Say Anything's Max Bemis on His "Inherently Disturbing and Weird" Lyrics

Max Bemis of Say Anything is one hell of a frontman. He's been through a lot emotionally, and his lyrics certainly prove it. But over the years, and over the course of releasing several records, Max and the band have come a long way. The lyrical content has developed, and their sound is now more genuine.

We spoke to Max about intimate performances, the recent evolution of SxSW, and the effect that his lyrics have on the band's fans. We also talked a lot about Say Anything's new album, Anarchy, My Dear.

Say Anything is scheduled to perform at the Marquee Theatre on Tuesday, May 1.

Up on the Sun: How do your ideas of anarchy and religion affect your music?

Max Bemis: I try not to write any songs, or maybe I'm incapable of writing any songs, in which I don't have some kind of deep belief in what I'm writing about. I'm really connected to both my spirituality and this idea of anarchy, and they're the basis of anything that I'm saying or talking about, to some degree. They're definitely a huge influence.

Your music is emotionally driven. Tell me about the connection that you and your fans experience at a typical Say Anything concert. I'm sure a lot of them feel like they can really relate to the lyrics you're singing to them.

Yeah, I think it becomes a very physical manifestation for everybody at the show, including the band and the people attending. It is deeply personal music. It shakes you up inside, hopefully. You connect to it. I try to express that with my body when I'm performing, and I think it provokes the audience to do the same. It's kind of a back and forth thing, like the chicken or the egg syndrome of "Who's creating this energy?" It could be the audience; it could be us. But the room kind of erupts. It's a very chaotic, emotional thing.

You recently did a signing at a record store in St. Louis and an acoustic gig at a Sony store in New York City. Tell me what it is that you enjoy about having such intimacy with your fans.

It's a whole other thing when you strip away the loudness of the band. We tend to be a pretty loud band, in general, especially live, but we're also very lyrically driven. So our fans like to sing along and say every word. It's definitely like a whole other experience where they get to sort of see the raw, stripped [version] of the loudness of a rock band.

Throughout the years and over the course of releasing a few records, it's evident that you've grown a lot. In what ways do you feel that Anarchy, My Dear is different than your previous records?

[It's different] on a bunch of levels. Thematically, it's our first record that's not about hating the world and hating yourself. I'm not saying that that was really the core belief that I was going for; there was a lot of hope in the first three records. But they were about the struggle of self-loathing and self-defeat, which I pretty much escaped in life, so I stopped writing about it. So I think that's the main difference. And then sonically, it's a lot more raw and it kind of sounds like a real band is playing in a room as opposed to a production. And there are no big, loud, distorted guitars until the very last song. It sounds a lot like real post-punk or indie rock as opposed to pop punk.

Say Anything's music is lyrically driven, and I think that's one of the things you guys are known for. Why is that such an important focus for you?

There are different ways to experience music. Sometimes a melody just really captures your fancy or a guitar player or an arrangement. But our music has always gravitated toward bringing people in with the lyrics. I think you really need some way to really make the impact. I'm not saying that we don't make an impact musically; Coby is a ridiculous drummer, and he definitely pulls people in with the rhythm and how powerful it can be. But I think the main thing you first [consider] when you're listening to Say Anything is, "What [is he] saying?" It's different things for different bands. I'm not as good a lyricist as Bob Dylan, but it's not like when you listen to a Bob Dylan song, you're like, "Wow!" because that melody is great, even though a lot of melodies are great. You're like, "Woah, he just said something profound," or "he just said something that I relate to." And I'd like to think that we're kind of in that school of songwriting where what I'm saying is what pulls you in.

When you take a closer look at the lyrics in the song "Say Anything," it kind of has a violent side. In a way, it's sweet that you would do all those things to be with the one you love. But aren't "condemning your race to genocide" and "forfeiting Grandma's civil rights" a bit much?

Yeah, they are. But at the same time, I would probably do them all for my wife. It's the flip side of when you're looking someone in the eye, and you say, "I'd do anything for you." It's a big statement. If someone [approached me and said,] "You have to sacrifice your wife's life, but then a bunch of lives get saved," I don't think I'm selfless enough to sacrifice my wife's life for anything. So it's the dark side of this beautiful . . . I don't even see it as a dark thing. Even though it is inherently disturbing and weird, and not what you want to think about, I'm really glad that it exists on this earth that that's how we feel about the people we really care about because otherwise no one would have any loyalty to anyone. You wouldn't feel passion about anything.

You performed at this year's SxSW festival. This year was full of big-name highlights, like Springsteen, Fiona Apple, Eminem, and some others. Do you feel like the meaning of SxSW has changed over the past few years, since the purpose of the festival is to shed some light on the smaller names and the little guys?

Yeah, I do think it has shifted. The whole institution is a little weird to me, but I think it's great, and I'm really honored they keep having us back. But it's always been a little bit confusing. I feel like a lot of the bands that are playing are a lot of the bands that are already gaining hype. It's not like people are necessarily there to check out a lot of new bands. But at the same time, it's awesome. As long as there are people listening to music in large amounts, and [there are] people exchanging information about music and musicians interacting with each other, it's a beautiful thing. I really support it. But I do think it would be cooler if it were a little less about hype.

What's next for Say Anything, besides an extensive spring/summer tour?

We're going to be doing some international stuff. And then after that we're probably going to take a little bit of a break, and then get back to doing another U.S. tour either later this year or maybe next year. [We're] putting together a rarities collection for Equal Vision. We really just want to go all out with this record and try to push it into people's consciousness as much as possible, so we're just trying to focus on it as much as we can.

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Lenni Rosenblum