Say Anything's Max Bemis talks about revisiting rarities, signing Tampa's Tallhart, Eisley's Kickstarter controversy and more
Max Bemis has been called a “mad genius” more than once over the years.
It’s a loaded compliment.
On one hand, Bemis is an undeniable creative force: He’s best known as the singer and songwriter of emo-pop-punk group Say Anything, but his resume has expanded to myriad side projects (Two Tongues, Perma, the Painful Splits) and his own label, Rory Records. (His first signees? Popular Tampa alt-rock band Tallhart.)
And then there’s the “mad” part. In 2005, Bemis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of public mental breakdowns, a topic covered in depth in his semi-autobiographical new comic book, Polarity.
So how does he feel about the label “mad genius?”
“I don’t agree that I’m a genius, but I am mad,” Bemis said recently by phone from his home in Tyler, Texas. “I am technically a mentally ill person who is medicated for my illness, so technically, I am mad, though sterilized. But the genius thing? Obviously, I look at real geniuses like Albert Einstein, and I’m like, 'Okay, I write a few decent songs...’ I appreciate that someone would even think that. It just makes me happy that they like my music.”
Bemis’s life has stabilized in recent years thanks to his marriage to Sherri DuPree-Bemis of the sibling pop band Eisley. In February, the couple gave birth to their first daughter, Lucy, who will accompany them on Say Anything’s “Rarities and More” tour, which hits the State Theatre on Wednesday.
Bringing Lucy on the road with Say Anything and Eisley wasn’t an easy decision. This spring, Eisley sparked some controversy for launching a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign to help DuPree-Bemis and her siblings offset the costs of touring with their families. They got to $60,000 before funding stalled after some fans complained about the band’s motivations and six-figure goal.
As he tuned up for the tour, Bemis called to talk about Kickstarter, Tallhart, his songwriting and more. Here are excerpts.
I’ve noticed that Sherri’s 100 percent comfortable sharing photos of you, Lucy and the whole family on Instagram. Was that a conversation the two of you had, regarding how much of your family life to take public?
I guess we just followed the trend of how we were dealing with our relationship, and continued it with our family. If you look at the average person in this day and age, a lot of them do share a lot of stuff like that, whether it’s baby photos or photos of you hanging out or having fun or whatever. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t want to share that with our friends and family, especially fans of our band that care about us as people. It really comes down to that. It’s not like we shared a sex tape. (laughs)
You signed Tallhart as the first band on your label. Can you tell me how you decided to sign them?
When we first signed to Equal Vision (Records), one of the ideas was that we could have our own imprint, because I have so many side projects. At first I was like, “You know, I’m so proud to be on Equal Vision, I don’t need a sub-label to justify our existence on the label.”
But my wife’s sister Christie is dating Reed (Murray), who’s the old drummer of Tallhart, and so everyone started listening to Tallhart in our family. I was blown away by their first proper record that they released themselves, and after I saw how amazing they were live, I wanted to bring back the sub-imprint — but instead of using it to focus on me completely, I wanted to sign bands that I loved. Tallhart was the first band to get me passionate enough. I wanted them to get the attention they deserved.
What’s your vision for Tallhart? What do you see them being?
To me, they offer the nuanced songwriting of a band like Manchester Orchestra or Cursive or Bright Eyes, but they do it with these soaring, emotional pop moments. So you’ll get a song that’s brilliant lyrically, with matched delivery; and the arrangement, the way they play the songs and the passion they put into it, takes it to a (new) place. That’s what’s special about the band, and I think that can take them as far as it’s destined to go. They definitely deserve to be a very big band, in my opinion. Anyone who sees them live or hears them on record, you can’t deny the talent in the band.
I’m told Reed is drumming for Say Anything on this tour.
He is. Reed is the first person that I was friends with in Tallhart, and when the rift happened in (that) band, I made it clear to both Reed and the guys in Tallhart that I wouldn’t choose sides. It’s not like it was a very bitter parting, but it’s not like those dudes are best friends anymore. Reed has continued to be one of my great friends, and as soon as Coby (Linder, Say Anything’s former drummer) left the band, he was the first person I thought of. The fact is he’s a phenomenal drummer. He’s really fun to be around, and he’s been working his ass off. As soon as we decided it was the right thing to do, he immediately went in and started learning the parts.
What was your main takeaway from Eisley’s Kickstarter experiment?
The cool thing was how many people were supportive of it. I think maybe the reason it didn’t get to $100,000 was there were these naysayers who, for whatever reason, felt the need to openly disagree with it. It’s something we as a family and Eisley as a band didn’t think about, because it was so obvious to us that it wasn’t some kind of weird fraud. No one had ever considered that; no one would ever think that. But in this day and age, the way the Internet works, you’ve kind of got to plan for the worst.
I assume that if they were to do it over, or if we were to do something like that, we would plan on the backlash. Not that it was valid in any way. I’ll go on record to say that anyone who questions the validity and the purpose of that Kickstarter, and felt the need to go out there and say it without really doing their research on it, is an asshole. (laughs)
This tour seems very fan-centric, as it’s a rarities tour. On Twitter you’ve been kind of cagey about the setlist, but I imagine that people are going to hear some songs from (this year's rarities compilation) All My Friends are Enemies?
Yeah. I’ll go so far as to say it’s half from that record and it’s half other songs from other records.
As you revisited these songs, first for the album and then for the tour, did any unexpected memories come back to mind? Did you find it like looking through an old scrapbook?
Yeah. There was an emotional connection to the songs, which I’m able to bring to my current experiences and they still apply, which means that I did something right — even though the songs are pretty weird and old, and there’s things I’d do differently. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I used to play them, I would have to play guitar live, and it was always difficult, because I was never the best guitar player, and I’m still not. So now I’m able to dance around and sing them like I would a normal Say Anything song. I’m able to emote more and lose myself in a song, and it’s really fun to re-approach the vocals without being a pubescent young boy.
It’s ironic that this is such a family-centric tour, and you tweeted the other day that you’re going to be selling a new Painful Splits record, and you’re calling it “the first break-up record i’ve written since IDOTG (2007’s In Defense of the Genre).”
I obviously haven’t been in a breakup in six or seven years, and yet there’s still a part of me that’s really affected by bad breakups, or heartbreaks that not only I have had, but ones that I have seen people close to me, my loved ones, go through. There’s something really substantial about the act of letting go of a relationship that I’m not necessarily done singing about, even though it hasn’t happened to me in a really long time. I still wear the scars from when it happened, despite how little I think about it. When I really do go there emotionally, it’s like a therapy session. You dig in and find all these old emotions you have.
As a songwriter, is there really all that much inspiration in stability? Or do you have to struggle to find a conflict, push and a pull, to write about?
Definitely not. Even though I’m married and have a kid and I consider myself a really centered, happy individual, every day is still a struggle for me, not just existentially, but emotionally. Every day you’re presented with problems you have to solve. Every day you’re presented with injustice in the world, stuff that’s so stark and dark and affecting that it’s so hard for me not to always want to be writing songs. Until you’re dead, you’re struggling, is how I see it. Just because you’re happy in life doesn’t mean that there’s not constantly stuff to write about. There’s good things to write about. There doesn’t always have to be conflict.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*