[Photos from AP Issue 199]
Fifteen years from when they first started, Senses Fail still feel like a local New Jersey band. Talk to anyone who has been in that state’s music scene for a while and you’ll hear stories about the one time they got to play with the screamo band that helped define the sound of the mid-2000s. You’ll hear tales about waiting in line outside Tower Records for their now-legendary debut full-length, Let It Enfold You, to be officially released. And truly, that’s how it was: Senses Fail were part of the last music era where arena tours and MTV appearances were still part of the classic formula of being a big rock band from a small suburban town. But even after the former structure of the music industry was smashed to pieces by the transition into the digital age and a revolving cast of members left frontman Buddy Nielsen the last man standing, Senses Fail have continued to evolve and make music that their fans can call home.
BUDDY NIELSEN: Vocals (2002 – present)
GARRETT ZABLOCKI: Guitar/Vocals (2002 – 2011)
DAVE MILLER: Guitar (2002 – 2005)
DAN TRAPP: Drums (2002 – 2014)
2002: NJ RISES FROM THE ATLANTIC
Before Senses Fail even had a history to divulge, founding guitarist Garrett Zablocki would pen a message about the band’s future that, unbeknownst to him, would end up coming true. What started out as a local favorite would quickly escalate to one of the biggest rock sensations of the time.
“We just wanted to be a cool band that people didn’t think sucked.”
BUDDY NIELSEN: There used to be this message board in New Jersey that was called NJska.com. It was pre-Myspace, pre-social media. It was a message board where people would post about shows, local shows, gear, records. I met Garrett through there and I met Dave separately. It was pretty much like Stone Age internet.
GARRETT ZABLOCKI: I put up a post on NJska and I had the songs written. I put the title as “Gonna Be BIG” to cut through all the posts that were on there. My only intention was to play some local VFW halls on the weekend for fun. I had some guitar riffs I liked and I wanted to just play ’em—that was it. And then go to college, but that didn’t happen.
DAVE MILLER: New Jersey, I guess—I don’t know what it is, if it’s something in the water?—there was this huge scene. The people there really cared about the music and at the time, it wasn’t about getting big. It wasn’t about getting record deals. It was about having a good band. We never expected what happened to actually happen. We just wanted to be a cool band that people didn’t think sucked.
ZABLOCKI: A good example of that would be to take an LA band versus a New Jersey/ New York band. I personally think of LA as very about the flash and the party, and I think of the East Coast as sort of a little more real, down to earth. I think being from Jersey was a positive. It definitely fed into what the band was, how it sounded, our work ethic and point of view.
NIELSEN: I think that a lot of the music that grew out of New Jersey, New York, the tri-state area, in some respect, was a reaction to 9/11. For me personally, it happened my senior year in high school, and I didn’t really know how to react to it. After that happened I didn’t really know what to do and Senses Fail came along. Those existential questions, I put into Senses Fail. I think a lot of other people did that, as well. I do think that the music scene, the popularity of it in the location of where we were, played into why the bands in that area were able to harness whatever sort of emotional current was happening. The music scene in New Jersey and the DIY perspective, that was huge. That doesn’t exist everywhere. I think that’s one reason that we exist.
MILLER: My Chemical Romance was from our area in Newark. One of our first shows was with them. We were probably the closest with them. We saw My Chemical Romance taking off and we would share a bus with them and their reps from Warner Bros. would bring them drugs. (A one-time insider within the MCR camp from that period says he doesn’t recall anyone from the label bringing MCR drugs, cheerfully adding, “We tended to find our own.” — rocklore pathology ed.)
TRAPP: The first Taste Of Chaos was pretty crazy. It was shortly after our first record had come out and we had done a couple TV things. That was the time that My Chem totally blew up, the Used were probably the biggest they ever were. And then doing a tour for two months straight of sold out arenas was crazy. It was a totally pivotal moment and eye-opening experience, especially because we were so young. I was 18.
NIELSEN: We did a whole tour with My Chem. It’s just crazy to think about stuff like that. A band that’ll be remembered as probably one of the biggest bands in the world. We were on the tour when Brand New put out Deja Entendu and that was pretty crazy to be around, too—to be around a band literally blowing up. When we got signed to Drive-Thru, that was super-pivotal, as well. I will always remember getting that phone call. I really haven’t felt that excited about anything happening ever again.
MILLER: I was a senior in a high school and it was a dream come true. It was one of the best days of my life. I lost my shit, I called Buddy. I drove to Buddy’s house and picked him up. Him and his mom were crying. Buddy and I drove to pick up Dan from school and his parents had to come to school and get him out and I think he thought someone in his family died because he was being taken out of the classroom.
2004: DIE LIKE JIM MORRISON, LIVE LIKE MÖTLEY CRÜE
It wouldn’t be long after first getting signed before Senses Fail would release their landmark debut record, Let It Enfold You (which remains one of the crown jewels of screamo). Suddenly, VFW halls would be replaced by arena shows and the classic, insane rockstar life.
“We were just inviting girls over and getting weird and smoking weed and drinking all night. The record label wanted to strangle us.”
MILLER: We recorded [Let It Enfold You] in a strip club. There was a recording studio that is owned by the Russian mafia. Half of it is a strip club and half of it is a studio. Drive-Thru rented us this house there to go make a record. It was like a constant party. We were just inviting girls over and getting weird and smoking weed and drinking all night. The record label wanted to strangle us.
ZABLOCKI: I think one of my favorite [stories] is back when we were on Geffen—major label budgets. At the time—this was before Still Searching came out—they gave us money to go over to the U.K. There was this band called Hundred Reasons. They were a massive rock band on radio there. They had a chef on tour and there was a giant catering spread for lunch and dinner. There was a menu every night. Our soundcheck guy, Eddie, was Slipknot’s soundcheck guy. There’s sort of an unspoken rule where the opening bands don’t mix as loud as the headliner. But we had a heavy hitter for a sound guy. I think as an opening band, we were louder than the headliner. It started from there, and then we just started eating all their food and drinking all their beer while they were soundchecking. It got to the point where we weren’t allowed in the venue until they were done soundchecking because we drank and ate all their stuff. We were like, ‘What? You guys put it out here!’
MILLER: It was a lot of straight-ironed hair and black nail polish. Skinny ties. At that time, everyone was trying to get big. All these executives saw what happened with Blink-182 and Good Charlotte, and they thought it was gonna be the next big thing. This was now, “We’re all trying to become rockstars.”
NIELSEN: It was awesome. Man, it was just so much fun to be in a band then compared to now. I am so happy that I was lucky enough to be a part of that era of music and not a brand new band today. The things that we got to do, honestly, are experiences that I don’t know are even technically really available now to bands in this genre. Really, it was the pop music at the time. It sort of became very mainstream. Watching something grow organically out of people’s basements and VFW shows into arenas, then going and ending up on MTV. It was sort of that classic rock ’n’ roll cliché.
ZABLOCKI: It was really just the right sound at the right time. You go around different cities and you see all those bands’ names on the marquees. That was the sound.
“The things that we got to do, honestly, are experiences that I don’t know are even technically really available now to bands in this genre. Really, it was the pop music at the time.”
NIELSEN: One of the Bamboozles we played at the Meadowlands, we played in front of probably 30,000 people. That was probably the biggest crowd we’ll play in front of. The craziest tour I’ve ever been on was the Drive-Thru tour. The Drive-Thru tour of 2003 was ridiculous. It was the ultimate ’80s version of touring. Fucking insane.
2005 – 2007: TIME TO DRINK UP THE LONELINESS
At the height of their success, some of the band members would have their biggest falls from grace. Miller’s addictions and emotional issues would push him out of the band, while Nielsen’s late-night television mistake would end up haunting him for the next decade. Spiraling depression and lawsuits would send Senses Fail down a dark route.
MILLER: We were really big, and I was an asshole. We had some drama with the girlfriends. There was a lot of tension with the band about money. What ended up happening was we played a show in England. I could just tell they were over me and I was over it and I was just very lonely and lost in England. I remember I was waking up and drinking by myself. Then I went home and I guess there was a shoot for AP. We were kind of partying and I woke up in the morning and my girlfriend at the time and my roommate at the time (our guitar tech) were gone. I didn’t know where they were. It turned out they were in jail. When I went to pick them up, I knew I wasn’t going to make the shoot. They kicked me out of the band. And when it did happen, it was the darkest time of my life. I went into a really dark depression and isolation. Immediately, I didn’t have anybody. I wanted to kill myself. It was really hard.
TRAPP: I think it’s public knowledge, but Dave sued us. It was some royalty stuff. That sucked. That was a really shitty thing to go through and having to deal with that for a few years. That was a really dark time for me personally, too,.
NIELSEN: There’s only one other person that’s been involved in the entirety of Senses Fail other than myself, and that’s our booking agent Andrew Ellis. He’s the only person that hasn’t changed. There were definite times in Senses Fail when we would not have existed were it not for Andrew Ellis, who’s been helping us make the right decisions. And then [producer] Brian McTernan for helping us put together Still Searching, which is arguably our best record. It was at the height of the band, during Still Searching, that whole [Conan] thing happened. We were no longer just a group of kids having a good time. It was pretty serious.
TRAPP: We were all wearing in-ear monitors and in my mix I didn’t have a whole lot of vocals going on, just because I needed to keep in time musically. I remember walking back to the dressing room and being like, ‘What is he so upset about?’ I didn’t even know. I just remember feeling so bad for him because I knew how hard he was gonna take that, and did. That’s a lot to have on your shoulders.
NIELSEN: When I forgot lyrics on Conan O’Brien, that was pretty devastating for me for 10 years. I really, really hated myself for making that mistake. It drove a lot of downward spiraling into addiction and really bad shit. There was a time when everybody wanted to kick me out of the band, around 2006. My grandma had just died, and I didn’t know how to really deal with that. I descended into a really deep depression and was drinking a lot. I wasn’t very active, and I wasn’t performing well. I wasn’t doing anything well.
ZABLOCKI: There was definitely a struggle sometimes when we were writing records to get him to care.