One of the great unsung alterna-metal bands of the Nineties, Los Angeles rockers Failure failed to dent Billboard with any of their first three albums — 1992’s Comfort, 1994’s Magnified and 1996’s Fantastic Planet — or find many ears in the mainstream press sympathetic to their muscular, rhythmic, beautifully spacey rock. “We were called ‘grunge lite’ more than once,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ken Andrews, a trace of disgust in his voice.
But in 2014, when Andrews, multi-instrumentalist Greg Edwards and drummer Kellii Scott played their first show since the band’s 1997 split, they promptly realized that the rest of the world had finally caught up with Failure. “Greg and I started hanging out again and experimenting in the studio, and we proved to ourselves that we could make Failure recordings again,” Andrews explains. “So we booked a show at the El Rey in Los Angeles just to see what the live component would be like.” The show sold out in two minutes.
“I was expecting it to be a bunch of people in their late thirties to mid forties,” Andrews recalls. “Instead, the majority was between maybe 20 and 28, and there was a bunch of teenagers, too.” Fantastic Planet is now regarded as a classic after years of trumpeting from bands like Tool, Cave In and Paramore. “One kid came up to me after the show and said, ‘It’s really weird that I ended up becoming such a big fan of your band, because I was actually born the day you broke up!'”
Buoyed by this surprising following, Andrews, Edwards and Scott responded by creating The Heart Is a Monster, a sprawling, 18-track voyage due June 30. As evidenced by latest taste, melancholy ballad “Mulholland Dr.,” the album brilliantly picks up from where Fantastic Planet left off.
Andrews spoke to Rolling Stone about Failure’s demise, rebirth and long-awaited fourth album.
When you and Greg started working together again, did you have any idea that people would be so receptive to the return of Failure?
You know, it’s been kind of a slow realization. It’s been almost three years since we first started writing songs in my studio, Greg and I. To us, that had to be the first thing that we did, in terms of figuring out if we were going to attempt any reboot of the band. The one thing we agreed on early on is that we didn’t want to come out and do a one-off nostalgia tour.
When you initially got back together, were you even looking to make new Failure music?
We didn’t really know. So many people, so many friends and peers had heard that we were friends again and that we were hanging out, and they were all like, “You guys should get in the studio and see what happens!” And we wanted to; it was kind of a no-brainer to at least start experimenting.
This record picks up where Fantastic Planet left off — and that record doesn’t seem to have dated much at all.
Yeah, I don’t really know why that is. But Fantastic Planet was the only album of the first three where we didn’t work with any outside producers or engineers. At that time, things were starting to blow up with alternative music in general, so the labels and even the producers and engineers were very keen to follow the trends. But we didn’t know how to follow the trends, as far as production techniques or songwriting, and we weren’t super-interested in doing that, anyway. There were a couple of Helmet records from around that time that we were into, sonically; but song-wise, we were listening to Pink Floyd.
Did you utilize similar songwriting and production techniques while making The Heart Is a Monster?
In terms of songwriting, yes. We wrote and recorded one song at a time on Fantastic Planet, which helps you kind of keep the thread of themes, both sonically and lyrically, in your head a little bit more; and we took the same approach with this album. But in terms of equipment, it’s all kind of changed now; it’s all digital, and it’s quicker to find weirder sounds, but it didn’t have that much of an impact on what we’re doing, other than helping us shave maybe a couple of months off the recording process.
What can you tell us about “Mulholland Dr.”?
To me, “Mulholland Dr.” is kind of the sister song to “The Nurse Who Loved Me” on Fantastic Planet. It was a fairly intact demo that Greg brought in, and it stuck out to me as something I could really sink my teeth into, in terms of producing and singing on it. With a lot of our songs, it’s not that easy to track what our direct influences are, but that one is not one of those songs. Someone was even yelling out in the crowd the other night, “Play that Pink Floyd Beatles song!” It’s also late-Sixties Beach Boys, too. It’s really that triangle of awesomeness, basically. And then, production-wise, there’s a little bit of Flaming Lips in there; some of the drums are in homage to the stuff Steven [Drozd] did in the Lips.
Looking back, what was it that caused Failure to break up? Lack of commercial success? Record company indifference? Drugs?
Uh, it was drugs. It was primarily Greg’s heroin addiction — I say “primarily,” because both Kellii and I were dealing with our own issues there, but we weren’t as far gone as he was. Basically, at the end of Lollapalooza ’97, Warner Bros. asked us to make a fourth record. And I kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen, because of where Greg was at. I did make a last-ditch effort to get him into the studio and try to write, but that didn’t happen.
There was the possibility of a fourth record at the time?
Yeah! We sold like 75,000 copies of Fantastic Planet; no one at Warners was particularly stoked about that, but they still believed in the band. They didn’t want to spend any more money promoting Fantastic Planet, which for us was a pretty big disappointment. We felt like it needed a long time to get any traction; but at that point in the industry, if it wasn’t happening, it was like, “Just go make a whole new album!” [Laughs] So that was a bit of a bummer. But if we weren’t fucked up on drugs, we would have gone in and done that.
And who knows? Maybe we would have made The Heart Is a Monster right then; I don’t really know. Maybe our sound wasn’t quite ready to be enjoyed en masse at that point, no matter how much promotion they put into it. But if Fantastic Planet had actually happened in the summer of ’97, I don’t know what would have happened to us, drug-wise; it could have been catastrophic.
It must feel pretty gratifying now, though — not only that Fantastic Planet has found a new generation of fans, but also that you and Greg were able to make your way back to each other as friends and collaborators.
It’s crazy, actually. I’m still shocked at how effortlessly we were able to get back to that creative space, and work together as if nothing had happened. And the other thing is, everybody totally gets us now. I mean, we had a really hard time with the press in the Nineties; it was like, no one really got what we were trying to do — and if they did, it wasn’t a major outlet.
And now, it’s literally 180 degrees. We just came back from the U.K., and we did a lot of press over there, and I’ve literally never felt more musically understood in my entire career. People not only get Fantastic Planet, but they also get how this album relates to it, and the subtleties of the differences. So yeah, it is hugely gratifying.