On Is a Real Boy, Say Anything told the ultimate coming-of-age story in a swirling storm of sex, drugs, angst and gut-wrenchingly honest rock & roll. Now the band is back with In Defense of the Genre, a wildly eclectic double album that tells the ultimate love story, complete with madness, exhilaration, depression and redemption. It's an astonishing achievement of impeccable songwriting and raw emotion that could only spring from the brain of the band's 23-year-old leader, Max Bemis.
"I got my first long-term girlfriend when I was 20 and that really thrust me into the human experience of dealing with other people," Bemis says, explaining how he became obsessed with something he once considered to be contrived: boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl songs. "I thought if I can make a Say Anything record that's funny and weird but still telling that story it would be awesome."
Singer/guitarist Bemis, along with drummer Coby Linder, bassist Alex Kent, keyboardist/guitarist Parker Case, and twin guitarists Jake and Jeff Turner, have achieved that goal in the 26 songs of In Defense of the Genre, which traces one man's attempt to find love, pursue his career while battling heartbreak, and put his life back together again (it's loosely based on Bemis' own tumultuous love affair). Recorded in New York at Electric Lady and in Los Angeles at the home studio of producer Brad Wood (The Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, mewthoutyou, Pete Yorn) In Defense of the Genre has a vast, dramatic sonic palate that embraces the band's indie/hardcore roots and stretches the sound in dozens of directions.
Bemis, who's been writing songs since he was 14, was offered a record deal before he was out of high school and slaved over Is a Real Boy his first year of college. Smoking pot and staying up nights stressing, he began to unravel. Then he had the psychotic episode that would largely influence In Defense of the Genre. "I woke up one morning manic," he says. "I started to feel like I was being videotaped. And that's sort of how the rest of the afternoon unfolded, with me walking around Brooklyn being like, whoa, I'm in The Truman Show." Bemis was diagnosed as bipolar, and finished the album a theatrical bunch of quirky, confessional pop-rock songs that showed off his vocal talents and stunning emotional range which made his name as one of the most brilliant songwriters of his generation. Everyone from Rolling Stone and Blender to The New York Times and Billboard praised the record, and the video for phone-sex anthem "Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too," which featured a memorable turn from Henry Winkler ("The Fonz"), was a staple on MTV, Fuse, AOL and Yahoo.
For In Defense of the Genre, Bemis and his band mates tracked down the producer who made one of his genre's hallmark albums (Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary) and pushed themselves to the limits. "We used all kinds of crazy amps and sounds and pedals and creative little ways of micing and singing," Bemis says. "It's more hard-hitting than the last record. This one is really raw but big sounding; it's a perfect balance."
The first LP kicks off with Bemis furious at the world (and with his new love interest's boyfriend) as he spits vitriol over the chunky riff of "Skinny Mean Man." Frustrated that he can't be with the girl, he buries himself in drugs and suffers a manic episode "Throbbing in my flesh breaking out in scarlet sores /In therapy, I've been enslaved. I think Ill medicate this rage" he yelps on the alternately ominous and poppy "Surgically Removing the Tracking Device"; the powerfully upbeat "This is Fucking Ecstasy" describes the bizarre euphoria of being delusional, taking imagery from Bemis' real-life episode. After a romantic encounter in the mental hospital, Bemis and his love interest become involved. "A few songs including 'Baby Girl, I'm a Blur' and 'Shiksa (Girlfriend)' are about finally being happy and all the experiences I have with this person," he explains. "But it comes to a point where I mess it all up, and everything begins to go sour, marked by the song 'An Insult to the Dead.'"
Their rift grows while Bemis is on tour, and as the second album begins he's burying himself in random sex and "exploring the void." He convinces girls he knows he isn't capable of love ("The Truth Is, You Should Lie With Me," which could easily be a Pinkerton outtake) and calls out hypocrites over the layers of circular guitar riffs that comprise the winding, beautiful "Vexed." Eventually, Bemis has a fleeting reunion with his ex, which makes him reevaluate their time together, and he starts to mount an effort for reconciliation. "It sort of ends on that note," he says. "It doesn't say what happens because nothing is certain in life and it's more about knowing how important a person was to you than whether you actually end up with the them."
To say that In Defense of the Genre is the kind of experimental album that can redefine a genre is an understatement. First single "Baby Girl, I'm a Blur" pulses with a synth beat and unwinds into a tangle of doodling riffs, fast-strummed guitars, and layers of vocals; Bemis says he actually nailed his vocal in one unexpected take. The track is dancey, slick, and giddy with the obsession of new love: "Pray I'll find you with your flame-throw eyes and jilted smile / So you can soothe my wounds and drain my bile" Bemis croons.
The second disc is anchored by the title track, which Bemis calls "a statement of purpose." The song comes at the part of the narrative where he's letting loose on tour, but it's largely metaphorical. "It's about expressing your heartbreak through art, and not listening to the nay-sayers," he explains. "The music I grew up on was early emotional hardcore, and since it's become popular, people rarely recognize the culture behind it. There's no need to make fun of "emo kids "all the time, but that's trendy now. It's important to know that you love something because you love something and it shouldn't matter what other people say." Bemis decided as the songs came to fruition that Say Anything's new record would be a metaphor for affecting personal and social reform through telling the story of a relationship, a form used in the early records he cherished by artists such as the aforementioned Sunny Day Real Estate, Fugazi and Rites of Spring, but endowed with his own band's progressive style and black humor.
Bemis is an unabashed lover of Queen, Pavement, Refused, Saves the Day and Weezer and there are flashes of At the Drive-In, Elliott Smith and Justin Timberlake tucked amongst the album's shape-shifting tracks. Delicate, finger-picked songs sit beside metallic songs with roaring vocals. The band also experiments with 1980s-style synths ("Died a Jew"), orchestration ("Spay Me," "Goodbye, Young Tutour, You've Now Outgrown Me"), and big-band swing ("That Is Why").
Guests include Chris Conley from Saves the Day, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Trevor Keith from Face to Face, Anthony Green from Circa Survive, Anthony Raneri from Bayside, Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional, Andy Jackson from Hot Rod Circuit, Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio, Kenny Vasoli from the Starting Line, Caitlin de Marrais from Rainer Maria, Adam Lazzara and Fred Mascherino from Taking Back Sunday, Pete Yorn, Hayley Williams from Paramore and Jordan Pundik from New Found Glory. "There's a lot of variation on our record," says Bemis. "I think that's what makes kids like us; you don't really know what we're going to do next. This album expresses what we are to the fullest extent."