We talked to singer-guitarist Cole Becker about the band's transition out of Warped Tour and into adulthood with their new record "Drive North."
Photo via Alice Baxley
While you were playing Pokemon with your dumb friends in middle school, singer-guitarist Cole Becker and drummer Joey Armstrong were learning to fucking shred. Given that Armstrong is the son of that Billie Joe Armstrong, it was clear from the beginning the group was imbued with punk rock’s most adaptive, purest elements. Because really, all it takes to start a rapidly-impressive captivating punk rock band is genetic predisposition, and an early introduction to one of the most important music flicks, School of Rock.
“It was cool to see young kids our age playing music, if we hadn’t seen that we probably would be covering songs still, and that would suck,” says Becker over the phone. He is currently on his way to New Orleans, Louisiana, with his new band SWMRS (pronounced Swimmers) to play another show as part of their current headlining tour with The Frights in support. It's readily apparent in his voice how much he's grown up, both over the phone and on their new record Drive North.
But just a few years ago, the world knew them as Emily’s Army, the adrenaline-fueled garage pop-punk quintet, which ultimately started as a way for the guys to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis. Their energetic skate-punk mentality was first recognized on their 2011 debut album, Don’t Be A Dick. Produced by Green Day's frontman and released through Rise Records, the band almost instantly made waves in the pop-punk community. Add on a couple of years and the guys released 2013’s follow up Lost At Seventeen, which showed their youthful energy at its strongest. Both records were filled with an indispensible ear for killer punk structures and a clear mastery of their teenage angst.
And yet, nobody stays a kid forever. After a lineup switch, the band realized the organically-enriched, pure California surf punk direction they were shifting towards no longer suited Emily's Army. The newly inspired, newly named SWMRS decided to drop Rise Records and self release their debut album, Drive North, earlier this month. The twelve song burner paints how far they’ve come, pulling together their songwriting experience in Emily’s Army with a new found love for the waviness of surf punk. This is a different band, and it’s immediately clear during the album’s opening song, “Harry Dean.” A faint, teasing guitar riff skips back and forth through the song, before increasing its intensity bit by bit before fully exploding with grit and distortion, Becker making his grand entrance. The band found the perfect formula for acid-washed riffing and catchy choruses that any punk, jaded or young, can fall in love with.
We talked to Becker about transitioning to a new sound, and growing up.
Noisey: Why did you guys change your name to SWMRS?
Cole Becker: With Emily’s Army we kept feeling like we were getting put into this pop-punk dish because of Rise Records and Vans Warped Tour. And that’s cool, it’s a cool world to be a part of, but we felt like we were maturing as musicians and as writers and we didn’t want to be held to one single standard.
You guys were initially Swimmers, but then changed it to SWMRS basically because of when you Google searched the name.
Yeah, it was like Michael Phelps and sperm (Laughs).
Even though you guys have been playing music since 2004, it seems like SWMRS is pretty new to many people.
We made a secret band called Swimmers and had a bunch of secret shows surrounding Reading and Leeds Festival, and when we got back we were like, “wow, that was really successful and we’re writing all of these new songs, why don’t we just take the name SWMRS and turn it into our real band?’
Did it feel like starting from scratch?
That was kind of what we wanted. Emily’s Army evolved from age 13-18 but this is age adult to age adult.
Growing up being such good friends with Joey Armstrong and working with his dad while in Emily’s Army, how has that influenced your band?
He was there to guide us but it was a very hands-off experience for the most part. Billie was around for support and he still is, which is awesome.
Not too many people can say, “Yeah, I’m in a band and the frontman of Green Day is working with us on this.”
Yeah, exactly (laughs).
Billie produced your albums in the past, but why work with a different producer for Drive North?
It was the adult thing. The other issues with Emily’s Army was that because Billie produced it, we felt like it wasn’t being taken in its own way. We just wanted to create our own sound that people would take into consideration without that. Zac, (Carper, guitar/vocals for FIDLAR) we really like him, we love FIDLAR and it just made sense.
How was it with Zac Carper and working with someone new?
We’re so happy with the result but at the same time it came at a very strange cost. He was kind of mentally abusive in the studio and he would turn off the lights and scream obscenities at us, and he also had a swear jar, which is weird because we obviously swear on the record but even when we were doing vocal takes he would make us put money in the swear jar and then he would just take the money. He wouldn’t buy us anything cool with it. It wasn’t a community swear jar it was just for Max and me.
How much of your money ended up going into the swear jar?
Probably like $15.
Did this push you guys into wanting to get the album finished quickly?
He’s a strange dude. I think just because he came out of rehab he needed to find new vices and part of that is being scary to us.
What did he bring to make Drive North the way it is?
We had all of these ideas about incorporating hip-hop into our music in light ways. He was able to help us get the deep low-end subby stuff and the weird electronic stuff that we really wanted to get. He’s a really good songwriter and he knows a good song when he hears one. He’s a lot of the sound of the album, which is deep low-end but thrashing guitars.
So you’re a fan of hip-hop.
Yeah, a huge fan.
What artists are you into?
It’s hard to escape Mac Dre, E-40, Del The Funky Homosapien and Souls Of Mischief, that was the first hip-hop I was introduced to. Right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Freddie Gibbs and also Joey Badass, I love that guy.
Do you see SWMRS collaborating with hip-hop artists in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. Hip-hop and punk go hand-in-hand in their ideology and their anemology. They’re both music for the people and by the people and that is something I would love to incorporate.
Your song “Miley,” that was inspired after you wrote an article about Miley Cyrus for your college newspaper?
I had to write about her entry into the New York City Porn and Film Festival. She made this really obscure video, it’s not really porn but it’s an inspired video by Quentin Jones and it’s really cool. We all have this high respect for her because she’s a pop star but she does whatever she wants and that’s so human.
Do you know if she’s ever heard it?
I understand her not wanting to reach out, I’m sure she gets a lot of admiration letters, but it would be really cool if we linked up one time. Joey, Max and I have all met her at different points in our career, mostly during the Hannah Montana/ Miley Stewart phase. I think she does a lot of really cool stuff.
Have you ever thought to collaborate with her for a SWMRS song?
Yeah, I think it would be awesome. Really anyone who I respect artistically, if they would want to do a collaboration with me I would be all about it because I love making music with other people, and I think we all do.
You sing about hating L.A. on your song “Drive North,” also the title of the album. What do you hate about L.A. so much?
It’s about being proud of where you’re from and just being unapologetic about the feeling that you have. We don’t hate L.A., but that’s a genuine feeling of youth that people always boil down. Yeah, we are young and right now I hate L.A. because they have all of these stuck up assholes playing music that are too cool to let us play shows with them.
How far are you guys trying to take SWMRS?
The main goal is always just to make people’s lives a little less shitty and have fun doing it. That’s why we play music because we share this community and it’s a safe space for people to express themselves. The goal is to always be making music people can connect to and hopefully help them improve their lives in some way.
Really fast, had you already been playing guitar before you saw School Of Rock as a kid?
No, that’s what made me want to play guitar. Joey had a guitar and I would put my fingers on random parts of the fret board and strum and I would sing.
It would be cool if you had a recording of that.
I think we do somewhere. I’ll have to dig it up and send it to Noisey sometime.
You can pick up 'Drive North' right here.
Geoff Burns doesn't know how to SWM. Follow him on Twitter.