The Yin and Yang of the Universe: Conversations With Max Bemis and Chris Conley
Max Bemis and Chris Conley discuss the new Two Tongues record, family matters, and connecting to the rock and roll muse.
“Supergroup” has never meant anything positive since it was applied to Asia lo those many years ago, and I dare not employ it here, but the meeting of minds between Say Anything’s creative tour de force Max Bemis and Saves the Day director Chris Conley is hard-pressed to be described as anything but. Their project, Two Tongues, debuted with a self-titled record in 2008 and featured Coby Linder (then drummer of Say anything) and Dave Soloway (guitarist of Saves the Day at the time). This time around, it’s just the two of them -- Chris Conley lays out the personnel for me: “We split the vocals and split the guitars, he did bass on this album and I did drums. Max’s wife Sherri [Dupree-Bemis, of Eisley] does sing on an interlude, and then my daughter played a little bit of keyboards on this record, on one song.”
Conley’s talking to me during a rare free moment on his fall tour supporting Coheed and Cambria with Saves the Day. When we speak they’ve only been on the road a week or so, and he describes the crowds: “It’s great, their fans are so die-hard but also they’re very receptive, they listen intently and they pay attention and they seem to really enjoy what we’re playing every night so that’s definitely positive.” I caught one of their later shows in Port Chester and “die-hard” is an understatement -- it’s an intense crowd from the other side of the barricade. At the time the Two Tongues tour was being intensely promoted -- save for one song in the middle of Say Anything’s set while touring with Motion City Soundtrack in 2010, Two Tongues had never performed live.
“We’ve never even properly played a show, so it’s gonna be a lot of fun. Very much looking forward to it,” Conley says, despite the fact that the proposed tour schedule would keep him on the road until mid-December. “I’ve spent my whole life on the road so it’s not too far out of the ordinary. Saves started when we were seventeen, or when I was seventeen rather.”
Somewhere along the line, though, something fell apart. Life happens. When I finally get Max Bemis on the phone -- coincidentally, a few hours after the tour cancellation announcement -- he assures me: “Don’t worry, we’re still in love.”
It’s actually really sweet, the way they each talk about the project coming together. “It’s really fun working together because we’re really good friends, and our music may be slightly different but it’s very similar in my eyes, so when we work on the songs together it’s easy, it works very seamlessly,” Conley says.
In terms of songwriting, they each brought about half a record’s worth of songs and then put them all through the meat grinder to make them not Chris songs or Max songs, to make them something else. While Say Anything and Saves the Day are both bands in name, they’re very much the product of auteurs. Say Anything is Max Bemis, and whoever he assembles to support him. Saves the Day has had slightly more consistency in membership but is decidedly under the artistic direction of Chris Conley. Curating a body of work that way requires something of an ego, of a self-assurance that any given risk will be worth it. When they come together to write for Two Tongues there’s a huge amount of trust that goes into it.
“Me and Chris both have strong personalities and dominate our other projects, but we’re not doing Two Tongues to be in charge of each other,” Bemis says. “I love Chris and I wanna be in a band with him.” Every Say Anything interview that’s ever been recorded, it seems like, has a segment dedicated to the ways in which Saves the Day influenced Max when he was first starting to record music. “I was already writing music, but Saves the Day was what made me want to be in a band,” he says. When I spoke to him, though, I got the other side of that same coin: “There was also something about Say Anything that really connected with Chris, out of everybody in that scene.” There’s an aspect of lineage, sure, but influence goes both ways. It’s what allows them to deviate so far from their usual sounds on this record, the way they both know where they’re coming from.
And it is a deviation. Conley sums it up: “The first album’s like, slightly more poppy and this one is catchy but more, definitely grungy and pretty dirty.” He’s not lying. “The first album is sort of about this friendship where you’re bringing each other back to life and this one’s more about a friendship that’s falling apart, so it’s more angst-ridden and it’s all highly conceptual. It’s not like Max and I were sitting there having a fight while making the record. It was a lot of fun to make, I can’t wait for people to hear the whole thing and go on tour!”
Best laid plans, I suppose. Tracks from Two Tongues Two like “We Can Work” and single “Azalea” assert themselves in a way that almost demands a live performance. The exploratory, vibey album closer “Black Hole” weighs in at nearly ten minutes, and the mind reels at the idea of hearing it live. All hope is not lost, though, and Bemis points out, “These songs were written to be performed live.” He tells me they’ll be making a music video in the not-too-distant future, and are looking for alternative ways to support the record and be there for fans to the same extent they would be if they were able to tour. What exactly that’ll look like remains to be seen, but it does mean a tighter focus on the album itself.
When the self-titled Two Tongues record came out in 2008 it did a great job of blending together Bemis and Conley’s songwriting sensibilities. It’s very accessible to anyone into Saves or Say Anything, to anybody in that scene, really. Two Tongues Two takes that partnership, dismantles it, and stitches it back together into something harder edged and more macabre. On the differences between the two records Bemis says, “When we recorded the first record I was staying with Chris’s family in Chico. I had sort of just started seeing Sherri… That’s, like, the biggest thing that was going on in my life when we recorded that album. This time Chris came to record at my house in Texas, and we tried to write something really different.”
Conley may describe the album as being about the death of a friendship, but Bemis is a little more cosmic, saying it’s “emotionally intensive, subject-wise” and that in writing it, “We went into the rabbit hole and we lived it. We write about this meta-relationship that’s us, and all our relationships, and the yin and yang of the universe.” Heady stuff.
The recording of the Two Tongues Two came shortly after Say Anything finished their tour supporting their February 2016 record I Don’t Think It Is. I asked if writing on the road had brought anything special or different to the record, and Bemis said, yeah, it did. “When I was first writing music I started out really in my head, clinical. The road really loosens everything up. It’s ironic coming on the heels of canceling the tour, but even though we write for ourselves, knowing you’re going to perform helps you connect to the rock ‘n’ roll muse.”
That looseness may also be responsible for how quickly the album came together. Two Tongues has always been on a backburner, as a side project to Saves and Say Anything. The intention had been to do a second album earlier, but this year is the first time they had a chance to get the work done. “We got together in Texas, at Max’s house, in his little studio in his garage and we just started showing each other the songs we’d been working on for the Two Tongues album,” Conley says. “We just got really excited, and the very first night started tracking guitars, and within two weeks we had most of the record finished and recorded. That was initially supposed to be just a writing phase, we were gonna get together for two weeks and put all the songs together, but we just got a lot of work done really quickly. So then we got back together a couple weeks later to finish all the vocals and everything.”
There’s a certain spontaneity to the album that one wouldn’t find in the more constructed work either Conley or Bemis do with their primary projects. It’s not afraid to be abrasive without calculation, to wrong-foot the listener. There's background chatter and overdrive and when it lacks melodicism it does so in a way that seems pointed. Eight years down the line from the first record one can only hope the project would have evolved, and I tell Bemis so: “Don’t you hate it when a band makes the same record over and over again?” There’s no threat of that happening here.
There’s a symbiosis that they both alluded to in their conversations with me, but Conley laid it out the most plainly: “We put the songs together after we each start them on our own, it’s sort of like a Lennon-McCartney thing where John Lennon might start a song and Paul would know sorta how to finish it or connect the dots. Or vice versa.” It’s clear that there’s an artistic fulfillment they both get by doing Two Tongues, that collaboration is healthy for them. “In our own bands we get to write all the music, and so in this band, it’s a really fun exercise, it’s really enjoyable to sit across from each other and bring these songs to life together,” Conley says.
While the tour may be off -- and those of us who’d pre-ordered tickets well before being offered them as a perk of conducting some interviews are trying to find alternative November plans -- the album is still a delight to have in hand. Eight years between album cycles and a distinct lack of live promotion may not seem like a recipe for a die-hard fan base, and it isn’t, really, but records like this make me think it should be. It’s art on its own terms. There’s something rebellious and refreshing about that.
When I remarked to Max that I’d been a longtime Say Anything and Saves the Day fan but that it had taken me a couple years to get around to the first Two Tongues album after it came out, he said, “That’s the good thing about music. It doesn’t just go away.”
It waits for you to find it. It comes into your life when the time is right, if you’re lucky.