One of the best things about New Jersey is Senses Fail. A punk scene that was so vibrant and fertile gave birth to one of the most dynamic and astounding live bands of our generation. They are the kind of band that you never forget experiencing live and in-person for the first time. It becomes a core memory that sticks with you forever.
Most of the fanbase, or community, surrounding Senses Fail is made up of lifelong supporters for obvious reasons. The energy exhibited not only by the band, but also their crew and the crowd, makes attending their concert feel like going to punk rock church. There is a love shared by the band and their audience that makes these performances so special. Senses Fail shows are a spectacle of the highest form.
This is not to forget that the band continues to go into the studio and write some of the most prolific albums of their time. While their first few albums are classics in their own right, the lyrics found in their latest release are deeper and darker than they’ve ever been… and it’s something special. No longer is the band singing about fictional murders or death – they’re talking about their loved ones, personal trauma, and dealing with the darkness inside us all due to impactful life events – personal and professional. If There Is A Light It Will Find You (2018) showed the band discussing parenthood and the challenges that come with that, including finding ways to move forward while feeling lost (seeking sobriety) and encountering loss (almost experiencing a miscarriage). They followed it up with 2022’s Hell is in Your Head, a record that continues that theme but beautifully expands on it. It’s talks about the anxiety you feel when you go to public places and the constant, looming fear of premature death that creeps around every corner. The intrusive thoughts that infect your mind on a daily basis are explored. All the while, though, the understanding of having to stay strong for your child and support your family is evident. It’s an ominous record that cements the band’s legacy as one of the greats.
We had the incredible opportunity to catch up with Buddy Nielsen, the Jersey band’s frontman, just hours before they took the stage at Jersey’s beloved Stone Pony. (We were in a bubble of Garden State excitement and graciousness.) Senses Fail have always been an extremely community based band and this conversation we had with Buddy was no exception. Seeing the level of care and attention he has towards the people who choose to support his music was heartwarming. Senses Fail really does feel like a family. As someone that has followed their career for most of their life, this was a full circle conversation (personally and professionally) about a scene that’s currently thriving.
We are super excited to have you on the cover of The Aquarian this week! Your new album, Hell is in Your Head, available now. Tell me about the reception of this record. How are you feeling?
I feel really good. You put out new music after being a band for 20 years, you’re always competing with nostalgia and something great you’ve done in the past. I think I’ve learned to give things their space. They’ve got to find their audience – even the Senses Fail fans. There is a portion of people who listen to every new record right away, they come to every show, they’re diehards. Then there is another portion that really likes Senses Fail but they are not necessarily actively participating and watching everything we do. Other people it takes a little bit longer to let them know we have a new record. I don’t really judge reception for years. It’s hard because you used to put out a record and the only way to hear it was people had to go to the record store to buy it. Now it’s so available that it’s hard to create any kind of real hype for somebody to check out. Some people used to write down a date, “Go to the store and pick it up.” It’s an event, something you have to do. Our fans are usually in their thirties or late twenties and have busy lives. I think the reception has been amazing. I think people who have followed the band really love the record. I think over time it will grow. It will find the Senses Fail fans who need to hear it.
We’ve got a lot of music out, done a lot of different things throughout our career, and so you have to judge things over an arc. I feel like this tour is going really well, reception has been really well, When We Were Young [Festival] was really well, we’re going to Europe. I’m happy with the overall feedback.
You mentioned it and I need to talk about it: When We Were Young Fest. That was amazing. I’m sure you know this: our music scene, this punk/post-hardcore/emo, whatever you want to call it, it wasn’t cool for a long time.
To see that validation of the sea of endless people that were there, we finally felt it. People were like “Oh, yeah! We’re being taken seriously now!”
It was really cool. I had high hopes for how it would go and everybody involved has done so many Warped Tours and festivals that it was kind of like I didn’t really see how it couldn’t be amazing. It was really, really awesome.
That is so cool. I’ve got to say, you performed with Ice Nine Kills at When We Were Young Fest, and you’ve got “Death By Water (featuring Spencer Charnas),” and they have “The F.L.Y (featuring Buddy Nielsen).” That has been the dream collaboration for a lot of fans. It’s been incredible.
Yeah, they’re an awesome band. I’m hoping in the not so distant future we can do a tour with them. I was really stoked to go out there and be a part of their set. There are a lot of cool bands out there now. There are a lot of people over the last decade who kind of said “Rock Is Dead!” and all that stuff. There are a lot of really good bands out now that are having a lot of success and that’s awesome and it’s all good. A band like Turnstile – it’s all really good for all rock bands. The bigger one band gets the better it is for everybody.
Absolutely! When the scene is strong, we’re all strong.
That has to be such a cool feeling because I interviewed Spencer a while back, and he says he grew up listening to you. He loved your records as a kid. Now you guys are collaborating. Same thing with Nothing,Nowhere and “MISERY_SYNDROME” that you feature on. It has to be cool to see the influence you’re having in real time.
It’s pretty wild. I would say that is definitely a marker of success for me, personally. When you have other successful musicians citing you as an influence, that’s the ultimate validation – beyond success or whatever. If you can inspire someone else to create something and they have success with it, it’s almost like a coach or a teacher. You feel some level of pride in it… like when I found out Juice WRLD was asked in an interview, “Whose the one person you would collaborate with?” He said me!
That was crazy! Unfortunately, that never got to happen. For me, the validation of, “Man, that guy was such an amazing artist. These artists like Spencer and Nothing,Nowhere. and all the people we get to work with… it’s really cool, really validating.” You put yourself into your music and over time you never know what is going to happen, who it’s going to find, and what seeds it’s going to plant for the future.
That’s almost the greatest gift that you can give to the scene that birthed you…. to help it keep perpetuating.
Yeah! That’s something I really do appreciate. I do feel a sense of pride in that.
Absolutely. Switching gears a bit and going back into this new record, Hell is in Your Head, I wanted to ask about the album rollout. You did something I haven’t seen a band do. Rather than announce a record two months ahead of time, you did the record nine months ahead of time. How did you see that work out?
I’m not quite sure. I think it was a give and a take. On one hand, it was cool because nowadays as soon as the record is out, the hype is over because it’s out. You have two options: you either drop it – here it is, no bullshit, we’re going on tour – just blow it all out. Or you do an elongated rollout which is like, “Hey! we’ve got this thing coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.” I think it was probably a little longer than I would do next time. A lot of that had to do with the pandemic. I was a week away from finishing the record when we had to shut it down for the pandemic. This record is old, technically. For me it’s two years old. It was supposed to come out in the Fall of 2020. We just held onto it. I’m happy we did that and we chose to do a much longer rollout because we just really didn’t know when we were going to be able to tour again. We put it out, then we got this Rise Against offer. We had so many things come up that changed the plan. I don’t know if I would do such a long rollout again, but I’m not quite sure just dropping the record without any kind of hype makes a ton of sense. So maybe something that’s in the middle. You can do whatever you want now. There are no rules. That makes it a little complicated because you’re not sure what the formula is. There really is no formula. You know?
I know what you mean.
I think the formula is that you really need to create a great relationship with your fanbase that feels really beneficial. You’re constantly respecting their willingness to pay attention to your band and giving them reasons to pay attention. Validating their interest in your art is not only beneficial to their lives but is entertaining. That’s really complicated because that can look different for every single band… the way Spencer does it with all his horror stuff is completely different to what I do with my social media, lyrics, and stuff. You could never tell Spencer to do that or tell me to do this. Every band has to find their own thing and that’s really hard. It’s an ongoing process and it changes all the time. Being in a band now is way more difficult than when we started.
You’re right because now you’re not just being in a band to play instruments. If you’re in a band you have to be a social media manager, business manager, product manager. There are so many other layers that you’re doing with your stuff.
100%. That makes it really complicated. I spend most of my time online. I’m the social media manager. I’m the one who comes up with all the content ideas. I’m the one who edits it and films it. We have a guy who does the higher end stuff and then I answer questions like “Where’s my vinyl?” It used to be that you’re in a band and you just show up and play. You show up to the studio and you kind of live a really cushy life. Now it’s much more like running a deli.
Almost like a freelance entrepreneur kind of thing.
Yeah, 100%. I don’t think bands who don’t run their social media are going to have a ton of success in the modern world.
Because they’re not connecting to their fans.
People don’t want prepackaged social media. The way that I’ve viewed it, I’m taking the things people liked about the DVDs we had and I’m trying to put that into social media. That was something that really helped us in the beginning. I’m looking at social media and looking at the early days of DVDs as getting the inside look of what we’re like – inside jokes and what it’s like to be on tour and all that stuff. People really feel like they have a sense of ownership of the band. That’s what I’m trying to provide with social media. It’s like, “Hey, you know me. You know my jokes. You know my family. You know my friends.” We’re sort of one big collective family. That’s the way I’ve been approaching social media and had success with it, but you can’t take what I’m doing, have someone else do it, and have the same effect.
That makes sense. I have to ask, is it tough to put on that entrepreneurial hat when the music is so personal? The album is so deep and emotional.
A little bit, but we’ve always done that. I’ve always been deeply involved. I’ve been the tour manager and the business manager for more than a decade. I once managed the band. I used to manage bands on my own. I used to actually manage another band that had a ton of success, Lorna Shore. I signed them and managed them. I’m well versed in that stuff. It’s the same thing with Spencer. If you look at a lot of the bands that are successful right now, a lot of them have someone in the band who pretty much has their hands in every aspect of the band. The old way of being in a rock band is impossible. You can’t do it. If you are lucky enough to be one of the four or five massive bands, you can sort of step away from your business, but I’d call ourselves a middle class band.
I love that way of looking at it! We can see from the fanbase a very genuine nature and that you guys are not paying thousands of dollars to have someone run their social media. We see your family, your tour, you talking to Jason backstage… it’s more of a connection. That’s Senses Fail. They’re one of the most hardworking bands. We get that.
Exactly. I think that over time it creates a really long running relationship; whereas in contrast to keeping it surface level. Yeah, maybe you have a record that pops off or a song that pops off. To really get people to come out to see you, especially when they’re in their thirties and they’ve seen you their whole life, and it’s a Thursday night… I don’t think band’s appreciate what it takes for somebody to pay money to come see them play. It’s one thing when you’re 19 and it’s not even your money that you’re spending. This person is saying they are going to spend the money. They’re going to take money away from spending it on something else. They’re going to take time away from their children or their family to come to this show on a weeknight. That’s a big deal. I think a lot of band’s don’t necessarily appreciate that. If you know as a band what you have to do with your live show and with everything you put into it, if you understand what people are sacrificing for your livelihood, it makes you work hard in a way that is beneficial for the relationship. If you don’t ever think about the fact that people are paying and the ticket is $32.00 but the fees are $32.00…. Well, you have to think about these things so you can properly show up. I’ve seen a lot of bands recently that I think are terrible. That sucks that you can’t see what your job is as an artist.
I love that mindset completely. You’re right, a lot of the fans, they’re working nine to five jobs Monday through Friday and they have to go to bed by nine to be at work at nine the next day. To spend a weeknight at a show, it does take a lot. Just to know you guys are appreciative and putting on the best show possible is important. You even said a public statement, “All Shows will be over by 10:30, we know you got babysitters and work in the morning, we get it.”
Yeah! That’s something we do. We try not to play on Mondays. We’re doing a three-band-bill so we can have the show over by an appropriate time, so if it is a weekday show you can go to the show, get home, and still go to work. There are some younger people. We have a spectrum. But a lot of the people are going to be older and have to get a babysitter, so it’s nice to say, “Hey, we’ll be home by 11,” versus, “I don’t know when the band is going on.” Everything is super good, though, and we’re stoked to play The Stone Pony again. It’s been about a decade! I mean we played the Summer Stage this past summer, but we haven’t played inside since 2013.
It’s just so fitting. The Aquarian is Jersey based, Senses Fail is from Jersey, playing the most Jersey venue. This whole thing is so serendipitous.
The special thing about tonight is it’s November 10. The first song we ever really had success with was “Steven” and it’s a song about a friend of mine who passed away on November 10, 2001. This is the first time this has ever happened – this has never happened in the history of our band. We’re playing New Jersey on the anniversary of his death. This never happens. We’re definitely playing that song tonight. It’s very meta. It’s definitely a cool show to be at if you’re a Senses Fail fan and you’re from New Jersey.
Of course! Well, I want to thank you so much again for sitting down talking with me today, hyping up this show, this tour, this amazing album. I’ve got one more question for you today: in 2018 you have If There Is A Light It Will Find You and you introduced this little skull character. Watching this grow into the Senses fail mascot that encapsulates everything Senses Fail has been cool to watch, what is it?
Yeah! A lot of our lyrics are dark but we’ve always had this edginess and humor to us that it’s not like we’re falling all over into this ‘we’re dark and scary’ band. We all know there is this eventual end, but life is very enjoyable. It’s a spectrum, too. When we found this character I was just like, “This is perfect. We’ve always encapsulated all of what we are: the humor but also the darkness and the tongue and cheekiness and the playful side of what the band is. The overall angst of the existential experience.” It’s one of those things that happens and has a life of its own. We ran with it. It’s been something that can represent the band in a symbol. We never had that previously. We had the gas mask but that felt very serious. This feels like, “Oh, it’s kind of cute but it’s the Grim Reaper. Kinda odd. Grim Reaper is cute, that’s weird.” I think that’s how you can approach us: our music is very serious but a lot of our videos and media and what we’ve done throughout our history is playful. We’re not Blink-182 where we’re singing about “Shit, piss, fuck” all that stuff, but there is an element of the playfulness of Blink in what Senses Fail is. I think it’s kind of a nice symbol for who we are.
Even the story for “Buried A Lie.” It’s a very dark comedy. It fits you guys. I think that’s also why the fans attached themselves to this logo way more than they’ve attached themselves to the gas mask logo.
It feels like it all fits together in a way that wasn’t forced but naturally happened.
It’s also kind of cool because I don’t care what design, what font, what’s happening. If I see that little skull guy in public, I know there’s a Senses Fail fan near me.
Exactly. Easy marker.
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