Max Bemis Closes the Book on Say Anything

Photo: Rmv/Shutterstock

Max Bemis just quit his day job. For almost 20 years, he served as front man for the venerable Say Anything, one of the most adventurous acts of the early 21st-century emo explosion. Say Anything barreled into punk and indie rock fans’ consciousnesses 15 years ago with its major label debut …Is a Real Boy, a collection of pithy observations about the surrounding scene and culture animated by Bemis’s voice, a theatrical snarl capable of turning from bottomless yearning to scabrous rage on a dime. …Is a Real Boy was a concept album so convincing that some fans came to believe the story was autobiographical. Going forward, Bemis strove to make his writing more personal. 2007’s In Defense of the Genre vividly explored complex feelings of love and fear under the pall of a terrifying period of mental health and substance abuse struggles. 2014’s Hebrews mused about fatherhood and Bemis’s Jewish heritage. Say Anything was as challenging musically as lyrically. In Defense zipped ambitiously from screamo to hip-hop to show tunes within the first three songs and featured backing vocals from over a dozen punk luminaries, as it made an argument for emo’s staying power by staging an impressive display of its versatility. Hebrews is an emo album devoid of guitars. This month’s Oliver Appropriate tells its story using little more than acoustic guitars, tasteful strings, unobtrusive drums, and the ambient noise of the room where they’re being played.

Oliver Appropriate was inspired by a friend. Singer-drummer Karl Kuehn of the North Carolina punk trio Museum Mouth wrote a heartbreaking song cycle about a gay man’s unrequited love for a straight friend for the band’s 2014 studio album Alex I Am Nothing. Bemis, intrigued by the concept, imagined an evil twin to Kuehn’s story, a yarn about a character whose inability to handle a same-sex attraction, compounded with a life going off the rails due to drug abuse and a career in rapid freefall, leads him down a dark path. (Kuehn is, fittingly, the new album’s drummer and the vocalist on “Your Father,” the only Say Anything song to be sung in full by someone other than Bemis.) Bemis plotted Oliver as the logical end of the line for the protagonist of …Is a Real Boy. As a kind of crude, Dostoyevskian double of himself, Bemis set about method acting to get inside Oliver’s head. Pushing the envelope with prescription drugs and seeking out literature about serial killers left the singer with a great album about a man losing his fame, his job, and ultimately his life. It also tripped off a breakdown and a manic episode that made him rethink his priorities.

Bemis announced the end of Say Anything last summer in a lengthy “Goodbye Summation” that promised to put the band on hiatus after the release of the new album. “I am done being a touring musician as my main profession,” Bemis wrote. He’s not ruling out the possibility of a return; in typical, bitingly sarcastic form, the letter muses about cashing out on a future reunion tour. But for now, Max Bemis wants to be a husband, a father, and a comic-book writer, settled in his East Texas home with his wife and collaborator Sherri DuPree-Bemis, singer of Eisley and Perma, and their three children. Bemis’s second career began in earnest with 2013’s Polarity, a story about a bipolar artist who struggles with the nagging sense that the medication that treats his illness dampens other abilities. He has since written for Marvel’s Moon Knight, a superhero with an array of aliases that are revealed to be a case of dissociative identity disorder, and Foolkiller, a part-time mercenary and full-time psychiatrist who offs the patients he can’t reform. His comics are not unlike his songs; he turns terrors into powers, illness into strength. I spoke to Max Bemis last week about closing one chapter of his life as an artist and charging full bore into another.

I feel like Say Anything was an exercise in overriding the default millennial response to adversity, which is often a lot of withering sarcasm. Am I projecting?
No. I think that’s always been my motivation for creating art in general. There’s a lot that comes with the archetype of being in a rock band or being a songwriter, and I always felt that I wanted to examine it as painfully honestly as possible, but then to say that it’s a good thing. I think there’s some people that examine art with a slightly cynical vibe, but there’s no redeeming nature to it, and that’s when I get bored and annoyed by things. But I feel like if you’re slightly cynical or aware of the clichés and trappings, but if you feel like it’s all leading to something good in the end, then you can kind of live outside of the temptation to fall into, like, full cliché or like corruption especially. Rock and roll can be a really energizing, vital, revolutionary force, or it can be really destructive and against its purpose. So I felt like Say Anything was definitely an attempt to try to err on the side the angels, if you could put it that way.

There’s an expectation, when you use your work to voice uncomfortable thoughts that most people prefer to keep to themselves, that you’re going to be “on” all the time, you know, that when you’re in character, that you’re really that person. How do you deal with the disconnect between the person that people think that you are on record and the person that you are in real life?
I think I only really had to really experience that firsthand from the ages of, let’s say, 19 to 22, before I met my wife. I was working in New York and doing the whole thing of hanging out with other people in bands, and going to parties and going to bars and living in Brooklyn. It’s cool when you’re that age, but there’s almost, like, a subculture, which has always existed in any kind of rock world — and even the acting world — where, if you spend all your time with other people who do what you do or become a public figure in any way, then there is that energy. It is like acting. I personally always had a hard time with it. I never did that. I never could be the …Is a Real Boy character because I’m so awkward and shy. Anyone who knew me at the time knew I couldn’t. In fact, it was a detriment to me in terms of being able to fit in that I could never really even attempt to be that character. My choice in the end was to move away. Move to a small town in Texas and be around really sincere people.

The only time that I found myself having to confront that [energy] is online, through social media or just seeing how people react to the records. Our shows were always really positive places. And, I was never harangued or harassed by fans or anything. I never regretted that interaction. Some people take it in stride, but when I would get sent a review that misunderstood something I was trying to say … I’m not the kind of person who takes it in stride. It actually bothers me, especially when it’s something negative. We flirt with so much dark imagery — or “flirted” in the band, especially in this new album — that you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, I could appear to be a psychopath, to be honest. Or just a horrible, selfish, egomaniacal person. So, if you can’t get the irony or even the sort of … It’s not always irony, it’s fiction. It’s like painting a picture. Like an artist painting. You know?

I used to think that the harsher lines were sort of like the frustrated person’s flight of fancy, the thought of something they would never do. Sometimes a movie will show a quick cut of the main character doing something grotesque, something that’s clearly happening in their head, when the reality is that they never act on the impulse.
Yeah, completely. I like to write to examine my anxieties and overcome them. And to do that, I have to be really honest. A lot of it was being in a punk band. I think a lot of people are sort of … infected by society, including myself, to this day. We’re not living in a world that’s conducive to human beings being truly at peace with ourselves. So I wanted to criticize that, and at the same time recognize that as a species I think we can do better and move past that. I always wanted to be like, “I’m not above it.” As much as I would write a song like “Admit It,” which seems like it’s criticizing others, it’s just as much a statement about myself. And this new record, weirdly enough, even though I assume they’re gonna get confused sometimes and think that it’s completely autobiographical … it’s the most removed. It’s the most removed from myself. It was written as a study of my opposite. But even with that being said, I was able to sing the words and relate to it. And it was an exercise for me to even make it and be able to relate to someone who is a murderer. And basically is the dark side of — the inverse of me in many ways.

Does songwriting help or hurt when you’re processing trauma? I have this idea that songwriting is the only kind of writing that you’re expected to carry with you forever. You know, with journalism, we can be done once the copy is filed. But touring musicians who write songs about intense times can end up tethered to them for the rest of their lives. I wonder if that factors into the reasons why you’re letting the project go for now.
You know, it doesn’t, to be honest, because I love that. None of those songs would have been written if I resented the fact that I would be tied to them for the rest of my life. I mean, they came from me. I love them all to some degree. Some I like listening to more than others, but some I can actually put on and enjoy because so many other musicians played in Say Anything and collaborated with me and sang on the songs. It’s actually fairly fun to listen to. So I don’t mind that. I don’t even mind the stigma following me around because, thankfully, I was able to transition into writing comics to the extent that I have. I’m just at the beginning of my career doing that. But maybe on my first comic or second comic, it was a lot of talk of, “It’s the guy from Say Anything making a comic.” So that people who like Say Anything will go buy it. But now, I am somewhat seen [chuckles excitedly] as just a comic writer. Not “just” a comic writer, but a legitimate comic writer. The stigma of being attached to these songs doesn’t so much bother me.

The real reason that I put [Say Anything] aside was just the physical act of what it was doing to my body, to my stress, the way it would trigger things that are connected to being bipolar. I basically had another manic episode for the first time in ten years. It was triggered by having the kind of breakdown that a lot of people have when they feel overworked or that they want to get out of what they’re doing as a job. And they’re just like, “This is driving me crazy.” I think a lot of people can relate to that, whether you’re working at Starbucks or you’re in a touring band. If it’s not for you and the lifestyle doesn’t match up anymore, it can start to become harmful. So, for me it was a really vital reason for walking away. It wasn’t based on principle, which, I think, happens to a lot of musicians where it’s like, “I am not known for this anymore. This isn’t me.” For me it was like, “This just sucks.”

We would take our kids on the road. The shows were fantastic, and that was beautiful. I’ll never stop loving that, but having three kids on the road with a bunch of guys who don’t have kids and the kind of shows we’d put on, all these crazy and really physically demanding shows … It started to require me to fuck with my body, fuck with my health, and live that kind of 20-year-old get-wasted-and-play-a-show life. It just doesn’t agree with me. For some people, it feels perfectly cool, and good for them. If you can do it, praise you. But I needed a break.

So you felt like, logistically, there weren’t enough hours in the day to have to get through your core responsibilities and still do band stuff?
It wasn’t even the responsibilities. It’s not so much that I didn’t have time with my family, ’cause I was lucky enough to have them on the road, and we would just sit there all day together. And my other responsibility was writing, and writing just requires me to sit there, so I did have all the time in the world to really do whatever. People in bands complain about this shit, but we really just sit around all day most of the time.

That can be its own hell.
Yeah, that is its own hell. But it was, like, fatigue of the drama, fatigue of seeing guys do shitty things to their wives and girlfriends, you know? All the clichés of the rock world. People letting drugs destroy their lives and friendships. Loyalty being broken. This is stuff for college kids and people in their early 20s. If you’re gonna be in a band near midlife, you gotta really stop living it like you’re 19 and in a van playing VFW halls. And a lot of the dudes in the punk scene are clutching to that, I feel. It’s not everyone, but I feel like it’s cyclical. I always felt a little weird about it. I am so much more comfortable at home. I really am a homebody. I was, at times, somewhat self-medicating to get through it. I was at times just numbing myself thought-wise and not really feeling fulfilled and happy.

Then it eventually led to a full breakdown, which, in turn, led to a manic episode. I just can’t do that. I can’t. This bipolar stuff … you just have to be really careful, and I don’t like putting my family through it. You know, they had never seen me like that, and a lot of of this is connected to this album — in the concept behind it and making it and changing labels in the middle of recording it. I’m kind of lucky that I came out of it as okay as I did. And I’m really proud of what I accomplished artistically with it. But it was definitely … only a lunatic decides that he’s gonna immerse himself in this character that he loathes so that he can write a record. It’s cool, but then it was ironic because it showed me how detrimental the whole thing can be.

So the grueling process of making Oliver Appropriate changed your life for the better?
I think it’s helped me confront a lot of insecurities I had about my character by defining what I’m not, through the character that I created … or that I felt was sort of an extension of the character on our first album. And it helped me understand the scope of our career in that way. And that helped me figure out what I wanted to do in the future, and what I didn’t want to do in the future. Just by knowing what things were intrinsically good for me. Just by exploring the darkness that I’ve never really touched upon in my life. But I guess I’ve always been afraid of doing that. So, by seeing it spelled out in someone else, and flirting with it, obviously not living the most healthy life for around a year, I was able to basically decide what was good for me. And it also got real bad. It led to a breakdown, but if it wasn’t for that breakdown, I wouldn’t have made the decision to stop touring. [To] focus on writing, and focus on my family. And I’ve obviously been, or not obviously, but I’ve been a lot better, and felt more fulfilled. Any yet I still really love the album. And I don’t regret the journey. So I feel like in the end it really did have a positive effect, beyond some of the obvious negative results.

What inspired you to take that plunge into the depths? I get that it was an exercise in sort of expunging darkness out of yourself. How does that idea come about?
Well, I think it was a combination of what I was reading about at the time, which was [about] psychopaths and the idea of a lack of empathy. There’s always been Say Anything songs — especially on the first album, which was written about a character — but even since then, when I listen back … there’s a lot of songs that say these broad statements that are basically, “I’m a bad person.” When I started writing this new record, there was some of that. And I started to feel like, “Wait, this doesn’t exactly feel like me anymore.” This feels foreign, almost an exaggeration of the things that I fear, rather than a complete account of what I literally do with my time. And so I thought it would be kind of an interesting exercise to really step outside of how I live my life and to think, “What if I really did have the problems that I fear I have, instead of just fearing having them?” Like, I’m neurotic, so I fear being a bad person. But I don’t in my heart really believe I am. But what if I was? That was the thinking going into it. So, I was, again, reading a lot about dark things. And watching a lot of independent horror films. With disturbing …

Are you excited about the Netflix Ted Bundy docuseries that just came out?
Yes, I am, I am. The whole thing is fascinating to me. There’s a lot of people who feel fascinated with that. It doesn’t necessarily make you a weirdo. We live on Earth with people who are alien to us.

There’s something deeply fascinating about the idea of someone performing goodness, while there’s something else entirely going on. I think it’s one of the bigger stories of the decade, that there have been all these people, and not even on a serial-killer level, but people who have been perceived as upright citizens who have turned out to not be.
Yes. Obviously, the character Oliver is a musician. And I think part of what inspired me to write about a failed … it isn’t intrinsic to him being a failed musician. It was a statement about my generation and the dark side of leftist, liberal culture. Because I love those things. I’m just a typical guy who’s obsessed with equal rights. I have all of the normal opinions of someone who’s pretty far left, bordering on, or is an anarchist. And yet I can look around at a lot of the things I’ve seen come into play. When you’re in a band, you really get to see some of what people worship. The truth behind what people worship. And a lot people in bands — and artists and politicians, but specifically bands — put themselves across as someone but then are actually someone maybe a little bit dark. They do things that are hurtful or act meanly. They don’t have to be murderers, but I’ve just seen a lot of people over the years turn out to be the worst versions of themselves, because they’re enabled by being an artist, or being a musician.

This guy, this character is someone who spent his youth touring, and being in a sort of successful emo band. Me and my friend Will, who made the record with me, were saying that a lot of these guys are kind of like child stars, where they are enabled from a really young age. I dropped out of college to do this. So I wasn’t even, like, a full human being. I didn’t know anything about the world. And then suddenly you have people working for you, taking you from place to place, at whatever scale you’re working …

A lot of people get trapped in a certain stage of their development and stay there forever.
Yeah, and meanwhile, your whole life is evolving. These guys will grow up and start a family on the side but then have an entirely different life out on the road, or when they go to parties or go to bars. And it’s a duality that to me is a really interesting. And I felt like, especially in the context of emo, which sadly … I love it. I love a lot of the bands and the initial mentality behind it, but it really did kind of evolve into this opposite of what it was meant to be, which was a championship of love, and respect for women in a punk environment where there wasn’t that much of that. And then it kind of turned into the exact opposite, like sort of a rebirth of the ’70s misogyny end of rock and roll. I was there to see that transformation, and it was always really depressing for me. So I wanted to write about someone who is the embodiment of that. There’s a lot of people that I know, that are kind of mish-moshed into this character. And there’s things about me that I’ve mish-moshed into it, just to keep it interesting, so I’m not completely divorced from the character. But I do think that, morally and intrinsically, he’s more of an opposite to me, than an embodiment of anything that I would believe or do.

What do you think needs to happen for that culture of entitled maleness, and masculinity, and putting that ahead of everything else, to change?
I think it’s already changing. I notice that, if we’re just talking about indie rock or punk, the younger bands that go out on the road with us, they are, and this is a generalized statement, but there’s boundaries that are set about how people interact with fans, how women in bands are treated. If you go younger than us, it’s just getting better and better. I really do believe in the future, and that we’re just evolving as a species. So I think it’s just dying out. There’s a reason that 90 percent of the bands of our generation broke up. And they may be getting back together for reunion shows and stuff, but it died off. Because people smelled it. You know what I mean?

I feel like [Say Anything] was lucky to transcend that a little bit, and that’s why I felt like we accomplished what I wanted to accomplish and why I felt comfortable calling it quits, at least for now. I was like, “I just want to show that we’re not … that.” We kept touring after it was fashionable to be emo, when people were getting hundreds, thousands, and millions of dollars to go on the road and be on MTV. We wanted to do something that we felt had integrity. So we kept doing it. I think I did my best to try to separate myself from some of those … I mean there’s still things that I have in common with a lot of those bands. Not all of them embody what I’m talking about. There’s some great ones, and great people. But I remember playing festivals where I would hear some of the stuff that people would say backstage. I would be so grossed out.

One of the things that made me quit, or stop for now … We played a festival in the U.K., and I was in a really bad place, extra sensitive at the time. I was having a breakdown. And it just hit me. “Oh my God, this is still going on.” You know what I mean? The bar scene, the after parties. Everyone is getting older, and it’s just getting sadder. And I’m like, “This is not me.” I like to sit at home with my family. And that isn’t to say that it’s bad to go out and have fun, especially if you’re single, I guess. But there’s a certain cyclical and dark, dark side to something that was supposed to be the light side of punk. It’s supposed to be less nihilistic, more caring and compassionate, but if it’s basically the same thing, what’s the point?

Are you worried that people are going to say, “He’s just trying to make himself look good and ingratiate himself by cutting up on the community”?
I think I’ve always kind of cut up on the community. I’m kind of … known for it?

You are the guy who wrote “Admit It.”
Exactly. We never fit in perfectly. I’m friends with a lot of people in the punk community, and I consider myself a punk, but part of our whole thing was always criticizing. Even criticizing myself. There are things that I say about Oliver on the record that I still feel. Someone who’s a good person, or someone I consider a good person, they still have a lot of these conflicts. It’s just that when they are combined with certain social factors, or personality traits, or whatever, sometimes they make someone a complete bastard. And sometimes they just make you a normal person suffering. I hope people can relate to Oliver’s struggles. There are lines on there that really do speak to stuff I’ve been through. I will say that the character I have in mind is very different from me, but there are things on there, whether it be substance issues or depression or having a hard time with getting older or feeling marginalized by being in an emo band. The whole joke of the record is that he is so close to being me.

You could’ve been that.
Oh yeah, I could have, if certain things were different, if I was genetically a little bit different. I want it to deviate just enough that it’s weird, and people feel weird listening to it and maybe question themselves. It’s one thing to be a neurotic, or someone who questions themselves, or has a lot of these problems. I don’t want to become … dark. I don’t want to hurt all other people because I’m hurting. So I wanted to show an example of someone who crosses the line into where they’re letting their issues bleed out into hurting someone else instead of being something that he grapples with and learns to connect with and be at one with.

The reason I’m so fascinated with serial killers and stuff like that is that even though I can never forgive anyone for acts like that, I still feel some amount of sympathy for the ones that were environmentally induced, because a lot of it can be, unless you’re just a straight-up maniac. Like, a lot of people were abused, or neglected, and then it matches up with their genetic thing, and they end up fucking killing people, or just being a mean person. A lot of mean people are made into mean people because other people were mean to them. So I guess I’m just trying to throw a wrench in that whole cycle somehow, by calling it out.

I appreciate that the record talks about sexuality in a sensitive fashion. Well, I don’t know if “sensitive” is the right phrasing. I appreciate that Oliver Appropriate dramatizes the struggle and what can happen if people aren’t careful and honest with themselves, and how, to that end, you’ve been open about your journey. You’ve said before that people around you knew what your situation was, but to open up and just tell everyone what the story was in a big long letter, I think it helps younger people who are struggling to find and define themselves.
I hope so. I hope so. I hope that it not only helps people who are afraid of coming out, but it helps people who may be out, but have a hard time in their own head feeling good about it, or feel like they’re too far on one side of the spectrum, or like their sexuality doesn’t make sense. I think part of why I wrote that letter, was to kind of help get rid of some of the stereotypes that people may have about queer people. I’m not the “stereotypical” queer person. I’m open about that side of my sexuality, but …

You pass, as the saying goes.
Any experiences I had with that were extremely young, and limited. I acknowledge it because I think it’s important in society, where people are barely allowed to address where they are on the spectrum. So I wanted to be like, “Yeah.” You can be a dude who never really suffered from feeling bad about it, and just generally attracted to the opposite sex. And is happily married, and obsessed with his wife. And still acknowledge yourself as being not completely just straight.

You’d be surprised what it takes for people to figure out that they’re not talking to a straight person.
I don’t really hold that against anyone. I believe that more people have elements of pansexuality to them than are willing to admit. It’s such a spectrum. Like, you can find one person really attractive, and not necessarily everyone of that sex, and still, in my eyes, fall somewhere on the spectrum. I feel like it’s way too black and white right now, the way people see [sexuality]. I felt like I wanted to err on the side of allying myself with people who feel comfortable with that, rather than people who would be like, “Ew!” Or like, “No, he’s not!” I would much rather be like, “Sorry, I am.” I didn’t feel like I even needed to say anything about it. It wasn’t like I felt like I was hiding anything. I thought I was kind of obvious. But I feel like, in the social climate where we’re at right now, it’s important, if you’re a public figure, especially, and you can help someone else out, like you said, then yeah, of course. Why not err on that side of honesty and oversharing? I’d rather overshare. Obviously that’s kind of my whole thing.

If you never play another Say Anything show again, if you never come back to the band, how do you want it to be remembered?
With some sort of warmth. It’s the humanism of the band. I think when you came to our shows, even though we would be singing about sort of dark stuff, I felt that there was always a camaraderie with us and the audience, that we were on the same level, and that everyone was celebrating something. We were celebrating by addressing the most awkward, kind of shameful, embarrassing things together. And saying, “Oh, we’re all freaks” together. And that’s okay. And It helped certain people feel better. It helped me feel better. It helped some other people in my band feel better. And that’s a positive thing to do in the world. You know what I mean? I hope that we’re remembered for that.

The quality of the music, or how successful we were, that’s completely subjective. What isn’t subjective is that someone once brought the album home, and it made them feel better. Or they came to a show, and they got to release their feelings, and then feel a catharsis. So that’s how I remember it. It’s just that it was, even though it was certainly a fickle, complex organism, it was based on positivity, and it all came from my will to try to give people hope and make them feel more proud. So there was always something positive in the center of it. I hope it’s remembered for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Bemis Closes the Book on Say Anything