Recently we were lucky enough to sit down with Max Bemis in the Inked offices as he enjoyed a rare day off from touring in support of Say Anything’s new album Hebrews. Bemis discussed ditching guitars in favor of strings, what it’s like to meet fans with Say Anything tattoos, and the Man in Black.
Where did the title Hebrews come from?
I think I was just writing a record about myself that I also wanted to be about my people. But really it’s about anyone who belongs to a certain group of people. By that I mean that I wrote the record in the mindset that you could be black or you could be gay or a woman—anything where you are put into a certain box. In my case, I was focusing on the aspect of myself associated with being a Jew, a Hebrew. That doesn’t mean that the album is entirely about being Jewish but a lot of the themes are tied up into my psychology and a lot of my psychology is tied up with my culture.
Not to get overly philosophical but can you delve into that a little deeper?
(Laughs) I’m an open book, as you might have guessed. In my case I am a neurotic and I am really insecure. I have anxiety complexes and abandonment complexes… all kinds of stuff. Stuff that I have worked through, thankfully, and now I am living a really blessed and happy life. I have an amazing wife and I just had a kid. When I wrote the record I had just found out that my wife was pregnant and I kind of went from a five or six-year period where I felt that ignorance was bliss. Not in a bad way necessarily, but I had no real emotional challenges because my marriage has been awesome and I have close friends. There have been ups and downs but nothing really that bad. Realizing that I was going to have to take on the responsibility of fatherhood forced me to question myself in a way that I hadn’t done in a very long time. I may be good at being married—I’m good at being a 29-year-old dude that doesn’t have a job and basically just plays music and sits on his ass all day—but am I a good enough person to raise a human being? It brought up a lot of negative and positive stuff for me. I feel like I wanted to tell the story of that journey from a carefree person through the self-loathing to the responsibility I had once she was born and how I was going to deal with that. The album concludes in an open-ended way. There is a narrative that goes throughout the album.
Did you intend for there to be a narrative when you started working on the record or did it just happen naturally?
Usually what happens to me—I think 3 out of 5 of our records have some sort of narrative—is that I write one or two songs without any concept of what it’s going to be like other than a vague idea of what I want to do sonically and lyrically. The songs end up starting to form a narrative since my writing is so autobiographical it is just obvious. Then I start filling in the blanks a little bit. There’s a song about halfway through the record called “Push” that is clearly about Lucy’s birth, and it’s also clearly the middle section of the record. I felt that I needed something to bridge the gap between one part of the story and the next so I wrote that song. By the time that we got into the actual production of the record the songs were already in order, somewhere in between writing the first song and actually making the record it all came together.
What made you want to put the guitars away and make an entire album with strings?
I feel like I have always wanted to make records that were a departure from the record preceding it. I feel like each one has been that way but often it is pretty subtle. I have always been looking for something that made sense that would be a big jump for us. It’s mostly just because my tastes skew toward bands that do that. It’s exciting to put on a new record because I don’t like to hear the same thing over and over again in most instances. Even if it is a subtle shift or a different producer it excites me.
In what ways have you altered the band’s sound previously before making this big jump?
There was a point on the last record when I put away big, heavy distorted guitars. That was the subtle shift; there were no heavy guitars throughout the record. I felt that it was a shift but it wasn’t enough of a shift. The producer of our last record told us while we were making it that we should make an orchestral record, just strings. I was like, Haha…. Wait. That’s it. I’m going to actually do that. But now I can’t think about it because I have to make this whole entire other record and then tour on it for two years. The whole time in the back of my mind I was thinking orchestral record, orchestral record. When it finally became time to start writing this album and I sat down to write the first song that’s how I was thinking about it. I figured if it didn’t work, whatever, we can just play it on guitars and it wouldn’t be a big deal since I write on an acoustic guitar, but it made sense in my mind.
You wrote the album on acoustic guitar and with a computer, what was it like when you first heard the album with real strings?
It blew my mind in a way that I thought the guy that recorded this is so talented I can’t believe that this sounds so good.
Were you ever afraid that it wouldn’t sound right with strings?
It became most apparent that it was going to work during that period when I would be sitting in my living room programming these songs and hearing ultimately how it would feel. I also had the thought that I didn’t think this was going to be that jarring to people and that was comforting. If it had been so jarring where it had made people think what the hell happened I think I would have had a lot more apprehension about the way people would receive the album. I knew that it was feeling like a punk rock record and that made me feel a lot better about it.
I think it’s the sort of thing where if you explain the concept to someone it will sound like a huge change but once they are listening to it the punk rock heart of the album comes out.
I think part of that has to do with the fact that we’ve always had this playful, musical quality to the band. We’ve always done a lot of experimental stuff with time changes. Our most quote/un-quote popular song is probably “Alive With the Glory of Love” and that sounds like it should be in Rent, so I think it’s like you said, in theory it sounds like a lot crazier of a shift than it is.
Now that you are touring on this album have you found that it translates to your live show?
Basically we hired new musicians just for this tour and we have instituted a sort of revolving door policy for musicians in this band. So the guys that used to play in the band are still going to be playing with us at times but at other times it’s going to be who knows? Right now it’s a few dudes all from bands that I am really obsessed with. Basically they are such good musicians I told them to listen to these parts and just adapt it to guitars and keyboard. So we’ve been playing the songs with keys and guitar so it’s different. But live I have never felt any awkwardness has resulted from that, kids are rocking out and singing along to the songs from the record. So far, it’s worked. Not to say that I don’t want to eventually play with the strings live but I think for this first tour I needed the album to be spiced up a little bit.
Have you been able to integrate the new songs alongside your older ones during concerts or do they stick out?
They really just sound like the rest of our stuff, they just work. We open with “Six Six Six” which is the first song off of Hebrews and kids just go nuts. Then we’ll play a song off of ... Is a Real Boy and it’ll be seamless. It’s proof that it wasn’t that jarring of a musical shift, the only real shift was that they were stings and not guitars.
You bring in a ton of different musicians to collaborate alongside you on this record. Did you write pieces specifically for those guests or did they come up with something once you decided to involve them?
Some of them I knew right when I wrote the part I knew that it was for someone specific. Since I write the instruments first I have the basic lyrics and melody. So the way that a song comes together there were times when I thought, oh maybe someone could write something over this. The idea of having a guest vocalist began with only wanting to have one or two. Then as the songs progressed I thought that it felt like it was the kind of record that would benefit from having this entire cast as opposed to just me. I’m kind of thinking that this is what I always want to do. Now we’re in this place where it’s me and all of these other random people who contributed. That’s why it’s not Max Bemis since I didn’t play most of the instruments on the record. It’s Say Anything because Say Anything is a fluid idea. Since the music itself was being attacked from that vantage point I felt that if this is a collective why not have other voices in there since mine isn’t the best in the world. No one wants to listen to just me.
One of those musicians was your wife, Sherri DuPree. What was it like to be able to work with her on the record?
It’s always awesome. It’s very effortless, I’m lucky. We would have fallen in love anyway but we just happen to work really well together in the studio. Nothing changes, there isn’t any weird pressure or competitiveness or any sort of Yoko Ono quirky love vibe. It’s just very friendly and jokey. We just get in there and she knocks it out of the park like always.
Let’s start talking about some of your ink. I see that you have your daughter Lucy’s name tattooed on your knuckles there.
I have a bunch of things and I always sort of forget about them. I have the SPSH here on my other hand. SPSH is short for “Special”, which is a nickname for my wife. This (pointing to his hand tattoo) is the cover from one of the comics that I wrote called Polarity that came out a couple of years ago. This is the main character and it is my favorite cover from the series.
I need to stop you there so we can get a little nerdy about the comic. Did you just write it or did you draw it too?
I didn’t draw it, this guy Tyler Crook did the art. Jeremy Swan out of LA is the one who did the tattoo. I’ve worked with him for a while; he’s the sweetest guy. He also did this (pointing to portrait of his wife on his forearm) piece. This comes from two photos that he pieced together and then added the flowers and what not.
How did Jeremy go about creating the forearm portrait of your wife?
He made it look kind of like a playing card. Basically there are these two pictures of my wife that I really loved, one where she looks really stoked and one where she’s bummed. So I figured it represented her in all aspects. I loved both pictures.
I see you have a tiny little one on your wrist, what does that say?
This one (pointing to a little script on his wrist that says “per diem”) I got on tour just shitty in the back of the bus. It’s a reference to the movie Made. There’s a scene where Vince Vaughn is trying to understand the idea of per diem, he can’t grasp it. Some guy is giving me money while saying that it’s his per diem, and he’s like, Right right, who’s money is this? We were really into that joke so it seemed fitting. This one here was my second tattoo, maybe my first as an adult. “How they laugh as we shovel the ashes” is a quote from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. I think the handwriting is just from the girl who did it; I got that in Brooklyn when I was living there.
You said that your script tattoo was your first tattoo as an adult, what was your actual first tattoo?
My first one, I was 17, and I got a Saves the Day logo. It was a patch and a logo that was on their t-shirts at the time. I got that on a dare when I was 17 and someone else paid for it.
Tell us about the portrait on your upper arm.
That’s Johnny Cash. I got that one when I was in LA. I found a random piece of Johnny Cash fan art online and the tattooer basically just took the head of it and did this. I’m a big Cash fan. I also really relate to him, more than just being a fan, I relate to his story and his struggle. His demons and what not. I look up to how he bettered himself.
What made you decide to choose some random piece of fan art for your Cash portrait?
I know that I didn’t want the traditional portrait, I’m a weird dude. In general, I may in at some point get a very traditional portrait tattoo but I tend to skew toward art-based ink. Even this (pointing to his forearm) feels more like a playing card or a traditional sailor type tattoo than a portrait. This one I just Googled Johnny Cash drawing and literally found this random one.
Did you ever get in touch with the person who actually made the drawing?
No, I should though. If I could find them, it might be cool for them. It was random too; it didn’t look like it was a prominent piece of art or anything.
There was something about it that just spoke to you.
He looks very sullen but determined. It’s not in his spunky prime, I was not in my prime when I got this tattoo. I was 26 or something and was already at the point where I was ready to mellow out. It definitely wasn’t supposed to be of the rebellious Johnny Cash. I think the artist suggested that I get a whiskey bottle or something behind him and I said, no, I don’t want that. I don’t want to be drinking whiskey too much. This is Cash post-whiskey, a man of God.
What’s it like to encounter a fan that has gotten a tattoo of one of your band’s logos or lyrics?
It’s amazing. It’s one of those things that has been going on forever. I think that by being in a punk band it started happening with our first record. I was, obviously, blown away by it. Usually I think, that it’s so cool, and it makes me feel like we are doing the right thing if our lyrics mean so much to people that they are getting them tattooed.
Did you ever have to shake your head at one of the tattoo choices a fan may have made?
(Laughs) No, it’s funny, I haven’t seen any really embarrassing lyrics tattooed. There are bad ones, there are many that would be really crazy to get tattooed, but mostly it’s those big affirming lines or really “deep” lyrics. I’ve seen a lot of imagery, like the red cat from ... Is a Real Boy or something pertaining to “Alive With the Glory of Love.” There’s a lot of people who get the imagery from our albums, like the album art or t-shirts we released, so that’s really cool too since we came up with that. That’s awesome. I love it.