In early February, Say Anything frontman Max Bemis invoked Beyoncé and Kanye West when he announced his band’s new surprise album, I Don’t Think It Is. Name-checking Bey and Ye as inspirations could be considered confounding for a man who’s long experimented with a mixture of pop-punk, emo and indie rock, but Bemis has never been one to bend to what’s expected. Say Anything recently landed on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “40 Greatest Emo Albums of All Time” with their 2004 debut, … Is a Real Boy, an enthralling rock opera that mutates cynicism into life-affirming anthems.
For the predecessor to I Don’t Think It Is, 2014’s Hebrews, Bemis ditched guitars and embraced a cornucopia of orchestral instruments. In the case of I Don’t Think It Is, Bemis dropped the news of its existence days before it arrived — hence the Beyoncé reference — and in a lengthy note to fans, he revealed that some of the new material grew out of a studio session with West himself.
Kanye isn’t the only one who helped Bemis on I Don’t Think It Is. The 31-year-old frontman first began kicking around ideas with Mutemath drummer Darren King. King became an equal partner in making the new album — a shift from Bemis’s auteur-style approach to previous Say Anything albums. But Bemis has long been keen on shifting ideas of how to approach making music. Before setting off on a nationwide Say Anything tour, beginning April 20th, Bemis talked to Rolling Stone about embracing collaboration, Kanye’s contribution to I Don’t Think It Is and his position in the broader punk scene.
In the introduction for I Don’t Think It Is, you mentioned that Kanye inspired the album’s collaborative element. What about his approach to collaboration and his music resonates with you?
The difference between someone like Kanye and someone like the Beatles is that so much of what he does is in debt to his collaborations. He started out as a producer — and I still think he thinks of himself more as a producer. I loved making our first few records where I would play most of the instruments and have all this stuff that was so much in my control that I knew if I screwed it up, it was all down to me. But on the past couple, and especially this one, I was really glad to hand the baton to other people. It felt more like being in a band, or being someone like Dr. Dre or someone like that who works with other people, who works with other artists. So much of the music I love is created that way that I thought it would be kind of a disservice to never really try or not trust other people to understand what I’m trying to get across enough to put their own stamp on it and still achieve what I’m trying.
Given that Say Anything’s been a band for more than 15 years, why try that on this album? And why did Darren King end up being your main collaborator?
I didn’t really know what I was gonna do for our next record except for knowing the things I didn’t want to do, which was a) doing the same orchestral arrangement [as on Hebrews] or b) making some kind of back-to-basics, boring retread. But it takes a lot for me to go, “Oh, this is the direction; this is what’s gonna make a really fun process, and a worthwhile record.” A lot of times, I overthink that. We were a little early to start thinking about making another record, and Darren was like, “Hey, I’d love to work on your record or play drums on it.”
It went from him playing drums on it, to being, “Hey, let’s mess around and play music together.” Before we knew it, there was this opportunity to work on some music with and for Kanye, and so we started with that. Then we went to L.A. and got to work a little bit in their studio and it was really awesome. We found that we worked really well together, and that song, which obviously didn’t make it to the Kanye record, ended up being the song “Rum” on our record.
And that was it. We were like, “God, this is fun.” We didn’t overthink anything, and we kind of just asked the label, “Hey, I think we’re making a record right now.” And they’re like, “OK, sure.” Because we were producing it ourselves, it wasn’t a big deal to start work early. We made it over the course of a year, just whenever we had time and when we were inspired. Everything was very much a stream-of-consciousness thing, and that gave the record its entire flavor and vibe. In terms of why now, I think it’s just because it happened, and ultimately then it made complete sense to me because I’ve never made a record this way. I’ve never made a record I didn’t overthink, and I didn’t really know what I was gonna do next until it just happened, and I’m like, “Oh, this feels great.”
How did you decide to pull in other musicians to finesse your ideas?
It was all really natural. Cody [Votolato, of Blood Brothers] and Paul [Hinojos, of At the Drive-in], we were gonna make a record together, and it just didn’t end up happening. But we worked on songs together, so I ended up just saying, “Hey, man, I love some of these songs — I don’t want them just sitting around, so can I use a couple for a new Say Anything record?” And Cody was totally stoked. So I basically took the demos where Cody is still playing guitar, cause his guitar is still on our record, and we just built the track around the demo. I’ve kind of been doing a little bit of this since our second record — even the first one, … Is a Real Boy. I’m kind of used to this process, and people expect it from me, so it’s not that awkward. They’re like, “This is the guy who put 30 people on his second record.”
So when I call up my friends or someone I know vaguely through Twitter, I think there’s a sense of, “Oh, this makes sense.” People are more often than not just down to have fun, and usually it doesn’t really require much from them. Once in a while, we’ll get really special stuff happening where someone writes their own part, or alters the part in some really cool way. I’ve become more and more open to that, which goes back to the spirit of collaboration. Say Anything isn’t just me; it’s me and whoever’s around me. I think if it was just me, it would become boring really quick.
There are a number of younger musicians on the album: Christian Holden from the Hotelier, Michelle Zauner from Little Big League. Why did you decide to reach out to these artists in particular?
There’s a definite link and connection between my band and those bands. It may not be direct — in some cases it is. A lot of those artists I find out they’ve grown up listening to Say Anything, or we had some important part in their musical history, or they sprung from what we were doing even indirectly. They’re carrying the torch, but the more important thing is that those are the artists that I listen to. The young artists on the last couple records, they’re all my favorites.
A really good example is Christian from the Hotelier, who’s one of my favorite songwriters ever, not just because he’s young but because he’s that talented. So getting him to sing on [our record] is like having someone in my favorite band sing on it. It’s not necessarily the passing-the-torch thing. I see these people as my peers at this point ’cause they’re so talented. Some of them do it better than I do it, so hopefully it will rub off on us.
Earlier you mentioned you didn’t want to make more orchestral music — your previous album, Hebrews, didn’t use any guitars. What was it like transitioning from that mode of songwriting to something heavier?
I was worried by going back to guitars I’d be doing my same old bag of tricks. I think having space from them gave me inspiration to be, like, “Oh, what can I do with the guitar that isn’t just the same Say Anything chords and time changes that I always use?” I went into it super fresh and found interesting things to do with the guitar. A lot of that had to do with Darren, and using weird analog effects on the guitars.
But in terms of the basic songwriting, I don’t think the guitars factored into either record. I remember writing the first song on Hebrews, “666,” on an acoustic guitar and being like, “Oh, I love this song.” And then when the string thing started to take over, I was like, “OK, well, I can still do that with strings; it’s just gonna be a punk rock song with strings.” We could’ve technically made this whole record with strings, but it just wouldn’t be as good of a fit.
Lyrically, you don’t tend to hold much back about yourself. With that in mind, is “Wire Mom” a reference to the time you vomited onstage while performing … Is a Real Boy in Hollywood?
It is. I just thought it was so funny — it was such a good moment. Thankfully, I’ve had a few moments like that, but I don’t have a terrible history of it, so I kind of look at it as a quintessential rock & roll pathetic moment. It’s the kind of thing where someone — their guitar goes out and they throw it into the crowd, or someone gets hit in the head with a shoe. For me, it was puking onstage during the quiet song of the set. I have no problem referencing it, especially when it worked in the context of the song.
What was the most challenging thing you addressed about yourself on the new album?
This record, when I think of it, I think of it as really positive. I guess it would be the song “17 Coked Up and Speeding,” ’cause that’s just basically putting it out there — my actual history with drugs, debauchery and soulless living during my late teens, early twenties. You probably could’ve ascertained any of that stuff from our early records, but in this case, it’s just right there. So [when] my mom listens to that song, it’s like, “Oh, shit, that’s what he was doing.” And my kids will hear it one day, so I guess that’s a little testy. But I never have a problem saying it — I kind of get off on it. That’s really one of the only things that I have to offer as a songwriter — this borderline-uncomfortable revealing-ness. So I do get off on it. When I wrote that song I was like, “Great, I didn’t know I needed to talk about this, but I guess I did.”
You mention your earlier material, and on “Jiminy” you sing the line, “So destroy our first LP if you know what’s good for me.” How has the legacy of … Is a Real Boy affected your ability to create new music?
There are times where I thought that maybe it was having some negative effect, because obviously it’s our Dookie or Colour and the Shape, or whatever — any record from any band that everyone feels they’ll never top. But that’s something that over the years has just become part of me, and I think I like to acknowledge it more than a lot of songwriters and people in bands do. A lot of people actually resent it, whereas I don’t resent it, but I accept that it has an effect. I’m really proud that we have a record that meant so much to people that it actually will have that role where it is hard to top for people, emotionally, with their connection to it.
I don’t resent it but it affects me. When someone will blatantly go up to me or tweet, “You should just do … Is a Real Boy,” there’s an adverse emotional reaction at that exact moment. I have to be, like, “It’s cool; I get this. It’s not hammering my soul or tearing away my will to live, but it is annoying.” And then in my own heart, I’m critical of myself: “Can I top that record?” Every single record I make, I’m trying to top that record, to me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because I know a lot of bands that give up on trying to top their early material. They just kind of disappear into this weird malaise of just trying to be a band for the sake of being a band, and they’ll never relive their glory days. I like the last two records more than I like some of our earlier records. In my mind, it’s an important thing. It just shouldn’t be the governing factor of why I do everything, but it has to factor in somewhere.
“Some people are stoked that we’re here; some people are like, ‘What the fuck is this Warped Tour son of a bitch still making music for?'”
You’ve been so involved in the scene all these years. What do you feel is your role in it today?
It’s a very complex role. We’ve adopted a very ambiguous role in indie rock, in punk rock, in emo. … We’re so polarizing, and it’s our role to confuse people to some degree. That’s a dominating thing that at least I witness, is that we make people question the paradigm of, like, emo as an early-2000s thing being like hair metal. I think most of my peers in the bands that we grew up playing with have broken up. The fact that we’re still here, we’re still getting some good reactions, trying hard and still have a pretty broad audience, I think it confuses some people. I think it makes some people angry, or it makes some people happy. In terms of our relationship to the scene, I think that’s it. Some people are stoked that we’re here; some people are like, “What the fuck is this Warped Tour son of a bitch still making music for?”
Honestly, to our fans, if it wasn’t for scene politics, I would just like to think we’re still providing an example of something they can relate to. Something that’s really truthful, comes from a good place and also tries to actually be artistic about that instead of just, like, bare-bones, no finesse whatsoever. So that’s what I hope is the real core of it. But I know in the scheme of society, we have this weird, very idiosyncratic role in terms of what we mean to the music world. I like that, and I like that we can’t be pegged down, that we confuse people, and incite people to have these polar opposite and weird reactions. We’re doing something meaningful, at least.