“Our new record is about becoming proud of it,” Max Bemis explains to me before hitting the stage at Toad’s last Thursday. “Musically, it shows the development of our band, and I think it was very important for us to embrace the genre. I grew up listening to Sunny Day Real Estate and the Getup Kids, and there’s been a huge backlash against that type of music. People won’t take you seriously if you brand yourself with it.”
It’s not like Bemis to dance around a touchy subject, but then again, the word he’s being careful to use is “emo” — the much-maligned sub-genre of rock that has pervaded teenage hangouts like Myspace and your local mall for the better part of the past decade. As of last fall, you can add Bemis’ new record to the list of shelters: his band Say Anything’s “In Defense of the Genre” (guess which!) is a sprawling double-album that features guest spots from over a dozen of emo’s brightest stars. My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Saves the Day and Taking Back Sunday are all represented in backing vocals or spotlighted in occasional verse — yes, even the guy from Dashboard Confessional stops by for some quick harmonies.
Many of those artists are heavily disdained by music critics outside the sphere of the national emo cabal, and are direct contributors to the stigma that surrounds the scarlet letter E. But Bemis asserts that the genre is largely misunderstood and unfairly disregarded.
“The mainstream culture identifies emo as My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy,” bands he is quick to make clear he enjoys. “But they don’t know about the twenty years of culture that came out of hardcore, starting with Fugazi and Rites of Spring, going all the way through countless bands that are so amazing — it’s actually really diverse.”
To his credit, Bemis and his band do a lot to debunk the stereotype. Parodies of the emo culture — which include the runaway Youtube instructional, “How to Be Emo,” and Jim Robert’s iTunes smash single “Emo Kid” — have made its adherents practically synonymous with teenage narcissism and melodrama, and a quick visit to the Warped Tour that dies and respawns every summer reveals enough supporting case studies to form a small nation. But not a single member of Say Anything evokes hooded sweatshirts, rimmed glasses or “guyliner,” and Bemis’ hair more closely resembles a crew cut than the infamous black-dyed swoop.
More importantly, Say Anything’s music is a far cry from the whining diatribes and redundant three-chord rehashes of some of the genre’s lesser constituents — the Onion AV Club called “In Defense” a “deliciously confounding album that transcends emo more than defends it,” and Spin raved that it “proves emo needn’t be boxed in by stylistic dogma.” One of the best and most diverse releases of 2007, the endless styles covered on the album make it hard to pigeonhole the band at all. To name a few, there’s the Broadway show tune “That Is Why,” the beating techno heart behind lead single “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “No Soul,” an adrenaline-pumping pop rock assault that paraphrases Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” to massively danceable effect. Further blurring the line, many of the songs split into distinct arcs and address several styles one-by-one — a technique Bemis perfected on 2004’s “…Is a Real Boy,” and one he says he learned from some of his biggest inspirations.
“Queen and the Beatles would essentially parody genres, but take them seriously at the same time,” Bemis says fondly. “I’m not one for bands that are completely immersed in irony, but if you’re smart about it and know how over-the-top and stupid being in a rock band is, but really embrace it at the same time, then I’d say you’re a pretty good artist.”
Self-involved and humorless, he is not.
In truth, the only thing that could tenably tie Say Anything’s music to emo is Bemis’ lyrics, founded on an intensely personal honesty seldom found on record since Weezer’s 1996 opus “Pinkerton,” an album that inspired a barely-pubescent Bemis (along with countless other impressionable teens) to write his first rock song.
But if Bemis himself admits Say Anything is only “somewhat of an emo band,” then why did he rally the troops to make such a grand statement in its honor?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and not unlike those legions of Weezer fans who keep returning to the band a decade after they “sold out,” it’s got a lot to do with nostalgia. As Bemis previously mentioned, the genre’s deceptively deep history began in 1984 with the melodic hardcore of Rites of Spring, and further developed in the early nineties with Sunny Day Real Estate’s explorations of spare and moving sincerity.
“There’s something in the way they sang about really sensitive, personal issues that a tough guy isn’t supposed to sing about, over really hard but beautiful music,” he beams. “It’s very rare that a band comes around and depresses me as much as those hallmark records from the genre. They’ve influenced me so much.”
And besides, Bemis thinks these kids need a champion.
“What people don’t take into account is that we’re a lot more educated, musically, than they think we are,” he says. “I went through my indie phase just like anyone else, I just cut it. I still listen to really obscure music and try to discover new bands, and I have pretensions, but people don’t get that we know. I’ve listened to enough Neutral Milk Hotel to make my own distinctions about what I like. I think that’s the biggest misconception about a lot of the artists my age coming from this scene.”
For his part, Bemis is doing the best he can to clear up the misunderstandings. After all, most of us needed someone to remind us that emo isn’t a four-letter word.