Written by Jess George | Photography by Jess Williams | August 5th, 2017
Punk is more than a style of dress or a type of music. It’s an attitude, and as I sit across from Cole Becker, I get the sense that he is someone who truly embodies what it means to be punk.
My immediate impression of Cole was the strong juxtaposition in his “hard, fast, loud” stage presence with his calm, warm demeanor during our chat. Cole is the front man of the Oakland, California-based band SWMRS, who are known for being outspoken about creating safe, inclusive spaces at their shows. They use their platform to speak out against rampant misogyny and sexism in the male-dominant music industry, and that, my friends, is incredibly punk rock.
Check out all of the wonderful, progressive takes that Cole has about the state of the music industry, while also looking at steps towards a better future in our exclusive interview:
So as you know, I help run a female-centric organization that aims to level the playing field for women in the industry, so I wanted to start off by asking what it means to you to have diverse women represented in the music industry?
It means everything. I think it’s one of those things where a lot of people are ready to talk and say they’re ready for it, but I think it’s a big challenge to really integrate those jobs and start leveling the playing field because I think there’s a lot of subliminal factors that go into hiring.
I think that the fact that we’re having this conversation is really important, but it’s going to be a while. I want it to go faster, but there’s a bunch of different factors at play that are really challenging obstacles, just because of the way that our patriarchal society works.
So what do you feel like your role as a band (and also as an individual) is in keeping up this dialogue?
I think like as a band, especially as we get into a more professional realm as employers -- and as people who run, on one hand an artistic outlet, but on the other hand a business -- making sure that we’re giving the opportunity to young women who have the qualifications to offset the societal setbacks to getting there.
Are there any current women that you have been listening to or following in the music industry?
Angel Olsen is my favorite record out… and then my friend Ebony is an engineer at Atlantic Studios… [and she] runs a media source and a camp for girls to learn how to be audio engineers because she says… as a singer and a producer, that’s opened up so much more freedom for her.
I definitely want to check that out, because sound engineering -- there’s definitely a huge gender gap.
One of my girlfriend’s friend’s moms is the editor for like some big TV show, and it’s a very similar world…. There’s this weird thing where like -- I mean I’ve never experienced it so I can’t talk about it as well as a like woman who has experienced it has -- where they tell you, “Oh well you need to speak up more and ask for what you want,” but then when you do, it’s like, “Oh, you’re asking too much.”
Yeah I know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s interesting. I don’t know that much about the TV world.
Yeah but it’s the same thing in music too… it’s just like all the people I know that do music are white dudes… I think a lot of bands have all white all male crews because that’s just what they’re comfortable around. And so that’s a huge thing to overcome: how you make sure that they have shared experience with women too -- and it’s such an intense boys club… I think it comes from being insecure about our masculinity.
Joey Armstrong | Photography by Chelsea Gresh
I also wanted to talk about the term “fangirl” a little bit, just because it’s kind of used in a discriminatory way. So what are your thoughts about that?
I mean, I think that I just don’t know another word to describe the phenomenon … I do think we need to reevaluate the negative connotation we put on it, because to have young people, like boys or girls or non-binary kids, that are that excited about something -- that’s fucking beautiful. That’s something so amazing and pure, and like, at least they care about something, you know? They haven’t been marred by this fucking terrible, apathetic world we live in, and they have something real that they can hold on to and be and love, and I think that’s so admirable, and I wish I loved something that much … and I do, I’m a fangirl about music, you know?
Absolutely, and I think it’s interesting because I think it’s kind of come up in discussion again. I don’t know if you read the Harry Styles Rolling Stone…
Exactly… that dude’s a legend … somebody who has such an intimate and unique relationship with the teenage girls of the world -- for him to come out and say that just validates so many people and that’s a very special thing that he did. When you refer to it negatively, you’re assuming moral high ground.
You guys are known for really championing creating safe spaces at your shows, which I think is a really cool thing. So what kind of a reaction have you gotten from fans both on and offstage about that?
I mean it’s all positive. It’s cool. The strangest thing is, I’m an upper-middle class white kid, heterosexual, cis-gendered male from a suburb of Oakland, California. To be able to create a space where I see people that I have little to no ostensible common experience with, connect with the music and be able to feel as free as I do in the space where we’re making music and sharing it with them -- that’s really special.
Also -- “safe space” has become something that is losing its specificity, so I’ve been trying really hard to make sure that I’m engaging them in not just claiming it to be a safe space, but getting them involved in making it a safe space when we play. So instead of just outright saying “this is a safe space,” I always try to say like “hey, we can’t keep it safe unless you all are helping us… have your eyes out because we can’t see everything from stage.”
Have you noticed a difference in the dynamic at your shows before and after the election, or has it kind of been the same pretty much?
It’s become just more and more honest, in a way. I think now more than ever, people don’t have a place they can go to and just be totally in the moment and feel something good and deep and powerful, and I think live music can transport people to that.
But I think there’s so much feelings of anger and sadness and fear among kids who sincerely don’t know whether their parents are going to get deported or whether they’re going to have health care or this and that… To have just one half-hour moment where they don’t have to think about anything other than being there and feeling something good -- I’ve noticed that their connection to the music has gotten stronger…. It’s a bit of a selfish reaping of the terrible, terrible circumstances we’re in.
But I feel like it’s a collectively beneficial moment too.
Yeah I think it’s reminded me that music is something that is very powerful and pure and beautiful, and it put more faith in my belief in what I do… it makes me prouder and prouder every day because I have a space -- and to be able to make that place for somebody.
So just to kind of bring up some stats, only 5% of top executives in the industry are women, and of course women of color, trans women, all other marginalized groups face an even greater struggle. So what are your thoughts on the importance of representation, and what does that look like to you?
I mean representation -- that’s huge... For me, as somebody who just doesn’t identify with that much hetero-normative culture, I don’t look at executives and see like, “Oh, that’s what I want to do,” you know?
Because it’s a very masculine, golf-centric type of feel, and so to have diversity, not just visually, but of style -- I think that’s huge. But beyond that, I think education is the biggest step, you know? Like putting more resources towards getting girls involved -- like young women and young trans women and young women of color -- involved in music on just a basic level where they feel encouraged and validated to be part of the industry.
To wrap things up, are there any other local bands that you want to shout out?
Yeah! Shoutout to Destroy Boys. They are my -- our little sisters, who write really badass punk songs… Mt. Eddy -- very proud of those little dudes. Ricky Lake is my friend. He’s like an art rapper. Same Girls, which is Taifa’s band. And, gotta shoutout to Plush too. The last two are mellow shoegaze bands but I like them. They’re great people.
SWMRS is currently opening for All Time Low on the US leg of their Last Young Renegades tour. You can catch them on a string of headlining shows across the world this fall. Check out http://bandsintown.com/swmrs for all of the details.
Jess George is the Project Manager of GBTRS. Besides GBTRS, she also studies multiplatform journalism with a concentration in sociology and does a variety of music-related odd jobs at random concerts in the DMV area. She's been told that her hair makes her very easy to spot, so feel free to say what’s up if you see this frizzy mess at a show. You can follow her at @iamjessfrancine and the company @girlsbtrs on twitter and instagram.