Max and Max's muse, Josh
Max Bemis wanted the new Say Anything record to be his My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, which… big deal. “My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy” might as well be the title of every Say Anything record. And for a guy who has made numerous songs poking at indie rock critics, there’s nothing particularly bold about pledging allegiance to Pitchfork’s number one album of the decade thus far. But Bemis has made rock operas, a double-album defense of emo during its most critically reviled period, and covered Ol’ Dirty Bastard on a compilation called Punk Goes Crunk. So the more ridiculous Bemis’s ideas sound, the more likely he is to follow through with them. Now here’s the difference between I Don’t Think It Is and any other rock album that will claim to be Kanye-influenced in 2016: this one was actually influenced by the actual Kanye West.
It took a mutual friend and confidential non-musical project to land Bemis in Kanye West’s studio, but once there, the two had some downtime to kill. Bemis had a flight to catch, West was on his way to a Lakers game and before they parted, “he played me his new shit and I played him Say Anything and we went back and forth,” Bemis says. “It was the most surreal thing.”
I mean, before we go any further, take some time to imagine Max Bemis geeking out over Waves demos and Kanye head-nodding to I Don’t Think It Is. This is way too much, we need a moment.
“He was super nice, super humble, really cool about our band and got it,” Bemis recalls, and really, why wouldn’t Kanye be into Say Anything? Pick any of Bemis’s records and he toggles between brutal self-evisceration and vainglorious boasting, gooey love songs and naming names when airing out past exes. Maybe, just maybe, “Pinocchio Story” could’ve been influenced by …Is a Real Boy?
Either way, the serendipitous meeting between the two wasn’t the genesis of I Don’t Think It Is, rather a confirmation that he was on the right track. It’s been over a decade since Bemis was “the next Billie Joe,” but who wants to be that anyway in 2016? In the self-penned bio for the record, Bemis writes, “I want to be like Bey.” He’s half-kidding, the half-serious part at least referring to I Don’t Think It Is skipping the “dying art of the lead-up” and dropping without warning on Say Anything’s website before being made available for purchase a day later.
It’s one way for Say Anything to put themselves in a conversation that previously included only the likes of Drake, Beyoncé, and Rihanna—I mean, it’s really the only way. But Bemis didn’t want his “hip-hop record” to be just one in terms of its release strategy. “After Hebrews, I was at the point where I wanted to make a record where the only premeditation was that it’s not premeditated,” he says. Bemis’s original vision was to engage in his own version of the desert-island, fantasy team-building that resulted in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And the question that dictated all was, “Who do I trust?”
As with most Say Anything albums, there’s an intriguing array of past colleagues and contemporary guest artists. Opener “Give a Damn” is based off a song written with Cody Votolato of the Blood Brothers and Paul Hinojos of At the Drive-In with the intention of starting a new band. He recruited Dylan Mattheison from emo-mathletes Tiny Moving Parts to balance out the “Beck-like aspects” of I Don’t Think It Is: “this guy is like indie rock Yngwie, he can tap anything.”
Meanwhile, Will Yip (“the Rick Rubin of current indie punk,” according to Bemis) was brought in to mix the record. Michelle Zauner of Little Big League and Japanese Breakfast composed her own vocal contributions, while Bemis collaborated on an another track with Christian Holden from the Hotelier. Upon hearing their phenomenal sophomore LP, Home, Like No Place Is There, “they took me to a place where I felt like I could feel competitive with the generation that we fostered,” Bemis raves. “Like, ‘oh my god, I want to be a part of this, I don’t want to just admire it, I want to write songs this good.”
The most important musical collaborator was Darren King, drummer for prog outfit Mutemath and also Bemis’s brother-in-law. He considers King to be a full partner in the production and composition of the record, and it’s the most power Bemis has ever relinquished in 15 years of Say Anything. “We come from opposite backgrounds so I think we’re kinda fascinated with each other,” Bemis notes. “I’ll watch him play drums, with a boner so to speak, the whole time and he’ll hand me a mic and I’ll do my going-crazy yell-talking, making things up on the spot thing. We were impressing each other, it was a total bro lovefest.”
But no one’s influence was more powerful than that of his non-musician friend Joshua, the “Silent Bob to my Jay” who serves as the album’s muse and also is featured on every picture in the insert. Recalling the source of I Don’t Think It Is, Bemis points towards their time together in summer camp: “It’s something that we would say specifically to authority figures to negate whatever they would say. ‘Clean the bunk,’ I don’t think it is ‘clean the bunk,’ in the most annoying voice.”
Leading up to this record, Bemis found that Josh was also a focus group for Say Anything’s fanbase. The boutique, pay-for-play Max Bemis Song Shop was started in 2008 as a way of eliminating the gap between Say Anything and Say Anything fan fiction. For a fee ranging from $75 to $205 (a full-length track featuring his wife and Eisley frontwoman Sherri DuPree), anyone can describe within a few paragraphs that literally, well, says anything that they want to hear in Max Bemis’s voice. As it turned out, “[Josh] is emblematic of a lot of things I see our fans going through,” Bemis explains. “He had a really hard upbringing, he lost his dad when he was young, we both got into drugs for a while. And then, he completely bettered himself and he’s in medical school. But he’s surrounded by people who seem to have it together more than him so he doubts himself all the time.” As a result, Bemis wanted I Don’t Think It Is to be a record of empowerment for people in the same position.
He also wanted to further the narrative of Being Max Bemis in 2016, and, for better or worse, that largely plays out on the internet. He somehow found himself on TMZ after vomiting during a performance of “I Want to Know Your Plans,” of all songs—that’s the one on …Is A Real Boy that’s all tender and acoustic. And then he became a person of interest on Stereogum after expressing his dislike of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” and Miley Cyrus. He attributes both brushes with controversy as the result of “slow news days,” while acknowledging he’s both the supply and demand side of social media bloodsport: “I find that’s the activity in my life that I indulge in the most and depresses me the most.”
So does Say Anything’s soul/hip-hop/punk-rock/social commentary experiment work? Not entirely: after the synth-heavy Hebrews, there’s a welcome return to punk rock finger-wagging on “Give a Damn” that will take people right back to where they were upon first hearing …Is A Real Boy. And there are just as many wincing moments where the non-diehards will be taken back to the point where they decided they couldn’t hang with Say Anything anymore.
But does it really even matter at this point? The upshot of Say Anything making such uncompromising and—let’s just say, idiosyncratic—music for this amount of time has granted Bemis a kind of critic-proofing. A Say Anything record that cleanly met its messy, wild ambitions would be unrecognizable as the work of Max Bemis. The lyrics make it very clear that this is the work of Max Bemis: “I’m 23 locked up in the asylum, listening too much to my own album,” “I knew you when you had a poster of Katie Holmes in your room because you thought she was the kind of girl who might realistically like you if you play your cards right,” “now you work at some vaguely purposed startup and spend your weekends spinning Best New Music tracks and not calling girls back.” The last two come from a song titled “The Bret Easton Ellis School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” naturally. Whether or not it goes down as Say Anything’s idea of a 10.0, “when you put on this record, it’s obvious I’m a 30-year white Jewish guy who listens to a lot of Kanye.”
Noisey: So, the surprise release—you think you’re on Beyoncé and Drake’s level now?
Max Bemis: Yes. To some extent. [Laughs] I asked myself, “what do you honestly care about and pay attention to these days?” And the answer is those bands like Hotelier and the World Is a Beautiful Place and Title Fight. But I came from hip-hop before punk, so I still really care about Kanye and the major acts like Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar. I’m really bad at following obscure hip-hop, I rarely come upon something that not many people have heard. Beyoncé, she challenges herself in a way the Beatles used to. There’s not many models for that kind of ambition in indie rock anymore, There’s a lot of great music that doesn’t technically have to be ambitious, but I’ve always been overly ambitious.
Hebrews was composed almost entirely on synthesizers, but your “hip-hop” record is made with guitars.
I come from a world of Dischord and Botch and Cave In and Converge, that’s the guitar stuff I like. I don’t want to ditch that. If I made a hip-hop record, it’d probably be corny. If I involved my aesthetic form the punk and hardcore world, it at least has a chance of being original whether it’s good or not.
Did you feel like the conversation around Say Anything was reinvigorated by Hebrews and the …Is A Real Boy anniversary tour?
Hebrews was big for us because everyone kinda came out to admitting they liked us. I had a feeling that people liked us, especially towards the end of the emo boom. There were bands that were slightly more credible and they seemed like they’d be more popular if you went into a bar in Brooklyn. But people will at least give a listen to what we do and that’s not something I take for granted. When you look at people like Drake, what attracts me isn’t that they were selling a lot of records. But more that they were constantly engaging their fanbase in a dialogue and a narrative about themselves and what inspires them. They can go through an artistic growth that took a band in the early 2000s five years between records. Drake can do that just by putting out singles week by week. Why can’t I have that? That doesn’t require me being that popular or being a pop band. I like making music a lot and putting out music and I hate bullshit.
What’s the bullshit?
I tend to lose track of records even by bands I like. I grew up with Death Cab and I will always listen to their new record whether I end up liking it or not. But I lost track of their new one. I don’t even remember when it came out because of this arbitrary four-month lead up. “Stream this one song, now stream this lyric video!” I just want to hear the record! I figured the biggest present I could get is a band I love saying, “Hey, we have a new record. Here it is, actually!” I wanted to do stuff like this in the future where we’re putting shit out because we want to and because we want to keep telling the story of the band.
Did it take much convincing to get Equal Vision on board?
From the beginning, they were the reason why it’s been so easy for us to progress as a band. There are a lot of labels that are cool like that, like Run For Cover. They’re super nice, they realize they’re not trying to achieve high album sales. They understand it’s the relevancy of the band that will be better for their company and do better business with Spotify and touring. It’s better to foster actual interest instead of just selling records. It’s not the late 90s anymore.
You mentioned envying the empowerment that hip-hop can provide to listeners, what makes it difficult to access that same feeling in punk?
A lot of punk rock is based in empowerment. I would hope that was the reason it was invented, to empower the outcast to feel comfortable in going against the norm. That’s definitely persisted and it’s the only thing that still defines punk. Paramore is punk. I’m sorry, they are. They’re a punk band making pop. They’re singing about not fitting in and wanting to change the world. There are so many real hardcore punks and the bands that everyone assumes are little kid Warped Tour bands, but they’re empowering people too.
But personally, the difference in listening to Jay or Kanye and the way that empowers me is that I feel like there’s a level of honesty in hip-hop about the uglier side of power and of being disempowered that isn’t really spoken of in detail in the punk world, even with my favorite bands. There’s sometimes an element of “too good for you” [in punk], it just seems either pedestrian or holier than thou, whereas Jay Z is neither. He’s like, “I’m the shit, but I’m also a really fucked up dude who dealt drugs, don’t be like me.” There’s a mixture of self-loathing and “fuck the world,” and yet, the world is beautiful. The contradictory nature of it all is something I wanted to tap into.
So, “17 Coked Up Speeding” is your “uglier side of power” song?
Here’s the reason I included that song. Ever since I got married and had kids and stabilized my life relatively, I made those records which I still really love, where I played the role of a reformed fuck up to some degree. “I’m all good now , life is good.” I don’t feel that way all the time. I’m full of anxiety, but I’m also full of joy and wonder. I love my kids, I love my wife, I love my band. People love …Is A Real Boy because I’m talking about dark, real things, some people like the lighter stuff because it’s “oh, now I feel like I don’t want to go kill myself.” This one hopefully chooses both compulsions.
The first verse of “Princess” mentions people criticizing your daughter for liking Frozen. What inspired that?
Someone who would get mad at my daughter for watching Frozen because it’s a Disney movie and Disney is kinda fucked up is an example of, “why are you focusing your energy there?” Let’s focus on the things that are actually important like corrupt police murder cases and rape. I’m hyper-attuned to that kind of stuff, it’s like with “Admit It”—people want to be different, but they’re actually becoming the jocks. For me, in this activist era, I’m already so left-leaning, I have a problem with people are elitist about the idea of world peace. Don’t be an elitist about progressivism, that defeats the purpose! That’s what Donald Trump is doing, it’s elitism.
It’s one of the running themes on the record that I want to be very clear about. It was hard to let myself write about this, but I grew up in a very left-leaning family where feminism and tolerance and love and all of those things that are hot button issues right now were givens to me. I never once had the thought that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry or that women are lesser than me or that black people are dangerous. But it seems like since activism has become more of a public thing lately and there’s all these amazing things going on, it also fostered a lot of bullies. It’s a hard thing to be annoyed by, because it’s counterintuitive to wanting to make social changes. But I think we’re not gonna reach anyone by bullying people on social media. Somebody may go and say “I really love the idea of gay marriage, don’t prevent anyone from getting married,” and then someone will come online and criticize using the word “gay.” You may criticize the word and how it’s used, but do so through language of love and understanding. Understand that unless someone is an actual racist or fascist or someone trying to prevent change, there’s no reason to bitch at each other. A few songs on the record are about that, it’s almost as vital as the cause itself. If we win this battle, what are we gonna do with it? Are we gonna implode after making this social progress because we can’t be nice to each other?
How does Joshua feel about being the focus of this album, especially since he’s a civilian in med school?
He loves it. He thinks it’s hilarious that he is the focal point of this record. It’s written for him, it’s a love song to him in a way. He doesn’t feel exploited. He actually appears towards the end of “Attaboy.”
Speaking of that song, you say you can’t relate to Batman even though he listens to “In My Eyes.” He’s a Minor Threat fan?
That’s actually this essential Boston straight-edge band/youth crew that was named after them. That’s a part that I do relate to. I’m a huge comic book fan and there are times where I feel like I can’t relate to him because there’s this narrative that he’s a rich guy who beats up poor people. He’s beating up this thief who’s probably stealing for his family because he can’t eat. Or even the Penguin. And he’s going in with his entitled nature and beating the shit out them. I have a hard time with that. But then I kinda realized that he’s punk rock in what he’s doing. It doesn’t have anything to do with class. In certain ways, the fact that he’s going against the law and being a vigilante is close to being an anarchist. Add since I’m an anarchist, I see superheroes as anarchists, they’re trying to change the world and do things that are good for society, but they don’t adhere to the laws of cities and states. That’s kinda anarchist and punk rock.
Christian from the Hotelier identified his band as anarcho-punk, have you shared this theory with him?
I haven’t talked to him about the superhero thing, but we have a dialogue about anarchy all the time. You know how there’s “good Christians and bad Christians” and “good feminists and bad feminists?” I’m a bad anarchist and he’s a good one. He lives it for sure. Mine’s based on a bunch of theoretical things.
So… how the hell did you get together with Kanye West?
He has a relationship with one of my best friends, with whom he’d be meeting with for other reasons. He was mentioning me for something outside of music. We got an opportunity to work on a song with him, I don’t think he used it. I get nervous about talking about it. But that’s basically how this record started. There’s only a few people on my bucket list that I want to work with but it’s unlikely that I would: Dave Grohl and Kanye. Everyone else, I have had a chance to work with. We did get to work in the studio, it was right at the beginning of making the record, so he told me which songs he liked the most, he gave me production advice. But he was rocking out. We were rocking out to each other’s stuff, he actively gets into it when he listens. Me, when I listen to something with someone, I’m reserved, but he brought it out of me and we were just rocking out to both new Kanye and new Say Anything. I’m still in touch, who knows what’ll come of that. It had such a huge impact on making me feel like the world is such a small place. I am not insulated to what I have done before. It made me feel like, “this isn’t that far away.” It seems so lofty of a goal to be as creative as people like him or Kendrick. We can try to. I can try to. It’s not unachievable because these are just dudes.
Ian Cohen is a real boy. Follow him on Twitter - @en_cohen