The notoriously troubled frontman of a beloved emo outfit finds happiness without losing his edge.
Wed Oct 28 2009
“If you looked at my life on paper during the last couple of records, you’d be like, 'This guy is messed up—he needs to get his stuff together,’?” says Max Bemis, leader of the uncommonly innovative emo-punk outfit Say Anything. “But now I’m happy and more grounded.” Lending credence to his claim, his new wife and current tourmate, Sherri DuPree of Texas pop band Eisley, sits with us at the midtown office of Say Anything’s label, RCA.
If Bemis’s upbeat tone bodes well for his mental health, it raises concerns about his art. Like Weezer, one of Bemis’s avowed influences, Say Anything once served as a forum for its frontman’s insecurities and neuroses, not to mention his well-publicized struggle with bipolar disorder. The L.A.-reared band’s breakthrough release, 2002’s ...Is a Real Boy—surely one of the most visionary albums ever to fit under the umbrella term emo—combined postadolescent soul-searching with rock-operatic glitz and a hilarious streak of classically Semitic self-satire. (“Woody Allen has been as much of an influence on the band as any musician,” Bemis says.) “Every Man Has a Molly,” an ode to a girl who broke up with Bemis due to the “revealing nature” of Say Anything’s songs, exemplifies the record’s inimitable blend of catharsis and comedy: “You goddamn kids had best be gracious / With the merch money you spend / ’Cause for you, I won’t ever have rough sex / With Molly Connolly again.”
Despite its inclusion of “Shiksa (Girlfriend),” a joyous ode to a new (non-Jewish) love, ...Is a Real Boy’s follow-up, In Defense of the Genre, featured plenty of bilious kiss-offs. But on Say Anything, the band’s new effort, Bemis takes a boldly optimistic attitude toward romance. In “Crush’d,” dedicated to DuPree, he fawns, “I have a total crush on you, baby, and I can’t let it go.”
The way Bemis sees it, his newfound personal stability has opened him up to a more fruitful sort of angst. “I’m not in the mental hospital now,” he explains. “But at the same time, I have bad days, and more importantly, I function in the confines of society more. So I’m able to pinpoint the social and political things that actually make me angry and that I want to change.” Accordingly, tracks such as “Fed to Death” and “Hate Everyone” take aim at Bible-thumping warmongers, materialistic rappers and many points in between.
But Bemis is still at his best when dissecting his own troubled past. The album’s strongest song, “Eloise,” chronicles the demise of a dysfunctional relationship in sordid detail: “Band-Aids. Two infected Band-Aids / That’s all we were to each other, Eloise.”
Lines like this hark back to Bemis’s original vision for Say Anything. “When I started writing music, I was influenced by all those emo bands of the ’90s: the confessional nature of the lyrics, the catharsis, the melody,” he explains. “But then I became old enough to get what was silly about it. It’s like, I think it’s funny how sad my life is.”
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