March 12, 2018 Interview – Buddy Nielsen of Senses Fail
With an impressive career spanning nearly sixteen years, Senses Fail – who initially began in New Jersey in 2002 – are a band who have lived. With an outstanding catalogue – ranging from 2004’s break-out debut Let It Enfold You to the recent, magnificent If There Is Light, It Will Find You – and despite some stumbles along the way, the band have never once paused to stop evolving and traveling new musical avenues with each successive release.
Throughout all the years, the one constant in Senses Fail has been Frontman James “Buddy” Nielsen, a candid and insightful individual with a myriad of musical and literary influences. Recently we had the chance to sit down with Buddy to discuss the new album and current headlining tour, Charles Bukowski, songwriting, Emo music, and what it means to be Still Searching all these years later.
CrypticRock.com – Senses Fail seem to be invariably intertwined with what people are calling the rebirth of Emo. Is Emo a label that you even want to be associated with?
Buddy Nielsen – Sure, I don’t care! I think being upset about labels, when you’re talking about genres of music – when you’re talking about something personal, how you identify, then it’s pretty meaningful. I think to be upset about what someone calls you musically would be a little short-sighted.
CrypticRock.com – Some may have never considered Senses Fail to be Emo.
Buddy Nielsen – It depends what wave you’re talking: there’s like four waves of Emo now. There’s the first one and then there’s, maybe, the second which was more like the Hot Water, maybe Thursday fell into that. If you say that Senses Fail is influenced by Saves the Day and Thursday, you would say that we could be third wave. Then there’s a fourth wave which is current, like Tiny Moving Parts; some of those newer, Emo bands – Souvenirs, Basement, stuff like that. I don’t know. There’s like a weird third wave of Emo that got really popular which was a mix of like Rock, Emo, Pop-Punk, Punk, Hardcore. It would be hard to call it just Rock music ‘cause it’s not, it’d be really hard to call it Metal because it wasn’t. It’d be hard to call it Pop-Punk because it was kind of a mix of Goth Pop music? (Laughs) If you took The Cure and made it sound like Blink, that’s kind of what Alkaline Trio is. (Laughs) In a way.
The large majority of people would consider us that. The people that actually listen to Hot Water and Sunny Day Real Estate never consider the band Emo, but if you ask any person off the street – who played one of our songs or Guitar Hero – and asked what kind of music we are, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s like an Emo band!’ To musical purists we would not be considered Emo. For your everyday, potential school teacher who used to listen to Senses Fail when they were fifteen, we are a quintessential Emo band along with My Chemical Romance and Taking Back Sunday. That’s kind of how it breaks down, at least in my mind.
CrypticRock.com – If There Is Light, It Will Find You was released on February 16th. What has the reaction been, thus far?
Buddy Nielsen – It’s been amazing! It’s been by far the most successful release we’ve had in probably more than a decade; #1 Indie record, #1 Alternative record, #2 Rock record, #12 on Billboard. Definitely the most successful thing we’ve done in at least a decade, and fan-wise, people are really, really excited about it. I would say the reaction is beyond what I expected and what I was hoping for.
CrypticRock.com – That is great! It is a wonderful album and all the hype is well-deserved. Now, this is the first album you have written entirely by yourself?
Buddy Nielsen – Correct! Yeah, as the main songwriter. It’s the first time I’ve taken the reins and decided to be the main creative person; not just the lyrics and melodies but the music.
CrypticRock.com – How did that change the recording process for you?
Buddy Nielsen – The less cooks in the kitchen, sort of, the better. Honestly. I think one reason this record came out so stream-lined and well is because it was just one person’s voice instead of a group. I think sometimes, in a group, signals become mixed because everyone has an objective; the drummer wants to highlight the drums, the guitar player wants to highlight the guitar. You know what I mean? With me, I’m not really trying to highlight anything except the song. I think I was able to write songs that really were well-written regardless of genre. I do believe I can take any of these songs and play them in different genres and they would translate as well-written songs.
Which is really what I was trying to do, you know? Take one of the songs and play it in a different style – like a Country style or even a slow, piano version – I feel like you’d still be happy with the end result, lyrically and musically. I can focus on that rather than ‘let me write a cool guitar part’ or ‘I really want to highlight this drum solo.’ It’s more a Communistic approach because I’m not arguing with anyone about, like, “Oh, let’s not do that there, let’s make sure that we do this because that will interrupt the flow of the song.” Then you’re like, ‘Well, I kind of gotta give him this’ because he’s stepping up on his guitar parts; let’s sacrifice the song so he can have his part.’ That happens a lot in bands! As bands grow and people have increasing music ability, they want to highlight that. When a band’s not solely about song-writing, it can interrupt the process of a good song.
CrypticRock.com – If There Is Light, It Will Find You is a very hopeful title and it is actually a line from a Charles Bukowski poem, no?
Buddy Nielsen – Yeah! It’s like the last line, it wasn’t a title or anything. I don’t know the name of the actual poem.
CrypticRock.com – It is “The Harder You Try,” which fits the album so perfectly.
Buddy Nielsen – (Laughs) Yeah! I’ve always had Bukowski references, this one’s heavy on it. He is my favorite writer, favorite American writer of mine. I don’t think, well, he existed for a little bit in my lifetime. Most influential, how about that? Most influential writer for me.
CrypticRock.com – In “Double Cross,” you sing about being jaded, afraid of getting older, and basically say that music is the only thing worth breathing for. Does that sum up your view of the industry going into the recording of If There Is Light, It Will Find You?
Buddy Nielsen – Yeah. The way music and musicians age, I’m trying to figure that out. Some stuff ages poorly, some people age poorly with their music, and some people are able to do it really, really well. Trying to figure out how to do that without abandoning what you’ve done, but getting up there and writing and doing the same thing you did when you were 20… You kind of have to find this way of aging within music that not only keeps your fan-base but opens you up to the ability to continue to make new fans while aging. Can a twenty-year-old relate to what I’m talking about? Can they find meaningfulness in what I’m writing about? Bukowski is a good example of a guy who – he didn’t start writing until I think he was in his 40s or 50s – and I related to things he was saying when I was 15. So, I know it’s possible!
You have to be very calculated with what you’re doing because a lot of people age out. They either age out on their own – meaning they’re like, “Fuck this, this is stupid! I don’t want to play Pop-Punk or Emo! I’m serious now”– or they just age out of touring because they have families. Someone like me, I don’t see myself doing that. I don’t know if at any point I’m going to wake up when I’m 50 and be like, ‘I’ve had enough!’ Coming to that realization is kind of like, it’s a big realization. For a musician, you’re always supposed to have one foot out the door because you’re always supposed to feel like everyone tells you it won’t last.
You’re always preparing for it not to last, but then what happens when you wake up 16 years later and, not only are you here, but you’re probably more successful than you’ve ever been and you’re like, ‘This is weird; I have to recommit myself to this.’ You’re always like, ‘Alright, this has gotta end soon!’ (Laughs) There’s plenty of times it almost did, but for whatever reason I just kept doing it. I truly like touring and making music. I’ve done other things – I worked for a record label, I managed bands – I’ve done a bunch of other stuff; I had one foot completely out the door. None of it was truly fulfilling to me, though.
CrypticRock.com – You always come back to what you truly love. To make a bad segue, speaking of love, “First Breath, Last Breath” is a beautifully sincere, haunting and emotionally raw song. Is it hard for you to sing something so deeply personal and put that out there for public consumption?
Buddy Nielsen – Not really. That’s not hard for me to do! People ask me that all the time and I wonder, I wonder what it is that people struggle about that? I’m not sure I understand what the struggle is! I’m not judging, I just actually don’t know what it is that people are afraid of is going to happen? You know what I mean? I know that some bands write lyrics and are like, “I don’t want to answer questions about these songs and about this.” I don’t have any issue with being personal or overly open. I’ve never once been like, ‘I don’t know if I should talk about this’, you know?
CrypticRock.com – That is the creative mindset and not the common, everyday viewpoint; the average person is afraid to put themselves out there to be judged.
Buddy Nielsen – Oh yeah! Maybe since I had to get used to that at such a young age? Even a couple years ago, I was still worrying about that, more so from the standpoint of my sexuality and my politics, but I’ve really just had to have a really thick skin to people’s opinions. I really look at people’s negative opinions as their glaring weakness. It’s like in a video game, fighting a battle and they have that one, gleaming piece on them and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the part I’m supposed to whack with a sword!’ When people give negative criticism – not in a constructive way – they are putting on display their exact weakness and fear.
When I started to look at it like that, I stopped really worrying about what people were saying. I’m like, ‘Oh, this person is pretty much saying that basically they’re jealous or they’re upset or hurt.’ When you see it that way, it becomes less hurtful and you’re like, ‘Wow, that sucks!’ I feel bad for that person because they’re obviously having a hard-enough time that they’re talking shit on the internet. If you’re writing comments on the internet and it’s negative, it really means that there’s some other things going on in your life. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Oh, the internet is a whole other world of issues! (Laughs) To carry on about songwriting, however, does being extremely candid and honest in your lyrics help you to be a better songwriter?
Buddy Nielsen – Mmhmm. Who wants to listen to music about nothing?
CrypticRock.com – Sadly, lots of people do! (Laughs)
Buddy Nielsen – You’re right! Actually a lot of people do. I should rephrase that: most people in the world want to listen to music that doesn’t challenge them or make them think about anything, but then there’s a whole ton of people that do. I like to think I’m one of the people in this genre that actually spends a lot of time working on lyrics, and writing is an actual craft not just ‘This thing is supposed to go there, so it can complete the song.’ There’s just not a lot of people being very introspective, I don’t think.
CrypticRock.com – Is 2018 going to be the year that redeems you?
Buddy Nielsen – So far it’s been very good! Last year was really good too, it was the year before that was kind of fucking shot. (Laughs) I feel like I’m very excited about how things are going.
CrypticRock.com – That is good! Speaking of good things, you are currently out on the road with Reggie and the Full Effect, Have Mercy, and Household. How is the tour going and what should fans expect when they come out to the shows?
Buddy Nielsen – It’s going well! We play for about an hour and a half, so a very long set. (Laughs) At this point, it’s really hard to figure out what songs to play so we play for a long time. If you’re going to come out, I think a lot of people in this genre don’t really put on these long, drawn out headliner sets like bands of the past have done. We’re really trying to, if you’re a fan, we’re really trying to present you with something that’s worth the money and worth the while to come out and enjoy. You get to hear not just a little piece, but a long set filled with hopefully most of what you want to hear and then we’re actually playing a bunch of the new stuff too.
CrypticRock.com – That is great! Now it seemed a bit shocking that Senses Fail has not been announced as a special guest on Warped Tour this summer. Might that be happening?
Buddy Nielsen – Potentially! You never know!
CrypticRock.com – There are a lot of fans out there who have enjoyed Senses Fail for many, many years now, let’s talk Still Searching which is now over a decade old at this point. That was a truly pivotal album – not just for the band, but for many fans – for many, it was very much the right words at the right time. Looking back, what are your thoughts on that period of Senses Fail?
Buddy Nielsen – I was just super depressed; it was a terrible time in my life! (Laughs) It was really awful, all-around it was terrible. The record cycle was fucking terrible, everyone in the band was miserable. It sucked! That’s why I’m so happy with what’s happening now: we might never have the same success as we did then, but we’re having a level of success that we haven’t really experienced since then and I’m able to enjoy it in a way that I wasn’t able to enjoy that. That’s why I’m really happy about this, because I can enjoy this – shows selling out records being #1, and selling more records than we have. We sold more than Dashboard! That’s crazy to me, that’s nuts!
To be able to enjoy that and not be like, ‘Well, you know, we didn’t do this’ or ‘I hate this guy’ or ‘I fucking hate myself’ or ‘I’m a fucking alcoholic’ or suffering from crippling anxiety. It’s nice to be able to enjoy being on-stage performing; I wasn’t able to do that then, I wasn’t able to walk out on stage and enjoy it. I fucking hated it, it was terrible! I sounded like shit, I was a terrible singer. I struggled really badly, mostly because I was so fucked up mentally. I’m able to really put on a better show and enjoy it now! I wasn’t very inspirational back then: it was more like, ‘We’re all in the same boat… that’s sinking!’ (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) To put a positive on it, there were people that felt the same way that did not have the platform to go out and say that and you did; you gave a voice to those of us who were suffering which, in turn, helped people to deal with their own issues.
Buddy Nielsen – I obviously know that there was a lot of positive that came from it, but it was, in my life, it was probably the worst two years of my life. Which is fucking terrible because the most successful two years of my life in the band was also probably the worst; but that’s what happens a lot in bands. Unfortunately. Thankfully, now I’m able to be very happy with what’s going on and be present for it.
CrypticRock.com – If someone out there reading this has been living under a rock for a long, long time and has never heard of Senses Fail or heard your music, if you were to have to pick 3 songs that sum up your entire career, which 3 songs would you pick?
Buddy Nielsen – Hmm. I’d say “Can’t Be Saved” and the last song on the new record, which is “If There Is Light, It Will Find You.” Then I’d say probably “Cute When You Scream” or something like that, a mix of riff-y guitars and yelling about stupid things.
So yeah, a little bit of every era, except for the weird area where we got really heavy; that didn’t fit in there. Not everybody came along for that journey! Everybody loves it now, they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you playing these songs?’ I’m like, dude, literally, you guys didn’t like it! (Laughs) I’m not going to get up here and play these – you know what I mean? It’s hard because a lot of times it takes records years for people to come around. Even me, I’ve done that where I’m like, ‘I don’t like that shit!’ I didn’t like Morrissey for twenty years and now I have a Morrissey tattoo.
CrypticRock.com – Okay, last question. At CrypticRock, we cover music as well as films, especially Horror and Sci-Fi films. Are you a fan of either of these genres and, if so, what are some of your favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Buddy Nielsen – Oh yeah, absolutely! My favorite Horror movie is Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) with Pamela Springsteen, who’s Bruce Springsteen’s sister. It’s a really good old, ‘80s Slasher movie. My favorite Sci-Fi movie is either Sunshine (2007) or Event Horizon (1997). Arrival (2016) is pretty damn good too.