Interview: Ken Andrews talks past, present and, yes, future of Failure
Photo credit: Ken Andrews
For years, I felt like Failure was a secret I shared with a handful of friends. The band released three albums in the '90s to more acclaim than success. They split in 1997 - the same year I saw them play a show at the Newport in front of an obscenely small crowd of maybe 50 people.
But in the years since then when I'd name-drop their album Fantastic Planet in a staff question or mention them in public, I'd found that secret was more widespread than I thought. When the band reunited a couple of years ago, they were met with enthusiastic crowds that spanned generations.
With Failure coming to town in support of Jane's Addiction tomorrow at the LC, I got a chance to chat with Failure's Ken Andrews a few weeks ago about the reunion, the band's first album in 18 years and more. Since I know there are more than a few obsessive Failure fans in Columbus, here's a transcript of that full interview.
What got the reunion talk started?
If there was one single thing I'd have to point to, I would say it would be the fact that Greg and I had our first children within six months of each other. We were already starting to rekindle our friendship - which had completely disintegrated in '97. Nothing really happened for seven years, and then we both had kids, and we bonded about being new dads. Our kids were hanging out all the time, we just saw a lot of each other. That's when the discussion started coming up. Some of our other friends were pushing us, "You guys should go in the studio and see what happens." And so we did.
So you went into the studio before anyone out in the world knew Failure was starting to be a thing again?
The one thing we agreed on really early on is that we didn't want to do one nostalgia tour ... we just weren't interested in that. We did end up kind of doing one of those with the Tree of Stars tour last year. That was just part of kind of a master plan of making a new album and touring on that, which is all happening now.
We wanted to know for ourselves that we could make songs and recordings that we thought were a worthy follow-up toFantastic Planet. So that's the first thing that we did is Greg and I got into my studio and we banged out four songs over the course of about six months, kind of chipping away at it. And then when we had those done, we just kind of took stock of them and realized that we really liked them, and we had a good time doing it, so we kind of were just like, hey, let's see what the live component of this whole situation is. And that's when we booked that El Rey (Theater in Los Angeles) show.
So at the point you announced that show another album and a full tour were already in mind?
No, at the point we booked that show, we had four songs that we liked. That was about it. We kind of wanted to book a show to feel out what that whole vibe would be like. And, you know, it sold out in less than a minute. But the real shocker was that the majority of the crowd was in their 20s, which really surprised us.
That's what led to a rethink on what we were going to be doing. Originally we were thinking, let's just play a show and see what happens, and we'll probably put these four songs out as an EP and see what happens. But then we basically decided, you know, we should do a whole tour, because there was obviously an appetite for it. And I think we kind of also felt like, if we waited to finish a full album and then toured on that, it would have been a little frustrating I think for some our younger fans who had never seen us play live. We basically thought we needed to do aFantastic Planettour for those people, so they could kind of have closure on that album before we just started playing brand-new songs.
What was the Tree of Stars tour experience like?
It was just like 180 degrees from what it was like in the '90s when we were just struggling to get fans. There was a lot happening with music then, and we were not totally fitting into that, so it was a little frustrating for us. And then you cut to now and people totally get us. They really understand what we're trying to do, and they really appreciate and justknowthe material so well.
Even as you appreciated it, did you ever wonder, where was this in 96?
Yeah, for sure. But, you know, I'm not trying to play down ... to us it was kind of a tragedy what happened back then. I mean, no one died, but the band died.
But, you know, if things would have started happening commercially success-wise back then? I don't know, maybe somebody would have died, because we were really fucked-up on drugs. It was just not ... it was not good.
I often wonder like maybe it's kind of better that it happened this way. We had enough time to really clean up our acts and figure out what's important.
The new album feels a lot like a continuation of Fantastic Planet, right down the to numbering of the segue tracks. Did you go in with that intent?
The decision to do the segue number was just kind of a nod that we wanted to give to people. We figured hardcore fans that knewFantastic Planetwould get where we were coming from on that.
But in terms of actual content of the record, yeah, it was a goal to make something that could follow upFantastic Planet, but to get into the really specifics ... we didn't really ever discuss what that was going to look like, you know? We never went, OK, we need to do this, this, this and this. We just got to work in terms of the way we always work, at least sinceFantastic Planet, which is we get in a room, and we bang out ideas and we decide if want to pursue them and turn them into songs or not.
I don't think we were really getting too specific about whether or not a song was the right kind of song to be on a Fantastic Planet followup. It was more like we just want to make it good.
The Failure sound is, when we get in a room together, that's what happens. I guess we might have been a little cocky in that sense thinking, oh, you know, this shouldn't be a problem.
How quickly did the album come together?
We gave ourselves six months. We leased a studio for six months from like October to April. And we used all that time. I mean, we probably would have used more, but, you know, at some point you kinda have to call it done.
Once we moved into that space on got set up, we really put our heads down and, like, we gotta do this now.
How would you compare the period in your lives when you were recording Fantastic Planet and The Heart Is a Monster and how that affected the music?
Well, we were in our late 20s when we were doing Fantastic Planet. One of the things we don't have too much of any more is wrestling for control of the band basically, you know. There were a lot of creative differences during Fantastic Planet that were not always based on the material. I just remember when I was that age, I was way more concerned about my own position. It just seemed like there was a lot of fighting that wasn't productive in terms of the actual output of the band. There was some good creative conflict and tension there. We still seem to have retained that and have kind of jettisoned the more yucky stuff, basically.
I just think with age comes a certain level of maturity where I know that I feel like we can all appreciate each other's strengths more than we used to. I think we're all just a little bit more secure as people. We have families, and we're all married, and it's just not quite as crazy as it was back then, which I think personally kind of helps the material, because it helps us get down to the meat of the material quicker without having all this other bullshit going around ... if that makes any sense.
Are you worried at all about releasing an album that is so meticulously sequenced and has crossfades and instrumental segments in an age of iTunes?
No. That's another thing about the fracturing of the audience, because I know that the prevailing wisdom in the business is that everything is singles-oriented. And that's fine for the majority of pop acts or whatever, but it's been very clear to us that our fans our into the album experience. And they know what it is, and they identify it, and they're into it.
That suits us just fine. As music lovers ourselves, we're into albums. I still listen to albums from one artist. I rarely shuffle anything. I just enjoy that. I just like getting into the point of view of one group of people or one person.
I think it actually really helped us. Like, if you're not into it, that's totally cool. If you like your music in shorter, song-based ways and go between tracks? Maybe we're not the band for you. I like embracing the album format.
Tell me about getting the new material ready for the road.
We're starting rehearsals for the tour, and we have a list of new songs that we're going to tackle in terms of learning how playing them live. Sometimes people are like, 'What do you mean, learning how to play it? You already played it on the album.' Sometimes it can be just as simple as playing it the way we played it on the record, but a lot of times we end up changing who played what on the record vs. who plays what live, depending on how easy it is for us to get through it.
There's certain things I played guitar on on the record where I don't really want to play guitar live, because it's just going to be too difficult to me to sing and play really high up the neck. Some of the things on guitar are too polyrhythmic against the vocal. And vice versa on bass too. Sometimes it will be, I don't want to play that bass part, it's going to be really hard for me to sing and play that bassline for four minutes.
So we change things around. Also, if it's not a strict trio recording, then we have to figure out if we're going to cover some of the other parts. Are we gonna use keyboards? Learning how to play some of theFantastic Planetsongs live took a while actually. Like "The Nurse" and "Stuck on You" ... We were a three-piece when we recorded those songs, but the last times we had played those songs live, we were a four-piece with Troy (Van Leeuwen) in the band.
The other thing is that when we're recording and writing, which is all happening at the same time, it's very common for us to figure out a part for, say, the bridge. But to actually lay it down and record it ... once it's down, we won't play that part again until we're rehearsing for a tour, which is months and months down the line. You literally have to relearn all these parts that you never actually played all the way through more than a couple times.
That's in kind of contrast to the normal way of making a record where you write the songs and demo them all, and then you rehearse them, maybe even tour them, and then you go into the studio and record them, and the parts are super familiar. Then it's just second-nature. We don't do it that way.
How are you going to break down these sets with the new material/old material mix?
I'm guessing it's going to be like 60/40, old to new? It depends how long the set is. This touring coming up, there's a lot of shows that we're headlining and then there's some where we're playing a festival and some where we're supporting. It just really depends. If we only get a half-hour, it will probably be 60/40 new songs.
"Mullholland Drive" is a song that really surprised me live. I thought was going to be really hard to bring to the live space, but it actually has worked out pretty well. We're not totally nailing it 100 percent yet, but it's getting close. We're kind of doing what we did on "The Nurse (Who Loved Me)" with that where Greg plays piano the whole time.
What do you think of the musical climate you're dropping this album into? Is it more receptive than in '96?
Specifically for us, it definitely is, just based on the anecdotal evidence of playing the shows and hearing the fans screaming every word to every song. Even the press, too. We just did a bunch of press in the U.K. and it was like OK, this is bizarre. They're picking up on the really subtle shades of comparisons betweenFantastic Planetand the new record. It's just a whole different thing for us now.
I feel really musically understood right now, whereas I definitely didn't in the '90s. I feel, in general, it's a good time for us. It just feels like people are getting what we're doing. Maybe all that time needed to go by for our sound to make sense.
Have you interacted with any of these new fans who, in some cases, weren't even born whenFantastic Planetcame out?
I think in some cases it's the parents, maybe, who are turning their kids on to a band they liked when they were in their 20s in the '90s or something. I don't really know. I met one kid who brought his whole band who was like 17 or 18, and he was like, 'This is gonna sound crazy, but I was actually born the day you broke up,'
It's definitely weird, but at the same time for us, it's so redemptive for us. We just feel like, OK, weweremaking something that people can really grab onto and get absorbed into. Because that was our goal ... to really give people some meaty content and ideas to get lost in. Like our favorite bands like Pink Floyd and stuff did for us. To see that happening now and some of these really younger fans ... it's pretty awesome.
You're playing some shows with Hum. I think for a segment of people, that's real dream double-bill. How did that come about?
Matt (Talbott) basically just reached out and saw that Failure was starting to do stuff again, and he was like, 'Dude, we gotta do some shows together.' That was almost two years ago. We'd kind of kept in touch over the years. We do a lot of gear talk, because he has his own studio there in Champaign. That's been on the to-do list for at least a year, so I'm happy to see it finally happening.
So you've known Hum was getting back together for a while now?
Oh, yeah. Well, they've been talking about it for a while to us. There was some question whether or not all the members were gonna be participating, but I think in the last six months they finally decided that they were going to go for it, so that's when we started looking for dates.
You've both made a lot of music since the initial split, but what is it about the writing partnership with Greg that makes Failure?
I don't know, I mean, it's a bit of a mystery. I know it exists. I don't think either of us are capable of making Failure music without each other. Writing wise and sensibility wise, it really is a combination of the two of us, and Kellii as well. And I'm just super-appreciative and can really recognize it now. I feel like when we're actually writing, if he comes up with an idea and I take it somewhere or vice versa, I think we're both just so much more aware of that sort of creative trust that we have with each other. I definitely don't take it for granted. I don't know what it is.
It basically comes to if Greg and I can finish a song and we both like it at the end, then it's a Failure song.
How many songs didn't make the cut on the new album?
Um, not too many, because we don't really go down the path of making a song unless we're pretty sure. That's one thing that maybe experience has helped us with on this album is that we didn't go down too many wrong turns. We never got to the point where we were finishing anything that was going to be on the record. There isn't a whole other album of B-sides ... there aren't any B-sides, which is turning out to be a problem right now. We're getting a lot of pressure from the label to get back into the studio. We just don't have time right now.
Creatively for you and with the reception you've received, do you see more Failure albums in the future?
I mean, it's hard to say because we are just about to embark on the promotional cycle of this record, which depending on how long it goes can change your mind about things.
We had such a good time making this record, I can't see us not wanting to continue that.