Hotstar: As Bay Area Pop-Punks SWMRS Grow, They Retain Their DIY Feel

Phoebe Fox
Flanked by brother Max (left) and drummer Joey Armstrong (right), Cole Becker (center) shreds at E-Werk in Erlangen, Germany, on Aug. 16, 2018.

Northern California pop-punks SWMRS came up in DIY spaces with a scrappy, lovable live act to match. But as they gear up for an epic 2019, frontman Cole Becker tells Pollstar the band isn’t concerned about ceding intimacy – namely because they’ve spent nearly their entire lives with front-row seats to one of the arena circuit’s most notoriously relatable acts.

“We got to watch Green Day in some of the biggest venues that people can play,” says Becker, who performs in SWMRS alongside brother Max, bassist Seb Mueller and drummer Joey Armstrong, who is the son of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. “Growing up and seeing that there is a way to maintain the intimacy and power of your live show at every step, I think that’s an incredibly invaluable thing that we were able to learn from Green Day. They can make a 10,000-person venue feel like it’s the small show on the tour.”

The band hasn’t risen to that live profile just yet – but they’re inching closer, and the year they have lined up should continue that trajectory. In February they release their arena-sized sophomore album Berkeley’s On Fire – produced by Rich Costey (Muse, Death Cab for Cutie) – and the following month embark on their biggest headlining tour yet, where they’ll top bills at venues including New York’s Brooklyn Steel and Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

The Becker brothers and Armstrong have come a long way since they met at the latter’s fourth birthday party and, inspired by School of Rock, began playing music shortly after. The band is being guided by industry vets, with GRNDVW’s Chris Georggin, who formerly represented Blink-182 and New Found Glory, having managed SWMRS since they formed earlier this decade, and Paradigm’s Corrie Christopher Martin, who works with Imagine Dragons and Rise Against, who came aboard just over a year ago.

Together, Georggin and Martin have pushed SWMRS to new heights while maintaining the band’s link to it’s fans.

“The band definitely had a very special connection with their core fan base,” says Georggin, recalling conversations with the label Fueled By Ramen, which was courting SWMRS after the band released their debut album Drive North in February 2016. “I was very up front with them. I said, ‘Listen, this band and their culture and their fanbase is very important to them. […] I really need to cultivate exactly what this band can do.’”

The temptation existed, initially, to cash in on the band’s Green Day ties.

“I can’t even tell you how many cover offers we were offered just because of the fact that Joey was in the band,” says Georggin. But the manager says he realized “this band will never have their own leg to stand on if we take that approach” and told music publications he’d come back to them “once we actually have our worth.”

– Road Warriors
Manager Chris Georggin of GRNDVW encouraged SWMRS to tour “the old punk-rock way, put ’em in a van.”

For Georggin, the solution “was all in touring.” Early on, SWMRS were road warriors – “the old punk-rock way, put ‘em in a van” – and earned their stripes touring with like-minded acts such as Wavves and FIDLAR. In negotiations with Fueled By, Georggin assured the label that after the band’s 2016 touring cycle he would “hand [SWMRS] to you on a platter where they are worth 1,000 tickets in every market.” He held up his end of the deal and, in October 2016, Fueled By signed SWMRS and re-released Drive North.

Since then, SWMRS have continued to expand their creative horizons, touring with larger bands such as All Time Low and Blink-182. “That was another pivotal thing,” says Georggin. “It’s very easy when you’re on a super small stage in that kind of punk-rock environment, but if you can’t work a 40-by-60 stage, with a 20-foot gap between the barricade, if you can’t figure out how to connect with the fan that’s way out there, it’s going to be hard as you grow.”

Becker says those tours reoriented how the band saw their live potential. “When you play too many punk shows, you start to think, ‘Aw, man, every other kind of show is lame,’” Becker says. “Opening for those bands really opened my eyes up to the fact that everybody needs music in their life and you shouldn’t feel guilty about abandoning smaller shows to give more people more music.”

Martin echoes the sentiment when discussing the band’s upcoming tour.

SWMRS have “the sort of DIY mentality and now they’re just really getting the opportunity to amplify that and take it to the next level,” she says. “They’ve always been operating their own way and now I get to help them elevate that.”

The All Time Low tour specifically proved fruitful for another reason: It’s where Costey first saw SWMRS. According to Georggin, the producer was floored by how SWMRS won over the headliner’s audience, and when the band interviewed producers for their second album, the chemistry was immediate. “We’ve all known that we could, given the opportunity, make an album that has as much meticulous detail and ambition as the records that Rich has made,” says Becker. “When we were given the opportunity to work with Rich, there was no question.”

But even as they’ve expanded their circle, SWMRS remain true to their founding ethos. “They’re focused on making sure that they’re serving their hardcore fanbase and growing their hardcore fanbase,” says Martin.

“It’s all about that community and that culture,” Georggin says, adding that he doesn’t worry about things like the week the band had on radio because, “at the end of the day, I’m confident about what these guys do when they get on stage.”