"I see myself on the other side of a lot of things: anxiety, depression, drug use, addiction, and coming out... I just see myself as a survivor."
If you’ve been following Senses Fail over the course of its seven full length albums, you don’t need reminding what frontman James "Buddy" Nielsen has been through. If you remember the New Jersey-bred post-hardcore band from the early 2000s emo boom and nothing since, you’re in for some catching up, as well as a come-to-Jesus-moment on what went on in those formative years.
As Senses Fail readies its seventh studio album and subsequent tour, Nielsen is well aware plenty of kids will be coming to those shows just to sing along to tracks from 2004’s Let It Enfold You and 2006’s Can’t Be Saved -- the hooky hardcore records that pushed the band to the brink of mainstream exposure and contain cringe-worthy lyrics he refuses to sing today, "overtly misogynistic things," he says. “Those two records were written when I was 18 and 19, so I was extremely young, but that’s not an excuse.” Nielsen’s struggle is twofold: get post-college fans to connect with new songs the same way they did as teens, while carrying with him the gut-wrenching memories of a blur of years he’d do anything to avoid reliving.
In Nov. 2014, Nielsen opened up about the prior decade. He'd struggled with panic attacks since early childhood, stemming from a traumatic experience he can't fully remember. Once Senses Fail began touring constantly, the attacks (alongside general anxiety and depression) pushed him towards a lifestyle of constant drinking, band management pushing him onward.
The anxiousness and the alcoholism led to performances like this, Nielsen flubbing words, forgetting entire lines on the set of Conan -- a national television gig that was supposed to help break them. For a few months, his bandmates considered kicking him out. Instead, they steadily dropped off, fleeing to college and corporate jobs as Senses Fail's popularity plateaued. Meanwhile, Nielsen spent thousands of dollars paying to sleep with sex workers, which he attributes to sex addiction and wanting to keep his sexual identity separate from his public life (he spoke about his attraction to people across the gender spectrum in his 2014 open letter).
Today, he doesn’t drink, lives in L.A., practices Buddhist meditation daily, and is married with a young daughter. But these brighter years came with their own hardship. His wife suffers from Multiple sclerosis, complications of which led to a miscarriage and her own near-death experience when their daughter was born. Senses Fail, with Nielsen its last original member, is set to release its first album since those events.
If There Is Light, It Will Find You drops Feb. 16 on Pure Noise Records. It's deeply tied to Nielsen’s present, but not without the key ingredients that made Let it Enfold You the entry point for thousands of teenaged scenesters: wall-to-wall hooks, galloping drums, weather-beaten screams, double-bass beatdowns. It opens with the Blink-182 riffage of “Double Cross” and closes with Nielsen riffing on its title, wailing to his daughter: "If there is light I hope it finds you." The frontman hopes those fans still see the light in him, too.
In a recent interview, you were saying how there are all these fans who come out to shows just wanting to hear old songs from Let It Enfold You and Still Searching, and how you wanted you write an impactful new album that gets people to sing along the same way.
I wanted to challenge myself to write songs that almost redefine who Senses Fail is, that are as loved as what was done in the band’s original explosion. My main goal was to write a timeless record, one that’s up there with the records that people covet as the early launch of the band. I wanted to challenge myself and not just go, “Oh yeah, that’s never gonna happen. We’re never gonna win people over with new music.” I think we can, and I think we will.
A lot of our fans are having kids and are in places where they’re able to enjoy their lives a little better: have families, committed relationships, settle down in a way. But it’s a very new thing, this freedom of being a complete adult. I wanna write a record that defines that moment in their life, something they could look back on in their early 40s and go, “Man, that was a really awesome time. I had my first child. I had my first, concrete relationship.” Or, “I finally felt mentally good about myself.”
On your last album, you spoke about aspects of your sexuality and your upbringing for the first time in the lyrics and in the press cycle. For this album, where do you feel you’re really opening up?
Over the last three years, my wife was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis and had complications with that. We had a miscarriage. She almost died in childbirth. A lot of my head has been in this world of mortality. That’s where this record is coming from -- how do we navigate this darkness but not live there?
In these new songs, I’m picking up on a lot of socio-political themes: the GOP's return to power, mass shootings, a population that's pushed to self-medicate. The scene Senses Fail came from never struck me as overtly political; is this something that came along later in the band’s lifespan?
I don’t know. I’ve just gotten older and I just care about things to a certain degree that wasn’t available to me when I was younger. I was also dealing with my own horrible issues, so maybe I didn’t have the room, the capacity, and the confidence to really put myself out there.
It’s not a political record. It’s social commentary, in a way. But it’s also from a perspective of, “I’ve dealt with this.” …It’s trying to be a step beyond raising awareness or pointing fingers. I wanna actually provide some level of emotional support. I see myself on the other side of a lot of things: anxiety, depression, drug use, addiction, and coming out. I deal with my wife’s disease. I deal with death and loss of children. I just see myself as a survivor.
When you look back on Let it Enfold You, maybe when you perform those old songs, are there aspects that make you uncomfortable?
Yeah, there are definitely things I said on there that I’d never say now. Specifically, sort of misogynistic, overtly misogynistic things. Songs just that lack a level of depth. Overall, there’s a couple lines where I’ll cringe, like “whore.” Or I have a song about pushing a girl off a building.
“You’re Cute When You Scream”?
Yeah and that’s so stupid and ridiculous. But there are other songs that stand up and are good. I wouldn’t say when I look at it as a whole I’m, like, cringing or upset about it. But there are specific instances when I look at it, and I’m like, “What? What was going on back then that that’s what came out?”
The scene in those days was often wildly misogynistic.
Yeah and I modeled my lyrics of off… I was a big fan of Saves The Day. I go back and listen now, they had some really overtly misogynistic lyrics as well. And coming from someone who in no way feels like that was who he even was. And then you had that Glassjaw record [Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence]… It’s crazy to think that was not only widely accepted but applauded as a really good lyrical record. Those are things I was pulling from -- “Okay, this is what people are writing about.”
To be honest, I think I struggled from a deep, sort of… I don’t know if it came from society or my upbringing, but I think there was that level of... that was okay. I know my mom didn’t raise me to think that that was okay, obviously. I don’t wanna say “different times,” because that’s a really easy way to get out of owning any sort of responsibility to it. I don’t really know what the right way to say that is. But it was a less consciously-aware time for me and I think for a lot of other people. And I purposely don’t sing those -- not that I don’t sing those [songs] live -- but I actually changed some of the words.
What were some of the words that you changed and for what songs?
I don’t use the word “whore.” There are songs that use the word “whore” and when it comes to that part I just don’t say it. I actively changed the bridge for “You’re Cute When You Scream.” The audience still sings it so I guess I’m just doing it for myself. The more I grow up, the more I have a real understanding of what the impact of what I do and say is, the more I look at what I’ve done and what I’m gonna do differently is pretty big.
Saves the Day is an inspiration on the new album, in much more positive ways. What made you want to name the song "Stay What You Are" after their album?
If there were two bands that made Senses Fail, they were Thursday and Saves the Day. Saves The Day is very New Jersey-centric. So is Thursday and so is Senses Fail. I always think of it as a lineage. One of the first dates [my wife and I] went on was to a Saves the Day show. This song is [hypothetically] talking about her posthumously because the record is about my wife dying in childbirth. The song is remembering her impact on my life and that time we went to see Saves the Day.
Senses Fail and Saves the Day have a lot in common, in that you and [Saves the Day frontman] Chris Conley are the only original members, and you’ve both been cycling through replacement members for a while. Chris Conley pretty much is Saves the Day. As long as you’re making music, is it always going to be Senses Fail?
Almost a decade ago our main songwriter [guitarist Garrett Zablocki] left the band. This will be our third record since he left, and I think we’ve finally figured out what Senses Fail should really be -- kinda like when your parents get divorced and you’re trying to be a functional adolescent and you finally figure out you can stand on your own two feet.
The last two records are awesome. I worked really hard on them and I really appreciate them, but I don’t know if they were Senses Fail. I’ve been trying to find my version of Senses Fail, the version that brings the two together so there’s no, “Oh, there’s Buddy and there’s Senses Fail, and there’s this.” Now, there’s really no difference between me and Senses Fail, since I’m now the main and only member and songwriter. I am Senses Fail and Senses Fail is me.