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Max Bemis, Say Anything mature with grace, bring new perspective to old angst

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 16, 2012 05:23 PM

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max bemis say anything.jpgBy Ryan Hadfield

It's Saturday night, and a few minutes ago, Mike Shinall was euphorically singing along with 2,500 of his peers at a sold-out House of Blues. “Do you want it? Do you need it? Do you feel it?” he screeched.

“He has something that a lot of other songwriters today don't have,” said Shinall, 26, of Max Bemis, lead singer and guitarist of Say Anything, who just finished their set. “I can't quite put my finger on it. It's way more personal. It speaks more to the underlying feelings and emotions that you're connecting with. Through his music, he has been with me through a lot of the awful [stuff] I've dealt with. So he has been with me more than he realizes. I know that sounds super weird.”

Normally he'd be right. But given the collective synergy of the inhabitants in this particular milieu, Shinall’s statement didn’t sound “super weird.” Bemis’ catalog of cathartic tunes that evoke relatable pathos come from his own experiences with “awful stuff”:  In 2004, during the recording of Say Anything's breakout record, ...Is a Real Boy, Bemis began having severe mental breakdowns and, after multiple episodes, sought treatment. He’s considered himself “recovered” since late 2005.

“The type of zaniness I was feeling when I was unhinged is a very defined type of zaniness that I don't experience at all [anymore],” Bemis said. “That's a very defined line -- from where I'm being inspired to where I think I'm being filmed [on stage].”

“Unless you are, in fact, being filmed,” I interject.

“Yeah,” Bemis said, laughing. “And, probably, I actually am.”

The 28-year-old Bemis is Say Anything: He’s the engine, the songwriter. He played every instrument, except for the drums, on each of the band’s studio albums. Consequently, his mental issues put a strain on the band's momentum following the release of IARB; Say Anything didn’t release another album until 2007. During the hiatus, some fans understood Bemis’ precarious situation, but others grew sour, he said. The latter group wanted a sequel, a new chapter with which they could soundtrack their youth and teenage angst -- which is something that Bemis said he understands.

“To understand and accept the nostalgia factor is totally normal and awesome,” Bemis said. “Who doesn't want to have things that epitomize your youth? But, at the same time, it's a trap. If you get caught up in it, you don't realize that life is moving forward.”

Naturally, fans equate the albums of their formative years to the feelings they had at the time. For its part, IARB contains elements that resonate with virtually every teenager -- love, self-esteem issues, finding yourself, and, of course, sorrow. But when artists and their audience age, a chasm between life experiences inherently grows. People reassess and refine their tastes throughout every facet of life. Bemis said he accepts this fact, but on Say Anything’s new album, Anarchy, My Dear, he castigates former patrons who deny their affection for the band’s past work.

“There is a pretty defined line between being nostalgic for a band's early days and then relegating them to the success or creative outlook that they had at such a young age or early stage in the band's development,” Bemis said. ”There are even people who continue to buy our records -- or continue to download them, more likely -- and feel like we are not cool enough to admit they do.”

Part of this selective amnesia makes sense, of course. At one point or another, we all develop tastes that, in retrospect, are not only dated but mortifying to reflect on -- S Club 7, ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin, or Smirnoff Ice, for example. Bemis -- and justifiably so -- doesn't feel that Say Anything's material belongs on that level of pop-culture ignominy. It’s just that pretentious snarkiness has become so ingrained into everyday life that some people choose to not just forget who they once were or what they once enjoyed but to entirely delete those minor details from existence and personal history.

“I see that a lot, unfortunately. It's not like we're Korn or something, like some embarrassing band,” Bemis said. “I think cool culture has gotten so extreme that to say that you listen to anything except maybe the Stooges, which is the band I reference in [“Admit It Again”], is uncool.”

Like many of his fans, Bemis is a completely different person from the 19-year-old who wrote IARB. He no longer battles with mental instability and drug use, he’s happily married, and, most importantly, he's happy. Still, the “emo” icon has no problem channeling the personal strife that fueled prior albums, mainly because the bird's-eye view he now possesses is more pleasant than being in the trenches like he was while writing the songs.

“There is more joy in [performing old material],” Bemis said. “[It’s] a painful process singing a song when it's still going on in my life and I'm still lonely and depressed. If I'm happy and able to sing about it, it's vindicating.”

Although some listeners have abandoned or outgrown Say Anything’s melodramatic style, the eclectic mix of the audience that filled the House of Blues proved that Bemis still has the ear of younger demographics. And, really, he has the best of both worlds: He’s relevant to those searching for answers to questions that only materialize with time and experience and centric to those who want to remember that time of uncertainty, when everything seemed so complicated but was actually so innocent.

And this time around, his eccentricity is very meta; his maniacal behavior is a conscious choice. Bemis is like a high school basketball player who jumps straight to the NBA -- a veteran of entertainment but still young.

“When you go through the painful process -- which every band has to go through, even the most successful bands -- [you realize] that there is more to the industry than joy, happiness, and rock and roll,” Bemis said. “If you’re 35 and that happens to you, you're like, 'Oh [no], what am I going to do now? I'm 35.' Now, thankfully, I'm 28, and I still have time to embrace the real reality of what it's like to be in a band. I'm glad we learned those lessons at a young age.”

Photo by Ashley R. Photography (Flickr)

About Ryan -- Ryan Hadfield is a writer for, predominantly covering the Boston Celtics and hosting a media podcast. He is currently working on his first book, The 25th Year: 12 Months of Suspect Choices and Strange Events. Follow him on Twitter @R_Hadfield.

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