Senses Fail Biography
“Everyone’s life is a work in progress,” says Senses Fail frontman Buddy Nielsen. “You’re still going to be learning this stuff until the day you die.” The stuff he’s talking about is why we are the way we are. Much of Senses Fail’s new album, Still Searching (due Oct. 10 on Vagrant Records), finds Nielsen grappling with this issue. And though these are the most personal songs he’s ever written, they’re also the most accessible. “I like my lyrics to be open to interpretation, but I didn’t want to paint pictures of things no one was going to understand; I want our fans to be able to relate,” he explains. “At some point, we all start examining our lives. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.” It’s been nearly two years since the New Jersey quintet – Nielsen, new guitarist Heath Saraceno (formerly of Midtown), guitarist Garrett Zablocki, bassist Mike Glita and drummer Dan Trapp – released their full-length debut, Let It Enfold You (Vagrant), which sold more than 300,000 copies. Since then, the band has performed on national TV, sat for countless media interviews (Alternative Press put them on the cover), toured the world and become the subject of frenzied Internet activity. “We’ve grown up a lot since then,” Nielsen says. “When we wrote the songs for the last record, I was 18. I never imagined we’d be able to make a record like this one.”
Of course, Senses Fail has honed their post-hardcore aggro melodicism to a razor’s edge (three Warped tours in a row will do that), but they’ve also begun to wear their Metallica damage on their collective sleeve. “Sick or Sane,” for instance, is indeed sick, complete with double-kick-drum fire power and facemelting solo. It’s a three-minute fusillade of machine-gun guitar punctuated by Nielsen’s otherworldly growl. Exhibiting his knack for black humor, he sings, “And the white coats just won’t get it/ I’m a genius with a headache.”
“Sick or Sane” is also evidence of the band’s renewed focus on songcraft, as are the standout tracks “Can’t Be Saved” and “Calling All Cars.” “Can’t Be Saved” gets under your skin with the unlikely sing-along refrain, “I’m stuck in a coma/ Stuck in this never-ending sleep/ Someday I will wake up/ And realize I made up everything.” An expressive lead-guitar line provides counterpoint to Nielsen’s articulation of emotional paralysis. The first single off Still Searching, the melodic powerhouse “Calling All Cars,” details the fallout of life on the road as the singer confronts a self-fulfilling prophecy. Propulsive rhythms build to a wall-of-sound crescendo, Nielsen exhorting, “Scatter my ashes where they won’t be found/ I kept my word when I swore that I would let you down.”
Perhaps even more significant than Senses Fail’s development as songwriters, however, is Nielsen’s ability to communicate as a vocalist. “The last record sounded almost emotionless to me,” he confides. “With this one, the emotion really needed to come through in my voice because these songs are about such heavy issues. When I was recording, I needed to actually feel those emotions for the songs to be completely honest.” Nielsen says the album’s title track epitomizes his frame of mind: “It goes from really heavy to catchy to this big, dramatic ending. It’s about the last couple of years of my life. I’ve been dealing with things I’d been avoiding since I was a kid, stuff about why I’ve been so fucking angry my whole life.” “I can’t believe it’s been a year,” he sings on “Still Searching,” “since I kissed my fears on their salty lips and said to them I love you all.” Nielsen has been self-medicating with music since he was a kid. “I got into all these bands – The Promise Ring, Agnostic Front, Snapcase, Jawbreaker, Saves the Day, Thursday … and when I started playing music, it helped me get my aggression out,” he recalls. He started playing music with Garrett Zablocki, a fellow resident of Bergen County, N.J., whom he met online, in 2001. They immediately began banging out songs in Zablocki’s basement but had difficulty recruiting bandmates.
Finally, Zablocki brought in Trapp, remarking, “He’s only 15, but he’s really awesome,” and the band’s original guitarist and bassist. Says Nielsen, “We played together and it was like magic.” Its lineup solidified, Senses Fail – the name evokes the path to spiritual Nirvana – began playing shows at VFW halls, skate parks, churches and any other hole in the wall that would have them. They quickly amassed the core of their unusually devoted fan base. SF’s first recording, the EP From the Depths of Dreams, was released in 2002 (on ECA Records, later reissued on Drive-Thru Records). It sold more than 250,000 copies, landing it on the Billboard 200 album chart, due in part to rampant Internet song swapping. Led by the track “Buried a Lie” – the video was shot on the set of “The Guiding Light” by Nielsen’s mother, once an actor on the soap – 2004’s Let it Enfold You introduced the band to an even wider audience and muscled its way into the Top 40. Suddenly, Senses Fail was gracing the pages of not only Kerrang! but also Rolling Stone and Spin. The band spent the next two years gigging steadily, opening for My Chemical Romance, among others, and logging two months in Europe, Japan and Australia on the Taste of Chaos Tour. In May of 2006 Senses Fail commenced recording the much-anticipated followup to Let It Enfold You, retreating to Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, N.Y., with producer Brian McTernan (Thrice, Cave In; the album was mixed by Chris Lord-Alge).
McTernan, intuiting just how essential emotional authenticity was to the record, maintained a hands-off approach to Nielsen’s performances. Nielsen also credits McTernan with achieving the sonic depth the band had long sought. “We don’t want the songs to be flat planes; we want movement,” he informs. “You can really hear it on ‘All the Best Cowboys’ and ‘The Priest and the Matador.’ The first one is weird progressive metal; it’s maniacal and very dark. The second one is soothing and almost uplifting. Brian worked extremely hard to make them sound that way.”
Needless to say, Still Searching can aptly be described as moody. Nielsen admits it’s sometimes hard for him to listen to, but he also says, “I’d much rather start dealing with this stuff when I’m 22 than when I’m 35 and have a family and real responsibility.” Asked about the opening line of “Can’t Be Saved” – “Follow your bliss, it reads on my chest” – he illuminates: “I do have a tattoo on my chest that says, ‘Follow your bliss.’ I hold that true, that you should do exactly what makes you happy no matter what because that’s the only thing that will work in your life. I believe that, even if I can never seem to do it myself.” Still, even on his worst days, when he’s sure he “can’t be saved,” you get the impression that Nielsen will vanquish his demons if for no other reason than he keeps on trying. And that if he can do it, maybe the rest of us can, too.