SWMRS’ Max Becker doesn’t remember undoing his seatbelt, but obviously he did on the fateful drive from Oakland to Denver, where the band was set to begin a stretch of shows with Matt & Kim. This was in October. Becker was in the band’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with photographer Natalie Somekh and sound engineer Josh Berl. He woke up six days later, with a broken back, two broken shoulders, a knee shattered in nine places, and a brain injury. He spent two more weeks in the hospital and a month in a rehab clinic. Once he got home, he continued his recovery, staying indoors most of the time. As his band toured without him, he went through his “Brian Wilson” period.
Then the coronavirus pandemic prolonged his quarantine and wrecked any chances of SWMRS playing shows together. Both of his younger brothers, including SWMRS frontman Cole Becker, where exposed to COVID-19 by another musician in L.A.
But through an injury that could have cost him his life, an excruciating and painful recovery, and major changes for his band—SWMRS left their record deal with Fueled By Ramen and found new management just before the crash—Max Becker is unbowed. He’s more determined than ever, in fact, and sees a brighter future both for himself and his SWMRS.
On Oct. 26, SWMRS played a homecoming show at The UC Theatre in Berkeley. It was the band’s Uncool Halloween show, an annual tradition that Becker, his brother Cole, drummer Joey Armstrong and bassist Sebastian “Seb” Mueller have sold out repeatedly. Two days later, Becker, Berl and Somekh set off for Colorado. The rest of the band had plans to fly to Denver and meet up there.
The last thing he remembers before the crash is stopping at popular truck stop Little America, near the intersection of I-80 and Highway 374 in Wyoming.
The sun had fully set by then. It was pitch black, but with a whitish mist blowing through—a sort of haunting gray scene.
“It’s a kind of a semi-famous rest stop. We specifically took 80 because we wanted to hit Little America for fun,” he said. “Obviously, 80 was the downfall of the trip. I remember it being fucking freezing when I got out of the rest stop. It was 8 degrees.”
Becker thinks the cold is what saved his life that night. And, apparently, without realizing it, he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.
“You spend half your life in these vans, and you pretty much are in a seatbelt most of the time, but occasionally on days where it’s a 12-hour drive, we get up, walk around, stretch in the car, especially if you’re short, like me,” he said. “I can stand straight up in the Sprinter van.”
About 150 miles east of the the rest stop, near Rawlins, the van attempted to pass a tractor-trailer, where the driver lost control on the ice and frost, hit the median and rolled, said Wyoming Highway Patrol State Trooper Jay Scheel, who responded to the scene. Becker was thrown outside. The speed limit there is 80 mph, though what’s considered a safe speed varies by weather, the expertise of the driver and the limitations of the vehicle, he said.
Becker has no memory of the event, likely because he was knocked unconscious when his head smacked against the window through which he flew.
“I have six days of memory loss,” he said.
Here’s what he was later told: His unconscious body flew into the center divide, while the van rolled in the opposite direction. Berl and Somekh, who were wearing their seatbelts, were also injured. Becker said Berl’s arm became entrapped in the roof above his head. The two yelled to Becker to see how he was doing, but he was gone.
‘Holy shit. Where’s Max?’
According to Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Tyler Chapman, who was also at the scene of the crash, a Good Samaritan stopped first to help. An ambulance was the next to respond, followed by Trooper Scheel. It took them several minutes to find where Becker’s unconscious body was lying by shining their headlights in all directions. Becker calls the frigid temperature both a blessing and a curse. The cold conditions created the black ice. At the same time, it likely kept his brain from becoming so inflamed that it would cause permanent damage.
“I immediately got put on ice, which is good,” he said.
Scheel and Chapman described the blizzard-like conditions as typical for Wyoming in October.
“It can go from dry to wet, to snow, to slush, to ice within a few minutes,” Scheel said, adding that snow was blowing across the freeway at the time.
Chapman said Becker’s injuries were life-threatening and that he regained consciousness at the scene, but Becker doesn’t have any memory of this. He was rushed, along with the others, to a tiny Wyoming hospital that wasn’t equipped to handle such a major injury. The next day he was taken to another Wyoming hospital with an intensive care unit. There, he was cared for by Dr. W. Lee Warren, Jr., whom he was told was an Iraq war vet who performed brain surgeries in the field.
He was under Warren’s care for six days. He has a couple of memory flashes from that time. He remembers his brothers and sister visiting, his girlfriend, a couple of uncles. Another memory is of waking up, being told that he was in a serious auto crash, and not believing the doctors.
“And then I looked down, and I couldn’t move. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, something happened,’” he said.
From there, Becker was taken by airplane to a Denver rehab clinic where he would remain for a month. That’s where most of his memories start.
“It felt like the longest month ever,” he said.
Becker’s parents told him that one of the times he woke up, he told them he was glad the crash happened to him instead of Cole or his other bandmates, because he knew he could handle the long road home.
He broke bones in both of his shoulders and a disc in his back. He had a punctured lung. Two weeks into his rehab, he couldn’t move his foot. Doctors initially presumed it was related to his brain injury—until they ran an MRI and found that his left knee was injured in nine places. He laughed as he listed the injuries: Partially torn ACL, MCL and meniscus; fully torn PCL. Most of the injuries are expected to heal, but not the PCL, not without surgery. And he turned it down for now.
“It’s crazy because … we’re such an athletic band. We’re all the same age, and we have all known each other since we were 4 or 5, so we grew up playing baseball, soccer, basketball, football—everything—in the backyard,” Becker said. “Also, I ran cross country in high school. I’m a runner and I haven’t been able to run, obviously, and I’m not sure if I will be able to. That’s probably the most permanent thing that I’m going to sustain. My left knee is totally fucked.
“But it could have been way worse, so if that means I have to swim—hey, my band name is SWMRS. I’m cool with that.”
Then there was the brain injury. Becker learned a lot about brain anatomy during this time. His head struck the van window on his right side. Luckily, he said, that didn’t affect his motor skills. He can still play the guitar. He couldn’t sing for several weeks while his lung healed, but he can do that once again, as well.
But the injury affected his ability to multitask, and to process sounds and handle sounds that are out of his control. More on that in a bit.
At rehab, Becker was exposed to other patients who had it much worse off than him. People of all ages who had suffered strokes and brain aneurysms, physical injuries and more.
He went through regular physical therapy. The facility treats Denver Broncos players, and there was no shortage of equipment or in-house physical therapists. The food, however, left much to be desired for Becker, who considers himself a foodie.
“I’m a bougie guy, so it’s hard on my taste buds,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is the biggest punishment.’”
Becker was also forced to quickly grow accustomed to not having any personal space. He was filmed while sleeping—for his own safety. He had to be helped to the bathroom every time he went, which was a lot because his pituitary gland was affected by the crash.
“I’ve been obsessed for years with telling fans to stay hydrated … and now I’m perpetually thirsty, and I have to take a hormone to regulate my thirst level,” he said. “I have to pee more now.”
In rehab, he rang a buzzer every time he had to go to the bathroom. Someone would come, get him out of bed and then hold him up by his shirt as he went to the bathroom. He wasn’t allowed in the bathroom by himself because he could fall.
He also had to measure how much water he drank and how much he peed as doctors worked to determine the cause for his constant thirst.
“I’m happy that that’s over. And looking back on it, I can’t believe that I went through that,” he said. “But also, I know that if I went through that, I could do a lot of shit that won’t faze me anymore.”
In rehab, Becker was encouraged, as were others, to get to know other patients. For the most part, he decided against it. Because being in a band is such a social job, he decided he would use his newfound vacation to not talk to others for a month.
Still, he soon discovered that a SWMRS fan was down the hall.
“She was kind of embarrassed to say something, but her parents told my parents, who are also there,” he said. “Then I ran into her grandparents, and her grandparents were like, ‘Oh, you’re the musician guy!’”
He also signed some records for his occupational therapist, whose niece was a fan. Anyone working at the rehab clinic who might not have known who he was quickly found out. The clinic was flooded with thousands of get-well cards and letters from fans. It was forced to hire a second mail sorter while he was there. Becker read every card and letter, and most of them made the trip back home with him.
One month later, he was allowed to return home to Piedmont on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving.
“I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving at home, but I missed Halloween,” he said. “I don’t recall Halloween last year.”
‘The coolest part about how I got hit on the brain’
Because of sound processing difficulties brought on by his brain injury, Thanksgiving was a difficult day for Becker.
“We have a really loud, big family, and I had to leave like every 15, 20 minutes to go outside to just close my eyes and meditate for a little bit,” he said.
Doctors told him it will be a two- or three-year recovery from that. It’s improved a bit since then but, he’s got a long way to go. That, in combination with his many other injuries meant that he couldn’t join SWMRS on the road earlier this year when the band toured with Cage the Elephant. Jakob Armstrong, Joey’s brother and also a son of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, filled in on guitar. He had already toured with SWMRS for more than a year, usually standing next to Becker, but being on stage without Becker was much different.
“When it was me that had to go play his parts … and sing background parts that he would do, it was this weird feeling,” Jakob Armstrong said. “A major piece of the band being gone; it was a very somber experience.
Luckily for Becker, the only noises that gave him trouble were the ones he couldn’t control. That came in handy because when he’s writing new songs, he’s fully in control of the sound.
That inspired what he calls his “Brian Wilson moment.”
“The coolest part about how I got hit on the brain was because of the noises bugging me so much, the only time I really feel like I have control is when I’m working on new music,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m the Brian Wilson of the band and Cole is definitely the front guy, but we both write the same amount. He sometimes sings songs that I write because he’s just better at being a frontman. It’s more interesting. More of what I do is behind the scenes and a lot of the details stuff.”
While the band was away, he wrote furiously, trying to turn a negative into a positive.
“My whole thought process behind this is it could have been so much worse,” he said. “I could have gotten hit on the left side. I was literally centimeters or inches away from that; just if I turned my head. I wouldn’t be in the band anymore. That’s one thing; I could have died.”
While the rest of America was getting used to staying indoors in March, Max Becker was already quite familiar with the idea. He hasn’t spent much time outside since November, when he came home. He’s just as upset about the coronavirus pandemic and the federal government’s handling of it as the average California resident, but he also decided that he won’t make the situation better by stewing over it.
He’s treating quarantine the same way he’s treated his recovery.
“I wasn’t in disbelief. I was, like, ‘This is gonna be a long process, but I got this.’ I’m kind of a person that likes to plan stuff out anyways, so I can plan my whole recovery,” he said. “I think of [quarantine] more as people are finally on my level. My life hasn’t changed since November.”
Had the crash not happened, he would have been sheltering in place at his new apartment in Washington, D.C. with his girlfriend. That’s where she works, and the couple have a group of friends there. They’d signed a rental agreement last October.
Instead, he was at his childhood home in Piedmont with his parents, living in a basement bedroom. Because of SWMRS’ busy touring schedule, he’s pretty much lived here, off and on, for the last five years. His dad, an architect, designed the house when Becker was still a toddler.
Becker said that he used to feel embarrassed about growing up in such an affluent neighborhood, but that changed for good when he came home following rehab.
“Everyone came out … and supported me. I’m so grateful to be from here,” he said. “This place rules.”
Under normal circumstances, his brother Cole would have been quarantining in Los Angeles, where he had moved last fall. But Cole Becker came in contact with a musician—whom Max Becker didn’t name—who had tested positive for COVID-19. So he drove home and was shut in at a guest house on their parents’ property. Max and their parents dropped food at his door for two weeks. He didn’t get seriously sick and is living at home with his brother and parents now.
The Beckers’ other brother, Cade, was exposed to the same musician in L.A. but chose to quarantine in Southern California, where he also lives.
Max Becker is upset with the musician who exposed both of his brothers to the virus.
“It’s really frustrating who it is; it’s a semi-well-known name, and we’re really disappointed with how irresponsible the whole thing was,” he said. “That person exposed a lot of people and didn’t need to.”
The Beckers’ sister was living in Manhattan. She left the state for Southern California with her boyfriend three days before the state shut down travel. Max Becker said she felt bad about leaving her home but his family convinced her it was the right move so that more resources would be available for those who didn’t have the option to leave.
“Here, Gavin Newsom is obviously handling it,” he said.
‘Now we’re the fucking adults’
Though SWMRS never made an announcement, the band dropped its deal with Atlantic Records and Fueled by Ramen and replaced its management in the days leading up to its Uncool Halloween show in Berkeley.
The major reason behind the move was that the band was tired of being marketed as strictly an emo or Warped Tour type of act. That’s where SWMRS were pegged after starting the band as Emily’s Army when all the members where preteens. They relied on the guidance of Billie Joe Armstrong and others at first, but eventually started having their own preferences. Even after changing their name, the band’s image didn’t change enough, and their management and label weren’t on the same page.
“We were never emo. I listened to the Strokes, the Kooks—that was not Warped Tour,” Becker said. “We felt like we were being stuck in that one world a little too long.”
Freed of label expectations and contracts, SWMRS are now working on a lot of new music, and plan to release songs as they see fit, even if they’re all separated. Becker mentioned the Beatles, who stopped touring in 1966 but released six albums afterward.
“This idea of COVID-19 blocking bands from being themselves; we’re not really going to let it block us from doing anything,” he said. “You don’t really need to tour necessarily to continue to be great. You need to be self-reliant, and you need to do things yourself.”
Without the bureaucracy of a label, the band is knee-deep into making its next record; sending files back and forth, and then sending stems to a producer. Prior to the coronavirus, he said, the music industry required having multiple people’s hands in the creation process. Now, that’s more difficult, and SWMRS are getting the chance to show what they can do on their own. They won’t release a new album until the crisis has subsided and they can tour again, but the plan is to release new music along the way.
Avenues like TikTok make it easier. The band posts a demo on the platform. If it doesn’t take off, SWMRS will move on. If it does, the band can release it as a single.
“When we were 10, we kind of thought that we had to have an adult in the room at all times to tell us what to do. And now we’re the fucking adults,” Becker said.
SWMRS got their Sprinter van in 2016 and put more than 10,000 miles on it during their first tour with it. Through the years, the band has criss-crossed the country with tornadoes nearby, during flash floods and numerous blizzards. Black ice is one of the more common road hazards.
Becker said the life of smaller to mid-size bands who drive their own vehicles is “criminally under-documented,” and that music industry executives have no idea what it’s like to be a band trying to survive being on the road.
Auto collisions have claimed the lives of numerous people over the years. Becker points to one of his favorite bands, The Exploding Hearts, who got into a wreck after returning home to Oregon after a show at Bottom of the Hill in 2003. Three of the five people in their van died. Being in a band isn’t just about playing shows, practices and staying at motels in the middle of nowhere.
“You have these bands, especially our size, that are putting their lives on the line; touring 150 to 200 shows out of the year,” he said.
Still, it’s the life musicians choose.
Becker, who was wearing a new SWMRS hoodie because he was in the process of taking some photos for the band’s online merch store, told these stories excitedly. Because he has no memory of the harrowing crash, he said he doesn’t have nightmares about the ordeal. His family, however, is traumatized. His parents and siblings were there to see him in recovery. They’re the ones who remember the days he can’t.
“Sometimes I’m walking into the kitchen, and they look at me like I’m a 4-year old miracle child who wasn’t supposed to be born. And I’m 26!” he said. “I’m just happy that we get to play another show at some point and keep writing songs.
“I haven’t talked about that with anyone because I just don’t even know how to approach it,” he said.
Now, he’s ready to start.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.