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?
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?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.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.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?
That can be its own hell.
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?
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?
Are you excited about the Netflix Ted Bundy docuseries that just came out?
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.
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.
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 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”?
You are the guy who wrote “Admit It.”
You could’ve been that.
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.
You pass, as the saying goes.
You’d be surprised what it takes for people to figure out that they’re not talking to a straight person.
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?
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.
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