Failure in 1996, as evidenced by the haircuts.
Failure falls under the painfully nondescript categories of grunge and alternative when you search for them online. These words don’t do justice to their darkly explosive, rhythmically engaged sound. The 1990s spawned an all too familiar cadre of bands that are now synonymous with catch-all genres and recycled musical trends—think Nirvana’s quiet verse to boisterous chorus formula, or Soundgarden’s tendency to groove at the expense of all other musical devices. Failure become popular for their studio mastery—they pulled from Sonic Youth by manipulating their guitars. They used phase shifters to elevate their sound and tinged their songwriting with hints of real life struggle and sentimentality.
While many of their contemporaries became prolific by releasing an ungodly amount of material, Failure’s three-record catalog is miniscule, but just as important in terms of content, style, and musical texture. Many of their songs were written in the throes of drug addiction—songs like “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” and “Stuck On You,” recall treatment in a methadone clinic and a lifestyle dictated by deadly vices. The band broke up in 1997, a year after ”Stuck On You” reached no. 31 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart. The song was easily their most succesful, but barely scraped the surface of MTV and mainstream radio. Failure’s eventual demise--largely due to drug use, left a sizeable void in the alternative rock world that left many of their fans wanting for a replacement. No suitable replacement ever really surfaced.
Flash forward 17 years, and the dudes in Failure are off drugs and raising families. They’re also gearing up for their first headlining tour in as many years. Here, Ken Andrews, guitarist and vocalist of Failure, talks with Noisey about his relationship with bandmate Greg Edwards and about the band’s break up, reunion and future plans. He even announces a new Failure record due for sometime next year.
Noisey: Did you ever think you guys would be relevant nearly 20 years after breaking up? Are you surprised?
Ken Andrews: It definitely surprises me. It’s the whole idea of a band breaking up and getting rediscovered, I’ve never really heard about it happening this way before. There’s no way to really tell what’s going on right now other than what happened at our first reunion show at the El Rey Theater in LA and how it sold out so quickly. But that never really happened when we were together in the 90s. I mean we did OK, by the time were breaking up in the late 90s, we weren’t quite selling big theaters in two minutes.
Your first reunion show sold out in two minutes?
Yeah. It was weird. I’ll tell you what else was strange—I was really curious about the makeup of the crowd. I kept thinking, who was it going to be? I was tripping when I walked down on stage and all the people in the front row were like, in their twenties.
I mean, was eight years old when your band broke up and I’m here interviewing you. How does that make you feel?
I know, I’ve felt old for a while now. It’s not making me feel any younger, but it’s kind of cool because I feel like, maybe people are finally understanding what we were trying to do back in the 90s. They were a little confused back then and it just didn’t click. A lot of people could tell we were good and there was something cool there and we did have a lot of hardcore fans, but it never really grew much beyond that, until like, now. I mean, at the El Rey show, I asked the audience how many of them used to see us when we played back in the 90s, and I think less than a quarter of the audience raised their hands. Basically, everyone at that show and the majority of the audience never saw us in the 90s. I’m not sure if that’s gonna hold true across the country, but it’s kind of cool that it really does feel just like an organically driven thing.
Failure in 1997.
Why do you think more people care about Failure now than they did back then?
I’ve actually thought about it a lot, and a lot of times what happens when bands or artists get back together, regardless of when they were together, there’s usually like a song getting placed in a movie, or some sort of reminder that’s like hey, remember this? That’s usually the more likely way that something like this happens, and that definitely has not happened for us. It’s really just a matter of two things kind of happening—enough people coming up to us over the last few years and just saying, "If you guys reformed Failure, it would be big right now." And we were always just like, "Why would you say that?" No one could really give a concrete answer, they sort of just felt it. But that happened enough and the fact that Greg and I started hanging out again more as friends, that’s kind of why this happened, basically. Because we were talking and thought that it might be interesting to kind of like, find out what’s the current status of our band and people’s interest in the music we did.
Did you ever feel like Failure was miscategorized and framed inaccurately amid all of the grunge bands in the 90s?
I know we were doing something that people were having a hard time categorizing us, putting us in the grunge category. They knew it didn’t stick, but they couldn’t really find anything else going on at the time that did fit. I feel people maybe needed a term describe what we were doing and they came up with “space rock.” Not that we were the only people doing Space Rock, but Space Rock wasn’t being discussed when we were together in the 90s. It wasn’t until later that like, some of my interns started coming up to me and saying, "You know, all of these new cool space rock bands are super into Failure," and I was like, ‘What’s space rock?" And the kids are like, "You guys are space rock!" [Laughs]
Fantastic Planet didn’t get that much label support when you were making it, what was the whole process like, from recording to release?
The record-making part was a little unusual in the sense that we went into it without writing before we went into the studio. We did on the previous record—we demoed everything in such detail that by the time we went to record, we felt that we kind of like, we had spent too much our creativity making the demos. That record (Magnified) was kind of a less creative exercise than it could have been. We kind of wanted to do Fantastic Planet as an experiment, basically. We were finally getting our studio sea legs, as it were. We were kind of learning how to use a studio and how to control it a little bit. So we went into it trying to do this immersive experiment where we’re just writing and recording everything at the same time. It was great, it worked out really well, we were really productive and intense.
I really feel like we were living, eating, and breathing that record for about six months and that’s what we needed to make it what it turned out to be. We felt really satisfied at the end of the process in terms of making something we were proud of. After that, we got the whole business side of things after the record had been mastered and was all ready to go. We essentially turned in the record to a label that was trying to sell itself. Basically, everybody at the label [Slash Records] wanted to cash out—and that’s not a good place to be if you’re a band, because a label that’s up for sale doesn’t want to release anything. It took like, a year-and-a-half for Slash to sell Fantastic Planet to Warner Brothers, who finally released the album.
What’s it like when you have a record in limbo like that for so long? What was going through your head?
I mean, drug things started to get really intense, basically. If there were issues before that, they got a lot more intense, during that wait for the record to come out. Because when you kind of pour your whole thing into something like that, and then kind of just turn it into this black void, it just kind of destroys your soul. I don’t know how else to phrase it. Like, so few people had heard it, it was crazy. And it just added to the frustration that the few people who did hear it at Warner Brothers were freaking out on it.
Does that fact that Fantastic Planet still resonates with fans today make it a classic in your mind?
I’m not comfortable calling it that myself at this point. Either enough time hasn’t passed for me to call it classic or I’m just not comfortable saying it because I’m too close to it—but it’s hard for me to really know at this point. I do know from my own personal experience playing those songs and material from our earlier records at the LA reunion show, that just intrinsically, they don’t sound dated to me when I play them in front of an audience in 2014. So to come back to our songs now, I feel like I have a lot more objectivity than I ever did. Now I feel like I’m just kind of back in the thick of it again.
Failure's reunion show, photo by Priscilla Chavez.
How did producing Failure’s second and third records yourself change the band’s trajectory and sound?
It’s immeasurable. You can’t even begin to measure it. I just think Greg and I were huge record fans and we got into record production and that whole thing. But part of what bonded us in our early friendship was the fondness of zeroing in on production techniques on records that we liked. Just the whole idea as the studio as another instrument in your arsenal of tools. I think self-producing Fantastic Planet is a huge reason why it sounds the way it does. There was no one there to tell us, "Hey, that’s not a good idea to stick that snare drum in the toilet and point a guitar speaker at it."
Did you actually do that?
Yeah! We just thought of the weirdest things just to get a different sound. There were two bathrooms in that house we had completely mic’d up. There’s a lot of bathroom sound on that record actually. [Laughs]
It’s been said that the band’s break up didn’t end very well. Could you explain why you broke up?
It was brought on by drugs. Basically, Greg got the point where just couldn’t really function as a band member anymore. So it felt like it was premature and it wasn’t planned that way, it just happened. I mean everyone was struggling on some level but he was going to a place where a lot of people didn’t know if he was going to make it. So it’s just awesome that he did.
How did drug use shape your music?
The lyrics were more biographical for Greg and it was kind of powerful. I was like, woah, this is not pulling very many punches. But I felt like it was tapping into more than just doing the drugs, but more like what that meant on a more metaphysical level… I’m not sure if that’s the right word. But the music was touching upon the pain that causes one to go down that direction in the first place. And that’s why I felt it was more than just like, easy song fodder.
Failure reunion, February, 2014.
Do you feel like there’s heightened expectations with headlining a reunion tour after all these years?
Only because people have had the records for so long now that they probably all know them quite well. I don’t feel like we necessarily need to play them exactly perfect, but I do feel we need to capture the intent and the flavor of the albums. But I’m feeling pretty good about that. It’s interesting because we didn’t continue as Failure but we all pretty much continued as musicians. And technically, in terms of experience, we’re just better as musicians. So we know how to get what we want in a live setting a little bit easier. It actually feels really good. It feels like, wow, this stuff is actually kind of cool and in places where we might have struggled to play it before, we’re able to attack it more now.
Is headlining a tour with a more engaged audience going to be something new and a little strange to you? You did say most fans didn’t quite get Failure back in the day.
The weirdness already happened, man. It’s crazy. The whole audience is singing every word, like, the whole time. I mean, this did not happen back in the day. The reunion show in LA was just totally unreal. And the sensitivity to the material in terms of the crowd singing—when we’d go into a quiet part, the audience would sing just as quietly and then get louder in the loud parts. Our audience, at least at that show, they’re like, good singers.
What was it like playing Failure songs again after all these years? Are you lost trying to remember all the parts?
Some of it was so crazy easy it was bizarre. It just felt like that it took just a minute or two per song and then all of a sudden, it all came back, all the parts. There was a couple times where somebody would say a song title and I could barely remember the song in my head, just what it sounded like, let alone how to play it. And then we’d start it, and my hands would just go to the right note. I wasn’t even thinking about it, my hands were just going to the right chords, it was really weird.
What’s different about your lives now?
Well, we’re sober for the most part. And I think Greg and I just got to a place where we just started talking about doing music together. And I think it kind of developed into a couple experiments where we worked in the studio together and tried things out and then it got a place where we actually started working on some material that we actually liked. And it really sounded like Failure, without us really having to try too hard. And then we booked a show and here we are now. It’s like we’re almost at the infancy of the band again. We kind of rediscovered our friendship and the music we make together. Experience-wise, we’ve been a band for awhile, we know how to work together and we’re going to be making our fourth record.
Jesus Christ monkey balls! That’s awesome.
Yeah, we’re working on it.
Do you think these all these grown up changes in your lives will affect this new record?
I’m sure yeah. As an artist that’s a huge fear, that you’ll lose that spark, whatever it was that made your collaboration with your bandmates cool. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, to come up with something that’s the next evolution in our albums, without going off track too far. And you know, to use all the experiences we’ve had since our last record, and to use them. It’s kind of interesting, We’re just at the beginning of it now, so it’s hard to tell where its going to go. But there’s already enough diversity in the material, that it’s gonna feel as ambitious as Fantastic Planet in terms of different types of songs on that album.