INTERVIEW: Max Bemis Talks ‘Hebrews,’ Battle With Shortcoming, And The Future Of His Music

Hebrews available now via Equal Vision Records

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Say Anything
photo: Neil Visel

Satirical almost to the point of sinister, Hebrews, the sixth full-length studio effort from Say Anything, is nothing short of groundbreaking. Mastermind Max Bemis has gone beyond the mere scope of a guitar-driven alternative album and created an entire new sonic universe under the moniker fans have grown to love. Composed around subversive instrumentation, Hebrews is a gripping and dynamic effort from Bemis. It’s a record that shows even in the scene’s most glorified songwriters, there’s still room to grow. Bemis, now a decade removed from the success of occult classic record …Is a Real Boy, shows listeners he still has daunting and deep stories to tell. The record is all-revealing as the singer delivers pure clarity in his words — drawing clever juxtapositions between the music and the world at-large.  There are strikingly trite and transparent numbers, such as ” Six Six Six,” and “My Greatest Fear Is Splendid.” There are abstract and appeasing numbers, such as the opener, “John Mcclane.” There are numbers that are downright jaw-dropping, such as “Lost My Touch.” Nonetheless, Hebrews is as honest of a Say Anything record as any fan could ask for.

Read below for an exclusive, in-depth interview with Max about the new record, fatherhood, his songwriting, the numerous guest vocal appearances (Keith Buckley, Matt Pryor and Tom DeLonge to name a few) on Hebrews, and more:

Substream Magazine: Hi, Max. Thanks so much for the time today. Hebrews is out Tuesday. How are you feeling about it?

Max Bemis: I’m just mostly excited at this point. There’s always like a really small, baseline anxiety level. But really, in this case, a few things have led me to be a little buzz-nervous. One is just I’m so personally happy with the record. Having controlled so many aspects of it, I feel like —  even if people didn’t like it — at least I know that I like it a lot and ultimately I made the right record for myself. We’ve been releasing songs almost every week and so far the response has been phenomenal and cool. Frankly, it’s been the best response we’ve gotten in a while. Not that I haven’t loved or that people haven’t loved the last few records, but it definitely helps that we’ve gotten such great feedback so far.

SM: That’s great to hear. You say that you’re personally happy with the record. At this point in your career, is that what matters most?

MB: Oh, God yeah. When we got off our last label there was definitely a feeling of confusion and maturity and “is this what I want to do for the rest of life” kind-of quarter-life crisis and I totally had to come to a place where I was like, “you know, there is literally no reason for me not to be in Say Anything forever,” because essentially it’s just me and my music. Even if we’re playing tiny shows with a bunch of devoted fans, there’s always room in my life for it. I think, ever since that, karma kicked in and things started actually going better for the band. Not that they weren’t great…I think life awards you if have your priorities in the right place.

SM: Well cool. It’s good to hear you steadied things out over the last few years. The most burning question for me, as we talk about Hebrews, is what was the motivation behind dropping the guitar for this record?

MB: I often [laughs] make choices like that very impulsively, but not without gravity. It’s not like I decide on a whim to decide to do something really stupid just because it’s crazy. A friend of mine suggested it, not as a joke, but as a “hey man, you what you should try? You should do this.” It was the guy who’s produced a couple of our record, Tim O’ Heir, who’s a good friend of mine. I immediately was like, “that’s it.” Something clicked in my mind and I’m like, “he’s right, that’s what we’re doin’.” That was during the recording of Anarchy, My Dear, so, I’ve walking around kind-of planning on doing this for three or four years. When it came down to when I started really writing songs for the record, thankfully, what I was writing seemed like ti was very conducive to the sonic concept of doing it all with strings. I think if it had been a different record or if things were going different in my life or I were writing about different stuff, I don’t know if it would’ve worked. But in this case, those crazy things lined up and fortuitously it just happened in that way.

Say Anything - Hebrews cover

SM: Within this new element, the record is still diverse — both lyrically and musically. How did this play out when you were composing the tracks?

MB: People have been making guitar rock rock records for, how many years now? So many years now. There’s been endless variations and people have done such cool stuff with guitars…and I’m sure we will find them again at some point, if not soon. The fact is, musically, [guitars] can actually be inhibiting to some degree. It’s only one instrument and if you get caught up in that idea of, “uhhh I’m only working from the pallet of guitar,” at least for me, it started to become inhibiting…because I’m not an amazing guitar player. There are people who can make a guitar into a diverse thing.

Lyrically, I think it’s opened the way for creating different moods and atmospheres that can’t really evoke necessarily with a guitar. We have a point on a song where I break into a little timbre part where it basically sounds like traditional Jewish music, and you could do that on a guitar but it wouldn’t sound like you were at a orthodox Bar Mitzvah. In terms of lyrics, I do think I was going through a lot of stuff. It wasn’t just one particular emotion, it was a complex web of emotions. Thank you for for saying it’s diverse. I think some of our records have been more diverse and some less diverse based on what’s going on in my life and how simply can you sum it up. I think what I was going through here was a pretty multi-faceted experience.

SM: One thing that’s always fascinated me about Say Anything is that I feel as though it’s a timeline of what’s happened in your life from band conception until now.

MB: Completely. Even the concept records I’ve attempted to make, which this is one of them, have almost stopped being what you classify as a concept record because we’ve never really done anything else. They’ve all just been a successive parodical of where my head is at…at that particular point. I have many shortcoming as a person and as an artist. I think one of them is stepping outside of myself as a songwriter, generally. I think, at least in Say Anything in particular, versus Two Tongues or something, I literally have tried many times to write songs about other situations that don’t involve me, and it’s just not good [laughs]. I don’t know what that means but clearly that’s what Say Anything is. I’m living a life until I die so there will be no shortage of things to sing about.

When I was listening through you made a reference to Bille Joe (Armstrong, frontman of Green Day). What is this about?

MB: The line is about how I tried to be like him and failed, basically [laughs].

SM: [laughs] That’s interesting. I feel every artist fits into their own respective world and it’s so fascinating to see people at a certain level of success in their career to still draw those comparisons.

MB: Completely! That song is just about fear that grips you in your weaker moments and make you compare yourself to other people. I generally am a very secure, happy person, but I won’t say there aren’t moments where I’m like, “wow I’m pathetic compared to this guy who stars in his own musicals and is a billionaire, probably, at this point.” You know? And I think at this point in my life that couldn’t be more true, in terms of me being happy with who I am. It was a growing process. It’s a constant growth to not compare yourself. It’s not something you solve. Even if it’s in a positive light. For instance, when I listen to The Beatles, there’s a second where I’ll just enjoy the song and think, “oh yeah, The Beatles do their own thing, I do my own thing.” Yeah, but they’re the best musicians to ever live, why do I even try? Why can’t I write as good as John Lennon, you know?

I think a lot of what Say Anything does is latching on to those moments, which can be difficult, and then writing an entire song about it and actually having some people quell that fear or quell that insecurity by knowing other people deal with that kind of emotion.

SM: After hearing your answer, and raising the initial question from an outsiders perspective…I really get what you’re saying. I have days where I totally relish on what other people in my world are doing.

MB: We all do. It’s part of human nature, I think. It comes and goes in various capacities. It’s partially just part of being a relatively humble person. If you’re going to be humble you have to realize there are other people who are doing things who are arguably better in a different respect. It’s the opposite of getting your ego inflated [laughs].

SM: You briefly touched on Green Day’s American Idiot musical. Do you think you could ever see yourself doing a musical?

MB: I’m really open to do it if it came up in an actual way. We attempted to do it before with …Is a Real Boy and it failed. It would have to be a fun, conducive environment and opportunity. I would very much be glad to do that.

SM: That would be so cool. Where did all of the guest vocal spots on Hebrew come from? Did you learn from the multiple guest spots you did on In Defense of the Genre?

MB: Even though In Defense…came together really easily and we had friends that made it a really fun, easy process — that was even more so on this record because in this day and age it’s so easy to interface with each other, even if you’ve never met someone. It’s funny because I’ve met six or seven musicians that I admire just because we follow each other on Twitter. Since I basically was producing the record and putting it all together, it was just so intuitive — I would either ask a friend or tweet at someone — and it just came together very easily. In Defense…definitely prepared me for the process but I think on this one it was a lot more natural and I was more at-home with the idea. I think, even though people are talking about it a bit now, it’s less of a ‘thing.’ It wasn’t like me trying to make a mission statement buy recruiting all these people like it was with In Defense…. I was just like, “you know what? This song could really use a break from the sound of my voice and I know someone whose voice that I think would sound great.” In part because [Hebrews] is so moody and varied that like there’s all these places where people would bit better than I would. Like in “Six Six Six,” Andy Hull comes in at this sort of Pink Floyd-ey, My Morning Jacket-type part and that’s very much so one of Andy’s strengths. And at the end of another song there’s like this high, really dirty scream and no one does that better than John from Balance and Composure.

Basically, when we changed up the structure of Say Anything and Cody stopped being in the band, it really did become a collective where it’s just me and whoever’s around. It just felt natural that we were having all these musicians play on the record, why not have all these vocalists? Therefore, it’s a collaboration more than anything I’ve done. People wrote their own lyrics for a lot of the stuff. People would come up with their own harmonies and weird parts and engineering ideas. It felt a lot like a hip-hop record, in that respect. I think that’s something missing from rock. You’re forced to listen to the same singer-songwriter no matter what on most rock records over, over, and over again. Whereas in hip-hop, or in pop, it’s like, “oh! it’s nice to hear Snoop Dogg in the middle of this Katy Perry song,” or something, you know? I think I was coming from that direction, weirdly [laughs].

SM: Since we’re on a talk of collaboration, how did it come about to have Fred Mascherino (Taking Back Sunday, The Color Fred, Terrible Things), Greg Dunn (Moving Mountains), Kenny Bridges (Moneen) to join yourself, Reed Murray and Garron DuPree as part of the live band? 

MB: It was just in the spirit of [collaboration]! I had a talk with the guys who’d been playing with us for years and they have their own band now and I was like, “you know, I wanna keep playing with you guys, but do you mind if we open it up so you guys aren’t beholden to do every Say Anything tour and I’m not beholden to just playing with you guys?” And we were all like, “that sounds great!” We’re all grown men and wanna do a bunch of different stuff in our lives. I think some of what really breaks up bands and gets people down is being beholden to something that doesn’t always make tons of money, but you’re forced to do it anyway because you believe in it. This situation opened it up for them to still play with us and for me to collaborate with musicians I admire. For Kenny and Fred and Greg, we’ve all been friends for a while. We know each other, we love each other’s music and the idea of going out and doing one tour with a band you really like and making money and having fun, that’s like, why wouldn’t I do that? It’s not like, “take the next ten years of your life and dedicate it to me.” It’s like, “let’s have fun for a couple months.” I think I probably will do this a bunch in the future.

SM: I actually did an interview with Jeff Turner about XO and he described the difference as “Say Anything is from Jupiter and XO is from Mars.”

MB: It’s very true. In [Say Anything] those dudes take what I record and interpret it live. In XO, they are the principle architects of everything. Thankfully, those guys have been nothing but amazing about that fact for the entirety of their membership in Say Anything. They’ve never made that weird. You can’t say it isn’t great that those guys get some time to focus on being great songwriters, as well.

SM: How do you think fatherhood has changed Say Anything?

MB: Wow. It’s changed me on so many levels that it’s really hard to describe. And thus…Say Anyhing. We planned having Lucy, thankfully. We knew we wanted to have a kid. Me and Sherri have gotten to a place in our lives where so many of the bothersome insecurities and unhealthy aspects have gone to the wayside. Everything we do, to some degree, is sustainable. It doesn’t depend on making money or what other people think or what’s cool. With having a kid, you don’t even have time to worry about that kind of stuff. Things that don’t matter. When you’re a father, you look at your kid and you look at your life and you think, “why would I give anything the time of day that isn’t so pure and awesome?” The ability to raise someone and be there for them and show them love and to get love back from them is such a pure, punitive experience. For instance — the idea of us being this hip, cool band — there’s an aspect of it I’m grateful for that it exists, but anything beyond that I literally couldn’t give half a shit about. I couldn’t care about being rich, I don’t care about being some ‘band of the moment.’ When you look at your kid, think about how little this kid cares about stuff like that because they’re innocent and they’re loving. It really puts it in perspective, whereas when you’re a 19 year-old. At least for me — I was just all over the place. I didn’t know what I wanted or who I was. And you’re forced to know that stuff. This record really is about the final steps towards being able to give that kind of love and take that kind of responsibility. It was definitely a journey for me and it’s on going.

SM: You talked a lot about your shortcomings as a songwriter and your adaptations as a father. What does it take for you to become totally transparent when writing Say Anything songs?

MB: I don’t know, man. I think humor has to do with it. I’ve always had a really dark sense of humor. Not in the sense of that I want people to suffer so I can laugh, but in that I laugh at suffering, in general —mostly my own suffering. It’s the true route of a lot of enlightenment and separating yourself to the point where you’re not overwhelmed with the facade that is society or the facade that is surface-level human existence and you can step back and say, “how dumb is this? How dumb was I?” I can look back and think when we were on Sony and there was a point when I was willing to re-write the lyrics of a song that had already been released and I actually attempted to it so it could be more of a single [laughs]. I ultimately decided I couldn’t live with it, but that’s a funny thing to me, imagining me scribbling lyrics in my car, trying to be inspired by nothing. It’s things like that, that really make me laugh because we’re all kind of pathetic. I see that in everyone, we all have shortcoming. It’s always been my thing to be really open about it. I don’t think I could write any other way; I’ve always been that kind of a guy — very forthcoming. And I’m saying that’s the best thing, it’s just kind of what I’m into.

SM: What does the rest of the year look like for you? What can we expect from all of your projects?

MB: I’ve got a comic that is coming out now called Evil Empire — that’s going to be running for another year-and-a-half. I’ve got three or four other comics in the works that are totally different from each other. In terms of comics in general, It’s definitely something I see being a huge part of my professional life. For anyone who likes that, there’s a lot coming. We already have a couple of tours that we’re planning on doing over the course of this album cycle and those are slowly coming into focus. Say Anything will be busy promoting this record for a while; I don’t have any plans beyond that — just do what I do. We’re planning on making another Two Tongues record hopefully later this year, with Chris from Saves The Day. I am still working with Equal Vision and putting out records.

SM: Oh, right! How are things with the imprint label (Rory Records)?

MB: It’s been awesome. We signed my favorite band of all time, so I don’t know if I can beat that. I’m attempting to try to diversify the label. I think we have a really nice base to work with right now. I’m trying to take my time and be picky about the next few signings. If I were a fan of Say Anything, I would definitely check out all the bands on the imprint because they’re all pretty incredible.

SM: Well, thanks so much for your time and good luck with the release!

MB: Thank you so much for your time, man!

Buy Hebrews via Equal Vision Records on iTunes, today.