Frontman Max Bemis Talks Indie Label Shift, Upcoming Tour & Having a 'Clear Head' These Days
Loudness is cool. It's also distracting, says Say Anything frontman Max Bemis. Which is why the guiding principle heading into the band's first release since leaving Sony's RCA Records and signing to indie Equal Vision, Bemis says, was fashioning the band's most energetic, traditionally rock, classically punk record yet, "but at the same time taking away all the things that are going to distract from the core of what it's about."
To get to that core on "Anarchy, My Dear," Say Anything studied the timelessness of bands like the Beatles and the Clash, cutting back on distortion and power chords. They added layers and deliberately threaded the record with rawness without skewing brash. The resulting instrumentation is impressively omnipresent; everything shines, from a standard bass line to bits of harmonica, steel guitar and, memorably, a hammered dulcimer cameo. And it's refreshing to hear that the man who once half-sang, half-ranted his way across entire albums has grown no less acerbic, despite nuanced maturity.
"Burn a Miracle"
"I think we had gotten a chance to express ourselves creatively in a very over-the-top, stadium rock way for a couple of records," Bemis says. "This record is about rebellion."
To hear Bemis's voice over a crackly phone line, invoking the word "rebellion," is eerily familiar to the intro of the group's 2004 indie-punk cult classic "…Is a Real Boy." Bemis is the first to admit that "Anarchy," a return to working with "…Is a Real Boy" producer Tim O'Heir, absolutely has "a foundation in what we were doing on that record."
"There's a sense of chaos and an anything-can-happen sort of excitement," Bemis says. "That was one of the defining characteristics of '…Is A Real Boy' and why people connected with it, was a certain amount of 'I don't give a fuck.' It's like revisiting those themes, but where I can actually sort of tackle them with a clear head."
Part of that clear-headedness comes from Bemis's gradual ascent to healthiness ("I'd be dead or have done something really self-defeating," says the 28-year-old of his triumph over mental health issues documented in bountiful lines like "I wake up in a room and realize I'm insane again") and part comes from an introspective moment the band had in its time between labels.
"There's no point being on a major label and not having the ambition to sell as many records as, like, the Foo Fighters. It doesn't mean that's everyone's priority on a major, but if you don't at least have that as an ultimate sort of 'that would be great if this happened' goal, then you're sort of naïve," Bemis says. "It was an extremely life-changing alteration in how we were seeing things. We made the decision to re-prioritize and kind of go back to why we were doing this in the first place."
Bemis admires bands like Wilco, Modest Mouse and the Rolling Stones as sizable acts with long careers, bands that have shown patience in growing their style and their fan bases. "You can tell they're still all about the music, and all about the experience of being in a band and loving that," Bemis says. "I think that's where we're at right now."
It's evidently a satisfying place to be, despite the heightened expectations that tend to come with a "back to the roots" promise. "I 100 percent know in my heart, more than I ever did, that we made the best record we could," Bemis says. "But at the same time…it's a strange parallel between caring a little bit less what everyone thinks of it because I love it so much, and knowing I wrote this record to reach people that are die-hard Say Anything fans."
Consider the new song "Admit It Again," a sequel to the "…Is a Real Boy" closing track that skewered modern hipster culture in its infancy. "We know how much 'Admit It!!!' is an important song to people who love Say Anything, and that was my first imperative for writing 'Admit It Again,'" Bemis says. "That was an example of me wanting to write a record that would just put a smile on the face of anyone who's really dedicated themselves to our band."
Also pleasing the Bemis fan club will be the band's extensive U.S. headlining tour launching in March. Bemis says it's the most "hits-laden" set in the band's live history. "Not that we've ever had a huge, actual 'hit song,' but hits among our fans," Bemis says. "If we're going to play three or four new songs, we want the rest to be the most fan-favorite tracks we could possibly have."
Never one to alienate the fanatics, Bemis adds there'll be "a few really obscure B-sides that we've never played."