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Say Anything Revisits ‘…Is A Real Boy’ 20 Years Later

[Photo by: Joseph Buscarello]

Say Anything is a band that you can’t appropriately compare to any other band. Perhaps you could attempt to use metrics like ticket sales or song charting, but certainly not in any tangible sense of emotion, delivery, or downright weirdness. Say Anything kicked the doors down when they entered the scene with a huge “Fuck You” to any preconceived notion of what a “punk” or “emo” band should be. They didn’t give a shit about being a cog in the music industry machine—in fact, they were pretty loud about their despise for it. They wanted to share their passion for aggressive self-deprecation and satirical views on the human condition. 

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20 years ago when they released their debut album …Is A Real Boy, the alternative and emo scene was thriving at its peak. Hot Topic was packed with teens on any given day of the week, VH1 was playing music videos while we were getting ready for school, and Warped Tour was the highlight of our summer. In the simplest of terms, it was when “emo” was the most marketable to capitalism it’s ever been. But that’s not what emo is really about, is it?

Say Anything was breeding the antithesis of modern emo popularity in the form of a record that would transcend your typical rock album. …Is A Real Boy is an odyssey of spoken word interludes, vulgar lyricism, and chaotic swells of sound all intertwined with the ramblings of an undiscovered genius. The brain and soul behind the project, Max Bemis, could take the listener on a journey of uncomfortable self-discovery. Listening to this album was like facing your intrusive thoughts head-on. The lyrics are the things we think about but are too afraid to say, and the instrumentation is the soundtrack to battling with our own insanity. It’s bizarre and fucking beautiful.

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This year, Say Anything is embarking on a reunion tour to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the release of …Is A Real Boy. A lot can happen in 20 years. We have all changed, grown, and developed into different versions of ourselves, and so has Max Bemis. However, sometimes, after so many years, you find yourself doing somewhat of a 360 and revisiting your past self through a different lens.

“It’s been five to seven years since I’ve done a real tour,” Bemis shares. “Things are going to be really different. There was a point where I was like, ‘Why aren’t you more excited?’ I’ve been through serious trauma lately. Part of that is accepting that you’re not going to feel normal. I think normally I would be really excited because people have had positive and nice things to say about the record and so far, and people are really excited about …Is A Real Boy. There’s sort of a pseudo-revival of the band, and that’s great. I’m an extrovert by nature. I can get on stage and if I’m scared, it’s not necessarily standing in front of a lot of people. It’s internal things that are going crazy inside of me.”

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This comes after I ask if Bemis is excited about the reunion tour. A question that I thought was an easy ice-breaker to our chat together. I quickly learned that he is complex in many forms. His honesty and vulnerability has a sense of safety and realness that immediately puts me at ease. Like, damn, this isn’t going to be a bunch of surface-level, “yeah this is cool and that is cool” type of conversation. He’s going to be earnest, and I respect the hell out of that. Truthfully, that is far more interesting anyway. 

Say Anything '...Is A Real Boy' Album Release Show
[Say Anything ‘…Is A Real Boy’ Album Release Show/Photo by: Shane Greenberg]

Bemis continues, “At the end of the day, music for a lot of people is like trauma catharsis. It’s weird to have to package that into ‘am I excited?’ It’s like, ‘I don’t know, I just spilled my guts for you guys.’ I will say oddly enough, I am excited. Some people are reticent to share trauma and share being in a fucked up state, but I actually enjoy it. I think that is what people, if they do appreciate our band, is something they connect to. I’ve always enjoyed sharing that part of me. This just happens to be the most fucked up shit I’ve ever gone through by far. I thought that I was fucked up at the time, but it was like an it was like an adventure. So it was actually kind of easy to talk about.”

A younger version of myself feels emotional. I started listening to Say Anything when I was battling with my own sexuality and mental health. …Is A Real Boy was a vessel for me to express my grievances with the world. It was an outlet to shed the weight of my trauma. Max Bemis was saying everything I was afraid to say in this album, and I wasn’t alone.  

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“It’s funny that we’re looping around to this record now because it touched me on such a deeper level and it’s so much more of a common human experience,” Bemis recalls. “Stuff that I’ve gone through over the past few years, is stuff that I knew my parents went through. It was stuff that I knew that friends of mine had been through. It wasn’t some kind of like, you know, ‘indie whatever, next big indie guy goes bipolar.’ I was sort of a freak show. That was cool, and it helped people.”

[…Is A Real Boy Album Release Show Ticket Stub/Photo by: Shane Greenberg]

Max Bemis created a character, (now known as Oliver through the course of their discography) when he wrote …Is A Real Boy. Say Anything fans know a majority of the themes and narratives on the record come from a place of satire and sarcasm, holding a mirror up to societal setbacks and shamefulness. 

“I’m a lot of things,” Bemis shares. “I’m a psycho and a mad man. There are things I would say about myself that are pretty accurate. I’m really off the rails, overly passionate, codependent. But I’m not narcissistic and I’m not a douchebag because I doubt myself so much that if you’re gonna insult me, that just doesn’t fall into line with reality. The only pain that ever caused me was feeling deeply misunderstood, not because it hit home somewhere.”

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“A lot of the record was exaggerated. Some of it still I can’t relate to ever. ‘Every Man Has A Molly‘ is a song that was written sarcastically. While ‘Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too‘  is probably 50% sarcastic. It’s not about not caring what the girl feels. It’s about hating myself and feeling like a bad person because I do care. I feel like a bad person sometimes but it’s for reasons that are a little bit more substantial than like ‘I just had phone sex with a willing partner but I still feel bad.’ It’s just interesting to examine some of that self-loathing and what’s warranted, what’s healthy.”

“All of it’s kind of healthy because it’s helped people, but I think it’ll be interesting to sing those songs coming from this place where there’s a little bit more worldliness to the actual depths of pain and suffering than being a 19 year old.”

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…Is A Real Boy has grown with me throughout my life. It meant something different to me at 15, and then at 19, and now at 28. The songs can have different meanings and different importance at different stages of life. Sometimes it was helping me through my sexuality journey, other times it was helping me cope with the death of a friend, and other times my depression and anxiety. I am honest with Max about this, as I’m sure many of his fans feel the same way.

[…Is A Real Boy 10 Year Anniversary Tour Setlist/Photo by: Tate Logan]

“I actually felt compelled to speak out against [homophobia, sexism, racism] for my own well-being, but it took a lot of hurting myself,” Bemis continues. “And maybe that’s something you experienced at a younger age while listening to …Is A Real Boy to get to the point of going, ‘Well, I’m worthy of, there’s a reason I’m upset.’ I created a character that was basically American Psycho. He is based on the character who ‘is a real boy’ because the character is a real boy. All that sarcasm is masking my own feeling of being assaulted and downtrodden. I think that that’s a lot of what you were latching onto. I was angry at punks.”

This sentiment is timeless, and probably one of the main factors that makes this a timeless record. There is always a hill to climb, a system to dismantle, and a hope for something better.

“I wanted it to be a timeless record. When you put something out there creatively with the intent of helping people and it being a source of positivity, even if it sounds completely negative. For instance, when I was in the hospital, I didn’t want to hear the record because I was worried that it would be misinterpreted because it’s so negative.”

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I’m grateful that he didn’t let these ideas and feelings overcome his creative output. Thank God he decided to put the record out. He had no idea at the time how much this album would truly help people and how important it would be.

“I wasn’t trying to get money,” he explains. “I cared about being on a big label only so I could reach more people. It was this crusade, you know? I didn’t truly grasp that I’d be opening for Saves The Day. I wanted to, but those were my pinnacle dreams at the time of being in a band.” 

[Say Anything and Saves The Day Co-Headlining Tour via 2014/Photo by: Tate Logan]

I want to know Bemis’ favorite song from the album, now 20 years later. 

“’Chia-Like I Shall Grow‘ was the most fun I had working on music,” he shares. “We literally wrote it, recorded it right before the record. Now it’s probably my favorite because it describes my current situation. But the feeling like it’s never going to end. Except actually, I do have that feeling. I’ve gone through the cycle of experiencing what I did when I wrote it, like those lyrics and there was a happy ending to those particular emotions. They got resolved and they still are resolved. I ended up on tour and the record did well and there was a happy ending to it.”

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Over the course of nearly two decades, one song remains his favorite to play live: “I Want To Know Your Plans.”

“I’ve played this song more than most songs, except maybe ‘Alive With Glory Of Love,’ he says. “As the band has progressed, I will say it’s come full circle in the sense that it’s such a moment with the audience. And there’s always someone, ’cause it’s a love song.”

“It’s the only song from before the character. It actually makes sense for it to be really sincere because it’s disarming. I’m trying to disarm people, it’s a weird little window on that album into what I’m really like, which is an uber sensitive kind of passionate romanticist.  I can think about my daughter, I can think about my wife, I can think about the audience itself. The words work really well when I think about the audience as the subject.”

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At this moment, something innately human happens: his wife calls him from another room. Perhaps it is dinner time, or time to go for a walk—something remarkably normal. I’m pulled from the fascination of Bemis as an ethereal artist and someone I have admired on a pedestal for over a decade now. I have gotten a glimpse of what is behind the curtain, and it’s comforting. Our favorite artists are just like us, in more ways than one. Max Bemis is all of the things I knew him to be, a prolific songwriter, performer, and talented multi-instrumentalist. However, he is also a husband, a father, a guy just trying to figure out life one day at a time just like the rest of us. 

Max smiles and says he has to go. I thank him for his time, and the last thing he does before signing off is point behind me and say, “Keep rocking those guitars.”

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