Buddy Nielsen talks sexuality, addiction and the new (heavier) Senses Fail
When choosing a title for Senses Fail’s anticipated sixth album, Pull The Thorns From Your Heart, lead singer Buddy Nielsen called on a deeply personal source. “I’ve been coming to terms with who I am and really digging into that and then seeing that on the other side,” Nielsen says. “If I want to be free, if I want to be free of suffering, if I want to have some level of salvation, I need to deal with the workings of my own heart and cultivate a heart that’s more vulnerable and open. So that’s what the name means.” He pauses to think about it more and then laughs, almost bitterly. “I think a lot of people thought it sounded very 2003, old emo with a lot of angst in it,” he continues. “It’s not angsty at all. I think it’s very beautiful and it’s a very beautiful message.”
Formed in Ridgewood, New Jersey, 13 years ago, Senses Fail have prevailed, outliving and out-producing many of their contemporaries. Defying the normal—and somewhat expected—tendency to get mellower with age, the band have gotten harder, more fiery, with Nielsen's lyrical craft getting tighter and more candid on every album. Gen Handley spoke to the very frank Buddy Nielsen about substance abuse, recent revelations about his sexuality and spirituality, and the personal background behind the new record.
INTERVIEW: Gen Handley
How’s life for Buddy Nielsen these days?
BUDDY NIELSEN: Yeah… I feel pretty… I feel very good. I’m very at ease these days.
Does that mean the new album is going to be positive?
Yeah. It definitely digs up a lot of stuff that was difficult to deal with, but the overall direction of the message is very positive. It’s very much about finding what the truth is. I think “positive” is an accurate description of the album.
Where did the title Pull The Thorns From Your Heart come from?
It’s a Rumi quote. Rumi was a Sufi poet–Sufi is a mystical branch of Islam–and it’s one of his more famous quotes in a poem that he wrote. He is an amazing spiritual icon to a lot of people, specifically mystic Muslims, but I find his work and insights really inspirational and amazing and I really, truly appreciate what he found out about life. The full quote is “to wander in the field of flowers, pull the thorns from your heart.” The whole idea is that so many of us have a difficult time in our lives and we don’t truly get to live in the beauty that is life because there is so much wounding, so many defense mechanisms, and so much built up around our heart and conditioned behavior. What that quote is really saying is that in order to truly live you really have to be vulnerable enough to experience what it feels like to pull thorns out of your heart–pulling thorns out hurts more than the thorns going in.
It sounds like you’ve pulled a few thorns from your heart this past year.
Yeah, I’ve pulled a lot of them recently.
You’ve recently revealed a lot about your sexuality. How has that affected the lyrics and the music on the new album? Has it been a good thing at all?
I wouldn’t say it’s been a good thing. That’s kind of an awkward way to put something that hasn’t made my life any easier. To walk around knowing that there are people [who] don’t understand and don’t give a shit. It’s definitely not a benefit. I think the only ones who will benefit are the people who can really, really truly identify with it. What can you expect? I mean, it’s the story of what it feels like to shove something down inside of you, [living] your whole entire life with the fear that if you’re found out that anything from complete alienation to physical violence could be side effects.
I’m very angry about it. I was very angry about it. This record is very, very, very aggressive and it’s very heavy. It’s not like Senses Fail-heavy, it’s just really heavy in comparison to other heavy bands and in general. So I wanted to make sure I matched what I wanted to say with music that was equally as intense. I’ve never really heard a record from somebody who doesn’t identify as straight that has that level of aggression on it. There’s definitely stuff I’ve explored before that talks about it, but nothing that really… I’m fucking really angry that this is the world I have to live in. Basically, my only salvation is that I’m going to be open with it, I’m going to talk about it, and I’m going to try to build something where people feel comfortable. My own security about it is what’s going to save me, not the acceptance and appeasement of others.
So, half the record is about that and half is about how I’ve taken up contemplative meditation practice and what that’s done for me–how that’s opened up my understanding of the truth of my own existence. So half the record is about coming out as queer, and half is about how you reach a level of safety, how you reduce suffering and how I’ve been able to do that.
Would you say this is the most honest Senses Fail record so far?
I mean, no. They’re all honest. It’s just that the level of honesty has grown deeper—I didn’t really have the capacity to be so honest on any other record. The depth of what I’m talking about on this is far above and beyond anything that I’ve spoken about previously. I think, before, a lot of the stuff was limited to depression and anxiety, dad issues—but there was so much more beneath that. Those topics just took precedence. In a way, there was all this other stuff beneath that needed to come up to really resolve some of those things.
Sounds like a lot of healing has taken place.
Yeah, definitely. That healing happened because of Buddhism. The record is broken into four different musical movements. On a theoretical level, it’s a movement through a couple of different Buddhist teachings.
It’s kind of interesting how the band name makes more sense now.
Yeah, I was just going to say that–it totally does. It was always based on Buddhism, but I never had a hard understanding of what Buddhist concept I was talking about.
What’s the album like on a musical level?
I think it’s fucking awesome. Music-wise, it’s heavy as fuck and I think on another level, it’s very post-rocky. There are a lot of movements and space and fluidity to the music. I’m really proud of it musically. I’m really proud of it lyrically. It’s the most complete presentation of the band as I’ve wanted it to be, ever. That’s, of course because I’m the only original member. [Laughs.]
It truly sounds like a new beginning for you and the band.
That journey might even take me away from music and I don’t know how it’s going to go. It could go one of two ways: It could be a complete fucking failure or I think it could be something that really re-energizes the band and gets people excited about it. I’m just trying to make authentic music—I’m trying to be as authentic as I can be as a human being in my world.
I think people will appreciate and value that.
I hope people will be, too. I’m excited for people to hear it. If you put on a Senses Fail record from 10 years ago and then you put this on, it won’t sound like the same band. That’s a little sketchy for some people, but for others it might be like, “I never liked Senses Fail, anyway.” [Laughs.]
I’ve seen a serious mix of comments towards your sexuality, ranging from the incredibly stupid to the very supportive. How do you think the overall fan response has been?
It depends—we have lots of different types of fans. We reached a level of success that brought us a lot of casual music fans that weren’t part of the punk scene, didn’t know about hardcore. I’m not saying Senses Fail is punk or hardcore or whatever, but those fans are just not married to the roots of the band. They’re not going to local shows in the genre; they like Senses Fail and Taking Back Sunday and Brand New. Those people are the ones who have had the most adverse reaction to all of this. We’ve alienated a good portion of our mainstream fanbase that was around then. They’re like, “I don’t want to know about your sexuality. I don’t want hear about your political ideas. Just shut up and play your music.” It’s definitely made our fanbase smaller, but the people who are still our fans are invested in something that’s more than just a band. I’m thankful because we’ve retained the ability to always go out and play music because of that. It’s a sacrifice.
Are you still drinking a lot? Is that still an issue?
No. I don’t even drink caffeine. I wouldn’t claim straightedge, but you could call me ’edge and it would work. I’ve been sober for almost a year now. I don’t do any of that anymore. Those are, of course, not even topics in the music anymore. I know people will look to Senses Fail for drinking metaphors and diving into the depths of his despair….you’re really not going to hear that on this record. You will hear a level of despair and anger, but it’s coming from the fact I had to keep my sexuality a secret for my whole, entire life. It’s a completely different thing that most straight, white American men will not feel really comfortable relating to.
Because you’re sober now, how does it feel to go back and sing those songs live about drinking and getting wasted. Is that difficult?
No, it’s not difficult, it’s just not my current state of mind. Sometimes it is difficult to be like, “I’m fucking drinking all night and I hate my girlfriend and I want to fucking kill myself.” I’m so far away from there that I can’t even tap into those sorts of emotions. It’s difficult to be inspired by that music. I respect it and I respect the people who want to hear it and I respect how it helped build our career, but I don’t revel in the chance to perform that music. I’m much more interested in playing the new stuff. I know every band is like that, but for me, it’s on a different level because I’m not even the same person. But it still speaks to people and people still can relate to it, so when we play it live, I try to look into the audience and feed off them.
Because for me, I can’t pull it out of myself. I just had tea and got done meditating 30 minutes before I went onstage. I want to scream about being sober. I want to scream about my sexuality. I want to scream about how there is a freedom we can have if we look inside, if we turn towards ourselves and face our demons and invite them in for tea. I want to say I’m queer in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I want to explain what that means while all the security guards go, “Fucking faggot.” I want to make people think. I want to make them grow. I want to give people another side of the coin. I’ve given everything I could from the level of “I’m sad, I’m depressed, my dad wasn’t around, I was a drunk.” I’m so much more inspired now to give other aspects to the crowd. So what I do is look into the crowd and I notice people that are truly invested in “Can’t Be Saved,” a song about suicide and wanting to end your life. I respect that and I want to play it for that person.
Do you think an artist or musician needs to suffer in order to produce good work?
Yes and no. My understanding of life is that we’re all suffering because we’re alive. So take away all the shit I’ve been through: take away my sexuality, take away my father; take away my drinking take away sexual addiction; take away my parents’ divorce; take away the anxiety. Take away all of that and my grandmother still died; my fiancée still has MS; her father still has meningitis. There’s still war; there are still animals being killed there’s still death and destruction. There’s still so much out there that’s painful that we can’t avoid being a part of because we’re all interconnected in that. You don’t have to go looking for suffering—it’s going to find you. We’re exposed to so much of that I don’t think artists need to suffer any more to create. I do think that the ones willing to look at their own suffering and examine it and reflect on it, are the ones who make the most meaningful music. I think there’s a level of willingness to see your own suffering that translates to other people and that’s where the connection of art is a lot. I see back what you see and that makes me feel less stuck in my own spacesuit.
But it’s the same thing with positive emotions. If you can go out there and be confident and be loving and be this radically accepting individual, people will see that and be like, “Oh, my God. What is that? What is that person doing? I want to mirror that.”
Do you think music has the power to do that? To create such deep change and conversation?
I don’t know. I think anyone has the power to do that if they’re willing to put themselves out there and be vulnerable enough to be seen in a way that’s radical and truly honest. I don’t necessarily think it’s limited to music—it can be any medium. I think music is a good vehicle for things, but there has to be more behind it, there has to be active cultivation. Having the conversation not just on stage, but also on social media, in person, making merchandise and doing things like the speaking stuff I do. I think it’s a bit cliché when people say that music has the power to change. It does have the power, but how many people want to use that power and are willing to put their success at risk.
That’s where the band is at now. I’m willing to take the risk and gamble of changing the style of music, changing the message, changing everything for the fact that I feel it can be of service to not only myself—my own journey—but also filling the void in the community. This isn’t an as close-knit, small hardcore community where everybody’s got flyers on their tables about veganism and about Food Not Bombs. I’d like more women, more people of color at shows. I’d like to see a room that just isn’t filled with straight, white people. I know that might bother a lot of people, but what I want to do is make this a community where it’s open and doesn’t feel completely closed off to people that don’t fit that dynamic. Most of the time, people who are offended most by that statement are straight, white men or straight, white women. You’re going to have to piss some people off to make the world a more accepting place for others…that’s just the reality. Those people have to learn a level of compassion that they don’t have. And if I can, in a compassionate way, I want to push people with a little bit of aggression towards a kinder understanding. People have an idea of what Senses Fail is supposed to be. I want to smash that. alt