Rank Your Records: Say Anything's Max Bemis Explains Why '...Is a Real Boy' Is His Best Album
Welcome to the first installment of Rank Your Records, in which some of our favorite artists, uh, rank their records.
Photo by Neil Visel
Earlier this year, Max Bemis told us about how he's happy to be happy again. That's quite the accomplishment, considering the Say Anything frontman has spent the past 15 years putting every single personal struggle he's had—mental health, relationships, and more—willingly on blast. Quite literally, he's been saying anything. (Sorry.) But with his newest record, Hebrews, he finally feels like he's back on track—mentally, musically, and spiritually. And we're happy for him.
For the past month, Bemis has been touring with Saves The Day, his favorite band of all time. The two groups are performing their seminal albums—Say Anything's ...Is A Real Boy and Saves The Day's Through Being Cool—in their entirety. Tonight they play their second night to a sold-out crowd at Irving Plaza.
With all of this in mind—a blend of looking forward while celebrating the past—we thought Max would want to take a peek back at his career for our first installment of Rank Your Records, which is a new series on Noisey in which artists, uh, rank their records. This is what he had to say.
5. Anarchy, My Dear
Noisey: Let’s start with Anarchy, My Dear. What about that record makes it your least favorite?
Max Bemis: To me, there are a couple reasons. One is the experience I had writing it. It’s basically the only time I’ve had an existential crisis about being a musician—whether or not I wanted to do it, a quarter-life crisis. It happened when we left the major label system. During that time I started writing our next record. There was this sense of, “Is this good enough? Are labels going to like this? Are people going to like this? Can I continue being in a band?” And that was enough to taint the overall experience of writing the record.
It seems like at that time the genre of music you were doing was in its weirdest—just before the so-called “emo-revival.”
Yeah. It was released right before that happened. I never thought of it that way, but I was very confused as to what to do because what I was listening to at the time were the first real rock and roll indie rock bands. Japandroids came out around then and changed my life. Surfer Blood. Cloud Nothings. So I was like, okay there’s some of this out there but it feels like a losing battle to be in a band like mine. I don’t want to discount my audience—I knew they would still be there and it would be meaningful—but I’ve always really tried to care a lot about every record and challenging myself musically. So I think this record was confused in its intention. And there’s a part of me that thinks, and this is completely egotistical to say this, but it’s a little under-appreciated. It’s a concept record about anarchy because I’m an anarchist, and because so many of the songs are speaking about that through the perspective of a love song or a break up song, it didn’t click with as many people as I wish it did. If I were to make the record now I’d be more overt about the socio-political aspect. Because I get people’s reactions: “This is supposed to be a punk record but it’s all love songs?” It’s not that it went over people’s heads; it was probably just more poorly executed. [Laughs.]
4. Say Anything
Let’s move onto the Self-Titled. How’re you feeling about that one?
I love that record. The reason that I think it’s better than Anarchy is I think it’s produced immaculately. Neil Avron is like a maverick of a producer. And I always had a career trajectory in my mind—like a Choose Your Own Adventure. So one of the things we wanted to do was make a big sounding crossover modern rock record with a big producer and a big mixer. Not because I wanted to make a lot of money doing so, but because some of my favorite records of all time were that trajectory. When you look at even bands like Jawbreaker or Superdrag or The Smoking Popes, they failed. And then bands like Green Day who did it suddenly became the biggest band in the world. So I knew it was something I wanted to do, big stadium rock record that sounds like one. And I can still listen to it because I had no hand in how good it sounds. Clearly people much more talented than me. And it’s very ambitious, and another good element of it was it was the first record when I got my life back together. It chronicles the early parts of my relationship with my wife.
The first part of a relationship is so good. It’s really cool you have a record documenting that time.
Exactly. And I love that. But if I were to be critical of the record, it was a little bit too jarring of a change for people that wanted to hear a more raw product from a raw individual. Right now I wouldn’t change any of these factors on any of these records, but again if I were to make a huge commercial Say Anything record—which will never happen again I’ll say on record—I think it’d be a little different because my life experience has varied a lot more. It’s no longer just “oh I’m this drug addicted bipolar crazy man” versus “oh I’m the squeaky clean romantic.” Now there are both elements of myself. So it’s not that I’m imputing the romanticism or the production, it’s just subjectively comparing them to my other records it’s more one-note for that reason. It’s great for what it is, but at the same time I don’t think a Say Anything fan can always put on that record only to encapsulate what they feel at all times.
3. In Defense of the Genre
Let’s talk about In Defense of the Genre.
I love In Defense. There are so many songs—there are songs on that record I haven’t heard since we recorded it. I’ll be on a flight bored out of my mind thinking about what we’re doing as a band or thinking of a setlist, and I’ll discover songs on that record where I forget I even used a guitar sound. So it’s an exciting record to actually listen to and remember and think about the people that contributed. It was a very long process making it but also really positive. We just spent basically four to five months tinkering and adding and adding. I’ve been in a beautiful loving relationship for years, but there’s still something to be said about a good break up record. And I think if anything it’s that.
I remember when it came out. I had this feeling like, whoa, this is really something.
Yeah, it’s certainly “something,” I’ll give it that. [Laughs.] I was really inspired by certain records I was listening to. It was a lot of Sunny Day Real Estate and Trail of Dead. Basically these bands that would write tragic love songs and tie it into politics and spirituality. So I wanted to explore the idea of, “why do relationships fail in modern society?” I tracked it by dissecting my relationship that was failing at the time. And I think we did that. We definitely could have gone a very different direction after ...Is A Real Boy, like either pop success or the next cool indie rock band. We didn’t have the emo reputation that we did then. People were like, “Oh, this is a weird rock record,” and it was less marginalized than it is now. So by naming the record “In Defense of the Genre” and having emo person in the world sing on it, I think I now—even though it completely altered the course of our career and a lot of challenges because of it, especially now with the climate of music and people admitting those things are good—I back it. I’ve doubted it many times but I never regretted it. In retrospect I’m really glad we chose to be truthful.
That record came out just when I was in college and indie rock was having its revival. Nothing was cooler than, like, Arcade Fire.
Oh yeah, it was a complete knee-jerk reaction over to that. I love all that stuff—went to Sarah Lawrence, lived in Brooklyn, did all that. And I love Arcade Fire, and again I’m the person who ends up with his foot in his mouth, but Arcade Fire will never touch Saves The Day. Because as much as I love Arcade Fire and think they’re geniuses, there’s a certain emotionality missing for me. And that’s just me. For me it’s those emo bands and it’s never changed, so I felt like someone had to draw a line in the sand and essentially it was as close as you could get to the reaction grunge had when it became corny and people were like “grunge is the corniest thing in the world!” So I had to be like “no, grunge/emo is pretty good!” But on the bad tip, it’s super long, super dense, too long. Almost objectively too long even though I’m glad it’s long. I think if I were to remake it now, I wouldn’t take for granted so much the success we had with ...Is a Real Boy, and would’ve been less reactionary and embraced that we had this cool opportunity. I didn’t need to necessarily make a double record that seemed political. It wasn’t a 180, but it wasn’t the type of record you’d think we’d make next. I think that’s awesome, but if it were me now, a 30-year-old guy, I don’t know if I’d feel as compelled to make a grand statement with the second one to alter the course of the band.
And that’s a big thing to do. [Laughs.]
It was, and again I have no regrets. With my tastes now, there could be a lot said about following a different path after ...Is a Real Boy, which brings me to Hebrews, which is what I feel like I did with this record.
Let’s talk about it. So Hebrews is your most recent album. Is that playing into your ranking? You haven’t had that much time to sit with it.
No. I considered putting In Defense second and this third, but I think I’m far away from it enough now. Because I don’t listen to it, and a lot of it is gauging reactions from people, which feeds into everything I’ve said about these other records. I feel so entwined with my fanbase sometimes—not haters or shit talkers—but the actual fans casual and hardcore, they pick up on things in records, and they pick up on sincerity and clear-headedness. People have been picking up on this record in that way. It’s not like it sold a million copies or we’re on the radio or something, but I feel very understood.
I feel like as a person it’s like I went to a really good therapy session where the doctor completely understood everything I was saying and they made me feel better about myself. And that hasn’t happened since ...Is a Real Boy. There have been all these conflicting emotions after every record with the reaction being apart of it. Even with In Defense, there was this whole discussion because it was anticipated, and with this there was less anticipation because we’d been a band for 15 years, like “Here’s another record; let’s see what’s good.” The reaction has made it so pleasant—at shows and from the media, it’s been very rewarding and namely because it’s the first record I made where I was the band. It’s always been unofficially like that, and that’s been a source of tension. Good tension and bad tension. Essentially, I was the conductor on the record. I didn’t play many of the instruments, I just wrote all the parts when most of them were being tracked and gave suggestions. So there’s this nice mix—so much came from my heart. I produced the record and it’s completely distilled my vision. And the fact people reacted well, that was such an affirming thing. It’s been a rebirth, frankly for me.
It sounds like a comfortable “return to form,” even though that’s a stupid thing to say.
Yeah, definitely. That’s what’s cool about this one, is that aesthetically it’s so far off from anything we’ve done. But like you said, you can have a return to form record that sounds nothing like your other records as long as you yourself feel like you’re returning to what you love about being in a band. With this one, Equal Vision, our label, was like “Here’s a good amount of money, do whatever you want. Let us hear a couple songs so we know you’re not going nuts and beyond that do what you want.” And they trusted the idea from the beginning about the strings, which is a lot for a label to do. And also just the subject manner and the perspective I was writing from when I wrote it. I’m happiest as a person with who I am right now, but there’s more conversational angst in my mind than there was five years ago.
So for Self-Titled and Anarchy, I was living in this bubble for a while, like I had just gotten married and refound spirituality, and there was no challenge. I don’t think that makes for bad songwriting, but you can’t deny having a kid really develops you as a person. And it developed me into a more interesting person to sing about. I forget what it was, but I was watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or and was like, “I think this is what I have to offer too.” And I looked back on my entire career and thought about which songs resonated the most with people, and it’s the ones that are really uncomfortable where there’s some joy but also self-deprecating. And then I knew exactly what type of record I had to make, and I knew what kind of record I wanted to continue making. So I wrote this record about being Jewish and living in an imperialist country and being a dad. It’s definitely something that makes me laugh on occasion listening to it, and that’s good because I don’t like taking myself as seriously. And I enjoy it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve written, and like every band thinks that about every record they put out.
1. ...Is A Real Boy
So then let’s talk about ...Is a Real Boy. You wrote it at 19. You mentioned being uncomfortable listening to it at times, but you’re ranking it number one.
Oh yeah. I can very very seldom listen to it. I almost want to start on the bad with this one because it’s such an obvious choice for number one. In terms of bad, I hate my voice at the time. I think it’s great for what it is, but I can’t listen to it now because it was over ten years ago and I remember being so perfectionist about it that I would not even do less than four takes for each vocal part. I would sit there with the producer, and we would just take everything apart. I needed it to be just perfect, or what I thought was perfect at the time. So it’s like I can still remember each word I took from a different take, and how frustrating certain lines were trying to get it perfect. There was so much on that record, like I’m a die hard music fan and was even more obsessed at that time, and I knew it would be our first official record. So it drove me literally crazy and consumed my life.
I sacrificed so much—quite the few emotions, body parts. And I can hear that and it’s uncomfortable. That being said, I think it’s number one is because I don’t think when people say they like it, that it’s just nostalgia. I think there’s a part of it that’s nostalgia, which is cool, because I have that for all my favorite records. But for me, I’m a 30-year-old, average, semi-hipster. Literally, I’m probably the Noisey target demographic. But my favorite record of all time is Saves The Day’s Through Being Cool. And I refuse, no matter what phase of liking something new that I go through, I refuse to change it. Not because of political reasons, but because no matter what, I actually like it more than any new band I get into. I look at ...Is A Real Boy in the same way. A lot of people that appreciate it aren’t just doing it because it’s our first record or to annoy me, I think they’re doing it because it really is kind of our best record.
I was completely unaffected, we had never toured as a band, and it would take me losing my mind again to be able to produce something like it. It was probably the only time in my life I was willing to lose everything just to create this piece of art. And I abandoned that mindset because that’s how you end up dead at 27. If I kept trying to make ...Is A Real Boys, I don’t know, man. It’s very creative; it connects very well. I love “Admit It,” I’m still proud that song was one of the first songs, and I still don’t that many that acknowledge the whole facade of indie rock. That was before it became funny to make fun of hipsters. So I’m very proud of those things even though in my own mind it’s juvenile and there are a million better records by a million better bands. After the affirmation of fans or friends or other bands saying, “Dude, this album means a lot to me,” I’ve been able to be like, “I see where you’re going.” It really has convinced me that it’s our best record.
Eric Sundermann can't get laid in this town without these pointy fucking shoes. He's on Twitter.