Say Anything's Max Bemis: "We're Lucky We Continue to Grow"
Since their breakout album Is a Real Boy came out in 2004, emo/pop-punk band Say Anything has been the soundtrack to many a teenager's life. For this blogger, Is a Real Boy skirted the clichés of many emo albums of the times by being more personal and honest.
Front man and principal songwriter Max Bemis didn't write universal songs, he wrote from his heart and mind about his life at the time. It connected more with me than other albums because while he was speaking about his experiences, not mine or any other fan's, we could relate to its reality.
But people grow up and change. Just as myself and other fans have outgrown our teenage angst, so has Max Bemis. His band's latest album, Anarchy, My Dear, dropped last month to positive reviews and the highest chart showing in the band's history.
Anarchy, My Dear is a mature album that showcases Bemis shifting his lyrical focus to greater horizons. Even still, Bemis has a way of connecting with his fans that transcends their age or place in life.
Say Anything is currently on a tour around North America and hits Warehouse Live in Houston Friday, with support from Kevin Devine and Fake Problems. I called Bemis a few days ago to ask him some questions about his work, new and old, and about the tour.
Rocks Off: How are you doing? How's the tour going so far?
Max Bemis: Tour is...it's been spectacular. Considering we're playing these new songs live for the first time, getting to see how much they're resonating with our fans. That's like a big deal to me, so it's cool.
RO: I managed to catch you guys at Waterloo Records during SXSW and it was amazing. Do you enjoy playing the festival?
MB: I do. I have like...it's such a weird shift for me as a person because I'm like kind of a hermit. So the amount of social interaction, the people, the streets are clogged with people, it's kind of overwhelming for me, to some extent.
But I actually enjoyed it, like this time around I didn't feel overwhelmed, I just kind of went with the flow. Although it's not like I went to many shows or did anything social. Like I sort of enjoyed just walking through the crowds and seeing everyone going and enjoying music, and it was kind of an inspiring whole of things so I'm looking forward to playing it again.
RO: Awesome. I know you live in Tyler, Texas, now and Say Anything plays here quite a bit. How do you like Texas?
MB: Oh, I love it. I love it very much. It's my favorite place I've ever lived, and I've lived in a few places.
RO: All right, I want to ask you some questions about the new record, but first I wanted to ask about growing up. I think for a lot of people, Is a Real Boy was so inspirational for them when they were around 16 years old. That's when I first heard it and it just blew me away. How do you feel about growing up and now playing those songs these days?
MB: There's more of a sense of joy and fun attached to it for me. The darker ones, at least. I mean, some of the ones that are more universal, I still 100 percent relate to it, like a song like "Belt" or "[An] Orgy of Critics" or even "Admit It!" I definitely still relate to them.
The ones that are like "Woe" or "[Every Man Has a] Molly," where it's seemingly just about the growing pains of a young man and how dark that can be, I look at it with a sense of whimsy. You know what I mean? It's like nostalgia.
And when I'll sing those songs, I don't know, I feel free. I feel like I can remember what it was like to be there, put myself there, but at the same time, here I've come up at the other end at a good place. It gives me this new way of approaching the songs.
RO: And so for the songs on Anarchy, My Dear, how has your songwriting process changed from back in those days, from Is a Real Boy to now?
MB: To be honest, it hasn't changed at all. You know, in the guitar parts and words that you improvise to the guitar parts when you come into the studio...So basically, like, I'll have a sort of basic guitar part going in and now I really [focus] on it and the chords to use, and the lead guitars obviously come up completely at the time that I'm recording rather than originating before we go in. Therefore it can be more complicated. So that's something that's changed.
But beyond that, it hasn't really changed at all. I think the best songs that I write are ones where everything just flows to paper like that. There's a certain feeling I get when that happens that hasn't changed since I was young.
RO: I feel like there's a few more ballads than there used to be on Anarchy, My Dear, but there are also a few heavier punk numbers. Which direction do you think the band is pulling in?
MB: I think that that's a thing I'm proud of on the new record, is that, basically, to bring the two a bit closer together to some degree, the punk songs aren't fully loud and the guitars are not really distorted. So I think they kind of flow together a little bit more. There's less of a gap between the ballads and the angry songs.
[It's] woven together a little more rather than it being like on Is a Real Boy, where I wanted to play on the stark difference between that and the rest of the record. Whereas on this one it's like a song like "Anarchy, My Dear," the title track, it just fits in with the rest of it, it doesn't necessarily diverge from passive sounds.
RO: I wanted to ask you about a specific song on the new record, the sequel to "Admit It!," "Admit It Again." What inspired you to do a sequel after all these years? Is it sort of the bigger hipster culture we have going on now?
MB: Yeah, that was part of it. You know, the original reason that I really wanted to do it was just to excite our fans. To be frank, that's where it came from. "Wouldn't it drive people bonkers if I wrote a sequel to 'Admit It!'? Wouldn't it excite all these kids?" And I thought, "Oh my god, yeah, I'll at least try." And I sat down, when I actually wrote the lyrics down, it turned out I had a lot to say.
As you said, indie culture has sort of grown to a really intense place right now and there's more different things to criticize now that it's in this stage of development where it's sort of taking over the mainstream in certain respects.
RO: Yeah, I really feel like "Admit It!" sort of spoke to that whole culture, but it's just gotten bigger and bigger since that song came out. I also really feel you on exciting the kids, because it seems like this new record has definitely excited them. This is the highest chart showing that Say Anything has ever had. How do you feel about that success you're getting? It's almost late in the game, but it seems you're getting bigger and bigger. How do you feel about that?
MB: Feels nice, man. I mean, to whatever extent that we are experiencing success with this record, it's something that...I don't know, I feel really strongly we've worked really hard on the record and we approached it from a place that was very inspired and true and real.
So the fact that it's doing well right now just sort of feels like a nice reward for making the right choice and doing the right thing and being true to ourselves.
And I don't feel like a flash in the pan anymore in certain respects. We made it for so long and, as you said, we're lucky that we continue to grow. But I just feel weird about it because I did feel that we had earned at least some of it through working hard and trying to really make a record with integrity.
RO: In the lyrics for "Burn a Miracle," you sing at some points during the chorus, "Burn America." On that song, are you taking a sort of political stance?
MB: Well, I wouldn't say it's political because I know nothing about politics. But, first of all, in the end I don't believe in the idea of countries and nations and governments. I think that we as a human race can develop a better alternative to the competitive nature of capitalist society, war-mongering and power struggles.
I love the culture of America and I love many of the ideals that we employ. In a land of opportunity, we do a lot for a lot of people. I think there's many people involved in the government that are awesome and brave people.
But at the same time, I think that American culture is very flawed. Being the most powerful country in the world, I don't know if we live up to that. Because we do so many things, just the way our culture functions on a day-to-day basis in every individual's life can be very imposing on conformity.
It's all these factors of why, you know, pretty much initially, people end up having an issue with America even outside of the country. So as much as I am proud to be from here and culturally I love a lot of the elements of American culture, the idea of freedom, democracy and stuff like that, I think it's just a flawed system.
I definitely don't promote violence, so it isn't a literal "let's burn America." It's more like, "let's destroy this flawed version of what we have and start again with something new and better."
RO: This is the first time you've worked with producer Tim O'Heir since Is a Real Boy. How do you feel about working with him again and what he brought to Anarchy, My Dear?
MB: It was amazing. He did a great job and this record was really suited to the ideal situation for him to show what he's good at. He's good at a lot of things, but I think the coolest thing of what he does is expressing a whole lot of energy and making it sound great. So he got to really do that on this record and it's just awesome.
RO: One last question. How do you feel about playing in Houston at the end of the month?
MB: I love playing in Houston and I love being there. My first experience in Houston was actually really kind of crappy because I was in a hospital there, like a mental hospital-slash-rehabilitation.
But now I've seen a lot of the cooler, more suburban, pretty areas of Houston that I love being there a lot. We always have a very loving, welcoming crowd there, so I love playing there for sure.
With Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band, Fake Problems and Tallhart, 7 p.m. Friday at Warehouse Live.
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