“As sad as it is, part of rock ’n’ roll is the glory of self-destruction,” explains Say Anything braintrust Max Bemis from his home in Tyler, Texas.The band’s sixth studio album, Hebrews, was released on June 10 through Equal Vision Records. “You have to write about the joy of misery.”
Over the years of Say Anything, Bemis has become both a devout and mythic character in the alt-rock scene. He’s always strived to find a balance between truth and fantasy. Though, when he starts to lean too far to one side, the band’s ethos always brings him back to center: Do better. Be better. Or at least have the hope that better exists for you. “It’s a cycle of rebirth, renewal and destruction,” Max says about his life, musically and personally. “I do believe in hope and I do believe, at the core of everything, there’s a truth and a hope to our existence. At the same time, we’re only human. We’re animals and we’re going to constantly try to re-evaluate.”
Hebrews is a collection of songs that examine, analyze and test that truth — and all without picking up a single guitar. Yes, all 12 songs trade traditional rock-band instrumentation for more refined string arrangements. But that doesn’t mean it sacrifices any spit or spirit. The album’s mission statement is set from the opening notes of “John McClane,” which is drenched with analog-sounding keyboards and Bemis’ dramatic vocals, welcoming the listener into his head and his heart, singing there’s “no need for ambivalent music.”
“I think there’s a journey every human being goes on and if you can tap into that, you can speak to personal experiences,” Max says about his outlook on songwriting. “That’s what fables are, tapping into the shared experience. I’ve been through a lot in the past couple years and, although the record can be dense and specific, I tried to speak of the cyclical journey we all go on to better understand ourselves.”
One of the major life events Bemis experienced while writing, recording and producing this record was the birth of his first daughter, Lucy. Though tickled by impending fatherhood, Max was soon plagued by past demons he’d spent years working hard to bury. The same destructive and deprecating thoughts that inspired some of his greatest songs were now starting to reemerge. But Max, now older and stronger, wasn’t going to let them take over without a fight.
“People, in general, kind of assumed that all my problems got solved, which, on some level, they did,” Max says of the years he spent working on his inner peace, which improved immensely when he met and later married Eisley’s Sherri DuPree. “I’m happy most of the time. But there’s no ending until you’re dead. The human condition is like a disease and that’s what makes life so cool. Life is never perfect and you’re going to have moments of doubt. A lot of things were solved, but I moved to a different stage of self-examination.”
This musical (and mental) voyage is explored on songs like “Six Six Six,” the first single off Hebrews, which features additional vocals from Max’s wife, Balance & Composure singer Jon Simmons and more. Backed by a beautiful string section, Max sings about how the Devil exists inside all of us and, sometimes, it feels like we’ve fooled everyone around us into thinking we’re better than we actually are. The result is a fist-pumping rock song that’s also deeply personal. Another example of turning the magnifying glass inward can be heard on “Judas Decapitation,” which features guest appearances from British indie-pop imports Gareth and Kim Campensinos (Los Campensinos!). “It’s half about my anger towards people for their opinions about me and the band,” Max admits, “and then it’s half about the anger towards myself, for being such a brat about it.”
A theme that blankets the entire album is that of religious identity, which is something Max has been singing about since the early days of Say Anything and the band’s 2002 Menorah/Majora EP. “A big part of the journey was also understanding my lineage and my culture,” Max expounds. “That’s why the record’s called Hebrews. Whether you’re Jewish, Catholic or whatever, you come from a [larger] culture. It’s not a record about being Jewish; it’s about understanding where my neuroses come from. Is it from society, my parents or from the dawn of man?”
Thankfully, Max doesn’t have to go through the journey alone. Over 16 artists provided guest vocals to Hebrews, which include Chris Conley (Saves The Day), Matt Pryor (The Get Up Kids), Chauntelle DuPree-D’Agostino (Eisley), Keith Buckley (Every Time I Die), Brian Sella (The Front Bottoms), Aaron Weiss (mewithoutYou), Stacy King (Eisley), Bob Nanna (Braid), Christie DuPree (Merriment), Jeremy Bolm (Touché Amoré), Tom DeLonge (blink-182), Andy Hull (Manchester Orchestra), and the aforementioned Gareth and Kim Campesinos, Jon Simmons and Sherri DuPree-Bemis.
For Max, music stands alongside Sherri and Lucy on his list of great loves, and he’ll be able to conquer anything with all three there to support and encourage him. “Sure, there’s a part of me that craves attention. There’s a part of me that needs to be validated. But I really do think I wouldn’t have been able to write a single song if it wasn’t for the drive to make things better,” Max admits.
“As much as my music has always been dark, I could never sit down and write a song about how the world is cruel and nothing matters. As much as I’ve been through so much pain, I’ve never truly believed that life is pointless, there’s no hope and you should just give up.
That’s the point of Say Anything, under all the layers… To fix things.”