Artists that make you think as much as Say Anything do are rare, admirable and undeniably powerful. Luckily for us, Say Anything are bringing their empowering optimist-punk to our shores this month. Killyourstereo.com spoke to mastermind Max Bemis about their Australian tour, their latest record ‘Hebrews’ and why, this time, he put down the guitar.
Hey Max, how are you?
That’s good. Your Australian tour kicks off this month. Have you guys figured out the set list yet?
We have figured out the set list, it’s kind of a combination of what we were playing on the last US tour that we did. Except that we threw in a few more songs that were kind of fan favourite songs, because we don’t get to tour Australia as much. So there’s definitely a nice mix of old and new material.
Do you have any sneak peeks that you could give us?
The songs on ‘Hebrews’ are played with just orchestral instruments and live what we’ve been doing is transposing them to guitar. So you’ll be hearing our favourite songs from ‘Hebrews’, in that manner. And then you’ll be hearing stuff from pretty much all the records.
You guys have toured here before. Do you find the reception different from American audiences?
Wow, that’s a good question. It’s the same sort of shows you get when you haven’t been to anywhere for a really long time. You know, whether that’s the UK or even like a really weird [place] in the US that we never get to go. There’s a certain energy that people bring to the shows and that definitely inspires us and kind of helps make the shows even more special. Sometimes! You know, not to downplay how cool it is to come back to places we play all the time, but there’s definitely a different energy in that no one’s ever heard half of these songs live.
You’re also bringing out Chris from Saves the Day. Do you think that any Two Tongues tunes will pop up in the set?
I don’t know…me and Chris are really impulsive and nutty together so it could totally happen. But as of now our plan, since we’re making a new Two Tongues record later this year, our plan is really to try to let Two Tongues be its own thing because we want go on tour and hopefully we’ll get to come to Australia even. So we kind of want to like, not spoil that element of coolness. But it’s possible, because we’re really impulsive. (Laughs.)
You also tweeted the other day that in the future that you were going to release an acoustic version of a certain LP.
I’m recording an acoustic version of ‘…Is A Real Boy’, actually! We’re selling it exclusively on our ten year anniversary tour that we’re doing in the US but I bet we’ll release it digitally at some point, but the ones in the US are going to be signed and kind of limited. It’s just kind of a special thing for the tour as of now.
What was behind the decision to do the anniversary tour for ‘…Is A Real Boy’?
I think once we got to a certain point in the band where we knew we had some kind of staying power, and that record started to shape up into being what it is, which is kind of a milestone for our career. You know, I think it would have been a little weird if we had only put out two records and broke up and then we did an anniversary tour for this record. But the fact that we’ve made a bunch of records, it makes me more excited to be able to zero in on that special connection people have with that record and that we have with the record without feeling like we’re just doing it to make money, or doing it out of desperation. Because we really did put this tour together, specifically the part about doing it with Saves the Day too, it’s really like a passion thing for me and Chris. Like as soon as we started talking about it we got super excited, and it was really us talking about it that made the tour happen. I think about five years in, we pretty much assumed it was something we would do because we had put out three records and this one still has its awesome timelessness and we should honour that.
Say Anything has obviously changed a lot since that record. How has your personal maturity affected the way that you write your music now?
It’s everything, you know Say Anything is so autobiographical in content and as a concept, it’s always revolved around me and my experiences, for better or worse. So it’s impossible that everything I’ve gone through hasn’t affected it. And you can see that spiritual growth more than anything. You can really hear it in the subject matter. You can see it in sort of the production, and my evolving taste in music.
I was going to ask about that on ‘Hebrews’, actually. The title ‘Hebrews’ and the themes on the record reflect a lot of your Jewish heritage. Do you see that as more of a spiritual or cultural influence?
It’s both! My spirituality was, to some degree, instilled in me by being raised in a Jewish environment. Since then it’s evolved tremendously and I don’t particularly identify with Judaism fully. It’s a big part of my spiritual identity but I don’t necessarily follow strict Jewish protocol. So I think that on a spiritual level, it was the foundation that I built upon and then on a cultural level, I’m pretty much a stereotypical Jew in many ways. Maybe not the stinginess, or whatever other characteristics that people like to assume about Jews. (Laughs.) But the sort of healthy ones, like you know I wretch and complain and then make it into humour. There’s a lot of things like that that are very spot on about my identity that come from my Jewish cultural identity, and I think I actually cling a lot closer to that than the spiritual, or more so religious, aspects of Judaism.
Having those cultural origins, how do you feel about the rising anti-Semitism in the world right now?
Well, it’s crazy because in the circles I run in which is like punk people and Liberals are mostly my friends and I don’t take their support of Palestinian welfare as being anti-Semitic. So I’m not exposed to it except through the media. And then even more of my right-winging family members and friends, they’re actually really pro-Israel, almost more than me. So personally, I haven’t been exposed to that kind of anti-Semitism. Obviously I’m not ignorant and I know that it’s going on and it’s a real issue. I don’t know, I mean I have a hard time not divorcing myself from the media and what’s going on around me, even though that’s kind of ignorant and stupid. So in my world, I don’t really see that much anti-Semitism. And I live in Texas. No one’s ever made me feel weird for being Jewish here. How do I feel about it conceptually? It’s terrible. Anytime someone downplays someone’s civil rights, or you know, anti-Semitism, or homophobia, or racism, those are all the worse things in the world. So obviously I despise it. But as a Jew, I haven’t seen the face of it through my own experiences.
Throughout your career you’ve always spoken out about discrimination.
You had a lot of guests on this record in an in-defense-of-the-genre kind of way. What was behind that decision?
It was partially because basically all the façade of what was once trying to present this as something more than just like my project with rotating members, that disappeared when Coby and I parted ways, and then it was really just me. So I figured, you know there are a lot of really cool artists. I never liked the idea, even though I love them, of being like a Beck or Bjork or a Michael Jackson. I don’t like the idea of Max Bemis being the name of the thing. I see it as a collective that I’m the head honcho, so to speak, of, but there are still so many people who have always contributed and made it amazing, including Coby and Alex and all the people that have been in the band. So I thought it was actually more appropriate to have people sing and play on the record because that’s the state of the band now, even live it’s just friends, and people I admire playing with us. Not to mention, the sound of the record is so dramatic and orchestral, that not only would I get sick of just hearing my own voice, which I do in general, but especially in the concepts. A lot of people I was looking up production wise for this record were pop and hip hop creators and producers, and how they kind of step outside the box when they make records.
You know, there’s always collaboration on those records, and I think it’s something in rock music that we kind of shy away from too much. And that’s why bands become so stagnant and stifled, it’s because it’s like four guys step onto a tour bus for 20 years trying to relate to each other in new and interesting ways. Not that that’s…I mean it worked for the Beatles. (Laughs.) In my position, I get sick of my own ideas and the sound of my own voice, so I welcome collaboration. And I think that’s something that’s going to be a huge part of Say Anything going on, I don’t think I could keep doing this for another, the rest of my life, which is when I plan on doing it, if it wasn’t for having other people really come to the forefront of shaping it.
As a writer, what’s the difference between writing a song for Say Anything and writing one for your solo projects, or your side projects?
There’s a big difference. I’m really conscious of what I’m writing for. Sometimes when I write a song without something in mind, it’s rare, but even then, right after, I’m kind of like ‘okay, well what am I going to do with it?’ Because I think that the projects I’m involved with do have really different identities. Painful Splits almost has a non-existent identity, it’s really just me playing acoustic songs that are a little bit more stripped down, thematically and lyrically. And Perma is obviously co-written by me and Sherri and it’s all about our love. Two Tongues can’t exist without Chris and his input. And Say Anything is almost everything else, because it’s pretty far reaching and diverse. But I do take into account the history of Say Anything. I don’t think I could put out music now as Say Anything without it actively stemming from the evolution of what the band has built. Even if it’s a complete departure, I think it still has to make sense in the context of the band. Because there’s nothing worse than trying to escape what you are.
That definitely makes sense. Has what you’re trying to say with Say Anything changed since you started the band?
No, actually that’s the funny thing, is that it’s always remained pretty constant. And in that same way I’ve remained a pretty constant person morally and ethically. It’s always been the goal of Say Anything and myself, specifically through that band, to speak optimistic but uncomfortable truths about the world, because I see that there’s so many things wrong with how I live my life and how the world functions. So I’ve always felt this need to want to do my part in giving people hope and an alternative to what generally is the social consensus of like cynicism and all that stuff. So I’ve been like that since I was really little, and especially as a teenager, and as much as I’ve sort of deviated in my own lifestyle I’ve always had those ideals and so I think they’ve been a pretty constant underlying thing in Say Anything.
Something that fans do really admire about Say Anything is the sincerity of your lyrics – it’s so refreshing having a band not trying to cover anything up.
Oh God, yeah! (Laughs.)
One big shift on ‘Hebrews’ was the noticeable lack of guitars. Can you explain that for me?
It was really just one of those…it started out as it wasn’t even my idea, it was Tim O‘Heir, a longtime friend and producer of the band, it was his idea, and I immediately latched onto it because it’s something I never thought of really. But it was right up my alley, and it was a big departure from what we did with ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ and I think this made immediate sense. And I’m really impulsive that I follow through, so I continued to kind of keep that in my head.. And once I started writing songs for the record I kind of kept that in mind and it just developed and developed into something that could actually be materialised and I think worked pretty well.
It worked really well. I was actually quite surprised because there’s a lot of stuff going around in music right now with people talking about how ‘the guitar is dead…’
Part of what made me feel like I could make a record without guitars is that I was writing songs that essentially should be played on guitars. I don’t think really that the guitar is dead. It’s just that so much of indie rock and obviously, it goes without saying, pop music in the mainstream for the past few years has been based on electronic sounds and samples, and almost the concept of what indie rock was has sort of ceased to exist. But from my vantage point when I was writing the record, there were a lot of great guitar rock bands that I was discovering, like Touché Amoré and Balance and Composure and Japandroids, I could go on forever. But I think there’s been a resurgence in the underground of guitar. So for me, I was like I love the energy and emotionality and enthusiasm of those bands, but I think we’ve done enough guitar rock, so how can I translate that energy into something that isn’t just basically us trying to conform with what’s going on right now, because ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ was very guitar based, very of that moment, and I didn’t want to make the same record twice. And the songs just sounded good in my head. I feel like the record was more influenced by guitar rock bands than some of our other records, it just happens to be that they’re not played on them.
I think I’ve taken up enough of your time, but thank you so much for doing the interview.
No, thank you.
Best of luck with the tour.
Say Anything are hitting our shores this month. Full tour details here.