The Absurdity of Trying to Be Creative: An Interview with Buddy Nielsen of Senses Fail

by | Oct 21, 2022 | MUSIC

Formed in 2001, Senses Fail have been a staple of the emo scene for over two decades. The group hails from the emo mecca of the world, New Jersey (home to similar aughts royalty Saves The Day, Midtown, My Chemical Romance, and Thursday), and have a penchant for making your head turn with poppier songs that have darker themes, while their darker-sounding numbers can surprise you with an uplifting message. The band has blazed their own trail in a genre that can often seem like cookie-cutter (even if it’s anything but). In advance of coming to Richmond for a show at The Broadberry in support of their eighth studio album, Hell Is In Your Head, frontman Buddy Nielsen chatted with us about the band’s Richmond ties, time-machine wisdom you’d give to your younger self, and — you guessed it — “Pinocchio.”

It’s been a hot minute since we’ve gotten to see Senses Fail in Richmond. 13 years, to be exact. What brought you back to our city for the show at The Broadberry in November?

Generally, I think we’re mostly playing towards the Atlantic coast or just going up to D.C., and on this one, because we had just done The NorVA with Rise Against, we just, for whatever reason, decided not to play the D.C. metro area. We still wanted to do something to get through up through the east coast. So this worked out. God, I can’t believe it’s actually been that long. That’s crazy.

What is it like playing in a city you’ve either never played, or it’s been a while since you’ve been back to?

We don’t really change much. When we go on tour, we have a plan for the tour, and have a show plan and everything. So we do that everywhere. Before we go on stage, it’s more fun exploring the city, or re-exploring the city. That’s where I find the biggest difference, or the most excitement. Because the show is the show. I think a lot of people end up having to travel from Richmond, because while it does get a lot of shows, there are a lot of cities that are close enough to where people will drive.

I do think there is a handful of people that probably have definitely seen us within the last 13 years. [With] Warped Tour and some of the bigger tours that we’ve done, I would almost guarantee it.

We end up in Richmond a lot on days off. It’s cool. And I’m excited, too, because we used to play Richmond all the time. We used to play Alleykatz, a lot. That was the place that we came up playing at, until the early… the teens? We don’t always entirely make the decisions. Our booking agent will give us options, and be like “Do you want to play Richmond, or do you want to go up to D.C./Baltimore?”

I’m excited because I love being in Richmond, there’s some of my favorite coffee spots in Richmond. Our merch guy grew up there, and also our driver who drives us a lot. So, we have a really good, local network of people that always take care of us when we come through.

Photo by Cameron Giles, via Senses Fail/Facebook.

Every band has had an embarrassing or interesting reason they’ve had to cancel a show. It’s never a goal to do so, but in retrospect, what’s the most comical reason you guys have ever had to cancel a gig?

[Laughs] I was incredibly hungover one time, like to the point where I was not functional. I, could, not, function. I had to cancel. This was 2007 or something, 2008, when I was pretty young. I was so incredibly hungover that I couldn’t play the show. It was absolutely embarrassing. I think everybody was very upset with me, and I was like, “Yeah, man, it’s going to be terrible.” It might have been a combination of being sick… but the only reason I was sick was because I was hungover.

Senses Fail has had a lot of lineup changes over the years; there’s bound to be pros and cons that come along with that. What’s been the good and the bad with having someone new on board, and having a member leave?

The con is obviously you’re losing someone that you’ve established a relationship with, the fans have gotten to know, that everyone’s gotten to connect with, and you feel comfortable with. That’s the con, especially if they’re involved in the songwriting.

Touring is hard. Playing in a band, it’s hard. It’s a lot of commitment, and it’s not necessarily an easy lifestyle, it’s very variable. There’s a lot of things you can’t control about it. Like the pandemic, shit like that. So it totally makes sense. I think getting people who are, I don’t want to say fresh, but committed to the lifestyle, is definitely the pro. People love playing music, but that’s not always what you’re doing. You’re only playing music for — if you’re headlining — an hour and 20 minutes. The rest of your time is spent away from home, traveling. It can wear on people, and people also don’t necessarily like the lifestyle as much as they like the music, making music. People grow in and out of that, too, especially when you have kids. So, I think the pro is that you can find people who are deeply committed to that style of life; they like to travel in that lifestyle as much as they like to play.

You guys are playing the When We Were Young Festival later this month; there’s been a swell of an emo revival the past couple of years. What have been the effects of that on you? Have you benefited from it?

We never stopped, but obviously, I think it’s helped our popularity. But we’ve always had our core fanbase that has supported us. I see a bigger influx of reunions and bands getting back together than I’m necessarily seeing new people have ears and eyes on it. We were always involved; some of the newer artists… like, I know Juice WRLD was a big fan of us, Nothing Nowhere, we’ve always kind of had our hand in what’s currently happening. So we’ve maintained getting the younger fan base.

If you get into this style of music, regardless, you’re probably going to listen to one of our first two records. They’ve become like a staple, which is incredibly cool. I definitely noticed a lot of bands deciding that it’s time to jump back in, and it’s been great, because it’s bringing back some of the bigger bands in the genre. Which then makes it so that we can do some of these bigger festivals, which is awesome, because festivals are super fun. They’re a real easy way to play in front of a bunch of people you wouldn’t necessarily have access to when doing a tour.

I don’t know exactly how it’s affected us, because it’s hard to see. I think in a couple of years once it’s crested and come back down, you’ll be like “Oh, that was a result of all those eyes on this music scene again.” Right now, it’s sort of like, what is the next iteration of this genre, and how is it going to be reinvented for a younger generation? And then, will there be any of the older bands that continue to stick around? Because I still don’t know what bands that are coming back are here for the long haul, or they’re just sort of popping their head up, and they’re going to go back away? I don’t know. That’s still yet to be seen.

That also dictates what happens, especially with the pandemic. [It] delayed a lot of this stuff. It’s kind of all happening right now. It seems like what maybe seemed like a slow build over the last couple years, all got delayed for two years. Every reunion, every single thing that was ever going happen, it’s happening right now.

Photo by Steinmiller Productions, via Senses Fail/Facebook.

You have done a great job throughout your career in taking dark events and tragedies but almost dressing them up behind a not-as-tonally-heavy song, musically. What is that process like, and how do you take something so heavy to the upbeat nature of pop/punk?

Sometimes I like to juxtaposition it, when we have to write something catchy — which we do, because that’s the nature of our band — to make it have some sort of edge, or vice versa. Like, “Wow, this is really dark.” It would be very obvious to make this match it in tonal quality. The last record, we did something that was like, sort of a backbeat. It was in three, kind of felt like a Weezer song. And the lyrics are about being incredibly scared of dying of a terminal disease.

It’s kind of always how I’ve done things. It’s what I was inspired by, like Saves The Day. What I really liked about Morrissey as well. When you really listen to the lyrics, this shit is fucking dark, and it’s so poppy and dreamy. I’ve just always been interested in that juxtaposition, because it just felt like instead of hitting things right on the nose, I enjoy the juxtaposition. I don’t really plan it out; it comes naturally. Unless I have something that’s really dark, and I’m like, “You know what? I’m definitely going to pair this,” and vice versa.

Mostly, music comes before lyrics, so I tend to write to the vibe of the song, and if the vibe is very poppy, I’ll generally skew darker than I would if the song was heavier. I’ve done that, where it’s something like our heaviest record, all the lyrics are very positive and very uplifting. I tend to sort of feel… rather than matching the tonal quality, I want to do the opposite, just because that’s also not what I hear a lot of. I hear most people, if you’re playing heavy music, you’re really dark and talking about heavy emotions, and not uplifting. So I tend to do the opposite.

On the new record, your closer, “Grow Away From Me,” is a very raw and honest look at how scary it can be to be a parent, and what you are doing to cope with it while still being the best dad you can. Not too many artists are willing to expose that thought process. What is it that has allowed you to let your fans, and everyone really, into that side of your life?

I don’t really think about it too much. I ultimately write the songs for myself, so I don’t filter too much. I filter more like, “I’m not going to share this stuff on social media.” There’s a level to how personal and introspective I want to get on social media, just because I feel like there is a barrier there. In songwriting, there is no real filter there for what I’m willing to discuss or talk about. I feel that’s the reason why people like the band. It is part of what the band is. I don’t ever really struggle with “should I talk about this, should I not talk about this?” If it’s happening, and it’s a thought that I have, then it’s something I’ll probably put into my songwriting.

Almost every pop/punk emo band has a pop song in their closet that they can slay. What’s yours?

[Laughs] It’s going to probably be some type of Disney song, I think I can smash any of the songs from Pinocchio. That would be one that I feel like I could really do justice. It’s not great singing, it’s more theatrical, over-the-top singing. I feel like I could really deliver that and do it justice. Maybe more like in like a lounge way; I can reimagine Pinocchio as an emo lounge version.

Photo by Cameron Giles, via Senses Fail/Facebook.

The career has been pretty long now. What’s one lesson, in particular, you’ve learned that you would go back and tell your former self at the beginning?

You can’t get discouraged by the ebb and flow of what’s going to happen over a career. I think you just have to commit to, “I’m a musician, and I’m going to keep doing this through the peaks and valleys.” I’m pretty sure most musicians… there’s a few that just get big and never have any sort of ebb and flow. But for the most part, not every record is successful, and not every record is going to be beloved.

You end up creating this body of work that becomes a testament to your importance, which then bolsters the highlights of your career. It’s hard to have any kind of concept of that, especially because the music industry is not interested in that. Your management and the people surrounding you don’t really think about that, because obviously they’re not going to be involved. Almost every single person that worked for the band is not in the music industry anymore. So that shows you have to cultivate it as an artist.

I’ve picked up every little thing about the music industry. I’ve been a manager, I’ve managed bands, I’ve been the band’s accountant, I’m the bookkeeper, I’m the tour manager. I went from being just the singer to becoming the main songwriter, the guitar player, the curator, the artist behind everything, and that is something that you have to be willing to do. I don’t think that anybody who’s an entrepreneur, or maybe anybody who’s been in freelance work, knows [going in] that they pretty much have to pick up every single skill within this genre of whatever they’re working.

That’s something that’s not talked about in music. I don’t want to be on social media, but I have to be. I’ve had to cultivate whatever that’s going to be, learn about it and know about it and figure it out. Having to constantly do that with everything is something that you have to do. Which I would have told myself: “You’re going to have to put on every single hat, because it’s the only way to continue doing it, to fill the holes, as you see needed. They’re going to be multiple, and they’re going to be different every time.” That’s something that’s hard to explain to young bands or young artists, or young anybody. Most people just think that they’re going to walk into whatever they’re doing, and just do it. And yeah, you might get a section of time where you just get to focus on being a musician. But honestly, most of my time is spent not being a musician, it’s spent doing all of the other things that go into being in a band, and when I get to practice, being a musician.

Vice versa, I wouldn’t get chance to be a musician if I only focused on writing songs. I would end up with no social media following. I’ve got no way to promote that I have new music. Unfortunately, when you take a creative direction in your life, the infrastructure to support you isn’t always going to be there, and that’s true for anybody who’s doing anything creative. It’s pretty much all on you. At times that’s daunting, but I also gained an incredible amount of skill and ability to be resilient.

I don’t really know [how] I would explain that to somebody who’s young. It’s just a willingness to reinvent yourself over and over and over again, regardless of whether it seems a commitment to the absurdity of trying to be a creative person in a capitalist society. It’s a lot easier in Canada, because they give you grants, I’ll tell you that much. Or even in Europe. In America, we’ve got so much culture that it doesn’t really matter that you’re contributing to it. We don’t really have any sort of financial backing. Anybody who’s creative, you have to continually be okay with the absurdity of trying to be creative, all while trying to live like a non-hobo.

Senses Fail is playing The Broadberry on Wednesday, November 16th with Magnolia Park and Can’t Swim. Tickets can be purchased at Plan 9 Records in Carytown, or online at The Broadberry’s website.

Top Photo via Senses Fail/Facebook.

Bryan Schools

Bryan Schools

Bryan Schools is a Richmond lifer sans a four year hiatus to Radford University where he received his B.S. in Journalism in 2005. Music, comics, video games and LEGO are his main passions, and if you really want to get into a good conversation with him, ask what his top-five anything are, and you've got a conversation.

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