SWMRS’ ‘Uncool Halloween’ calls for community, right to lighthearted fun amid unease

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With fires raging across the state and smoke in the air of Berkeley on Saturday evening, an air of solemnity hung over The UC Theatre even as excited throngs of people bustled through the doors.  

The evening’s lighthearted theme provided a welcome relief from the barrage of anxiety and uncertainty outside. The lobby of The UC Theatre was sprinkled with “Monsters, Inc.”-style doors, which were hand-decorated by the members of SWMRS themselves — metaphorical portals into the universe of the concert. A cacophony of Pixar-inspired decorations engulfed the auditorium — light-up plastic jellyfish swayed overhead and colorful bursts of balloons framed the stage. Russell, the master of ceremonies of the night, is a childhood friend of the band, as well as the person who the lovable young Wilderness Explorer of “Up” is reportedly modeled after. Fans, many of whom had come prepared in their own Pixar-inspired get-ups, were invited to fully commit to the fantastical and imaginative world of the Uncool.

Since SWMRS’ conception in 2004, and especially since the release of Drive North in 2016, the band has abided by a DIY-punk ethic, stressing youth empowerment. Even with the guys themselves now in their mid-20s, they remain relentless in their efforts to empower and reach out to their teenage fan base, as demonstrated at each UNCOOL Fest thus far. This year, a voter registration booth was set up, and the colorful doors in the lobby included invitations for fans to sign their names or leave messages with Sharpies. 

The message projected between how-to videos of DIY, Pixar-inspired Halloween costumes more or less said it all: “Welcome to the fest. Have as much fun as possible but not at anyone else’s expense. Respect everyone. You are a legend. You can change the world. You are uncool.”  

During this festival, SWMRS tread ground that has become familiar to anybody who has attended an “Uncool Halloween” event, which included commentary between numbers that, despite serving as clearly scripted transitions, appealed to the generative and uniting potentials of live music. It was in these asides that bits of reality crept into the space among all cheer and bright colors. “This year’s been pretty fucking crazy,” band member Cole Becker panted. “And it doesn’t always seem like it’s gonna be alright. … But it makes you realize when you see all these strangers in a  room together that we can have fun, and we can cooperate and be there for each other. This is beautiful.” 

This comment preceded “Berkeley’s on Fire,” which Becker described as being “about how people who set their minds to it can change whatever they want to change.” The number was undoubtedly the most prescient and, perhaps ironically, timely of the night. Although explicitly a narrative of violent riots and the desensitizing effects of mass media, the current state of affairs granted the song a whole new and very literal meaning. The audience members found respite in the catharsis of collective unease, as they screamed and groaned along with Becker, and the unceasing boom of Joey Armstrong’s drums became the beat of people ready to demand social change. 

For the most part, however, SWMRS remained in lighthearted territory — a testament to the guys’ commitment to themselves remaining “uncool” in their participation in childish pleasures. Bassist Seb Mueller virtually introduced the set while clad as a flight attendant from “Uncool Airlines,” high heels and all. Becker gave his annual shoutout to his mother, saying, “Make some fucking noise for my mom right now. She made the decorations.” This year, he even fit one in for his dad: “Our dad’s name is moshpit Mark. … If you see a guy a bit older than the median age of the crowd, be nice to him. He’s the man.”

SWMRS covered most of its requisite hits from Drive North, with the unfortunate exception of “Miss Yer Kiss,” and touched on some of its newer material from Berkeley’s on Fire. Highlights from the latter included “Lose Lose Lose,” “Trashbag Baby” and “Hellboy.” Somewhat vexingly, the band even treated viewers to a performance of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.” Per usual, in all of his frantic, goofy and earnest leaping about the stage and with his calls for kindness, Becker won the affections of even the least devoted of fans by the end of the set. Some of the most touching performances of the night were the most simple, such as a stripped down version of “Miley,” namely because they highlighted Becker’s magnetic persona.  

The festival spoke to SWMRS’ commitment to stubborn joy. It was an acknowledgement of the collective fear felt by the individual (“2019 is a fucking disaster,” Becker moans in “Lose Lose Lose”). Yet, at the same time, the evening demonstrated the redeeming fact of community in this joint pain and our right, and perhaps even responsibility, to delight in troubled times. 

As Becker himself succinctly summed up this ethos. “It feels like we’re doomed sometimes,” he said between performances of “Lose It” and “Figuring it Out.” He added: “But I know and you know that we can’t be killed. It’s not an option for us. … And the only way we can do that is if we tell a new story. … We’re gonna figure it out.”  

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].