If you’re looking for a band that has been through a lot in the music community, look no further than Senses Fail. The band formed in 2002 and came up in the Drive-Thru Records era of the post-hardcore/pop-punk scene. They have outlasted many of their peers, though it hasn’t always been an easy task for them to do so. They have gone through some lineup changes and almost broke up in early-2016, but more on that later.
Vocalist Buddy Nielsen is the only original member of Senses Fail at this point. There’s nothing wrong with that; the longer your band goes on, the more likely you are to see lineup changes. Sometimes, though, things are bigger than music and your band. Nielsen became a father in 2017, though he almost lost his wife in the process and this is after a tragic miscarriage before this child. The birth of his child, though, is something that has been life-changing. “It’s just a matter of what way it changes your life,” Nielsen begins, “for some people, it changes in many different ways.”
In 2017, Senses Fail embarked on their 15th-anniversary tour where they played 2006’s Still Searching in full. During the tour, Nielsen expressed to fans that their new album would have a throwback sound, similar to that of Still Searching and their 2004 debut Let It Enfold You. When I asked Nielsen about the reason behind this, he likened it to Star Wars making a comeback. “They re-captured a lot of people’s nostalgia, plus got new people invested. I had this idea of could I go back to Senses Fail and as someone who was a part of it but wasn’t the main songwriter. Sort of re-envision Senses Fail with a modern taste; keeping all of the things people like, and getting rid of all the things people don’t like.”
Nielsen goes on to explain, “I wanted to write a career-defining record for the band, using my songwriting.” As someone who has been following Senses Fail for a long time, this was news to me. I was unaware that Nielsen was primarily just the lyricist for the band, up until the past few records. For 2013’s Renacer, he wrote one song completely on his own, and for 2015’s Pull the Thorns From Your Heart, he wrote six songs completely. For their upcoming album, If There is a Light, It Will Find You, Nielsen wrote all of them. As someone who has listened to the record, I can tell you that it is very good.
“Double Cross” was the first song released from If There Is a Light… and showcases the band’s earlier sound in all its glory. It’s an anthemic single that is also self-reflective on the band’s recent history, where members had to leave for personal reasons. Nielsen admits that this was around early-2016 when he had thought about maybe shutting down the band. He then had what was described as an “oh shit” moment recognizing that his passion for music has not faded, and that’s what this song is about. “When I found out that I was going to have a child, I re-doubled my efforts to the band, to music. It’s my vehicle for not only self-expression but also for like, this is how I take care of my family…this is what’s always been there for me.” Nielsen later clarifies that the song isn’t “meant to be angry at the people who left, but there is a little bit of that resentment for people moving on from music being their passion.”
“New Jersey Makes, the World Takes” if you did not know, is an incredible reference to the Lower Trenton Bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The song, itself, is a personal favorite of mine off the record. It’s a track that has a different vibe to it, as it’s a little more positive song than the rest of the tracks. This was intentional, as Nielsen wanted each song to be able to stand on its own and not necessarily be about the same thing. Specifically, he mentions he hopes this song is a generational “stick your head up from the sand” and see the things around you; specifically mentioning the opioid crisis. Nielsen explains, regarding the opioid crisis, “this song really sort of about that, and what it’s like to, you know, try to encourage people around you to get better and take their lives meaningfully, and the inability to do that.”
If you’re looking for more socially driven songs, then this is a good record for you. “Gold Jacket, Green Jacket…” is more than just a Happy Gilmore reference, although I’ll be honest and admit that during our interview I incorrectly quoted this back to being a Billy Madison reference. The song, musically, is modeled after “Mall of America” by Desaparecidos, Conor Oberst’s side-project. “I don’t want to say it was difficult,” Nielsen begins, “but there were different versions of it where the lyrics were a little more aggressive, or a little more focused on specific sections of America. I think we got this place where it’s more of a social critique on what’s happening overall.” He then mentions he wanted to write a song that would define a time in history like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The goal was to write a song that would sum up this generation for this time, and though he didn’t dive too much into specifically what the song is about, it still accurately defines what is going on currently in America.
Nielsen has never shied away from writing about his personal experiences in Senses Fail. As he mentioned earlier, this has always been an outlet for his self-expression. I spent a few days listening to If There Is a Light… before our interview with “First Breath, Last Breath” and “Orlando and a Miscarriage” sticking out the most. The latter you can probably correctly guess what the track is about, but the former might be a bit harder. “First Breath, Last Breath” is written from the perspective of losing your girlfriend/wife while she gives birth to your daughter, as Nielsen candidly sings:
“Remember they said you’d have to sacrifice, I know,
But I was not prepared to watch the life drain from your soul,
I have never felt so crushed, there’s sadness buried in my bones,
How the hell am I supposed to raise our daughter on my own?”
It’s a song that he describes as deeply personal but still hopes that maybe more people can relate to it than what was sung on earlier Senses Fail Records. “Maybe not everyone had a drinking problem, questioned their sexuality, or all of that stuff. But, a lot of people have kids, or can potentially understand what that would be like.” I raise the question to him if he ever thought about not writing about these topics or anything previously, to which he is pretty quick to shoot down. Nielsen mentions that music done selfishly is what makes the best music and that he typically does not write music for anyone other than himself. “This is something that happened, I need to write about this,” he confirms.
“You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense” is a reference to a Charles Bukowski poetry book of the same name. Most notably, Let It Enfold You was named after a Bukowski poem, and it’s at this point that Nielsen shares that the title of the record comes from the last line in another Bukowski poem. He explains that the title for this track is something that has stuck with him for a while, and it has always cognitively made sense, but knowing that it’s not real and that you don’t actually get so alone that it starts to make sense. “This song was a shift going from being super depressed to being anxious and suicidal to not being that way,” Nielsen mentions, drawing the connection between the title and the song itself. Interestingly enough, he later admits that he wrote this song to specifically sound like it was from 2003/2004, sort of like very-early Saves the Day.
At one point, in an interview back in 2011, Nielsen stated that he would not want to put himself back in the negative headspace he was in during the Still Searching-era in order for the band to have that kind of success again. Certainly, the content differs between that record and If There Is a Light, It Will Find You, but I think they are each emotionally dark in their respective ways. This is something that I brought up to him, just to see if there was anything he had to do to put himself in a place to write these songs. He mentions, “I didn’t go back to anything dark…I don’t think it got dark. It definitely got heavy, I would say. There’s a lot of heavy things that happened. But, I didn’t have to stretch too far to write about this stuff.” I then asked if there were any troubles when sitting down and listening to the record, to which he pointed out that since he wrote the songs entirely – not just the lyrics – that he is able to listen for different things outside of the lyrics and think about what they mean.
The last track on the album is the title-track, and it ends on a more positive note. The songs beforehand may be heavy and put you on a rollercoaster ride of things to feel, but it ends with some inspiration. As someone who has gone through their own mental health struggles, the line “if there is a light, it will find you” was already encouraging enough to read. Once you can sit down and listen to the full album, you’ll realize that this is a belief the record holds true and is not simply another Bukowski reference. The idea of ending on a positive note — that even through all of the darkness around you, the good/the light will always pull through — is something that Nielsen admits was a goal for the record, even if he doesn’t fully believe it in at the moment. “I’m always ending records with what I hope to be in the future. Obviously, I want to believe that and I do. There’s about 75% of me that believes it is true, and I hope in the future it’s 100% of me believes that it is true. But, I wanted to end it on a sort of positive note that you can take something away from the record.”
“What am I supposed to do when I become more connected to people, but eventually I’m going to lose them,” is a question Nielsen proposes to himself before answering with “it’s all going to be okay because no matter what, there is a light figuratively and literally that always sort of shines into dark places and illuminates them.” He mentions that the artwork reflects this, and it all ties into the closing track on the album. It’s the perfect track to close an album with; a bigger, longer, more epic track that ties everything together — something that he admits was intentional all along.
In a playlist driven world where maybe people don’t consume full albums anymore, Nielsen wanted to make sure that Senses Fail’s If There Is a Light… is a full album, while having songs that can stand individually as well. He doesn’t believe it is possible to write a timeless song if you aren’t doing it in a way that puts the pieces together. Nielsen goes on to explain that “art without boundaries doesn’t make for great art. I think that’s what makes art and music really good is when there are rules.” He acknowledges that not everyone feels this way and there may be theories of art that make the opposite point but continues, “I don’t think that music works when you don’t have rules. And there are rules when it comes to making a record. You need songs to flow, to go up and down, you need ballads, you need faster songs, you need mid-tempo songs, you need slow-tempo songs, and they need to flow in an order that doesn’t make listener the tired or bored.” He brilliantly compared it to a movie, in that you need to begin with a way that catches listeners ear, the climax in the middle, but also want it to end in a specific way. Nielsen has Senses Fail aware of the new-age way of consuming music: playlists, listening to only one song, or even clicking 10 seconds previews of the song.
This new way of music consumption has Nielsen worried about the state of timeless albums. He elaborates that bands are having to tour so much because that’s how they make their money nowadays and that they can’t afford to take a whole year off to write a record. Without this time, he doesn’t believe you are able to put out timeless, full records. Nielsen provides a little hope, as he mentions “I think that will swing back around once some people experiment with that, but it’s hard as a band to justify taking so much time off to write a record.”
Luckily for Senses Fail, Nielsen mentions they were able to take off this much time and just dedicate to writing a record. And, luckily for us, this time was utilized well and the product came out to be known as If There is a Light, It Will Save You. Coming from someone who has appreciated all of Senses Fail’s material (yes, even Renacer and Pull the Thorns From Your Heart), this record will take you through emotional ups and downs while satisfying everything you’ve wanted from Senses Fail.
Senses Fail are set to hit the road later this month with Reggie and the Full Effect, Have Mercy, and Household. In case you were wondering, I did ask if having a child at home would change the band’s touring plans. Nielsen had this to say: “I don’t think so, maybe. We’ll see after a year and a half of touring, we’ll reassess it. As of right now, we are doing a lot of touring – doing as much as we would if I didn’t have a kid.”
If There Is a Light, It Will Find You drops on February 16th via Pure Noise Records. Pre-orders are currently up here.