Crystal Kirby

Max Bemis on Looking Inward at Say Anything’s Emo(tional) Intrigue

Over half a million listeners across streaming services prior to the new album dropping, which is one month away; upon the release, that listener count will be skyrocketing, because what a journey the album is.

When Max Bemis called it quits for Say Anything in 2019, fans were positive that one of the ultimate emo acts had officially finished. The songs that defined their youth had come to an end.

In a surprising twist, 2023 saw the return of the band at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City – the first Say Anything show in four years. In our review of the concert we raved about the band’s performance and massive comeback. While it was exciting for sure, it didn’t necessarily mean a new album was imminent. It could have just been a momentary return with a song and a concert. 

Fast forward to today. The long-awaited record has been announced and is exactly one month from being out in the world.

Say Anything …Is Committed. No, they really are! That’s the name of their new record that releases on May 24 and will mark the real return of the band. They are not on hiatus. They are not playing shows intermittently. They are back – full time and forever. 

The band is also set to play their breakthrough album, …is a Real Boy, across the United States throughout the rest of spring. (We cannot believe it’s been 20 years since the release of this album – one that was so pivotal to the scene.) This run of dates sees Say Anything making a stop in Philly at The Fillmore Philadelphia on May 4, NYC on May 10 at the Brooklyn Paramount, and a New Jersey stop at the Wellmont Theater on May 11.With so many opportunities to see this perfect album front to back, there’s no excuse for missing it. Maybe a few songs from the forthcoming record will be performed live, as well – who knows?

The following interview with Max Bemis is one of our favorites and adds to our collection of conversations with him. We had an incredible chat in support of the new record, and like Bemis himself, we are excited for fans to hear what this return has in store. 

First question: …Is Committed, the new Say Anything record, drops on May 24. What is going through your head?

I feel very proud of it. I’m thankful it’s over. I was just sending it to the Say Anything drummer from Oliver Appropriate, which was our record that we did right before we broke up. I mean, literally, we broke up right before it came out as the tour was being planned for it. It’s been three years talking about making the record. It took three years to make. I produced it with Brad Wood (who has been working with me since our second record). When I say it’s been three years, I have to add it’s been seven since the last one – since he was working with me. I had been doing this since I was 19 or 20, and even before that, and we were very much in that cycle of every two or three years of making an album, going on tour, blah blah blah. The normal for me was this conversation (or some version of it). This is the first official interview for the record, so it’s been a minute since I’ve had this kind of conversation about a Say Anything album. 

I’m honored to be the first back! That’s exciting. Of course one of the big reasons for taking this hiatus was the relentless level of touring. You’ve played a few shows since coming back Bowery Ballroom, Riot Fest, When We Were Young. How are you feeling now, since getting your feet back in the water?

God, it’s so different. You know what’s funny? It was relentless. We did a tour, which that was the last domestic tour we did before the band broke up, and we played our first three albums over the course of three nights. That’s not that bad for most bands, but because In Defense Of The Genre is a tour disc-er, it was intense. I lost my voice. I got sick. I was just brutalized to the point where I started to think, “If I had an office job, if I was an insurance salesman, and I came into the office [with no voice], they’d be like, ‘Go home! Get some fucking rest! What’s wrong with you?'” But in a band, they’ll shoot you with bee pollen in the neck and say, “Get on stage!” It’s very odd what they make you do. I’m a bipolar guy with a family who is already stuck with a bunch of issues and they’re like “Get him on stage!” I don’t blame these people. [The people I work with] are still some of my best friends, because this is ‘normal.’ For most people, that’s fine. They get through it. For me, I operate like the average neurotic person; I can deal with touring all year, but when things get in the way that are hard for a normal person, or any bipolar person especially, I’m not the best at dealing with it. I think that was more the issue. 

Touring had slowed down for everyone, even before COVID. We’re a band that had been touring for 10 years or longer at that point. We were doing a pretty healthy touring schedule. It wasn’t like when we were 22 and always on the road. It was just… I went through a midlife crisis. It wasn’t so much the rigor of touring all the time or that constant thing I was talking about, it was more my emotional connection to Say Anything and reexamining it. It had been on autopilot since I was 15. The band started when I was 15 in high school in 2000. At first it was just a band I was in, but I don’t do anything like that. If I start a band, I start thinking about what it means, and myself changes to suit it. It’s a whole cerebral thing. It had been evolving as its own beast since I was 15, and how that crossed paths with me at 35 and having had three kids… it became detrimental. “This can’t go on or I’m not going to be a good dad.” That became more important. I could only bring it back when it felt I could handle the beast. It had to serve a healthy purpose in my life.

When I did write “PSYCHE!” I needed to write the song for my own mental health. That’s when I was like, “Ok, this can be a healthy outlet.”

I love to hear that, and about your mindset going into this. It has ti be tough because of all the mental factors that contributed to stepping away – the depression, bipolar disorder. Right after you broke up Say Anything, it was 2020 and COVID happened. What was your headspace then. being trapped inside immediately after disbanding the band ? 

Not good [Laughs]! I’m glad you mentioned it because not everyone makes that connection of how close [the breakup was] to both COVID – and it overlapped with Trump. To me, that was the more influential factor in my state. Trump is why it almost broke up, then COVID happened and the things that were once freeing about not being in Say Anything became a prison. I don’t mind not traveling. I’m a home-body. I like sitting and reading comic books. I put the band on pause to write comic books. Then, for instance, if I’m pausing this to become a writer, the entire entertainment industry fell apart and had to reformat itself. Streaming was a thing, but it didn’t really become what it was until COVID. Now movie theaters are almost a relic! The comic industry very much fell apart. Everyone had to go off the road.

The problem is that I’m so codependent, but I wasn’t looking for support. I wasn’t calling up people like, “Isn’t this rough?” That didn’t really start until later in the COVID times. I internalized it and was like, “Your life is over. You screwed up your life,” and all this stuff. It was rough – not because of money, not because of not having that outlet. It was about how Trump and COVID affected my family, my wife, and living in a small town in Texas. It was the first time I felt what it was like to actually live in a small town in Texas. Before? It was heaven for me as a LA/New York Jew. Then it became scary. Not because of people yelling slurs out the window, but because Christian people in Texas weirdly like Jews too much. “Oh, you’re perfect as you are! We gotta keep Israel going.” They love it. It was more how the dysfunction started to show itself. I actually became one of the more centered/functional people around me, which was new. That was my next crisis: my midlife crisis was becoming the one who kept it together. A lot of this new record talks about mental health bias and what it’s like to actually be sane, but still losing it. I was losing it on an emotional level, yet I had my marbles. 

You talk about these emotions and your headspace at that time, and it’s heard in the new record, with this return, and specifically track 11 – “WOMAN SONG.” That one is the most emotional Say Anything track you have ever produced. I wanted to give that song a special highlight and talk about it with you. 

Thank you! That means a lot! To me, that’s the most important Say Anything song I’ve ever recorded. I really appreciate you highlighting it. I recorded that song at the peak of trauma. A lot went down that I don’t mind talking about. I was falling apart. The whole album is a meta-comment on what a Say Anything record should sound like. The band broke up, got back together, and what always happens with emo bands when they break up and get back together is they make a reunion record – it’s either really different (They’re trying to be Radiohead.) or it’s a return to form so it sounds like their first few records. “Ok, this is going to sound like the ultimate Say Anything record. This is going to have every cliche. One thing we usually have is a tender acoustic song. “I Want to Know Your Plans” on …is a Real Boy is one of our most popular songs. There’s “Ahhh… Men” on our self-titled. There’s one on pretty much every Say Anything/emo record. There’s the ballad. I knew at the time it would be funny, or more so effecting – like how you described it – if it was the most emotional song we’ve ever done, and not just because it’s a tender and really sad song, but because by design it’s really uncomfortable. 

I just recorded myself. My oldest daughter, who was nine at the time, was asleep in bed in front of me. We were going through a thing where we had false CPS allegations. A lot of this record is about that. People tried to take my kids. To me, that was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I’ve seen some fucking shit. Everyone who is listening to Say Anything knows, “He’s seen shit.” Whether it’s literal or a metaphor, by listening to a Say Anything song, you’re like, “This guy has seen some fucking shit!” This was stuff that a Kansas/Ozark trailer mom had been through: having their kids trying to be taken away… sometimes when you don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s a shitty ex-husband who’s calling them on you because he wants the kids. (That is what happened to us. It was horrible.) A few days later, I sat down while my daughter was asleep. I improvised “WOMAN SONG.” I just sat there, recorded the guitar track, and made it up about her sitting in front of her as I slept. She’s so used to hearing me sleep and maybe cry that she didn’t wake up the whole time. It’s not like she was sitting there watching me do this. She was fully asleep, but there. It was the most vicarial version of the acoustic ballad that I could do. You couldn’t get more sincere – and also a parody of Dashboard [Confessional], my friends, people I admire. You picture an emo guy on stage with an acoustic guitar and you don’t think he’s going to start actually crying, thinking about his mom, and saying things that have nothing to do with it. 

I wanted it to feel like most people do when they cry; it’s a messy affair [rather] than one tear falling down. I wanted it to feel like a real emotional breakdown, because it was! That links back to everything on the record. By making a parody of a Say Anything record, it was the only reason I was able to do this in a healthy way. I needed to have this kind of experience. It was both a parody and completely serious. Everything I say on the record is kind of literal for the first time! Usually I’d be on a Say Anything record going, “I’m the Devil! I just took a shit!” People are like, “Wow! I get that metaphor. He really feels like the devil and maybe metaphorically took a shit on the floor!” But, in this situation, I was. It’s as literal and metaphorical as a Say Anything record can get.

Thank you for your honesty and for sharing that. The outro to that song is as classic as Say Anything gets. It’s the lowest low into the funny high, that true switch. 

It’s like I’m in Tenacious D – that is what being in Say Anything is like. They know what they’re doing and they love it, but they know it’s a joke. I wanted to make sure audiences knew that – they and I – were in on the joke. When they hear an eight-minute song followed by an even longer song with 12 parts, I’m not expecting them to be like “Wow, he doesn’t even know he’s doing this again?” I want to not care. About half of music critics get that, and I know the other half think that I’m some kind of bipolar fairy who just shits out this stuff and it’s a reflection of my tortured psyche. It is tortured, but it’s with the full knowledge that’s hoak-y or it has a cliche element to it. It’s just what I enjoy. It’s not just me in the band. We can fully earnestly listen to Animal Collective in the band or we can listen to the first Yellowcard EP with Ryan on it and enjoy it equally, but we know what’s funny with both of those. I wanted to make it apparent that you can sincerely love emo music and our band while also knowing it’s funny and gratuitous. You don’t have to feel bad about it, because I know.

We know you’re aware that there are sexual lyrics on every Say Anything track. You have “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” as one of your biggest songs to date. This album in particular is littered with sexual references. So much of the record includes that, like tracks, “ON CUM,” “AUTO-HARMONIC ASS FIXATION,” “SAY ANYTHING, COLLECTIVELY, MADE LOVE TO YOUR GOD,” etc. Were you conscious of embracing the campiness of this?

Yeah, I was. Given with “Wow” being our biggest song, I sent my solo project to a friend when I had finished it. He was like, “You must either think about fucking a lot or just fuck a lot because every song you write is just…” It’s true: I’m hyper-sexual. I don’t look down on it, but I’m not a sex addict. I have issues with it, but there are mostly shame related. They’re not related to a compulsive thing. I judge myself for this. I was also taught sex positivity as a kid.  It is what you’re describing. I went into this going, “What is the cliche of Say Anything?” Even “Alive With the Glory of Love” isn’t just a Holocaust love song – it’s also about fucking on a balcony while the Nazi’s watch. 

[A/N: “ON CUM” is out tomorrow, April 25!]

The opening lyric!

Yeah, exactly! You don’t think of it as much as you would with certain other bands necessarily, but it’s a huge thing. Blink-182 is one of my favorite bands. I love those guys. The one thing they don’t do that we do a bit more is integrate it. They’re obviously hyper-sexual, as well, but they express it through their humor and music videos. For us, it’s always baked into the lyrics. Even if you have a really serious song about breaking up or heartbreak, or even my Judaism or something, there would be some reference to feeling like a pervert. In this record, I tried to use it allegorically as much as I could.

“I, VIBRATOR” is on the record. Since you’re saying out loud, it’s funny to think about. Probably five out of the 12 songs… their title is sexual. All of those songs are not just about sex, and mostly not about sex. ‘I, VIBRATOR” is a song about female empowerment and misogyny. “ON CUM” is more about the band than it is about cum. It’s there on every song, because, lately, I’ve been more accepting – thanks to Gen Z, honestly. My generation is a lot more polarized and it’s really sad the way it’s affected our psychology. We’re the generation that helped #MeToo happen, which is beautiful and awesome. I always was mindful of misogyny. It’s hard to be a hyper-sexual dude when you’re disgusted by the behavior of most hyper-sexual dudes. As a loyal husband with five kids who does not cheat on my wife (Obviously, if you listen to the record I’m quite obsessed with my wife on a sexual level) I wanted to prove that you can be that and still be a good person.

Thank you! It’s refreshing to have a conversation like this. Sometimes when you interview bands they’ll give you a pre-written response. I appreciate your honesty. 

I enjoy this part of it as much, I really do. I enjoy talking about art as much as making art. There are people where it’s a pure art form. Look at film: if you sit [Robert] De Niro down to talk to him about acting as one of the best actors of all time, he’s still going to be like, “Yeah, I ate chicken that day. It was good.” He’s one of the best fucking actors! If you sit Jim Carrey down and talk to him about acting, he’s probably going to be like, “Yeah, that day I lost my sense of self and was thinking about…” It’s just a different way of approaching it. For people that are more like me, it should be encouraged. If you’re a young person on Soundcloud putting out your first stuff, oftentimes people deflate you and say, “Don’t think so hard about it. It should just be music. [Mimicking] Just feel it!” Some people process art on a cerebral level and that helps them write more. If I hadn’t thought, “Write a parody of a Say Anything record,” half the songs on this record wouldn’t even exist. You knowing anything about the record, having songs that you enjoyed, that helps me know that they did what I intended. They’re meant to be analyzed in my case. I appreciate this interview! It wasn’t just me making up that this would be understood in a room alone for a few years.