POZ Perspective: Max Bemis’ Song Shop
The next wave of Max Bemis' Song Shop is opening next week, and PropertyOfZack had the pleasure of doing an extended Perspective piece with Bemis to bring fans behind the process of his busy life and his interest side-project. Make sure to read up on Song Shop, which re-openers on February 4th, and check out Editor-in-Chief Erik van Rheenen's piece below!
Max Bemis is a busy guy.
Make that seriously busy. He’s halfway through writing Say Anything’s fifth studio album, describing it as some of his darkest material to date. He’s penning his comic book debut, Polarity. Perma’s freshman record is slated for a fall release. He and wife Sherri are expecting their daughter, Lucy, in just a matter of weeks. Heck, on a Saturday night in Austin, he just walked offstage from the sound-check for his solo acoustic record release show for All My Friends Are Enemies.
“Some nights I’ll just sit down and talk to my wife about how our brains just feel like mush,” Bemis says with a quick chuckle.
But Bemis likes a challenge. He dares himself to overcome his mental block as a songwriter, the muscle in every musician’s brain that screams, you just can’t write any more songs. He challenges himself emotionally, straying from the autobiographical lyricism that he’s made his calling card. More then anything else, he looks for a sense of real accomplishment. “As a musician, you sit on your ass and don’t often get that feeling unless you’re on stage or writing new material,” he says.
That’s where the Song Shop comes in. At a point in his life where most wordsmiths might consider scaling back, Bemis proudly states that he’s sharper then ever and eager to roll open the Shop’s proverbial doors again on midnight of February 4.
“One really cool thing is that I’ve become a lot more diligent and efficient with the output of the Song Shop,” Bemis says, “And with a baby in my life, I’ll just have to be even more on the ball. It’s such a big part of my life — I’m no longer just experimenting. I know what I’m doing.”
This time around, he’s not doing it alone. At least not for the most part. He recruited his wife, Sherri, to lend her lilting vocals to some full-length tracks, timing the current run of songs for Valentines Day. “Perma is Sherri and myself going back and forth,” Bemis explains, “But this is still my thing, very much so. It’s going to be more like how Sherri makes guest appearances, like on ‘Cemetery’ and ‘Night’s Song’ and ‘Overbiter.’ I’m still going to be writing the lyrics, but it’ll be open-ended, if she wants to write in a harmony here, or a line there.”
Bemis and Sherri had been discussing collaborating for Song Shop for a while, but Bemis wanted to let the Song Shop establish itself first before tinkering with the model. He’s thought about other plans too, but doesn’t want to think too far ahead. Not yet, at least.
“I always want to upgrade, and I might sound like a douchebag, but I always look at the Apple model of always adding something really cool, new and fun to their products, and that’s what I want to do as Song Shop grows. The douchebag part is just me comparing myself to such a successful company,” Bemis says, laughing.
But Song Shop remains a solitary pleasure for Bemis. The easiest part, he says, is relating to each individual fan that sends in a description. Bemis takes pride in his empathetic songwriting: if it’s simple, happy, sad, or troubling, he says he always knows how to find the right words to convey the right emotion. He’s been there before.
“I’ve seen like some of the darkest shit, and nothing really shocks me from some of the descriptions I’ve gotten. It’s like I’m hearing things they’d tell a therapist or a doctor,” Bemis says. “I’ve read some really dark stuff, but it really challenges me emotionally. Sometimes I’m doing too many in a row of the same kind of song, I’ll go to a song with a completely different vibe and then come back.”
Bemis’ songwriting style for the Shop mirrors his approach to penning new Say Anything material: he’s at his peak when the melodies and lyrics burst out from an idea together. When he’s in what he considers his “hyperactive mode of writing,” Bemis says that often when reading the first line of a description, something jumps out — a word, an emotion, one specific detail — as his starting point. That’s when his word-smithing starts.
As songwriting practice for the already productive frontman, the Song Shop has helped redefine Bemis’ definition of “prolific.” That’s why it helps that Bemis has adopted a simple realization that helps him barrel through his mental block, the one that tells him, you can’t keep writing this many songs.
“It’s all about subtle variance. There are millions and millions of songs written by millions and millions of bands, and some are going to sound the same because there are just so many songs out there,” he says. “I know I’m going to unconsciously recycle some melodies over thousands of songs, but I can 100 percent say I’ve never done it, or would ever do it, on purpose.”
Bemis only recycled the chords to one song, for obvious reasons: it was a cover. His Song Shop rendition of Saves The Day’s “Firefly” circulated its way around the Internet, but Bemis admits the cover was probably just a one-time thing. “I only did ‘Firefly’ because it’s Saves the Day, and I know their songs by heart,” he admits. “If I don’t know a song, it takes a longer time to learn it and make it sound the way I’d want it to than people might think.”
Artists writing songs for fans has become a common Kickstarter perk, and Bemis loves it. (“I think it’s flipping amazing.”) In fact, the only time Bemis says he’d ever get upset about an artist doing a project like the Song Shop is if they stole Bemis and Merchdirect’s setup wholesale.
“I’d be bummed if there was ever a carbon copy. I’d ask, ‘really?’ That would be my exact reaction. ‘Really?’” Bemis laughs. “I really love the setup, and how patient people are to know they aren’t getting the product immediately. There’s not one facet of what I do that I feel like a soulless vampire.”
It takes a certain kind of (crazy) songwriter to man a Song Shop: one who’s willing to test his songwriting limits and tell that mental block to just fuck off. Bemis said he’s had people ask how he manages to do it, and, well, he still doesn’t exactly have a concrete answer for them.
“You don’t need to be a good or bad writer, per say, but prolific,” he says. “I always write a shit ton of songs. My wife doesn’t write as many songs as I do, and they’re all friggin’ amazing.”
Still flexing his songwriting chops a few thousand songs later, Bemis still loves the personal connection writing a fan a song brings. One of his favorite parts of the Song Shop is bonding with fans over anything from one half-length song to a full album: a collection of lyrics and chords they can call their own. Even quickly mentioning that I’m the proud owner of a Max Bemis Song Shop original over the phone gets the singer excited.
“It reaches people in a different way than Say Anything, because it’s writing for a person, trying to encapsulate them and how they feel,” Bemis says. “It’s like nothing else.”
So, yes, maybe it does take almost two full hands to tally the number of ways Bemis is keeping himself busy. But fans can be absolutely damn sure that the Song Shop is going to be a priority.
“I’m always going to reserve a decent slice of my life for Song Shop,” Bemis says with a laugh. “As long as I don’t go insane from trying to do too much.”
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