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Anything goes 

If Max Bemis were Christian instead of Jewish, this week would be his Christmas. His band Say Anything’s latest CD, In Defense of the Genre, hits stores and Bemis has been trying to stay cool by … shopping for new clothes? “I’m always called a girl like that,” he says, chuckling as he makes his way back to his Chicago hotel on a day off from In Defense’s first
promotional tour.

Say Anything – which most often gets labeled emo despite their increasingly grandiose sound – made a small splash with their small debut, …Is a Real Boy, in 2004 and a much bigger one when the album was re-released on J Records last year. As a result, the band’s new release comes with more than a modicum of expectations, though Bemis sounds remarkably zen about it.

“I obviously want it to do well, and I have really low expectations,” he says, “but I have very high expectations, too. Hopefully it ends up somewhere in the middle.”

Upping the ante is the fact that In Defense is a dreaded double CD, and a concept album to boot; the two discs present an autobiographical journey through Bemis’s last few years: the ups and downs of a volatile romantic relationship as he deals with being diagnosed bipolar, institutionalizing himself, and eventually putting his life back together.

The singer and songwriter of every Say Anything record insists the band didn’t hesitate to attempt something so epic for their sophomore album, despite the potential for self-indulgence.

“It’s always been somewhat ironic, the scope with which we do everything,” Bemis says. “We’re not an ironic band, a fucking comedy band. In the way Queen did it with ‘We Are the Champions,’ you can just wink at yourself a little bit. That’s why we do concept albums. In fact,” he adds, “we know it’s ridiculous to put out a double album, but we just don’t care.”

It’s been four years since Bemis was diagnosed bipolar, but these days he seems at peace with it and says he has even accepted it as a powerful tool in his creative repertoire. That’s a far cry from days when he would suffer manic episodes, convinced he was being videotaped Big Brother-style – the star of his own personal The Truman Show. Some of his new perspective probably comes from finally being able to make sense of much of his teenage and adult life.

“A lot of the last album is about being depressed, almost manic-depressive,” he says. “I’d be at these highs and very pronounced lows, and I just couldn’t identify it at the time. A lot of things I’ve gone through since I was a teenager can be explained by my diagnosis.”

And a lot of that angst, along with a lot of other pain, confusion, and reckoning shows up in songs such as “Surgically Removing the Tracking Device” and “This Is Fucking Ecstasy.” When asked just how autobiographical – after all, this is some pretty crazy stuff he reveals – Bemis insists, “It’s pretty fucking autobiographical.”

He goes on to explain that, “`My` songs are more important to my well-being than the medicine. If I, like, stopped taking my meds and stopped making my music, I’d be a miserable person. The meds don’t make me happy, they just keep me stable. It’s a really necessary part of my life, writing songs.”

Of course, such brutal honesty comes with a price, like the love of the girl who motivated so much of In Defense. Bemis apparently writes whatever he is feeling at the time, a problem that gets Eminem into trouble too. “I think one of the factors of us not being together anymore is that,” Bemis says. “She never really understood it was necessary. I can understand, though. If someone was writing a mean song about me that kids were singing along with, I guess I’d be a little bitter, too. It’s much harder to be on the receiving end, but I can’t care.”

Considering the deeply personal nature of the album, it’s odd then that Say Anything opted to title it In Defense of the Genre – that genre being specifically emo, which Bemis calls “the new hair metal, the genre that everyone’s trying to topple.”

First off, the band isn’t really emo anymore, in the same way Green Day and My Chemical Romance grew up into full-fledged rock, although Bemis does point out that, “We set out to show everyone `emo` doesn’t just mean what they think it means.” Secondly, whatever Say Anything’s genre-bending intentions, In Defense is a sprawling, swirling epic of love and madness in modern America that seems to resist a title best suited for a music criticism essay. The double album actually seems confined by it, limited in some petty way.

But Bemis is confident about how the band’s fans will react to the 26 songs and kajillion guest appearances – including Pete Yorn, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional, Adam Lazzara of Taking Back Sunday, and Jordan Pundik from New Found Glory. “We know what it’s like to be fans and to want your favorite band’s sophomore album to rock,” he says. “That’s what we basically set out to do.”

Mission accomplished.



Say Anything
w. Hello Goodbye
and Young Love
6 pm Sun, Nov 11
$23 (advance);
$26 (day of show)
Sunset Station Pavilion
1174 E. Commerce
(210) 222-9481

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