Buddy Nielsen understands pain. The way pain can paralyze you or move you; the need to face it head on or allow it threaten to suck you down the rabbit hole. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Over the nearly two decades of recording and touring as the vocalist of New Jersey’s homegrown staple, Senses Fail, fans have seen Nielsen face addiction, mental illness, loss and fear. Yet each experience and milestone has been met with the catharsis of song; a way to simultaneously lay claim to his demons while allowing listeners to declare their ownership as well, and form a community to help them face it.
A week following the release of Senses Fail’s seventh album, If There Is Light, It Will Find You — a pop punk/post-hardcore hybrid teeming with hooky magic and walloping bass — Nielsen discussed the inspiration behind the record, reigning in his anxieties, and New Jersey’s hold on him.
If There Is Light, It Will Find You was just released; what was your headspace like when you first started working on it?
It was pretty at ease. I didn’t really have a direction, you know? It was sort of exploratory. I had never really written a majority of the Senses Fail stuff, so I really only started three years ago, like really playing guitar and practicing and started developing what my songwriting was, and that sort of led to what comes out when I sit down and play guitar and try to write Senses Fail songs. And then I got a couple of those under my belt and sort of started filling in the gaps.
Like mentally, it was more like…I always do lyrics last, so that didn’t really develop until the end or even while recording. Musically, it was of like…it took a while to figure out what it was going to be, for me, because it wasn’t obvious. You know, the next record after this will be like, “Oh, there’s an obvious starting point!” This was sort of like starting from scratch, really.
Do you feel like it’s been difficult over the years, as the last original member of the band,
recording and working with different members as the lineup continued to change?
Yeah, every record is different. Senses Fail has never had a record that didn’t feature a new member, if you actually go back look. So it is sort of a kind of normal, if that makes sense. I know that is abnormal for most bands to do that, but it is very normal for Senses Fail to have a new person each record, so it has never really been like strange or “What do we do?!”
The next one is always going to be different because there are always different people. I kind of believe that that is one of the reasons that we were able to survive so long, because we are always kind of forced to re-imagine the band. And that is one of the reasons that I kind of started pushing to take over main songwriting duties, so I could have something solid there. To be like, “Look, from now on, it doesn’t really matter who is in the band, it is sort of just my vision, my music, and I am not really relying on other people to kind of shape the sound.”
So now it is really only me and I am setting the direction, then people will come in, like our guitar player Gavin, and then do the solos and really sonically bring it to life. You know, I am a really limited guitar player. I played on some of the guitar. I am a simple guitar player, I am not flashy at all. These are the people who come in and add those elements.
One of the album’s singles is “New Jersey Makes, The World Takes.” Obviously you’re from New Jersey, but you’ve been living in California. Do you feel like where you are located impacts your songwriting or like it signifies different points in your life or with the band?
Maybe, I don’t know, but I always turn to where I am from. It’s strange, because you would think that…I actually live in Flagstaff [Arizona] right now, but I travel a lot. Who knows, I am kind of all over the place. I do not know so much if living somewhere impacts my writing, but I do know that where I grew up definitely impacts it. Because I travel so much, I think I am more drawn to talking about travel kind of like I do on the record. I am not really about, “Hey, this specific place that I am at right now is really impacting my head,” because I think that I travel so much that it is hard for one place to really change me, you know what I mean? Whereas I am always referencing New Jersey because it was a large part of who I was. I mean, I didn’t move away from New Jersey until I was 29. I just turned 34 now, so I mean, truly a majority of life has been spent there, except the last five years or so that have really been spent outside of it, you know?
And travelling definitely offers a lot of new perspective, not just location wise, but in people and social norms and things like that.
You’ve opened up in recent interviews about some of the more personal things going on in your life, such as your wife’s health struggles, addiction, your anxiety and panic attacks. Between your own struggles and the kind of volatile, socio-political state that the world is in right now, how do you calm your anxieties or channel them creatively?
I mean, I have a kind of three prong approach to general wellness. Not drinking or smoking and abstaining from all forms of drugs. Making sure I have plenty of physical exercise and have water and food and base-level stuff that I think is sort of overlooked in our mental health. You know, you read a lot about mindfulness and that’s all great — which is another part of it for me — but if you don’t have a basis, if you’re not homeostasis operating on five hours of sleep and you’re drinking and you’re smoking and you’re working out and you’re eating poorly… it can be really hard to turn on the news and deal with another school shooting. With a base layer, like you are already going to be impacted and are going to feel like shit from it, but when you’re acting like shit then you actually just feel like shit.
I do practice mindfulness, I don’t meditate as vigorously as I used to, because it has kind of become an overall sort of mindfulness practice, which is kind of what it morphs into; it’s just being aware and being very acutely aware when my mind kind of takes me away into stories of things. Meaning that I have become aware that I am moving down; which everybody does now with the Internet. Like let’s say that you see that a famous celebrity dies and then you are like, “I wonder how old they were,” and then you see that he left behind children, and then you see that he died from like, stomach cancer, and then you start looking up stomach cancer and so on.
You don’t just stop and realize that none of that is really useful, and it is really not useful to me. I don’t want stomach cancer, and I’m pretty sure that I have some control over that, but I really don’t, so you just have to be really honest with where you’re at and where your head is going, and that can sometimes save days and weeks of just pain and suffering.
Another thing I do is this thing called trauma resolution therapy, which is somatic experiencing, and I do something called NARM, and their trauma integration therapies really integrate traumatic things that have happened developmentally and or sort of acutely into sort of rebalancing the nervous system. It sounds very New Age-y, but it is very much based in the mainstream way in which people are approaching PTSD.
So it has really changed my life, and those three things puts together are really how I have been able to deal with what is going on. Even then, I stop and don’t need to pay attention to this. I don’t need to take in 10 hours of news footage about a school shooting or what Trump is doing. There is also some abstinence there that needs to happen. I don’t need to look at Twitter 10 hours a day. You need to really assess, mindfully assess, what comes in and what affects where you end up. Where you focus your attention is where the mind goes.
For sure. And like you said, the Internet makes it so much easier to indulge in some of those unhealthy habits, unfortunately.
You know, without the Internet life would be a real pain in the ass.
Yeah, go get a medical book and look up every symptom of every illness that someone has.
It would make it very difficult! That’s the thing, we have the access to the information. We have to understand that as much as we are informationally driven, there is a cap to: one, the information we take in, and two: the information that we even need. It’s like, what information do you need and how does it support your wellbeing?
That is really the question I ask. Would it really be better if I spent this time looking at kookslams instead? [Laughs] People getting hit by waves and crashing into the water… it’s probably going to help my mental health get better than digging into the reasons why… like I think yesterday I was compelled to find out how Mr. Rogers died, because apparently it was the 50th anniversary of his show. Like… no, there is no benefit from that, but it’s at your fingertips.
So you figure that you might as well! No, I agree. How do you feel about people who find music somewhat of a catharsis? How do you feel like channeling some of your anxieties into music helps you?
Partially, it’s kind of like it doesn’t become my problem. I can kind of just write about it and then people kind of take ownership of it, so it helps me disassociate with what happens. Like putting it out there and giving it away is people attaching their own meaning and also their own life story to it, which no longer keeps it as my own, sort of private thing; which in turns helps me disconnect from it.
You know, not feel so, like it’s mine, which sort of provides a mirroring. In therapy, even in basic talk therapy, they’ll just mirror back saying like, “Oh yeah, I totally understand how that could be really tough for you,” like the 101 stuff you learn as a therapist, which is sort of what happens when I put songs out into the world. People go, “Oh yeah! That is totally my experience,” and then I get that feeling of, not feeling like my experience is just mine.
Exactly, it does.
Hearing someone say something that you didn’t think other people experienced and that door of, “Wow! I am not the only one dealing with this stuff.”
It offers a connection so it doesn’t totally just weigh you down.
Exactly, because it is a lot easier to deal with things collectively. I mean, that is how human beings work, as a base animal. We collectively deal with issues, which is one reason we are where we are, versus like, dogs. I mean dogs do offer aid, but that is what really set humans apart — our ability to cooperate and to commune. That is why I think music is such a big thing and never really goes away, regardless of all the different Internet stuff and all the ups and downs of other things. The way that music is getting to people is different, but it like just as important for people to participate in.
It has definitely remained a constant and outlet. But before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to about the tour and are hoping fans take away as they get more acquainted with the album?
I think I said this a couple times, but I want to reiterate that the real goal, even early on, was to really capture a sentiment about the generation where it was; what people’s overall mental state was, and this record was really trying to revisit that currently. Trying to write a record that defined my generation’s movement from teen to young adult to adult and now adult to like a solidified, incepted, and concrete individual.
So really, I want people to take away from this record that it represents where they are in their life: there are a lot of hardships, a lot of things that are difficult, but there is a general positive that wasn’t there however many years ago, and they can listen and really engage as they did when they were teenagers or young adults. I really want to give people a record that they can listen to like they did when they were younger, now.
I have always felt like I don’t have that. I wish my favorite bands would write another record that would change me in the way that they did when I was younger. That was really the motivation behind the whole thing. I was thinking, “Can I even do that? Are people really that receptive in their 20s and their 30s to music that moves them?” And I think the answer to that is 100% yes. Most bands just aren’t able to do that, and that was really our goal, to try and capture that magic that people felt when they first heard the band; which was usually mostly because they could relate to something or some aspect of it and I want people to relate to some aspect of this.
Absolutely, and we will definitely have to check back in and hear about the good spread of ages coming out to your shows; from current teens to, like you said, people who have grown up with the band.
Yeah, absolutely! And it does seem like we did accomplish partially what we had set out to do, which was a lofty goal, but that is definitely cool.
Catch Senses Fail performing March 11 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, March 17 at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, and March 18 at Theatre of living Arts in Philadelphia.