"I Now Possess a Righteous Anger": An Intimate Chat with Say Anything
Max Bemis is probably best known for releasing one of the most acclaimed albums of the 2000s with his band Say Anything. Now, having uncovered a new societal rage after finding stability in his own life, he speaks open and candidly to PopMatters about his new album, his troubled past, and how even today, he still doesn't want to piss off his parents.
Max Bemis is angry again, and he couldn't be happier about it.
The Say Anything frontman has had one of the most chronicled, headline-filled lives that someone could imagine, especially for someone at the tender age of 27. Bemis first came onto the world's critical radar with the release of his first major-label album, 2004's wildly-acclaimed ... Is a Real Boy, a somewhat-rock opera produced by Tim O'Heir and Hedwig & the Angry Inch's Stephen Trask that exploded onto the alt-rock scene with its confident, tempo-shifting compositions, wry lyrics, and dynamic delivery. Yet the recording of the album lead to Bemis having a breakdown, leading to him being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, visiting mental institutions, and canceling tours after experiencing drug-aided paranoid delusions. His music continued to receive acclaim, his fanbase as intensely loyal as one can imagine, but there were points when Say Anything's storied personal history threatened to overshadow their musical one.
Yet Bemis was never one to shy away from the thing that angered him (see his scathing hipster-takedown "Admit It!!!" off of ... Is a Real Boy), and his own tormented history became great (and often-times humorous) source material for many of his songs. As he was recording his self-titled 2009 release (which came out shortly after Bemis' dream collaboration with Save the Day's Chris Conley, Two Tongues), he entered a courtship with Eisley's Sherri DuPree, resulting in their eventual marriage. A majority of that eponymous disc was about their journey together, and now that Bemis has found a stable, peaceful point in his life, he began to wonder about what form his new songs would take, especially given the fact that his fans were going as far as to write him letters asking him to revisit the edge he displayed in his earlier work.
It turns out that all Bemis had to do was look inward. Anarchy, My Dear -- the band's fifth full-length (and first since leaving major-label RCA Records) -- is infused with a perspective that's both personal and political. While Bemis does in fact craft a sequel to his heralded "Admit It!!!" here, he also makes multiple references to how he's above his critics, his lyric sheet proving a bit more fractured this time out, individual lines taking on greater meaning individually than as a part of grand narrative. It is, in short, a bit of a departure for Bemis (hell, he brings in a hammered dulcimer at one point), and in the press leading up to the disc's release, he has never sounded so proud of anything he's ever been involved in. To him, Anarchy means a lot.
Sitting down with PopMatters, Bemis positively opens up about the album's process, talking about everything from Say Anything's major label canonization to finding his punk-like rage again to not pissing off his parents to emerging how he did from those unspeakably dark periods of his life that he had to suffer through. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Max Bemis: unfiltered, honest, and completely open ...
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Let's start by getting right out and saying it: you've transitioned here from a major label [for which he recorded three albums] to an independent [Equal Vision] for this effort. How has that transition been for you?
It's been really easy, based on what I understand of many people's experience [of] going through what I went through, in terms of getting off of a major and finding your way to a new home. The truth is that we weren't really having that bad of a time on RCA; it just seems like it had run its course for everybody involved, including us. So getting off the label wasn't stressful because it's pretty much what everyone involved wanted. In this day and age, basically we weren't the kind of band that was going to sell millions and millions of records for them -- at this stage at least [laughs]. So that's kind of what those major labels are looking for, and since we were no longer intending to do that fully and it was no longer the focus of our career, it just didn't make any logical sense for us to continue being on the label. So getting off the label was logical and it really wasn't very painful. It was sad saying goodbye to some of the people that we worked with, but the actual guy who actually signed us ended up becoming our manager sometime later, as he left the label as well. So the best part of working at that label we now still have, and then thankfully there was a good amount of people interested [in us] after we left the label, and even though that was kind of a shit storm in certain respects where it's like you have to go through the whole courting process (and that's annoying). Equal Vision in particular was always genuine and super-dedicated and never made any qualms about whether or not they wanted us on the label -- they were just balls-out about it, so to speak. They're a great label, and ultimately that's what it ultimately came down to: we don't want to go through another experience of having to second-guess anything about being on a label. We want one that's just totally into it and has the resources to do what we want. All being said, it wasn't that painful of an experience, and no what we're on one, it's feeling great. So ya know -- pretty good experience all around.
One of the weird things, though -- and I literally discovered this last week -- was that you have a best-of compilation out now.
Well we have an iTunes best-of. There's no physical release of it.
Actually, there is.
Yeah -- it's a physical CD. You can order it at a Barnes & Noble if you wanted to.
What? That's crazy. I didn't know that at all.
The thing about it, though, is that they made this only three albums into your career. Do you feel like your career has warranted canonization yet or do you think they jumped the gun too early?
I mean, I guess they were coming from it, and the way we have seen our career progress, even though there weren't too many records out, there's enough kind of "classic" songs to our fans -- like each of those records has three or four songs that we have to play live or people get pissed -- and since we haven't had that many huge radio "actual" hits, those are hits to us. Kids know every word, they scream for it, request it, blah blah blah. So ... Is a Real Boy has at least six, and the other ones have four at least, so maybe we should put out all the songs as one catchall. I think it's just a way to get introduced to the band.
I sometimes don't think people understand way in which you've been trying to push yourself sonically. In Defense of the Genre had [producer] Brad Wood conjuring up all these textures and soundscapes for you, while Neal Avron [on their eponymous disc] just made everything sound beefier and mightier -- it's like Tom Cruise with the Mission: Impossible films, choosing a new director each time to keep things fresh. That leads us back to this record, where you come back to working with [...Is a Real Boy producer] Tim O'Heir ...
If you're following that example, it'd be like someone other than Tom Cruise, 'cos even though I like the last Mission: Impossible movie quite a bit, it'd be like Jason Schwartzman going back to Wes Anderson or Bill Murray and Wes Anderson; someone who you know you have to go back to, who provoked you to some of your best work. Had we done another record with Tim after ... Is a Real Boy, I don't know if it'd have the same type of energy, 'cos I do enjoy trying new things quite a bit, which is no comment on Tim, who is arguably the greatest producer we've worked with to some degree. It's hard to say, as they're all so wonderful, but my experience with Tim has been so amazing both times. Still, I feel like it was the going away from him and trying all those new things and then having a fresh perspective that made it cool to go back to make a record with him again.
Max Bemis in the studio. Photo: Chris Phelps
This album feels angrier and pointed in way that the self-titled album wasn't, and even though that album had tracks like "Hate Everyone" in there, it was bouncier and had a sense of irony to it. On this album, you list "old foes marching to their doom" on "Overbiter", and you even have "Admit It, Again" on there -- it's almost like you've found a new spark for your rage, no?
As I've said a few times about the differences between this and our last records, our last record was sort of about finding peace ultimately. It started out in a place of discord when I was writing it: unrest, finding love and harmony, taking care of myself, and I sort of found peace and that's very much so what that record is about, even though it's a journey and not a boring one-note thing. At the same time, it's a journey about finding love and about finding a place in the world. And with this record, I started writing when I was a year deep into being married, and I was very happy and very peaceful and I really love the life I built for myself here in Texas. So there's none of these self-destructive, angst-y, late-teens emotions going on.
None of that "piss of your parents" kind of thing.
None of that! I love my parents. I hate pissing them off. So I reached into myself and thought "OK, what do I want to write about now?" Not really so consciously as a thought like that, but my mind works for a little bit to think about things, and I think where it resolved [is with] the first song I wrote "Burn a Miracle", which is the first song on this record. I realized that my anger that I now possess is sort of a righteous anger about society which is a lot more valid than this anger I was holding towards people who wronged me or myself. So I have all these concerns and things that really get me worked up about the world and how it works, and that's where I think a lot of the pathos is coming from now. It's from wanting to change this fucked-up world that we live in. It really does infuriate me when I take the time to think about how [things] ranging from bigotry and genocide all the way to the halves who think they're cool and think they've formed some sort of counter-culture that's completely feeding off the machine -- all those things drive me nuts. And I like to think it's less to do with what I lack and issues I have and moreso with [my] feelings and concerns for people and wanting them to feel better and wanting this world to feel a little more gentle and kind to each other. It's less about me. That's probably the re-emergence you're hearing of the "edginess", not to mention the fact that without a large corporate entity to telling us what to do, I had the freedom to reach into myself and pull out these thoughts and feelings that may not have been totally obvious for mass consumption.
I would argue with you that although it's still a societal thing, it's filtered through your personal perspective. When I think about "Admit It, Again", it's still about taking down the sacred cows and poseurs of "the scene", but it comes with a chorus of "You won't cut me down again," and later on in "Peace Out", you talk about how you couldn't give less of a shit about scathing reviews, as if you've seen what society does, you've been criticized before, and now you truly couldn't care anyone has to say about you.
Exactly. It's kind of like you have to -- not lead ('cos I am in no way comfortable being a leader of people) -- but you have to show and guide people through example. So many people identify with my music and look up to me in a way that's really awesome and flattering. I have a responsibility to show them what I've been through and that has been a bit of a "screw you" to the people who write nasty reviews, people who tried to hold me down in the past. And not just saying "Screw you, go get hurt, I hate you!" It's more like "I'm above this now." More importantly, the example I'm trying to show is [that] my own life -- where I have criticized these things that society tried to successfully brainwash me with for many years, that lead to me hating myself, that lead to me being full of fear, that lead to me hurting people my love 'cos I was compensating for something -- and there's this experience of what I went through on the last record, through that experience I was able to let those things go, and now I just exist in this state of ... it's definitely not perfect -- I have good days and I have bad days -- but at least I'm in touch with myself.
Prior to this album's release, you did an interview with Alternative Press where you said that fans wrote you letters wanting "angrier, edgier" songs from you. Obviously your songs connect deeply with people, but it makes me wonder: is the Max Bemis in the songs all that different from the Max Bemis in real life?
Well, my personality -- the things that make me me, that people identify with -- are all the same. I still have a dark sense of humor, I still don't like to take things seriously, I'm irreverent, I'm still self-deprecating. But then there's parts of me where it's little changes moreso than, like, changes of my soul. Its changes like I don't do drugs, or I'm in control of my medical disorder and I don't end up having to go to the hospital all the time. It's changes like I'm not in an unhappy, sick romantic relationship. It's changes like "I actually feel loved." I don't think I've actually changed much except for like my own personal development; it's moreso the things around me and the way I lived my life that's changed. So I don't think that anyone's missing out on who I was on ... Is a Real Boy. 'cos I mean I often feel very much so connected to who I was when I was younger, and I just see it as a bit of a maturing and growth and living life as an adult as opposed to a crazy, drugged-up kid.
On the site we ran a 20 Questions with Sherri when she was promoting the new Eisley album, and she mentioned that one of the people she looks up to is you, because she noted how you take care of yourself just so that you can take care of her. It brings me back to a point that his album seems to be making: call me crazy, but I get a sense that these songs were easier to write, as when I hear the chorus of "Of Steel" ("Can you save me?" repeated over and over again), you don't actually need to be saved, but a few years ago it could've made sense. You have psychic distance here, so you can recall them pretty easily ...
Very much so. It's the piece of mind -- that's definitely the main way that this record got put together and the main way that these songs refer through to this Zen-like state that allows me to come in touch with my own personal feelings, many of which are sometimes exasperated or full of anger or full of want or something like that. The knowledge that I'm all right -- despite however I'm feeling at that exact moment, and that I've come back to the center as opposed to flailing out of control -- does make it easier to write songs on an subject matter, even an exasperated one.
I view the self-titled album as your courtship with Sherri -- you even call her out by name on "Crush'd". One of the things I find interesting about this new record is that she herself has a very prominent role in the recording, appearing on multiple songs on complimenting you or backing you up or helping you -- the narrator -- out. Your songs are already quite pointed by themselves, so what did her presence bring to the sessions or even the songs for that matter?
Well it always brings to me a sense of solidarity, like I have a family and it's small and we don't have a little one yet, but she's "on the team", this is sort of how it makes me feel. We have Coby singing and Coby playing drums and you got me doing everything else, and we got the other guys who are in spirit make the live show really great, and Sherri's such a big part of my life -- like the most important part of my life -- so to have her sort of ... first of all, I'm lucky that she happens to be extremely, extremely talented, but it means so much to me not just because she has a beautiful voice but because it reminds me that we're making this record about self-empowerment, and here's an example of how I got what I've built from being self-empowered is to have this team of people behind me, lead by her, that back me up. So it just makes me think of just her being a part of it.
Looking back at your entire career, from when you formed the band to now, what would you say is your biggest regret, and conversely, what is your proudest accomplishment?
However you want to interpret it.
Biggest regret ... it'd just be ... let me think about that for a sec. [Pause.] I would say it's probably a tie between [hurting] people that I love and losing faith in the fact that there's something greater at work and just becoming sort of nihilistic for several years, but honestly, to be very honest, I can't say I literally regret it, 'cos it was a path that lead me to where I am. But if I would do things differently, if I were placed in those situations again, is to try to be more considerate of the people around me, and to realize that there's something bigger at work and not feel so lost within the scope of the universe, 'cos that leads you to so many terrible things if you don't think that there's a point -- and that's sort of where I was when I was younger.
And the thing I'm proudest of is definitely just overcoming that period of my life and building ... you know, it's less so about the fact that I overcame that period of my life, but that was what happened to me so I will include it -- that I overcame this terrible, unhealthy, self-destructive period and I ended up actually achieving literally all the goals that I set out for myself when I was a kid, and since I hold a lot of value in what kids believe and what they think of for the future, I'm actually really proud that I gave myself all these things, whether it was just a healthy life and a beautiful life that loves me and being centered and a big comic collection. Like, I didn't stray away from the stuff that I wanted when I was getting to be a singer until I played for a lot of people. I've basically done all that I want to do at this point, and now I just want to live as a normal person, so I would say that the thing I'm proudest of is that despite all of the crap I endured, I actually achieved all these small little goals I had for myself.