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Say Anything's Max Bemis Is Happy to Be Happy Again

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By Mischa Pearlman

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Photo by Neil Visel

It seems impossible for anyone to hate Max Bemis. The Say Anything frontman, who’s had serious struggles with mental health problems in the past, is not just incredibly nice, but witty, charming—and intelligent. He also has the most adorable little daughter, Lucy, who totters around the band’s dressing room full of amusement and curiosity while her dad sits and chats and wife Sherri DuPree-Bemis (one of the Eisley siblings) watches on. Yet Bemis has had to contend with his fair share of detractors and haters in 14 years the non-conformist LA pop-punks have been around. It’s something which experimental (and pretty damn awesome) new record Hebrews, which consists of exactly no guitars and a whole bunch of guest stars-addresses, and which Bemis is more than happy to discuss in person, too, not to mention a whole lot more.

Noisey: Let’s start with Hebrews. Tell me what it means to you, because things have happened to your life, like that little one running around over there, in the run-up to making it. So what does it represent for you?
Max Bemis: It represents a lot of different things on various levels for me. I think when it comes to the subject matter and what inspired the songs, I’ve definitely undergone a huge change recently having Lucy, my daughter. But I think I was due for a change anyway, regardless. Because I’d settled into a really comforting pattern for a while after having a really turbulent early 20s—my late 20s were very—almost scarily—calming and centered. I got to focus on different things for the last couple of records, whether it be socio-political stuff or spiritual ideas, and right around the time where I realized, ‘God, I need something cool to write about’, that happened. So I was essentially forced—no, not forced; we wanted to have a baby! But it did push me to examine myself deeply, examine how I work, examine myself psychologically and where I come from sociologically and how those two things intertwine. So in terms of the subject matter, the record asks the hard questions and really delves into the nitty gritty of things instead of just skirting the surface. Not that I think I ever did that, but this is more of that than anything else. And then in terms of how we made the record, it was the first time I’ve produced one of our records officially and it was the first time we worked more as a collective, kind of like Nine Inch Nails or Broken Social Scene where there’s all these different collaborations.

Right. Because every single song has a different person on it.
Totally. Different guest vocalists, different guest drummers. Essentially, I didn’t really play many of the instruments on the record, and it was just so freeing. That entire process was such an easy, fun way to make a record. It sounds like it’d be more difficult, but sometimes sitting in a studio and just hammering out guitar parts over and over and over again, that can actually be more tiring than arranging them on a computer and having someone else play them—someone who’s more talented than me! So it was very freeing and completely different to anything we’d ever done. So from the subject matter to how we made it, it really felt like a renewal and a rebirth in many ways.

Speaking of which, it’s called Hebrews, which is a reference to your Jewish background, yet now you’re a Christian, so that’s all come together to create…
…a hodgepodge.

Yeah. But that’s what art should be—a true reflection of life.
Exactly. And I was very comfortable with my spiritual transformation. I sort of float around between several ethos and religions and philosophies and take what I want. I learned how to do that in my mid-20s and that was very freeing. I adopted a lot of anarchist ideals. I’m definitely not the strictest anarchist in the world but my political views and my spiritual views became one and everything became clear to me in terms of how I want to look at the world. On this record, there’s a lot of references to the specifics of my culture and the specifics of how it may sound easy to have everything solved—I’m married, I have a kid and I’m seeing the world this way—but in reality, everyone has a hard time. You can’t just decide you have a happy ending or some way of looking at the world that’s going to heal you. It takes a lot more work than that. It takes a lot of self-examination and letting it go.

Right. Because one of the clichés about art, whether it’s poetry, music or whatever, is that it takes a tortured soul—or at least a troubled soul—to make it. You’ve already written about the hell of being bi-polar and having public breakdowns and now you’re coming from a place where you’re perfectly content. Yet you still have problems.
Yeah, that’s really what it was about. And I won’t lie—part of that was a kneejerk reaction. Even though there’s a lot of anger on the record directed towards people who were not happy to see me be happy, I do credit them for almost raising the question in my mind of "Are you really that together of  person?" Especially when I found out I was going to have a kid. I do think it takes… I wouldn’t say a tortured soul, I think that’s where people go wrong. You don’t have to be tortured necessarily, but there is an element of unrest in society, because I think society is pretty terrible and the world is a pretty terrible place and life can be really cruel and messed up. And so writing this record, I think I got back in touch with that part of me that’s uneasy and insecure and wounded, because you can be a happy person and not tortured but you can still be a questioning spirit and you can still have a bone to pick with yourself and the world around you.

You mentioned the people who weren’t happy that you’re happy. Why do you think that is?  
It’s simple. I know it because I do it, too. When you look at the tabloids in the supermarket and you can’t help but look over and you see Jay-Z’s pissed at Kanye at his wedding. That’s something I saw on a tabloid cover. I was like, "This is such bullshit," but then there was a small, guilty part of me that was like, "Ha ha, Kanye! Jay-Z was pissed at you at your wedding." It’s a horrible thing. I don’t dislike many people, but when people I dislike, or people from my past who have spurned me fail or don’t do well, I feel a guilty pleasure. So I think the people that don’t want me to be happy have some insecurity or something they attach to me that’s not real. It pricks them in a spot that causes them to act out about it. I know it because every human being is guilty of it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss me off. If someone still feels too damaged and they see me not as damaged, they’re pissed off by that. Or some people are. And that’s just the nature of this evolving organism that is the internet and how it’s escalated bullying. It’s the new witch hunt, kind of—let’s destroy anyone who sees success or popularity or happiness. Everyone’s looking—not everyone, but a lot of people—for a chink in the armor. I didn’t sing about it for the past couple of records because I felt it was petty, but I was all for being petty on this record!

Hence “Judas Decapitation”…
Exactly.

Do you think you’re playing into the hands of those critics by writing that?
Absolutely. Because if I was above it, I wouldn’t have even written the song. It’s kind of like how in anger management, even though I’ve never been in anger management, you hear those clichés how sometimes you’ve got to hit a pillow if you’re really that angry. You have to do something impotent and stupid to exorcize that demon. So a lot of those moments on the record, especially “Judas Decapitation”, are me just being honest about the mood I’m in or a certain part of my human condition, where I am affected by that stuff. I can usually glide around and not care about it, but I get really hurt and upset and angry and it felt really good to let out the venom. 

How do you find being in a band nowadays compared to when you started?
I think it requires more work, but it always should have required more work. There was a brief period of time around a century long when the music industry got involved and figured out how to cater to the laziness of musicians. And we are innately lazy because we’re artists. There are people who work nine to five jobs thanklessly and don’t complain about it ever, and then there’s musicians, a lot of whom are receiving these giant advances from multi-conglomerate companies and essentially getting smoke blown up their ass and they feel like they’re the new Beatles, or at least trying to achieve that. It’s a very enabling process. But it’s also dehumanizing. So I would say it’s a little harder to be in a band logistically, because you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do, you have to tour more, you have to be a musician instead of this actor, and I think that’s great. I love it. So in general, in my life, I feel like it’s easier and more fun.

I was going to say, …Is A Real Boy was a very successful record for you. How do you feel, some ten years later, about that being your commercial peak, if it turns out that’s the case?
I don’t even know. When …Is A Real Boy was happening and there was all this traction—when Rolling Stone was reviewing the record and all that—I was like, "This is cool. This is awesome." It’s not like I was one of those people who was like, "Fuck this. Screw this. Punk rock!" But I have to say where we are right now is a lot more satisfying for my soul, because it means a lot to me that any amount of kids still come see us play live, that journalists care what I think and I get to discuss my art. I think we’re in an amazing position and I hope that we kind of just float around this area. If it gets any bigger—or smaller—that’s fine, too. But the things that I care about at this point are achievable. It’s just basically continuing to write records that I put my heart into and it’ll connect to people who realize that. So as long as that’s going on, I’m totally stoked.

I imagine that success on a commercial level can, like you said, breed laziness and complacency, the attitude of "People will buy our records no matter what, so we’ll just keep churning out the same old crap." Whereas for you, this record is…
…it’s different, right?! And whether it’s good or bad, it took effort and some sense of abandon to want to challenge people and do something different. And I think that’s the way we’re going to grow our fanbase, or maintain it—not by being on the radio or by being really good looking or having some hit music video. I have to make a record with integrity and put effort into, and that really fits in with what I see as the evolution of the kind of band we want to be.

But then you guys have never conformed. You’ve always done your own thing and subverted the norm, which is obviously a very important thing.
I think that we were very lucky. We came about right after the underground resurgence of emo and stuff like that. We were after the Get Up Kids and Saves The Day and those bands that took it and made it popular, but then we were before—or around the same time—as the bands, some of whom I love, who ended up getting pigeonholed and shifted into the pop world. So we’ve had this privilege of being able to skirt this indie rock/punk rock/emo thing for a while, and we still take out all these cool bands who are eclectic and it doesn’t feel like a stretch.


Photo by Natalie Bisignano

Talking about eclectic, the guests on Hebrews are so varied. How did you even begin to orchestrate that?
It’s funny. Literally, 90% of them are people I’m just friends with, or friends with on Twitter, and we’re fans of each other’s music. There wasn’t anybody on there that I didn’t pretty much know in some way and that we didn’t have mutual respect and admiration. And that kind of shows that there is a lot of variance, because we’ve been surrounded by so many different types of band.

Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra and Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou are on it, both of whom are in very spiritual bands. So how much is this a religious record? Obviously it’s called Hebrews and it addresses your own conflicts between your upbringing and your beliefs now—but is this you working it out for yourself where you stand spiritually?
Yeah, although I think it’s more culturally based on this record, rather than examining where my spirituality is. Because I felt with our self-titled record and Anarchy, My Dear, I spelled out what I thought about the world and society, and from there everything I wrote would have that connotation. But I wasn’t so sure I wanted to keep singing about God, or what I see as God. So this one’s more about what it means to be a member of any particular culture or religion or race or gender and all the things and social constraints that are applied to you and how that messes with your psyche. But I do think anything I write has this knowledge that there’s something greater, which is what I believe, uniting everything. But I wasn’t very concerned about offending, if there is an actual God guy. I would think that if there was any spirit looking over me or the universe or existence that he would want me to be honest, as long as it had the right values inherent. Because it’s a dark record. It’s super blasphemous.

Yeah. I was going to bring up the lyrics to “Six Six Six”: “All I want is to dethrone God so I can be crucified." That’s a pretty intense line.
But it’s true. That’s how humans feel. Or at least me, sometimes. And I’m of the mind that we should acknowledge the darker aspects of our spirit, not just the ones that are "Oh, I’m so thankful." 

Because then you’ll find out who you are more. Confront what you don’t want to confront and it tells you more about yourself, even if you don’t want to hear what it tells you.
But you’re still on a path to deeper understanding of the world and how everything lines up and unites.

Tell me about the cover. That’s quite provocative as well.
Well, the guy who drew it is my friend Michael [Levin], who used to be in the band when we were in high school. Now he does fine art mostly concerning Orthodox Jews and some of those drawings had guns and stuff. I think maybe he was talking about the places where Jews have had to stand up for themselves and take up arms to defend their race. That clicked with me in a funny way—I just envisioned myself in this struggle, whether it was with myself or with people trying to impose onto me or degrade me. It’s kind of sad that me as a people and me as a person have had to defend my spirituality and my identity against greater odds for years. But it’s put me in a defensive stance for a long time, so I was thinking the guns represented the fight back against myself and anything oppressing me, and the general defensiveness I feel all the time.

That’s interesting. I interpreted it as more aggressive, as maybe a comment on Zionism and Israel.
That too. I’m definitely not a Zionist, but that whole mentality, that we have to hold onto this land because it’s all we have…

It’s a sad situation. The oppressed becomes the oppressor.
Exactly. The fact that the oppressed becomes the oppressor—unfortunately, that’s how society is trying to condition us to be, that when someone attacks your home or your person or the people close to you, you want to destroy them, instead of trying to find a middle ground to communicate. So again, the record is me realizing that and realizing that I’m this total ball of neuroses because of that.

But presumably it’s also a statement to your detractors.
Of course. It’s me and it’s them. We’re all guilty of it. I’m no better than anyone else.

So, going back to “Judas Decapitation," are you worried that by addressing the haters in the way you have done, you’re going to incite them more?
No, I’m not worried about it, but I know that’s what’s going to happen. I’m actually excited about it. It got to the point where I either had to write these angry, veiled songs about it or let it affect decisions I was making in the band, which was not cool. So I figured the most honest and playful thing I could have done was write a song like “Judas Decapitation," where I’m acknowledging both that I’m petty and they’re petty and we can sing about it and you’ll either be pissed off by the song or you’ll find it funny. I didn’t write it necessarily to win the battle. I just wanted to say how I felt about it. I’m pretty sure, in terms of the people I wrote it about, it’s probably falling on deaf ears because they don’t give a fuck to begin with. But it was fun to write about and it’s fun to sing about.    

 

Mischa Pearlman is a writer who will stand on your front lawn, holding a boombox.

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