Figures, I forget my questions at my apartment to interview one of the biggest names of this "scene," or whatever, on the height of the love/hate release of his band's new self-titled album. Say Anything frontman Max Bemis and I took a walk around downtown Austin before their sold out show on the Hate Everyone Tour, and this was our talk:
The first time I ever heard Say Anything, ...is a Real Boy showed up in my mailbox down at KLSU my freshman year of college. It's definitely something to say about your age at the time, and now coming out with the self-titled, it seems like the self-titled is very much appropriate for your age and growth. Is that where the writing came from with this album? Are you a bit more open eyed-open eared to the world now?
To me, it's a state of mind that comes from having gone from a lot of painful situations, and sort of embrace life for what it is. Once you kind of have that base level of understanding and acceptance about what is hard in life, you can sort of reach this new plateau of innocence which kind of brings you back to when you were younger, but it's informed by this greater understanding of life not being - you know, you can only be this whiny teenager for so long. You know what I mean? Everyone should be a whiny teenager...I'm not saying everyone is a whiny teenager, but there certainly is this stage that you go through towards the end of your teens and your early 20's where it's like, "Screw the world." There also seems to be not much you can do about it.
Is that naive thought process completely out of your mindset at this point?
To me, I think it's less naive and more just cynical when you dismiss the world as if there is nothing you can do to help it. I think the way society is built, it fosters this immature mentality that a lot of people end of possessing for way too long. Sometimes you get out of it, and sometimes you don't. Another part of it is the natural growth of growing older as a human being. So, part of it is society and then part of it is growing up [no matter where you are living]. I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, you have to free your mental constraints, from this mental slavery.
Do you believe that your marriage has a lot to do with lyrically what's going on with this record?
Yeah. Definitely. I wouldn't have been able to get married if I hadn't figured out certain things before.
You feel like the growing up process is directly related to getting married, but has also made you grown as a person?
Exactly. It's a step you shouldn't take unless you are ready for it. Then once I did take it, it was another part of this adventure I've been on for the past couple of years where I kind of let go...where I really started to battle negative thinking and negativity in my life, and stand up for myself more. Live a better life. There's plenty of conflict and tragedy and up's and down's even once you enter [that positive mindset still]. Life isn't resolved and simplified. The cool thing about how kids are reacting to [Say Anything] is that it isn't just a boring record written about being married. Being married isn't boring. It's exciting and it's fun and sometimes it is hard. In my life right now, it's even more exciting than when I was doing mushrooms and ending up in the mental hospital. That almost seemed more plotting. It was predictable. I knew what was going to happen if I kept smoking weed constantly with my bi-polar disorder, I was going to end up back in the hospital, and I did. If I dated someone who was emotionally immature and hurt me all the time, but I kept going back to that person - they would hurt me. Where as now, I don't even know what's going to happen! It's exciting and sometimes it's hard, but in reality, it's life. I was kind of in a state of arrested development. The first couple of records were about what it's like to live in that state of arrested development, to yearn for something more. Society, the government and the media don't do much to encourage people to step out of their comfort area. I kind of had to be like, "Screw the man. I need to live life. I need genuine stuff."
Would you say you are no longer fearful of this world? Now that you've gotten past those dilemmas, are you in a mindset now where you are like, "I want to live. It's not too late. I'm not too old." Is that truly the base meaning of the new album?
Yeah. I think it is normal for people to go through a phase where they are not though. I'm not judging or looking down on them. In that same sense, I'm not saying that there is not anything profound on our other records. I'm not going to dismiss [those other albums] because of the state of mind I was in when I wrote them. I do feel that I am older, I have matured and I have moved forward. There would be something wrong if I didn't.
Let's talk about the musical direction this album took. Writing a pop song like "Crush'd" and writing this grandeur opener. Then writing an accessible single like "Hate Everyone," where did this all come from?
To be honest, if anyone goes back to what Say Anything started as, it was the most poppy, alternative rock, heart on your sleeve, punk based stuff ever. I let go of that for a while because my life got really dark, but I like to think that we just kind of embraced both sides of the band, and so it became who we really are. That's why I consider this our definitive record. There were always - whether it was "Alive With the Glory of Love" or "I Want to Know Your Plans"...
Those were still happy mediums...
Exactly. Exactly. I think that to bring out a side of the band, where as on [In Defense of the Genre], I was kind of afraid. I felt like I had something to prove in a way. Like, being influenced by a place we were put in as a band. I always like to put it as being handed the keys to the kingdom - where someone gets handed too much power too quickly. That's kind of what happened to us I think. I mean, thank god people really appreciate our music and were talking, really building me up as a songwriter and as a symbol of something in this scene. I felt like I had to go out of, in a certain way, to disprove people - that's why we made a record called In Defense of the Genre. We were the band that was actually growing out of it, so my reaction to that was wanting to have kids know I was thinking about it too hard. Even though it produced something I was proud of, it's definitely something I'm distant from now, because at the time I was like, "I need to make a record that lets people know I'm not afraid to be labeled this way." Where I was just witnessing so many bands that were just so ashamed of themselves that they couldn't be labeled emo. Well, you know what, I think that's a product of society's bullshit that these people are afraid of who they are, that I'm not going to succumb to this shit.
The whole point of what I was saying, and how it relates to the keys of the kingdom quote - I was freaking 21 years old! I didn't know what the hell I was talking about or what I was doing. I was just sort of acting on what I thought was my best interest. When you have that amount of pressure put on you at such a young age, often it takes a lot of work to humble yourself, and realize, "What do kids even want to hear from Say Anything?" I'm lucky enough that all our fans, or most of our fans, stuck with us for In Defense and came to our shows to sing the words, but it was almost like testing them. Did everyone past the test? Can you get through 30 dark songs about society and my bi-polar and my relationships and how they all react together, by the end of the record there's not even a real resolution to the story, except "You never know what's going to happen." It's like watching a dark, dense indie movie that is informative and good. You may say you like it, but you're not going to put it on [as much]. The new record, I can compare to like any real good Spielberg movie compared to that. This is a movie I'm going to put on to be in a good mood...there was so much cerebral thinking that went into the last record. This one - straight from the heart. I didn't feel the need to justify anything. I just wanted to put out my feelings, my thoughts about my life and how it has evolved. Thank god, since my life has gone in a positive direction, you know, good music reflected it.
Essentially, the instrumentation just followed the way that you felt.
Exactly. If people listen enough, the music is more complex. The guitar parts - there's weird time changes. I've definitely matured musically on this record. Compared to In Defense, it was a little sloppier, even though it was cool...In terms of the popiness, the songs on there - it relates to the idea of an accessible mentality, of being an accessible person and not being afraid of people, instead of putting people off. As a society, we are trained to build walls around each other. I think that within this, the one thing I can take from people looking up to me in this "scene" or whatever, is having the privilege of being an influence in some way. [That positive nature] is starting to dissipate. Kids on message boards. Kids on AP.net and stuff. [There is a] shift from being really eager and wanting to discuss music and being a music journalist in their own right to [this shift in negativity]. It's the same thing amongst fans of my band. I want kids to know that it is not okay to be mean to each other and to build walls. [It's not okay] to say, "Screw you!" because you live your life a certain way. I think everyone within the realm of what you are doing, has to express their opinion of what you are doing. I see that on AP.net, that people are trying to keep [that eager thought process and discovery], and I have to do the same thing with my music. Honestly, if I become this bitter, weird guy who seems unapproachable and is throwing his middle finger up to hipsters as a collective, which doesn't even exist, or emo as a collective, which doesn't really exist, it's just like a cliche.
So do you think writing a song like "Admit It!" was a bad move on your part, or was it that you were just young?
I don't think it was a bad mood. By writing it, as an artist, I have had this obligation to follow it up. I see all my work as a collective. If you were to just end that record and assume that he's saying that a new generation of bohemian, "hipsterism" is just bullshit, screw it, it's evil - forget about it. I'd like to think that [In Defense of the Genre] sort of explained that it isn't about what some people might call hipsters or what people deem as being emo. Especially with this record, it's just about being mean and jaded. That's what I intended when I wrote ["Admit It!"], I didn't want to end a movement - end hipsterism in Brooklyn - I just wanted it to be said that some of these people - and those were the people I was dealing with at the time - were really mean and condescending. That's not fair, and no one should be treated like that. I think the [albums] that came after [...is a Real Boy] sort of explained that in a way. We don't get those questions anymore like, "You're that really anti-hipster band?" There are bands like that, but that's not really us. We're just this really neurotic mess of opinions and people who come together because they're weird. It's once you commit to interacting with any public through your art, you have to constantly - especially pop, any form of pop - you are constantly making statements. If you don't think you are - you don't think you do to some degree - then you are just being a schmuck. I see it as the opposite of having an ego...I just see it so much amongst older bands, especially ones that used to have such younger audiences and now think they are a grown-up band, but they are still around the same age group of the kids who used to listen to them. Now they think they're Radiohead. It's like, dude, don't condescend to your audience that you don't care about them...
[At this point a fan walks up and asks Bemis to sign a CD. Without hesitation he does.]
I live my life sometimes to the extreme to try and humble myself.
You just signed that kids CD. You weren't like, "Hey, I'm in the middle of an interview" and blew him off. Is that something that you feel...well, you keep saying "scene," but this genre of music...
This approximate genre. I'm very proud that people stopped caring as much, and the lines kind of went down and there was this backlash against[listening to certain music] like five years ago. Now people are like, "I like what I like." They're open minded. Some kid will listen to Mew and then listen to All Time Low without batting an eyelash. That's how it should be, [there are just these associations and certain lumps of bands out there].
Do you feel with the self-titled, this is the definitive spot of Say Anything, or is tomorrow a new day?
The best way to phrase it is kind of "defining a band," and then you look at an artist - a true painter - and he may have a work that is his seminal work, and everything else...like Michael Jackson. Looking back on an album like Bad, your mind automatically compares it to that. Like Weezer's first album or Green Day's Dookie. Even though they made American Idiot like ten years later, and it is seen as some of their most seminal work, they've grown in leaps and bounds and left and right, and there were three albums between [American Idiot and Dookie]...That's the way I see this record - I predict - but no one really knows. I can't tell people that it has to be this record, it could be ...is a Real Boy in the end. I think it is this record. I think time will tell, and so far that's how it is looking. ...is a Real Boy seems to me like that older record that will always have that amount of credibility no matter how big a band gets, this is the record, if you want to show you are a hardcore fan, five years down the line, you will know all the words to ...is a Real Boy, and you will hold it up on the pedestal...But it isn't, to me, that record that breaks through and [have] your mind go back to that record. That's why this is the self-titled record, because when we were writing the songs, it seems to me this is what Say Anything was trying to do the whole time. Since we are pretty young, and tend to be a band for a long time, god willing, we hope that this will be that for people in the future. If we decide to do a stripped down record in ten years, we hope people will be like, "This is quieter than the self-titled," or if we continue to grow in this direction, people may say, "Oh, this is better this way than on the self-titled." To me, this is the record that will automatically pop into people's heads to compare us to. In the same way, not to compare us to such a huge, amazing band, for Green Day, American Idiot, although it helped them, for me, as a huge Green Day fan, and they're still one of my favorite bands, Dookie is the vanilla, and everything else has a bit of topping and icing...when I strip it all down, I hear Dookie. To me, that's why this record - something about it when we were writing and recording it - we were like, "This is what we've been trying to do since we were fourteen!"
Have any last words for the haters?
It's funny, I've always wanted to - and maybe we'll do this in the future - I really don't like saying negative things publicly, whether it's people talking about my band or people in other bands, so towards the haters right now, no. Just keep doing your thing. Serve your function. Maybe one day I'll get to you. We'll do a special interview where I let out all my inner anger. For now, I just want to say thank you so much for everyone on Absolutepunk.net, because it's been [that site] who has been so supportive of this record. Everything I've wanted to happen with this record, has happened so far, because everyone has been so vocal and positive with [it], so thank you.
If I ever got to ask him a question, it would be "Why won't you mix up your set-list each show or at least every once in a while?" How can it be fun to play the same exact songs every night for an entire tour.
Note: I know he added like 3 song changes once the new album came out but still. I would see SA MULTIPLE times if he played different songs. I know it's unreasonable to compare him to Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam, but I've seen Springsteen 8 times this tour, and every time I've heard a plethora of different songs. Makes for a unique show every single time and new level of excitement when attending the next one.