A Conversation with Say Anything’s Max Bemis (Part Two) - On Perma, fatherhood and songwriting

Max Bemis is one of the hardest-working musicians in the business. Besides gearing up to release All My Friends Are Enemies: Early Rarities on January 22, he is recording the debut Perma album with his wife/bandmate, Sherri DuPree-Bemis. “We’re not treating [the band] like a side project; we’re treating it like a full-on band,” Bemis says, adding that the record is “tentatively” due in the fall. In addition to that, the prolific musician also hints at some sort of activity to mark the tenth anniversary of …Is A Real Boy, although he doesn’t yet have specifics: “We’ll definitely do some stuff, I don’t know exactly what yet—knock on wood—but we’ll definitely be doing something for that.” Oh yeah, and in between his musical endeavors, he’s going to become a father to a baby girl named Lucy, which he and DuPree-Bemis have been ecstatically talking about for months. Bemis gave AP the scoop on how the Perma record is shaping up, and also how impending fatherhood is changing his psyche and songwriting.

Talk to me about Perma. What space in your head does Perma fulfill?
It’s actually quite perfect in terms of the Say Anything record and the direction of that material. Basically, I don’t see this always being the case, but I feel like my psyche and my inspiration have fractured, in a way. Some of our most notable, fan-favorite songs are actually just love songs, whether it be “Alive With The Glory Of Love,” “Walk Through Hell,” “I Want To Know Your Plans” or “Crush’d.” It’s been really important to the dynamic of the records we’ve put out to have those to express that part of myself as a die-hard romantic.

But in terms of this next Say Anything record, I have found it interesting to divide those parts of my writing personality, to some extent, into two. And so much of my life is just being head over heels in love with Sherri. I’ve found that letting Perma be my outlet for that for a little while has been really cool. We’ve already started recording the Perma record. [It’s been nice] being able to not hold back and worry about being too corny or not edgy enough, and just becoming this sap when it comes to Perma, because Perma is just sweetness and us indulging our love for each other, no matter how corny or romantic it may seem to the skeptical people out there. And I know there are plenty of people who want that from me as a writer. But there are also plenty of people that are like, “I don’t want to hear you writing about your wife. I just want to hear you sing about the hardcore stuff in your life.” And then there are people who want both.

So far, I have put all my love songs into the Perma project, and focused a little more on just my psychology and my other stuff for Say Anything. It’s caused the Say Anything stuff to get a lot edgier and darker, and it’s caused the Perma stuff to be more free and loving and not held down by the need to be some kind of dark character.

I like that. It’s pushed both projects to the extreme.
Exactly. I’ve never done that. It’s always been in the context of Say Anything. Even a song like “Crush’d,” it’s so full of my own personal crap [Laughs.] There’s still that innate darkness. And in Perma—we want it to be smart. We don’t want it to be boring and stupid and ultra-corny. But at the same time, I’m able to take myself out of myself and make it more about Sherri and about us. And that’s been really fun.

Musically, what is the record like? Is it more stripped-back?
Yeah, it’s very stripped-back. There are a few songs with percussion and drums. It’s not boring by any means in terms of its arrangements; we want to make sure it’s an interesting record to listen to, with ear candy and different arrangements. It’s not like Iron And Wine or Elliott Smith, where everything’s sort of soft and depressing, or like Bon Iver. It’s very up. There are songs that almost have some punk elements to them, but we ideally want to be able to play shows where it’s just us, and have people not feel like they’re lacking something. So we could play with a band or we could play without a band, and the songs will speak for themselves in that context.

I totally know what you mean—there are some stripped-back records that are so boring. The lyrics are great, but you just want to fall asleep.
Exactly. There’s only one slow, soft song that I’ve even written, and I’ve already written all my songs for the Perma record. I’m still debating whether to put it on. As of right now, my songs and Sherri’s songs and the ones we’ve collaborated on together, they’re all very… the vocals are not subdued. They’re going to be very much sing-along songs.

How are you preparing for fatherhood?
Me and Sherri have a particularly, blessedly easy life when it comes to many things. We still work hard, and we put a lot of our effort into music and spend a lot of time working on music. Sherri is an awesome artist. I’ve actually begun writing comic books, so that’s something I’ve been working on a little bit. But beyond that, there are these large gaps of time where we’re basically just sitting around. And during that time, I’ve just been mentally preparing myself for the reality that this may be the last time in, like, 30 years or more in which I’m going to be completely pandering to myself and Sherri.

To me, that’s the biggest preparation that I’ve been doing, is the acceptance of that. Otherwise, we’re just totally stoked. You hear horror stories about being a parent, and no sleep and blah blah blah. But we don’t really care about that stuff; we’re just so excited. The only thing that’s going to be a big change for me is just not being a selfish asshole anymore. [Laughs.]

Musicians—especially if you don’t have a family yet—if you’re in any way successful and you’re able to go on the road and play and then you come home, you basically sit around. That’s the part of my life I’m willingly sacrificing in order to have a family. But it is a mental thing, where it’s like you’re no longer going to be looking out for yourself and your wife and that’s about it. That, to me, is what I know is going to require the most work and at the same time is what I’m most excited about. The way I look at it, [there] is only so much of your life you can live like that before it starts to get boring and you need to do something that gives back to the universe. To me, having a kid is that. We’re going to try to take this person’s life and make it as love-filled and fulfilling as possible.

What are you most scared of about becoming a dad?
It’s a couple things. I was a very happy kid; I had a very happy childhood, very dedicated, loving parents. Even up through the age of maybe 15 or 16, I was literally this dork of happiness and joy and idealism. And then I did go through a phase—from mid-teenage years all the way up through probably 22 or 23, when there was a lot of darkness and self-loathing and mistakes, ranging from personal stuff to how I treated other people to how I chose to live my life. And those dark years, in a way, still haunt me, because they illuminate not only my potential to be a dick, but the potential … It’s almost like a fear of not wanting my daughter to have to experience those things. How can I teach her—or instill some knowledge in her of the world—so that she might avoid some of those pitfalls? And are those things going to affect me as a father? Are they going to rear their ugly head and make me a shitty father?

Once I got over the baseline, like, not doing certain things, it was easy to push them aside. But in the context of, like, suddenly my full-time job is going to be being a dad, and that’s, like, … from what I understand, at least, it reaches into the bottom of your soul. Those things are there; those dark things are there. I know I’m going to have to face some of them in order to step up to the role of being a dad. And whether that’s stuff that goes back into my lineage and my family and all the problems that my family has had throughout time—even though they’re so great—all the way up to me and the choices I’ve made, it’s definitely going to be a factor. I can only hope to conquer them enough to be a good dad.

I don’t have kids, but I get the impression it’s a process. And you have to be good to yourself, and not too hard on yourself…
I know it’s going to be a process. I know I can’t be prepared. That’s one thing I’ve accepted. It’s going to be so radical in how it affects me, especially because I’m such a sensitive person, that I know I cannot be prepared except for to know that it’s okay to be scared at times and to just do my best and to put Lucy above me. That’s the most I can do. And Sherri, too. I don’t want to sacrifice being a good husband just because I’m going to trying to be a good dad. That’s a whole other dynamic as well.

Have you and Sherri thought about making a kids’ record at all or doing kids’ music?
Totally. Especially Sherri; she’s already written several lullabies. This first Perma record, being that it’s all written before she arrives … is very much about the exhilaration of true love and finding your soulmate. And I think possibly in the future, we may talk about what it’s like to have a family, and maybe even we’ll go so far as to write a whole record for kids. As of right now, it’s total selfish, indulgent lovestruck stuff.

[Here Bemis talks about changes to his Song Shop—namely, giving fans the option to have Sherri sing on a song with him.] link: http://www.merchdirect.com/songshop/

I think Eisley fans are going to flip out about that, too.
It’s awesome that our bands are so intertwined. We are very flattered by how invested fans of both our bands are in me and Sherri’s relationship and our dynamic. And [there’s been so much overlap], whether it’s Sherri coming out on tour or Sherri singing on a Say Anything record and me playing on an Eisley record. At the beginning [of our relationship], there [were] a few naysayers who were just like, “No, we want them to be miserable!” or Eisley fans are like, “No, that dude’s just some scumbag.” [Laughs.] But that was very brief. Now we’ve found that the majority of fans of both of our bands just love that we’re together, and they like to hear us collaborate.

So Perma—and these Song Shops, which are essentially going to be like Perma Song Shops—are our way of indulging that and thanking people for supporting us as a couple. It really is inspiring and so moving to see people get joy from us being together. It’s really crazy; it’s pretty rare. The idea that two people would both be in bands that have such dedicated followers—and we’re not shy about talking about how much we love each other or the fact we’re together—so to know that doesn’t annoy people and that it actually makes them happy, is something we both really appreciate.

Are you worried at all about privacy when Lucy shows up?
I have a couple of very small worries. I know there are going to be some psychologically scarred demons that are going to try to get at her. You know: “Your baby’s ugly!” People will tweet that at me; I know for a fact that will be a direct quote. People are horrible online. It brings out the best people, but then it also brings out the worst, borderline-psychotic trolls.

I do want to shield her from that until she’s told enough to know how little it means when someone says something hurtful online. We plan on sharing her growth with everyone to some degree; there’s going to be some things we don’t want to share. But we’re already proud of her and we’re proud of our marriage, and we want to continue to embrace our fans and have them be a part of it. They’re part of our family. I know the byproduct of that is gonna be that there are going to be some total assholes who want to try to mess with my little girl. I think that’ll inform, over time, how we choose to put Lucy out there in any way. I don’t want her to feel that she’s in The Truman Show. But at the same time, I really do think it’s important to put pictures of her up and show people her growing up. I think people will love it, and we’re going to love sharing it. alt

In case you missed it: Read part one of the interview