to everybody, and we’re listening. Because the way we see it is we have a slightly bigger platform than they would get in their average life. So if there’s something that they feel needs to be talked about, we have the avenue that they don’t necessarily have – especially kids in certain parts of the country that maybe aren’t as liberal as where we came from. For us to be able to speak for them, and listen to them, is one of the greatest and most humbling parts of what we do. It makes us feel like we’re doing something important. They influence almost everything we do.
What would you say to the people who believe that the live music experience should be a space free from political bias and shame towards those certain political views?
Listen, I saw Maggie Rogers a couple nights ago. I know her personally and she’s a pretty liberal person, but she was playing in D.C., which is actually a very liberal place, and she went about that political question in a pretty good way. She was like “Look, a lot of my songs and a lot of the things I support online are fairly liberal, but I just want you to know that everyone and anyone is welcome at this show, as long as you dance.” And I’d say the only thing that makes us different than that is we do want to welcome anyone to our show, but it’s not about them dancing. If you come to the show, you respect the other people’s space around you. It goes back to that question of free speech – is hate speech free speech? In my opinion, it’s not. Because if it’s hate speech, it’s taking away somebody else’s free speech. What we used to do is we’d be like “Ahh, fuck Trump!” and all that kind of stuff at our shows, and as we get older, we’re like, you know what? That doesn’t do anything. What really changes things is getting as many people to the show as possible and getting them to realize that there is this whole sense that you can be a good person. Maybe you don’t agree on how fiscal laws should be changed, but you know, maybe we can get some people in there that grew up with a further right upbringing and we can try to convince them that like, “Hey, gay and trans rights? You know, they don’t really have anything to do with you. So, you probably should let it happen.” We affect more change with an open door. However, if somebody comes in and they’re making somebody else feel uncomfortable, that’s when the walls go down, and that’s when we kick people out. That’s when we get intense. And we’ve done it before. We come from the Bay Area, which is a very politically driven place, but we don’t want to walk into Atlanta and pretty much tell them how to live their lives, because we don’t know what it’s like to live in Atlanta. As long as people at shows are not ruining someone’s safe space. We have a really special space at our shows and anyone’s welcome, but if you taint that you’re out.
I really respect that. So, you have Uncool Festival coming up. That is your own festival, correct?
Here you are creating an even bigger safe space. How much are you guys directly involved in booking the bands and figuring out how to create that entire experience?
We are directly involved with booking the bands, and we’re directly involved with the people at the venue and decorating the venue – all that kind of stuff. We just got Headcount there, so we’re gonna have some voter registration, which is good because a lot of our fans are on the cusp of turning eighteen if they’re not already. We luckily have a really good team around us where they know what we believe in, so they pretty much give us all the help they can give us to try to get that kind of stuff done. What’s hard about the shows getting bigger and trying to keep it a safe space, is I often forget that the people at the shows aren’t just our fans from Twitter. Our fans from Twitter are very intense, liberal, but we [also] have a lot of people that just kind of like our music. They show up to the show, and maybe they have never been before and it’s a new experience for them, seeing such an intense, socially political atmosphere. But I’d say, compared to a lot of other big shows, it functions pretty well as a safe space. Every once in a while, you get an idiot in there who maybe groped somebody. We not only kick them out, but we give them a life lesson moment where we explain why that’s a bad thing. And then we kick them out.
That’s the way to do it.
Totally, because I don’t want them to do it again! I don’t want to just kick somebody out – they need to know why. We’re very involved in that aspect. There’s this venue called Gilman Street up there [in the Bay Area] that pretty much influenced a lot of what we believe in. It’s a punk venue, and the rule is no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no drinking. It’s supposed to be an all ages music venue where everyone can feel safe. We started playing there when we were 13 years old, so it’s been a part of what we do this entire time. We’ve tried to keep that mindset, not just at that venue but at all of our shows.
Your last album, Berkley’s On Fire; From a musician’s perspective, it’s excellent – there are unique structures and instrumentals. While not overproduced, it’s complicated enough to be very interesting. Can you explain, especially with you making new music now, your individual roles in the creative process?
Yeah totally. I’d say… Look, the biggest question is, you know everyone’s always talking about how rock has been done, and rock is dead, and all this really funny stuff. To me it’s like, if you approach it from a different perspective, like not trying to keep it alive but rather knowing that it was never alive in the first place, it just is either good or it’s bad. If you get into that mindset, you can really open up your eyes to what you can do with punk and rock music. You can start to combine genres, which is what we did a lot on Berkley’s On Fire, because in the Spotify generation with people’s “year-end favorite artist,” it’s not that people just listen to rap or just listen to rock or just listen to pop. It’s all over the map. So why not make music that reflects that, you know? It is rock music. It is punk music. There are traps I have in “Lose Lose Lose,” you know? There are certain things that we wanted to do without getting overproduced or anything, just giving a nod to new modern music and modern music listening. Within the band I’d say Cole and I write the general structure and do the demos and the songs, because we’re the songwriters of the band. But I’d say with Berkley’s On Fire, Seb and Joey not only created their parts but were a bigger part of the production process this time around than ever before. Especially Joey with the drums, because you take a song like Too Much Coffee, where I might’ve had the basic drum idea in my demo, but what he did with Too Much Coffee is he played live drums and combined programed drums in between the two. He really was the pacemaker and made an interesting palate of drums. If that song was recorded in the nineties it would’ve sounded way simpler, and just kind of bland almost. But what he does to it now is he will try to incorporate “Okay, how do we do the drums differently.” It’s not about keeping rock alive, like I said, it’s not about that whole concept. It’s just how do we make something sound cool and fun. That’s really the only requirement – Is it cool? Fun? Do we like it? Awesome.
The industry is going in an interesting direction right now, with genres crossing and a lot of transitions. How do you feel about that, and how to you think your band fits in right now with pushing the music industry forward?
I think it’s awesome. I think the music industry is in a better state than it was in ten years ago, just because it seems like we’ve all figured out that really, there is no limit to what you can do. I mean, just take Lil Nas X for example. I like that we don’t really fit into a genre, and people have a hard time figuring out what we are. And I think traditionally, again back to the nineties, maybe that would be a bad thing? It would be a red flag for people in the marketing business. It would be like “Oh, we can’t market them towards something that we know won’t work.” But right now, it doesn’t really matter. It goes back to that other answer I had where it’s either good or it’s bad, you know? The cool thing about that is music is subjective. So a lot of people might think something’s bad, but a lot of other people might think that thing is good! It’s just about finding those people that think you’re good. So yeah, I think I like the state of the music industry. It’s hard because there’s less money involved, and mid-level bands do have a harder time making ends meet than they did before, but it really tests you. You really have to love what you do to be a musician, and that’s cool. You don’t just do it for the money, like, there is not that much money in music. So, you do it because you genuinely love it and you genuinely love how it affects people. And maybe you’ll make money someday.
What types of moments do you find yourself appreciating the most?
I think I enjoy the live show the most. Just seeing people sing back our lyrics…I mean nothing beats that. We got a chance this summer when we were opening for Muse to get people to sing back our song Figuring It Out, which, when we wrote it, we were playing 200 cap rooms. But we wrote it, this idea, like “Oh we can write it, maybe it’ll be played in a big room someday.” Sure enough, we were in front of eighty thousand people this summer, and we got the entire crowd to chant the opening, like the “Ohs in the song, and there’s nothing that beats that. That is probably the coolest thing in the world. Something that you wrote, you created, is being sung back to you.
Absolutely incredible. I can imagine. On the opposite side of that, what are some of the challenges that most people might not realize come with being in a band?
Unfortunately, it goes back to the money thing. I think the biggest challenge is just trying to figure out how to remain yourself while trying to expand your business. Because a lot of people will just either focus on the purity of what they do, or the business side of what they do, but it’s really hard to ride the line. It’s really hard to be like, okay, we don’t want to change, we don’t want to sell out, but we also want to do this forever. And if we do that forever, we have to make money because you know, we all want to be normal adults someday. We want to get married and have kids with people. It’s like, this isn’t the only part of our life, but it’s going to be our job. I don’t want to use us as an example, but I have a couple friends with bands that play pretty big shows and people will be like “Oh my god, they must be like living it.” They don’t realize that that person is still sleeping in motels, and still making less money than the person at the label who shows up to work and does a nine to five. It’s the hardest thing that people don’t realize. And this isn’t me complaining, this isn’t like “Oh, give us your money,” it’s more just like I want people to know that when they complain about a band not being able to make it to Australia, it’s because it’s really hard to pay for that trip. And it’s really hard to make everything work. There are some bands that are doing really well, and you’d be surprised how hard their personal lives are. How hard it is to juggle. Maybe the deal they’re in is not that good or something. It’s really fascinating – now that I have a bunch of other friends who do it, we all talk about it. You don’t want to have to come out with music, you want to want to come out with music. Because it’s something that is spiritual and important. You don’t want to come out with music so that you can make money. How do you get to that point? And that’s the question! So hopefully all my friends that are dealing with that, hopefully they all figure it out, and hopefully get to this point where, by the end of the decade, we’ll be having those normal lives like I was talking about.
You mentioned having friends that you talk with about what you go through while being in a band. What is it like to be making those connections and have those friends that you can directly relate to, and even becoming friends with those of whom you might’ve been a fan?
It’s fascinating. I mean I’ve known this for a while, because we grew up with Joey’s dad being in a very big band and knowing that people are human beings. As much as you want to think your favorite artist is like, on a pedestal, everyone is still just trying to figure it out, and they’re just human beings. So, it’s nice to meet some of the bigger bands that we tour with. I will say, the Muse guys though, they are on a different pedestal. Their lives are like, crazy. They have it figured out, okay, so they are true rock stars. We met Jimmy Page, and like that…yeah. But some of the other bands we tour with it’s like, okay, I know them all personally, and I know their music, and it’s two separate things. I think it’s pretty special. I like knowing the backstory and talking to them. You know, musicians don’t always talk about music. A really perfect example of this is recently, I’ve become pretty good friends with this guy Matt Thomson from The Amazons. And like we obviously talk about music, we talk about rock music, and he’s based in the U.K., but we realized we both really love history, and more often than not we’re swapping history podcasts and trying to teach each other more about each other’s countries. That in my opinion is cooler sometimes than just talking about a band that you know about like, “How was that show?” you know? It’s really cool to find the other hobbies that they’re into. So, I like that about it.
Where do you see your band in the future? In five years, maybe more. Do you have very specific goals in mind or are you just seeing where it goes?
We do have very specific goals. Actually, recently we wrote a strategic planning document that I would imagine not many other bands do, but we were just like, you know what? We wanna write this all down so that everyone who works with us understands what we want. Five years from now – I actually have it written down. These are the very specific goals we want, and hopefully we can handle it before then. We want to sell out the Anthem in D.C., we want to play Uncool Fest at the Greek Theater in Berkley rather than just the UC Theater, we want to sell out the Alexander Palace in London, which is 10,000 cap, and we really want to play a sunset slot on main stage at various international festivals such as like Lollapalooza in South America, Fuji Rock Japan, Govender’s Ball and Reading and Leeds, and also, in terms of L.A. goals, we want to sell out two nights at the Palladium by 2025.
To see SWMRS on tour this fall, click here: https://www.swmrs.com
To listen to SWMRS’ latest album Berkley’s On Fire, click here: https://swmrs.lnk.to/bofalbum
To learn more about Headcount, click here: https://www.headcount.org