Interview: Senses Fail’s Buddy Nielsen Explores New Record, ‘Hell Is In Your Head’

Post-hardcore band Senses Fail are set to release their new record, Hell Is In Your Head, on July 15 via Pure Noise Records. 

Hell Is In Your Head ignites a furious fire, providing contrasting songs between fictional stories and entering a world of realism. Songs ooze anthemic beats while hinting at nostalgia as the record plays through. We had the chance to talk to lead vocalist Buddy Nielsen about the intricate journey fans are taken on within this new record. 

The new new record, Hell Is In Your Head, is composed of an array of tracks that differ from one another but stays gracefully cohesive. While writing, what inspires you to keep organized while still being able explore different areas of your genre?
It came in a couple of different phases. The first phase is just to throw everything out. I don’t judge what it is. I have a lot of songs; I have stuff that sounds like trap music with screaming, just, like, weird stuff. I experiment with everything with a lot of different instruments and different tempos. I’ll think, “I really want to write a Killers song, something long and drawn out with lots of synths.” Or I’ll decide to write something like My Chem, and that fits more in line, but I don’t judge it; I just do it. Then, once I start to see what’s really working and what keeps appearing, I’ll start to narrow it down a little more, but with the band, we kind of have two different styles; we can go super heavy, or we keep it really, like, poppy and melodic.  

So mixing the two is kind of hard because I don’t want to go too one way or the other because I think one of the things throughout our career that’s been successful is that we kind of have, like a middle road where we have a little bit of both, so, it is a little hard sometimes to decide which way to go, which is why I kind of conceptually came up with this idea of the poems kind of dictating the songs and one part of the record being kind of darker than the other one and then justifying it so it didn’t seem random. Which was kind of the idea behind it, rather than just doing something heavy and dark, and just doing something lighter.  

I tried to come up with concepts to base them on. Not necessarily all lyrically, like, telling a story—That’s how I arrived at organizing it versus it just being random because that’s the thing, is, like, it can just be random, and then you’ve got, like, one random, heavy song, which doesn’t make sense or vice versa. So that is something that I’ve run into, especially now that I write all the songs; I want to explore a lot of different things and then try to reign it in. 

You’ve said tracks “The Burial Of The Dead,” “A Game Of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death By Water,” and “What The Thunder Said” are all named after the five parts of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Although these tracks are not based on the poem exactly, you used the world they’re set in to thoroughly delve into topics in an abstruse way. What was it about this world that Eliot cultivated influenced your writing and the connection these six tracks have to each other?
I’ve always been drawn to that style of poetry, which is turn-of-the-century beat poetry, like preceding people who were beat poets. There’s just something about the era of that style that I think is really engaging because the world at that time was very not exploratory talking about  emotions and feeling. These poems are where people discuss really deep, not only world issues, but also psyche, delving into the idea of what the human condition is. It preceded existentialism and stuff like that, and this is around World War I-ish when a lot of this stuff came popping up as a reaction to World War I and what that was and how devastating that was for Europe and the world, but mostly because it took place in Europe and people saw it.  

The prose that they use, every line is filled. There’s books that are specifically dissecting the lines and how intricate it is and how all of the words and references walk back to other references. A large part of it, like the “Fire Sermon,” which is an original Buddhist text, when the Buddha came out and said his view of the world and pretty much started his idea of what Buddhism was and laid it out for people.  

So it’s interesting that he brings in stuff like that, which I’m connected to because I’ve done a lot of work in that world. It’s just very interesting that there’s this tie between like early 20th century Europeans and their connection to Eastern philosophy and how that worked its way into their poetry. It’s always a style that I’m attracted to, because it’s so dense and it feels so metaphorically deep. 

While the new record plays with a diverse amount of themes, “The Fire Sermon” drifts towards this familiarity of what feels like dealing with painful deaths throughout life. Past tracks such as “First Breath, Last Breath” off of your 2018 release, If There Is Light, It Will Find You and even as far back as 2003 with “Steven” off your debut record, From The Depths Of Dreams,” you’ve had a profound way of delivering this gut-wrenching topic. How do you tackle producing songs that focus around these great losses while not being repetitive?
I guess because each one’s different. Experiencing death when you’re, like, 18 versus when you’re 38, you’re going to have a different relationship to it. You’re going to have different life experiences to pull from with it. I don’t think it can get repetitive because I’m a different person every time. So I look at it differently, and I digest it differently; then I react to it differently. I don’t think it would even be possible; I could go through the same experience at a different time in my life and it would be totally different.  

While you’ve mentioned that your daughter has impacted your thoughts of your own death as of current, while you write songs surrounding death, realistically, fictionally, or hypothetically, is it a release for you? Or does the existence of these songs weigh on you emotionally?
It’s a release for me. I think most people just avoid the idea of death. It’s interesting because it’s unavoidable, but it’s something that we spend most of our life avoiding until we’re really faced with it, and then when we’re faced with it it can be quite difficult to deal with, whether it’s personally or with somebody who’s close to us. The surest thing that’s going to happen in our life is that we’re going to die. I go through different phases of being OK with it and not OK with it, and it causes anxiety. I guess it’s either anxiety or just OK-ness.  

I’m not excited to die; I don’t not want to live. I don’t want anyone that I know to not be alive, but the reality is that that’s just not possible. So how do we exist in that reality and have it not crush us, which is kind of what my exploration has ultimately always been about. How do I get to a place of comfortability with acceptance of mortality? And what are the various ways in which people do that?  

Some people use the religion, Christian religion, that, for the most part, Christianity and Judeo-Christian promise an afterlife, as do most religions. One way that people deal with mortality is by believing in the idea that they will exist beyond. I have written records about my relationship with religion and all that. Now I’m kind of more into the phase of, how do I personally accept my own mortality and the mortality of my loved ones in a way that doesn’t make it so that it’s soul crushing? 

While the first half of the record embarks on a darker fictional journey of unanswered questions of the afterlife, most of the tracks radiate high energy and anthemetic hooks; can you expand on your processes while writing a story that contradicts with the sound that’s produced?
That’s something I would say is a trademark of Senses Fail that doesn’t really change except on a couple of records. We did the opposite where it made things really, really heavy and really positive. I tend to always want things to be melodic no matter what. I always want them to have a hook, and I always want them to be catchy.  

I tend to focus lyrically on things that are heavier. It just sort of naturally happens and has been happening naturally since the beginning. If I want to write a really, really, really poppy song, I’ll think if I should make it dark. I like the juxtaposition in a way that Morrissey does, and just a lot of bands that I liked lyrically growing up did that. I always like poppy music but with really dark lyrics. It was something that I found really engaging. I don’t necessarily consciously do it, but I will do it if something’s really catchy and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t want to make this a drinking anthem or something that wouldn’t make sense for me.” I tend to think, “What would this be like if it was really a darker topic?”  

As fans enter the second half of Hell Is In Your Head, it pivots into a world of realism. “Miles To Go” is a nod to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”’ and hones in on the effect of climate change and, in your words, the “contemporary political dystopia in the USA.” When did you decide to take the album from a storytelling concept to real-world inspiration?
Partially it’s the poems that I picked; Walt Whitman is very natural, realistic realism. His poetry is of a similar era, off by a couple of decades, but was very focused on (being) American-centric and American naturalism. That’s why I paired the two together. It was the backdrop of, how do I write? What are the poppy songs? I don’t want the entire record to be dark because I have all these really upbeat, catchy songs. How do I talk about those things in my life that are currently happening in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m just mashing two different, distinct stories and (pieces ofmusic together? 

This record certainly showcases your ability to create music that travels into different areas of your genre. However you gave long-time fans an easter egg with Hell Is In Your Head by intentionally beginning the record in the same key as the last track of your 2006 LP, Still Searching, picking back-up after you “killed yourself.” Can you expand on what impacted you to make the choice to connect the two records? 
The main reason that preempted Still Searching was my grandmother’s death, which I don’t think I really ever processed. I never fully grieved; we never buried her. Part of this record was the idea that I want to do that. I want to go back and grieve that death and close that story. It just felt like the end of Still Searching didn’t really resolve itself. I kind of took this idea that the soul goes on a journey to the wasteland and then comes back.  

That’s the basic idea behind the first part of the record. I wanted the beginning of the record to sound like what the perceived audible transition would be from death to afterlife, which is why it has the sound to it and why the guitar tones are specifically the way they are. Then it was written in the same key and chord-wise (is) very similar to “The Priest and the Matador.”  

Senses Fail

One thing I find admirable about Senses Fail is the fact that you don’t shy away from acknowledging fan-favorite records, even going as far as to do anniversary tours. Where other artists are loud about how they’re much more than their early works, you still take the time to celebrate them. What is it about your earlier records that keep you proud of them rather than resentful towards them?
I guess because they ended up becoming influential to people like Juice Wrld and  nothing,nowhere and a younger generation of bands and artists for whatever reason. It impacted people on a level that is just really humbling. It’s crazy how many people are impacted by those two records and how this amount of time later, they’re still impactful and relevant to people in their life.  

It’s hard not to be proud of that, just making something that is continually influencing people in their lives, their art. Influencing another person’s art is probably the biggest compliment you can get from making something. When people are influenced by your art to make art, it doesn’t really matter if it’s successful, that’s something to be immensely proud of. It’s allowed me to live a really great life.  

The records are as successful as they are, so of course I want to celebrate them and continue to do so. It doesn’t stop me from making new music. I don’t think what I do now is going to impact somebody in the way that when they heard a record when they were 16; it’s not possible. I might make a record that still inspires people. I can do both; I don’t really find it threatening. Some people, because of their past success, they (think they) can’t have future success, which, to me, I’m not worried about. I’ll just continue to make music, and if it’s successful, cool.  

You’ve recently made it known how unsafe you feel as a musician even 20 years into your career. Your single “I’m Sorry I’m Leaving” embodies that feeling. Is there any advice you can think of to relay to musicians feeling the exact same way, or how do you cope with this feeling of uncertainty, still continuing to produce records and set out on months-long tours?
It’s just a part of it; you have two options, you have security or freedom. The consequences for both deny the other one. You can’t have freedom and security, and you can’t have security and freedom. Part of continuing to be a musician is to be uncertain. I’m always willing to have the freedom even though the uncertainty can be debilitating sometimes. If it works better for me then having security and no freedom, and I mean nine-to-five freedom.  

There’s different, hybrid ways people can do things, and life is very malleable. A lot of the reason why a lot of people are unhappy as they get older is because they don’t have the freedom they wish that they had, but they’re not willing to trade the security, and that’s the tradeoff, security for freedom.The other thing is creativity. Some people find the right amount of creativity and don’t need the freedom, and that that is enough for them. For me, Freedom is of utmost importance.  

The balance of freedom, and obviously being able to have money and live is part of that freedom. It’s this intricate balance of, how do I have this freedom, and then how do I balance the uncertainty? Then how do you have kids and demands while also living in uncertainty? You have to be somebody that’s willing to adapt. If you need to get a job, you get a job; if you don’t need to get a job, focus on your music. 

If you’re going to be a musician or a creative person, you have to be not only incredibly creative, but you also have to know all of the aspects of your field, including things that have nothing to do with creativity, like managing bills and managing your money as well as continuing to grow and add to your skill sets so that you are able to do a lot of different things at a moment’s notice. 

That’s continually what I’ve done over my life. I’ve invested in high skills that take a long time to develop that eventually allow me to have more freedom of access versus lower skill stuff that anyone can do, which means that I’m not going to have freedom because I don’t have the ability to sort of dictate my life because I’m kind of at the whim of other people.  

While this record has covered a lot of ground, it seems to have an important meaning for you. What do you want fans and new listeners to take away from this record, whether it be a message woven into the music or you as a musician?
I think the importance of grieving and giving ourselves time to grieve, not only death, but also the small losses and the big losses that we encounter. Having a child is a continual experience in losing because they’re always growing away from you. They’re always growing; they’re always changing. You don’t have control over this thing that you created. You can’t save them; you can’t keep them safe. You lose any ability to control the outcomes.  

The more that we grieve our inability to control our environment, the more that we can have agency over the way we respond to it, which, if we can be OK with loss, meaning that we allow it to move through us and experience it and let go of it ,then we can live super full lives. The pandemic was a loss for a lot of people. Everybody had to grieve, and a lot of people didn’t or haven’t. Nobody’s willing to; who wants to do that? Who wants to sign up to deal with loss? What I will say is, I want the record to give people the ability to maybe grieve something that they haven’t had the ability to grieve before.  

Check out the video for “End of the World / A Game of Chess” featuring Connie Sgarbossa here:

For more from Senses Fail, find them on Facebook, Instagram, and their official website.

Photos courtesy of Karalyn Hope

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