An in-depth look at SWMRS’s “Berkeley’s On Fire.”
SWMRS — “Lose Lose Lose”
Jesse Cannon: Hi, my name is Jesse Cannon. I’ve devoted my life to figuring out what goes into making great albums. I’ve produced over a thousand records, written two books, and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present Inside the Album, where we get to go deeper on how your favorite artist have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the musicians, and the team behind them that helped craft these records while getting to know the little secrets that go into making great music.
On this episode, we discuss SWMRS’s sophomore LP, “Berkeley’s on Fire.”
SWMRS — “Lose It”
Oakland, California’s SWMRS is the rare band that has been able to take the sound and attitude of punk and form it into something that sounds both fresh and is enjoyable to listen to. I first took notice of the band in 2013, as did many others, when they signed at Rise records under the name Emily’s army. But brothers Cole Max Becker along with drummer Joey Armstrong had already been plugging away at music starting in 2004.
They’ve since released several EPs and changed their name to SWMRS, all while breaking out from under the often looked down upon trade of having a famous family member. After all, drummer Joey Armstrong is the son of Green Day’s, Billy Joe Armstrong.
They would first solidify themselves as being worthy of the worldwide attention on their own merits by releasing their debut LP “Drive North” in 2016. And now the group has dropped their sophomore album, “Berkeley’s on Fire”. It’s a record that sounds dangerous and sonically adventurous, complete with pointed social commentary that I honestly can’t stop listening to. I spent a nice warm afternoon chatting in the Atlantic records studios with the guitarist and singer Max Becker. Max is going to start by telling us some more of SWMRS’s story.
Max Becker: My brother Cole and I have been friends with Joey, our drummer, since we were three, four and five. And we are right now 23, 24, and 25. So 20 years. And we were always into like, sports, and we always did stuff together. We played soccer; we were always competitive with each other.
But when School of Rock came out, it came out when we were nine, 10, and 11. And the kids in that movie were nine, 10, and 11. And so we were like, “Oh my God, we can do this.” Add in a little bit of the fact that Joey’s dad is Joey’s dad, and we were getting exposed to music in all sorts of ways in 2004. And we immediately started writing songs, day one.
And we had a couple iterations, as we were talking about before this went on. We were called Emily’s Army for a long time, like throughout high school. Brief signing to Rise and a couple of tours. Our first international tour in the UK. It was really rad, but it was always kind of like this teenage thing that we… It was semi-pro. We were still in high school, and we didn’t know what to do, we just knew we had to tour. We played shows to four people in Trenton, New Jersey. People can say whatever they want to say about us, but at least we’ve put in now… We started playing shows a couple of years after we started the band, so we’ve been playing shows for 10 years collectively as a group of people. And so, we’ve put in the time as 23, 24, 25-year olds.
Max Becker: But right around 2014 this thing happened where we were all in college, we decided we didn’t want to be a pop punk band anymore because we only started as a pop punk band because that was the easiest thing to do. And that’s generally what it is. But we kind of had this unique opportunity where we had these fans, and we were listening to different music at the time. I mean, my favorite band was the Vaccines in 2014, and that was not where we were as a band that I wanted to get there.
And so, we collectively decided we wanted to do a massive, massive change and actually start doing this full-time. So, we took time off of school, we changed our name to SWMRS. We eventually met Zach from Fidlar who produced our first record, and he kind of brought us on this cool path towards the “Beach Goth” world, and the surf-punk world of Orange County, which is we actually are surfers.
And so, we finally felt like we were playing music that was more reflective of who we were, whereas when we were teenagers, we were just playing pop punk to play pop music or to play pop punk. And it really started taking off for us. So, we’ve got some tours, and we did the record with Zac. And then on that first headline tour on “Drive North,” we met everyone from this lovely record label.
Each person showed up to a different show. We met Pete, we met Mike, we met this guy Jason, who works radio in Denver. We met a lot of people from Fueled By and for Atlantic that were starting to take an interest in us. And then we all met them at a meeting out here and then they were like, “Okay, so we’re going to rerelease ‘Drive North’ with two extra songs.” And on “Drive North” it was mostly my brother Cole singing.
And the idea was like we were being marketed as this like punk band with a slightly new sound, like a modern mix, pretty much like it was mixed in a very modern way. The guy who engineered both of Frank Ocean’s records mixed “Drive North,” which is like if you want to get really into it, the guitars were turned a lot lower than most rock records would and the bass and drums we put samples in there. I think we had a kick sample in there that was on like a Frank Ocean record.
So, it was cool for us to kind of step into a new world, but it was mostly Cole singing, and it was very much towards his political thing. And then all of a sudden, we re-released “Drive North” with one of my songs called “Lose It,” and it started to do really well. And it was like a slower love song, and so then all of a sudden, we realized and everyone realized that we can market ourselves like a two-singer band where we have someone doing the love songs and someone doing the political songs. And we switch up a little every once in a while. I mean, I technically wrote “Palm Trees,” but Cole sings it.
Max Becker: But that made it so that we had this really fun angle for the label to work with everyone. So since then that was… We re-released in 2016, fast forward to now, they’ve put in tons of faith in us. We got to record a record with Rich Costey, who’s like our dream producer. He really pushed us artistically. And we couldn’t be happier with where we’re at right now. And it feels like the sky’s the limit. And so, it really has come a long way from where we started.
Jesse Cannon: On the label side, Pete Ganbarg, who’s the head of A&R for Atlantic and Elektra Records was helping steer the ship. He’s going to talk a little bit here about some of the direction he gave the band.
Pete Ganbarg: When we signed SWMRS, we signed them a few years ago. They already had most of an album finished, and that was an album that they had done with a producer named Zac, who is the lead singer and principal songwriter and creative mind behind the band Fidlar. So, my job at that point is to come in and help polish the whatever loose ends are remaining. But it was pretty much a completed thought at that time. We added a few new songs. We buffed and shined. And then re-release the album on Fueled by Ramen. When it came time to do this record, that was when for the first time the band, and I were able to roll up our sleeves and say, “Okay, what do we want to do?”
Jesse Cannon: So now I’m going to let Max talk about what exactly they did want to do with this record.
Max Becker: Well, a lot of bands we know actually came out with a really bad follow-up records. I won’t name drop them. But it seemed really depressing. It seems like every first record is the party and then every second record is people get way too emotional and like introspective. And so, we wanted to do the exact opposite. And we decided like, hey, let’s build off of the strength of the re-release, so like I’ll have some songs, and we’ll go, I’ll do my thing, and Cole, you being in more intense version of yourself. And it ended up working. I mean, we also had two and a half years to write it. Since between the time of “Drive North” coming out and “Berkeley’s on Fire” coming out, we toured with Fidlar, but we also toured with All Time Low, two completely different fan bases.
So, with Fidlar, it’s like we knew how to work the punk crowd, with All Time Low, we started to learn how to… they were putting out pop music at the time. I mean there it’s not old All Time Low, it’s like the new All Time Low. At first, it was a little hard for us because we didn’t know what to do coming off the Fidlar tour, but we learned a ton, and we learned to write songs for bigger spaces.
So, you listen to the songs on the new record, for me like a song that I wrote that I like to talk about is “Too Much Coffee.” Sonically, sounds way bigger for a bigger space, and a little bit more approachable than any of the songs I wrote on “Drive North.” And that was completely on purpose. And we wanted to be… “Drive North” was the hors d’oeuvres, and we wanted “Berkeley’s on Fire” to be like first course. And people haven’t gotten the main course yet. It’s coming. But this is definitely the best first course we could come up with.
Jesse Cannon: Max just mentioned a small detail there that’s easy to overlook. He talked about writing for a space. So, I had him elaborate on that a little bit.
Max Becker: So, there is this book by David Byrne called “How Music Works.” That the main concept is everyone used to think that music was created because of the material given, but he argues that it’s for the space that you’re a part of. And he goes, you know CBGBs, like Talking Heads wrote songs for CBGBs. And drumming became a thing in the Sahara because there was no acoustics, and so it was the only thing you could hear. You couldn’t hear a guitar 100 feet away, but you could hear the drums. So, it’s about the space.
And so, we decided, okay, what is the space? And “Drive North”, the space was punk shows. We wanted to set the tone, and we wanted it to be a beach-goth-y punk band because that was what was cool at the time and who we were at the time. We were just turning 21, so we were drinking and smoking weed and like do those stuff, dying our hair. And that was that sound for them. But then we decided, okay, we want to be the biggest band in the world. Beach goth, that was one small step in our hopefully long career, and we want to be fucking huge.
How do we start doing that? Well the next record is going to sound a little bit bigger, a bigger space. We thank God Pete, our A&R guy got us in a room with Rich Costey because just sparks flew. It was insane. And we couldn’t believe that he liked us so much because he’s worked with some of the best bands ever that we all look up to, and he was like, “Yeah, like you guys seem like you get it.” I was like, “Okay.”
Jesse Cannon: As a huge fan of Rich Costey’s work, I have to say SWMRS is a little bit outside of what I normally see him do. So, I wanted to ask Pete a little bit about the choice to have these two meet.
Pete Ganbarg: I think whenever you are trying to suggest a creative partnership for an artist, you’re kind of like the matchmaker from “Fiddler on the Roof.” You’re like, the way she sees, and the way he looks, it’s a perfect match. So, these guys have a certain thing about them where they view the world a little differently, and they have grand aspirations but in a very genuine, very honest, very admirable way. They have something to say. They have something important to say.
And Rich, as a record producer, is somebody whose records have always touched on that. And I thought that that combination could work. And Rich is an incredible record producer and also an amazing mix engineer. He’s worked with everybody from Muse on down. He’s kind of a band’s guy, like a real band guy. Very smart, very intelligent in terms of how he approaches production. And Rich and I had never worked together. I’m just a fan of his music. And I reached out to him and sent him some of the band’s early demos for the next record, and had them all meet, and it was a mutual love fest.
Jesse Cannon: I then got Max to talk a little bit more about what happened during that love fest.
Max Becker: We met with four producers in one day, and every meeting felt like it took forever, but it really was only like 20 minutes. And then his meeting felt like it took 20 minutes, but it was really two hours. We barely even talked about songs, he just wanted to know what we were interested in.
And we realized like neither of us were satisfied at where rock is. And neither of us feel like the envelope is being pushed sonically. And people could… Some people would think about us like, “What do you mean? Like you’re a pop punk band.” It’s like, no we’re not. We’re really not. Our favorite bands, you would freak out if you saw what we listened to. You know what I’m saying? And Rich is the same way. The sparks were flying when we decided fuck, like rock is so backwards and nostalgic. And that’s fine, and you can do that, but that is not what we want to do. We want to go back to the front line. What’s new with rock? How do you do something new with rock?
And he initially thought we had to go back to tape. I was like, “Dude.” And at first, we were like, “Yeah, like let’s go back to tape.” But then we realized he’s really meticulous, and it would have taken us like six months to record a record on tape. It took two, which “Drive North” took two weeks. So that’s another difference in songs – is we recorded “Drive North” in two weeks, “Berkeley’s on Fire” in two months. But thank God we didn’t record at the tape. Doesn’t matter. We’re not purists. We do though want it to sound new.
We looked at a lot of hip-hop references. We looked at a lot of Damon Albarn references because we feel like people like him, and a lot of hip-hop artists like on SoundCloud, all this kind of stuff, they care more about making something sound new rather than how they got there. I guess that makes sense.
So, some of the songs on the record, I mean the rhythm guitar for “Berkeley’s on Fire’s” 1940s vintage Moscow like, five-watt amp, and it wasn’t because that was the perfect thing, is because it was the newest thing. It’s like we could have used a $6,000 vintage Marshall to get that sound, but what’s the point? I mean those are all beautiful amps. We’re not in it for the name dropping. We wanted just to sound perfect. And that was part of the thing with Rich, he’s like, “I don’t care how we get there, let’s just make it sound fucking perfect, and we’re not going to stop until it does.”
Jesse Cannon: We’re now going to hear from Rich about his initial impressions of the band. Like I said, he’s one of my favorite producers of all time, and has worked with some of my favorite bands like Mew, Death Cab for Cutie, Mars Volta, and literally hundreds of others. So, I wanted to get his perspective on what he saw in the band.
Rich Costey: If you go back and look at the development of any kind of what you would say is a band, the history of that whole concept actually stems from sort of almost like a gang affiliation from the 50s. And it’s this idea that it’s a group of people who are together united in some kind of ideology, in this case, like a musical ideology. And typically, the appeal is that you want to like be near them because they’re unobtainable in some kind of way that in your own life you can’t attain that sort of status or music or coolness or whatever.
In that way, I felt like as soon as I met these guys, they had that thing where it just felt like, okay, this is a unique collective of individuals that have their own kind of local culture within the world they’re inhabiting, and they’re building that culture and spreading it.
And so, from that point of view, I also saw that there was more of a rhythmic aspect of what was going on. Particularly like Cole’s vocals are pushing that aspect more than a lot of other things. I guess maybe they come from more of a pop-punk background. I don’t know if they would cop to that. But I didn’t see them that way. I don’t really listen to that kind of music either. So that’s probably why I didn’t see them in that light because I don’t really have the background to like say, “Oh, you guys sound like this band or that band.” I just saw them as a band that could push more in kind of like a riffy, rhythmic direction. It was almost like kind of a Clash or Beastie Boys kind of thing, and it was clear that that was an interesting narrative for them as well. Like right away they were talking about particularly like the “Sandinista” period of the Clash was really interesting to them.
And that was a time when the Clash were picking up all kinds of influences. They were kicking around New York city at the time, largely hip hop based, or even Puerto Rican rhythmic-wise and all kinds of things were getting thrown into their stew. That’s kind of how I saw them. I didn’t see them as like [inaudible] up the drums and bang out some guitars. The sort of traditional “rock records” never really interest me that much anyway.
Jesse Cannon: Next I wanted to talk to Max about how the dichotomy of him and Cole’s styles shape the record.
Max Becker: Cole is very intelligent. He went to Cal. And he has always been well-read. Pays a lot of attention to very progressive ideas. And so, a lot of his lyrics are very political. “Berkeley’s on Fire”, for example, it’s all about how a lot of stuff gets skewed in the news and how we need to try to search for our own truth really within that. And whereas I like to sing about like, okay, like yeah, all that shit is going on in the world, but I still got to take out the trash. I still have to wash my dishes and I still have to clean my clothes and focus on myself. And so, what’s cool is you have this pendulum on the record of that happening lyrically, you got songs like “Berkeley” or you get songs like “Hell Boy,” which is about Charles Manson, or pretty much like the system creating psychopaths like Charles Manson. That’s pretty much what it’s about. It’s not just about him, but it’s about how we don’t pay enough attention to the mental health of a lot of people and how we end up creating our own worst enemies sometimes.
But then you’ve got “IKEA Date,” which is literally when you’re in a band, you’re in a long-distance relationship, nine times out of 10. So, it’s just a true story. I literally had a dream where in my dream I was playing house with my girlfriend and then I woke up and I was alone. And it’s like how the hell can that exist on the same record as the Charles Manson one, but for some reason because we’re brothers and because we’re really honest with what we do and we have so many different kinds of listeners, it works. And that was the concept. Was big picture ideas, but then hone it in and also focus on yourself. That’s the main concept of the record.
SWMRS — “IKEA Date”
Jesse Cannon: Next I asked Max about the actual process of making and writing the record.
Max Becker: It always changes for us. I mean, we’ve been writing songs now since day one, 15 years ago. But the way it’s usually been for a long time is Cole will write a song on the guitar and then I’ll write a song on the guitar and then we’ll bring it to band. But what was different about this record is each song had a lot more time to bake. So, like “IKEA Date” and “Too Much Coffee” were written in fall 2015, and then I put “IKEA Date” away for two years, didn’t listen to it. I had a Garage Band demo and we pretty much did the exact same thing as the demo when they were like, “Do you have any other songs?” I was like, “Yeah, here are them.” They were like, “Wait, what? Like let’s do this.” And then we did it in the studio, but then we pretty much like recreated the demo one step at a time so that… Like we didn’t do anything live at all.
And then for Cole, “Berkeley’s on Fire”, he came up with that weird like Sean Paul beat like the (vocalizing). That was like him. And he’s like, “Yeah, like I’ve been listening to like some reggaeton and I want to put rock and that beat together.” And so, he wrote them on Garage Band, and then I think each song had enough time to, like I said before, bake in the oven, and right when we took them out it was kind of perfect. But that’s usually the writing processes. I will have an idea, and I’ll go to Joey, and then Cole will have an idea, and he’ll go to Joey. And it kind of starts with there.
And then we’ll do a demo and then we put it away for a while. And then we bring it back out if new ideas, and it’s constantly editing it. So, the first song on the record is “Berkeley’s on Fire”. We want someone to feel like, okay, they just went to a riot and they’re going home to their room really upset. But the space is this big space where a lot of people are, and it’s upsetting and everyone’s jumping. And then you go home and all of a sudden, you’re like, okay, now I need to start talking about my personal life. And so, you open your closet, and it’s fucking Narnia, and all of a sudden “Too Much Coffee” turns on, and literally the vision is Narnia, like this massive world in your room. And that’s why the harmonics are literally there to make you feel like it’s this big space.
Jesse Cannon: Speaking of spaces, one of the other most determinative spaces for a record is the studio you make it in. So, I wanted Max to talk a little bit about that.
Max Becker: We recorded it in Santa Monica. It was fucking amazing because as I said before, we’re surfers and so we lived in Santa Monica, literally woke up, surfed every single day. Every single day we were in the studio, I was in the water on a surfboard beforehand, and it was awesome. It got us into a great head space. We rode our bikes two miles to the studio on the boardwalk. The studio is right by the Santa Monica pier, which is usually hectic, but it’s hidden. And because we rode our bikes, we didn’t have to park. It’s Rich’s home studio. He had just switched there for Death Cab like three, four months before us.
It’s funny because the whole last album was about hating LA, but we had a wonderful time and we lived our best life. So, we didn’t mind that it took two months. Every day was really fun. We ate amazing food. And the studio was really interesting. It was actually made for like Eastern, like religious worship, at one point. Like it’s kind of made for… it looked really weird. It’s all wooden, but it’s like one tiny, but like, long room. And he, instead of having like a big live room like what we’re in right now, the live room was the small room and this was the control center. So, like the big room was like Rich in the middle with a swivel chair surrounded… As if we were in like Star Trek. Surrounded by all of his gear and us on one couch.
And then if we needed to record something or go to the drum machines, then we go to the small spaces. It was really fun for us because it felt really collaborative as if we were like in a hip-hop studio or something where it just feels like everyone can contribute. It’s psychologically really cool. I’d suggest anyone to do it.
Jesse Cannon: This is Rich talking to you about how his studio space influenced the record and how he saw the band take advantage of it.
Rich Costey: My studio is in Santa Monica and it’s pretty close to the ocean, and one of the things that was interesting is whenever there was downtime for them, like if I was editing drums or doing something like that, they would make extreme use of that time. There was never drum time for the band. There were two hours, Joey would be like, “Okay, cool, I’m going to gym.” And Cole would like, “I’m going to go surf for a little bit or I’m going to go swim.” They were always doing stuff. They were never ever idle. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a group of guys like that who just literally made use of every moment of the day. That was really impressive to see that from a group of young dudes. I went surfing once with them and they’re really good. I’m fucking terrible.
SWMRS — “April in Houston”
Jesse Cannon: One of the crucial defining things of this record is the integration of live drums and drum machines. So, I wanted to get Rich’s thoughts about how they incorporated that to make it such a cohesive part of the record.
Rich Costey: Basically, like every band that I work with, it’s usually war on the drummer first or on drums, and you could talk to almost anyone that I’ve worked with. I usually flip the cart over on them. But these guys, it was just flipping in a different way, which is that they really were interested in doing something that felt like some kind of natural progression fanatically from where they had been. And I wanted to bring them into the world that I saw them going into. And that involved not necessarily just doing drum programming because it’s important to have that as the tool, but then what kind of drum programming. Anybody can open up FL studio and download a bunch of splice samples and throw some shit on your record these days. And everyone does do that. And because of that, it’s kind of low hanging fruit and people’s records start to sound the same.
So, I usually try to take the most uncomfortable route possible for everyone. In this case, that involved using a lot of… we would kind of build up demos initially. They came in the studio and the first thing we did because their demos were fucking terrible sounding, and they would admit that. And so, the first thing we did is essentially build up better demos. And while we’re doing that, we lay down a little bit of drum programming and kind of mapped out what was going to happen. And so, then when we had like an Oberheim DMX kicking around and we had a sequential circuits drum machine kicking around, kind of a Tempus, but I don’t think we used that very much. It was mostly those two drum machines. Oh, we use also an SP-1200 a lot and SP-1200 was cool because we would load it with samples and then we also would sample some guitars. And like Steve got robbed. All of those guitars are coming out of SP-1200, and they’re pitched using the SP-1200. So, they have kind of like, it sounds almost like tone low or something.
First we would like program a bunch of drums on the drum machine and we wouldn’t just sample the drums from that and program it using logic, we would program the beat on the drum machine, which has a very different feel than programming using logic or Pro Tools or Ableton or something because these old boxes all have some weird janky quantization that is part of the charm. So, we would program using those things and then dump it in for the logic and then just move the parts around to help build an arrangement, and then we would do live drums on top of that.
And a lot of times after we did that, we would go back to the drum machine and lay that feel, so they were sometimes just played live using the buttons on the drum machines. So, it was like kind of a real mix of things. There was a little bit of programming and logic too. So, it was kind of all over the place. But I’d say like the main inspiration was we were getting off of those ‘80s drum machines.
Jesse Cannon: I then had Rich talk a little bit about the logistics of actually accomplishing this on a record.
Rich Costey: Well, because I wanted the symbols to be trashy ‘80s-sampled cymbals coming out of a drum machine. And if you’re playing them live, for one thing, you can’t turn up the room mics because they’ll make the entire drum set trashy, and it’s harder to move shit around that are affecting the drum set. So, a lot of times nowadays people just all forgot the cymbals anyway. But in this case, we really wanted that sort of ‘80s gritty cymbal sound. You can hear it pretty much the whole record. It’s the same cymbal every time because it’s usually something spitting out of the SP-1200.
And the whole idea of like doing the toms afterwards so that we could do just cooler sounding toms than like some rock. I’ve worked in a lot of rock music, but I’ve kind of had war on rock for quite some time now. And I feel like the genre was calcified a long time ago, and that’s a whole other conversation as to why that happened. But I’ve been dead against that pretty much my whole career. So, I’m trying to always do something a little bit different with whoever it is that I’m working with and trying to just present what they’re doing in a different manner.
And so, in that case, that meant, like, I didn’t want like big standard rock drums on the record, which led to us using ‘80s drum machines and everything. And also, it felt like the guys just seemed like you could feel this kind of like almost like early Beastie’s energy around them. And I wanted to try to jack that a little bit for the record.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Max talking about how the band got shaped into doing the drums this way.
Max Becker: The drum machines were not a thing for us until we entered the studio. We went into the studio fresh off of three years of touring and pretty much judging a lot of bands for having tracks and all this kind of stuff because we were like, wow, like screw that, and like, we can do this all on her own. And then we go into the studio and Rich is like, “Dude, I just recorded Death Cab’s new record. Those guys use tracks.” And I was like, “Fuck, those guys were like one of my favorite bands. I had no idea they use tracks.” And he’s like, “Yeah dude, there’s nothing wrong with tracks as long as it’s not doing a guitar solo for you. And as long as it’s not doing the main shit.”
And there’s nothing wrong with adding elements that you can’t do live because it’s a different vehicle. You have to almost separate them. The live show and listening to the record are two completely different things and you have to adjust. And he’s like, he pretty much said to Joey, he’s like, “Look, you’re an amazing drummer, but like you want to do something that drummers will respect, start trying to fold in drum machines and what you do at the same time, and seeing how hard that is.” And sure enough, a lot of our friends who are drummers texted Joey afterwards, they’re like, “Dude, what the hell? Great job. I don’t have the balls to do that.” It was really cool for us. And now it’s opened up so many doors for our writing process now. I mean, our third record is going to be, hopefully, it turns into a stadium band.
Well, the drums were two days on “Drive North.” And the drums were a month on “Berkeley’s on Fire”. We used to record things, not live, but to live drums. That’s how we did our records growing up because that’s traditionally what you do. But Joey was actually only set up with kick, snare, and hi-hat. That’s it. And even then sometimes just kick and snare. And it was in closed room. Like he has a really great snare collection. He’s a world-class drummer. But I think we’ve had our fair share of seeing really nice equipment for bands that aren’t that successful or at least knew. And we were like, okay, how do we, what do we, what should we do? And Rich and Martin, his engineer, both obsessed with drum machines, vintage drum machines, specifically. And they just nerded out. I was in it for like… I was like, “Okay, Joey, you press this here.” But I didn’t know what he was pressing. I didn’t know what the machine was because it was so over my head and so new to me.
Max Becker: We had a drum machine in there that was Stuart Copeland’s at one point, and had all of his original cartoon work on the keys. You couldn’t make this shit up. And it was like being in a playground just to find the right thing. But yeah, we spent a lot having “Too Much Coffee,” back to “Too Much Coffee.” Those verses are really intricate. And one of the things we decided the rock sometimes misses is detail. Rock used to be listened to through speakers. We listen to rock through headphones. With headphones, you have the potential to hear more details. And a lot of the music our generation listens to is through their earbuds or through their headphones and on Spotify. You don’t have to stick to it as genre anymore. Right.
So, like if someone’s used to listening to “Sunflower” by Post Malone, there’s amazing little things going on in there. And there’s a lot of emphasis on the intricacies. It’s similar to, let’s just take… I mean I don’t want to give him too much credit because I watched the documentary about him, but let’s just take a Michael Jackson song where you’ve got, “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough.” There are so many intricate things going on in that track and it’s a pop track. But people are starting to hear those details, I think, and so we wanted to give them more details. And with “Too Much Coffee,” if you listen to headphones, you’ll hear like it’s panning left to right often, and it’s like all these little weird things that the average listener wouldn’t care to know, but it gives the listener more of a chance to dive deeper into the song.
SWMRS — “Hellboy”
Jesse Cannon: As you can hear from that clip, all this talk about how crazy the drums are is well warranted. While the drums on this record have a distinct and unique sound, the guitars are not to be overlooked as they’re constantly playing interesting things that sound unlike most records you’ve ever heard. So next I wanted to figure out how they came to this interesting take on guitars.
Max Becker: Well, what we learned with Rich is that time is not his strong suit. Also, like we have things that aren’t our strong suits as well. He’s a perfectionist. And luckily, we had enough time, we weren’t rushed to make the record or anything. Re-recorded almost every song three times. Pretty much we’ll be in the moment and we’ll be recording, let’s just take “Lose Lose Lose,” I mean that one took forever because we knew we wanted to make like a crossover song. And it happens to be our biggest song now. Like one of our biggest songs because it crosses over into this like dance-slash, like, borderline-hip-hop-but-rock world, and we wanted it to be perfect. The guitars, we went through… pretty much everything was DUI. First just to get the vibe and the skeleton down, and then we tear everything apart and like go back in.
And so, the guitars took so long to be intonated properly, even though we got them all set up. It’s a really strange riff. And on my strat, we recorded almost every song on my white start. We had all these nice guitars but the best setting one was this white Stratocaster with lace pickups that I had put in, and it just did the trick, every single song. But the problem was the intonation was so wack, even after we got it set up. It goes second fret to 14th fret, right on the E string. And that is when you’re in a studio, a big problem, live, no one fucking knows. No one knows live that when I play that song every day it’s slightly out of tune. He could not like not hear it. And same with Martin. And so, we had to go through there so many times.
And then it was a problem of the tone was a right. And he was like, “Dude, we want to make this sound more like Rage Against the Machine because that’s something they do, they do crossover music, or do we want to make this more of like a 20 year riff? And we found like something in between. We recorded one of them on the bridge pickup, one of them on the neck pickup, and we ended up on the middle pickup for “Lose Lose Lose,” which I had never done in a fucking song before, but it sounded perfect. And the first riff was through this crazy boss pedal thing that Martin brought. And it was what Tame Impala uses. It was so rad; it just took two weeks to get there. That is just an example. And that’s one song.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Martin Cooke, the engineer on the record, talking a little bit more about that particular piece of gear.
Martin Cooke: Well, one of the one fun things we did with the guitar was I had purchased this little Boss digital multi-track thing, the BR-600, which is like this weird little tabletop, very consumer level multi-track. But I had heard that the guy from Tame Impala uses it for guitar tones, specifically for pitch shifting. I had some friends that had… we used one for demos years ago and ended up buying one, and I kind of use it when I mix. And I was like, “I’ll bring this thing in.” And we ended up like one day just doing a bunch of guitars through it.
So, we go direct into that with the guitar instrument cable. And then we would take that and bump it into an amplifier and then send that to the speaker cabinet. So, it’s kind of this weird like pseudo Eddie van Halen, like a second pedal to amplify to cabinet low. It was fun. It had some really weird sounds. And we basically just tried different things. And I would just scroll through the presets because it’s a weird little box, and it’s kind of hard to navigate menus. And we just went, “Oh that’s cool, that’s cool.” Like weird pitching effects. So, it was just fun to take a non-traditional approach to finding guitar tones.
Jesse Cannon: When Max and I were off mic, we talked about how often people mistake some of the sounds on the record for synthesizers when they’re really just guitars. So, I had him elaborate about that topic a bit.
Max Becker: We used to synth on a couple of songs on this record, but it was really for like flavor. It wasn’t for like a main line. I mean people… again, it’s usually people who don’t play guitar, but it’s like “Berkeley’s on Fire” is guitar harmonics. That’s all it is. But not that many people do it right now. Or at least not many people in our world do it right now. Obviously like Van Halen is fucking amazing at it, and I love Van Halen. But we wanted to just incorporate something new, and it helped make more texture for a bigger space.
Jesse Cannon: The other truly stand out feature on the record is Cole’s vocal performances are just incredible. Here’s Rich to talk a little bit about how that came about.
Rich Costey: I mean there were a couple of songs that made big changes as we went, partly because somebody would come up with a new part or we’d be at a point where a song really needed development and the right thing would come along at the right time. I mean, I feel like when we did “Berkeley’s on Fire,” when he delivered his vocal, I was like… that might be the first song we cut vocals on. I was kind of shocked at how, not just how good he was, but sort of just how expressive he was in the booth. It was like a David Byrne in the booth or something like that.
And I think that helps you inform a certain kind of wildness on that track once that track… that was the first one that came out once that sort of got dialed in that and it gave a sort of quality aesthetic benchmark for the rest of the recording and how to finish the album. I mean at that point when I was finishing and stuff, they weren’t even around, they were on the road or something, I can’t remember.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s Pete talking about how this vocal performance affected the band and their live performance now.
Pete Ganbarg: What was interesting between “Drive North” and “Berkeley’s on Fire” is that if you saw the band play live during the “Drive North” cycle, the live show, “the lead singer” where your eyes are going, what’s kind of 50/50 between Cole and Max. And obviously they’re brothers, they do a lot of the writing together, they do a lot of the writing separately. Max writes songs that Cole sings on lead. And I think Max would be the first one to tell you that Cole is an incredible front man in ways maybe that Max is not. Max is an amazing front on his own. But I think the difference between the “Drive North” cycle and the current cycle we’re in with “Berkeley’s on Fire” is Cole is now very much the front man, and he is very much somebody who you can’t take your eyes off of. And I think that’s a big change between the last album cycle and this one.
SWMRS — “Too Much Coffee”
Jesse Cannon: If you’re going to make a record as amazing as this one, a lot of thoughts go into the standards you’re going to uphold. So, I want to talk to Max a little bit about what his thoughts on that were.
Max Becker: When we first came up with the concept of record, I’m obsessed with trying to figure out like modern ways to come out of the record. I mean, we can all agree most millennials don’t listen to a record front to back. And I’m guilty of that. Most people these days it’s like you have so much at your fingertips, you don’t have to listen to a record front to back. And why would you? And this sounds crazy coming from a rock musician, but why would you spend 40 minutes of your time if you don’t even like the whole record? Why would you do that? Time is precious in 2019. So much shit is going on. You don’t have time to waste your time on lackluster parts of a record.
So, the idea was I just made a ton of different playlists of songs by different artists from different eras. And I was trying to figure out if it was possible for a song from the 60s to sound like it worked with a song from 2019. And it did. The idea was… and it happened on shuffle for me randomly when it all clicked. But it was this Kevin Morby song called “Dorothy,” and it was the end of that song, and then all of a sudden “Street Fighting Man” came on, and I was like, “Yo, that sounds perfect together.”
It’s more of an approach of like if you’re dj-ing a party or a barbecue, that’s what you would want to hear. You don’t want to be like, “Oh yeah, another Kevin Morby song.” You want to be like, the next song should always be an, oh shit, moment. Initially I didn’t want all the songs to sound the same. But I think it really works with… like Rich’s really fucking good at what he does, especially mixing and producing.
And so I felt like starting that concept with more of just having different kinds of songs, different kinds of things or writing would give people that effect. Like a playlist effect where it’d be like, okay look, it is sonically all on track, so we didn’t do that idea. But if you take “Lose Lose Lose,” and go into “April in Houston,” those are two completely different kinds of songs. And so you can have that surprise, and that’s what people want. When they press skip or when they listen to the next song, it used to be a thing where you wanted like a song to be in the same key as the song before, so it’s like, “Oh, what a sick transition.” But that’s not what people should be doing.
We have fans that have us on their end year playlists on Spotify where it’s us, Brockhampton, and Selena Gomez. And so why would you put stuff that all sounds the same when everyone is just all over the map. And we’re going to keep going with that concept, we’re making more drastic on the next one.
Jesse Cannon: Much has been said about Rich’s attention to detail and his level of perfection. I wanted to ask him a little bit about how he sees that during the process.
Rich Costey: I hear what I hear. Usually record making to me isn’t just like ticking a bunch of boxes, to some people, not as much now as it used to be, but there’s certainly a genre of record making where people would just sort of like tick a bunch of boxes off, “Okay, today we’re going to do guitars. Today we’re going to do this thing.” And then like at the end you get it mixed and that’s the record.
And to me, if you’re trying to do something that the band hasn’t done before and that you haven’t done before, then it’s not always that clear when it’s done. So, you’ll get it to a point where you’re like, “Okay, this is it. We’ve arrived at any place, let’s listen to it and see how it feels. Like okay, this is definitely feeling good. However, now that we’re at this new place, I can see that this isn’t right and that isn’t right.” And I think that the band haven’t really pushed themselves on this kind of level before. So, to them, it probably was shocking, but to me it’s… I mean I work like this all the time.
SWMRS — “Lonely Ghosts”
Jesse Cannon: While Max said the collaboration on the record was mostly between the band, Martin and Rich, there was an exception. James Rushnet of Does it Offend You, Yeah?, contributed to the song “Lonely Ghosts.” Here’s Rich to talk about that.
Rich Costey: There was a song where actually we had my friend, from Does it Offend You, come in and do a bunch of programming on because we’d gotten to a certain point and it was cool and it had this like, cool sort of ACDC guitar riff. It needed to go to the next level. And so, I wrote in roped in my friend from Does it Offend You all the time, change Rushnet’s Uncertain Things. And so, we sent the track to him, and he went in over a weekend and just does what he does, which is basically vomit all over the track with his computer and send it back to us. And I thought it was super fucking cool.
Jesse Cannon: While I said this was the only other outside collaboration, that’s not entirely true as Max is about to explain.
Max Becker: Rich and Martin were the only ones. I mean, we forever, I always just like used to ask Joey’s dad like what he would think about things, but he’s usually just like, “Good job.” Or he’ll be like, “You should try this here.” But it was never like, “I’m going to write a song with you.” And no one wants that because we’re all different and also we don’t want anything given to us. But it was really nice to have this feedback. Honestly, most of my collaborators are friends and fans. I mean they’re the people your song is going towards.
It was funny. Funny story is I needed a ride from deep Orange County to the airport, and I tweeted, “Can somebody get me a ride?” And one of our fans picked me up, and I showed her some new songs. She dropped me off at the airport. She was really cool; her name is Sarah. She was like, “Yeah, like this totally works.” It’s like that’s a good. But I also have friends… I have friends that are kind of like all over the spectrum in terms of listening to music. I think everyone has friends, but I have friends who listen for very basic things, and then I have like my girlfriend, and then I have like my family, and my dad, who is in his 50s and a white male. Like obviously he’s going to like “Lonely Ghosts,” which is like our most ACDC sounding song.
But I show them to all the different kinds of people. I’m not that person that’s like, “Wow, like you didn’t tell me good job. Fuck you. I’m never going to write a song again.” I actually value their opinions because they’re consumers. If you think about how you would go about selling any sort of product, if you’re marketing it, you want consumer feedback. There’s Yelp reviews for that shit. We don’t have Yelp. Okay. Well, I have to ask people. And I like that. And I like asking my friends.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked Max if he could be more specific about how this feedback has helped him.
Max Becker: Yeah. I asked 20 different people this feedback. I was trying to figure out in “Too Much Coffee,” if I should say, “don’t tell me how to sing this song” or “don’t tell me how to write this song.” It was a really complicated topic for me as a lyricist because I really wanted to make sure that song that we didn’t get too cheesy. It has a lot of potential for getting that way.
It sounds great, but if it goes too far down to the right side of the spectrum, then it loses the punk fans that we have. So, I was like, okay, I am freaking out about this. I texted all my friends from all over the spectrum and they all gave me different answers. But one of my friends finally was like, “Look, if you say ‘don’t tell me how to write this song,’ it becomes more about you and a listener should be thinking the song is about them.” And I was like, perfect. So if you say, “don’t tell him how to sing this song,” it’s less specific to being a songwriter, even though technically the idea initially was don’t tell me how to write this song, it means like don’t tell me how… to create my path in life is the idea, which is a really cheesy topic. But it really helped me be like, okay, that’s what we need to do. And I thank them for all the time because it really helped me out.
SWMRS — “Lose Lose Lose”
Jesse Cannon: Next I wanted to hear some stories about creating a specific song. So, Max and I talked about “Lose Lose Lose.”
Max Becker: My favorite song Cole’s ever written is “Lose Lose Lose.” I think it puts our band on the map professionally and is really a statement song. And the best part about it is that within the first four seconds it’s a go. It doesn’t take some long ass intro. And I think the best story about that song is like every song he usually does, like Joey and I do a separate demo of. Joey and I are very much schemers and we like to figure shit out. Like figuring it out, Cole had that as a demo and then Joey and I went to the studio and did our own version and then we said, “All right, Cole, you’re going to be Adele today, you’re going to be Beyonce today and just come in and sing.” And it turned out what it ended up being.
And so, we’ve always taken that approach to some Cole songs, but that was the first time… I was gone for the weekend and I came back and him, Joey and Seb did this amazing demo, recorded it live one take in our… we have this little warehouse thing that we do for like really stripped down stuff, and where we keep our gear, and it was the first time I was like, well fuck, I didn’t even… It’s done. It’s done and you just did this thing.
Like we had just watched Skepta play at Reading and Leeds, and we were like, “Wow, this is the most punk thing I’ve ever seen in the last 10 years.” Way more punk than any fucking rock band. That show had a pit, people were singing, it was tough, but it was fun, and it was approachable. It was amazing. And we were like, “Wow, that’s what we need to do.” And how do we make a song with like a sort of like a grime beat or any kind of like different beat like rock is still… Like let’s do something else.
“Lose Lose Lose,” all of a sudden it was like this gift and Cole and Joey and Seb delivered and I was really grateful for all of them. It was like, “OK, well this is going to put us on the map. We’re going to go this way.”
Jesse Cannon: Next we talked about the song Bad Allergies, and how the Rolling Stone’s amazing collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard on the movies Sympathy for the Devil had an effect on it.
Max Becker: Bad Allergies took so many different routes, and I had just watched the Rolling Stone’s documentary. It was perfect. And I’m still not set on where we landed with Bad Allergies. Always going to be in as songwriters or always going to be like that. I love how it turned out, but there’s just so many things you could do with it as a different kind of song for us. But we finally just decided Rich was gone for the day, so it was just us and Martin. And we were like, “You know what, we don’t do this often. Let’s go smoke a joint. It’s 2:00 PM on a Monday. Let’s go smoke a joint, come back inside and see what we do.” And immediately it was like everything shifted.
And the original idea with “Bad Allergies” was to have the same intro as this one Frank Ocean song, the one that’s like, “I will always love you.” He’s obviously way better at singing. It called “Godspell” or “Godspeed.” “Godspeed,” not “Godspell.” That was the original idea. So that’s where like the guitar, like the, like, the crescendo comes from, but then Martin chopped it up in the coolest way and we were just like so high and we decided like let’s do something different, man.
We came up with that the first like 20 seconds and we were like, “Wow, we don’t do that. We don’t stop in the middle and then keep going.” Like we’ve never done that in songs, it’s rad. And then Seb for, I think the first time in his career as a bassist, like really… not the first time, he’s always done great as a bass player, but this was his first breakout moment I think as the bass player. He came up with the entire thing himself, the bassline.
Oftentimes it’ll be like Cole and I will give him the basic thing and he’ll add a few things, but the entire, the swing of it, the line of it, it was beautiful. And it really was like his… he became a butterfly that day. He didn’t smoke. He’s a straight edge. But we were all just really, really stoked on it. And there’s also like this crazy “Roadhouse” sample in there that if you’ll listen again you’ll hear it’s like a… It’s like a gated Hi-Hat sample but it’s really harsh but it’s low in the mix. And it’s kind of adds this kind of like almost like industrial component to it.
But our idea with that song was to combine like a little bit of Oasis vibe to Blur, which is kind of sacrilegious because they hate each other. But were like how do we do both of them at the same time? We really didn’t smoke like at all in the rest of the studio, but just like that day, and it worked. And live it’s actually we do it a little bit different. We go a little bit more of the Oasis vibe live, but I think people are really liking it.
SWMRS — “Palm Trees”
Jesse Cannon: Lastly, I wanted to talk to those who know them best about what they think makes the band unique. This is Pete Ganbarg.
Pete Ganbarg: I think these guys are some of the most genuine 23 year olds that I’ve ever met. They have a real fresh, authentic outlook on the world. They understand the complexity of the world, they understand the problems facing us, but they are all in. Say something about it, do something about it, and lead the people listening to their music. And seeing them live in concert to a place where hopefully the world is better off.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s Martin on what he sees in the band.
Martin Cooke: I think SWMRS is unique in that I feel like they’re kind of on the Vanguard of the new youth centered energy and music. Whereas I think a lot of like the youthfulness of music we’ve seen in the mainstream is kind of in pop and now everyone’s kind of falling this model of like this kind of pop star that has this Instagram account and has this kind of profile in the world before you really understand who they are as an artist. And I feel like SWMRS is a band that’s like kind of going back to the idea of like, no, we’re here to make music, and we want you to understand who we are before any of the other stuff matters.
Martin Cooke: I mean I’ve been in LA for 12 and a half years and I’ve always worked on bigger records with labels, usually established bands. So, it’s really cool to see a band that’s kind of starting where they are at that level and being that and passionate about it. They care about everything. They care about the politics. They care about their role in society. And like who they’re communicating to, and the message they’re trying to get out. It’s really inspiring to see that from some kids in their early 20s. I think that’s really for me, it was like a band that all of a sudden was like, they’re obviously inspired by other people, but they’re doing their own thing in a world where a lot of people are just kind of doing the same thing.
SWMRS — “Berkeley’s On Fire”
Jesse Cannon: Thank you for listening. You can find all the episodes of Inside the Album on your favorite podcast app.
SWMRS’s “Berkeley’s on Fire” is out now.