New Strings Attached: Max Bemis of Say Anything
Say Anything is back!
For those of you not in the know, that’s Say Anything the band, not the John Cusack movie… which is the greatest movie on the planet, but that’s besides the point.
Say Anything, led by singer/songwriter Max Bemis released their fifth full-length original album title Hebrews on June 10th. We sat down with Bemis to dissect how the concept of this album, relying primarily on traditional string instruments rather than guitars, came to fruition, how having a wife and kids changes a musician’s inspiration, and why Fat Mike and Neil Diamond aren’t featured on an album titled Hebrews.
Patrick Emmel: Should I be saying good morning? Because a little bird told me that you’re a bit nocturnal?
Max Bemis: I definitely don’t go to sleep until 7 in the morning.
Patrick: So you’re still living up the rock n’ roll lifestyle?
Max: No, not at all, no.
Patrick: Then what are you doing up at night?
Max: I’m definitely not “out.” I’m just in my house, usually reading or answering emails. [Laughs] I just like the quiet aesthetic of the nighttime. Everything calms down a little bit more. And even when I actually go out, I prefer to go out at night rather than during the day.
Patrick: So I was on the right track: there may be an artistic element to being a night person.
Max: There is, I just don’t do anything that cool at night.
Patrick: And you can’t really make that much noise, with music anyway, because you’ll be waking everyone else up. Everyone else… you’re married now, with a one year-old, right?
Max: Yeah, she’s almost a year and a half old.
Patrick: Nice! How is the family life of a musician?
Max: It’s amazing, man! I’ve generally been a homebody for my whole life except for maybe a five or six-year period where I was sort of bonkers and crazy. It’s a jarring change for people who like to go out a lot or who have extensive social lives, but it just works for me in terms of the lifestyle. And actually being a dad is the best thing ever. I love hanging out with my daughter, I love her a lot, and I feel really lucky that I get to do it.
Patrick: Excellent! Do you think that being a dad and being surrounded by the happiness that comes with that has blunted your lyrical angst at all?
Max: Has it affected it? Yeah, of course! It’s funny because this is the first record I’ve written since I’ve been a dad, and half of it was written before I was a dad, but I find myself writing more what one may call “edgy material” now than when I was a teenager because I feel that I have more to say and I feel like the truth can be a little bit brutal and I’m having a hard time singing about anything but the core of what exists in society and my own life.
So if anything, I think it’s given me more of an edge than I’ve had in the past few years because I care more about life and myself because I have a responsibility that demands a spiritual centeredness and an understanding of life.
It really is a battle to better yourself to be a good father, and for the past few years, since I’ve found my place, and even during the time that I wrote …Is a Real Boy and our earlier material…I didn’t really have anything to do but be a singer, or be a songwriter, so all my music came from that vantage point. It was about that lifestyle and how I was sort of living the life that billions and billions of human beings have lived before me, and I find I’m a little bit more connected to the general imperative of human beings. You live in a bubble when you’re in a band professionally full-time, and often you forget what it’s like to have a life. So I think that has helped to center me, and grounded me and I feel that I can write about things that are a little more important.
Patrick: And now you’re more invested in the grand scheme of things because you have so much more around you…and you get to rally for a lot more causes!
Max: Exactly! It’s not just about the world being good for me and the people I know. Now I want the world to be a better place for her.
Patrick: With the progression of Say Anything and you, of course, snarling into a microphone for ten plus years, how has your voice been treating you?
Max: I enjoy singing so much more now. I feel like I’ve gotten to the place where my voice isn’t trying to be something. It just is what it is, close to my speaking voice and, when I sing, it feels more like an extension of me rather than trying to sound a certain way or pushing it.
Patrick: Considering the screaming singing style that you sometimes exhibit, does that voice ever come out in a normal day-to-day argument?
Max: [Laughs] Yeah! You know what, I do scream occasionally but I yell moreso in Say Anything. There’s a lot of yelling in a normal voice. And I guess I’ve done that before in real life. But there’s never a time where I’ve been like, “RWWWWAAAAWWWRRRRR” or anything.
Patrick: [Laughs] Fair enough, but you knew what I was getting at.
Max: Of course. That’s hilarious!
Patrick: Now when that yelling has come out in real life, do you and the person you’re yelling at, or with, ever just stop and look at each other and just start laughing because you’ve used “the voice?”
Max: No, because usually when I’m at that point of emotional instability, there’s no going back. [Laughs] It’s not like I yell often, so the only times I can think of that happening, no one could make a joke about it.
Patrick: Gotcha. They’re not laughing, they’re running for the hills! The title of the new Say Anything record, Hebrews, is very blunt. Not too many bands insert religion into a title like that. With your history of growing up Jewish and then moderately leaning towards Christianity when you got married and now think of yourself as universally spiritual while culturally Jewish, why did you go that route?
Max: There are a couple of reasons. The record is really a dissection of my psyche more than anything else. Almost like a form of therapy. I think my Jewish upbringing, and not necessarily because I was Jewish but because of what comes along with being raised religious in any respect, there are always these quirks and ingrained social behavior that you inherit not just from your parents but from the environment that you’re in. Being Jewish, one of those things that was a big part of my life and continues to be is a self-effacing quality. It’s like a self-righteousness that balances out with being self-effacing where you kind of think you’re right but you also think you’re a schmuck, so to speak. I wanted to write a record that would explain a character like Larry David or Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld, these sort of archetypal Jewish people. I wanted to write that kind of a record where it’s funny, but it’s painful, and I think that’s one of the qualities that can help describe a modern Jewish person.
But on a more universal level, I don’t think it just applies to Jewish people. Every single person has psychological damage or issues, or even positives, that are inherited from their culture or society. A lot of the subjects the record is trying to sort through [is]: “What can I change?” “What can’t I change? What’s my responsibility? What if it’s something I can’t help?” A lot of it has to do with society: the flaws of society and the good things of society. How that kind of leaks down, how it affects how we treat our loved ones and ourselves and our ability to function and give love to other people. Our last record was very must built up deriding society and identifying what I see as problems with the government and society and culture, and this [record] goes: “Okay, well if that’s the case, then how does that affect one person? What is my daily life like living in the constraints of this social machine?”
Patrick: I wasn’t expecting that you were creating the Jewish version of Creed or anything. I knew it was deeper than that, but I didn’t know how deep!
Max: [Laughs] It’s definitely not like a religious praises record for Jewish people. If anything, it’s kind of the opposite. In terms of where I’m at, I think you described it really well. I went from one end of the spectrum to the other and then decided that I wanted to just be very open-minded about everything. There are certain thoughts and thinkers that I identify with more closely than others but I think it’s completely a personal choice, and I even think atheism is a healthy choice depending on how you think about it and how you treat other people with that in mind. I love science. I just think that everyone is really searching for the same thing and finding different ways to cope with it, or even just using different spiritual language.
Patrick: Now I don’t usually go in depth on the religions of some of my favorite musicians, but I have to ask based on this record: are any of your featured vocalists also Jewish?
Max: You know… that’s a good question. I’m trying to think… I can’t think of an example of one that is Jewish, but maybe that’s just because I don’t know. The only ones I can think of, that I know what religion they are, are Christian and Atheists. I don’t think there is anyone Jewish on the record.
Patrick: So you weren’t searching through bands to gather up Jewish singers…
Max: No no, [Laughs] I wasn’t searching out Fat Mike and Neil Diamond, but that would have been cool, actually! I wish I had thought of that. But I still probably wouldn’t have done it.
Patrick: Yeah, the record sounds good just the way it is. I don’t think you need Neil Diamond on there.
Max: It’s a great concept.
Patrick: It’s funny that you bring up the word “concept.” Usually bands label a record a concept album when they don’t think fans will get a new style, but Hebrews is a concept album for real due to its symphonic composition, especially using heavy strings. What inspired you to go that route?
Max: There’s always been a symphonic concept behind all of our records except for maybe the first one. We made our first record off the cuff and just thought, “What pleases our ears? Let’s do that.” I just got to the point where I had some ideas about what I wanted to do next but were very different than what ended up happening. A friend of mine basically suggested I make an orchestral record, this funny idea, and I immediately thought, “That’s what we’re doing.” I could have abandoned it if it didn’t work, but once I sat down and started mapping out the songs and heard what it could sound like, I immediately knew it would work. I had a suspicion it would work but I had to hear it to believe it.
Patrick: Were the string parts done by actual people, or were they digitally produced?
Max: Yeah, there was someone actually playing violin, cello… Everything on the record is pretty much live, but it’s not like we were all sitting in a room with a giant string section…
Patrick: [Laughs] With this album, are there plans to tour with an entire string orchestra? Or even do one show like Portishead did at the Roseland in NYC back in the day?
Max: Yeah! I wouldn’t say a whole orchestra because that would be extremely hard to pull off, but I definitely want to do a tour sometime with at least a six-piece string section in order to play the songs on this record a little more traditionally and we’d also play old Say Anything songs with strings.
Patrick: So when does the Say Anything tour start?
Max: The tour starts in about ten or eleven days, which is crazy! Once I’m done with this, I’m going to head out and rehearse!
Patrick dared you to go Beyond Eve 6: An Interview with Max Collins.