Frontman Max Bemis opens up about the band’s self-titled record, God and religion, his transparent songwriting, and what it’s like to finally be healthy and married.
So I was able to hear the new record yesterday and it’s really good.
Oh, thank you.
It seemed like you were able to throw a couple curveballs on there. How was the writing for that?
It was amazing. We try to always pitch a curveball once in a while. I kind of wanted this record to be a nonstop joyride. I wanted it just to be like, “Oh, you’re over here. Then you’re over here. I really don’t have to sit here patiently and dig to get the moments.” I just wanted them to pop out to you, or at least that was my intention.
You’ve been playing a couple new songs acoustically, like “Crush’d” and “Eloise,” and it was interesting to hear how they turned out on the album. Do a lot of the songs start out acoustically at the beginning like that?
They always do, yeah.
Coming off the double album the last one was, did that have any influence on how this one turned out?
Of course. All of our records together are so personal that in a way you can listen to them in sequence and it would be the story of my life, starting when I was 14. You know what I mean? We had a few self-released records and EPs, and they’re the same way with that. With the real official first record started out when I was like 19 and told the story of my life when I was about 18 to 20. Then the next, In Defense, which was a long one, told the story of 20 to 23. This one tells 24 to 25.
Does that kind of go along with why you self-titled the record?
Yeah, but the reason it’s self-titled is because I really think there’s something about being this age, and especially in my particular life, where the early 20s and your teens are such a defining time that by the time you get to my age you should at least have some idea of who you are. 24 to 25, it’s like I know who I am and now I have to face the world. That’s the understanding that’s reached within the story that’s told on this record.
Does the cover art and its idea of the mental superhero play into that as well?
Yes. The kid on the record is like this adorable, geeky kid. His imaginary world that he creates is in the art, which will later be revealed for the record itself. You have to be your own hero and find something beautiful in the world before you can make a difference in the world. This record is about that step. It’s about self-empowerment and then finally setting your sights on who the real enemy is, but that doesn’t happen till later in the record.
Earlier this year you wrote on one of the Say Anything boards how this record is also about God and how we relate to Him. How does that play a part in the record?
One thing I really want to clarify, and it’s very important, although I don’t like to censor myself, is that I use the word God definitely to describe what people who traditionally think of God describe as God, but I also use it to describe a force that atheists can connect to as well. It’s not necessarily a religious idea exclusively. It’s sort of the uniting power, the uniting reality, of everything all put together. To me, that’s God. Finding my place in that and finding my respect for it, letting go of me thinking I was more important than it, is an essential development in my personality that is chronicled on this record.
On the other records there’s a lot of really important, cool ideas being thrown around, but a lot of it is kind of complaining and thinking woe is me. Why is the world doing this to me? I’m angry because of, you know, when in reality you kind of have to be serious. Everything put together is noble, and positive and good. It’s just human beings and physics, and all these things encapsulated in it, that cause unrest and chaos, but everything all put together, even including chaos, is good in my opinion.
There is an order to it, and to respect it – that’s God. That’s what I was referring to. I would never want to alienate fans of Say Anything that aren’t religious, but I do think it’s very important for them to have that same realization, whether you choose to identify it as God or not.
Would you call yourself religious or a Christian, or anything like that then?
I would, yeah, both those things. However, I’m very modern in my spiritual thought. I’m very liberal. The main tenant of my beliefs, in terms of humanity, is that people should listen to each other more. People of all different religions, people who don’t even believe in God – everyone should talk more. Everyone should be more respectful of each other. It’s kind of a very classic, hippy mindset, with a little bit of the punk rock thing thrown in.
I have no problem identifying myself as religious or Christian because I’m not ashamed of either of those things. It’s very important to me because I have so many people who look up to me who aren’t Christian or aren’t religious. I don’t think I’m any better than them, and what I’m going through is something they’re going through also, with or without this specific understanding of God.
One of my favorite songs from the new record is “Ahhh… Men,” which I thought ended the record on a really strong note. What’s the story behind that song?
Thank you, man. It’s very related to the last question you asked. As someone who believes in an afterlife and someone who believes in God, I tried to sum up how can you think of that in politic terms that aren’t specific to being religious. How can someone who isn’t religious understand where my heart is, what my main core beliefs are, and what I can do over the course of this process that’s chronicled on the record? All these things happened during the story on the record – me falling in love, me letting go of the past, all these things – and it leads me to this inner peace.
How can I best communicate this inner peace? That’s what “Ahhh… Men” is. It’s sort of a distillation of what is important to me, and what’s always been important to me my entire life. I have to let go of all these false ideals, and go through all this pain and all this joy, to really become so aware of it that I can actually write a song about it. You know what I mean?
You’ve heard glimmers of hope. This ideal has been held throughout the years of Say Anything. Even on the darkest times of …Is A Real Boy and In Defense, it’s been there. There’s songs like “Alive with the Glory of Love” and “Admit It!!!” However, it’s masked. There’s so much pain and so much darkness over it that I never got to write a song about, hey, let’s take a breath. It’s like a song to meditate to, even though it’s kind of loud.
Your lyrics are pretty transparent and oftentimes you point the lens at yourself, despite whatever consequences result from that. Is that hard for you to do?
To me, the hard part isn’t writing the songs, or performing them or recording them, or the knowledge that people are hearing such personal things about me, it’s the fact that Say Anything becomes such an extension of myself, although it isn’t me. I have so much more to me that isn’t Say Anything. It’s like if Say Anything ended, I would continue to go on as a person.
However, all my artistic ambition, all my poetry – a plaintive diary of what I go through as a person – is put out there for all these people. So the one thing I will cop to is getting sometimes hurt when, it isn’t necessarily when people say they don’t like the band, but when people who do like the band start to make speculations about my personality that are false based on what I write. That’s the only difficulty.
Everything else to me is easy. I love singing. I love playing. I love writing it, but once in a while you get somebody who goes, “Oh, he clearly hates all hipsters. What an asshole.” It’s like, “No! No, no, no! That’s not what I meant at all. That’s really not the truth.” You’re allowed to interpret it that way. I’m not trying to stop anyone from expressing their opinion, but it is a slightly frustrating thing. It’s like going out there, walking up to someone, and being like, “Hey, dude. How you doing? I love you. You’re a cool person.” And then me going, “How can you say that to me? What do you think? I’m not hipster cool? You’re just so cool that you think what does that mean? You think I’m trying to be cool?”
Some people overthink what I’m trying to write. I’m like, “No, man. I didn’t mean that at all.” It’s like experiencing a miscommunication or a misunderstanding with a person on this level where I’ve seen it thousands of times now. So you have to go through this process of forgiving them and being like, whatever. It’s just some person. I don’t have to get too mad about this, or I don’t have to get too upset.
Some people find a way to disconnect. I know enough people in bands that don’t care, but I care. I really do. I want people to at least get what I’m trying to say. They don’t have to love it, but if I feel like they don’t really get what I’m trying to say, it’s frustrating. It turns into like, could I have communicated this in a better way?
You start to question yourself a little bit, but ultimately, like I said, I’ve become a pretty confident and centered guy. These days it’s easier to deal with that, although the initial feeling that you get, I think that’s ultimately the most difficult thing for me.
Your past struggles have become fairly well known, so what does it feel like now to be able to experience the positive side of life, to be healthy and be married? What’s that like?
It’s a whole other adventure. It’s really weird. I was just talking about this with my mom and my best friend, who’s in town right now. This is actually the most stressful and seemingly dramatic period that I think I’ve ever experienced, and I am the most happily married, centered, faithful guy I’ll probably be at this point. I know that’s an exaggeration, obviously, but I’m very centered.
I have this amazing wife and I have this amazing life, so what comes after this Say Anything record? Although it’s chronicled that I’ve developed to become this new person and have these great things to hold on to, this self-love or connection to something bigger, or this amazing love of my life that I have, it doesn’t end there. You know what I mean? The human struggle is until the day you die you’re struggling.
I still have things to write about, even more things to write about. One thing I’ve talked a lot in interviews about this record is one thing people really appreciate about Say Anything is the social critique and social commentary. I feel like I am more able to do that again now that I’m not just focused on my problems. I’m able to look around at society and be like, “OK, here’s something that I wish we could do something about. Or here’s something I identify as an issue, or a threat or something I would want to make a change in.”
That’s why it’s a self-titled record. It’s like the parts of me and Say Anything that I think people connect to are now going to be the things that are distilled. I’ve sort of let go of the parts that might be considered gimmicky or negative.
I heard you’re doing a musical project with Sherri called Perma. What’s that going to be like?
Me and Sherri started talking over the Internet and on the phone. We started writing to each other because we were fans of each other’s bands. We had such good conversations online and on the phone that we kind of fell for each other, basically. So, we started writing each other songs and sending them to each other. The first few Perma songs were those.
Eventually, we were like, “We should be in a band together. If we meet and we fall in love the way we think we’re going to when we see each other, which we did, we need to start a band. That’d be so fun, and it’d be cool to encapsulate what’s the happiest thing in both of our lives and write about it.”
Does it sound like either one of your two bands at all?
It sounds like the softer side of both of our bands, but it’s definitely not free of emotion. It’s very emotionally charged, but it’s prettier than even Eisley. It’s more gentle.
Last year you set up the whole song shop thing, and then you also did Two Tongues earlier this year. How are you able to be such a prolific writer and keep that creativity going?
I don’t know. Songwriting itself comes pretty easy for me. I could write a million songs, but writing a Say Anything record is a little harder. To me, Say Anything becomes something that’s not just me. It’s Coby, and it’s Alex. It stands for certain political things, and it stands for certain spiritual things. So that’s why there’s not a million Say Anything records, but there’s tons of Max Bemis written songs. That was another reason why I started Two Tongues, not just because I really wanted to work with Chris, that was the main reason, but because there’s a whole other style of writing.
Songwriting is a habit that’s become very easy for me. I’m not saying they’re the best songs in the world or anything, or that I’m that good at it. It’s just to actually pump them out, I’ve discovered some kind of mathematical thing about it where I could literally just sit in a room and write songs all day and never stop. Writer’s block comes and goes. It’s not like I haven’t experienced that, but it’s mostly related to Say Anything because there’s such a specific purpose to it. Not any song can become a Say Anything song.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press