When I first received Say Anything’s Is A Real Boy from Doghouse Records almost ten years ago, it was perhaps one of the most unexpected surprises of career as a music writer. Say Anything brainchild Max Bemis possessed a sound that put him immediately in league with legendary and heroic bands like Queen and distanced him from 99 percent of their Warped Tour “contemporaries.”
And I wasn’t the only one blown away. Fans and critics alike embraced 2003’s …Is a Real Boy. The album established Bemis as a song-writing powerhouse who pours his sardonic sense of humor into every awkwardly autobiographical lyric. Over the course of his career, Bemis’ attention to detail has yielded wildly successful outings, including 2007’s In Defense of the Genre and 2009’s self-titled effort. Most recently the band returned to producer Tim O’Heir and walked away with Anarchy My Dear, a triumphant record that offered fist pumping anthems, and more of the personal and introspective narrative we’ve come to expect from Bemis.
Ghettoblaster caught up with Bemis as he prepared for a fall run in support of their most recent record (dates are below). The lyricist who charmed me with his wit, humor and honesty on record is every bit as open and charming over the phone. Here’s what he had to say about the 10-year anniversary of Is A Real Boy, Freddy Mercury, the mental illness that sidelined the band in 2005, God, and becoming a dad.
I think we have a friend in common. I mentioned that I’d be talking to you and he wanted me to ask you about singing on his record. You sang on the Nightbeast record right?
Nightbeast ofcourse. Yeah. I love Nightbeast. Great guy.
The 10 year anniversary of Is A Real Boy is coming up. Do you have any plans for special performances or reissues related to that?
Definitely. We definitely plan on doing a tour, playing the record front to back. I’m not sure about reissues at this point. We will be doing some shows though if not a whole tour.
I actually got that record from Doghouse a lot of years ago while I was doing a zine and was immediately struck by the ambitious nature of it…
Wow, thank you.
A lot of the press was saying that this is the new indie Bob Dylan, but that never quite resonated with me. To me you were more of a David Bowie or Freddy Mercury type personality.
Wow, thank you so much. That is way cooler to me. I love that.
Do you identify with either of those personalities or someone else entirely?
Oh totally. Bowie a little less than Freddy Mercury, but I definitely feel like I have the need to be odd and off putting and eclectic. I really admire his dedication to music in general.
Freddy Mercury I think I could identify with a little more, because…First of all he’s one of my favorite musicians. Second of all, there is a sense of not taking yourself that seriously, but then being overwhelmed with the drama of a certain song. He put that into his performance, both live and on record. That is something that I’m always at least trying to do is being aware of that influence of pomposity of the nature of the music and performance without losing the joy for that same pomposity. Do you know what I mean? It is humbling.
There are a lot of subtleties in the production of your music, for instance the part in “Crush’d” where you mention playing guitar and the guitar is pushed up in the mix. That attention to detail isn’t typical for a lot of other bands. Is this something you are focused on, or do your producers guide that?
Not to pat myself on the back in any way, but that is me to a fault. Every producer that I’ve ever worked with has gotten to the point where they told me, “Dude, chill out. You don’t need to worry about this one tiny chord change or perfecting the double. The mix is always brutal because I will move things the tiniest decimal point up and down. I think producers always play the opposite role and tell me to cut loose a little more, which is honestly a struggle of mine in general.
Without getting too personal, the band was sidelined in 2005, and I’m wondering if you thought Say Anything was a wrap at that point?
No, I never really felt that way to be honest. Maybe certain people who were working with me, or the press, or my loved ones might have felt like, “Oh shit, he’s off the deep end. This is over. He needs to get his shit together.” In my crazy world, I was always just trying to get to the next step. I never once thought my life was over.
That’s partially the nature of the mental sickness that I was dealing with. It wasn’t a lack of ambition, it was the opposite problem. I was like, “I’m going to do everything!” By the time I sort of got myself together, and everyone saw that it was something that I was capable of dealing with, they were willing to move on and ask what’s next. No one really cares anymore, but at the time and for a few years after, the story was about how Say Anything almost kicked it. But I was like, “OK, I’m crazy.” I wasn’t really like, “This is the end of my professional life.”
Because Coby has been with you from the beginning he had something invested there too. How did he handle all of that?
At the beginning not amazingly. No one did. Things have come into the light, only really in the last few years, about what bipolar is. My parents, Coby, my girlfriend at the time didn’t understand it. So people were pissed to some degree and didn’t really get that I couldn’t help a lot of it.
Now, I feel like over time people have been very patient and understanding, and there have been times when Coby, especially when he realized what was wrong, when he became really good at dealing with it. He became very supportive, would call me at the hospital and stuff like that.
At first it was just a really confusing thing so no one really dealt with it well. People weren’t sure what was going on. Then I got diagnosed and people started really taking the journey with me and trying to understand, with me, how to deal with this. I feel like if it happened now, people would just be like, “Alright, let’s get him in the car. Let’s put him away and in three months we’ll be back on tour.” At this point it is a cliché. Everyone knows that I am this way.
Do think people underwrite that part of your experience as a human being because you’re a musician?
Um no, not really. I find the opposite. In some ways it has come to define my “persona.” That really never went away, and I don’t think it ever will. “Crazy Max Bemis. He’s crazy. He’s messed up.” I haven’t had any kind of breakdown or bipolar issue in years and years and years. Even if I had, it is just a small part of…But, no, I never felt like being a musician disregarded that fact that I’m a guy dealing with an issue. But put all together in one package I became stereotyped. What’s the term? Typecast.
Amongst our true fans, and even the media, things have backed down. Sometimes I’ll read something mean in Entertainment Weekly, a publication that clearly doesn’t know much about us, and the tagline is like, “Bipolar frontman comes out with new, neurosis filled offering.” It’s like, “OK, I’m just the bipolar frontman?” I’m many things, so yeah.
For fans I don’t think you are that at all…
For fans it is very incidental. It is part of the package, but it is rarely brought up. Even amongst most people I know, and most publications, we talk about it once in a while, but it isn’t harped on. It is harped on when people aren’t familiar with me as a person, or a band, or who don’t know what our music is like.
You are probably far enough out from the release of Anarchy My Dear to answer this…what’s your favorite Say Anything record personally and why?
At this point, uh, I almost have two answers. I enjoy listening to Anarchy My Dear the most, and it is the most recent record. I also feel like it is the best record we’ve ever made. But my favorite is Is A Real Boy just because it is all the social factors, what it did for my career, where I was at when I wrote it, and how much the writing and recording experiences were life altering. It was an adventure. I hear that every time I listen to it, and I hear how much it made a difference in people’s lives.
So my favorite, not to listen to, but to champion and put out there is Is A Real Boy. But to listen to, I’d pick the last one because I think it is much better than Is A Real Boy technically. It is potentially possible that nothing will top Is A Real Boy in the way that we’re talking about it.
Over the course of your career you’ve touched on a lot of Judeo-Christian themes. Where are you at with God these days?
To be honest it is a very complex, metaphysical view of things and yet also the most simplified one. I basically just believe that all existence and realities and personalities and nature is all just one being. One giant thing where everything is interconnected and I am humbled before it. You can call it God if you want to.
But I believe everything began as a positive life force that unites everything. And a lot of my particular “religious” values happen to be Christian. I am very open to all religions and faiths, as well as some atheistic views. I try not to build a box around myself spiritually in any way.
Sherri has been a muse for you ofcourse during the last few records without a doubt, but you actually worked with her as a musician in Perma. Did that create any friction for you as a couple?
No, God no. The reason we did it was because it allowed us to spend more time together and to do something we enjoy together. I’m sure there will be at some point, but we haven’t experienced any stress yet. It has all been positive.
In a couple months you will meet your daughter for the first time, are you nervous for that?
I’m not nervous yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ll be nervous. I’m just super excited. As it gets closer I think I’ll be fixated on it, counting down the days even though I don’t really know what day it is going to happen. So no, I don’t feel nervous.
There are parts of me wondering how my life will change, but I’m prepared to take on whatever happens. It is just ambiguous in a certain way. “What’s it going to be like?” Obviously I have no idea at this point except for what people tell me and that’s all bull. But I don’t feel nervous, more inquisitive and excited.
(Catch Say Anything this fall at one of these dates:
|10/04/2012||House of Blues||Anaheim, CA *^#|
|10/05/2012||Rialto Theatre||Tucson, AZ *^#|
|10/06/2012||Sunshine Theatre||Albuquerque, NM *^#|
|10/07/2012||Aggie Theatre||Fort Collins, CO ^#|
|10/09/2012||The Beaumont Club||Kansas City, MO *^#|
|10/10/2012||Wooly’s||Des Moines, IA *^#|
|10/11/2012||The Rave||Milwaukee, WI ^#|
|10/12/2012||Durty Nellies||Palatine, IL ^#|
|10/13/2012||The Intersection||Grand Rapids, MI *^#|
|10/14/2012||Newport Music Hall||Columbus, OH *^|
|10/16/2012||Lost Horizon||Syracuse, NY *^#|
|10/17/2012||Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel||Providence, RI *^#|
|10/18/2012||Chameleon||Lancaster, PA *^#|
|10/19/2012||Starland Ballroom||Sayreville, NJ *^#|
|10/20/2012||Paramount Theatre||Huntington, NY *^|
|10/21/2012||The Fillmore-Silver Spring||Silver Spring, MD *^#|
|10/23/2012||Exit/In||Nashville, TN *^|
|10/24/2012||40 Watt Club||Athens, GA *^#|
|10/25/2012||American Legion Hall Post 33||Pensacola, FL *^#|
|10/26/2012||Voodoo Music Experience||New Orleans|
|10/27/2012||Ridglea Theater||Fort Worth, TX *+#|
|10/28/2012||Korova||San Antonio, TX *+#|
* with Murder By Death ^ with The Sidekicks # with Tallhart + with Merriment)