swmrs wrote the most punk tribute to miley cyrus ever
As we premiere their new single ‘Miley,’ get to know the California-based band who soundtracked Saint Laurent’s surf-inspired spring/summer 16 show.
Photography Vivian Fu
Cole Becker's hair has been more shades of green than a botanical garden, but his favorite was concocted by his grandma. "She did a combo of emerald green and a rusty blue. I wish I knew the shade because I want to do it again," the 19-year-old frontman of beach pop band SWMRS (pronounced "Swimmers") tells me on the phone from his native Oakland, California. Thanks in part to grandma's pastel punk alchemy, the band became the faces -- well, at least the hair -- of Hedi Slimane's Surf Sound campaign for Saint Laurent's spring/summer 16 season.
Before playing Burger Records' annual Burgerama festival in March, Cole dyed his hair Manic Panic electric lizard green -- "not my favorite shade, but very striking" -- while his older brother and the band's lead guitarist, Max, went for electric blue. "We were playing on stage and I'm not sure if Hedi was paying attention to the music, but he definitely saw our hair." Cole said. "He called us in to take some pictures for his Diary and we sent him some demos."
After shooting the naturally blonde Becker brothers wailing on Squiers in homemade t-shirts and cable-knit sweaters spangled with safety pins, the Saint Laurent creative director asked SWMRS to compose an original soundtrack for his spring/summer 16 show. "We were like 'Oh, cool, when?' And he was like 'In a month.' So we went home, drank a bunch of beer and wrote a 16-minute song."
The resulting track, Like Harry Dean Stanton, is a serious shredder. Between guttural bass lines, majorly punched-up surf riffs, and rallying cry vocals, it's surprising Slimane's street cast catwalk crew -- which was comprised mostly of SoCal scuzz rockers, the Beckers included -- didn't just decide to fuck off the runway and cut loose with the packed house. "We have very strong pop punk roots; most of our songs are like two minutes and 30 seconds long. So it was a really crazy transition getting into something that's typically more psych rock territory -- this 15 minute odyssey. But it was really fun," Cole explained.
A little more on those pop punk roots: Cole met SWMRS drummer Joey Armstrong when they were four years old, and formed their first band after watching School of Rock. In 2004, the four-piece recorded their first tracks under the moniker Emily's Army -- named after the Becker's cousin who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The group released two full-length albums produced by Joey's dad, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, and was enlisted for the entire nationwide run of both the 2012 and 2013 Warped Tours.
But things can begin to feel a little insular inside parking lot mega mosh pits, and the band was ready for a new start. "We were starting to feel like we were getting locked into that world a little too deeply," Cole explained. "Our music didn't really reflect who we were becoming as young adults as we transitioned out of our angsty teen phase. We just wanted to get a clean break -- do exactly what we want and sound exactly how we want without having the baggage of the old recordings."
These days, SWMRS are prepping the release of their debut full-length album, which, from Cole's description, sounds even better than a barrage of purely snarling surf solos. "We tried to create a balance between an international network of teenage bedrooms and what it sounds like when you're hanging out at the local burger place with your friends on a Friday night." Although the band enlisted Zac Carper from LA-based skate punks FIDLAR as the record's producer, Cole contends that the bedroom-cum-burger joint influences aren't contained to riot rock. "At first, we wanted to go garage, almost like another FIDLAR, but then we started writing different songs. I listen to a lot of Public Enemy and De La Soul, so I wrote some hip-hop influenced bedroom pop songs, and we did a lot of electronic experimentation."
A few might be hip-hop influenced, but SWMRS's latest single, Miley -- which releases with a B-side, Uncool, tomorrow via the band's own imprint, Uncool Records -- is perhaps the most earnestly punk tribute to a former Disney star that's ever been dreamed up. "I was writing a piece for my school newspaper at Berkeley about the New York City Porn Film Fest and that film she submitted, Tongue Tied," Cole said.
Much like the pop provocateur's genre-dismantling output, Miley isn't merely a reverb-soaked guitar ballad; the track's glitchy electronic overlay and sung-shrieked chorus make it the stuff of alterna-anthems. "I wrote this song about who she is now and how she's overcome this crazy shit, like the body dismorphia that she got from Hannah Montana. I respect her so much. In the song I say she's the greatest, because I think she is," said Cole.
After dropping a surprise album of 23 outright bizarre experimental pop tracks and using the VMAs to curate her own RuPaul's Drag Race reunion, "unpredictable" has become too tame a categorization for Cole's "punk rock queen." His lyric "You push the envelope on all sides/ I can't get enough, alright" will doubtless ring true at every one of SWMRS's forthcoming live shows, as they support Wavves on the west coast leg of their fall tour. "It'll be really fun. In general, I'm just excited to play more shows with friends, hopefully with Sunflower Bean [fellow Saint Laurent muse Julia Cumming's Brooklyn-based psych rock outfit] and Dog Party."
As for how he'd spend his time with Cyrus, it's pretty obvious: "You bring bleach, I'll bring chlorine/ we can dye our hair a color that nobody's ever seen." Wonder what one grandma would give her.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Vivian Fu